How you ride the bike segment of a long course triathlon will significantly affect your overall race time and performance. Training your bike fitness properly can lead to a faster, more comfortable ride. But more importantly, good bike fitness, along with proper pacing and nutrition, can be the most important factor in whether you will have a good run all the way to the finish line.
Proper training is a highly individual process. I have never trained two triathletes the same way. Every person has a different variety and quality of experience, fitness, skills, strengths, limiters and life-constraints. As a coach, I evaluate these things before planning an athlete’s season then revisit and revise on a daily or weekly basis during the season. Here are some of the things that I consider when planning bike-specific training for a triathlete.
Type and Quality of Cycling Experience
New cyclists will need to spend a season or more just building up their ability to ride efficiently and aerobically for the required distance. If you fall into this category, gear your training plan toward developing the cycling skills and endurance necessary to complete the distance comfortably. In other words, learn how to ride skillfully then ride as much as your schedule and energy allow, at a pace just below your aerobic threshold. Note that experienced criterium or short course triathletes may need to follow this type of program as well.
Example (RPE=Rating of Perceived Exertion, learn more about it here.)
Tuesday: 90:00 @ RPE=3-4
Thursday: 90:00 @ RPE=3-4
Saturday: 180:00 @ RPE=3-4
Experienced endurance riders who have been putting in consistent miles for years may need a different plan. These athletes have a solid base of aerobic fitness and they can now make progress by swapping some of their long rides for hill work to increase their strength and for intervals to improve their power at anaerobic threshold.
Tuesday: 5 x 4:00 @ RPE=6-8
Thursday: 10 x 20s hill sprints
Saturday: 180:00 @ RPE=3-4
Strengths and Limiters
You and all athletes have skills that you do relatively well — your strengths. Strengths are the equivalent of your racing secret weapons. Take full advantage of what you do best by including the training required to maintain your strengths. But don’t make the common mistake of always practicing what you do well. This is fun but won’t allow you to build up your other skills that are not as strong. You or your coach must determine what work is required to maintain your strengths.
You and all athletes also have limiters. A limiter is the weakest link in your racing “chain” — where if you improve that skill, your whole race will improve. It can be frustrating to spend your energy working on something that you don’t do very well, but you must work to improve limiters to improve your overall race performance. Limiters can include endurance efficiency, muscular endurance, power at threshold, force, bike fit, pacing ability, nutrition and more. Find your weakest link and allocate training emphasis to it until it is no longer an issue.
Pushing Just Past Your Comfort Zone
You will grow and accomplish the most when you tackle challenges that push yourself just enough. In other words, when you set racing goals, you need to know what type and volume of training and racing you can comfortably fit into your life, then push just beyond that comfort zone. If you do this right, you will get fitter and faster, feel challenged and love the accomplishment. Cycling can occupy many hours of your weekly training. If you over-estimate your available energy and time, you will lose that precarious balance that allows for accomplishment, joy and health.
Do an honest assessment of your priorities, your responsibilities, your health, your age, your ability to recover from training, your injury history and your goals before embarking on any new training plan or season. Identify potential training interruptions like work travel or difficulties such as long, frigid winters, distance to get to your pool or unsafe cycling conditions. If you have kids, build in a floating day off each week for those inevitable interruptions like a sick child, a social studies project or an 8-hour wrestling tournament. A 20-something athlete with no kids and the strength and recovery powers of a young athlete will be able to handle higher training volume and intensity than a 50-something athlete with two teenagers and all that comes with that stage of life. Find that “just-manageable challenge” that you can tackle while preserving your health, your loves, your social life and accomplishing your goals.
Your best possible long-course triathlon performances are those with a steady-strong swim, bike and run. Training properly for the bike can ensure that you reach your potential for the overall race. Assess your experience, strengths, limiters, energy, time and goals before planning this critical part of your triathlon training. Hiring a coach can help you to put these pieces of the triathlon puzzle together.
Chris Palmquist is a USA Triathlon Level III and Youth/Junior Coach, USA Cycling Level I Coach and a F.I.S.T. Certified Bike Fitter with 18 years of coaching experience and has coached athletes to success at the regional, national and world level. Palmquist, a head coach with Team MPI, has coached elite athletes at ITU World Paratriathlon Events, and paratriathletes and juniors at USA Triathlon camps. As an athlete, she has top finishes in many sports including triathlon, collegiate rowing, canoe/kayak, cross-country skiing, speed skating and road bike racing. She can be reached at chris@teamMPI.com.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.