The Difference Between Road Cycling and Triathlon Cycling

When I started triathlon in 2012 I felt confident I would be able to handle the cycling well as a I had cycling experience. However, this included riding a 12KM loop around the lakes near my parent’s house as fast as I could and not a lot else. When I discovered the world of road cycling I was drawn in. The clubs, brutal climbs, watching pro cycling, the cafe culture. It all felt like a world hidden in plain sight.

However, within these groups there were very few triathletes, and certainly no triathletes of a high calibre. It turns out, there’s a big difference between road cycling and triathlon cycling, especially when you start looking at middle and long distance triathlon. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the difference between the pinnacle of both sports

Image credit Yuzuru SUNADA

This is an image from the 2020 Tour de France. As you can see it includes over 100 cyclists inches away from each other on standard road bikes wearing standard helmets. They’re getting ready for a bunch sprint, where the first athlete across the line wins the stage and takes home the glory.

Image Credit Trevor Clark

This is an image from the Ironman World Championship where the world’s fastest Ironman athletes converge every year to take on the famous course. Riders here are keeping a minimum of 12 metres apart unless overtaking, tackling the course with specialised bikes optimised for aerodynamics, along with clothing and helmets optimised for speed while riding solo. Once they finish their 180KM they then have to run a marathon.

It doesn’t take a sports scientist to notice that these events are more different than a layman may give them credit for. Even if you are taking on a triathlon on your road bike, you still have to maintain the same distance between competitors, and still have to run at the end.

The vast majority of road cyclists aren’t really training. The definition of training is specifically structuring your riding for optimal performance at an event. Most road cyclists are just riding around, enjoying the cafe culture, trying to be the first to the top of the hill, and maybe entering the odd sportive. For them cycling is a way to socialise and see more the local area/world. This is absolutely fine, but as triathletes we have our eyes set firmly on race day, and we need to think about our riding very differently if we want to optimise our performance. Here are a few tips on how to keep your cycling triaining specific. We’ll be assuming for the purpose of this article you’re not racing a draft legal race.

Focus on Steady State

When you’re on a triathlon bike course nobody cares about your ability to sprint, throw yourself up a hill on fresh legs or drop other riders. A triathlon bike course is essentially a time trial followed by a run. Even the very fastest Ironman cyclists will be putting out pretty comfortable power outputs over an Ironman bike leg, knowing that it will start to hurt towards the end, and they still need to run a marathon at the end.

Triathlons either take place on closed roads or on roads carefully chosen to minimise the chance of you having to give way to traffic, and tend to be pretty flat. As a result, there won’t be much, or any chance for respite, except braking for corners or the dismount line. To allow for this, you need focus on a continuous, steady power output for the duration of the bike leg, so as not to accumulate too much fatigue. Especially when the road points upwards.

A highly effective workout for developing fatigue resistance in the base phase

There is absolutely a place for hard intervals to develop your FTP, but without applying your new FTP to longer rides which simulate race day, it’s mainly just a way to show off and inspires false confidence.

Get used to riding solo

I have no problems with athletes who occasionally join group rides on the weekend. It adds a nice motivational boost, especially in the winter with conditions not conclusive to long rides. The issue comes however when athletes become allergic to riding solo, and need someone to ride with them either from a motivational or anxiety perspective. While I don’t want to downplay people’s fears about riding on the road solo, if you ride carefully it’s no more dangerous than walking down the street and it’s something that needs to be addressed if you want to compete in triathlon where you can be on your own for long periods.

Riding solo allows you to focus on your own power outputs, get better at reading the road, and develop resilience to the boredom which can come with long, lonely miles, and results in a lack of focus if you’re not careful. By the time you get to within eight weeks of your race, at least every other ride should be done solo.

Become self sufficient

This is a continuation of the previous point, but in triathlon cycling you need to become self sufficient. You can’t cycle along praying that the puncture gods are on your side. You need to know that should the worst happen, you have the tools and know how to get yourself back on the road.

This also applies to carrying supplies, food and drink. You probably won’t be wearing a cycling jersey, so you can’t stuff your pockets with food and tools. You have to carry all the fluids, food, extra clothing and tools on your bike. There are aid stations providing you with water and selected sports nutrition, and big events will have roaming mechanics, but these can take over an hour to reach you, and won’t help with punctures or other minor mechanicals.

Image credit Tony Svensson 

Aerodynamics

When riding solo, your biggest enemy is aerodynamics. The benefit of group riding is that riders in front of you disrupt the air, where you can slipstream them, in the same manner Formula One Cars will. However, when you are riding on your own there is no windbreak, so you have to do what you can to reduce drag. The best way to achieve this is to narrow your profile as much as possible and use clothing/accessories which allow for the smoothest airflow possible around the rider and bike. The rider creates around 90% of drag, so the primary focus should be here rather than on wheels or handlebars.

The best way to improve this is with a pair of clip on aero bars which can be affixed to the majority of handlebars. This gives you a basic aero position, which will be worth minutes on most courses. This position is very different and intimidating for many, without access to the brakes, twitchy steering and the general feeling of feeling lower to the ground and an increased sensation of speed that comes with being lower down. It may also be uncomfortable to start with, decreasing the hip angle and recruiting more of the hamstrings than you’ll be used to. This is a definite learning curve and unsuitable for beginners, but worth sticking with as the gains will be significant.

Clothing

Choosing the right kit to wear is important whatever your sport, however what you wear during triathlon cycling is of paramount importance. Something like a flappy arm sleeve on a jersey could cost you several minutes over a 70.3 as it disrupts the airflow. Most racers will opt for a triathlon suit which is close fitting, quick drying, and with a thinner chamois pad than you’re used to. Sleeved suits are the choice of many as fabric is more aerodynamic than skin, as well as offering protection from the sun. Your helmet is also an important piece of equipment to get right, as it produces the most bang for your buck out of all aero upgrades.

Getting Intensity Right

Getting the intensity right during triathlon cycling is paramount. If you undercook the effort you give away a lot of time in what is easily the longest discipline. If you go too hard you lose a lot of time on the run. I see most athletes going too easy in shorter events and go too hard in longer events. you can find recommended intensity factors (percentage of FTP) in this article, under the intensity factor section: https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/an-introduction-to-trainingpeaks-metrics/

You can use a heart rate monitor if you don’t have a power meter, swapping the power zones for heart rate zones. While power and heart rate zones aren’t completely interchangeable, they’re good enough for me given the variability of heart rate in the first place.

The Importance of Power

If you are a road rider a power meter could be a point of curiosity or something you use to brag to others about your numbers. Unless you are really training with purpose using a turbo trainer, there are probably better places to invest your hard earned cash. As a triathlete however power meters become all but essential if you want to compete at a high level. They are the best way to measure your intensity (see above), and combined with your heart rate mean you stay in the sweet spot for your race.

You will hear interviews with some of the most successful pros out there who don’t use power meters in races or at all, claiming that “racing is flat out”. This is all well and good if you’ve been training and racing for twenty years and know exactly what your body is and isn’t capable of, but if you don’t know your body well, power becomes very important to manage your training and racing more precisely.

Eating on the go

Most road cyclists will acknowledge the importance of eating on the bike, but most of the time this is pretty simple. They’ll often take on the majority of their nutrition while stationary, either at a feed station during a sportive or in a cafe at the halfway point of a ride. Triathletes are afforded no such luxury, and must get used to eating on the move. This may sound simple, but conditioning your stomach to take on hundreds of calories while tucked up in an aero position takes practice. When you get hungry towards the end of a ride you can’t put off eating knowing that you’ll soon be sat in a cafe tucking into a cooked breakfast, you still have the run where it’s even harder to eat, so you need to keep the calories coming.

Riding in hot conditions

This is a sweeping statement, but most triathlons take place in warm conditions, as the combination of water temperature and air temperature must be high enough that athletes are unlikely to suffer with hypothermia. Even if things are a bit nippy first thing, even late season races will warm up nicely an hour or two into the bike. There are of course some notable exceptions, but these are events generally geared towards more experienced competitors.

This means that you need to prepare for racing in warmer temperatures, which in some climates can be very difficult to replicate. If you are training for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, it can be difficult to replicate the humidity and heat in a temperate climate. There are various ways you can acclimatise for the heat, but I won’t go into these here. The main takeaway point for the purposes of this article is that you don’t need to acclimatise to riding in the cold. If you’d like to ride outside through the winter then I’m not going to stop you, but you don’t need to invest in a full winter wardrobe and risk your neck on icy roads as a triathlete as you’ll never race in these conditions.

