How to Train for the Bike Portion of a Triathlon


Triathlon Bike Training Workouts

Correct training for the bike portion of a triathlon is highly dependent on the distance of the triathlon race you are preparing for. We have assembled nine important workout types for triathlon bike training that should likely be part of your specific training. We have summarized them in detail below going from lowest to highest intensity: Recovery; Basic Endurance; Tempo Lower; Strength Endurance; Tempo Upper; Threshold; Long VO2MAX; Short VO2Max; Anaerobic Capacity / Speed. But before you start training it’s really key for you to understand that being specific is absolutely essential. If you find all of this confusing: The TRIQ app is the first app in the world able to take all of the following training types and many other factors into account. The TRIQ algorithm prescribes your training intelligently and automatically and adjusts it dynamically within an instant based on any changes that might occur—for swim, bike and run training.

Introduction: Athletic Abilities are Sport Specific

In any sport, be it running, rowing, football or CrossFit, there are known specific physiological requirements in order to do well in the particular event. For example, whilst having a high deadlift number may be advantageous for CrossFit, it's unlikely to get you to the front of an IRONMAN® triathlon event. Likewise, whilst having a good aerobic capacity in cycling is beneficial for Full Distance Triathlon, this won't necessarily have you winning the local CrossFit competition.

When it comes to triathlon specifically, we can look at training and what is essential by understanding the critical determinant of success at an event. Moreover, these determinants change according to the distance of the triathlon event you have on your race calendar. However, before we get into the exact training types concerning cycling within the TRIQ app, let's first understand how we determine exercise intensity from a physiological perspective.

Training Intensity from a Physiological Perspective

In exercise physiology and training prescription, coaches and sports scientists mark differing intensities by two specific demarcations and physiological thresholds. These are the "Aerobic Threshold" and the more commonly known "Anaerobic Threshold". From these boundaries, we can begin to establish specific training intensities, and therefore training types by which we can target our training outcomes.

The Aerobic Threshold

The Aerobic Threshold—which, as mentioned, is often referred to as anything from the "first threshold" or "lactate threshold" to Lactate threshold 1 (LT1) or ventilatory threshold 1 (VT1) – defines the boundary between 'moderate' and 'heavy” exercise-intensity domains. Below this threshold, blood lactate concentrations are stable and essentially equal to baseline. In contrast, above this threshold, blood lactate concentration may stabilize, but will be above baseline. Exercising below the lactate threshold is 'conversational' —or in other words easy enough that it is possible to hold a conversation without undue effort simultaneously.

The Anaerobic Threshold

The Anaerobic Threshold refers to the intensity at which we transition from 'steady-state' to 'non-steady-state' metabolic responses to prolonged exercise. When we are in a metabolic steady-state, exercising at a constant power or pace will produce stable responses. These include muscle and blood lactate concentrations, acid-base balance, phosphocreatine availability, and oxygen consumption (VO2) which will plateau and stabilize. When we are in a metabolic non-steady state, the exercise intensity is high enough that these responses can no longer stabilize. Accordingly, muscle and blood lactate concentrations progressively rise. We become increasingly acidic, and the volume of oxygen consumed (VO2) continues to increase, eventually to our maximum rate. Therefore, the "Anaerobic Threshold" defines the boundary between exercise intensities at which these steady-state and non-steady-state responses are observed. These can also be referred to as the boundary between heavy- and severe-intensity domains.

By understanding those mechanisms we can define exercise intensity in accordance with these physiological boundaries; we can begin to attach "Training Types" to them. The boundaries and intensities are also associated with differing Triathlon distance race intensities. For example, a Full Distance IRONMAN® cycling section sits closer to the Aerobic Threshold. In contrast, the Olympic distance triathlon’s cycling intensity will sit closer to the Anaerobic Threshold. Figure 1 shows a typical blood lactate curve with aerobic and anaerobic threshold depicted. The seven TRIQ cycling training types sit within the specific exercise intensity domains.

TRIQ Training Types and the Performance Thresholds

Figure 1: Depiction of the exponential relationship between training intensity and physiological strain. Aerobic and Anaerobic thresholds are shown with the respective training types.

