In the sport of triathlon you can both gain and lose the most time on the bike. While it is one third of any race, it can take upward of 50 percent of your time in competition. Since you will put in more miles and minutes biking than either of the other disciplines, it is imperative that you not only tackle focused and varied workouts, but also concentrate on everything from form to cadence.
Unfortunately, when it comes to improving performance on the bike, there’s no silver bullet. Many hours in the saddle and supplementary work are the things that contribute to faster times and more efficient riding. To be sure, when you optimize your training and choose workouts that are shown to improve fitness and technique, the road to reaching your goals becomes that much smoother.
Who better to get advice from than those making a living on the professional multisport scene? From International Triathlon Union (ITU), to non-draft Olympic distance, to the IRONMAN, each requires a different focus when you’re out on the open road or grinding out miles on your trainer. We chatted with some of the best on their favorite go-to bike workouts, along with their ultimate tips to improve cycling prowess. These sessions work for the pros and can work for you, too.
Favorite bike workout: “Picking a favorite bike workout is hard because I have so many! I would say going out on a local group ride is one of my favorites. The only requirement is that it has to be like a race. I like the way that it is similar to the ITU style of racing that I do. I can practice everything from riding hard off the front, to hanging out and maneuvering around in the pack. When I’m riding alone, I pick a microburst set. This is where you go all-out for 15 seconds and then rest for 15 seconds for anywhere from 5-15 minutes. It sounds easy, but by the end you are so clogged with lactic acid you can hardly ride straight. Then repeat!”
Cycling tip: “Get comfortable on your bike. By this, I mean be comfortable with everything from your fit, to riding in a pack, to being able to pick up a water bottle off the ground. The more natural it feels to be on the bike, the less likely a silly accident will occur. This will also help you be ready for anything unexpected that might jump out in front of you while riding and help you avoid obstacles in the road.”
Favorite bike workout: “One of my favorite workouts is a speed ladder workout that we do on the NCAR hill here in Boulder, but any 6- to 8-minute relatively steep climb would work. Start out with a 5-second sprint/55-second spin, 10-second sprint/50-second spin, 15-second sprint/45-second spin, and so on up through a 1-minute lactate threshold (LT) effort. Then you ride easy down the hill and head back up doing the reverse starting with 55-second LT effort/5-second spin, 50-second sprint/10-second spin and so on. We usually do anywhere from 6-10 times up the hill.”
Cycling tip: “After you have reached a certain point, you have to train harder on the bike to get faster, but until you are there, simply spending time on two wheels will help you get better. I feel like people generally underestimate the time they should spend on the bike relative to running and swimming if they want to be a well-rounded athlete.”
Favorite bike workout: “For non-draft Olympic-distance preparation, my favorite workout consists of descending intervals starting slightly easier than 40k pace and finishing slightly faster than 40k effort. I start with a 15-minute warm-up followed by a 15-minute build from moderate intensity up to just slower than 40k pace. Then 5x6 minutes with 90 seconds recovery between each. Descend each effort as #1, #2 are just slower than 40k pace, #3 and #4 are at 40k effort, and #5 and #6 are just above 40k effort, finishing with a 10-minute easy cooldown.”
Cycling tip: “Make sure you are maintaining a proper cadence during training and racing. Riding in too big of a gear can really fatigue your leg muscles and hamper your run. Focus on keeping a steady, smooth cadence and pedal stroke.”
Favorite bike workout: “My favorite IRONMAN workouts are the easy, long days. I usually ride 5-6 hours at 17-19 miles per hour.”
Cycling tip: “Do drills like you would for swimming or running. Focus on body position, body motion and pedal technique. Use the early morning or late afternoon sun by looking at your shadow and minimizing the movement playing with both high and low cadences."
San Francisco, California
Favorite bike workout: “Done on the CycleOps Trainer, this set is a Purplepatch favorite that I have loved to do the last several years to really remain focused and to really try to work on higher cadence throughout. First, warm up for 30 minutes, smooth building from Z1-HZ2 and cadence from 70-95. For the pre-main set, transfer good pedaling into endurance RPM builds.”
2x5 min LZ3 at highest sustainable RPM with 30 sec easy Z1 between each
2x4 min MZ3 at highest sustainable RPM, 30 sec easy Z1 between each
2x3 min LZ4 at highest sustainable RPM, 30 sec easy Z1 between each
2x1 min MZ4 at highest sustainable RPM, 30 sec easy Z1 between each
5-10 minutes of easy spinning in Z1 to re-group.
Main Set: 1x5, 2x4, 3x3, 4x2 minutes at same high RPM, but at a slightly higher power load, focusing on transferring form and fluid pedaling as load goes up.
1x5 min at MZ3 with 1 minute easy following
2x4 min at HZ3 with 1.25 minute easy between
3x3 min at LZ4 with 1.5 minute easy between
4x2 min at HZ4+ strong with 1.75 minute easy between
5-10 minutes easy Z1 spinning
10x30-45 seconds at max power and highest sustainable cadence with 1:15 easy between each.
Cycling tip: “Although nothing beats riding outside on a warm summer day, maintain your bike fitness by adding indoor cycling to your training repertoire. When the conditions are icy and dangerous outside, beef up your keystone sessions on the trainer. These quality, efficient and controlled sessions will marinate and translate into some crucial training. Some of my favorite and most productive training moments occur when I’m on the trainer and very intently get into the rhythm and visualization of these calculated and priceless sessions.”
About the Author
Mackenzie L. Havey
Mackenzie L. Havey is an IRONMAN triathlete, marathoner and author of the forthcoming book, "Mindful Running" (Bloomsbury Publishing, October 2017). She writes about endurance sports, fitness and outdoor adventure for a variety of publications, including Runner’s World, Triathlete, SELF, TheAtlantic.com, OutsideOnline and espn.com. Learn more at MLHavey.com.