THE bike leg of a triathlon is all about one thing: efficiency. It differs from a pure bike race, wherein you can surge ahead or take it easy as you gauge the competition. Because a triathlon is essentially a time trial over three disciplines, your goal during the riding leg is to finish as quickly as possible and still have enough in your tank for the ensuing run. Whether you’re biking 30K for a sprint-distance tri or 80K for the full Ironman, you need the ability to go relatively fast without slowing down. For this, you must train for speed and muscle endurance. A balanced training program for the bike leg should have the mix of intensities you’ll encounter on race day.
Elements of the Ride
Keeping the pedals turning even when you’re fatigued is key when it comes to finishing the biking leg of longer distance triathlons. And you need to ride consistently week in and week out for your muscles to get used to the grind on the bicycle.
Next, you should have training rides that target your VO2 max or your aerobic capacity. These types of workouts build up your top-end speed — something that comes in handy when you’re riding uphill or catching up to a competitor. VO2-max interval workouts also help prepare your lung capacity for what’s required on race day.
Tempo and sub-threshold work is next on your list. Basically, this is biking at the intensity you should be able to sustain for 2 to 3 hours — the common span of finishing times for the bike leg of a half-Ironman distance. This pace is likewise ideal for rookie triathletes doing sprint- or Olympic-distance races. You also need workouts that target your functional threshold, or the pace you’ll keep on race day. Experienced triathletes can sustain this for a sprint or Olympic distance and still run fast after the bike leg. If you’re a beginner, this is where you figure out the intensity you’re comfortable with to still be able to run.
Ideally, you should have 3 to 4 cycling days a week so you can develop your legs to finish the ride comfortably. Muscle resiliency and neuromuscular efficiency are developed on a consistent regimen. From there, you can boost speed and improve your effort on the pedal.
Your training should be at the right power-zone levels for a more efficient buildup. In doing so, you’ll break the monotony of long-distance rides by training in different intensities.
Also, make it a point to run after any of your bike workouts. But start on the shorter, lower-intensity rides first to ensure you’ll have a high-quality transition run. As you progress, you can try running off the harder and faster bike workouts to get a feel for the intensity that will work for you on race day.
Finally, keep in mind that as with any training regimen, recovery is important. Alternate your easy days on the bike with the hard ones so you’ll have enough energy for the two other disciplines you train for. Moreover, stay hydrated and fueled throughout and immediately after the workout to keep your energy levels at pace with your grind. The bike leg of a triathlon may be challenging, but you can conquer it with an efficient buildup in your training. So, are you ready to pedal your way to the head of the pack?
Train by the Numbers:
To track your progress, you need numbers to work with. Here are some training aspects you can measure
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a subjective scale of intensity, and depending on the established benchmark, it can be a figure from 1 to 10.
Cadence is the number of pedal strokes you do in one minute and is related to your choice of gear combination and fast-twitch/slow-twitch muscle-fiber composition. It is measured in revolutions per minute (rpm) using a bike computer with a cadence function.
Heart Rate Monitoring is avaluable tool used to gauge cardiovascular exertion (how hard your engine is working). The data, however, must be interpreted properly to correct external factors such as ambient temperature, dehydration, and adrenaline. It is measured in beats per minute (bpm). Power Output is the new school of cycling training and uses a power meter through a variety of methods to determine the actual work you produce on a bike. It is measured in watts (w).
Andy Leuterio is the director and head coach of Alpha Training Systems. He also rides for the Fitness First Cycling Team and the Unilab Active Health Tri Team. Follow him on Twitter for training tips @alpha_tri.
(Note: The article first appeared in the June, 2013 issue of Men's Health)