Chrissie Wellington on prepping for a hilly Ironman

The four-time Ironman world champion provides her top advice to help you beast the world's most challenging bike courses


Thinking about entering a hilly long-distance triathlon like Ironman Wales this year and wondering how to develop the bike endurance and hill climbing strength you’ll need? Chrissie Wellington, Britain’s most successful long-distance triathlete, suggests the following…


The winter months are usually the time to focus on longer, steadier ‘endurance’ miles, developing the required hill strength and building a solid base onto which to add faster, more intense work in spring. For hills, the key is to maintain power output despite the increased resistance created by inclines. In training, this resistance can be gained by a) actually cycling uphill b) riding into headwinds c) using your gearing. You can do all three outside, but indoors you need to rely on the latter to simulate climbs of varying lengths.

Aim for three sessions a week: two steady rides (one longer endurance ride of 3-4hrs-ish and one of 90mins) and a strength session of around an hour. Although you’ll be swapping winter outdoor rides for indoor turbo sessions don’t discount the former altogether. It’d be great if you can still do at least one outdoor ride per week.

There are some athletes who do the majority of their cycling on the turbo, all year round. It’s not something that I’d enjoy or recommend, but it shows that developing endurance and strength indoors can be done. If you deem turbo sessions dull they’ll be a struggle, but by using motivational tools the sessions will pass more quickly and pleasurably.

Turbo time

Ideally, keep your bike set up and ready to go, with a sweat-mopping towel and shoes already clipped in. You could use an old rear tyre or a specific turbo tyre so you don’t ruin your best one; a mirror is good to check your form; chamois cream keeps undercarriages happy; a fan helps limit Bikram yoga conditions; while an energy/electrolyte drink will be important for 60min+ sessions.

Remember that 2hrs on the turbo is worth about 2.5hrs outside, as there’s no ‘dead’ time (you always pedal). But you can always break your long ride into two sessions on the same day if that’s easier to manage.

The steady cycling should be at conversational pace. Focus on building up your endurance, and also on getting a rhythmical, ‘egg’ shaped pedal stroke with equal pull to push. The strength session comprises shorter power efforts using big gears: maintain a low cadence of 65-70rpm. Start with 8-10 short efforts of 1-2mins and work up to 4-5mins, with 1-2mins recover spins at a higher rpm (90-100) in between. You can always mix it up and do 1-5min efforts in the same session.

After a month or so you could replace one steady session with TT/race-pace efforts (a ‘sweet spot ride’). The idea is that you train at your ‘sweet spot’, which is an intensity that you can just about maintain consistently for 1hr. Break this up into 20min blocks if this enables you to maintain the intensity.

March would be the time to introduce high-intensity efforts (faster than race pace) with a rest interval. I would begin with 10 x 30-60secs, and build up to 2-3mins, with 1-2min spin in between. The cadence should be at race pace, so around 85-90rpm.

Key session

You can replicate longer hills using your gearing, so it would also be worth doing some 10-15min ‘climbs’ (big gear/higher resistance) in your long ride. You can alternate between the TT position and sitting up, and get out of the saddle to finish each effort.

You can also combine some of the above sessions, for example doing pyramids with changing gearing and pacing. I love the following 75min-ish session:

– 10min warm-up
– 4 x 1min at 60rpm with 60sec rest interval
– 3 x 2mins at 70rpm with 60sec rest interval
– 2 x 3mins at 75rpm with 60sec rest interval
– 5mins at 80rpm with 2min rest
– 1 x 10mins at race pace with 2min rest interval
– 5mins at 80rpm with 60sec rest
– 2 x 3mins at 75rpm with 60sec rest interval
– 3 x 2mins at 70rpm with 60sec rest interval
– 4 x 1min at 60rpm with 60sec rest interval
– 5-10mins cool-down

Ultimately, don’t be afraid to be flexible, mix it up and try new things. Yoga, pilates or a gym session including core, quad and hamstring strength and hip and back extension exercises will help. Above all, try to enjoy yourself – when you’re crossing the finish line at your first Ironman you’ll know it’s been worth it!


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(Image: Ironman Europe)