It’s the question that has crossed the mind of every aspiring cyclist or triathlete, why is cycling so expensive? You may have had a budget in your head of £100 (or regional equivalent) for your bike, but it seems even that is unlikely to leave you walking away with a bike. Let alone a road bike. That’s before you even get to the clothing and accessories.
Why is cycling so expensive? Is the whole industry a rip off? In this article we’re going on a deep dive into the cycling industry to find out. We’re going to be focusing on road cycling as this is the area I’m mot familiar with. The majority of the points here apply to off road as well.
Why Shouldn’t I Buy a £100 bike?
These bikes are what I have seen fondly referred to as “bike shaped objects” by mechanics. This may come across as snobbery, but there’s logic here.
These bikes are designed to be taken out for a short ride on flat terrain a couple of times a year. The quintessential family bike ride. They’re heavy, sluggish and will break very easily. When it does break, you will probably pay 30-40% of the value of the bike to fix it. The tyres will puncture easily, the chain will probably fall off without much encouragement, and you’ll struggle to get spare parts.
What Should I Buy Instead?
In contrast, let’s look at the classic starting bike, the Specialized Allez. Like many cyclists, I started out on one of these dream machines. Other brands are available.
So, what does this bike offer which our bargain basement bike doesn’t?
For many cyclists, a lighter bike is a better bike. If you get passed on the hills by those on much lighter bikes, this is very demoralising as you feel powerless. An entry level road bike like an Allez could be twice as light as a cheap bike. It still isn’t that expensive in the grand scheme of road cycling, but it’s a big step up.
I’m probably not exaggerating by much when I estimate that this bike will last 100 times longer than a cheap bike. I rode mine for the best part of 15,000 miles without major issue. Yes I needed to replace some parts, but when you consider you’re lucky to get 100 miles out of a cheap bike without needing to take it to a mechanic, the difference in longevity is remarkable. It’s actually cheaper to pay more up front in the long run.
The Specialized pictured above uses a Shimano Sora groupset. This refers to the brakes, gears, shifters, chain e.t.c.
When you shift a gear on this bike, it will jump to the new gear less than a second. When you shift a gear on a bike shaped object, it will make a slow, clunky shift. If you’re lucky it’ll end up in the gear you wanted to without jumping around. If you’re not changing gear much this doesn’t matter. But if you’re on rolling terrain and want to use your gears to make life easier, this can be frustrating.
In addition, when you turn a corner, the steering will feel silky smooth for a long time. Meanwhile, a cheaper bike’s bearings will wear quickly. Especially when it gets wet.
Once you’ve been riding for a year or two, you’ll probably find yourself looking at some upgrades for your bike. This could be more gears, better brakes or a new saddle. These upgrades are designed to fit traditional road bikes. Cheaper bikes often have non standard fixtures, as they don’t expect to be upgraded.
When you can be looking at £80 for a comfortable saddle, you will very quickly get to the place where you’re almost spending as much on single components as you did on a cheap bike.
If you buy a cheap bike and get bitten by the cycling bug, you’ll end up regretting it. Whether you ride with friends who leave you for dust, or it breaks down yet again at the furthest point from home and you need to call for a pick up; you’ll end up having to sell it for a fraction of what you paid for it, and buying a more expensive bike anyway.
So, where does my money go?
The Specialized Allez starts at £650, which is a lot of money to spend on a bike. So where does the money go? And why would someone look to spend £5000 on a bike?
Quality of Materials
The biggest factor which makes cycling expensive is the materials used in manufacture of the parts. If you want a cheap steel frame, you can get this for a song. However, it will be very heavy. There are Chinese factories which manufacture counterfeit bikes, which they sell on for a fraction of the cost. However, there’s a good chance these will break, potentially injuring you in the process.
When looking to purchase something it can be cheap and light. Or strong and cheap. Most bikes need to be both light and strong, but this doesn’t come cheap. For a bike to be able to withstand thousands of miles on the road without damage the materials have to be carefully chosen. They also have to be treated in a specific way to ensure performance and safety.
