October 25, 2012

Tri Bike Training: Different strokes for different sports

If you read the trade rags there’s a new article every year on how a top pro is changing their tri bike training in hopes of a stronger overall IM performance.  Last year it was Craig Alexander and this year it’s Mirinda Carfrae.  When we talk about cycling is there really a difference between road bike training and tri bike training?  The answer is No.  And Yes.

What’s the Same?

All bike training, particularly in the early season, whether it’s for your next triathlon or for an upcoming century ride shares the same three basic elements, or what I now call the Holy Trinity of Training: base building, strength, and speed skills.

1.  Endurance/Aerobic Base: Triathlon racing like road bike racing is an endurance sport and like all endurance sports base aerobic training makes up the bulk of your training, at least 80%.  The reason is simple:  aerobic base training does the following three things:

  • It develops your aerobic/cardiovascular system so you can deliver oxygenated blood to your working muscles.
  • It trains your body to resist fatigue (cycle the race distance).
  • It teaches your body to efficiently burn fat for fuel.

2.  Strength/Force/Power: Both general weight lifting and sport specific bike strength training, such as 5 x 3-5 minutes big gear sets at 50-60 RPM’s or hill repeats, help you do the following:

  • Push bigger gears to ride faster
  • Climb quicker
  • Maintain efficient pedaling technique longer (saves energy).

Note:  As a triathlete, limit your bike specific strength training to once a week since you have two other sports to train for.

3.  Speed Skills: Bike speed skills fall into two categories:  technique drills to improve your pedaling efficiency and speed work to improve your top end speed and power output.

  • Technique Drills:  There are three drills most often used to teach your brain/neuromuscular system to pedal efficiently, to smooth out your pedal stroke, and to focus your pedaling effort on the power portion of each pedal stroke, the 1 to 4 o’clock position.

    • Single leg drills (Do this drill on a trainer):  Unclip one leg and rest it on a chair or the trainer and spin with a single leg for 20-30 seconds then repeat with the other leg.  Do this 2-3 times on each leg.  This is not a strength session so no need to load up the gear, just spin at a moderate effort.  Do this in the warm up and cool down of every trainer session.
    • Fast Spins (Do this drill on a trainer):  Spin for 2-3 x 30 seconds to a minute at a 100 RPM’s or higher during the warm up and cool down.  You can also do this as a core workout with something like 10-20 x a minute at 110RPM’s with a minute easy spin rest interval (RI) in-between each repetition.
    • Spin Ups (Do this on a trainer or outside on the road):  Spin up your cadence for 20-30 seconds to as fast as you can.  Do this a few times in each ride and you’ll find it progressively easier to maintain a higher cadence throughout your ride.
  • Speed work:  Whether you do speed work on a trainer or the road is up to you.  The key is they are very hard efforts that last from 10 seconds to two minutes depending on your fitness, sports background, and goals.  Be sure to build in plenty of recovery after each effort.

Note:  Speed work puts a lot of stress on your body so avoid them until you have at least 6 weeks or more of consistent riding in the bank.

But that, my friends, is where the similarity ends.

What a Difference a Tri Makes

The unique twist in triathlon is that you can’t or shouldn’t draft off your buddies in the race.  And, just for kicks you get to go for a run when you’re done.

Think about it this way…as a road cyclist if you get dropped on a climb or fall off the back of the pack you’re stuck out there on your own with little chance of making contact with the lead group of riders until the car ride home.  So it makes sense to jump out of the saddle and dig deep to stay in contact with the group with the hope of recovering a bit later by sitting in the draft.  But cranking up your effort like that in a triathlon will waste valuable energy, which can spell real disaster when it comes time to slip on those running shoes and shuffle, I mean sprint, out of the transition area.

If you want to set yourself up for a great run and faster overall race split you have to learn to ride like a triathlete.  Specifically, that means is you have to train your body to maintain a consistent, sustainable pace on the bike… also called steady state riding.  To do this you have to shift some of your key bike training sessions about 8-12 weeks before your key race.

Here are three bike training sessions you can incorporate into your triathlon training program for a better bike split.

Pyramid Sets (also known as ladder sets):  Pyramid sets are intervals where you progressively increase resistance for several gears and then go back down through the gears.  These sessions should be performed on a trainer at your Lactate Threshold (LT) heart rate or Functional Threshold Power (FTP) level.  There are many variations on this workout.  My favorite is the following.

  • 60 minute session:  Start with at least a ten minute warm-up.  Do 5 x 7 minute pyramid set with 3 minute rest interval.   Start in a gear you can maintain at least 95RPMs and increase the gear every minute with the goal of keeping the resistance on the pedals the same…your cadence will begin to drop.  After the 4th minute shift back down one gear easier each minute and focus on lifting your cadence and finish back in the starting gear at 95RPMs.

Timed Paced Training:  Time Paced sessions are longer than interval sets and are specifically designed to model your race bike performance.  Build a few of these sessions into your training program 3-8 weeks before your key race in place of the pyramid sets.  Timed Paced sessions range from 3-10 miles (5-16km)…the longer the race the longer the session.

  • Sprint/International Distance:  Set your effort level at slightly above LT/FTP and do 2-4 repetitions of 3-5 miles (5-8km).
  • Half Ironman/Ironman Distance:  Set your effort level slightly above race pace and do 2-4 repetitions of 5-10 miles (8-16km).

Note:  Focus on a steady effort and maintain a slightly higher cadence…the goal is to hold between 90-95RPM.  The higher cadence will allow you to use your cardiovascular system more…a lower cadence uses more strength.

Solo Rides: If you’re someone that does most of your outside rides, particularly your long rides, with a group be sure to get out and do some riding on your own.  Solo rides allow you simulate race day efforts, practice race nutrition, and just spend time in the saddle without the support or draft provided by other riders.

Add these routines to your training program to build triathlon specific bike fitness, improve your bike split, and you’ll improve your mental fortitude, too.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

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