It’s the question that has crossed the mind of every aspiring cyclist or triathlete, why is cycling so expensive? You may have had a budget in your head of £100 (or regional equivalent) for your bike, but it seems even that is unlikely to leave you walking away with a bike. Let alone a road bike. That’s before you even get to the clothing and accessories.
Why is cycling so expensive? Is the whole industry a rip off? In this article we’re going on a deep dive into the cycling industry to find out. We’re going to be focusing on road cycling as this is the area I’m mot familiar with. The majority of the points here apply to off road as well.
Why Shouldn’t I Buy a £100 bike?
These bikes are what I have seen fondly referred to as “bike shaped objects” by mechanics. This may come across as snobbery, but there’s logic here.
These bikes are designed to be taken out for a short ride on flat terrain a couple of times a year. The quintessential family bike ride. They’re heavy, sluggish and will break very easily. When it does break, you will probably pay 30-40% of the value of the bike to fix it. The tyres will puncture easily, the chain will probably fall off without much encouragement, and you’ll struggle to get spare parts.
What Should I Buy Instead?
In contrast, let’s look at the classic starting bike, the Specialized Allez. Like many cyclists, I started out on one of these dream machines. Other brands are available.
So, what does this bike offer which our bargain basement bike doesn’t?
For many cyclists, a lighter bike is a better bike. If you get passed on the hills by those on much lighter bikes, this is very demoralising as you feel powerless. An entry level road bike like an Allez could be twice as light as a cheap bike. It still isn’t that expensive in the grand scheme of road cycling, but it’s a big step up.
I’m probably not exaggerating by much when I estimate that this bike will last 100 times longer than a cheap bike. I rode mine for the best part of 15,000 miles without major issue. Yes I needed to replace some parts, but when you consider you’re lucky to get 100 miles out of a cheap bike without needing to take it to a mechanic, the difference in longevity is remarkable. It’s actually cheaper to pay more up front in the long run.
The Specialized pictured above uses a Shimano Sora groupset. This refers to the brakes, gears, shifters, chain e.t.c.
When you shift a gear on this bike, it will jump to the new gear less than a second. When you shift a gear on a bike shaped object, it will make a slow, clunky shift. If you’re lucky it’ll end up in the gear you wanted to without jumping around. If you’re not changing gear much this doesn’t matter. But if you’re on rolling terrain and want to use your gears to make life easier, this can be frustrating.
In addition, when you turn a corner, the steering will feel silky smooth for a long time. Meanwhile, a cheaper bike’s bearings will wear quickly. Especially when it gets wet.
Once you’ve been riding for a year or two, you’ll probably find yourself looking at some upgrades for your bike. This could be more gears, better brakes or a new saddle. These upgrades are designed to fit traditional road bikes. Cheaper bikes often have non standard fixtures, as they don’t expect to be upgraded.
When you can be looking at £80 for a comfortable saddle, you will very quickly get to the place where you’re almost spending as much on single components as you did on a cheap bike.
If you buy a cheap bike and get bitten by the cycling bug, you’ll end up regretting it. Whether you ride with friends who leave you for dust, or it breaks down yet again at the furthest point from home and you need to call for a pick up; you’ll end up having to sell it for a fraction of what you paid for it, and buying a more expensive bike anyway.
So, where does my money go?
The Specialized Allez starts at £650, which is a lot of money to spend on a bike. So where does the money go? And why would someone look to spend £5000 on a bike?
Quality of Materials
The biggest factor which makes cycling expensive is the materials used in manufacture of the parts. If you want a cheap steel frame, you can get this for a song. However, it will be very heavy. There are Chinese factories which manufacture counterfeit bikes, which they sell on for a fraction of the cost. However, there’s a good chance these will break, potentially injuring you in the process.
When looking to purchase something it can be cheap and light. Or strong and cheap. Most bikes need to be both light and strong, but this doesn’t come cheap. For a bike to be able to withstand thousands of miles on the road without damage the materials have to be carefully chosen. They also have to be treated in a specific way to ensure performance and safety.
This extends beyond the frame materials to everything on the bike. Wheels are notoriously expensive because they have to both be incredibly light, and withstand huge forces from hitting potholes without buckling. There will always be a cheaper option out there, but this will come with a penalty to performance and longevity.
Research and Development
If you want to create the lightest and fastest bike on the market, this involves a considerable amount of research and development. This involves paying designers and engineers to build prototypes, time spent in a wind tunnel, stress tests on the frame itself, and dozens of other steps between concept and the bike appearing for sale at your local bike shop. These costs are passed onto the consumer when they purchase the bike, to help the bike manufacturer stay in business. And help them keep pushing the boundaries.
Pro Team Sponsorship
A bike sponsor will provide a World Tour team with hundreds of bikes over the course of a year. When you consider many manufacturers will sponsor multiple teams, you’re looking at companies spending hundreds of thousands over the course of a year to support professional teams. They hope to recoup the cost by inspiring customers to buy their bikes via the team. If you think recreational cycling is expensive, wait until you see the costs involved with running a professional team!
Running of the Business
Smaller bike manufacturers will only really make money from selling frames. The sale of bikes cover everything from the receptionist’s salary to the van they use for deliveries. If companies did not make a profit from each sale, they wouldn’t be able to stay in business, offer warranties or provide any customer service. While some products provide manufacturers and retailers with a large profit margin, bike frames are not one of them, and the whole industry relies on bike manufacturers staying in business.
But What About Expensive Cycling Clothing? Some Kit Costs As Much as Cheap Bikes
It’s true that you can get a cheap bike for the cost of some waterproof jackets, but it all comes back to performance. When cycling you build up a huge amount of heat. When you cover yourself with what is essentially a plastic bag, this traps the heat and causes the rider to overheat. You may keep the rain off you with cheap jackets, but you’ll get soaked with sweat, losing a lot of sodium in the process which hurts your performance in itself. A high end waterproof jacket will be far more breathable, while still keeping you dry.
Expensive cycling jerseys may be incredibly lightweight for summer riding, aerodynamic for use in time trials, or windproof for riding in poor weather. However, they may also be expensive simply for the sake of fashion. Where bikes themselves are all about performance, clothing is far more susceptible to trends, and you can get away with spending a bit less here. Cheaper kit will be heavier, not as breathable and won’t fit as nicely, but this will have far less of an effect on your ride than a bike which is constantly breaking.
Do I Need to Spend a Lot on a Helmet?
All of the helmets for sale will meet basic safety standards, so you don’t need to spend a lot on a helmet to keep you or a loved one safe. Money spent on an expensive cycling helmet can make it more aerodynamic (faster), lighter and more breathable. Cheaper helmets will feel like a block of polystyrene on your head, where you won’t notice you’re wearing a more expensive one. There are safety systems such as MIPS available on some models, which is suggested to improve safety for a small price increase.
Fit is more important than cost when it comes to safety. You shouldn’t be able to fit more than two fingers under the chin strap, and it shouldn’t be too tight, or too loose on your head.
Manufacturers Will Charge What People are Willing to Pay
This is true in many industries, but is especially true in cycling. Many people will walk into a bike shop, ask for the latest bike, and price won’t even be discussed. They might not even look at the total. Manufacturers will push the very limit of what current technology permits, because they know someone will buy it and justify the investment in developing the product. It will also win professional races, building their brand.
The good news is that these customers help keep manufacturers in business, which allows them to keep the price down on their entry level bikes. Top end bikes will rarely be discounted in a meaningful way, but many components and accessories will be discounted within a matter of months following their release.
There are many factors which make cycling expensive, but you don’t have to remortgage your house to get started. A budget of £1000 will get you up and running with a setup that lasts years, and prove to be more economical than going for the cheapest possible option.
Once you’ve completed your first event or two, you’ll be riding the high of achievement, yet also slightly downbeat. While you’re proud as punch of your performance, you can’t quite get over why you got dropped so quickly at the start, how fast the cyclists who lapped you were going, or quite how it’s possible for the announcer to be calling in the winner as you come into T2. You make a vow, it’s time to take your triathlon training to the next level.
But what does this mean? The intention is clear, you want to get faster, but how do you plan to achieve that? There’s a lot of information out there, but much of it is conflicting. What you may think makes you faster just exhausts you for no tangible improvement to your times.
What follows is a list of recommendations to help you improve how you train, and therefore your performance. We cover the very basics first, the low hanging fruit which will provide the greatest benefits, before we start digging in a little deeper.
The focus here is on improving the training process, rather than the best way to improve your performance. While there are all sorts of products, gadgets and tips to help you race 1% faster, consistent, considered training needs to be the foundation.
Follow a Structured Plan
This doesn’t have to be a complex paid for plan from a website such as TrainingPeaks, but having some structure to your training will really help you develop as an athlete. This could be as simple as knowing you will have a long ride and a long run on the weekend which gets progressively longer each weekend, with two swims in the week and other workouts dotted in as and when you can fit them in. Alternatively, it could be an incredibly specific plan, tailored for you as an individual with specific targets on each day.
