Top Ten Triathlon Training Tips For Beginners

Taking the decision to train for a triathlon is the biggest step many will take in their sporting lives. Many will be complete novices to all three sports, captivated by the idea of stringing swimming, cycling and running together, it’s the challenge that draws us in. However it can be difficult to know where to start, there are thousands of articles, books, YouTube videos and podcasts to wade through to get a well rounded picture of how to train effectively for the sport.

To help, I wanted to condense all of the knowledge I have attained over the years into the top ten training tips for taking on your first triathlon. I could easily make a list of the top 100 training tips, so I’ll have left a few out, but these should help stop newcomers from making embarrassing mistakes, or putting themselves at the risk of injury.

  1. Slow down

You’re no doubt excited to start your triathlon journey, and I’m excited for you, but we need to dial things back to help keep training efficient. If you swim, bike and run as fast as you can every day, you’ll burn out and will never reach your full potential. Two, maybe three workouts each week should be really challenging, and the other days of the week should be spent recovering from these hard efforts, so you’re ready to go for the next one. These easy days should be undertaken at a pace where you could hold a conversation if needed. Your main concern will probably be not being fit enough at this point, but if you are so over trained that you’re exhausted and burnt out by the time you get to the start line, you’re not going to have a good race.

2. Progress your training

Progressing training throughout a year with TrainingPeaks

If you have signed up for a sprint triathlon (750M swim, 20KM cycle and 5KM run), you could be forgiven for slowly building yourself up to these distances then figuring it’s job done and you can focus on getting faster over those distances. Hitting the distances in training is a milestone you should be proud of, but you should keep extending your training beyond these distances, running 6K, 7K, 8K, or even further to keep pushing yourself. This will improve your aerobic fitness, making you more efficient over shorter distances. Plus you’ll have the confidence of knowing you can run over the distance, meaning race day should feel easier! You should also start running intervals such as one minute hard one minute easy repeated 20 times, and progress this by reducing the rest or increasing the duration of the hard running. Keep moving forward with your training on your hard days.

3. Train in the open water

Nervous swimmers at the start of The London Triathlon

If your race takes place in a lake, sea or river, you need to be training there, in the wetsuit you’re planning to wear on the day. Swimming in open water is totally different to swimming in a pool, and you need plenty of practice before the big day, otherwise you’ll find yourself panicking and disorientated. Most lakes will provide coaching, either 1 to 1 or as part of a group, to provide you a much smoother transition into the open water.

4. Learn to ride at a consistent effort

Riding at a steady pace is imperative for triathlon cycling

This is especially true for those training for a long or middle distance race, but it’s worth remembering for all distances. When we used to race bikes as kids we were primarily racing from lamppost to lamppost, pushing hard for short periods. While most of us are wise enough to realise this isn’t the most efficient way to train for a triathlon, it’s tempting to push hard for a few minutes, then recover, push hard for a bit, recover, then push really, really hard up a hill. This is especially prominent for riders who are big Strava users, and want to push hard where they know there’s a segment. Even if you are racing a sprint triathlon you’ll be spending a minimum of 30 minutes on the bike, so you need to learn to spread your effort evenly over this period, especially as you have a run at the end!

5. Mix up your swim training

Swimming can be intimidating and may feel like a fight for survival when all you want to do is make it out of the water. As such, you could be forgiven for getting in the pool, slowly working your way up to the required distance for your race, then repeating this every week. Not only is this pretty boring, it’s also ineffective as it won’t help you swim better. Including a warm up, main set and cool down is a good place to start, splitting your swim up into shorter segments, such as swimming 100M fast with 30 seconds rest between each interval. You should also include swimming drills to help you improve your technique, which will allow you to move faster for less effort.

6. Practice your race day nutrition

If you’re going to be competing for anything longer than 90 minutes, you will probably need to eat during your event. Carbohydrate is the body’s primary source of fuel for the body, and when you start to run out of this valuable resource your performance will fall off a cliff as your body asks for more energy. Practice this in training, find what foods work for you, and when you need to take them on. Grabbing an unknown product from a feed station when you start to feel weak could easily lead to cramps, stitches, or vomiting, none which are generally not conclusive to fast splits.

7. Research your event, and train accordingly

If you have a hilly race, train on the hills. If you have a sea swim, train in the sea. If your race is in a hot climate, try to replicate this during your training. It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many people forget this if they follow a generic training plan. You should also take the time to familiarise yourself with the course in detail, to avoid any embarrassing extra laps or getting lost in transition, as well as reading the rules to ensure you don’t fall foul of any penalties.

8. Buy a turbo trainer

Turbo training allows you to ride your bike anywhere, in a controlled environment (image copyright Wahoo)

Training for the bike, especially if you live in a city where a ride ride can easily turn into an all day endeavour can restrict you to one ride a week. By purchasing a turbo trainer you are able to ride from the comfort of your home on a variety of terrain (mountains, flats, rolling hills), without worrying about traffic, potholes or bad weather. It also allows you to train properly by following workouts, or take part in virtual races for a bit of fun.

9. Train in poor conditions

When the heavens open, the hardy will thrive

A turbo trainer is a fantastic tool for allowing you to ride all year round, but that doesn’t mean you should jump on it instead of a long weekend ride at the first sign of clouds. You can have the best fitness and the flashiest bike, but if you can’t race in the wet or the wind, you’ll find yourself losing time hand over fist when the weather turns. We’re not suggesting you take any risks, if your race is in August you probably don’t need to head out in sub zero temperatures on icy roads, but having the experience to adapt to different situations will pay dividends on the big day.

10. Practice your transitions

Transition can be dangerous, so it’s worth practicing at your own pace before your event

Don’t leave it till race day to practice transitioning from swim to bike, or bike to run. The first time you come out of the open water you may feel like you’re about to fall over and it’s not uncommon to see new triathletes sat on the floor next to their bike waiting for the world to stop spinning. Equally, coming off the bike onto the run will leave you with wooden legs that feel disconnected from the rest of your body. The more of these you practice in training, the smoother the process will be on race day.

I hope that has given you some insight into how to train successfully for a triathlon. There are thousands of moving parts to consider, but we take the stress out of training with our bespoke coaching programmes for athletes of all abilities. Learn more here

Should you use ERG mode?

Ergonomic 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 start going 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 drift off while listening to an audiobook, safe in the knowledge that their trainer won’t let them 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, but as your event is probably outside, this does not prepare you for the realities of racing a bike outdoors, or even indoors on a hilly course, so you may wish to turn ERG mode off and complete some training sessions on gently rolling courses on virtual software to teach you to change gear and manage your effort effectively.

If you complete workouts in a dedicated workout mode on Zwift or TrainerRoad you’ll find yourself riding in this proverbial vacuum anyway, but for longer, steady state workouts I encourage athletes to ride outside of workout mode on an undulating virtual course to help them prepare for their race. Especially in the build phase where our riding needs to emulate race day as much as possible.

The Spiral of Death

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

If your cadence drops significantly, or you have to stop pedalling to fix a dropped chain, reach for your towel you left just out of reach or similar then ERG mode will instigate what many call the spiral of death, where it increases resistance as you’re not putting out enough power, which if you’re in the middle of a tough interval, can feel like riding through wet cement when you try to pick the pace up again. We all drop our chain, have to answer the door or adjust the fan sometimes, which if you get caught in ERG mode’s spiral of death can result in your having to skip the interval or bail from the workout in extreme circumstances.

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 if you want to keep your data clean. 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, and 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, but ERG mode will pick up on this pretty instantly and change the resistance to match. 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, but if you’re really struggling in a workout, your ability to hold this cadence may be compromised, which 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. When ERG mode is disabled you can drop down to your smaller gears to get your cadence up, or change up gears to help you hit the big numbers at the right cadence for you.

