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Pedal like the Pros

They may train full-time and lead a monastic lifestyle, but we can all learn from the elites, Joe Beer reveals all

Professional triathletes have the best equipment and coaching advice at their disposal, but does that mean their training sessions are mapped out in minute detail based on scientifically proven principles? Well, yes and no because, at the end of the day, they still have to train in the real world, not the controlled environment of the laboratory.

Real-world training isn’t just the purest research reproduced with exacting detail in a clinical workout. Instead, it’s a combination of what we know from studies’ findings to be fairly right with what’s available to us in terms of equipment, terrain and time.

The pros and their coaches not only know this but also put it into action everyday. So who better to ask what workouts work best than the professionals that use them to the best effect.

As such, 220 Triathlon asked three of the top bikers in triathlon, both on and off-road, to provide details of their most effective training sessions, to see what lessons could be learnt for ‘everyday’ athletes. Granted, pros train considerably more than amateurs, and it should be that way round, but you can learn from them and adapt their sessions to your time and needs.

Biking benefits

The bike is the longest leg of a race and will usually comprise around 50% of your race time. Hence, it’s the place where there’s most to gain if you can improve 1, 2 or even 10%.

Pro racers will have more power than your average age-group athlete, so you need to utilise every trick in the book to improve your aerodynamics to reduce that differential. It’s vital to remember that drag is your biggest enemy – it slows you down more than any other force.

Contrary to popular myth, slower riders have more to gain with aerodynamic equipment and positioning. Slower riders can’t produce as many watts as the top cyclists and will therefore be fighting the air resistance for much longer than the top 10% of the field.

The other two important, and often overlooked, parts of training are preparation and recovery, both mentally and physically. Pros spend more time training than many people spend in the office, so it’s no surprise they take great care in getting ready for and recuperating from hard sessions.

Here’s an example: two of the three athletes questioned use ice baths after hard sessions (this recuperative effort hit the headlines a few years back when the media realised Paula Radcliffe employed it to great effect). It helps reduce heat build-up and soothes tired muscles – and all you need is a bath with cold water and some ice cubes (admittedly, quite a few ice cubes).

While science is still getting to grips with ice baths, it’s clear that this is a pro-endorsed way of getting the most from your hard bike sessions. And, with that taster, let’s find out exactly what the pros’ bike sessions are…

IMPORTANT NOTE: Athletes’ ages, locations and training details are as of summer 2007 (when this article was first published)

Off-Road Speedster

Name Melanie McQuaid

Age 34

Lives Victoria, Canada

Event Off-road triathlon (Xterra)

Years in multisport 7

Weekly training 18-30hrs

Melanie’s key in-season session

“One key workout is done at home on the local trails using a mountain bike. I’ve found a short loop that takes 8-9mins to complete with about two-thirds of it a large hill. I do this workout with men who are faster than me and, sometimes, I can stay with them – for a while anyhow. The idea is to simulate an effort similar to a mountain-bike race. However, because the loop is so short and hilly, it’s really hill repeats with a descent.

“By doing the same course you can get faster and faster on the singletrack, which improves your skills. The challenge is the fatigue that accumulates as you climb, which closely mimics the challenge of the later stages of an Xterra race, when you’re navigating tricky sections with a high heart rate and tiredness.

“Also, since the loop is set, you can gauge how well you’re going by your lap times. I usually do five to seven laps. And often I go into this workout very, very tired, so I use it to help me focus through heavy legs, which usually ends up being the case in races you haven’t rested enough for. After the session, I ride home and do a 30min run off the bike with 10mins at race pace to finish. I usually do this on a Sunday and an ice bath follows with some loafing on the couch.

“This is a fun workout that you can do with people of varying speeds because no one wants to get lapped, so even if you aren’t riding together, fear of someone coming from behind really keeps you motivated!”

Coach Beer’s analysis

Repeating the same course improves your handling skills and makes learning faster and more fun. The same can be done on the road with particular corners, bends or junctions repeated until you’re confident in tackling them at speed.

Running with some race-speed work really does make this multisport race specific. It works as a great way to adapt to the second transition and the rigours of running on tired legs during the competitive season.

Even a non-off-roader can see this is a legs, lungs and brain workout, comprising as it does hard off-road riding, attempts to stay with faster riders and the fast reactions needed for technical mountain biking. It would beat you up in the off-season but, during competition time, it’s a superb acclamation to racing without the full ferocity and duration of an event. In short, a sharp session that adapts the body to off-road technical and tactical skills.

Melanie’s pro tip

“There’s nothing like a massage to recuperate tired muscles and prepare you for the week ahead”

Age-grouper tweaks

Repeating a 5-10min loop means handling skills are picked up much quicker. Occasionally riding the loop in reverse will also provide variation and new challenges.

It’s not long enough to exhaust you or lead to loss of concentration and not too short to be boring. However, Mel’s session will work you hard and is only suitable for those focused on off-road multisport events.

Easy mountain biking is preferred for those racing standard road triathlons, especially if it’s just for a ‘chill out’ ride after a race. Definitely don’t copy in the week before a race if you’re new to off-roading.

Keen off-roaders can make this a combo session comprising loops on the bike plus a run. Stack four to eight of these and you have an awesome cross-country brick.

Olympic-Distance vs Roadies

Name Stuart Hayes

Age 28

Lives Loughborough, England

Event Olympic-distance triathlon

Years in multisport 11

Weekly training 20-30hrs

Stuart’s key in-season session

Stuart’s favourite bike training session, like his run, involves working with others to get the most out of his efforts. “My favourite sessions are bike racing at the Mallory Park circuit, between Leicester and Hinckley, and long, endurance track sessions of 25 x 400m off 2mins. I do the run session with Will Clark; we reduce the going off time as we get fitter.”