This extends beyond the frame materials to everything on the bike. Wheels are notoriously expensive because they have to both be incredibly light, and withstand huge forces from hitting potholes without buckling. There will always be a cheaper option out there, but this will come with a penalty to performance and longevity.
Research and Development
If you want to create the lightest and fastest bike on the market, this involves a considerable amount of research and development. This involves paying designers and engineers to build prototypes, time spent in a wind tunnel, stress tests on the frame itself, and dozens of other steps between concept and the bike appearing for sale at your local bike shop. These costs are passed onto the consumer when they purchase the bike, to help the bike manufacturer stay in business. And help them keep pushing the boundaries.
Pro Team Sponsorship
A bike sponsor will provide a World Tour team with hundreds of bikes over the course of a year. When you consider many manufacturers will sponsor multiple teams, you’re looking at companies spending hundreds of thousands over the course of a year to support professional teams. They hope to recoup the cost by inspiring customers to buy their bikes via the team. If you think recreational cycling is expensive, wait until you see the costs involved with running a professional team!
Running of the Business
Smaller bike manufacturers will only really make money from selling frames. The sale of bikes cover everything from the receptionist’s salary to the van they use for deliveries. If companies did not make a profit from each sale, they wouldn’t be able to stay in business, offer warranties or provide any customer service. While some products provide manufacturers and retailers with a large profit margin, bike frames are not one of them, and the whole industry relies on bike manufacturers staying in business.
But What About Expensive Cycling Clothing? Some Kit Costs As Much as Cheap Bikes
It’s true that you can get a cheap bike for the cost of some waterproof jackets, but it all comes back to performance. When cycling you build up a huge amount of heat. When you cover yourself with what is essentially a plastic bag, this traps the heat and causes the rider to overheat. You may keep the rain off you with cheap jackets, but you’ll get soaked with sweat, losing a lot of sodium in the process which hurts your performance in itself. A high end waterproof jacket will be far more breathable, while still keeping you dry.
Expensive cycling jerseys may be incredibly lightweight for summer riding, aerodynamic for use in time trials, or windproof for riding in poor weather. However, they may also be expensive simply for the sake of fashion. Where bikes themselves are all about performance, clothing is far more susceptible to trends, and you can get away with spending a bit less here. Cheaper kit will be heavier, not as breathable and won’t fit as nicely, but this will have far less of an effect on your ride than a bike which is constantly breaking.
Do I Need to Spend a Lot on a Helmet?
All of the helmets for sale will meet basic safety standards, so you don’t need to spend a lot on a helmet to keep you or a loved one safe. Money spent on an expensive cycling helmet can make it more aerodynamic (faster), lighter and more breathable. Cheaper helmets will feel like a block of polystyrene on your head, where you won’t notice you’re wearing a more expensive one. There are safety systems such as MIPS available on some models, which is suggested to improve safety for a small price increase.
Fit is more important than cost when it comes to safety. You shouldn’t be able to fit more than two fingers under the chin strap, and it shouldn’t be too tight, or too loose on your head.
Manufacturers Will Charge What People are Willing to Pay
This is true in many industries, but is especially true in cycling. Many people will walk into a bike shop, ask for the latest bike, and price won’t even be discussed. They might not even look at the total. Manufacturers will push the very limit of what current technology permits, because they know someone will buy it and justify the investment in developing the product. It will also win professional races, building their brand.
The good news is that these customers help keep manufacturers in business, which allows them to keep the price down on their entry level bikes. Top end bikes will rarely be discounted in a meaningful way, but many components and accessories will be discounted within a matter of months following their release.
There are many factors which make cycling expensive, but you don’t have to remortgage your house to get started. A budget of £1000 will get you up and running with a setup that lasts years, and prove to be more economical than going for the cheapest possible option.
Once you’ve completed your first event or two, you’ll be riding the high of achievement, yet also slightly downbeat. While you’re proud as punch of your performance, you can’t quite get over why you got dropped so quickly at the start, how fast the cyclists who lapped you were going, or quite how it’s possible for the announcer to be calling in the winner as you come into T2. You make a vow, it’s time to take your triathlon training to the next level.