Lazy Cadence

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

Perhaps the biggest issue I have with ERG mode is the way it encourages a slow, lazy cadence. Riders who start to fatigue will 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. If we use the example of an athlete racing at Olympic distance, they come out of the swim buzzing with adrenaline, they jump on their bike, and are then faced with a conundrum. They know they need to target the sweetspot intensity for their race, but without the resistance being created for them they’ll fumble around with gears, and likely using a higher cadence which they’re not familiar with, likely resulting in them being passed by athletes they’d have for breakfast in a virtual race.

Uneven wear on cassette

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

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

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

No need to concentrate

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

Helps you complete tough workouts

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

Conclusion

So, should you ride with ERG mode? As ever… it depends. For workouts which include lots of micro bursts or short sharp increases in intensity such as V02 or sprints, absolutely not. If it’s an easier workout where you’re more concerned about going too hard than too easy and want to watch Breaking Bad while you do so, then it’s a good choice. The difficulty comes with the middle ground, the tempo and sweetspot rides where riders may find comfort in the knowledge ERG mode will help them complete the workout. For this, I would look at how close to race day you are, if you’re six weeks out from your A race, then switch it off and learn how to control the intensity yourself. If you’re nine months away from your next big event and just doing some base training, then do whatever it takes to get you through the session.

Choosing A Road Bike

Buying a road bike is one of the most exciting purchases you’ll ever make. This guide is primarily aimed at those buying their first road bike, but I hope to be able to use my experience in bicycle retail to help all cyclists make more informed choices, and save themselves some cash along the way.

Chances are that until now you’ve been riding around on a mountain or hybrid bike, and are looking for some serious speed gains by upgrading to a road bike. However, it can seem like a complete maze. How much should I spend? What makes bikes more expensive? What’s a groupset? What’s the right size? Should I get a women’s bike? What can I upgrade? Having spent two years working on the shop floor at a highly reputable bike retailer, these are all questions I hope to answer in the course of this article. We’ll assume you’re a triathlete at this stage, but if you are simply looking to get fit or look to take place in road cycling events, then disregard the references to triathlon, the rest of the points will be just as relevant.

What is a road bike?

This may seem like a silly question to ask, but it’s worth making sure we’re on the same page before we start. A road bike is a lightweight bike designed exclusively for use on the road, traditionally with narrow tyres and dropped handlebars. It is not a:

Hybrid bike

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Normally identifiable by the flat rather than dropped handlebars, these have wider tyres with more tread in them to handle minor off road sections more easily such as bridleways and towpaths.

You don’t want one because: It is much heavier, and you’ll be slower due to the drag created by wider handlebars. A few manufacturers make high end hybrid bikes, but most are cheap with components that will break/wear quickly, and wheels which will buckle easily. The saddles also tend to be awful.

Cyclocross bike:

SuperX 1 - Force - PD

Very similar, and easily confused with a road bike by newbies, check for the wider, lumpier tyres and greater clearance around the tyres themselves as they get clogged with mud.

You don’t want one because: The geometry is different on a cyclocross bike, with the bottom bracket (where the cranks connect to the frame) being higher, and often further forwards than on a road bike. These are designed for an hour of hard riding, not a long day in the saddle.

Track bike/fixie:

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Used on velodromes, these often catch the eyes of customers because they are so cheap and light.

You don’t want one because: They have no brakes! Even if you were skilled enough to ride one on the road, they are banned in triathlons as they do not have functional brakes, you slow down instead by slowing your pedalling and pushing against the pedals. They also have no gears, making them very challenging to ride in traffic or on hills, for experienced riders only.

Gravel bike

Rondo-Ruut-CF-1-Gravel-Bike-2020-Adventure-Bikes-SharkSkin-White-2020-RB-096

The gravel bike is a recent addition to the bike world, it has a very similar geometry to a road bike but the wheels/tyres of an off road bike. They are setup for comfort, and are very popular in North America where there are large amounts of roads/tracks are gravel. 

You don’t want one because: They tend to be slightly heavier and not as responsive as proper road bikes, and the heavier tyres will have a notable effect on your speed. Additionally many only have one chainring which can make life harder for you on steep uphills or downhills. However, if you’re only going to be taking part in short triathlons and don’t plan on spending much time riding on the road, then you could certainly get away with it.

Triathlon/TT bike

cervelo-p3-ultegra-2017-triathlon-bike-grey-white-EV309506-7090-1

I know it has triathlon in the title, but if you don’t know what a triathlon bike is, you don’t need one. These are bikes designed for pure speed, where your elbows rest on specially designed pads and your arms rest on aluminium/carbon fibre bars, putting your body in a very aerodynamic position, narrowing your body and reducing the amount of drag.

You don’t want one because: You have no access to the brakes when in the aero position and it can feel very twitchy. They’re the Ferrari of the cycling world, so to use one with any confidence you need to have first pushed the limits of cheaper, more accessible machinery.

Now we know we need a road bike, we need to look at what kind of road bike we’re after. There are three different types of road bike, just to confuse matters even more!

Performance Bike

Trek-Emonda-SL6-2018-Red
Trek Emonda

Examples: Trek Emonda, Cervelle R series, Specialised Tarmac, Cannondale SuperSix

These are the lightest and most responsive road bikes out there, built to be as quick as possible uphill. On hilly or rolling courses these are the bikes pros will be using, where every gram matters to help them get to the top of the hill in first place. These tend to be fairly aggressive bikes, and you may struggle to get comfortable on one if you have limited mobility. For triathletes weight is rarely the primary concern however, so these aren’t bikes I generally tend to steer athletes in the direction of.

Endurance Bike

94420-61_ROUBAIX-SPORT-CARB-RKTRED-BLK_HERO
Specialized Roubaix

Examples: Cervelo C series, Cannondale Synapse, Specialized Roubaix, Trek Domane

These bikes are perfect for those getting into the sport later in life, or those who are more worried about all day comfort than outright speed. If you’re looking at at Ironman event, a road endurance bike is probably your best bet. Some models include various springs/suspension tricks to soften the ride, but at the expense of stiffness.

Road Aero

cervelo-s5-etap-2017-road-bike-black-red-EV309536-8530-1
Cervelo S5

Examples: Trek Madone, Specialized Venge, Cannondale SystemSix, Cervelo S Series 

This subcategory appeared relatively recently, a bike where the tubing and cabling is all designed to be as fast as possible in a straight line. Where performance and endurance bikes normally have rounded tubing, a road aero bike will be comprised of tubes shaped like aerofoils much like the wing of a plane, to allow for extra speed. That being said, you have to be going quite fast to gain any real benefit from this, close to 30KPH, to see the very small improvements. Some of the higher end models come with handlebars which are tapered for additional aero benefit, which can restrict your ability to fit aftermarket aero bars (to retrofit your bike into a cheap triathlon bike), so bear this in mind before you splash your cash.

Finally, we have the contentious matter of women’s bikes. Many women will look only at women’s bikes believing they are the only bikes that will fit them, but the bike industry is slowly turning its back on the idea of a women’s specific range. Your traditional women’s bike will have a slightly shorter top tube as women are perceived to have relatively shorter arms than men… and that’s about it, apart from a different paint job. Specialized (the brand) looked at the bike fit data from thousands of riders who came to them for fits over the years, realising that the majority of women would be perfectly comfortable on a unisex bike, and that those who struggled with the long reach could go for a slightly shorter stem without any major effect on the handling. I know far more women who ride unisex bikes than who ride women’s bikes, so don’t feel you’ll come across as being masculine or be uncomfortable on a unisex bike, the items you need to worry about gender specificity for are saddles and clothing. 

How much should I spend?