The benefit of a structured plan is that it holds you to a kind of accountability, and if you follow the basic principles of periodisation, will help ensure you’re doing the right kind of training at the right time of year. There are plenty of free, basic training plans available online, the race organiser of your event may even have one on their website.
Consistency is king in triathlon, and following a plan ensures you stay consistent. This is a guaranteed way to take your triathlon training to the next level.
Take Rest Days and Recovery Weeks
Training breaks your body down, recovery makes it stronger. You may think that training for seven days a week proves your dedication and will propel you to greatness, but the chances are this will just result in non-functional overreaching and long term exhaustion. When we back off and allow our body to recover, we reap the benefits of our training, and are able to go hard at the next time of asking. One day of complete rest a week, and an easier recovery week every 3-4 weeks is recommended for the vast majority of athletes.
Get More Sleep
Most of us don’t get enough sleep. Between work, family, training and the desire for some “me” time in front of the TV, we can slip into the habit of getting less than six hours sleep per night. While rest days allow our body a break from training, adaptation to the training stimulus itself happens primarily during deep sleep. Ever wonder why you can do a hard session in the morning, feel fine for the next 12 hours, then upon waking the next day feel like the tin man? It’s only when we sleep that our body sends the signals to repair the muscles and generate more mitochondria. If we’re stingy with our sleep, our performance will suffer, and we increase the risk of burnout. There’s no point taking your triathlon training to the next level if you’re not receiving the benefits.
Eight hours may not be achievable for everyone due to work/family, but heading to bed at 10:30PM and waking at 6:30AM isn’t unreasonable for most people, and ticks the box of the magic eight hours.
Work on Your Weaknesses
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re not the world’s greatest swimmer. In fact the mere smell of neoprene may initiate a fight or flight response in you. I struggled with this for many years. I overcame this not by hiding from it, but by getting in the pool three times a week and slowly chipping away.
It’s human nature to focus on what we’re good at, however if we really want to succeed in triathlon, we need to focus on where we can make the most time. If I spent an eight week training block focused on running with weekly hill reps, track work and long runs, I might be able to save a minute over 5K. This is a huge amount of time, and I’d feel very satisfied. But I’m not a runner, I’m a triathlete. If I had spent the time swimming instead focused on my running, I could have saved 2-3 minutes over 750M, resulting in a much greater improvement to my overall performance.
Get Some Swim Coaching
Swimming is the most technical sport by a long way, and you can only improve so much by ploughing up and down on your own. Whether you want to hire a coach on a 1to1 capacity or join a swim squad where the coach provides intermittent feedback, having an experienced set of eyes look at your stroke will work wonders. Coaching for cycling and running is also very valuable if you feel you struggle, but swimming provides the most gains for the majority of athletes.
Introduce Strength and Conditioning
Strength and conditioning for triathletes? Sacrilege! Well, it may not be your idea of a good time, but an effective strength and conditioning plan will provide you with a number of benefits to take your triathlon training to the next level, including but not limited to:
Reduced chance of injury
Improved muscular force
Greater range of motion
Reduced rate of technique breakdown
Moving better in day to day life
This doesn’t have to mean taking out a gym membership and tackling the free weights if you don’t want, but taking the time to strengthen your core, improve your balance and stretch/roll your tight muscles, even if only for 10 minutes a day, will provide an invisible yet important benefit to your training.
Get a Bike fit
Hopefully when you bought your bike they helped you choose the right size bike, and may have raised/lowered the saddle for you to get it in the right ballpark. However there’s much, much more to being comfortable on a bike than this. From choosing the right saddle, right handlebars and right shoes to getting these setup millimetre perfect, a professional can really help you get dialled in. When we’re comfortable on our bike we can put out more power for longer, and run better off the bike. Visiting a fitter based in a shop comes with benefits as they have lots of different components on hand for you to try out. Expect to pay £200 for a comprehensive experience, before parts or labour installing them.
Take Your Bike Training Indoors
Chances are we took up triathlon because we love the outdoors. But if it’s February, raining, and we only have an hour available, by the time we’ve bundled up and head out the door, we’re not going to get much of a session in. Combined with the risk of ice and low light levels in winter, training indoors becomes a very efficient alternative. The benefit of riding hard without worrying about traffic is not to be underestimated, which combined with software such as Zwift can provide an engaging experience.
Riding inside help maintain consistency, and consistency breeds success. This combined with the ability to ride intervals is essential when taking your triathlon training to the next level.
Monitor Training Intensity
Swimming, riding and running to feel will get you a long way. However if you really want to get fitter, you need a gauge to tell you what’s easy and what’s hard. Whether you use heart rate, power or pace isn’t of huge importance at this stage in your triathlon journey, but measuring your data, understanding it and reviewing it is key to high level triathlon performance. I recommend picking up a book on training to help you understand the data and decide what to do with the results.
Get Race Specific With Your Training
You’re swimming in open water on the day? You’d better get to your local lake once a week. If you’re planning to ride 180KM on a triathlon bike, you need to be doing your long rides on it. If the on course nutrition is a brand you’re not familiar with, you’d do well to try training with it ahead of race day to see if it works for you. When training for a hilly race, you’d better get some climbing in your legs. Once you get within a few months of your event, you need to start thinking about your workouts and how they help prepare you for race day.
Work With a Coach
Triathlon is an incredibly complex sport where we have a lot to fit into our training schedule, and need to learn to pick our battles. Working with a coach who understands you, communicates well with you and knows how to get the best out of you is the best investment you can make in your triathlon training, and will help you race much faster than spending thousands on fancy wheels for your bike. There are hundreds of coaches out there, offering different levels of service for different budgets, so don’t assume you can’t afford it.
We offer very comprehensive training programmes, as well as consultations for athletes looking for someone to point them in the right direction. Take a look if you’re dedicated to taking your triathlon training to the next level.
As with everything in life, what once raised our pulse and dominated our every thought becomes slowly mundane. When we started out in triathlon we were all smitten with the bike tech, wetsuits, different events and all the toys we never knew we needed. We completed our first race, got faster quickly, raced progressively longer distances, until a day came when we no longer jumped out of bed to train every morning. How can we fall back in love with triathlon?
It could be that your performance hit a plateau, you picked up an injury, or you achieved everything you wanted to. For whatever reason you’ve lost your mojo and triathlon no longer gives you goosebumps. While you can never recapture the thrill of the first year or two in the sport, there are steps you can take to remember why you started, and hopefully get back to enjoying training. These tips are very generalised, and depend on why you’ve found yourself out of love with the sport, but should hopefully help you get back into the swing of things.
Find New Training Routes
To start with, exploring the roads in your local area by bike was a real buzz. Whether putting in a big training ride or simply saving money on petrol/public transport, it was a new way to see the world. Fast forward five years and you know every pothole, every corner and every gradient change within 10 miles of your front door. The list of places to explore is dwindling and with it the satisfaction of achieving something new.
To start with, look into some route planning software such as Komoot, Strava or Ride with GPS. These can help you both find new routes uploaded by others, or help you create a new route based on a destination such as a cafe or a piece of coastline. Be careful here though, as some software will try to take you down overgrown bike paths, through muddy forests or a really convoluted, slow route using cycle lanes, so it’s worth checking the route before you blindly set off.
Focus on a Single Sport
If you’ve always been a pure triathlete, you’ve probably missed out on a lot of events. It may be worth looking into cross country running, time trialling or long distance swimming. These events are usually much cheaper than entering a triathlon, and you can train for them alongside the other two disciplines. They may push you out of your comfort zone, but this is a good thing, as being outside your comfort zone was probably one of the things that appealed to you about triathlon in the first place! You may not even need any new equipment, just a sense of adventure.
Mix up Your Multisport
Triathlon is great, but so is duathlon, aquathlon, aquabike, swimrun, quadrathlon, off road triathlon and other variations that I’ve no doubt forgotten or have yet to be invented. If you are struggling with a running injury? Have a go at aquabike. Always way behind in the swim? Spend your off season racing duathlon to see how you perform there. Triathlon may still be your ultimate goal, but this is a good way to shake things up a bit. Falling in love with other multisports for the first time will probably help you fall in love with triathlon again.
Just Sign up for a Race
This is a high risk, high reward strategy. You need to put money on the table here, but there’s nothing quite like a race on the calendar to focus the mind and get you out the door, which can be the hardest part of some workouts. Make sure it’s something which is challenging enough to feel you have to train for it, but it’s also achievable within the time you have to train for it. Signing up for an Ironman with three months to go and minimal fitness probably isn’t going to end well.