Conclusion

While the sports of triathlon cycling and road cycling are very similar, there are also a number of differences which you should pay attention to if you want to be competitive. You can complete any triathlon with a road cycling mindset, riding a standard road bike, stopping at feed stations, showing off on the hills, but those who overtake you at 40KPH looking very comfortable manage to do so because they have trained in a very specific way. Focus your training in the same way and you’ll take huge chunks off of your bike split.

To find out the best way to incorporate this into your training and the kind of sessions you can attempt to improve your triathlon cycling performance, check out our Coaching Consultation page.

Choosing a Road Cycling Cassette

Also known as a sprocket or rear block by newer riders, choosing a road cycling cassette is probably one of the most underrated ways to improve your riding, especially on the hills.

So, what are the most important factors here? We’ll look at the following factors:

  • Range of cassette
  • Size of biggest/smallest cogs
  • Cassette weight

Range of cassette

A cassette will either be described by cyclists as wide or narrow. A wide cassette has a large range, meaning the differences between your biggest and smallest gears will be large. This allows you to ride fast on the flats and still ride at a sensible cadence on the hills. Meanwhile a narrow cassette will make it much harder to ride up hills, as the rings tend to have fewer teeth.

If a cyclist is looking for one cassette to use in all situations I recommend a cassette with a wide range. You never know when you might find yourself at the bottom of a leg sapping climb on tired legs with no gears left. A narrow cassette is generally only used for specific events like flat triathlons or time trials. The small gaps between gears helps you find your “Goldilocks” gear while wide cassettes can make it hard to get comfortable if you’re forever in a gear slightly too hard or too slightly too easy.

As an example, an 12 speed 11-23 has rings with the following number of teeth: 11/12/13/14/15/16/17/18/19/21/23. In comparison a 32-11 has 11/12/13/14/16/18/20/22/25/28/32. If I was riding on my 11-32 at a power which suited a 15 tooth cog gear on the back, I’d have to choose between a 14 tooth or a 16 tooth, where if I was riding an 11-23 I could ride in the 15 tooth cog I was after. If you’re riding on rolling terrain this isn’t such an issue as you’ll never be in the same gear for long enough for it to be noticeable. But if you’re taking on a flat course such as Ironman Barcelona, you don’t want to spend 180KM unable to find a comfortable gear.

Range is intrinsic to the size of your biggest ring, which we’ll look at next.

Size of biggest/smallest rings

Cassettes are expressed numerically, such as 12-28 or 11-32. The first number refers to the smallest ring, the larger number to the biggest ring.

If choosing a road cycling cassette for a series of punishing climbs you’ll want to take a 28 at the very least. Potentially even a 30 or 32 if it’s an especially hilly ride.

23 is the lowest number of teeth you’re likely to find on the biggest ring of most cassettes. This is only recommended for strong cyclists riding on flat courses. 25 is traditionally what a lot of professional riders will use, dropping to 28s on mountain stages. For us mortals however 28 is a sensible all round cassette as we don’t have the power to push round a 25 tooth cog on a steep grade without wobbling all over the road.

The smallest rings are generally 11 or 12t (the t denoting number of teeth). These won’t make an enormous difference to your riding unless you’re planning to ride hard on the downhills.

Weight of cassette

Some cassettes cost £50 and some cost well over £300 (Campagnolo we’re looking at you). So what’s the difference? Assuming it’s the same brand and has the same number of gears/teeth, it’s just the weight. You can buy an expensive cassette to shave off a few grams, but that really is it. Shimano’s cheapest 11 speed 11-28 cassette, the 105, weighs in at 284g, with their top of the range Dura-Ace equivalent topping the scales at 192g. The 105 cassette retails at £50, the Dura-Ace at £199, so this is a very expensive way to save <100g. There may be minute differences in shifting performance, but you’re unlikely to notice them if your gears are indexed properly.

Weight data courtesy of https://ccache.cc/blogs/newsroom/2019-road-groupset-weight-comparison

Conclusion

If I were to advise a new road cyclist, I’d recommend an 11-28 at the very least to help them up the hills. As they get stronger or if they live somewhere with very few hills they might consider a 25. I would only recommend a 23 for competition day, or race simulation rides, as the ability to get up a hill efficiently far outweighs the benefit of the smaller jumps in gears for me.

Most road cyclists will acquire a collection of cassettes over the years. This gives them the flexibility to choose the right cassette for different rides. I wouldn’t necessarily swap between a 30 for my hilly training rides and my 25 on flat training rides, but if I had a big ride (100 miles plus) or a race, I’d take the time to choose the right tool for the job.

Technical info

Hopefully we’ve enlightened you to the benefits of choosing a road cycling cassette. But before you go and place your order, some really boring stuff. It’s easy to buy a cassette incompatible with your bike, so make sure you avoid the following pitfalls

Manufacturers are generally not cross compatible. Some Shimano and SRAM products will work with each other, but check with your bike shop before buying. Campagnolo is not compatible with any other manufacturer.

Make extra sure you’re buying a cassette which has the right number of gears. As both 11 and 10 speed cassettes are still expressed as 12-28, this is an easy trap to fall into. To complicate matters, older versions of group sets have less gears, so make extra certain it’s the product you’re after before ordering. Each generation of a groupset will have a code (such as Shimano R7000), so make sure you’re getting the right kit. It’s worth checking with your bike shop if you’re unsure what you have on your bike. As long as you order it through them, they’ll be happy to help.

The cassette that was on your bike when you bought it is often the largest it can take. If you want to go above this you’ll need to upgrade to a long cage rear mech. This isn’t an expensive upgrade, but it’s best to order and install the parts together to save on labour costs if you’re unsure how to do it yourself.

Finally, your cassette is a consumable part and will wear over time. The best way to prevent this is to keep your drivetrain clean. Find out how in our article here

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Should you use ERG mode?

Ergometer mode, or ERG mode as it is more commonly known, is a function of most modern smart trainers which allows the trainer to set the resistance for you. If your target is 200W and you go above this, the trainer will reduce the resistance to stop you from going any higher. If your wattage drops below the target it will increase the resistance to encourage you to put more force through the pedals and get back up to target.

To many cyclists this sounds ideal. It allows them to relax for a bit and watch some TV while they train or listen to an audiobook. Safe in the knowledge that their trainer won’t let their power drift too high or too low. However, it’s not without its problems, which I’ll go into here.

Riding in a vacuum

When riding in ERG mode you don’t have to think about gradients and changing gear. However as your target event is probably outside, this does not prepare you for the realities of racing a bike outdoors. Make sure you do your steady state rides outside of training mode on a virtual course to prepare you for this. This is especially important in the last eight weeks before your event.

The Spiral of Death

An athlete getting caught in the spiral of death, unable to get their cadence high enough to reduce the resistance, resulting in the workout being abandoned.

If your cadence drops significantly or you stop pedalling ERG mode will instigate what many call the spiral of death. This is when it increases resistance dramatically as you’re not putting out enough power. If you’re in the middle of a tough interval, this can feel like riding through wet cementas you try to pick the pace up again. We all drop our chain, have to answer the door or adjust the fan sometimes, so this is something to be conscious of. You may end up having to skip an interval or even abandon the workout as a result.

Problems with Power Meters

If you own a power meter you should be using it for all your training to make sure all the numbers match. This helps to keep your data clean and ensure all your intervals are accurate. There is something of a problem however as the training software will listen to the power meter, check the power output against the target, and then tell the trainer to increase or decrease the resistance. When the device creating the resistance isn’t the same as the device measuring the power, the ERG mode isn’t nearly as accurate or immediate to change reistance. This means you need to focus much more on holding targets, offering the worst of both worlds.

For harder workouts this can be beneficial if you feel you would struggle to complete it otherwise. However I find that more often than not it’s more effort than it’s worth.

Inability to change gear

You can physically change gear in ERG mode, but the trainer will pick up on this pretty instantly and change resistance. If you find yourself pedalling squares desperate to increase you cadence, the only way to do this is by pedalling harder to lower the resistance. If you’re really struggling in a workout however, your ability to hold this cadence may be compromised. This will likely result in your cadence slowing again and ERG mode “carrying” you through the rest of the interval at 40RPM. There is a time and place for this, such as a ramp test, but you can’t get through every hard interval this way. Disabling ERG mode will give you a more authentic training experience.