This question comes down to your individual budget, but I can provide you an outline of what you can expect for your money when looking at new, fully priced road bikes.

£500-£1000

specialized-allez-e5-2020-road-bike-red-EV366599-3000-1
Specialized Allez- £650

These are entry level road bikes. I bought a Specialized Allez for £500 as my first bike, and overtook hundreds of people on fully specced triathlon bikes over the years I had it. They’re not as light as others, and won’t have the fanciest groupset, but they’re still perfectly lethal in the right hands. You’ll probably find yourself looking to upgrade components on this kind of bike within a year or two from a mixture of performance concerns and wear, leaving you with a bike you’ve spent several times the cost of the bike upgrading, so bear this in mind.

£1000-£1500

bianchi-via-nirone-105-dama-bianca-2020-womens-road-bike-green-EV369922-6000-1
Bianchi Via Nirone 105- £1375 

This is about as much as anyone needs to spend on a road bike, you don’t get a whole lot more for your money beyond this price point. Compared to entry level bikes, you get lighter, more responsive groupsets, stronger wheels, a lighter, stiffer frame and often a few little extras depending on brand, such as an integrated hydration system or special forks that reduce vibration. 

£1500+

dogma-f12-uranus-429
Pinarello Dogma F12 ETAP- £12,000

These are high end road bikes, once you’re spending over £2000 the diminishing returns start ramping up considerably. You can get high end groupsets, nicer wheels and very lightweight frames, but you probably wouldn’t have noticed the differences unless the salesperson pointed them out. These bikes can also be tricky to maintain due to their design, so aren’t really suitable for the novice bike mechanic.

So, if we assume for a moment that the money isn’t a problem, how much should you spend on your first road bike? On the one hand you could accept that you’re probably going to crash/drop the bike a few times in the first year, you could opt for a cheaper bike to play with so that when you upgrade to a nicer bike in the future you’ll have got all the rookie mistakes out of the way. On the other hand, you may get frustrated with a cheaper bike, realise that to upgrade the groupset costs almost as much as a new bike, and figure you may as well pay the extra £200 at the bike shop for the next groupset up (I’ll explain groupsets soon, I promise). It really is up to you, but the next section on where you money actually goes should help.

Where does your money go?

It’s not just weight that you save when you upgrade, everything about a top end bike is different to a cheaper bike, let’s look at some examples:

Frame material

There are four main materials used to build bicycle frames, each with their own pros and cons. 

Steel

Colnago-Sigma-Sports-Exclusive-Master-X-Light-Adidas-Limited-Edition-Road-Bike
Colnago Master

“Steel is real” the purists claim, and they’re right. No other bike frame can be repaired with a blowtorch. The versatility of the material makes it very popular with custom frame builders, who can build you a frame bespoke to your measurements. The properties of the material also means it will provide a dampening effect, ironing out some smaller bumps in the road for you, but very few new bikes are made of high quality lightweight steel, and are instead made of heavy, thick tubes which give the material a bad name. One for the connoisseurs more than your garden variety cyclist, but not to be written off either.

Pros: Malleable, comfortable ride, cheap

Cons: Difficult to find a high quality option

Aluminium

Cannondale-CAAD13-105-Road-Bike-2020-Black-Pearl
CAAD-13

This is the most popular material for bikes under the £1000 mark, but is often given a bad name by those who believe carbon is the only way to go. I have always ridden aluminium road bikes, and while I can tell a difference when I throw my leg over my carbon TT frame, it’s far from the heavy and bone shaking riding experience some would have you believe. Aluminium is more durable than carbon fibre, which can be prone to fracturing if it’s hit in the wrong way at the wrong angle, making it the material of choice for many criterium racers where they’ll be looking for a cheaper, more durable frame to throw around corners elbow to elbow with other riders. Cannondale have made a great success of aluminium with their CAAD range, affordable, speedy bikes that look great and handle well. 

Pros: Light, responsive, durable

Cons: Slightly harsher ride

Carbon Fibre

Cervelo-R5-Dura-Ace-Di2-9170-Disc-Road-Bike-2019
Cervelo R5

“You need to get yourself a carbon bike, it’s what Tour de France riders use” is the advice given to many aspiring road cyclists. Carbon fibre sounds sexy, it’s somewhat mysterious, has connotations with F1 and will feel light as a feather compared to the chopper they used to ride around the local park in their childhood. Many road cyclists will only have ever ridden a carbon fibre bike so the material is accredited with all the benefits that come with upgrading to a road bike. The truth of the matter is that not all carbon fibre is made equal, and a cheap carbon fibre frame is less desirable than a nicely made aluminium frame. That being said, it is probably the ideal material to make bikes out of, providing stiffness while also dampening road vibrations. When you ride a carbon fibre bike it just feels different, it wants to be ridden fast. I made a comment earlier about carbon fibre being more fragile than aluminium, but that’s not to suggest these bikes are made out of sugar glass and should be handled with extreme care, these are durable and well made pieces of kit designed to take knocks from potholes and survive a minor crash. The issues come when you stress the material in an unusual way – bikes are designed to take a lot of punishment vertically. But, I once watched someone’s frame become unrideable after being blown over and landing on its side, hitting the ground horizontally in a way that cracked the material. Even if you are unlucky enough to find a fracture when inspecting your bike, repairing it isn’t as expensive as you may think.

Pros: Light, stiff, yet smooth ride

Cons: Expensive, not as durable as other materials

Titanium

Seven-Cycles-Sigma-Sports-Exclusive-Axiom-XX-Disc-Road-Bike
Seven Axxiom

Arguably the highest quality material out there, this is the one material I have zero experience of riding, as I’ve never met anyone with a titanium frame brave enough to let me ride it! The material is a lot like steel in that it can be used to make very custom frames, making it the material of choice for some boutique brands. The material is very difficult to work with due to the temperatures and environment it is malleable in, but I understand it gives a “unique” ride quality that’s very smooth. It won’t jump out of the blocks like a carbon frame will, but it’s no slouch either.

Pros: Smooth ride quality, millimetre perfect custom frames

Cons: Very expensive

Groupsets

A groupset refers to all parts of your drivetrain, this is typically the gear shifters, the front and rear mechs, chainrings, cranks, bottom bracket, cassette and brake callipers. The combination of these parts saves a huge amount of weight and also had an effect on how smoothly your bike shifts, how responsive the brakes are e.t.c. 

As I alluded to earlier, upgrading your groupset is very expensive, so it’s worth spending a bit more to get the one you want when purchasing the bike. But what’s a good groupset? Here are the most popular Shimano groupsets. I have nothing against SRAM or Campagnolo, but replacement parts can be tricky to find in a pinch and very few bikes are sold with these groupsets as standard.

Claris

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Found primarily on budget bikes such as those found in Halfords, it’s very basic and the components don’t last long, probably best avoided if you can afford to. It has eight gears which can make it difficult to find the right gear compared to more expensive groupsets.

Sora

shimano-sora-r3000-full-groupset-double-9-speed-309-p

This is a nine speed groupset aimed at newer cyclists, it can feel a bit clunky and it’s fairly heavy, but does the job reliably. 

Tiagra

Shimano-Tiagra-4700-Groupset-10-Speed-Groupsets-Black-DNU

Now we’re looking at a ten speed groupset, this gives us more flexibility and the gear changes are just that much nicer, to the point that you’d probably notice if you rode both groupsets blindfolded. Please don’t ride bikes blindfolded.

105

280861-00-d-565745

In my humble opinion this is all anyone really needs. It’s light, very responsive and now 11 speed as standard. I don’t buy bikes which have anything less than 105 on them, and I only run Ultegra on my triathlon bike as that was the only option when I bought it. Shimano 105 is an incredible groupset and does everything you could reasonably ask for from a mechanical setup, anything else will make minimal difference.