Treat Yourself to Some New Kit
Let me make this clear, I am NOT suggesting you go out and drop four figures on a new bike to help motivate you. The chances are this motivation will be short lived, and very expensive if it doesn’t work out. Instead, think about buying yourself some new sunglasses, replacing your worn out bib shorts, or getting some new goggles you can actually see out of, things like that. This is unlikely to have a huge effect on its own, but should help make your return to training feel that bit more exciting, and different to last time.
Try a Structured Training Plan
Many clients I have coached have commented on how I have helped them fall back in love with triathlon by delivering flexible, detailed plans. The sense of specificity and the accountability of a coach who will ask questions if the training isn’t done and the knowledge that they’re working towards something special help motivate them. If you burned out in the past, failed to finish your big race or trained randomly with mixed results, structured training can help refocus the mind and get results. If you’re not looking for a coaching relationship, a training plan is an affordable way to bring structure to your training.
Step Away from Structured Training
If you have spent the last four years moving from coach to coach, or training plan to training plan, and you’re just feeling drained, taking some time away from a structured regime may be what you need. This could be for an entire season of self discovery or just for a few weeks, but it can really help you recharge mentally. Once you are back into the swing of training 5-6 days a week, you can if you wish look at returning to a more structured plan.
Join a Club
If you are used to training solo, which definitely has its advantages, it can be a lonely existence. While training in a group may be less effective at getting you race ready for a non drafting event than a solo ride on your race bike, it’s better than no ride, and can bring joy in its own way. Whether it’s the mid ride banter or getting to know other members at a cafe stop, it can be a reminder of why we started riding our bikes in the first place. After the isolation of Covid-19 lockdowns, this is a good way to re-engage with the human side of the sport.
Squad swim training sessions can be a good way for someone to have a look at your technique, while running sessions at a track add a competitive aspect to your intervals. Even if you only join in with the group workouts for the off season and early base period, it can help you build the momentum you need to get back on the triathlon wagon.
Sign up for an Event That Scares You
You’ve already achieved more than you thought possible, but what else could you achieve? Perhaps you could step up to a half or a full Ironman, or if you’ve already done that, perhaps an extreme triathlon, an off road triathlon, or just a tough Ironman course like Nice. If you’re genuinely unsure whether you’ll be able to complete a race or not, this can put the fear into people and encourage them to train with the same urgency as when they signed up for events earlier in their triathlon career, and saw the experience as a huge step into the unknown.
Aim to Qualify for a World Championship Event
This may not be in the reach of everyone within the next 12 months, but aiming to qualify to represent your country at a world championship event, or qualifying for the Ironman/70.3 championships as an individual is an admirable goal you can apply yourself to. While the qualification itself is never guaranteed and depends on who else turns up on the day, it’s a good way to really apply yourself and aim to perform to the best of your ability, rather than simply ‘good enough to get round’. To qualify you will normally need to be one of the top 3 in your age group to finish.
Choosing the right target race is also very important to maximise your chances of success. If you target a big early season race such as Ironman 70.3 Marbella you’ll struggle to make an impression, where if you find a less popular race in late summer your chances of success are much greater. Aquathlon and duathlon are also less competitive, and a good way to snag your first spot on the age group team.
Even if you don’t manage to achieve your goal of qualifying, you’ll probably be in the shape of your life and be able to place very well at some more local races as a result.
Attend Races as a Spectator/Support Crew
I encourage all athletes to attend at least one triathlon they’re not racing at. This may be a local race you’re not targeting, or supporting someone at a bigger race, but watching from the sidelines really helps give you some perspective. Not only can you learn from other athletes by watching what they do well (or not so well), chances are it will give you the itch to compete yourself. When I attended the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in South Africa in the early days of my coaching career, it really helped me fall back in love with triathlon. Not only was there the fact I got to travel out to South Africa, but the buzz of the event, watching athletes prepare, spectating the pro race, attending the expo, it inspired me so much I signed up for a 70.3 myself the next weekend.
Follow Professional Triathletes
Professional triathletes are some of the fittest athletes in the world. In this age of social media we can gain an unparalleled insight into their lives and their training regimes, as well as their lifestyle. Instagram is an especially well used platform by the pros, where you can find plenty of genuinely inspirational photos, videos and advice to help get you down the pool or out on a run. Watching professional athletes race is an acquired taste, especially over the Ironman distance, but is a fantastic way to see just what the pinnacle of the sport looks like, and what the human body can achieve. It may even help you identify the location of your next event!
Consume Triathlon Media
You can find triathlon themed documentaries, magazines, podcasts, books, videos and more to help teach you about the sport and engage with it more fully. This can be time consuming, and you’ll never finish them all, but it can give you ideas for new training sessions, new target races or simply entertain and inspire you. You need to take it all with a pinch of salt (everyone can’t be right), but broadening your horizons and finding new ways to enjoy the sport goes a long way to getting you out the door.
Sort out That Injury
You know the one, that niggle in your knee which stops you running fast, or that tightness in your hip which makes cycling progressively more uncomfortable after you hit the three hour mark. Not only do these injuries affect our ability to train the way we’d like to, they also present us with a big psychological roadblock. You may tell yourself “If I can’t run pain free, why bother with the cycling and swimming?” Suck it up and spend some money on a physio who can help you identify the cause of the injury, then do the exercises required to address the cause of the issue. Having a glass ceiling placed there by an injury which doesn’t allow you to train to the best of your potential causes the best of us to fall out of love with the sport. If you’re based in London, we recommend https://physioonthegreen.com
Are you struggling to fit training in because you feel so run down all the time? Are you working hard but not seeing results? There’s a good chance your issues stem from poor recovery. Most triathletes should aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night, with many pros getting closer to 9 with a nap in the afternoon. The best way to achieve this is to simply get to bed earlier, forgoing that last episode of The Next Generation or that glass of wine and heading straight to bed instead. Getting to bed by 10:30PM and up at 6AM to train should be achievable for most, and nets you a decent 7.5 hours of shut eye. Sleep is the only time the body can truly adapt to exercise, and no amount of caffeine will offset the damage done by consistently failing to get enough sleep.
Ensuring you refuel after workouts by eating sufficient amounts of carbohydrate and protein as well as allowing sufficient time between hard sessions are key to allowing your body and mind enough time to recover well. Without sufficient recovery you won’t really get any fitter, just dig yourself a hole which will take months to recover from.
I’m not suggesting a career change here, but coaching people, formally or informally, is a great way to reconnect with the sport. Whether you’re a qualified coach on poolside with a whistle or simply teaching a club mate how to fix a puncture, sharing your knowledge/expertise with newcomers not only helps them out, but gives you a sense of satisfaction that you’re helping the next generation of athletes.
Take a Break From the Sport
Have you been in a constant state of training for several years? Does the sight of your bike fill you with a low level feeling of dread? Do you check what today’s workout is while cowering behind the sofa? Is there a picture of your coach’s face on a dartboard somewhere in your house? The chances are the most productive thing you could do to help you fall back in love with triathlon, is take a break from triathlon. Distance makes the heart grow fonder as they say, and taking a step back from training may help you realise how important it is to you. I recommend athletes take at least one full week away from training at the end of a season, and normally a few more weeks away from proper structured training. Neglecting this can result in burnout and a loss of interest in the sport.
What if None of This Works?
I’ve listed some of the techniques which work for myself and those I’ve coached, but we’re all individuals at the end of the day. Ask yourself why you got into the sport in the first place, and how you can reignite that. If you started the sport for a sense of adventure, think about how you could make your training more dynamic. If you enjoyed using it to push your limits, find a race which will push you further than any event before. Perhaps you started the sport for its social reasons, but moved towards solo training over time, it might be worth reconnecting with other athletes, even if just for your easy workouts.
Sometimes though, no matter how hard you work at it, how much time you invest or money you throw at the problem, you won’t be able to get back in the groove of training. It may be that your priorities lie elsewhere now, you have too many responsibilities in more pressing areas of your life or recent events in your life have rearranged your priorities. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy exercising occasionally or that you can’t return to the sport properly at a later date, but sometimes it’s better to accept that you need to park your triathlon hobby for now and wait for the right time to restart. After all, not training every week for the rest of your life doesn’t make you a failure.
Falling back in love with triathlon is unlikely to be a life changing experience like when you first discovered the sport. It will be more like putting back on a favourite pair of slippers, or rediscovering one of your favourite hangouts as a child. It will motivate you to get outside and make the right choices for your mental/physical health, and help fortify your identity as a triathlete. Even professional athletes lose motivation sometimes, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
I hope this has helped you find your triathlon mojo again, if you have any tips that worked for you, leave them in the comments below to help others.
Covid-19 is still a problem in many countries, and will continue to be for many years to come. If you decide to travel outside of your local area for training or racing ensure you respect local restrictions at all times, regardless of your vaccination status, and research entry requirements for different countries if you plan to travel internationally. It is also worth researching the covid-19 refund policies different race organisers may or may not offer.