Lazy Cadence

The inverse relationship between power and cadence in ERG mode as intensity increases (power in purple, cadence in yellow)

Perhaps the biggest issue I have with ERG mode is the way it encourages a slow, lazy cadence. Riders who start to fatigue will naturally slow their cadence, yet ERG will push back to ensure they stay within the power target. This can result in riders associating harder efforts with a slower cadence and ultimately spending most of their time in tempo and sweetspot at 70RPM, well below where I’d want to see athletes riding, even the low cadence advocates will race at 80-85RPM. You can’t afford to spend time fiddling with your gears trying to find the narrow cadence window you’re used to riding in from training.

Uneven wear on cassette

If you do a lot of riding in ERG mode, you will be doing a lot of riding with minimal (if any) changing of gear, which can create a lot of uneven wear on the cassette, wearing one or two cogs excessively which will lead to shifting issues.

The subject of which gear to ride ERG mode in is also continuous in itself, this video from GPlama explains it well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHUOhmG04M8

I’ve given ERG mode a bit of a bad rep so far, but there are some definite benefits to using it.

No need to concentrate

If I have to use the turbo for my steady state rides, I’m happy with the entertainment provided by the scenery and the changing gradient, but that’s me, and I know not everyone is as easily entertained. For many, turbo training is the perfect time to catch up on the latest Netflix series or watch a film their partner isn’t interested in. With a pair of bluetooth headphones they can enjoy some televisual entertainment while riding, and ERG mode keeping them within the power boundaries. This is more useful for steady state workouts than intervals, as most software does not integrate with video, so you may end up being caught unawares by a sudden increase in resistance.

Helps you complete tough workouts

The mental element of training is just as important as the physical element of training, and for many the presence of ERG mode is the difference between them completing or failing a workout. I’d much rather someone limps over the line and completes a workout at a low cadence than they have to give up and bail twenty minutes in because they can’t hold the power without their trainer pushing back. This provides a safety net for many cyclists, and as long as they’re conscious of the shortcomings of ERG mode (not to let cadence drop too low, don’t stop pedalling, e.t.c.) then they should do whatever it takes to complete the workout.

Conclusion

So, should you ride with ERG mode? As ever… it depends. For workouts which include lots of micro bursts or short sharp increases in intensity such as V02 or sprints, absolutely not. If it’s an easier workout where you’re more concerned about going too hard than too easy and want to watch Breaking Bad while you do so, then it’s a good choice.

The difficulty comes with the middle ground, the tempo and sweetspot rides where riders may find comfort in the knowledge ERG mode will help them complete the workout. For this, I would look at how close to race day you are, if you’re six weeks out from your A race, then switch it off and learn how to control the intensity yourself. If you’re nine months away from your next big event and just doing some base training, then do whatever it takes to get you through the session.

If you’re looking to take your cycle training to the next level, have a look at our training plans or coaching programmes

What is a vanity FTP?

Are you struggling to complete workouts? Has it been suggested you may have a vanity FTP? Confused as to what this may mean? I’ll try to explain in this article what a vanity FTP is and what you can do about it. Firstly we need to look at what Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is, or more importantly, what it isn’t. FTP is not (always):

The highest power you can sustain for 60 minutes
95% of your best 20 minute power
Your aerobic threshold
Your anaerobic threshold

The definition of FTP that most coaches and sports scientists now use is:

“The highest power that a rider can maintain in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing for approximately one hour” – Andrew Coggan

That’s quite a mouthful, so let’s have a look at it visually on a chart created using WKO5 from two athletes:

Athlete A

Screenshot 2020-04-19 at 11.58.34

Athlete B

Screenshot 2020-04-19 at 12.01.59

What you’re looking at is each rider’s power duration curve for the last 90 days. Without going into the details right now, you have time on the X axis and watts on the Y axis, so you can see that both riders can hold higher power over shorter durations, and the power they maintain drops over time, as you’d expect! The yellow line shows personal bests for each timeframe and the red line joins the dots to create a mathematical model that is used to calculate modelled FTP, or mFTP, which is denoted as the bottom dotted line.

Between around 10 minutes and 60 minutes (depending on the rider) the line starts to level off, this is where we find your FTP, the maximum power you can hold in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing for around an hour.

Rider A has an FTP of 223W with a TTE of 1:02:22, and rider B has an FTP of 215W with a TTE of 32:21. Most riders will have a TTE between 30 minutes and 70 minutes, which gives us an insight into how well trained an athlete is at holding high power. As a coach looking at each of these athletes I can work out how to develop each athlete and improve their training. Athlete A needs to lift his chart upwards, he’s unlikely to get much benefit from trying to increase TTE at this point, so we’ll look to increase his power over shorter durations such as 20-30 minutes, then when he increases his FTP significantly we could turn our attention to increasing TTE again. Athlete B however would benefit from extending the time he can hold his FTP for by spending extended periods at higher intensity (tempo, sweetspot) allowing him to hold 215W for longer, vastly improving his performance over an event such as an Olympic triathlon or standard duathlon.

Now we understand what FTP is, we can start talking about vanity FTP. As a coach I want my athletes to have the highest FTP possible, and every athlete wants to have the highest FTP possible, however this is where a lot of athletes get into trouble, and find themselves training to a vanity FTP, which is an overinflated estimation of what they’re capable of, let’s have a look at this and why it happens.

One of the many benefits of using WKO5 is it estimates the effect the anaerobic system is having on your efforts. FTP is an aerobic effort, as is everything up to around 120% of FTP (depending on the athlete), after which we start working anaerobically. This is where our muscles are demanding oxygen faster than our body can provide it, and we start to create an oxygen debt. This is our body’s fight or flight system and allows us to put in a huge effort up a short hill or sprint for a finish line, but leaves us gasping for air afterwards. As triathletes this is of limited use to us during most events as we opt for a steady, smooth application of power, but we can’t ignore it and the effect it has on our training. This chart for athlete B looks at the contribution the aerobic and anaerobic system makes to their effort.

Screenshot 2020-04-19 at 13.38.10

The blue shaded area represents the contribution of the anaerobic system to the effort, the green represents the contribution of the aerobic system to the effort. As you can see, up to the 50 second mark the majority of energy being used to fuel his effort is anaerobic, beyond 50 seconds the aerobic system takes over pretty quickly, although the anaerobic system still makes a small, yes statistically important contribution beyond this point.

Using 95% of your average power from the standard 20 minute test is designed to account for the contribution made by your anaerobic system. This athlete however isn’t an especially gifted sprinter so at 20 minutes, only 3.3% of his energy is coming from his anaerobic system. Using the standard 95% equation he would only get an FTP of 210W, the 5W he’s lost here could be worth a lot of time over an Ironman and result in them wasting time with ineffective training.

On the other hand you could have a very talented sprinter, who has either come from a power lifting background or is simply blessed with a high number of fast twitch muscle fibres genetically. In this situation, they could well generate 10% of their 20 minute power anaerobically. Let’s say they put in 300W during their 20 minute test. As 10% of their power was generated anaerobically their FTP should be 270W, but using the median figure of 5%, they would get an FTP of 285W. They’d no doubt be able to smash short, hard workouts with their strong anaerobic system, but ask them to spend prolonged time at the high end of their aerobic zones and they’ll really struggle. This is because their FTP is too high, which can result in them working in zone 2 when they should be in zone 1, zone 3 when they should be in zone 2, e.t.c.

Many athletes out there may not have such a problem with this, they think that if they train at an FTP which is higher than their ability level, they’ll get fitter sooner. This is possible, but it’s far more possible they’ll burn out after several days of struggling through easy workouts and failing difficult ones, feeling demotivated and no doubt blaming the training plan for being too hard, especially if they’re following a standalone training plan where a coach can’t spot these trends and the athlete can’t feed back on how hard they’re working.

The bigger issue however is race planning, the vast majority of age group athletes will race to a set intensity factor, or IF. For an Olympic distance this may be 0.9, for a 70.3 this may be 0.8, for an Ironman this may be 0.75, this helps ensure that we get the most out of our bike leg, without burning our legs out ahead of the run. This is all based on the assumption that your FTP is accurate. If you are working to a vanity FTP you’re not willing to lower, you could find yourself riding an Ironman at 80% of your FTP instead of 75%, which is unlikely to end well for you, perhaps even resulting in a DNF. This is all because your FTP is based on the assumption that the anaerobic contribution to your 20 minute effort will be available to you indefinitely.