Ultegra

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The only real difference between Ultegra and 105 is the materials used, which means the Shimano Ultegra R8000 is 191g lighter than the Shimano 105 R7000. As the price difference for the new groupsets is the best part of £500, you have to ask yourself how much 200g really matters to you. It does have the option of smaller shifters which could be appealing for those with smaller hands, and it also comes in a Di2 (electronic) format which has some benefits I’ll go into shortly.

Dura-Ace

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This is the kingpin of the groupsets, the absolute top end, have it all version used by professional racers, using the latest technology available. It is significantly more expensive than Ultegra, and offers very little in the way of tangible benefit, providing more of a conversation point than any performance gains. Technology from Dura-Ace tends to trickle down over the years, and as such the current Sora will probably perform better than the Dura-Ace of the mid 90s. For a first road bike, this is probably overkill, if only for the cost of replacing parts that become worn/damaged.

One thing to watch out for is brands adorning their bike with an Ultegra rear mech and Chainset (where the branding is most visible) but using 105 shifters, cassette, front mech e.t.c. as this is a good way to lure customers in. This won’t make much of a difference to your riding, but there will be a sense of being deceived when you find out. A good question to ask is “Does it have full Ultegra?”.

Riding a Dura-Ace and Claris bike back to back you’ll notice a difference, and this is one of the primary reasons you’d want to spend more on a bike, however it’s important to note that no matter how lightweight or responsive a groupset is, it won’t ride up the hills for you. If someone tries to tell you that you’d be able to keep up on the hills if you bought Dura-Ace, they’ve probably got shares in Shimano. 

With regards to electronic shifting, this opens up a world of possibilities for us. Electronic shifting uses buttons rather than levers for changing gear, meaning less strength is required to change chainrings (you can laugh now, but after ten hours in the saddle these things matter), as well as requiring much less in the way of maintenance. Rather than having to index gears on a regular basis as the mech gets knocked or the cable stretches over time, you simply fit and forget, making sure to recharge the battery. SRAM Etap allows you to place shifters anywhere on the bike using its wireless system, and the new Dura-Ace allows you to shift all the way through your gears only using the right hand shifter, changing chainring for you automatically. The batteries and junction box can add some extra weight but this is offset somewhat by the loss of gear cables, and I’d go for electronic shifting over mechanical in nearly every scenario. However for your first road bike, it’s probably overkill.

Brakes

There are currently two braking standards available for road bikes, disc brakes and calliper brakes. I would recommend disc brakes if you are just starting cycling as this is the way the industry is moving and they perform much better in the wet. I won’t go into detail here as I’ve already covered the points in this article: Should you run disc brakes?  They do raise the price slightly, but I believe it’s a price worth paying.

Wheels

It’s not very common for manufacturers to throw in upgraded wheels on bikes, normally they’re pretty cheap and nasty, as wheels are so expensive they bump the price up massively. However once you get to the £2500+ mark bikes may come with some higher end wheels as standard, which help save weight, improve acceleration and last longer thanks to higher quality bearings and a stronger build quality. This isn’t the place to go into the nitty gritty of wheels, but if you can’t see why one bike is a lot more than another with similar specs, check the wheels, these are very expensive to upgrade further down the line.

Warranty

This is often overlooked in the second hand bike market, the peace of mind that comes with having a warranty. Generally components are covered for a few years, with most manufacturers offering a lifetime warranty on the frame. This means that not only can you ride around safe in the knowledge that financially you’ll be covered if you have an accident, but the bikes are manufactured to a standard where they feel confident that it will not fail on you. 

Marketing

Big brands such as Specialized will provide bikes for multiple teams in the World Tour, have a wide ranging print and web advertising strategy, hold events, run competitions and do everything they can to sell more bikes. The money for this has to come from somewhere, so you can be pretty certain that a portion of any Specialized bike you guy goes towards covering the cost of the Tarmac that Peter Sagan totalled in a group sprint.

Research and Development

As I alluded to when talking about Dura-Ace, when you buy a top of the range product, you’re paying for the R+D that went into the technology involved, not just the materials and manufacturing costs. This is where diminishing returns really kicks in, the more expensive the bike, the larger proportion of the cost went into research and development, for what will likely be a marginal benefit.

To conclude the section on pricing, I don’t believe there’s much point spending over £1500 on a road bike, especially your first. You are of course welcome to spend as much as you like, but don’t expect a £5000 bike to go five times as fast as a £1000 bike. 

Geometry and fit

Far more important than brand, price, wheelset, groupset or colour is whether you are comfortable on the bike. Let’s look at some basic concepts.

Drop

Drop
This one is fiddle to measure, the horizontal tape measure is providing a horizontal line from the saddle, the measurement of the drop is taken from the vertical tape measure, which is 5CM in this case.

This is the difference between the saddle height and height of the bars. The higher the drop the more of an aggressive, aerodynamic position you’ll find yourself in, but at the cost of comfort. Drop can be decreased by lowering the saddle or adding spacers to the headset, but most road bikes will have at least 2CM of drop, as otherwise you’ll be sitting bolt upright. There’s nothing wrong with this if you have back pain or are incredibly nervous, but you’ll get much more out of your cycling if you start to increase the drop. Drop can be increased by raising the saddle or removing spacers on the headset, but I recommend you try this slowly rather than jumping from 2CM right up to 10CM, anything in double digits is extremely aggressive and unlikely to be comfortable for longer rides. The drop is very flexible and should not usually determine which bike you buy, but it’s worth checking how many spacers are available at the front of the bike, as you may not be able to get the handlebars as high as you like on some of the more aggressive models out there. 

Reach

Reach
The “bike fitter’s reach” being measured from the tip of the saddle to the joint of the stem, in this case 50CM.

The reach quite simply represents how long the bike is, measured from the saddle to the stem by bike fitters, however bike manufacturers tend to measure from an imaginary line extending up from the bottom bracket across to the headset. As you would expect, more aggressive bikes have a longer reach, with more relaxed bikes having a shorter reach which doesn’t require as much flexibility to maintain. Reach can be increased or shortened by swapping out the stem, however this will also have effect on the handling, which may be unwanted. Having a longer stem may make it feel like you’re riding a boat, where a short stem can result in some unwanted oversteer. 

Stack Height

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Measured from the bottom bracket to the top tube, the stack height would be 49CM

The stack height is measured from the bottom bracket to the top tube, the tube which sits between your legs. A stack height which is too low will make it a very ungainly experience riding the bike while a stack height which is too high will make it incredibly difficult to get an effective, comfortable saddle height as well as making mounting/dismounting an extreme sport. You should expect to lean the bike slightly to the side to mount/dismount for an effective road riding position, only bringing it completely upright when you push off and mount the saddle. 

Wheelbase

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We’re a bit wonky here do to the limitations of a tape measure, but you get the idea!

This is simply the length of a bike, but has a noticeable effect on handling. A bike with a longer wheelbase will feel more stable but sloppier in the corners, while a bike with a short wheelbase will feel like it’s on rails in the corners, at the tradeoff of feeling twitchier. Endurance and TT bikes will normally have longer wheelbases for stability, with performance bikes being slightly shorter making them better suited to twisting switchbacks or a criterium circuit. The differences can be very small here, so don’t expect to be able to spot them with the naked eye.

