There comes a time in every season when the base work has been put in place and it’s time to switch gears and start upping the ante with speed work in all three sports. However, many struggle with the transition to speed work on the bike, especially since it’s often easier to just get out and ride than it is to adhere to a strict workout plan. But a strong cycling leg is essentially not only for its own sake but also for that fact that it can set up a good run. In a moment we will look at some key workouts you can do right now to build the kind of fitness and speed on the bike that will enable you to have both a fast bike and a fast run when it counts. But first let’s make sure you are ready for them.
Before you begin with speed
One of the most important foundations for developing speed includes a good base of aerobic training miles. Little base equals little capacity to absorb hard speed training. A big base equals a world-class ability to maximise your genetics with speed. If you have done the aerobic work, then it’s time for speed. If not, it could be wise to put in another month or so of steady miles before integrating weekly faster sessions into your training schedule.
The second key to maximising your speed work is muscular strength, also built during your base phase. This comes from one and only one type of workout: strength training. There are many exercises you can do in the gym to gain leg strength. But the five most basic and important are the following:
- Leg extension
- Leg curl
- Leg press
These five simple exercises will give your legs the horsepower to generate watts, and that means speed. Have you done your weights? If so you are ready for your early-season speed training.
1. Don’t chuck the trainer just yet
Using a stationary trainer for some of your speed sessions can be one of the most potent ways to help develop power. One reason for this is because every second you go hard can be devoted to focusing on your body, your pedal stroke, your cadence rate and your overall form. Initially, when athletes start into the speed phase they can tighten up with each effort: This happens especially in the upper body when you go hard. While there is a certain amount of leverage one can gain by pulling on the aero bars, it’s best to have your legs do the work and let the rest of your body come along for the ride.
The best way to develop this dual dynamic of pushing hard with the legs while keeping the rest of your body relaxed is on a trainer, as it’s much easier to remain aware of when you tense up. Oh, did I forget to tell you this is going to be uncomfortable? As you probably have experienced if you use one, your perceived effort on a trainer is going to be one higher for any given heart rate. But if you are simultaneously focused on both going hard and on staying relaxed, it then becomes a simple task to slide the focus point toward the relaxed element and away for the pain component. Have you ever noticed how top athletes can look relaxed even in the most grueling situations? They have an ability to focus on the relaxed element, which then enables them to also push their limits without getting derailed by the pain part of performance.
Here is a deceptively simple one-hour bike-trainer session that will provide speed and power benefits:
- Warm up 5-10 minutes gradually moving up in cadence, gearing and heart rate, ending up just below your aerobic max heart rate
- 15-25 minutes where you increase one gear every five minutes, ending in as big a gear as you can manage while still keeping your cadence at the optimal 90-95rpm. Also make sure the first five minutes takes your heart rate into the anaerobic zones, and then strive to have your final five minutes take you to just a few beats below max heart rate.
- 5 minutes recovery spinning easy in the small chain ring
- 5-10 minutes spinning with left leg. Strive to have your heart rate go into the anaerobic zones in the final 1-2 minutes of the drill, if not before. This is extremely difficult to do using only one leg, but will give huge benefits once you get the hang of how to do this. Also make sure to be in your aero position as much as possible when doing the drill.
- 2.5 minutes spin easy with both legs
- 5-10 minutes spinning with right leg
- 2.5 minutes easy
- 5 minutes in easy gear with 10 seconds at very high cadence (over 120) every 30 seconds.
- 5-minute recovery cool-down
Take-away lesson for trainer sessions: This form of speed work enables you to develop the ability to keep relaxed at high output levels, which also helps you manage the perception of pain so it does not hold you back.
2. Time trials
A time trial is a speed session where you are not doing interval work but rather going at a pace that is anaerobic and sustained. You can either choose distance or time to determine workout duration, but most people find it best to pick a distance that they will cover during the time trial. This trains you to handle the mental aspect of going from one point to another and takes away any incentive to go easy. The total length of your time trial should be roughly 10 miles. You can split this up into two five-mile time trials or go the whole thing without a break. Initially, it can be good to start with two shorter time trials and then work up to the longer one.
There are going to be a few things to keep in mind as you do your time trial. The first is to progress your effort over the entire distance, getting faster and putting out more power as you go. This patterns your body the ability to get faster, something that will help you pass all those who go too hard toward the beginning of a race. Secondly, hold a solid cadence of 90-95 rpm the entire time. This can become difficult when you start getting tired near the end of the session and the tendency to push too big of a gear creeps in. But allowing your cadence to drop as you tire, even if you are still pushing a high output level, can spell disaster for the run in your race since a low cadence and a high power output saps the energy from your legs. Third, stay in the aero position for your time trial (unless there is climbing in the terrain you have chosen). The more time aero, the more automatic it becomes for your muscles to generate power in that position.