Often the butt of many jokes on Twitter and dismissed by many experienced athletes. I believe running power is a misunderstood technology which can provide an athlete with unparalleled insight into their training. Here I want to give a more balanced introduction to running power for those considering it.
The running power meter was inspired by the bicycle power meter, which collects data from a strain gauge in a pedal, crank arm or wheel hub to calculate how much force is being applied by the athlete. This allows them to pace and race better on hills, into headwinds, at altitude and in the heat. The running power meter is not a true power meter in the respect that it is based on an algorithm, using accelerometers rather than a strain gauge. Combined with the pace at which an individual is running to generate a number measured in watts, this gives the athlete an insight into how much energy they are expending to achieve forward momentum.
As a runner, I would put money on you having trained with pace, heart rate and RPE in the past. So to start with I’ll break the pros and cons of each method down to help you make the right decision for your training.
Rate of perceived exertion is how hard you feel you are running, whether you are going eyeballs out in a race (RPE of 10) of gently jogging along on an easy run (RPE of around 4). It’s an important skill to develop for runners of all abilities even if they also use technology, as data doesn’t have all the answers and can fail at any point.
If you are having a bad day, RPE will make sure you don’t over exert yourself and push you towards exhaustion or overtraining
It removes the risk of setting targets that are too high/low for an event
Newer runners will struggle to understand what their bodies are telling them, and may be based on what they perceive as “getting a good workout” rather than achieving the goals of the session
Will cause most runners to head out too fast when fresh, then fade as they didn’t pace themselves well enough
Difficult to accurately measure training load, fitness or fatigue
Requires many years of experience to dial in, and even then the best of us make mistakes
Heart Rate gives us an unparalleled insight to how the body is performing, if your heart rate is outside of normal parameters, your body is trying to tell you something. This helps us avoid overtraining by pushing too hard
Relatively inexpensive, most modern running watches will come with a heart rate monitor built in or come with a free chest strap
Tracking your heart rate over time provides a valuable insight into how well your body is adapting to exercise.
There is a large delay between your body’s exertion and and an increase in heart rate, so it is difficult to use it to pace races with lots of hills/surges as the feedback isn’t immediate, and your heart rate may continue to rise for up to 30 seconds after a tough section
Lots of factors outside of training can artificially inflate our heart rate. A lack of sleep, high levels of stress, temperature, altitude and mensural cycle to name but a few will all affect our heart rate and may result in us running faster/slower than we should
Prone to dropouts or false readings. Where 10BPM is a huge difference, battery or connection issues can leave you vulnerable
Sticking to heart rate based training can be incredibly frustrating for new athletes as they feel they need to walk to keep their heart rate in the correct zone
Pace is probably the most popular method of measuring running intensity, and is still the most important. Let’s assume I put a running power meter on the foot of every athlete starting a 5K run. The winner wouldn’t be the one who put out the highest number of watts or the best horizontal power. It would be the one who ran the fastest. However there are issues when using a GPS watch to measure pace
Cheap, comes with all fitness tracking devices, or you can use you phone
The winner of the race is the athlete who runs the fastest, so it’s the purest way of tracking intensity
GPS watches can lose signal, or struggle to find it in areas such as woodland or around high rise buildings
Large events place so much strain on GPS systems that they cannot keep up. This resultis in athlete’s watches giving false readings, and getting out of sync with the race organiser’s distance markers. This can result in widespread confusion and frustration
GPS watches are very sensitive to changes in direction. They expect you to continue running in a straight line. Making a U turn or sharp corner can leave the GPS struggling to catch up
It does not take gradient or headwind into account. If you are running up or down a hill, pace data is of very little use
Susceptible to headwinds
Finally, this brings us onto the running power meter. For my money, this goes a long way to correcting the flaws of other methods:
Takes hills and wind into account (new generation Stryd only)
Provides advanced running metrics such as stride length, ground contact time, running efficiency, form power and leg spring stiffness
Reliable data in all situations
Measures distance precisely using the accelerometer inside the power meter, giving you an exact pace rather than GPS estimate
Allows you to track improvements easily
Unparalleled treadmill accuracy
Can be confusing at first, requires time investment
Expensive, at £200 for a Stryd unit, on top of a compatible watch, it’s a definite investment in your running
The data can become all consuming, and athletes run the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture (running faster)
Any long term changes in athlete weight require re-calibration and redundancy of previous data
Can be tricky to use if you are aiming for a specific finish time
The biggest benefit for running power for me is consistency and the low margin for error. While the algorithm behind running power is up for scrutiny, as long as the data that is outputted is consistent that’s the most important thing. Whether an athlete is running on a treadmill, up an alpine pass, a road marathon or simply on a jog with friends, I know I have good data which represents their effort, using it to track improvements and calculate fatigue.
Hopefully that has given you an insight into the advantages of using running power over other methods. Next up I’m going to delve into a bit more of the science:
What is running power?
Running power is measured in the arbitrary measurement of a running watt. This is a combination of force (in newtons) and speed (metres per second), with higher numbers translating into faster running. When you hit a hill the power meter will recognise this and increase the power to represent the additional effort you are using to fight gravity. On the downhills it will recognise the gravitational assist and lower the power number to represent the reduced level of force you are having to generate yourself. This helps us pace our runs much more accurately.
Training with Running Power
Hopefully by now the concept sounds appealing at the very least. So how do you get started? First off you need a running power meter. I would recommend against any power meter which generates numbers based on speed derived from a GPS signal. This will normally involve an algorithm which looks at your cadence and your speed to generate an estimation of power. For my money though, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Running power in itself is an algorithm. So an algorithm that is required to generate another algorithm has a large margin of error. I use a Stryd footpod which is easily the most popular running power meter available currently. I will be writing the rest of this article on the assumption this is what you are using.
These numbers, like those from a cycling power meter are fairly meaningless without a benchmark. Is 250W a lot? What should you be hitting in your intervals? Is there a number you should be staying below during your event? When is your run too easy? To find the answer to these questions, we need to find a threshold, a point where an effort becomes unsustainable. The simplest way to use this is to use the Stryd auto CP (critical power) calculator. This harvests the data from all of your runs to give you an estimation of your ability. It’s important you feed it a variety of data points, from sprints to 5Ks and long runs. Don’t expect an accurate number after a few easy runs.
Zone training is nothing new as we have zones for pace and heart rate. What’s different here is the fact that thresholdis calculated by looking at thousands of data points rather than a single point. This means our threshold is much more accurate. It also updates automatically with time. Smash out a big hill session which included your best two minute power? Your threshold may improve by a couple of watts. Absolutely storm that cross country race? You may see a nice big boost to represent that. It’s important to note that these are based on a 90 day rolling average, so any data older than 90 days will disappear. This can result in sudden increases/decreases to your threshold power even if you’ve spent the day on the sofa.
The way our power threshold updates itself automatically reduces the need for formal testing every 6-8 weeks. For me this is arguably the biggest benefit of running power. Ensuring your threshold is always up to date.
I don’t like running on a treadmill, however, sometimes it’s a necessary evil. This can be due to the weather, or when we’re in a country where wearing sports clothing in public is not appropriate. One of the frustrating issues I encounter as a coach is accurately recording treadmill workouts. Treadmills vary significantly in accuracy, and the indoor running mode included on sports watches leaves a lot to be desired.
You may be lucky enough to have access to an indoor running facility such as a sprint track or even a full 400M. The lack of GPS signal can be a issue if we want detailed information from our session, but a running power meter provides us with all the information we need, without the GPS accuracy issues which plague even outdoor tracks.
Running with power is the perfect way to record your indoor runs as we get meaningful figures that can be directly compared to your outdoor runs. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re a serious runner who trains indoors regularly, a running power meter is an essential purchase.
My preferred way to train on the treadmill is using Zwift. This is software which takes you through a virtual world as you run where you can also join races and complete workouts. It’s free for runners and pairs with your power meter, so download it and give it a go.
Post Run Analysis
Once you get back from your run your watch will upload your data to an analysis platform of choice. Most software now supports running power, however the level of support varies considerably. If you are a basic user the Stryd Power Centre will offer enough information for you, with the bonus of being free. TrainingPeaks offers some basic functionality, but if you are a serious runner only looking to analyse data, and have little to no interest in purchasing a TrainingPlan then I recommend using WKO instead. It costs the same as a year of TrainingPeaks premium with far greater support for running power. There’s a steep learning curve however, so if you’re a new runner this is probably overkill.
Assuming your threshold is accurate, you will be able to see in detail how hard you ran. This data will be far more insightful than pace or heart rate, and pick up small, rapid changes much better. This could be jumping over a fallen tree or sprinting for a couple of strides to make it across the road before the lights turn green. While these aren’t necessarily actionable data points, the power meter ensures that these efforts are recorded and reflected in your training load calculations.