Shape of saddle

Saddle Shape
A Specialized Toupe, an aggressive men’s saddle

Moving away from the bike itself slightly here, the type of saddle you’re running is second in importance only to the saddle height when it comes to your comfort on the bike. We all have soft tissue down there which doesn’t like to be squished, and we all have sit bones which are different widths and shapes, choosing the right saddle is essential for all day comfort on the bike, and I’m 95% sure that the saddle that comes with your bike will be wrong for you. Look for a saddle with a cutout in the middle (very few individuals suit saddles without) which offers a 30 day exchange programme, where you can try the saddle for 30 days and exchange it for another from the same manufacturer if it’s not working for you. Unfortunately a saddle can feel great when you try it at the shop, only to leave you in agony after two hours of riding. Please don’t be tempted by the big, cushioned saddles, they may be comfortable for nipping down the shops, but they will be uncomfortable on longer rides for the same reason you’ll start shifting around if sat in a big, soft chair for too long. More minimal saddles are more comfortable for long rides for the same reason you can spend all night perched on a bar stool with minimal discomfort. The best way to find the right saddle for you is to have a bike fit.

Saddle fore/aft

Saddle Fore:Aft
Notoriously difficult to measure and requiring a weighted pendulum, this measures how far left or right the saddle sits.

The fore/aft of the saddle represents how far the saddle is behind or in front of the bottom bracket. Getting this nailed in can be notoriously difficult, but those planning to use clip on aero bars will probably need to move their saddle slightly forwards to accommodate for the more forward position.

Saddle tilt

This is easily solved with an Allen key and a spirit level so isn’t a factor when looking at bikes, but it’s something that can ruin cycling for many if they hit a pothole and don’t realise their saddle has slipped forward slightly. Saddles should by and large be completely level, there are only a handful of situations where a couple of degrees of tilt back or forth may prove to be advantageous, but this is for a bike fitter to recommend on. If you’re suffering with saddle discomfort, whip out a spirit level and make sure it’s dead level. 

Handelbar width

Handlebar Width
Handlebar width is measured from the middle of each side of the handlebars rather than the edges, making these 40CM bars.

How wide your handlebars are will have an effect on both your comfort and the handling of the bike. As you can probably guess, narrower bars will result in a twitchier ride, but keeping your shoulders narrow also provide you with a slight aerodynamic benefit. Wider handlebars will provide you with more stability, but at the cost of some top end speed. What’s more important than aerodynamics or handling is comfort, as you want to avoid any back or shoulder pain from riding bars that are too narrow or wide. Rather than requiring a different bike, this is simply a case of swapping out handlebars, but it’s worth looking into this when you purchase your bike as you may be able to sweet talk the bike shop into swapping the handlebars out for you if it secures them a sale. 

Handlebar Depth

Depth
Handlebar depth isn’t normally measured accurately, rather referring to shallow or deep bars, but here is a visualisation for you

Riding on the drops can be intimidating for many, lowering your body position even further. The reason many riders find it difficult to ride the drops is that they don’t have the right handlebars, and can’t reach the gears or brakes. You may need help from your bike shop or bike fitter to get the right bars for you, but either way you’ll probably have to look at different manufacturers to find a shape that works for you. It may upset some riders to have a pair of Pro handlebars on their Specialized bike, but comfort and fit really are king, and these things are best sorted out when purchasing the bike and you can sell on the original bars as new.

Saddle Height

Saddle Height
The measurement for saddle height is taken at the bottom bracket, in this case 66CM

Nothing will affect your riding enjoyment as much as your saddle height. Too high and your hips will rock from side as you strive for each pedal stroke, feeling unsteady and out of control; while a saddle height which is too low will restrict your ability to put out power and risk knee injury. Even a couple of millimetres can make a difference over long distances. Forget any methods you dad may have taught you about having one foot on the floor, you want to set your saddle height so your knees are just short of locking out at the bottom of the pedal stroke. The best way to get your saddle height spot on is to, you guessed it, get a bike fit. If you live in the London area, we can provide you with a bike fit and advise on the best bike for you to buy, details here.

You can use these measurements to compare your current bike (if applicable) to the bike you’re looking at purchasing. If your current bike has a stack height of 45CM which you find a real struggle to throw your leg over, then you’ll be looking at a size where this is lower. Some websites will ask for your height and inseam measurement (from the floor up to your privates) recommending a size for you based on this, but the best way to find your right size is to throw your leg over the bike itself. Most shops don’t have every bike in every size ready for you to go and try, so if you know there’s a bike you’re dying to get your hands on, phone them up ahead of time, and they’ll build it up for you to come in and try, normally within a few days.

A chap I used to work with tried to pilot a “fit first, but second” movement which seems ludicrous at first, paying for a bike fit before you know which bike you’ll be buying, but where all the charts told me I’d be looking at a 51CM Cervelo P3, he got me on the jig and discovered that while I could fit on a 51, the saddle would be super high, I may have to swap the stem, and it would look pretty ungainly, ordering me a 54CM instead. If you’re looking at spending serious money on a bike, you should consider this as an option.

Apologies if I threw a bit too much bike jargon around there, but these are the biggest factors in bike fit and this is overlooked by many buying their first bike, resulting in discomfort, injury, and just not getting the most out of their cycling.

Choosing the right bike for you

By this point I hope you have a rough idea of what you’re looking to buy, you may decide that you’re going to go for the cheapest frame you can find, or you may be leaning towards an endurance bike, with a 105 groupset and a very relaxed geometry for around the £1500 mark. Alternatively you may be targeting city centre events looking for a top of the range road aero frame with electronic shifting on it where money isn’t a problem. Either way you’re now faced with the question of which bike to order. When visiting a specialist this choice can be overwhelming, should you go for the Cannondale? The Specialised? The Giant? A few factors to consider:

Brand

Some cyclists are adamant that all frames are made in the same factory in Taiwan, badged up with different logos and sold as individual bikes. While this is a gross over-exaggeration, the truth is that there isn’t nearly as much difference between brands as you may be lead to think, especially towards the cheaper end of their range. What does make a big difference though is the customer service and after sales support. I don’t want to land myself in hot water here, but while some brands are known for going out of their way to replace damaged components with minimal fuss, other brands are known for dragging customers through a soul destroying warranty process where they have to pay for their bike to be shipped to a factory in Europe, examined at some point in the next six weeks, where they will most likely declare it wasn’t their responsibility and charge you to courier you broken bike back to you.

Aesthetics

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Some bikes just speak to you

I would think no less of someone if they told me the reason they went for the Trek Domane rather than the Specialized Roubaix because they preferred the colour. You’re going to be spending a lot of money on your bike (even £500 isn’t chicken feed), you want your bike to sit in your hallway begging to be ridden. Your new steed needs to excite you and going for an ugly colour scheme because the salesperson told you it had slightly stiffer cranks than the bike that really spoke to you doesn’t set you up for several years of two wheeled bliss together. Sometimes the go faster stripes are the only thing that get you out the door on an overcast, damp morning.

Discount

If there are two very similar bikes you’re considering, one is full price and one is 20% off, it’s a bit of a no brainer. Your friends may swear by their Canyon, Trek or Binachi, but as we’ve already discussed, the manufacturer of the frame makes very little difference most of the time so as long as the specs are similar, save yourself a bit of cash and go for the discounted bike.

Availability

Towards the end of the bike retail year (late summer/autumn) you can get some fantastic deals on bikes, but popular sizes such as 54cm and 56cm may be difficult to get hold of. If you are in love with a bike but it’s got a six week lead time, where a very similar model is making eyes at you from across the showroom floor, you have to ask yourself how much you prefer the other bike, and how much riding you’d miss out on. If you have an event in six months, six weeks is a good chunk of training you’ll miss out on, especially as there’s always a chance they’ll come back and tell you they couldn’t get hold of it after all. These are all factors you have to take into account based on your individual situation.

Budgeting for extras

Many would be cyclists walk into their local bike shop with £1500 of savings and their eye on a new bike they’ve been courting through the window for a few months. They get measured up, pick out their colour, and head to the bike shop for the big day when they ride their dream bike home.