To understand why this is a problem, think of a racing driver who runs nitrous oxide in his car. By flicking a switch on his gearstick he can get a short, high powered, likely illegal injection of speed, but he only has enough for a 30 second boost. He could post a 1:45 minute lap when using his nitrous oxide, and 1:50 without using his nitrous oxide. If he was pacing a 12 hour endurance race he would be a fool to base his fuelling strategy on the lap time of 1:45, as this is only available to him once. For this same reason, a cyclist would be foolish to base his pacing strategy for a long event based on a figure which don’t account for the anaerobic contribution to their FTP.

This isn’t a perfect metaphor as cyclists will recharge their anaerobic battery slowly, and sometimes you need to dip into that reserve on a steep hill, but it should help you understand the dangers of having an FTP that’s not actually useful to train to or pace with.

Now that you understand why we need to account for this anaerobic contribution we need to understand how to account for it within our FTP. The best way to do this is using modelling software such as WKO5 (my preference), Xert or Golden Cheetah, but these can be truly overwhelming for the novice cyclist. You could use the Suffertest’s 4DP which tests you over 15 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes and 20 minutes back to back, to give you a figure which accounts for anaerobic contribution, but these aren’t ideal as you’ll already be cooked by the time you start your 20 minute effort. Finally, if you want to keep it as simply as possible, you can aim to empty your anaerobic tank by doing a five minute all out effort, followed by a few minutes rest, before you start your 20 minute test, of which you can use 100% of the average 20 minute power.

If this is all sounds a bit too complicated but you struggle to complete workouts, try reducing your FTP by 2-3%, a vanity FTP is rarely a conscious decision by an athlete, rather an overestimation by a piece of software or algorithm, and an athlete who isn’t willing to accept the figure may not be accurate.

FTP Doesn’t Win Races

If you’re still refusing to reconsider your inflated FTP, let’s look at why FTP isn’t the be all and end all of racing success.

You would be forgiven for looking at the podium of a time trial or the top three of the bike leg of a triathlon and thinking the rider in first had the highest FTP, followed by the rider in second place with the second highest FTP and so on down the positions.

However there are dozens of other factors which can affect the results of an event, the athlete’s bike, aerodynamics, W/KG, clothing, bike handling skills, start time, V02 max, time to exhaustion, ability to resist fatigue, nutrition, hydration, weight, these are all factors which will affect their finishing position.

Let’s return to athlete A and athlete B from earlier. Athlete A has an FTP of 223W with a TTE of 1:02:22, and athlete B has an FTP of 215W with a TTE of 32:21. They both took part in an 20K time trial yesterday on the same course pancake flat course on Zwift (removing a number of the variables), so who do you think won?. It would probably surprise you if I told you it was athlete B, who averaged 218W for a time of 29:29, while athlete A averaged 210W for a time of 34:16. Let’s start by expanding on the quantitive data:

Athlete A:

FTP: 223W
TTE:1:02:22
V02 Max: 38
W/KG at FTP: 2.4
CTL on day of TT: 55

Athlete B:

FTP: 215W
TTE: 32:21
V02 Max: 61
W/KG at FTP: 3.8
CTL on day of TT: 33

Ultimately athlete B set the faster time because he’s won club championship titles, finished over 100 events, is an Ironman finisher and has been training for eight years where athlete A is training for his first 70.3 distance event. There are dozens, if not hundreds of factors which influence your performance, your FTP does not determine your value as an athlete.

I hope this has illustrated to you that higher FTPs do not win races, and that it is instead a combination of many factors.

To get the most out of your training, you have to be honest with yourself about your ability. Training to an accurate FTP will allow you to really develop as a rider, improving all areas of your fitness quicker, resulting in faster times.

If you would like more help with your FTP, E-mail Simon@phazontriathlon.com for a coaching consultation session where we can analyse your data, ask you to perform additional tests where required, then provide you with a rider profile, along with workouts designed to improve your riding.

 

Aerobic and Anaerobic- What You Need to Know

Aerobic and anaerobic are two words that many in the endurance coaching world including myself bound around on a daily basis, yet for the aspiring triathlete these can cause confusion at first.

The terms refer to how the body generates energy, imagine a six year old at sports day, belting across the school field towards the finishing line. When they finish their run they will likely be breathing heavily, exhausted from the 25M sprint they have just completed. When they move into secondary school and start running the 1500 on the track and cross country they soon realise something, if they want to run longer distances they have to slow down.

Once they run longer distances at a lower intensities they are not nearly as out of breath at the end of the effort. They may be exhausted and collapse in a heap with sore legs and no energy left, but their lungs will not burn in the same way as before, they will not be recovering from what is known as an oxygen debt.

The reason you experience an oxygen debt after short efforts is due to the body relying primarily on its anaerobic system heavily for short, hard efforts, this is where your body creates energy without oxygen. I won’t go into the science of how it works here, but what you need to know is that the anaerobic system can only function for around 2 minutes before the athlete accumulates a large oxygen debt and has to slow dramatically, this is our fight or flight reaction that allows us to escape from danger. Many predators in the animal kingdom rely on their anaerobic system heavily as they sprint after prey, if the gazelle manages to slip from the cheetahs grasp or zig zag enough to tire the cheetah, it can avoid becoming lunch as the cheetah has created an enormous oxygen debt it must recover from, akin to the six year old who has sprinted full pelt over a short distance and has nothing left at the end.

Cheetah_hunting_impala-photo-safari_Masai_Mara_3285.jpg
A Cheetah relies on its strong muscles and high anaerobic prowess to hunt down its prey, but if it mistimes its sprint or the animal escapes, it is unlikely to make the kill (photo credit Federico Veronesi)

On the other side of the equation we have aerobic fitness, this is energy created using oxygen. This is much more efficient and is one of the leading reasons for our dominance as a species, where our prey relied predominantly on their anaerobic system to escape danger, we were able to keep them in sight and slowly run them into exhaustion as they were unable to hold the pace that we were over longer distances.

As triathletes we are focused almost entirely upon the aerobic system, as it is very rare that we will be putting the hammer down and become predominantly anaerobic when racing even a sprint distance triathlon as we will need time to recover from this effort. The exception to this is in draft legal triathlon where you may launch an attack off the front of the pack to try to bridge to the next group, which upon joining you will be able to sit in the wheels of for a minute or so while your body recovers from the oxygen debt.

This is the reason that so much triathlon training is done at an “all day” pace, to ensure we are building and strengthening our aerobic system and not our anaerobic system. The mistake that many athletes make is doing all of their training way too fast and making very little headway on the aerobic development side of things. You may be able to run a very quick 5K, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a great marathon experience, I can vouch for that one personally!

This is where things get confusing, I am a fairly gifted anaerobic athlete, I can push myself harder and go deeper than many others over shorter periods, but tend to suffer over especially long efforts. Normally when I mention that I have a strong anaerobic system and that 5K is my best distance to an athlete a metaphorical finger is waved in my face. “Aha! But a 5K is over 2 minutes, so it’s not an anaerobic effort”. This is of course true, but what people don’t always realise is that your body is never generating energy on a 100% aerobic or anaerobic basis. If that were the case a 100M sprinter could run with his mouth gaffer taped shut and still hit the same time as his rivals.

Anaerobic energy is created in addition to the energy that is being generated aerobically, you are using anaerobically generated energy while reading this. It is only an incredibly tiny fraction of the energy being created (think several decimal places), but is it ticking over like a pilot light, ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice.

To illustrate this more clearly here is a graph created using WKO4 (more information here) that visualises the energy systems used by an athlete at different timeframes. The data is collated using the athlete’s best performances at the time periods listed on the X axis, with the maximum power than can sustain for that period on the Y axis. I use these graphs to help athletes gain a better understanding of their individual physiologies to help us understand where we need to focus our training effort.

Screenshot 2019-01-11 at 12.46.41

Today we want to focus on the green and the blue lines, the green line represents aerobic contribution, the blue line anaerobic. If we start to the left of the chart we can see that at 1 second there is very little contribution from the aerobic system as the body has not started increasing the rate at which it pumps oxygen to the muscles yet, but using glycosides the body can create energy within the muscles and get us moving immediately. As we look closer towards the 10 second mark the aerobic system is really starting to get up to speed now, additional oxygen has been absorbed from the lungs and is being pumped to the muscles to get them fired up.

For this athlete, it is at one minute 6 seconds that the crossover occurs, and the aerobic system takes over as the primary fuel source. The aerobic system has fuel, it can continue indefinitely for as long as it has fuel, the anaerobic system making a tiny contribution that can increase on hills or when accelerating hard.