If you are so inclined, you can take a real deep dive into your data looking at the advanced metrics offered by WKO. Here you can see your leg spring stiffness, duty factor, percentage of power generated horizontally or vertically, and all manner of other metrics, which I’m not going to go into here.
Two metrics that are worth paying attention to however are running efficiency and horizontal power.
Running efficiency (RE) looks at how effective you are at turning watts into speed. As you may remember, higher speed means higher watts. But you can also create power simply by jumping up and down on the spot, so this metric looks at how efficient you are. Running efficiency is quite a finite metric, but when running at threshold, anything below 0.97 requires improvement, 1.0 is a good score, and 1.03 or above is likely the realm of elite runners. An improvement in RE over time at the same pace/power suggests that you are improving as a runner.
Percentage of power generated in a horizontal plane (or horizontal power) tells you how much power generated is transferred into forward momentum. As mentioned above, you can create power by jumping up and down on the spot, which would create 0% horizontal power, and 100% vertical power. You can’t create 100% horizontal power, but if you can get it up to around 75-80% this suggests you are moving fluidly.
These metrics will vary from run to run, and will be lower on easy or hilly runs so make sure you’re only comparing these with like for like runs.
The real danger here is getting lost in the numbers and over analysing every single data point. Or believing you aren’t capable of more than the software’s predictions. We should still be runners at heart, hitting the roads/trails for fun and the challenge of pushing our limits. Running power data is so in depth we can run the risk of becoming data analysts first instead of athletes.
Running Power for Triathlon
So, if you’re a triathlete, how does this fit into your training? How can you use it to run faster off the bike? The answer is in form power.
When we run off the bike we’re never going to run as well as we will at a standalone event. Depending on your event and ability you may be up to ten hours into the race at this point. Your legs will be tired and stiff from the repeated pedalling action on the bike. Your mobility may be impaired and your legs will be fatigued. This can mean you find yourself not running as quickly as you’d like. Add to this the accumulation of fatigue over the rest of the run and pace isn’t as useful.
Running power takes this into account. It recognises that you’re putting in the effort, even if you’re not travelling as quickly as you would normally. This is form power, it looks at the vertical and lateral movement from the foot compared to the horizontal power which we touched on above. While generating a high amount of form power is bad news for our running, what’s worse is not taking this into account and pushing harder because we feel we’re slacking off.
This becomes imperative to our pacing. We may know we can hold 5:00 for a marathon when fresh, but after a hard 180Km on the bike this may be 5:20, maybe even 5:30. If we stick to our guns (and pride) aiming for 5:00 per KM we could well be slowly running ourselves into the red. Aiming for a power target instead takes our loss of form into account, ensuring we focus on what our body is doing, as opposed to what we think it should be doing.
So, you may be wondering why more people don’t run with power at this point. I’ll break down a few most common issues people have with running power
Elite athletes don’t use it
It’s true, not many professional runners use Stryd. There are some notable exceptions such as Ben Kanute and Olympic Triathlon Champion Gwen Jorgennson. More often than not this is the choice of their coach rather than the athlete, who will adapt an “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. Truth be told, if I had an athlete who was winning races training with pace and/or heart rate, I probably wouldn’t suggest they switch to running power. Elite athletes are often training at a level where they can’t afford to try something new, especially going into an Olympic year, so they stick to what they know.
Some very successful coaches out there won’t even want their athletes to wear watches. They’ll stand next to the start/finish line of a track with their stopwatch, barking splits out to runners as they complete every lap. While this is an extreme example, many coaches who qualified in the 20th Century aren’t interested in opening their minds to new training methods. There is nothing inherently wrong with this if they’ve been coaching for 30 years and had great success with their current methods, but they may not be getting the most out of their athletes.
This also extends to athletes who may not understand what running power is, how to set it up, or how to use it to make themselves faster. To them it’s just a number that appears on their watch. I hope to demystify it in more detail with more articles in future.
Just not appealing
For some, training with heart rate and pace is enough, or even too much in some cases. If you live a very busy life and don’t have the time, headspace or inclination to look through your numbers after a run. For some, running is a time for them to switch off, lose themselves in nature, or blow off some steam. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s not a “mature technology”
It’s true that our understanding of running power is accelerating at a rapid pace. In fact it could be argued that the entire concept is in beta testing with rapid developments and new interpretations of the data on a regular basis. The concept is based on an algorithm and it’s hard to see how that could be changed currently, so it’s hard to see it becoming as reliable as cycling power any time soon. That being said, look at the way Team Sky and British Cycling advanced the knowledge of cycling power, first developed in the 80s, to emerge as a dominant force in 2012. There is a lot of potential in running power, and early adopters with the right guidance can capitalise on its benefits.
Early versions were poor
Running power meters first arrived on the scene back in 2015 with the Stryd chest strap. By the company’s own admission more recently, it left a lot to be desired. New generations have improved the accuracy and the stability of running power significantly.
The best thing of all though? Just because you record running power doesn’t mean you can’t also run with pace, heart rate or RPE. You can record all four at once, and choose whichever you want to dictate the intensity of your workout. Following a MAF plan? Increases in power can reassure you the training is working.
It may be you want a running power meter simply to record your pace more accurately, or you’re only interested in a single metric such as leg spring stiffness or horizontal power. As with everything in our sport, you only need to take it as seriously as you want. If you have the cash I recommend you give it a go though. It may be just what you need to take your running to the next level.
There are limited resources out there for running power, but I have a few recommendations:
Palladino Power Project
Steve Palladino is an accomplished running coach who has invested heavily in running power, and has created a Facebook group to act as an open forum to discuss running power. With up to date information and good discussions, I recommend you join: https://www.facebook.com/groups/PalladinoPowerProject
Run With Power by Jim Vance
Unfortunately this book is slightly out of date now and I’m hoping for a second edition. However it’s still the primary source of information for running power.
The Secret of Running by Hans van Dijk and Ron van Megen
This is a more up to date book which includes useful information on Running Power
As a company, Stryd have done a good job of creating a number of resources for runners. This includes articles on their website, their podcast and their Facebook group where runners can ask questions and discuss training with Stryd staff https://www.facebook.com/groups/strydcommunity
I hope this has opened your eyes to the potential benefits of running with power. If you have a running power meter and are struggling to understand your data, why not book in a coaching consultation with us here where we can talk you through the process and help get your training on track.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
V02 Max: 38
W/KG at FTP: 2.4
CTL on day of TT: 55
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.
As someone once said to me, “Training for a sprint is a hobby, training for an Ironman is a lifestyle”, something many of us can relate to. You likely started out at sprint and Olympic distance where a long ride was three hours and you rarely ran for longer than an hour. However when taking on an Ironman, this just won’t cut it, and your longer workouts tend to dominate the day once you include the preparation, execution, recovery, cleaning/washing and the obligatory nap afterwards.
All of this can take a strain on your relationships, which can leave your other half feeling neglected and overwhelmed with jobs such as looking after kids and food shopping which you can’t help with while you’re out putting in the miles. Training for an event like an Ironman will likely change the dynamic of your relationship, but there are some simple steps you can take to stop it being a change for the worse.
Choose your moment
If you’re moving house, expecting a new arrival, your workplace have announced redundancies or a family member is unwell, you have to ask yourself whether this is really the best time to engage in an expensive and time consuming challenge such as an Ironman. When you get closer to the race you may be out of the house for six hours at a time on your long ride, you may find yourself stressed if things aren’t going to plan and the physical exhaustion you’ll experience towards the end of the hard weeks can make the best of us come across as a bit short tempered and surly. The Ironman distance isn’t going anywhere, so don’t feel you have to cram it into an already stressful period in your life.
Make time for them
If you love someone the greatest gift you can give them is your presence, just to be around, even if it’s just sitting on the sofa watching a film together. Ironman training will reduce the time you can spend together, and your other half may take this personally if they believe you are growing tired or bored of their company. Even if you’re not able to spend as much time together as previously, making an effort to put time aside for them, and following up on this goes a long way. If you can’t spend an evening sat on the sofa browsing Netflix for five hours together, take them out to dinner for a couple of hours to make them feel special.
Involve them in the process
If your partner is less than keen on your Ironman habit the best way you can turn it around is to involve them so they feel some ownership over the process. This doesn’t mean forcing them to train with you, but it can be something as simple as asking them to hold you accountable to your training plan, asking them which event you should enter or combining your training/racing with a family holiday. If your partner is a stickler for organisation, sharing your precise schedule with them, or inputting the times you plan to train into a shared calendar can help ease any anxieties about you disappearing at short notice.
Keep the sex life going
If you’ve already spent six hours sweating away on the bike in the morning, the thought of spending more time getting sweaty between the sheets can be less than appealing, especially for male athletes as prolonged aerobic exercise decreases levels of testosterone. While every couple has their own preferences on how regularly fornication should occur, it’s important not to let this slide too much when you start training. Your intimate sessions may be shorter than normal and you may have to adapt if you’re feeling truly exhausted, but leaving your partner to their own devices for several weeks or even months because you deem your training to be more important is unlikely to go down well.
