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Ask the Coach: Bike Training

By Greg Mueller
Photo by David Sanders

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.

Editor’s note: We asked our Facebook and Twitter followers to submit questions for three top USA Triathlon Certified Coaches. The coaches selected a sample of questions to answer. You can ask your multisport questions at or for use in a future column.

Eddie: My question is about training for the bike on hills. When should I gun it on hills during training, and when should I just steady-pace it?

bikeGreg Mueller: There is a difference in training and racing, so knowing the difference and the appropriate time to drive the hill is important. In training, hill repeats are great for power and strength. In racing you can ruin your whole day by going too hard on hills. If you watch a power meter, athletes tend to increase their effort on hills then decrease their effort descending. This learned behavior carries over to racing, where it is not optimal. First, teach yourself to effectively pace or keep the same pressure on the pedals when training or racing. When you are sure you have learned this then focus on the ability to generate power through cadence. This will give you the ability to gun it with less muscular impact. Think smooth and powerful. When you have mastered that, insert 3-4 hill charges for strength during one ride a week. I like to steady-state pace-it on race day and just roll over the hills. If you have more energy, then simply spread it over the whole bike distance for a better result and run. The best possible pacing strategy on race day will be smooth pacing over the hills.

Chris: I'm a newbie rider living in flat south Florida: when is it right to ride in the big ring?

@yangbin88olp: I often seem to have quad cramps during my run right after my bike. Is this a nutrition problem or something I can work on?

GM: I will answer both of your questions with the same answer. We all tend to rely on our quads to power the bike and for that reason we tend to over-gear. If you can engage your glutes and hamstrings, you will have a more powerful, complete pedal stroke with less isolated quad fatigue. Some athletes have a great deal of success with low cadence, but as a rule I find that the ability to ride with a higher cadence improves overall efficiency and the runoff. It is also possible that you have a hydration or electrolyte issue, but I would suggest starting here and working to get your cadence well into the 90 rpms range for extended periods of time. Once you can raise the cadence, you can work on strength and increase cadence in the big ring.


@koritreusdale: How do you set up time trial bike position? How long does it take to get used to being aero?

Shelby: My bike budget is very limited. I have a carbon road bike, and I'm planning on completing a 70.3 this year and an Ironman in 2013. Do I really need a tri bike to compete in those distances?

GM: This is a common question. The benefits of a well-fit TT bike are that it is more aerodynamic (faster) and has a steeper seat tube for more comfort in the aerobars. Most road bikes are more laid back and impinge the hip when you try to lean forward on the bars. If you can work with a good fitter you can often overcome this. If you can shorten your stem and move your seat forward it is possible to come close to what a TT bike offers. The important piece is that you are comfortable and you can stay in that aero position. If you have to keep fidgeting or sitting up then you have reduced the benefit you are seeking.

As far as fitting, the first thing I look for is a 90-degree angle at the elbows on the pads. This supports your weight through bones rather than muscle. Then move the saddle forward to allow for this elbow angle, but not have your knees much beyond your pedal axel. This puts a lot of stress on the quad and knee. If you are unable to get the seat in a position that allows for this elbow placement then you likely need a TT bike. The aggressive seat angle and 90-degree elbow can take weeks to get used to. I suggest that in the base phase the athlete have goals, just like intervals of time spent in the aerobars, say 5x5 minutes in aerobars with 5 minutes of sitting up between. Once you are used to the position, the TT “fit” can add as much a 1mph to your current watts and will usually allow for a better run because of the reduction of impingement on the hips. Comfort on a bike is critical to success at any level, so in the end my suggestion is that you find a qualified bike fitter if these suggestions don’t work.


Amelia: When training (sprints for me), what is the ideal weekly or monthly mix of long distances for endurance versus intense short and hilly intervals for strength?

GM: When training for sprints, you are preparing for a shorter, more intense effort on race day. However, don’t let the distance make you lose sight of the importance of endurance and technique. Because the race is so intense in all three disciplines, it’s imperative that you are strong and don’t give up good movement patterns for the sake of speed. It’s rare that someone is truly racing at her maximum in any one sport at the sprint distance. The limiter is usually strength endurance and the ability to hold good form. The goal for your long endurance sessions should be to build to three times the race distances in your long workout. The quality session should be a workout that combines slight intensity at half-Ironman pace with a focus on form. As you approach the race, I would insert one speed workout a week in each sport, but on different days. I would suggest the speed workouts be in the form of strides or fartleks for running, 50’s for swimming and 30-second explosive efforts on the bike. The workout is done when form breaks down. Form can be measured through video or cadence in the respective sport.

Sample Peak Week:

HIM (half-Ironman pace): This is about 10 beats above your aerobic HR zone or 81 percent of your wattage FTP on the bike.

Monday: yoga, active recovery or off

Tuesday: swim 3 x 500 yards @ HIM pace/ 25 mile bike w/ 3 x 15 min at half Ironman effort, cadence> 95 rpms

Wednesday: 6 mile run with 5 x 1 min efforts at HIM w/ equal rest

Thursday: 1600 straight endurance swim building to HIM effort/ 20 mile easy ride over rolling hills and insert 30 second hi cadence accelerations over the hills

Friday: easy drill swim and end with 8 x 50 yd sprints/ 6 mile run with 10 minutes of run drills

Sat: 35 mile ride with 3 x 25 min @ HIM effort/ 15 min easy runoff

Sunday: 9 mile endurance run with a progressive effort and end with 5 strides

Greg Mueller is the head coach of Team IE and has coached several athletes of the year and national champions. He was an Olympic Trials cyclist and professional triathlete. Greg has a training facility in South Bend, Ind., and is the USAT Mideast Athlete Coordinator. Greg can be contacted at