Improving Long Course Bike Speed
Developing Durability, Aerobically
Riding faster for many athletes comes easy, for others it certainly doesn't! The purpose of this writing is to improve those athletes that are weaker on the bike over the long term; and the key? Without losing run speed! When athletes first begin triathlon, many cut corners on training volume in favor of completing intense workouts. For most, this type of an approach is a short cut to faster race times over the short term and for many, a short cut to injuries and burnout. This is especially true with beginners as they have not yet developed the durability or aerobic efficiency to require or support intense training. Below I discuss what it takes to gain speed on the bike, efficiently and safely for the long haul. The two major components of this process in triathlon are intensity versus volume, and bike-run balance.
To get started, let's discuss the fact that athletes have some current speed potential based on their bike paces/wattages at lactate threshold combined with their weight. Based on these paces or power/weight ratios, one can get a good idea on how they may perform at all event distances (depending on their fatigue index which helps define how aerobic or anaerobic an athlete is). What most athletes don't realize is that in order to achieve this "predicted" speed potential you must have a certain volume of training given the event distance you plan to race. That is, longer event distances require more volume to meet the speed potential your shorter race distances may suggest. There exists an undeniable volume threshold that must be met prior to the event in order to achieve that speed potential. The volume thresholds or "critical volumes" as I like to call them can be defined for each sport. A good rule of thumb for non-draft legal racing on the bike is 8/3 of the event distance per week as a minimum to not have durability limit speed potential on the bike or subsequent run. Also, many professional athletes or advanced age groupers see additional benefit on off-the-bike run performance by increasing bike volume by up to 50% greater than this. This tactic is pretty elite stuff and should not be considered by folks who have not already met the volume demands of the other sports for their event distance or feel that they have room to improve their pace at lactate threshold.
Does this mean you should go from wherever you are now to 300 miles per week training for an Ironman? Absolutely not! Total volume from year to year should not increase more than 30% in most cases on the bike. This 30% represents an increase to your sustainable volume which can be determined by looking at your previous years training log, and observing what your highest volume consecutive weeks were. You should begin to see a consistent volume that you were able to perform for at least 4-6 weeks during the season without burnout or injury. Your goal should be to build up to, and meet or exceed this volume by up to 30% during the sustainable portion of the next season (assuming logistical limits aren't a factor). Now, where do you fall in terms of critical volume? Using the 8/3 factor above you may find that you will be well trained and ready for a half iron event but under trained for an iron event. Does this mean that you should not complete that Ironman you were planning? No, it just means that you will not meet your speed potential for the race, and chances are that you will not be happy (hit the wall, cramp, drastically reduce your pace) at some point during the race. If you fall into this category, you should carefully consider your pacing for the race. Typically when we, at QT2 Systems lay out a multiple month plan leading into an event, we look at where the athlete's volume is currently and whether or not it will be safely possible to reach the critical volumes for the event in time for the taper. If not, many times we have the athletes wait another year before doing the race distance they are focused on. I find many athletes rush into race distances they are not prepared for, and end up disappointed in the result, and/or injured. It should be noted that athletes with tremendous race experience can sometimes get away with lower than critical volumes, without having durability impact their day.
Speed potential (raw speed) even after years of training is not nearly worth the benefit you may get from meeting critical volume for your race distance. This is especially true on the bike due to the impact it may have on the run. Time lost by lack of durability can be huge in comparison to minor differences in speed potential (that can take years to achieve). This is why I prefer to focus on aerobic work before anything else. There is no need to dabble in speed work or other risky training methods (that may increase speed potential) until you are able to meet or get very close (at least 2/3) to critical volume to obtain the required durability. Instead, focus on the details such as nutrition and rest which are the support structure which allow one to meet critical volume without becoming sidelined due to sickness/injury. The benefit of meeting the durability required for your race distance is much more than any improvements in speed potential for athletes at this level. Many times age groupers are not able to fit critical volume into their schedules from a logistics standpoint even if they can handle it from a physical stress standpoint. In these cases we must increase stress via intensity within the constraints of time available for training. One thing we do know is that the same training stress results in the same race results year to year assuming equal restoration.