The nine cycling training types sorted by intensity and their positions in relation to these thresholds are:

Recovery: Clearly Below the Aerobic Threshold
Basic Endurance: Below the Aerobic Threshold
Aerobic Threshold: At the Aerobic Threshold
Strength Endurance: Between Aerobic and Anaerobic Thresholds
70.3 Development: Between Aerobic and Anaerobic Thresholds
Threshold: At the Anaerobic Threshold
Long VO2max: Above the Anaerobic Threshold
Short VO2max: Above the Anaerobic Threshold
Anaerobic Capacity: Above the Anaerobic Threshold

So, going back to the determinants of performance, training focus changes based on the distance of the triathlon event. For example, it's more advantageous to have a fast-paced and high-power output associated with the "aerobic threshold" over the Full Distance than for the Sprint distance. Conversely, it's more advantageous for the Sprint Distance to have fast pace and high speeds associated with the anaerobic threshold and VO2max intensity. Although all are important and must be trained, their relative importance in regards to the race performance changes.

The TRIQ Bike Training Types Explained

At TRIQ we understand the determinants of performance based on a particular race distance. But even more than that, through machine learning, the TRIQ app also can understand which of these training types have a weaker effect on an individual athletic level. In addition, we can also understand which training type has the most significant effects on an individual's fitness and subsequent race day performance. With that said, let's dive into the specific training types, see what each entails and look into the specific physiological adaptations associated with the different workouts.

Bike Training Type 1: Recovery

The term "Recovery" for this workout can be pretty misleading. There are, in fact, still some substantial endurance benefits from doing "Recovery" training. The key for this session is to keep the overall physiological stress as low as possible. Therefore, the intensity is low, as is the duration. Most athletes report feeling better and more energized after this type of training than before it. The increased blood flow and pumping action of the working muscles are also thought to aid recovery by "flushing" metabolites present from prior, more intense, training sessions. An example of a recovery session could be a 30-minute ride on an indoor trainer, aiming to keep the cycling rpm high and power and heart rate very low.

Bike Training Type 2: Basic Endurance

This next workout takes up most of the training time in line with polarized and pyramidal training intensity distributions (learn more about TID). Basic Endurance training focuses on completing an extended duration and steady-state bout of low intensity exercise. For this, you should let HR be your guide, keeping it below the aerobic threshold. Basic Endurance sessions are great for freeing your mind, enjoying some quality training and socializing with friends. From a physiological perspective, these sessions help promote fat oxidation and structural changes at a muscular level, such as increased mitochondrial content and capillarization. Some example sessions include a shorts 60 min endurance ride on the indoor trainer or a longer 3 hours ride in the hills. The key here is to keep the intensity low and thereby attain the correct training adaptations.

Bike Training Type 3: Aerobic Threshold

This workout could also be known as a Full Distance IRONMAN® specific session due to its closeness in intensity to IRONMAN® race pace (see figure 1). These sessions consist of longer reps around the aerobic threshold. The focus is to build tolerance at intensities similar to those during a Full Distance triathlon; this means around 75-80% of anaerobic threshold power and 80-85% of anaerobic threshold heart rate. From a physiological perspective, these sessions help promote fat oxidation and structural changes at a muscular level, such as increased mitochondrial content and capillarization. Aerobic Threshold sessions can also be great to practice some race specifics, such as staying as aerodynamic and efficient as possible. As the intensity is still low to moderate, the total work of the main portion of this session can be long and get close to 4 hours for elite and advanced athletes. Some typical Aerobic Threshold sessions might include 5 x 15 minutes with 3-minutes recovery or 4 x 40 minutes with 20-minute recovery.

Bike Training Type 4: Strength Endurance

Strength Endurance workouts involve riding uphill or riding on the trainer in a big gear and at a lower cadence. This is also known as specific strength training because that is what it is, "specific". In cycling, force essentially refers to how hard you are pushing down on the pedals. In contrast, the velocity relates to the speed you are turning them, in other words, your cadence. If in your typical gearing, you would produce 300 W at a cadence of 85 revs.min-1, but then bump up a couple of gears and now produce the same 300 W at a cadence of only 65 revs.min-1, you are producing more force, but at a lower velocity, hence the same power. As such, the "strength/force" portion of the workout increases. Like back squats and deadlifts, strength training in the gym typically involves high force movements performed at low velocity. Therefore, we like to think of low cadence training on the bike as strength training specific to cycling – hence specific strength. What's more, cycling at a slower cadence – or higher force with lower velocity - produces fundamentally different biomechanics and muscle activation patterns.

These sessions usually take place at a moderate intensity, between 78-90% of threshold power. However, the duration of each rep can vary being relatively short (e.g., ~1 min) or rather long (~15 min). The cycling rpm can also vary from 55- 65 rpm. Some example sessions include 20 x 1 minute at 90% of threshold power and 55 rpm (1-minute recovery) or 4 x 15 min at 80% of threshold power at 65 rpm with 5-minute recovery.