Shop owner: “Which pedals would you like?”
Customer: “What do you mean?”
SO: “The bike doesn’t come with pedals, which would you like?”
C: “What kind of £1500 bike doesn’t come with pedals?”
SO: “Pedals are very individual, so manufacturers don’t ship them with pedals, as most riders will swap them out to their preferred standard”
C: “How individual can pedals be?”
SO: “Well, you have SPD, SPD-SL, Look Keo, Time, Speedplay…”
C: “Yes, I get the picture, which is the cheapest?”
SO: “We have some Shimano SPD pedals for £30”
C: “That’ll do”
SO: “Great, the shoes are over here”
C: “Shoes?”
SO: “Yes, the shoes which clip into the pedals”
C: “Clip in?”
SO: Yes, the shoes clip into the pedals so you’re attached to the bike, improves acceleration and efficiency”
C: “Blimey, how much are the shoes?”
SO: “Well, they start at £70, shall we try some on?”

This is a familiar conversation for many, and the customer who has stringently saved up (and told their partner) they’d be spending £1500 on a road bike is now going home at least another £100 lighter. Once they’ve picked the shoes, they will be advised to look at other items he’ll have a difficult time without. Let’s look at a full list of items a new cyclist needs to budget for:

Essentials

Helmet: £50

Kask-Mojito-X-Road-Helmet-Helmets-Black-2019-CHE00053-210-L

This is an essential for any riding except the most leisurely cycle path rider in my opinion, all helmets are made to the same safety standard (with the exclusion of MIPS systems) so don’t need you have to spend a fortune to stay safe. More expensive helmets will be lighter and more ventilated, perhaps more aerodynamic, but you don’t need to spend more than £50 for a comfortable lid. Try a few on until you find one that sits securely.

Pedals: £30

Shimano-105-R7000-Carbon-Pedal-Internal-Black-PDR7000

Of all the different standards I recommend either Shimano SPD-SL or Look as they use the three bolt system found on the majority of cycle shoes. Shimano SPD is cheaper and less obstructive when walking around so may appeal to touring cyclists or off road riders, but it can be hard to find shoes which fit you as the range is a lot more restrictive. Spending more than £50 gets you carbon fibre pedals which get lighter and include better quality bearings, but there are better places to spend your money in all honesty so keep it cheap for now.

Shoes: £70

specialized-specialized-torch-3-0-road-shoes-black-2018-model_213136

Shoes generally start at the £70 mark and need to fit your foot. As in, they REALLY need to fit your foot. A lot of cycling shoes come up very narrow, some very long, so try on lots of brands. They should hug your foot very nicely with a little space in the toe box for the foot to swell in the heat. 

Tyres: £60

Continental-Grand-Prix-5000-Road-25c-Tyres-Pair-Tyres

The tyres on your new bike are awful. I can say that with relative confidence unless you are spending over £2000 on your bike. High performance tyres provide you with extra puncture protection, reduced rolling resistance and vastly improved grip. Nobody has ever sat at the side of the road grappling with a puncture repair kit in the freezing rain or found themselves in the back of an ambulance with a broken collarbone really smug that they saved £60 on a quality set of tyres. Find more information on the right tyres for you here

Saddle bag and basic tools: £40

lezyne_s_caddy_loaded_bk_12

You’ll want a saddle bag to sit behind your seat post with enough supplies to get you out of trouble. I recommend a multi tool (including chain tool), spare chain link, spare inner tube, tyre levers, puncture repair patches and mini pump or C02 canisters. Learn how to fix a puncture on YouTube and you’ll be able to head out feeling a lot more self sufficient. 

Lights: £40

BONT-ION100-FLARE-R-CITY-LIGHT-SET

I recommend running a pair of small flashing lights during the day, and if you’ll be cycling in the half light or darkness, a second more powerful pair you can switch on when visibility starts to drop. When I started cycling lights were big and heavy, chewing through a small fortune’s worth of batteries on the way home from my friend’s house, but today they’re light, compact and for the most part USB rechargeable. It’s a legal requirement in the UK to run lights after sunset so don’t get caught out, or even worse end up under the wheels of someone’s car. For now a small set of flashers will do you just fine.

Bottle cage and bottle £20

topeak_ninja_road_pouch_mounted_large

This doesn’t need to be fancy, just a way to transport water around as cycling is thirsty work. Some riders opt for a rucksack with a camelback which is better than nothing, but the rucksack will leave you sweating heavily and place extra stress on your shoulders. 

Cleaning products and lubricants £30

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A bicycle that is neglected will rust, seize up, make a racket when riding and eventually break. Keeping your bike clean and lubricated is incredibly important. You’ll need some bike cleaner, degreaser, sponges, brushes and a bottle of lubricant as a minimum.

Highly recommended

Cycling shorts and jersey £100

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Spending prolonged time on your bike without padded shorts will be… uncomfortable. Even with the shorts it takes time to build up a bit of resilience down there so these are not a purchase you will regret. A jersey is very useful for transporting essentials in the back pockets (food, pump, phone e.t.c.)

Rain cape: £50

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It will rain when you’re cycling, whether it’s forecast or not, and having a small packaway waterproof in your pocket will have you covered in these situations. 

Arm and leg warmers: £40

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Not 80s fashion accessories, these are arm and leg sleeves that keep you warm on chilly mornings or when the sun sets. Cheaper than buying a long sleeved jersey or tights, and more flexible as can be removed when the sun comes out. If you’re riding in properly cold weather you’ll want windproof clothing to keep the wind off your chest and tights for maximum warmth, but as not many people take up cycling in the dead of winter (chapeau if you are!), arm and leg warmers go a long way.

Eyewear £40

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You’ll want some glasses to keep the sun out of your eyes on bright days as well as to protect you from small stones and insects. There are options for persimmon lenses to brighten up an overcast day and clear lenses for night riding, or even photochromic lenses that adjust to conditions.

If we forego the recommended section, we’re looking at £340 for what are pretty essential purchases, and closer to £500 when we include the clothing we need to ride in comfort. This isn’t (normally) a salesperson trying to take you for a ride, they just want to make sure you can really enjoy the sport. If you’re really on a budget or looking to spread the cost you could pick up some flat pedals now and look into the shoes later, but a pair of flat pedals can be £20 in themselves, so if you have the money in your account it’s probably better to do it right first time. 

Where to buy the bike

One of the biggest factors to consider is where you buy your bike from. If you head somewhere where cycling isn’t the sole purpose of the business, the salesperson may have gone on a one day course on bike sales if you’re lucky, and their experience of riding bikes may extend to a visit to Center Parks where they pootled around a flat trail on mountain bikes. I really wouldn’t recommend going to one of these shops unless you take a friend who knows exactly what they’re looking for, as you could end up spending a lot of money on something completely unsuitable. 

Next on the pecking order is your cycling specific retailer, where they have a broader range of bikes and will go out of their way to order in the right bike in the right size for you, but might also be inclined to sell you a bike in the wrong size to get it off the shop floor. I bought my first bike from one of these, and the sizing process involved an argument between the manager and one of his staff over which size I should take. These outlets are well established enough to offer a reasonable level of advice, but too big to be flexible or guarantee a good level of service across their stores.

Finally you have your specialist retailers, the independent bike shops or very exclusive chains. I really recommend you shop here where possible for a number of reasons. Firstly, many are struggling to make ends meet and these shops provide an important role in our communities. If you need to pick something up quickly, the chances are your local bike shop is closer than the closest retail giant in an industrial estate but they can’t rely on sales of inner tubes and lubricants alone. They’re also great fountains of knowledge as the staff will tend to be experienced passionate cyclists who can help you make the right decisions, although this can come at a premium as they won’t always be as competitive as larger retail outlets having comparatively larger overheads for the volume they sell. However these are also the retailers most likely to swap the stem/handlebars for free, and fix the bike for free or a reduced rate if you take it back to them with an issue. That being said, some local bike shops are run by misogynistic middle aged men who look down on newcomers, or are so inflexible that they probably deserve to go out of business, but the quality local bike shop is an asset to both the sport and the community, deserving of our financial support. 