Training Load - Intensity vs. Volume
Sure, speed can be gained by shorting the critical volumes and doing more intense workouts however, a drastic reduction in total race time is realized, when an athlete "hits the wall" during a race, and the risk of this happening is also greater. In addition, the chance of injury is drastically increased with this kind of short cut. It is much more beneficial and safe to meet the critical volume via aerobic riding before adding significant amounts of intensity. Does this mean no intensity will be done in preparation for the race? No, it just means that a significant amount of time during the buildup will be dedicated to aerobic efficient saving the final 10 weeks for periodic intensity workouts. The exception is those athletes who are either born or become very aerobic over years of training volume. In fact, it is often these athletes who require more intense training in order to continue any significant long-term aerobic development. These are the athletes who, when given the option to do a 20-minute all-out effort or a three-minute all-out effort, will choose the 20-minute effort without even a thought, otherwise. Typically, the maximum average pace that these athletes can sustain over only three minutes, is very similar (on a relative basis) to that which they can sustain over a full 20 minutes. This is the same athlete whose Olympic distance race pace is only minimally faster than their 70.3 race pace. Simply put, they lack that extra gear! These athletes will typically be best served to side with the physiological component (speed work), when between 16 and 30 weeks out from race day. But, as race day draws closer and closer, be it a sprint race or full Ironman, it is absolutely essential to include as much race specific training as possible (aerobic training in the case of Ironman). Many people call this reverse periodization, however, the need for this approach is quite rare….maybe 1 in 100 athletes as it requires unique physiology, and/or years of aerobic training (near 10,000 hours in many cases).
Also realize that additional training beyond critical volume does not typically do much but decrease speed potential due to inadequate recovery between key workouts, elevated catabolic hormones, and the inability to push previous bests on the key intensity days due to a fried peripheral system. Typically athletes, who have gained the durability (through volume) to race a double ironman, don't have the speed potential to be competitive at the single iron distance. This is the same with ultra marathon relative to marathon. Due to this realization, more isn't always better. Instead, just enough, with good quality mixed in at the appropriate doses is the correct approach. Build volume slowly over many years (add 30% max per year), mix in VERY good quality workouts, and never do anything today that even has the slightest chance of risking tomorrow.
Biking and Running - An Appropriate Balance
Recently, I've noticed many athletes with run limiters really focusing and in some cases over focusing on their run training volume. Although bigger run miles can lead to better running, that doesn't always lead to faster run times off of the bike in triathlon. How does one know what the correct balance is between bike and run training for the sport of triathlon?
If you are an athlete that is training for a triathlon, I never like to see the run volume on a weekly basis much more than a 1/5 of the bike volume. That is, if the bike mileage is 200/week, we shouldn't see the run mileage beyond 40 miles. This applies for all races where bike training mileage is below 150 percent of critical volume (450 in IM, and 275 in half IM). What this does is ensure that the athlete has the bike durability required to use their run off of the bike. Although run mileages that exceed this rule may improve open run times, this improvement will likely be negated (and in many cases reduced further) in triathlon running due to the significant impact that the bike ride will have on the athlete on race day….they are simply not in a position to run well off the bike. Another key realization related to improving bike speed/power is that run miles hurt cycling strength and visa-versa. Simply using the same triathlon bike program with no running will result in more bike strength than a more balanced triathlon program. This makes how you approach the bike-run balance important to the bike strength discussion. If run volume is reduced, it becomes important to keep the hip flexors engaged via stretch band work, power cranks, and or other targeted hip flexor work.
To help summarize the process, the early years of a career should be focused on building durability and aerobic efficiency with an even bike/run balance (years 1-5, or even 1-7). After reaching critical volume safely, the athlete may stay focused on bike volume increases up to 150% critical volume, while maintaining run volume up to critical volume depending on bike vs. run performance. At this point, which very few athletes reach, it may be best served to hold bike volume where it is with increased intensity work depending on how aerobic your physiology has become.
As always, patience is the key! Stay focused on your long-term goals, and try not to rush things even as many folks around you may be doing just that!
Jesse Kropelnicki is an elite/pro level triathlon coach who founded QT2 Systems, LLC; a leading provider of personal triathlon and run coaching, as well as TheCoreDiet.com a leading provider of sports nutrition. He is the triathlon coach of professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Ethan Brown, and Jacqui Gordon among others. His interests lie in coaching professional triathletes using quantitative training and nutrition protocols. You can track his other coaching comments/ideas via his blog at www.kropelnicki.com.