Looking at the 20 minute data point, the anaerobic system is still contributing 10W of power, which is still a respectable amount, I’m sure if this athlete saw their FTP drop by 10W they would be mortified. Remember, this is looking at the athlete’s best 20 minute effort, not all 20 minute efforts use such a proportion of the anaerobic system.

Going back to the graph, it would look very different for a track sprinter compared to a time trialist (which this athlete is classified as). In a sprinter the anaerobic system would make a much greater contribution, it would continue for much longer before the intersection with the aerobic system as sprinters need to hold maximum power for as long as possible. Their aerobic system will be very weak comparatively and they would struggle to keep up on a gentle Sunday club run as a result.

So now we’ve gone through the science, let’s have a look at the takeaway points, and how a better understanding of the two energy systems can aid your training:

-There is no benefit to developing your anaerobic system for most triathletes. I know an extremely successful athlete who has raced at Kona, yet claims he can’t sprint for toffee (never seen him sprint so can’t confirm this). He doesn’t need to train or develop his anaerobic system, he’s happy to let it fall by the wayside almost entirely to focus entirely on his aerobic system. That’s not to say that he won’t start leaning on anaerobic pathways during some sessions (such as hill reps), but the goal of these sessions is to develop muscular force, not to increase anaerobic ability although this may come as a byproduct.

-You’re never completely aerobic or anaerobic, the body is always using both, even if in very small amounts. Your anaerobic threshold is where you start to produce energy primarily from the anaerobic pathway and should be avoided for the majority of your sessions

-Avoid using large amounts of anaerobic energy in your training. It feels good as it leaves you feeling more fatigued, and changes in your anaerobic system are faster to gain and easier to track than gains in your aerobic system (“I’m 5 seconds faster up that hill!”), but are of little use to the vast majority of triathletes when it comes to race day. I know I’ve certainly fallen foul of this one in the past.

-Many fitness tests require you to use large proportions of anaerobic energy, as triathletes we are not testing you for improvements in these areas, rather trying to assess your current weighting between aerobic/anaerobic energy sources. If an athlete puts out the same amount of watts over a set period as his previous best but the anaerobic contribution is lower then the previous test, this will result in an increase in FTP when uploaded to WKO4.

I hope this has given you a better understanding of the role that aerobic and anaerobic pathways play in endurance sport, leave any questions in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Understanding Your Annual Training Plan (ATP)

When you begin training with us here at Phazon Triathlon, one of the first things we do is create your Annual Training Plan, or ATP. This is a framework which we use to base your training off of, so you can understand decisions we make and can see how your training will progress over the year. However the acronyms and numbers can be confusing so I wanted to take some time to explain the meaning of all the figures you see to help you better understand and use your ATP.

For this example I will be using an ATP I have just written myself for the 2019 season, here is a screen grab for you.

ATP.png

As you can see, there is a lot of information squeezed into a screen here, so let me talk you through what it all means.

The most attention grabbing part of the screen is the chart at the top with various colours of lines and bars. The most important of these is the big blue shaded area that fills the majority of the screen. this is my CTL, or critical training load, which simply put is how fit I will be at that time of year. I am currently sitting on a figure of 44 and am forecast to hit 99 before IRONMAN UK in July. Notice however that the line is not a straight line, it levels off and even drops at points, this is because I need easy weeks for my body to recover, continually building fitness throughout the year is a sure way to burnout.

The mustard coloured shaded area is my form, this is how race ready I will be, as you can see here it peaks in two periods during the year, for my A races. When we train we add fatigue which impacts on our form, we must lower the training load for our form to increase, a process known as tapering.

Our training load for each week is represented by the vertical bars, these are the TSS targets I have set myself for each week. As I complete each week these will become shaded to tell me whether I have missed, hit, or overshot my target for the week. The blue and yellow dotted lines will also start to move around, these represent my actual fitness and fatigue, I can use this to see whether they are closely corresponding to the shaded areas, and whether I’m on track. As you can see from this screen grab I was slightly below target for my first week of the preparation phase, but I didn’t miss it by much and it will make next to no difference to my performance on race day.

What may confuse those of us new to the sport are the period names at the bottom of the chart, these are preparation, Base 1, Base 2, Base 3, Build 1, Build 2, Peak, Race and Transition.

Preparation
This is a very relaxed phase of the training, these is much less in the way of structure here, the only really structured work taking place in the gym where we begin the anatomical adaptation phase (more on this later). Why would you have phase of unstructured training you may ask, especially if you’re feeling apprehensive about your event. Triathlon training is tough, it takes a lot of time and energy to train for these events, it takes a toll on the body and the mind in equal measure. With the preparation phase we give new athletes a chance to get their head around working with a coach, and give experienced athletes a chance to wind themselves back to up to full tilt.

Base 1

The purpose of this period changes depending on your level of experience, if you are a rookie triathlete you will spend this time moving to a more structured programme, focusing on improving aerobic endurance and your speed skills (technique). If however you are an experienced triathlete and are confident in the gym there is a big focus on weights at this stage to build our maximal strength, this allows us to swim, bike and run faster while also preventing injuries. We also use this time to work on our speed skills, primarily our swimming technique.

Base 2
We continue the theme of building on our endurance and speed skills here, stepping back from the heavy gym work to allow us to focus more on our aerobic endurance and speed skills. Lifting big weights is an effective way to improve your performance, but it has an effect on your ability to swim, bike and run in the following days so is generally consigned to the Base 1 period.

Base 3
This is the period you will spend most of your time in, for the rookie athlete who may just be looking to get round their event, the rest of the year may be spent in base 3. For those who are looking to build speed we will repeat this phase until we are 8-12 weeks out of our first A race, so depending on when you start your season dictates how many times you will repeat base 3. You will also return to base 3 after an A race if you have enough time, and will return to base 3 if you have more than a few days off of training at any point in the build phase.

Build 1
This is where we focus almost entirely on muscular endurance work, extending the periods for which you can maintain your threshold and race pace efforts, the exact contents of this phase depend on the distance you are training for, for Ironman athletes it will involve longer workouts set at or around race pace where for short course athletes it will involve much more in the way of speed work. Either way, as we get closer to our race our training must better reflect the demands of race day.

Build 2
This is simply a repeat of the Build 1, but normally with a slightly higher TSS target, the focus remains on muscular endurance with less time spend on long easy workouts.

Peak
This is also known as your taper, the time in the year where we back off of the hard training and allow our body to recover to become race fit. Remember how the orange shaded area (my form) shot up as we approached the races? That’s because I back off training then and my body reaches peak fitness. Training doesn’t make us stronger, anyone who tells you they feel stronger after a long run is telling your porkies, it’s the period after our training where our body repairs itself that we become stronger, a period of peaking (1-2 weeks) ensures our body is well rested and as strong as it can be for race day, you don’t want any lingering fatigue from your training as you line up at the start.

Race
Self explanatory, it’s race week! Very little training, with a focus on intensity one volume to ensure we’re raring to go when we wake up on race day.

Transition
This is a period of rest after an A race, where we take a well deserved rest. You can still train at this point, but it should only be for fun. This is a great time to try other sports and just generally enjoy being active.

Going through every phase is a very lengthy process and so can only be achieved two or three times a year. In an ideal world I would have longer between my A races but as Bolton is relatively easy in the season I couldn’t get a warm up 70.3 in any earlier without travelling to the Southern Hemisphere.

This leads us onto B and C priority races, currently I only have one other event on the cards, my club championship 5K race. I want to perform relatively well to take back my title from 2015, but I’ll be in the base period at the time and I can’t afford to take too much time out to prepare for it, so I’ll perhaps do a few 5K specific workouts in the days before, have a rest day on the Saturday, and see where it takes me. As I’m organising some training around it, this makes it a B race. The final category is a C race which is normally a race entered with friends, to gain experience, or just for fun. They are treated just like a hard workout with no preparation beforehand.

So now we’ve  prioritised our races, and have split our year up into periods, the next step is setting our training volume, which I set as a TSS value for you. This is where things start to become more personalised, TrainingPeaks has an algorithm which can split the year into periods for you and you can set a target CTL, it will do the maths and hand you an automated ATP.

