Seasoned triathletes often debate whether the running or cycling section of the triathlon is the most importantand both camps have some good points. The running camp claims that theirs is the final event, so that’s where races are won or lost. The cycling camp will tell you that their section is the most critical because (a) it’s the longest and (b), if your bike performance is weak, it can bump you down the field drastically and the best running in the world will not drag you back to the front.
Both factions make good points, but most beginning and intermediate level triathletes tend to underestimate the cycling portion of the triathlon, to their detriment in races. The two main cycling deficiencies triathletes have are inadequate endurance and low force production.
Let’s first look at how you should be maximizing yourcycling endurance and then take a quick look at some power or force workouts to polish you up for your high intensity training and race season.
It is now acceptedthat cyclists need an endurance-conditioning phase, and this is even more important to triathletes. Cyclists vary somewhat with their approach to the endurance phase, but most will spend 8-12 weeks in this conditioning phase that includes lots of long distance cycling to enhance their endurance.
The purpose of your endurance-conditioning phase
This base period is required to fully develop your cardiovascular endurance, or improve your aerobic capacity (known as VO2 max.); increase the number of capillaries that supply blood to your working muscles; increase the number of mitochondria in your muscle cells; increase your blood volume (by about one pint); and decrease your steady state cruising heart rate. The endurance phase increases your body’s ability to handle high volume workloads, and prepares you for the higher intensity sessions that will follow.
But, unlike running where you simply go out and run lots of miles at a steady pace for months on end, cycling endurance requires a mix of training efforts to develop your speed endurance, muscular endurance and your good old cardiorespiratory endurance.
Do not leap straight into this phase without first doing two to four weeks of general adaptation cross training. The purpose of this is to prepare your body for the rigors of the endurance phase by doing low intensity workouts, emphasizing aerobic endurance through activities such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, swimming, vigorous hiking, etc. You should also commence your strength training workouts at this time. You’ll work out four to six days each week, and should be doing two sessions (at low intensity) per day. Your goal is to emerge from this phase full of vim and vigour, ready for your base-conditioning phase.
In base conditioning you phase in your on-bike timeand progressively increase the volume of training by cycling further each week, while periodically allowing for lower volume weeks for recovery. No one can increase their endurance in a linear trajectory; we must all build in recovery of some kind to avoid overtraining, illness, or injury. We do this by increasing the length of our cycling sessions for three or four weeks, followed by a lower volume week.
Most of this long cycling is done at an easy pace in high spin gear, but the devil’s in the details: during the lower volume week, you amp up the intensity in one or two of the cycling sessions so your legs don’t get stuck in a “high gear rut.”
Those with access to cycling groups should consider doing these initial workouts solo before linking up with a group, as their median training pace may be too hard for you. Hammering away with a cycling group that is beyond your current fitness is inviting overtraining, illness or injury.
Because endurance training is typically done in the winter, indoor trainers or rollers can be substituted for outdoor road workouts when the roads are dangerous or impassible (dark, snow-covered, etc.).
Fitting your endurance cycling workout in with your other triathlon training needs some planning. As a general rule, schedule the long cycling sessions on a day when you have done weight training, running interval training, or swimming intervals. Doing two anaerobic workouts on the same day, even if in different sports, is a good way to overtrain.
Your long endurance cycling workouts should consist of staying in your lower aerobic heart rate zones on rolling courses with short, small grades up to four percent. Try to stay seated on the uphills, while maintaining a comfortable high cadence. These sessions should be between 45 and 90 minutes.
A good weekend aerobic endurance bike session can be over a rolling course with small hills and gear selections that take you into a higher heart rate zone for a few minutes at a time. Stay in the saddle during these sessions. These workouts should be between 60 and 120 minutes long, and the cumulative time for your short intense “bursts” should be 15-30 minutes.
How long should your cycling sessions last? Your overall goal is to cover the length of the cycling distance you will be racing over so, if you are aiming at a half Ironman, you need to attain 56 miles comfortably.
Strength training through the base-conditioning phase
Start your weight workouts with low resistance and high repetitions, and each week cut the reps down and increase the weight. Your goal is to have your strength at its maximum by the end of the 12-week conditioning phase, so that you can apply maximum power (or force) to the pedal when you start your sprint training.
The primary muscle groups used in cycling should be worked, including the low and mid back, gluteals, hamstrings, calf muscles, quadriceps, abdominals, and arm and shoulder musculature. One or two sets of each exercise are sufficient. You’re not training to be a bodybuilder here, so keep your weight sessions short and sweet (45-60 minutes max).
Research shows that it takes us about two to three months to reach (close to) our maximum strength development if we are starting from scratch, making the eight to 12 week conditioning phase the ideal time for this. And, in case you’re wondering if you can increase both your endurance and strength at the same time, the answer is yes. Provided you allow adequate recovery from your strength training workouts (two to three days between sessions), you should have no problems adapting to your strength training during your conditioning phase.
Increasing your force
If you have done consistent weight training through your endurance phase, working from low resistance and high reps, to high resistance and low reps, you are now ready to transition from low gear riding to faster work. Your goal is to increase your muscular force output and power, to get faster speed endurance.
Why is muscular force important?
Force is what gives you a good jump start, or acceleration, to move past other riders, accelerate out of corners, get off the start line fast, hit hills hard, ride into the windand, generally, enable you to cruise at a lower percentage of your maximum force than the riders around you.
Much research has shown that cyclists who improve their muscular force improve their overall cycling performance. By improving your cycling economy, you will use less effort when pedaling at a given power output.
How does this happen? Muscle biopsies show that an intermediate type of fast-twitch muscle fiber takes on the characteristics of a slow twitch fiber, becoming more oxidative while increasing the cross section of these fibers giving them the ability to overcome more resistance.
Improving your force isn’t just about hammering out a big gear, although this does play an important part in force training. A force workout used by many cyclists is to ride a course with several moderately steep hills that take between three and six minutes to climb. Stay seated, if possible, and pedal from the hips while maintaining a stable upper body. Try for an rpm of 60 or higher.
Another force development workout is to ride a course with several long grades of up to eight percent that take more than five minutes to ascend. Again, try to remain seated during the climb, and aim for a cadence of 50 rpm on the hills. Maintain your form and position.
Improving your cycling for triathlons is a critical aspect of your training, and should be one of your major focuses. It can make a big difference in your finishing position and put you further up the field than you ever dreamed possible. But, to do this you need a solid conditioning build up phase of two to three months where you concentrate on developing your endurance, with some shorter higher intensity workouts to maintain your leg turnover.
Roy Stevenson is a freelance journalist and researcher.