I’m writing this in what I hope is the second half of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is difficult to buy bikes from bricks and mortar establishments currently. Buying online isn’t the sin that some would have you believe it to be, however you run the risk of getting completely the wrong bike, in a colour that looks different in the flesh, which you’re not the right size for at all. If you’re planning to buy a bike online and use a local bike shop as a showroom, please don’t waste the salesperson’s time by playing a game of  99 questions.

I know that’s quite a lot to take in, but I hope it’s given you an insight into just how much thought needs to go into buying the right bike. To conclude, here are the biggest takeaway points:

  • A good quality aluminium or steel bike is better than a cheap carbon frame
  • Spending more money won’t make you quantifiably faster
  • Budget for accessories
  • Get a bike fit
  • Buy the bike which speaks to you
  • Bikes have very different geometries 
  • Make sure you’re buying a road bike
  • Shop at a store where staff can help you make informed decisions
  • Remember to buy pedals
  • Upgrade your tyres

I hope this has helped inform you of the common pitfalls that come with buying a bike. Once you have your bike and your event booked, why not check out our training plans?

What is a vanity FTP?

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

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

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

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

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

Athlete A

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Athlete B

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FTP Doesn’t Win Races

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

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

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

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

Athlete A:

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

Athlete B:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Don’t Let Ironman Ruin Your Marriage

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.

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Patrick Lange proves that Ironman can strengthen relationships as he pops the question after smashing the course record at the Ironman World Championships in 2018

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. 

Keep perspective

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.

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Matt Russel crosses the finish line to find his family. Image copyright Ironman

Be transparent

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. 

Be honest

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.

From First Middle Distance to Sub 13 Iron Distance in 2 Months

When I first started working with Naval in the early summer he had two middle distance events booked, the Owler which he wanted to use as a sighter, and Challenge Almere which he wanted to use for a big performance. Luckily I had already known him for a couple of years by this point through the club, so knew a lot about him and his training from day one.

We changed his training quite significantly, not so much the number of sessions but the length of them and the content. He is an incredibly strong cyclist and is one of the few people who can hold my heels during a hill session, but this doesn’t translate into a strong half marathon after you’ve already been racing for around three and a half hours by the time you put your running shoes on. He was told to either sit in the wheels on group rides or keep his heart rate below zone 4 when on the front. By spending less energy showboating on the hills and sprinting allowed him to both maximise the aerobic benefit of these sessions, run well off the bike when he got home and keep training well in the first half of the week rather than spend the time recovering from a very hard ride. We also changed the majority of his run training from intervals to longer runs, as with a month to go he hadn’t run much over 12K before.

We only had a few weeks to prepare for the Owler, so when he lined up we hadn’t got close enough to 21KM in training as I would have liked, but he pulled it off and managed an impressive 1:50 run split off the back of a 2:51 ride. With some speed work and tempo runs we could get that run split down to 1:40, and hit the bike harder, taking 15-20 minutes off in the two months we had wasn’t out of the question.

Then a couple of weeks later I got a call from Naval. Instead of beating his PB in Almere, he wanted to step up to the full distance.

He explained that he was unsure if he’d have as much time to train next year due to other commitments, and worried that this may be his best chance of completing the distance, a long term ambition of his. While I always do my best to help people achieve the goals they come to me with rather than tell them what they can and can’t do, this was a big ask.

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I decided to look at the facts, for a start the swim would be manageable. He’d completed Ride London in well under 6 hours, and had ridden the hilly 200KM Ditchling Devil audax, so 180KM of riding on flat roads were unlikely to cause him a problem. Using the conservative estimate of 90 minutes for the swim and 7 hours for the bike, this gave us around 7 hours to run/walk 40KM. I’ve learned to never take completing the run course for granted as cramps, digestive issues or sheer exhaustion can leave someone weaving across the road, but I thought he could do it.

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Naval really wanted to step up the running distances which is understandable, but as he has a history of running injury, increasing the distance dramatically would most likely result in injury and crush his dreams, although we did need to increase the run volume to give him his best chance of success. I decided the best way to do this was to include two middle distance runs during the week to increase his weekly volume rather than jump straight up to 30KM long runs. The marathon was going to be brutal, we both acknowledged that, but there wasn’t a huge amount we could do otherwise. It seemed a risk worth taking

He pulled it out of the bag, finishing in a highly impressive 12 hours and 53 minutes. Coaching isn’t a silver bullet, but this is a perfect example of how good communication and thinking outside of the box can create results.

Choosing a Triathlon Wetsuit

As we move into late spring the open water season is starting. Water temperatures are now in the double digits and the lakes/lidos are starting to open to the public. It is also the time of year when novice triathletes will look to purchase their first wetsuit, which can be a very daunting and confusing choice.

I spent two years working in triathlon retail where I fitted hundreds of customers into 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 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:

Buoyancy

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, flagging down a safety vessel if required.

Warmth

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. A well-fitting swimming wetsuit 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.

Hydrodynamics

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. The very best open water swimmers will swim faster in a wetsuit purely for this reason.

Price Point

Let’s be honest, the budget you have for your wetsuit is going to play a huge factor in your decision. 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 to ensure that weaker swimmers get a better body position. 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. When we talk about less buoyancy in these suits, you won’t find yourself in any danger of sinking, but your legs won’t float on the surface in the same way.

3. Lining

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.

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Cuffs too close to ankle

Good Ankles
Correct suit height

 

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

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Grab handfuls of material and move it towards your shoulders

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. Again, 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.

 

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, as 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.

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Here the wetsuit is so taught it is restricting the swimmer from lifting their arm above their head. It’s difficult to make out from the photo, but there is 4-5 inches between the suit and armpit

Good Armpit
Here the material has been worked from the wrist towards the shoulders, allowing for a snug fit with the neoprene flush to the armpit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 and, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Other brands
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.

Finally; the swim causes so much anxiety in athletes that you don’t need an ill fitting suit to add to the stress on the day. If you’re anxious about getting started in open water why not join one of our coached sessions at Shepperton Open Water? Secure your place here: Open Water Swimming

 

Aerobic and Anaerobic- What You Need to Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

How we use WKO4 to Improve Cycling Performance

WKO4 is a complex piece of software that allows me as a coach to analyse my athlete’s data in unprecedented detail. It uses a powerful mathematical model to calculate metrics that allow for much more accurate training, by giving an accurate estimation of your FTP as it changes over time as well as providing us with individualised training zones along with new ways to review data and track progress.

It’s easy for me to get caught up in the science and mathematics, so I’ll try to keep it simple to give you an idea of the benefits of training with us and how it can help develop you as an athlete.

Power Duration Curve

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This is the heart of WKO4, it takes data from millions of points over the last 90 days to give an estimation of how much power an athlete is capable of producing at different timeframes. Taking this example of my own sorry excuse for training in the previous 90 days, you can see two lines, the yellow line and the red curve.

The yellow line is my Mean Maximal Power, the maximum power I can hold for any duration, you can see some definite drops at points where you can see I haven’t given it any good data beyond that point until it meets the next drop, this is very common towards the end of the power duration curve.

The red line is the model that WKO4 has created, estimating what it believes I can achieve by filling in some of the blanks and looking at my physiology. You can see it doesn’t have much raw data (yellow) for between 15 minutes and 1 hour, but it looks at all the data I have given it and gives me the benefit of the doubt, if I were to do some hard riding in this time period it would give me a more accurate number, whether this lowers or raises my FTP is not important to me, the most important thing is ensuring my zones are correct so I’m training in the right zones and stimulating the right energy systems.