“I use Mallory Park for road racing because it’s a good way to learn how to break away on the bike,” Stuart explains. And while this breaking away may not be completely applicable to non-drafting age-groupers, the easy-hard nature of road races provides a tough workout that’ll benefit all.

That, coupled with riding at speed in big packs, means your confidence and handling skills improve quickly. Since ‘roadies’ frequently complain that triathletes are poor bike handlers, perhaps the solution is to go and learn the necessary skills from them… and then kick their single-discipline behinds!

But it’s not just the training session that counts. Hard sessions like these hurt, even for the pros, hence the importance they place on recovery. “I’m usually very tired after each session because I push so much, so I have an ice bath and a Science in Sport protein drink straight after. I also put on a pair of recovery tights and try to get a massage the next day.”

Coach Beer’s analysis

Racing bikes with others around you means handling, effort and motivation are maximised. It’s easy to think you try hard – until a bunch is moving away from you and you have to dig deep to get on to the back.

Once you’re in the bunch, you have to keep you eyes and ears open constantly to ensure you don’t go down or miss a move. A spot of competition provides more motivation to turn up and work hard – you may even win a few points.

It’s hard to quantify the exact physiological workout a race gives you because it involves a multitude of scenarios. However, you’ll see spikes of power as the riders sprint out of corners or chase down attacks. These effort spikes fire up muscle fibres that can translate to better time trialling, even though the spikes are way above your threshold effort. Stuart does it for draft racing but you too can enjoy the benefits.

Stuart’s pro tip

“To extract the most from a hard training session, don’t go into it tired. In addition, whether you’re fatigued or not, caffeine is a great and legal way to give yourself a ‘pick me up'”

Age-grouper tweaks

If you don’t fancy taking the plunge into a full-blown road race, you can easily adapt a group training session to simulate the required efforts. Try sprinting for a pre-agreed sign or lamppost, or letting someone attack off the front before, working with the group, reeling them back in.

As long as the group comes back together after every effort so no-one is getting totally dropped, it should provide everyone with a great workout and a bit of fun. If a weaker rider (or riders) turns up, give them a few minutes’ advantage and see how many signs they can reach before being caught.

Long-Course Masterclass

Name Stephen Bayliss

Age 28

Lives Surrey, England

Event 70.3, Ironman and Tri One-O-One races

Years in multisport 5

Weekly training 30hrs

Stephen’s key in-season session

Stephen’s description of his session is simple: “It’s a 2hr ride in a big gear.” Where many athletes and coaches over-complicate things, Stephen keeps it straight to the point.

He typically does this “on a rolling route, after a swim session”, which is perfect triathlete planning, varying the effort from modest to very hard over two disciplines. As to the intended benefit of the simple but scary prospect of 2hrs in a big gear, he says, “It strengthens up the legs.”

Bayliss continues, “It’s a highly muscular effort – my legs get a good strength session but I wouldn’t be breathing very heavily.”

It may not cause incredibly high heart-rate data but your legs get a weight-training session that you’ll most likely feel for two or three days.

And what about preparation for, or recovery from, the session? “I use my race bike, and take one bottle of Gatorade and one bottle of water. Afterwards, I have a good sit down and a feed to recover.”

Training like this means he’s in the exact position that he’ll be racing in so his muscles will know what to expect when he starts going full-bore. And how about that for a recovery tip – simply make sure you have “a good sit down”. Stephen is the master of keeping things simple but effective.

Coach Beer’s analysis

To paraphrase an old beer commercial, big gear efforts work parts of your muscles that other sessions can’t reach. It wakes up fibres that can then be used when needed in races.

It also helps you to focus on keeping your core in the correct position and, as the cadence is often quite low, you get to feel the specific phases of the pedal stroke. This will help you develop a better pedalling technique and use more of each stroke.

Do it on your race bike and you have a specific session that will not only test your legs, but also test the bike for correct gear selection and adjustment, potentially exposing a position that feels wrong when the effort gets hard. Over a rolling course, Stephen is alternating between high and low loads on his muscles. Spreading this loading out on the bike will ensure that you can still push the pedals hard beyond 1:30hrs.

This is ideal for medium-to long-course triathletes who need to generate modest power output throughout the bike leg. It’ll take time to develop the ability to push a bike uphill using a 53-tooth chainring but it’s absolutely central to faster biking.

Stephen’s pro tip

“Challenge yourself to push the biggest gear you can. You’ll build strength against the unrelenting resistance”

Age-grouper tweaks

You can adapt this session by using this ‘big-gear’ template for 20mins of a 1hr session where you don’t shift down so many gears as you approach a hill. Instead, keep it in a larger gear (with the chain on a sprocket further away from the spokes) and pedal with a slower but harder cadence.

As your strength improves, you can either increase the repetitions on the same hill or gradually increase the length of time you remain in the big gear (starting from 20mins).

Don’t see this as maximal efforts with a slobbering recovery between; instead, keep the effort high uphill and only ever increase time as your strength develops.

Warning: don’t to do this prior to a race, if you have any knee issues or without adequate warm-up and base mileage. Your legs need to have adapted to this sort of load over a long time before a session like this will make your legs stronger.

Joe Beer was voted 220 Triathlon Coach of the Year ’04. His aim is to help athletes achieve their goals

Profile image of Matt Baird Matt Baird Editor of Cycling Plus magazine


Matt is a regular contributor to 220 Triathlon, having joined the magazine in 2008. He’s raced everything from super-sprint to Ironman, duathlons and off-road triathlons, and can regularly be seen on the roads and trails around Bristol. Matt is the author of Triathlon! from Aurum Press and is now the editor of Cycling Plus magazine.