Your training may mean the world to you at this point in time, but the saying goes that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. If you duck out of seeing your in laws for the sake of a big swim session or refuse to spend time with your sick children because you’re afraid you’ll catch a bug that will stop you training this can add up over time. No single session in your training plan will make or break your race, but the anxiety and stress of relationship problems that stem from being inflexible and selfish will have a far greater effect on your performance as not only will you struggle to keep a clear mind, those around you may remove their support for your quest and that run down the finishing chute will feel very lonely.
Show them the Strava file from your run, show them the photo you and your friends took together at the top of the climb, maybe let them track you while you ride/run for safety purposes (most devices allow this), and just generally keep them up to date with what you’re doing. This will help ease any anxieties about where you’re spending your time and who you’re spending it with.
Pick up the slack on your rest day
Most athletes should be taking one day completely off a week. If you have a young family you should see this as an opportunity to pull your weight and pick up the slack; looking after your children to allow your partner some time to to socialise, relax or exercise themselves. Even if you don’t have children, this is a good opportunity to clean the bathroom, mow the lawn, do the dishes, fold the laundry, all jobs which you’ve probably let slide in favour of ploughing up and down the pool. This gives you the double header of a grateful spouse and a clean, organised environment to train and live in.
Look into home training solutions
In this day and age there are several solutions for training indoors; treadmills for running, smart trainers for cycling and endless pools for swimming. While some of these are more affordable than others, something affordable like a turbo trainer not only allows you to work in a very efficient way, it also allows you to be in the house waiting for that parcel, keeping an eye on the kids or allowing you to stay on standby if your other half is in bed feeling unwell. It’s often preferable to train outside, but sometimes this is unrealistic, and it’s better to take your ride/run indoors than to miss a session.
Go easy on the credit card
Yes, triathlon is an expensive sport, there’s no getting around that, but you really don’t need to spend £100 on titanium skewers, £700 on a wetsuit, £10,000 on a bike or £70 on a carbon fibre bottle cage. We all like toys, but there comes a point where you have to put the family budget first. It’s only a hobby at the end of the day and most of the equipment won’t actually make you that much faster. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you’re able to splash some cash, don’t be surprised if your other half wants a new set of golf clubs, a weekend skiing, or for you to finally get round to replacing the dated three piece suite.
If you spent more on your new bike than you said you would, fess up. If you’re going to be out for seven hours then don’t tell them you’ll be back for lunch. If you know you’ll be exhausted after your long run, don’t make plans you know you’ll probably have to cancel when you get home and collapse onto the sofa. Honesty is the cornerstone of any relationship and being flexible with the truth or hiding receipts from them is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.
Talk problems over
If you can tell there’s a sense of resentment growing at the time/money you’re investing, rather than ignoring it, ask them what you can do to make things work better. This also gives you a chance to explain why you’re disappearing for six hours every Sunday (You need to get your long rides in to boost your aerobic capacity as part of your base training, these rides will become less frequent in the build phase which starts next month). If your partner vocalises concerns about how much you’re spending, explain your rationale behind your decisions and talk them through any more expenses that are due before the big day. By explaining the rationale behind your decisions you can help them understand why you’re making the decisions you are, and that there’s no ulterior motives.
Successful relationships are all about give and take, and while training for an Ironman there’s a good chance you’ll be taking a lot more than you’re giving; making a few adjustments to time management and how you go about your training can help prevent any conflict.
I always take my client’s family life into account when setting training, arranging days off and hard workouts on days that suits them best. If you’re struggling to balance training and family life, head to our apply page to find out how we can help you successfully train for your event while keeping everyone on side.
One of the most intimidating choices facing a new triathlete is choosing a triathlon wetsuit. They’re expensive, confusing, and by the time you get it in the water to see whether it’s comfortable it’s too late to return it. The right wetsuit is paramount to your triathlon swim (assuming the race is wetsuit legal), so I want to make sure you make the right choice, giving you one less thing to worry about when you lineup on the start line.
I spent two years working in triathlon retail where I fitted hundreds of customers choose triathlon wetsuits, trying on different brands, different sizes, it can be a real trial to find the right wetsuit so I recommend doing this at a triathlon retailer if possible, to avoid sending wetsuits back and forth to online retailers. That being said, don’t treat the retailer as a fitting service then go and buy online, every retailer I know will price match the online competitors.
I generally recommend against borrowing a friend’s wetsuit for a race, you wouldn’t borrow a friend’s pair of running shoes for a marathon, so why would you borrow a wetsuit? You’ve even got the knowledge that your friend has probably urinated in their wetsuit multiple times to seal the deal. If you’re unsure whether you’ll do a triathlon again (I’m 99% sure you will) then I recommend looking at hiring a wetsuit. The four times Ironman World Champsion Chrissie Wellington borrowed a friend’s wetsuit for one of her early races. When she started swimming the suit was too big and began to flood with water, requiring her to be rescued by a safety vessel. If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone…
Some of you may be questioning why you need a wetsuit, there are a number of reasons you’ll find a wetsuit beneficial to your open water swimming:
This is the big one for myself and many other athletes, it’s simply impossible to drown in a wetsuit. Try swimming under water and you’ll see what I mean! If you get yourself into trouble, simply roll into your back to catch your breath and relax. From here you can flag down a safety vessel by waving your arm in the air.
Generally speaking triathletes are not cold water swimmers, this is compounded by the fact that we can be in the water for up to two hours which makes hypothermia a concern. By choosing the right wetsuit, the water actually helps keeps you warm by trapping a layer of cold water against the skin which then warms itself up to body temperature. The thickness of the wetsuit isn’t as important as it is for surfing wetsuits, sailing wetsuits or dry suits because of this, but a thicker wetsuit will keep you ever so slightly warmer, at the expense of flexibility (more on that later). If you really suffer in the cold like I do then consider investing in a wetsuit with heat reflective properties.
Neoprene creates less drag in the water than skin, so putting on a wetsuit improves the distance you travel with each stroke, as the water encounters less resistance. Wetsuit swimming is more hydrodynamic, but this can be offset by the increased resistance in shoulders.
Let’s be honest, the budget you have is a big factor when choosing a triathlon wetsuit. Confusion can stem from the price points though, why are some suits £120 and some suits closer to £700? Here’s what you get for your money:
1. Quality of materials
We’re not simply talking about neoprene here, some suits like the Orca OpenWater suit are a mixture of neoprene and fabric, which does not stretch as well as neoprene and will provide less flexibility. Once you move up to top end suits, most will use different grades of Yamamoto neoprene which range from 39 cell to 41 with cell counts providing more flexibility. The freedom you experience in a top end suit can’t be understated.
2. Thickness of Neoprene
This is somewhat counterintuitive, but the thinner wetsuits are more expensive. The thicker the neoprene the more buoyancy it provides, but the less flexible it is. As a result many top of the range suits will have thin neoprene (sometimes 0.75mm) in the shoulders and 5mm on the legs. This ensures that weaker swimmers get a better body position as it lifts the legs higher. Some suits are thin all over and designed for the total swimmer who does not want the extra buoyancy, such as the Orca Predator or the HUUB 4:4 suits.
It seems trivial, but the quality of lining in a wetsuit can make for a more comfortable swim with less chance of chafing, as well as being easier to remove.
4. Buoyancy Foam
No, I’m not joking, many wetsuit manufacturers have started incorporating foam into the legs of their wetsuits to lift an athlete’s legs up even higher in the water. This can be especially appealing for newer swimmers, or those who struggle to build an efficient leg kick in the water due to stiffness in their ankles or heavy, muscular legs.
5. Heat Retention
Some long distance specific suits such as the Zone 3 Victory D have coatings or panels designed to reflect lost body heat back to the wearer. This can be a real game changer for lightweight athletes such as myself who struggle in low temperatures, either due to body composition or lack of cold water acclimatisation.
6. Marginal Gains
From the breakaway zipper to catch panels and fabric areas on the forearm to help you feel the water better, top end suits will have all sorts of little technological developments in them that will make very little, if any difference to your swim. Triathlon wetsuits have turned into something of an arms race with each manufacturer pouring tens, if not hundreds of thousands into R&D to get the edge on competitors. My advice is not to get caught up in these details and focus instead on the suit that offers the best range of movement.
If you’re new to open water swimming I would actually advise against dropping too much on your first wetsuit, as you’ll no doubt end up putting your fingernail through it a few times, and you don’t know how well you’ll take to the sport. Most people will develop a lifelong love for it, but I’d hate for you to go over budget on a suit that you end up using less than a dozen times. By starting with something at a more sensible price point, when you upgrade further down the line it gives you one suit for training and one for racing.