You can also see several white lines moving from left to right, these help give me a good idea of my strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t even consider me to have a ‘recreational’ level sprint and I haven’t done any big power work in the last 90 days, however it classifies my 10-30 minute power as “excellent”. This does not compare my wattage to other riders, but rather looks at my W/KG, how many watts I can output for each kilogram of bodyweight. The curve clearly shows that my sprint power is a weakness, but I’m training for an Ironman, it’s not a limiter to my performance and my focus is elsewhere as a result.

mFTP

This stands for modelled FTP, and gives you one of, if not the most accurate idea of what your FTP is. Many people believe FTP is the highest power you can hold for an hour, which has resulted in several slightly masochistic riders going out and riding as hard as they can for an hour to get their FTP number. The alternative to this is the vastly more popular 20 minute test which I have previously used, but moved away from in favour of using WKO4’s mFTP, there are two reasons for this.

Firstly the highest power you can hold for an hour is an over simplification which has taken root in road cycling at every level, however this is not an absolute value, and has only ever been described as an estimate, the definition of mFTP that exercise physiologists use is *deep breath*

“The maximum power you can hold in a quasi steady state without fatiguing”

This can range from approximately 30 minutes to 70 minutes and is expressed in WKO4 as TTE, or time to exhaustion. The eagle eyed among you may notice that my TTE is currently very low, which informs me this is a weakness and something I need to address.

The 20 minute test is also flawed in that it takes 95% of your 20 minute power and calls this your new FTP, however for many this isn’t the case. For 70% of athletes this may be accurate, however for 15% they may need to take 97% of that figure, and the other 15% may need 93%. mFTP removes the guesswork from FTP calculations as rather than looking at a singe data point (your highest 20 minute power value) it looks at millions of data points from all of your riding to calculate your mFTP.

The lack of formal testing will come as a welcome relief to many, including myself. I can’t think of any athlete who has ever come to me and relished in these 20 minute efforts, they tend to dread these tests and they result in long recovery periods as the athlete is totally cooked. Last year I worked with a very strong athlete who I helped qualify for the World Championships that I remember building himself up for a 20 minute FTP test. He had the goal of hitting a certain number, worked out what power he’d need to hold for the 20 minutes to achieve this figure and guess what? He hit that number. The figure was a good result, but could he have gone harder? Or was it only the target he had set himself that got him through the test to hit that number? There’s also the issue with pacing, it takes a number of tests to give you a true understanding of how hard you can push yourself in those 20 minutes.

That’s not to say that we don’t do any testing, like any mathematical model, the more data you feed it the better the data it outputs, for this reason we ask athletes to perform a series of tests to give us a baseline at the start of the year to give us accurate numbers. I am writing this in early January in the middle of testing myself, once the initial tests have been completed (5 minute, 20 minute, 1 minute and 15 seconds) we then look to maintain these values over the year, using charts such as this one to identify where we need to give the curve more information:

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The software is asking the athlete for more information at the 2 second, 52 second and 1:29 point to give it more information. Timing a 2 second test seems almost impossible, and a 1:30 test seems unnecessarily stressful to me, so in this situation I would give the athlete a 52 second test and leave it there, as the 1:30 and 2 second data points will populate themselves over time.

iLevels

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This is short for individualised levels, and represents the training zones recommended by the WKO4 model for different intensities, taking into account each athlete’s individual characteristics.

If we take two athletes with an identical FTP, but one of them is focusing on sprint triathlons and the other on Ironman, they will have very different power duration curves. WKO4 takes this into account and ensures that each athlete is working at the correct intensity to provoke the desired training effect, as opposed to the one size fits all approach that is used by most others, including the primary TrainingPeaks website. To combat this I spend time every week updating athlete’s iLevels on TrainingPeaks to ensure they match those on WKO4.

Many of you will be familiar with terms such as “tempo” “sweetspot” and “threshold” but the exact meaning of these may be unfamiliar to you, for many they are simply terms used to express how hard they feel they are pushing. The traditional 5 power zones are active recovery, endurance, tempo, threshold and sprint, but with WKO4 these are expanded to include:

Zone 1: Active Recovery
0-56% of FTP

This is the zone you will find yourself in when resting between intervals or if things have gone wrong in a race (happens to the best of us!). In this zone you’re riding, but you’re not really generating much of a training effect, so we aim for at least zone 2 in our longer workouts.

Zone 2: Endurance
56-76% of FTP

As a triathlete this is where you will spend the vast majority of your time. It’s not exciting, it’s not sexy and it can be dull, but it’s necessary for a strong aerobic foundation that allows us to race harder for longer on the big day itself. This should feel manageable and you should be able to sustain it for at least 2.5 hours. You can never have enough base fitness, but once you are able to ride for several hours with minimal changes in your heart rate it’s time to develop our training. As you can see this is quite a large range of your FTP, meaning it is easier to sit in this zone than other, which is a good thing as you’ll be spending a lot of time here!

Zone 3: Tempo
76-88% of FTP

This zone is where things start to get serious, some athletes will be able to stay here for an hour or two, others for up to eight hours, it depends on how well trained you are and more importantly the type of training you have been doing. This is the zone in which very well trained athletes will spend the majority of their Ironman 70.3 bike leg. However just because you can ride 90KM at tempo doesn’t mean it should be your goal for the race, as you still need to be able to run off the bike.

Zone 4: Sweetspot
88-95% of FTP

This is a great zone to sit in if you’re looking to boost your FTP, as for many road cyclists a high FTP is a badge of honour, something for them to brag about at the cafe stop. However as triathletes we use our FTP to base our race efforts off of, and it is as important for us to extend the time we can spend at FTP as increasing the number itself. As a result we spend less time training at sweet spot than road cyclists, but it still makes a frequent occurrence in the build period.

Zone 5: FTP
95-105% of FTP

This is your threshold value, or thereabouts. Sitting in this zone hurts, and you won’t spend much time here, nor will we train here for extended periods very often as the fatigue accumulated is significant, sweet spot is a much more economical way of boosting our FTP and resistance to fatigue.

Zone 6: FTP/FRC

This is the crossover point between our threshold and FRC, more details below

Zone 7: FRC

Your Functional Reserve Capacity looks at the amount of energy you can create while working above threshold, which is traditionally anaerobically. This is of little interest to us as non drafting triathletes as we don’t need to sprint or attack on the bike, so we rarely train in this zone.

Zone 8: FRC/PMAX

This is the crossover point between our FRC and PMAX, more details below

Zone 9: PMAX

This is the absolute maximum, or neuromuscular power we can generate in one complete revolution of the crack arms. Generally speaking efforts in this zone last for less than 10 seconds, the only time we should be in this zone is during fitness testing or potentially for a couple of seconds if we launch a blistering attack in a draft legal race.

 

This is only scratching the surface of the capabilities of WKO4, I have been using the software myself for a year, experimenting with it and playing around with the charts myself before I gained the confidence to start applying it confidently to my athletes. While its primary function is allowing us to monitor, and develop bike power, it also looks at pedalling effectiveness, aerobic development, fatigue resistance, provides you with a season review, power balance, the list goes on and that only covers the cycling side of things, there are a huge number of graphs for running and swimming.

If you wish to learn more about how we implement WKO4 in our training programmes, E-mail Simon@phazontriathlon.com for more information.

 

The Benefits of Coaching

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.

Coached Sessions
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.

Objective advice
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.

Data Analysis
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.

Education
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.

Event Insight
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.

Support
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.

Accountability
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. 

Injury triage
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.

Camaraderie
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?