You may have been doing some reading and heard that a CTL of 95 is recommended for an Ironman, so you put a target CTL of 95 in and get cracking with your training. The problem being that you may be a rookie athlete training for their first Ironman and there is no way you can hit those numbers, either you’ll burn out in the first few weeks or even worse you’ll succumb to complete over training later in the season, sidelining you for the rest of the year. You may also be an athlete who recovers more slowly and your recovery weeks need to be easier than TrainingPeaks’ algorithm allows for. By analysing your training history and asking questions we can start to put target TSS values together for you to ensure your TSS targets are realistic. We don’t work to a target CTL for your A race, we instead start by inputting numbers we believe you can maintain, increase them steadily through the year and see what our final CTL value is. If it’s too low we see how training goes and will consider increasing the volume in the weeks and months that follow.

At this point it is worth remembering that the human body is not a mathematical equation, people have got round Ironman races with far less than 95CTL points, and if that’s all you’re looking to achieve then there’s no need to sacrifice your social life upon the altar of triathlon to hit an arbitrary number. These figures are great for helping us to track progress, but they are not the be all and end all.

CTL is probably the most important number, but what we also need to take into consideration is how we increase the number, and for that the form number is an underrated tool to help us ensure we are making improvements and not stagnating. Your form number can sit in the following brackets:

25+ should only be reached in times of transition, or a total rest from training, or perhaps if an athlete is injured and unable to train.

+5 to +25 is the range many will aim to hit for race day. A higher number isn’t always better as you also lose some frying from your legs, and run the risk of feeling empty on race day.

+5 to -10 is a bit of a great area, and where a lot of untouched athletes will sit, they’re certainly doing some training, but probably not enough to illicit enough of a training response for them to get enough to see significant fitness gains. Athletes will often find themselves in this zone on easy weeks.

-10 to -30 is the optimal zone to sit in for a good training effect, you can’t stay here forever as it’ll start to fatigue you, but this is where the best gains are made.

below -30 is the high risk zone where you run a very real risk of overtraining. If you find yourself on the wrong side of -30 which can happen to the best of us sometimes, you need to lift and coast, reducing volume, perhaps even taking an unplanned rest day if you feel you need it. Spending too much time at this level of fatigue can cause long term problems to both your performance and health.

My CTL is set to peak at 99, which is a good CTL for someone looking to perform well at an Ironman race, however the chances of me reaching that exact number are incredibly slim. I may start the build period and feel I’m having to hold back to hit my weekly targets, in which case I could try kicking everything up by 25 TSS points a week, which would give me a CTL closer to 110. By the same token, I may crash my bike on some ice in February and have a week with little to no training, which means I’ll have to readjust my targets.

This is an important point, your ATP is not set in stone, it’s incredibly rare (possibly unknown) for someone to make it through an entire year hitting every target as life happens. Business trips are sprung on you, your kids may become unwell, your bike may have to wait a long time for essential spares, a lot can get between you and your perfect season of training, but the good thing is that an ATP is pretty flexible. Phases can be reassigned, targets can be adjusted and even your target races changed, the important thing is it ensures that we are both on the same page.

Next up is weekly limiters, this is where the experience of a coach and their knowledge of you as an athlete really comes into play as we make each week specific to you.

Using myself as an example, I can break each sport down into strengths and weaknesses to show how an ATP can be curated to each individual athlete

Swimming
I know that as an athlete two primary areas are limiting me in the swim, my technique and my force, or more importantly the application of force which is intrinsic with technique. I can comfortably swim well over 4KM so endurance is not a huge concern for me, but enhancing the speed that I can hold for longer durations is important. This year my focus is going to be primarily on technique with an additional focus on force (improved by using paddles), with muscular endurance and endurance taking a backseat for now. As I live in London where the weather is not conclusive to year round open water swimming I swim exclusively in the pool until April/May at the very earliest as the lakes start to open. Therefore my plan is to focus on technique and force work in the pool, before taking to the open water in the spring and applying the gains I have made in the pool into the open water whilst building me endurance to ensure I can still comfortably swim 4K at my improved pace.

Cycling
I have come to acknowledge in recent months that my aerobic fitness is just not where it should be, and I struggle to replicate my success in short course racing over longer distances, with this in mind my focus throughout most of the year will be on endurance. You may notice that I include some muscular endurance work during the base period which is doesn’t fit in with traditional periodisation. This is because the weather in the UK can be very inconclusive to outdoor riding due to the freezing temperatures and torrential rainstorms we experience, and I don’t have the time to sit on the turbo for three hours every time I want to ride. By introducing muscular endurance work on the turbo this is a way for me to ensure I keep improving when I don’t have enough time to build my endurance. When the weather starts to improve in April/May the focus will shift away from muscular endurance and almost fully towards endurance when I can get regular long rides done on my TT bike out on the open roads. This is known as reverse periodisation, and is a method I have used to great success with my athletes in the past, as it still follows the golden rule of periodisation, the closer you get to race day the closer your training should resemble racing, and when your aim is to ride 180KM, leaving the really long rides to the end of the year makes sense.

Running
My main limiter in running is injury, so the focus is almost entirely on improving force (specifically exercises building my hamstrings/glutes) and endurance runs. I know I have top end speed in spades but struggle over longer distances so the priority is to become injury free to allow me to train for longer at higher speeds. This is achieved by increasing volume and intensity gently, with much less work on speed.

You can see here the adjustments that need to be made to an ATP even for an experienced athlete to make the most out of their training and make it specific to them. The limiters field also includes the ability to schedule tests in advance, ensuring that our threshold values stay consistent and are not outdated, resulting in inefficient training.

The final part of our ATP to decipher is our strength period, there are three options here, anatomical adaptation, maximal strength and strength maintenance. Anatomical adaptation is when we start working in the gym with light weights and a high number of reps, maximal strength is when we start to lower the reps and increase the weight for some high reward strength training. For the rest of the year we focus on strength maintenance which will involve weekly visits to the gym to ensure we do not lose the strength gains we made in the winter.

I hope this has given you the tools you need to understand the importance of having an ATP as well as helping you understand some of the jargon that is attached to your ATP. If you wish to improve your knowledge of periodisation and the way each phase of training contributes to your fitness, I recommend picking up the most recent edition of Joe Friel’s “Triathlete’s Training Bible) which this article was influenced heavily by. If you are interested in having a bespoke ATP made up for you, why not head to our apply page to begin your coaching journey.

Analysis of a Swim Start

For many new to triathlon the start of the race is the most intimidating part. Not only are you about to engage in the swim which is probably the most intimidating leg of the event anyway, but this is done surrounded by dozens of people and hundreds of limbs flailing around. So while at The London Triathlon I thought I’d take a video of one of the starts to show everybody the process and hand out some tips.

As I started filming the first athletes in the water were making their way to the right of the starting area (left of shot) where they all form a small group. Why do you think this might be? Well the race starts with a right hand turn, so by placing themselves to the right they are shortening the distance between themselves and the first buoy, avoiding having to add distance onto their swim by cutting across the width of the swim course for the first turn. Things are much sparser to the left which makes it a good place for newbies or less confident swimmers to start.

The other thing to notice is that the first athletes in the water are treading water for a significant amount of time while the back markers make their way into the water. This is something worth considering if you’re less confident in the water, that you’re probably best being one of the last in the water to reduce your time spent waiting for the start and ensuring you’ll start well clear of the washing machine effect.

However this is easier said that done, back in 2014 when I did the Olympic distance I arrived nice and early for the briefing, standing at what I thought was the back of the pen. However lots of latecomers formed the true back of the group, and when we got in the water I found myself slap bang in the middle of affairs, the last place I wanted to be at the time! To avoid this, arrive at the swim start in good time, but hang right at the back and wait for everyone to arrive before you find out where the back really is.

Back to the swim start in question, as the starting area starts to fill out a bit you can see the spaces between swimmers are much larger as they will not be getting as competitive as the swimmers at the front of the pack, resulting in less chance of a kick or a knock. Nobody will ever deliberately try to kick or punch you, imagine trying to kick/punch someone while swimming, it would detract so much energy from your stroke it would simply not be worth it. A few knocks and bumps are inevitable but to reduce the risk of being caught up in it then star further back from the main pack where the gaps between swimmers are larger.

Four minutes after the lead group take their positions at the front the last swimmers make it in, the air horn finally blasts and the swim is underway. Cue a flurry of arms and legs to the left of picture as the main protagonists try either to get some space between them and their rivals, or to desperately try to hang onto the feet of the swimmer in front of them. The first 150-200M will be very fast as the swim groups establish themselves before the pace knocks back a bit and swimmers settle into their race pace.

