What Do I Do on the Bike?

by Morgan Hoffman

An athlete runs their bike barefoot back to the transition area while their cycling shoes remain clipped into the bike's pedals.
Archi Trujillo

When preparing for the bike portion of a triathlon, there are four primary considerations: 

  • Bike handling – can you ride safely at speed around other athletes? 
  • Time/speed goal – will you make the cutoff? Do you have a speed goal beyond that? 
  • Distance – can you complete it? 
  • The run – are you prepared to run right after you bike? 

Athletes competing in a triathlon should be able to safely: 

  • Hold a straight line while riding 
  • Take a 90-degree turn without stopping 
  • Take a drink of water while riding 
  • Pass another athlete, and be passed by another athlete 
  • Abide by the USA Triathlon bicycle portion rules 

Bike handling and USA Triathlon bicycle rules are areas often overlooked by new triathletes, which can create serious challenges and even safety issues both in training and racing. Before embarking on a complex training plan, make sure to review the bicycle portion of the USA Triathlon rule book at usatriathlon.org/rules, and work to develop skills for safe riding and racing. Many cycling and triathlon groups offer clinics and rides specifically for new riders where you can develop your skills under the eye of an experienced rider or coach — an empty parking lot also makes a great place to practice new skills.

Once you feel you can safely ride on the road and around other athletes, utilize the following three to four workouts each week to achieve your goals. Make sure you are increasing your time or distance gradually each week (use the 10 percent rule, and increase exercise time and/or distance by no more than 10 percent each week)

The purpose: Developing race-specific speed/power 

The guideline: A 30-minute to 1-hour ride consisting of high intensity intervals 1-4 minutes long. These high intensity intervals can mirror your goal race speed/power, but can also be easier or harder — we generally go through a variety of efforts (output of power/speed) on race day, so train your body accordingly. These high intensity intervals are alternated with easy to moderate recovery intervals, usually of equal or longer duration than the higher intensity intervals, during which the heart rate should return to at least Zone 2 or 3 (an easy to moderate effort). For example: 

  • 10 minutes warm-up, start easy and build to a moderate effort 
  • 9x1 minute race effort/4 minutes heart rate Zone 2 (moderate) 
  • 5 minutes cooldown, heart rate Zone 1 

The purpose: Developing endurance 

The guidelines: A moderate ride of anywhere from 1-4 hours, not to exceed the distance of the athlete’s longest race bike distance (for newer athletes — stronger/more experienced athletes may benefit from extended mileage). Many new athletes will find this a good opportunity to benchmark their ability to successfully complete their race distance. Increase the distance/time of the long ride by a little bit each week, then back off every 2-4 weeks for recovery. For example: 

  • 20 minutes warm-up, build heart rate from Zone 1 to Zone 2 or 3 
  • 1.5 hours heart rate Zone 2 or 3 (moderate effort) 
  • 10 minutes cooldown, heart rate Zone 1 

The purpose: Developing endurance 

The guidelines: A moderate ride of anywhere from 1-4 hours, not to exceed the distance of the athlete’s longest race bike distance (for newer athletes — stronger/more experienced athletes may benefit from extended mileage). Many new athletes will find this a good opportunity to benchmark their ability to successfully complete their race distance. Increase the distance/time of the long ride by a little bit each week, then back off every 2-4 weeks for recovery. For example: 

  • 20 minutes warm-up, build heart rate from Zone 1 to Zone 2 or 3 
  • 1.5 hours heart rate Zone 2 or 3 (moderate effort) 
  • 10 minutes cooldown, heart rate Zone 1 

The purpose: Help beat up muscles feel better faster by encouraging blood flow, and speeding delivery of oxygen and nutrients. 

The guidelines: 30 minutes to 1 hour very easy (Zone 1, if you train with heart rate). Newer athletes should skew shorter on recovery workouts. Added bonus: easy workouts can also improve metabolic efficiency [the body’s ability to utilize fat calories as fuel]. It is important to remember that the above guidelines are just that: guidelines. Following these steps will get you off to a great start, but you will likely need to expand your approach as you set more challenging goals for yourself. Most importantly, remember that as skills development, a gradual increase of load and intentional recovery time will always be amongst the components of an effective training plan. 

Morgan Hoffman is a USA Triathlon Level II and Youth & Junior Certified Coach and the head coach of Team Playtri Elite, a USAT High Performance Team. Coach Hoffman works at Playtri in McKinney, Texas. She can be contacted at morgan@playtri.com.

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