Finding the Correct Fit
This is the most important bit to get right, the world’s most advanced wetsuit will not help you if it doesn’t fit, and you’ll be left either gasping for breath in a wetsuit that’s too small or slowly sinking in a wetsuit that is too large.
I cannot recommend going to a bricks and mortar triathlon retailer for a wetsuit strongly enough. Not only does it allow you to try numerous suits and brands on, it also allows for you to try different suits on back to back. You don’t want to have to be forced to buy a wetsuit that doesn’t fit because you don’t have time to return it before race day. I’m going to take you through how to put a wetsuit on properly as well as what to look for in a good fit.
To start with remove everything except your swimwear/trisuit and put on a pair of light gloves to avoid damaging the wetsuit. Some use the gloves before every swim, which I find slightly excessive, but it’s definitely worth doing when putting a suit on for the first time.
Unzip the wetsuit and step into it with the zip at the back. It will take a bit of wriggling to get your feet through, this is fine, if your leg goes in too easily it can be a sign that the suit is too big. If you’re having trouble here, try putting your foot in a plastic bag to reduce friction and avoid the possibility of your toenail going through the lovely box-fresh wetsuit.
Now your feet are sticking out of the bottom you need to lift the cuffs so they’re at the bottom of your calf muscle, rather than sitting on your ankle. The reason for this is we want as much flexibility in the shoulders as possible, we do this by moving all the material as far up the body as we reasonably can.
From here we pull the material from our lower body up towards our chest until everything is nice and tight downstairs, we don’t want any gaps between the suit and our skin or any rolls of neoprene
Next up place your arms through each of the sleeves- which will again be a bit of a struggle. Once your hands have made it through the sleeves it’s time to bring more material up from the chest towards the shoulders, without doing this it may be difficult to do the zip up. This follows the theme of moving any slack material up towards the shoulders. Below you can see a before and after of moving the slack from their legs, body and arms towards their shoulders.
Before moving material to shoulders, this swimmer will be heavily restricted in the water
After moving material towards shoulders, this swimmer’s arms hand freely by their side
By now you’ll be looking like an open water swimmer, whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate! Next up is the zip itself. I highly recommend getting someone else to zip you up. There’s less chance of the zip coming off in your hand this way, nobody wants to be stood at the swim start with their zipper on the floor and a cord in their hand.
Next up are a two more tests to ensure that the wetsuit fits, the first is to lift your arm straight above your head. Were you able to move it with very little resistance? Is the neoprene flush with your armpit in this position? If the answer is no, then you need to move more material towards the shoulders, this can be from the arms, chest or legs; grab some and move it towards your chest. You may be worried at this point about the cuffs moving further and further away from your hands/feet, this is not a problem at all and common in taller athletes. What’s far more important is that your arms have freedom of movement and your chest is not compressed.
Those with a stockier build may end up with excess material bunched around the legs and arms. This can be solved with a pair of scissors, cutting the cuff back by an inch or two. Many of you will gasp at horror at the thought of this, how could you take a pair of scissors to your brand new investment? Well, manufacturers have actually accommodated for this. Along the seam on the inside of the arm/leg cuffs of all wetsuits I’ve seen, you’ll find a piece of black tape running over the seam. You can cut the suit short up to this piece of tape without invalidating the warranty of the suit in most cases. It may be worth checking with the manufacturer before you do this just in case they have a different policy.
Assuming the arms are correct the next thing you want to check for is the small of the back, get somebody to see if they can grab a handful of neoprene, if they can the suit may be too large for you. Finally bend over at 90 degrees and get someone to check if an opening appears at the nape of your neck. If you have a large opening at the nape of your neck and a large space in the small of your back the chances are water will gush down from here and start filling your suit with large amounts of water, not ideal as it prevents the water inside the suit from warming up to body temperature.
As you will have noticed, this list is quite extensive, with lots of caveats and to make things even more difficult, you only truly know if a wetsuit fits you when you take it for its first swim. The chances are there will be a compromise in some aspect of the fit. I have a space in the small of my back due to the curvature of my spine despite wearing the smallest size available. Some people’s suits will have a neckline slightly higher than they’d like, others will find the ankles so tight it’s a fight to get it off every time. Do not feel that you have to tick every single box, as a wetsuit may not exist that works perfectly for you. As long as you have freedom of movement in your upper body, this is the single most important thing.
You can help yourself out here by picking the right brand for you as they all have a slightly different fit. Please note that the following is incredibly general, based purely on my opinion/experiences and about as unscientific as it gets, but it may help you save yourself going back and forth with different wetsuits. I’ll break it down brand by brand with the kind of swimmers the suits tend to suit. Listed in alphabetical order to avoid giving any brand preference.
BlueSeventy- These suit taller, slimmer swimmers as they have a higher neckline which tends to press into the Adam’s apple on shorter swimmers. The Helix is an incredibly popular suit.
Huub- A more generous fit than other suits, a popular choice with swimmers who come from a less athletic background. Large amounts of buoyancy in the legs of most of their models help those with sink legs. Many women find the fit of their suits better suited to the female figure than other manufacturers.
Orca- Popular with pool swimmers who tend to be blessed with broad shoulders, they also have the lowest neckline of any suit I’ve worn, I sold a lot of these suits to those who just couldn’t get on with other manufacturers.
Zone3- These suits are the closest I have ever found to an all round fit, if someone walked through the door with a general athletic figure I would normally steer them in the direction of the Zone 3 suits. The Aspire is probably the most popular triathlon wetsuit out there.
2XU- I don’t have a huge amount of experience with this brand, but you can’t do a shakedown of wetsuit manufacturers without including 2XU. These suits tend to fit taller, more athletic figures than other brands.
Zoot- I have not found their wetsuits to fit many people especially well, with the majority of people who tried the suits on encountering chafing under the arms. This was a couple of years ago now, so these issues may have since been addressed.
This is a list of the big players in the swimming wetsuit market, but that’s not to say they’re the only manufacturers. There are brands such as Sailfish, Roka and DHB, who whilst not quite as prevalent as the others in the UK, does not mean they are necessarily inferior suits. I personally have very little knowledge or experience of these suits so have decided not to cover them here as I don’t know enough about them, but they’re certainly worth checking out if you have the ability to try them on. Brands such as Gul, RipCurl and O’neil should be avoided however as they are surfing wetsuits and this means that not only will they come with a huge amount of restriction in the shoulders, they may well have panels of over 5mm which is against the regulations of every race series/governing body I have come across.
To conclude, here are some final bullet points:
It’s all about the fit, it’s better to have a cheaper, well fitting suit than a top end suit that chokes you or chafes.
Try to visit a triathlon retailer if you can. If you have to buy online it’s best to order a small selection of suits and return the ones that don’t fit.
Always take great care when trying on suits, if you put a hole through it while trying it on, the decision on which suit you’re buying will be made for you.
Go for the the snuggest fit you can that doesn’t restrict movement or breathing. Remember it will relax slightly in the water.
Always get someone else to zip you up, as I said earlier you don’t want the zipper to break off in your hand on race morning! Don’t be put off suits that require someone to help you zip up, as you should never be swimming in open water alone anyway.
Try on different brands, don’t just settle for the first one the salesperson brings out. I always used to allow 30 minutes for a wetsuit sale.
Don’t be temped by an ill fitting bargain, even if you’re only planning to use it once, you can always sell it onto someone else.
Choosing a triathlon wetsuit is a minefield but I hope this puts you in a well informed position to find the best wetsuit for you. If you are based in the home counties and anxious about your first open water swim, check out our coached sessions.
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.
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.
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.
A good triathlon coach is far more than someone who tells you what to do, it is someone who shares with your journey with you. While every coach is different, I’m going to take the time to talk through what I believe makes a good coach, and the relationships I foster with my athletes.
Starting with the most obvious one here, when I tell people I’m a triathlon coach their mind normally jumps to an image of me stood at the side of a pool with a stopwatch or cheering on runners as they sprint round a running track. This is a small but nonetheless important aspect of the coaching I provide, using my expert eye and knowledge of swim, bike and run to provide feedback on an athlete’s form, providing encouragement to help them push themselves hard.
If you are new to triathlon the chances are that you struggle with the swim, whether this is frustration at not being able to get your times where you want them to be or breaking out in a cold sweat at the very thought of open water swimming. This is where many people find the most value in 1to1 coaching, whether it is a coach stood on poolside providing feedback on your technique or someone to help squeeze you into your wetsuit and be there as you take your first step into the water, expert instruction from a coach can help you improve rapidly and ease anxieties.
Flexible Training Pans
There are hundreds of Training Plans available for free or for much less than the cost of a coach, but the value of working with a coach comes from working with someone who understands your lifestyle, strengths, weaknesses, available time, history of injury, equipment available and much more. After filling out a questionnaire and from ongoing conversations a coach will help create a training plan that suits you, and adjust it on the fly for you.