By the time the leaders are 100M in, some of the back markers are only just crossing the start line as they start what will be a long and leisurely swim. Take some time to watch the swim strokes of those at the back, a mixture of breaststroke, heads up front crawl and otherwise unidentified methods of aquatic propulsion. It doesn’t matter though as they’re getting the job done and for these mass participation events there is no swim cut off. However what you don’t want to do is start too far back as you’ll find yourself boxed in by breaststrokers and unable to make much headway, it’s very difficult to pick the right place in the swim pack for you, the best advice I can offer is to read the body language of your fellow competitors. If they’re looking impatient and sat in relative silence the chances are they’re planning to go off like a rocket. If they’re floating around and talking about how they’re just hoping to get round or they’re sat in silence with the thousand yard stare it may be better to move forward. If in any doubt start further back as being slow is frustrating, but beats being swum over and a potential panic attack.

As soon as our final white hat has crossed the start line, there is already a wave of pink hats bearing down on them and ready to go. Due to the fact they sound the horn before the last swimmer had even made their way to the start area I’m guessing they were running behind schedule at this point, but it gives you an insight into just how quickly things move at these large events. As I pan left to follow the leaders of the pink wave we can already see a white hat being pulled out of the water and onto a safety craft. It’s never nice to see someone pull out of a race so early in proceedings, but a reminder not only of the great job that the safety teams do, but also the importance of making sure you get plenty of practice in open water before race day.

I hope this has been helpful in your preparations for you race, if you are nervous about the swim leg of your race, why not get in touch with us to organise a coached session?

Heart Rate vs Power

Heart rate and power are the two most popular ways of measuring effort when cycling, but which is the most accurate way of measurement, and which should you use for race pacing? We put the two head to head in different categories.

Accuracy

As numbers geeks, accuracy is probably the number one concern when choosing between the two. In this scenario power easily comes out on top simply due to the data range we have available to us. While an athlete’s heart rate will very rarely fall outside of 40-180BPM, an athlete’s power figure can range from 0-1000W and beyond in the case of exceptionally well trained athletes. This gives us a much greater insight into an athlete’s effort by default, so it’s 1-0 to power at this point.

Reliability

Power meters are incredibly powerful pieces of equipment, but they do require a certain degree of maintenance. Once you purchase and install your power meter they require an initial calibration followed by periodic re-calibration, especially after travelling with your bike. Heart rate monitors are cheap and simple, as long as they have a good connection they will very rarely let you down.

Wahoo-Tickr-X-Workout-Tracker-With-Memory
Wahoo Tickr, the heart rate monitor I recommend due to its bluetooth/ANT+ dual compatibility

Application of data

This is the power meter. Hands down. As a coach, when athlete uses a power meter it gives me a goldmine of information to trawl through. I have a piece of software developed by TrainingPeaks called WKO4 which I use to analyse athlete’s power files to within an inch of their life. It also gives a much better insight into an athlete’s form over time, and due to the huge amounts of data the power meter harvests athletes will find their CTL levels increasing quite sharply as the power meter gives a real insight into every detail of a workout. Even more data can be collected when using a dual sided power meter that collects data from both your left and right side. Most power meters function by taking the power data from your left hand side and doubling it.

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Garmin Vector 3 Pedals, a very popular option for those looking to measure left and right power

Affordability

This one is easy, heart rate wins hands down, a heart rate monitor will set you back around £40, with power meters costing £300 at the very least. If you purchase a triathlon watch it may even come with a wrist based optical heart rate monitor as standard. For the athlete on a budget, heart rate is the winner on practical grounds.

Response time

One of the major downsides with heart rate is how long it takes to react to changes in effort. Your heart rate will often take several seconds to respond to an increase/decrease in effort, as we can see below. 

HR Accuracy.png

The above is a short excerpt from an athlete’s workout. As the power (purple) dips and rises we can see the heart rate takes significantly longer to react, it reacts less evidently (which goes back to our initial point on accuracy), and is still increasing in response to the surge to 350W 30 seconds afterwards. If I only had heart rate data to go off, this graph would tell a very different story.

Effect on Performance

Everything comes at a price, and the same is true with power meters and heart rate monitors. A power meter will add a small amount of weight, but we’re only talking about a handful of grams here, with some brands coming in much lighter than others (for a price!). Meanwhile heart rate monitors will obviously add a small amount of weight by virtue of wearing them, but the main issue athletes worry about is the chest strap. While I’ve never had a problem, some athletes do and find that it uncomfortable. For those who can’t stand the chest strap there are now various optical heart rate monitors available which sit on your wrist or your arm, however these are not as accurate as standard chest strap versions.

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Wahoo Tickr Fit. Image courtesy of BikeRadar

Battery Life

Most heart rate monitors use a standard coin cell battery which can last for many years, where power meters will normally only last a matter of weeks, or even hours if broadcasting data via bluetooth.

Sampling rate

This is a slam dunk for power meters, most will have a sampling rate (the rate at which they measure the power output) at around 50HZ, which is higher than basic heart rate monitors. The exception in this case is heart rate monitors which are used for heart rate variability (HRV) monitoring which have a higher sampling rate and a price tag to match.

Suitability for pacing

Both methods are very useful for pacing, but for very different reasons.

Power data is very useful as it is an objective measure of what is coming out of your legs.  Using Best Bike Split we help our athletes create a bespoke plan that tells you what power to hold at which section of the course. 180W on the flat, 190W at is starts to kick up a bit, 210 on the steep section, it gives us a blow by blow plan to ensure you pace your bike leg to perfection.

Heart rate is affected by a huge variety of factors such as temperature, stress, any infections your body may be fighting, fatigue, you get the picture. While this is its weakness, it is also its strength as it tells you exactly what your body is going through at the time. If your heart rate is sky high your body is trying to tell you something, and you’d do well to listen to it.

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A Best Bike Split race plan calculated with power data. We would never be able to work with such accuracy using only heart rate.

 

This brings us to the underlying point behind this article, and the answer is that they are best used in conjunction with each other. Relying solely on power but with no insight into how your body is coping with the effort can lead to burn out, while only monitoring your heart rate lacks accuracy. This is a subject I will cover in more depth in a future article on aerobic decoupling which I will link to here when completed.

Where is the Best Place to Invest in Triathlon?

Image copyright AMC

The products that promise to make you faster in triathlon are literally endless, every trade show or press release that comes my way promises free speed for a price. Whether this is in the form of miracle nutrition supplements, super aero bike components, advanced cycle clothing or running specific underwear, they all claim to be great value for money, and promise to solve all of your problems. Having worked in triathlon retail for two years I have helped hundreds of triathletes put together the right package for them and their budget, so I wanted to share with you the advice I have picked up and shared with customers over the years. Obviously I can’t cover every single piece of equipment, but I’ll do my best to cover the most common purchases.

It’s worth mentioning that for each item listed there are cheaper options as well as more expensive options available. Just because something isn’t listed as good value doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it, I’m the proud owner of many of the items that I list here as being poor value, however for the new athlete there are a other purchases which should come first and will offer your more bang for your buck.

Good Value

Power meter

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Stages Cycling 105 5800 Left Crank Arm (RRP 449.99)

Probably the single best investment you can make in your fitness, especially if you are working with a coach who can use the data to monitor your fitness closely. The power meter not only records data, but displays it as you ride to help you pace your rides effectively. Heart rate also helps with this but as it’s so easily affected by other factors such as fatigue, illness and stress,  power is useful as an absolute measurement of what’s coming out of your legs. The savvy athlete/coach closely monitors the relationship between heart rate and power to track fitness and fatigue.

Heart Rate Monitor

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Wahoo Tickr, RRP £39.99

If you can’t afford a power meter then a heart rate monitor is the next best way to monitor your effort levels. A chest strap gives you much more accurate readings than the optical heart rate monitors found on newer triathlon watches, so are recommended for serious training.

High Quality Clothing

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Castelli Evoluzione Bibshort (RRP £80)

Invest in high quality clothing which will keep you warm and comfortable when riding and racing. Cheap clothing is a false economy as it will be uncomfortable resulting in unenjoyable training, chafing and it will likely fall apart quickly.

Tools 

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X Tools 18 piece set (RRP £39.99)

This covers all bike maintenance tools, chain lubes, grease e.t.c. If you learn to fix your bike yourself this will give you confidence and save you lots of money on workshop labour fees. High quality tools are important if you plan to do a lot of work on your bike, but there is no need to spend money on workshop quality tools if you are occasionally tinkering with your own machine.