Bike Training Type 5: 70.3 Development

This workout is like the "Aerobic Threshold" training, but not surprisingly, the intensity is higher and close to IRONMAN® 70.3 race pace. Therefore, this training type builds your tolerance to intensities like those during a 70.3 or Half Distance triathlon. 70.3 Development sessions occur at around 80-85% of threshold power or 92-97% of threshold heart rate. Sessions can include 10 x 8 min at 83-85% of threshold power with 2 minutes recovery of 4 x 20 minutes at 83-85% of threshold power with 5 minutes recovery. The total work of these sessions' main set can vary and depends on the level of stress required for the athletes. However, this workout is unlikely to be longer than 2 hours.

Bike Workout Type 6: Threshold

Moving up the intensity ladder, we now get to the second important intensity boundary, the "anaerobic threshold". This intensity is also commonly known as FTP, and is an excellent determinant of performance regardless of the triathlon distance. Threshold training requires performing an extended duration at 98-102% of threshold power and around 100% of threshold heart rate. This training type is physiologically stressful but great for generating adaptations relevant to acid-base balance and your ability to re-uptake and utilize lactate. An example "Threshold" session could include 10 x 3 min with 1 min recovery at 100% of FTP, or 4 x 8 min at 100% of threshold power with 4 minutes recovery. The total work of the main set of these sessions can vary from 20 to 60 minutes.

Bike Workout Type 7: Long VO2max

The clue is in the title with this training type, with the main emphasis being to improve VO2max. However, this session also has great adaptations on a neuromuscular, anaerobic and economic level. For example, maximal aerobic power (the cycling power at VO2max) has also shown to improve substantially by performing Long VO2max intervals. We define the term "long" by the repetitions always being greater than 1 minute, with the rest period between repetitions generally being around half the repetition duration. Physiologically, these sessions are very stressful and require high levels of athlete freshness. Examples of Long VO2max intervals include 6 x 3 min at 105% of threshold power with 2 minutes recovery or 5 x 5 minutes at 103% of threshold power with 3 minutes recovery.

Bike Training Type 8: Short VO2max

Short VO2max elicits many of the same physiological responses as the Long VO2max interval training with less emphasis on aerobic development and more focus on anaerobic and neuromuscular development as a percentage of the total work. As such, generally the intensity, in terms of absolute power, is higher. Research has shown this type of interval is superior at improving maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) per se, rather than the power associated with VO2max (e.g. 300 watts at VO2max intensity, vs 350 w at VO2max intensity). We define the term "short" by the intervals being less than 1 minute; the recovery is also short to keep VO2 elevated for extended periods of time. An example of VO2max short sessions is 3 (10 x 40 sec 110% of threshold power with 20 seconds recovery) with 5 minutes between sets or 2(12 x 30 sec at 110% of threshold power with 15 seconds recovery) with 4 minutes between sets.

Bike Training Type 9: Anaerobic Capacity / Speed

The final workout is Anaerobic Capacity and is the training type that happens at the highest intensity. As such, the duration of the rep is always short, generally < 90 seconds, but unlike the VO2max training types, the recovery is much longer, allows for full recovery (generally >6 minutes recovery). As this training type is more focused on the anaerobic energy system, elevated VO2 does not have to be maintained to achieve the required training adaptation. These sessions are only infrequently carried out by triathletes focusing on longer distances. Still, they have their place in training programs that are focused on short triathlon distances. This training type also has known positive effects on your neuromuscular coordination and mechanics and therefore positive downstream outcomes related to improved movement economy. Examples of this session type might be 8 x 30 seconds maximal with 6 minutes recovery or 6 x 60 seconds maximal with 8 minutes recovery.

TRIQ Bike Training Types: Concluding Remarks

By now, hopefully, you understand that the TRIQ training types are very specific. Moreover, by understanding and monitoring the specific physiological responses to each training type via performance data and the daily recovery feedback and HR measurement inside the app, TRIQ can manipulate the distribution of these sessions on both an individual athletic and individual race target level. By understanding athlete readiness based on prior training and the daily recovery check-ins, TRIQ can ensure that every training type and configuration is correct for you at that specific time. This carefully built intelligence ensures you get the most "bang for your buck" every time you train—without having to think about it. How time-efficient for the busy triathletes we are!

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