Now for terrain choices. There are a couple of ways you can choose your time trial. One is to pick a terrain that accentuates the key features of a big race. If the course is mostly flat, pick a training time-trial course that is as flat as possible. If your big race will be rolling, pick rollers for your session that are a little steeper and longer than you will see in the race. If your racecourse has real climbs as a main attraction, pick a time trial that is uphill. If your area lacks big hills, you can fake hills by picking gears that are larger than you would use for a flat ride, and then sit up and use the climbing position to do your time trial.
Take-away lesson for time trials: This is real-world training, teaching you to push hard without any help—exactly what it takes to race fast in a triathlon.
3. Pace line
Take three to five buddies out for a session where you will each take turns at the front of the pace line for short periods of time, then pull off and let the next person pull into the wind. Rotating pace lines allows you the ability to push at a very high output level for a short period of time, and then to recover while still maintaining a fairly high output level—something that will help you in a race, especially if you need a strong sustained effort for a relatively short period of time to pull away from someone. Surge and back off slightly, surge and back off slightly. In a race, the amount you back off may not even be perceived by your opponent. And if done on your terms, you get the recovery when you need it rather, which can leave your competitors struggling to hold on.
The length of the ride can be one to three hours, and the amount of time you actually pace line can be half of that. The one word of caution is to make sure everyone understands how to pace line. Here are some of the rules:
- Make moves slowly. Don’t jump hard when it is your time at the front, otherwise it won’t be a pace line but rather an accordion rolling down the road.
- When you peel off the front and drift to the back of the pack, do so on the shoulder side of the line, not the traffic side. Motorists will be completely unaware that you are going to pull out. Use the protection of the pace line to drift back rather than being the sole individual dangling close to traffic.
- Never overlap wheels. Your front wheel should always be able to clear the back wheel of the rider in front of you. If wheels come in contact, the front wheel always loses.
Take-away lesson for pace lining: This is the best technique for teaching you how to recover at a high power output and cadence.
4. Traditional speed work
There is no escaping it. You will need to do some traditional speed work sessions with interval sets. The variations on this theme are almost limitless, but the general guidelines will be the same regardless of the length of your intervals or the number of repeats that you do.
A good session should have your total amount of interval time (not counting your recovery time) add up to about 15 to 20 minutes. How you divide this up is your decision. You could do 15 x 1 minute, 3 x 6 minutes, 2 x 4 minutes followed by 4 x 2 minutes. You could do hill repeats on any of these. You could choose a stretch of road that is rolling and go slightly downhill on one interval, then turn around and go slightly uphill on the next.
The rest between each interval can be as varied as your intervals themselves. Initially it is good to start with a rest that is about half the amount of time of your work interval, and the rest should consist of active spinning in an easy gear. As you progress through your sessions the rest interval can change, becoming relatively shorter or longer, which will teach your body to recover at a high heart rate (short rest) and to generate high amounts of power well above what you will need in your races (long rest).
The main facets to focus on are the same as in any hard bike session:
- Up your power output and heart rate with each successive interval
- Keep your cadence rate up
- Do the intervals in the aero position
Take-away lesson for traditional speed sessions: When done correctly they will activate the anaerobic system, teach you to get faster as the session goes on and give you the chance to try to stay relaxed while generating power and speed.
5. Race to race
There is nothing that prepares you to race fast like racing fast. Thus, it is always a good idea to put a couple of races on the calendar that will be lead-up events to your eventual A-priority races of the season. This will build a type of fitness that can only be gained by racing and will give you a chance to see if there are any weaknesses in your preparation that require corrective action.
If the bike is your strength, use these prep races as a tool to see just how fast you can go on the bike but still have enough left over for a solid run. If you are relatively weaker on the bike, try using one race as a bike-focus event where you just go as hard and fast as you possibly can on the bike with no regard for how the run will go. This helps you to gain confidence (and fitness) so that in your most important triathlon you have the ability to push harder than you could previously and still run strong.
Take-away lesson for a race: There is nothing that replicates a race situation or gives you the fitness you can gain from actually racing. Low-priority events enable you to gain this fitness and experience so that when the big ones come you are prepared.