Elastic Laces 

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Xtenex Elastic Laces (RRP £9)

There’s no excuse for this one, these will save you lots of time in transition and allow you to get running sooner. Tying laces with cold hands after a chilly ride is near impossible, a problem solved with a £5 pair of elastic laces.

Good Quality Goggles 

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Aqua Sphere Kayenne Goggles With Polarise Lenses (RRP £30.00)

Swimming isn’t much fun if you can’t see where you’re going, you’re blinded by the sun or your goggles keep taking on water. A good pair of open water goggles can be picked up for cheap and will provide you with a far more enjoyable experience in the water. All goggles have a shelf life, so treat yourself to a new pair ahead of race day.

 

Dumb Turbo Trainer

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Tacx Blue Matic Turbo Trainer (RRP £139.00)

Is the weather too cold to conclusive riding? Too windy? Not enough time? Throw your leg over a turbo trainer and get a good quality workout in from the comfort of your garage. The fitness you will gain from getting rides in when you’d otherwise be forced off of the bike results in enormous gains in fitness.

Coaching 

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Coaching can be in the form of monthly training plans, or coached sessions such as an introduction to open water swimming (above)

 

Some people struggle with the concept of paying for coaching as they want to walk away from a transaction with something carbon fibre in their hands. But when you consider a year of coaching with Phazon Triathlon costs less than a rear wheel, the expert guidance and support you will receive from a coach will help shave hours, not minutes off of your finish time.

Premium Tyres

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Continental GP400S II Tyre (RRP £60)

As covered in a recent article, a good set of tyres will help prevent punctures, provide extra grip and reduce rolling resistance. Because nobody likes to end up in a ditch or standing by the side of the road trying to wrestle a tyre off the rim as other stream past.

Appropriate Running Shoes 

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On Running Cloudflow Running Shoes (RRP £120)

A pair of running shoes that fit you well, are comfortable and not too worn are essential to your performance ,by running in ill fitting and/or worn running shoes you vastly increase your risk of injury. You also need to ensure the shoes you wear are suitable for he distances you’re running and the terrain you’ll be running on.

Swim Toys 

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Speedo Power Paddles (RRP £13)

 

Investing in a modest collection of swim toys (pull buoy, fins, paddles, tempo trainer e.t.c.) will vastly improve your swim if used correctly, shop around and you’ll find some good deals going.

Clip On Aero Bars

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Token TK9741-2 Aero Clip On Bars (RRP 39.00)

Using a set of clip on bars can save you time hand over fist by lowering and narrowing your position on the bike. It’s very difficult to get a comfortable position on a road bike with clip on bars, but the good news is you’ll be able to revert to the hoods if they prove to be too uncomfortable.

Sports Massage/Physiotherapy 

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If you feel niggles or tightness appear from training, be sure to get them seen to by a professional. Sports masseurs can help you treat the symptoms of the pain and advise on the potential cause, but sometimes it takes a full screening with a physiotherapist is essential to address the cause of the injury.

Bike Fit 

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Sigma Sports Bike Fitter James Thomas (image copyright Sigma Sports)

Ride your bike in more comfort and produce more power. It doesn’t take an awful lot, just a high quality bike fit. The free fittings that shops provide aren’t worth much at all, make sure you visit a bike fitting specialist who uses their experience and knowledge of biomechanics rather than relying on technology

Triathlon Watch 

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Garmin Forerunner 935 GPS Watch (RRP £470)

With smartphone apps that record your rides and runs for you, the real benefit of a triathlon watch is for recording swims, talking to ANT+ sensors and keeping an eye on your pace as you run or your metrics as you cycle. If you are following a training plan, a triathlon watch becomes an essential for following workouts.

Mid value

Hydration Systems

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Profile Design FC25 Hydration System (RRP £75.00)

The ability to lean forwards and take a drink saves you a lot of time and effort, reaching behind your saddle or to your downtube every time you need a drink is feels cumbersome after using one of these. Most come with a mount for a GPS computer as well which solves the tricky issue of attaching computers to aero bars.

Premium Tri Suit (£150)

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Huub Dave Scott Long Course Trisuit (RRP £190)

A more expensive tri suit will provide aerodynamic gains and dry quicker, but these are both luxuries, and for longer events many people will drop the tri suit in favour of sports specific kit anyway. The most important factor is one you feel comfortable in. If the difference between a well fitting or ill fitting suit is £50, then splash the cash. You won’t regret it on race day.

Clip In Pedals 

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Shimano 105 5800 Carbon SPD Pedals (RRP 99.00)

The words that strike fear into the hearts of many, this system allows you to put power down quickly and also increases the power you gain on the upstroke, especially on the hills. They also keep your feet locked into a (hopefully) efficient position reducing the risk of injuries.

High End Bike Shoes 

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Specialized S-Works Trivent Tri Shoes (RRP £275)

This assumes your existing shoes provide relative comfort. Upgrading into a more lightweight shoe with a stiffer sole will increase performance, especially over longer distances. If your current shoes are ill fitting then a new pair of shoes are very important.

Aero Helmet

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Lazer Wasp Air Triathlon Helmet (RRP £349.00)

A good aero helmet will save you a lot of energy, sometimes as much as a set of aero race wheels. Spend your time trying on different brands until you find one which fits like a glove and is appropriately ventilated for the conditions you’re racing in. Taking a helmet with no vents to Lanzarote is just asking for trouble.

Poor value

Triathlon Bike

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Cervelo P3 Ultegra Di2 (RRP £4,299.00)

I’m a big believer in triathlon bikes, the additional comfort they provide and access to gear shifters from the aero bars save you a lot of time, but you could buy a decent car for the same cash. I recommend people get a couple of seasons under their belt on a road bike before they take the leap and upgrade to a TT machine.

Smart Trainers 

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Wahoo Kickr (RRP £999.00)

I love my smart trainer, but if you already own a basic turbo trainer, you will be paying a lot of money for luxuries such as ERG mode and variable resistance. If you’re buying your first turbo trainer and have the money to spend, absolutely go for a smart trainer, but if you’re already running a dumb trainer, look at items further up the list before you upgrade to a smart trainer.

Deep Section Wheels 

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Lightweight Fernweg Clincher Wheelset (RRP £5,549.00)

Not quite as essential as some people would have you believe, a nice set of wheels will save you a lot of time, but you need to be going quite fast to get the most out of them. If you’re new to triathlon you’ll barely be able to get up to speed to make the most out of them, and the weight penalty may offset the aero benefit. Save these for when your times start to plateau.

High End Wetsuit

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Orca Predator Fullsleeve Wetsuit (RRP 649.00)

Upgrading to a top end wetsuit is a lot of money for not a lot of benefit. It will be more flexible, and *slightly* more hydrodynamic, but simply putting on a more expensive wetsuit won’t help your technique. If you struggle in the swim, that money is better spent on swimming tuition. When you start knocking on the door of the top 20% in the swim, that is the time to start looking at performance wetsuits.

Components 

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The Brand New Shimano 105 R7000 Groupset (RRP varies)

High end components sure look good, and yes they’re marginally lighter but on TT bikes components are the last thing we should be worrying about as once you get to Shimano 105 level, the only tangible benefit beyond this point is weight saving, and bike weight is the last of our concerns for most triathlons. The best time to upgrade your groupset is when your current one wears out, as they’re very expensive to purchase as a standalone item.

Sports Specific Nutrition

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PowerBar Energize Bars (RRP 1.50)

Buying specially branded energy gels and energy bars only really provide you with a convenience. An energy bar is nothing you can’t make in the kitchen yourself and many people choose jelly babies over energy gels anyway. If you find that these products really hit the spot for you and you can’t imagine yourself racing without them then by all means stock up, but the costs can add up very quickly.

GPS Bike Computer 

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Garmin Edge 820 (RRP £370)

GPS head units such as Garmin Edge or Wahoo ELEMNT units are great for cyclists as they provide routes you can follow, display your data clearly as you ride, and can even be used in conjunction with your smart trainer. However this provides very few functions that a high end triathlon watch can’t, so this falls down the list.

 

You may have noticed a pattern here, items which improve your fitness and comfort are high on the list, where equipment based purely on race day speed lower on the list. Investing in yourself is far more important than investing in your bike. Yes top end bikes are sexy, but at the end of the day it’s what’s in your legs that matter, and the ability to put out big watts far outweighs aero/weight.