Yesterday one of my athletes contacted me with some bad news from his GP, that he had picked up an eye infection and was unable to swim for a week. Within 10 minutes I had updated his training plan to replace his swim sessions, talked to him about how we can prevent it happening in future and reassured him that the effect on his fitness would be minimal. If he was following a standard training plan he may replace the swims with inappropriate sessions or even worse push through the eye infection for fear of what might happen if he misses a session.
I always deliver training plans on a week by week basis, writing them late in the week so I can get a picture of how the preceding week of training has gone. If their pool was closed for refurbishment I know we have to prioritise swimming in the following week, if they have picked up a cold I know they need to take it easy, or if they have received guidance from a physiotherapist I need to implement this into the next week of training. A training plan should be organic and ever changing to take into account the fact that no-one has the perfect run up to an event, and that sometimes life gets in the way.
Someone to turn to
While very few triathlon coaches will hold any kind of qualification in psychology, I’ve spent countless hours on the phone to athletes in floods of tears or who are on the verge of giving up. Whether this is because they have crashed their bike days before an important event, are suffering from stress in their family/professional life or they are simply having a crisis of confidence, coaches can help pick you up, brush you down and set you back on track.
A lot of emotion flies around athletes training for triathlons, the ecstasy of finishing your event, the frustration of injury, the relief at qualifying for your target race, the self doubt that even the world’s greatest athletes suffer with, your training can become a rollercoaster of emotion. When things start to add up and become a bit too much, having a coach you feel comfortable venting to and who provides a shoulder to cry on helps you process these emotions and prevents you from allowing them to cloud your judgement when making important decisions.
Sometimes it’s unavoidable that your judgement becomes distorted, triathletes are extremely driven people who are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal. This determination is admirable and one of the qualities I look for in potential clients, but this can also create tunnel vision. Our family, our health and even our sense of reason can fall by the wayside as an athlete gets up at 4AM even though they’re suffering with the early stages of a chest infection to start pounding the pavement for fear of missing a session and losing fitness.
No doubt their friends and family would be alarmed at this and ask them to back off, but knowing athletes as I do, these concerns would likely be batted away with phrases along the lines of “You don’t understand” or “I’m not sure you realise how much this means to me”. This is the point where a coach can step forward as the voice of reason and tell the athlete what they may not want to hear, that we need to take some time off to allow the chest infection to clear before it gets worse.
The self coached athlete is so focused on his goals and so determined to hit them that sometimes they get it wrong, putting a hard interval session in on only 4 hours sleep then spending the rest of the month laid up losing fitness hand over first as his full blown chest infection prevents him from getting any sessions in. “What an idiot, what was I thinking?” the athlete asks himself with the beauty of hindsight. There are only so many of these mistakes you can afford in a season, and the coach’s ability to remove the majority of the emotion from these decisions can help you avoid these common pitfalls.
This extends beyond training with injury/illness, in the past I have given an athlete a day off on a Sunday simply so he can spend more time with his family or given them an unscheduled easy week because I can see things are starting to take their toll on them.
As athletes we don’t necessarily need to understand the finer points of critical power or be able to analyse the duty factor of a run; if you have a data savvy coach they can take care of all of this for you and feed back any adverse findings to you.
Data can be confusing for many who simply don’t have the time or inclination to learn about the definitions of every data point and analyse them after each workout, a coach helps you sort the wheat from the chaff, condensing a confusing and complicated set of numbers into a simple question along the lines of “I noticed your heart rate was a lot higher in the second half of this, can you think of any reason why this might be?”. Using questioning and referring to the data can help me differentiate between a data anomaly and something physiologically which may be a cause for concern and require us to change our approach.
While a good coach can help simplify your training to help you keep your eyes on what matters, I believe they should also spend time developing athletes by explaining to them the logic and reasoning behind their decisions. I can ask an athlete to head out and ride for 2 hours aiming for an IF of 0.7 but to them this may just be an arbitrary number and mean very little to them, If I explain to them that Intensity Factor is a measure of how intense the workout is calculated using their threshold, they can then understand that holding an IF of 0.7 means averaging 70% of FTP and they will hopefully find themselves motivated by this, understanding what is required to hit that number.
Different athletes will have different needs here, for some of them it will be showing them how to change a puncture, put on their wetsuit or lay out their transition area, where for others it’s a case of helping them analyse their own power files, choose the right aero helmet or talking through muscle physiology. I wouldn’t be the first coach to joke that a big part of our job is to make ourselves redundant.
Technical Support If your Garmin isn’t picking up your sensor, you can’t get your avatar to move on Zwift or you’re unsure how to sync your device to TrainingPeaks, a coach can talk you through the process in a more efficient way than via technical support. Many new clients ask me to come around and setup their turbo for them, something I’m happy to assist with as it makes the training process easier for both of us.
Of course we have our limits, we won’t turn up with a set of jewellery screwdrivers to repair your turbo trainer if it burns out completely, but we can be on the end of the phone to talk you through the common pitfalls to hopefully get you up and running sooner.
Advice on Products
Two years in triathlon retail has helped make this one of my stronger elements, but all coaches will have a basic knowledge of the correct products their athletes should be using. This varies from recommending the best indoor trainer, triathlon watch or aero helmet based on technical data and experiences, but also extends to recommending the best clothing for an athlete based on their build.
Perhaps most importantly, out knowledge of sports science helps us spot products with very little or poor evidence behind them, and we can advise against sinking your hard earned cash into products that will have very little, or negligible benefit to your performance. Everybody needs the right kit to perform well, but dropping £2000 on a pair of wheels that may save you 30 seconds over an Ironman bike split ahead of your first race probably isn’t the best use of your money.
With hundreds of triathlons across the globe, choosing the right race for you can be extremely difficult. There are numerous factors to take into account such as type of swim, course profile, surface of the run course, transport links, entry fees, the list goes on. While many athletes already come to me with a target event in mind, I will advise on appropriate warm up races, and perhaps suggest target events for them in future years.
As coaches we will have raced in the majority of local races, and visited the rest as a spectator. As a result we can provide feedback on tricky sections of the course, the best place to get a pre race meal the night before, the prime viewing spots for your family and other bits of information you won’t find in your race pack.
No matter how motivated you are, no matter what your splits look like or how well your prep is going, we all need a pick me up every now and then. Sometimes this is in the form of a supportive comment on TrainingPeaks, sometimes it’s being there on the sidelines cheering you along as you tear up the course, a coach can pick you up when things are getting tough and keep you going. This can also extend to data driven encouragement, if one of my athletes feels they are not making any progress I can open up WKO and pull up a chart that shows them how far they’ve come, how close we are to our goal or how they’ve improved their efficiency, even if their times or power figures haven’t changed as much as they’d like.
Different things motivate different athletes, and by getting to know you over many months/years a good coach knows what to say at the right moment to keep you going when the times get tough. Self talk is a very important part of sporting psychology, but we all need a pick me up from a figure we respect every now and then.
One of the biggest appeals of coaching for many people is the knowledge of having someone who is reviewing their data and who will pull them up on missed sessions, intervals off target and workouts that miss the objective of the session. The knowledge that someone is going to questions why you missed a workout is often the motivation that people need to head to the pool rather than sit on the sofa.
This is not to say that we will bathe you in a sea of fire, threatening to kick you off the squad if you miss a single session, but we will start asking questions if we see numerous sessions are being skipped, and work with you to figure out out how we can prevent this happening in future.
Most coaches do not hold any medical qualifications but if you are experiencing pain or tightness we are well placed to refer you to the best person to help. Triathlon coaches have a working knowledge of the most common sports injuries and can advise on the best way to manage these before you see a specialist, or whether you need to stop running immediately. Good communication is key here, with the athlete informing the coach of any abnormalities as soon as they appear. Most running injuries can be successfully managed we act quickly, and a coach’s expertise can ensure this happens quickly without aggravating the injury further.
Physiotherapists are normally best placed to advise you on treating the causes of running injuries, as this is what they spend the vast majority of their time correcting, but shoulder injuries in swimming are normally caused by poor technique, which as triathlon coaches we are well placed to correct.
I only take on clients who I believe I can foster some kind of friendship with. While I don’t expect them to invite me to the hospital to meet their newborn child, I want to ensure we have a good working relationship, allowing us to crack a few jokes between us and speak freely without worrying about formalities.
It makes discussing difficult subjects easier, if I know an athlete well I can better discuss with them prickly subjects such as whether their training has affected their periods, changes in mood, bowel functions and other subjects you probably don’t feel comfortable discussing with a relative stranger. Most importantly it makes the journey a more positive and enjoyable experience for both parties.
A recent survey by TrainingPeaks suggested that around 90% of athletes believe they would improve from working with a coach, and 90% of those working with a coach are satisfied with the service they receive, so if you are on the fence about hiring a coach, why not try it for a few months and see where it takes you?