But what does this mean? The intention is clear, you want to get faster, but how do you plan to achieve that? There’s a lot of information out there, but much of it is conflicting. What you may think makes you faster just exhausts you for no tangible improvement to your times.
What follows is a list of recommendations to help you improve how you train, and therefore your performance. We cover the very basics first, the low hanging fruit which will provide the greatest benefits, before we start digging in a little deeper.
The focus here is on improving the training process, rather than the best way to improve your performance. While there are all sorts of products, gadgets and tips to help you race 1% faster, consistent, considered training needs to be the foundation.
Follow a Structured Plan
This doesn’t have to be a complex paid for plan from a website such as TrainingPeaks, but having some structure to your training will really help you develop as an athlete. This could be as simple as knowing you will have a long ride and a long run on the weekend which gets progressively longer each weekend, with two swims in the week and other workouts dotted in as and when you can fit them in. Alternatively, it could be an incredibly specific plan, tailored for you as an individual with specific targets on each day.
The benefit of a structured plan is that it holds you to a kind of accountability, and if you follow the basic principles of periodisation, will help ensure you’re doing the right kind of training at the right time of year. There are plenty of free, basic training plans available online, the race organiser of your event may even have one on their website.
Consistency is king in triathlon, and following a plan ensures you stay consistent. This is a guaranteed way to take your triathlon training to the next level.
Take Rest Days and Recovery Weeks
Training breaks your body down, recovery makes it stronger. You may think that training for seven days a week proves your dedication and will propel you to greatness, but the chances are this will just result in non-functional overreaching and long term exhaustion. When we back off and allow our body to recover, we reap the benefits of our training, and are able to go hard at the next time of asking. One day of complete rest a week, and an easier recovery week every 3-4 weeks is recommended for the vast majority of athletes.
Get More Sleep
Most of us don’t get enough sleep. Between work, family, training and the desire for some “me” time in front of the TV, we can slip into the habit of getting less than six hours sleep per night. While rest days allow our body a break from training, adaptation to the training stimulus itself happens primarily during deep sleep. Ever wonder why you can do a hard session in the morning, feel fine for the next 12 hours, then upon waking the next day feel like the tin man? It’s only when we sleep that our body sends the signals to repair the muscles and generate more mitochondria. If we’re stingy with our sleep, our performance will suffer, and we increase the risk of burnout. There’s no point taking your triathlon training to the next level if you’re not receiving the benefits.
Eight hours may not be achievable for everyone due to work/family, but heading to bed at 10:30PM and waking at 6:30AM isn’t unreasonable for most people, and ticks the box of the magic eight hours.
Work on Your Weaknesses
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re not the world’s greatest swimmer. In fact the mere smell of neoprene may initiate a fight or flight response in you. I struggled with this for many years. I overcame this not by hiding from it, but by getting in the pool three times a week and slowly chipping away.
It’s human nature to focus on what we’re good at, however if we really want to succeed in triathlon, we need to focus on where we can make the most time. If I spent an eight week training block focused on running with weekly hill reps, track work and long runs, I might be able to save a minute over 5K. This is a huge amount of time, and I’d feel very satisfied. But I’m not a runner, I’m a triathlete. If I had spent the time swimming instead focused on my running, I could have saved 2-3 minutes over 750M, resulting in a much greater improvement to my overall performance.
Get Some Swim Coaching
Swimming is the most technical sport by a long way, and you can only improve so much by ploughing up and down on your own. Whether you want to hire a coach on a 1to1 capacity or join a swim squad where the coach provides intermittent feedback, having an experienced set of eyes look at your stroke will work wonders. Coaching for cycling and running is also very valuable if you feel you struggle, but swimming provides the most gains for the majority of athletes.
Introduce Strength and Conditioning
Strength and conditioning for triathletes? Sacrilege! Well, it may not be your idea of a good time, but an effective strength and conditioning plan will provide you with a number of benefits to take your triathlon training to the next level, including but not limited to:
Reduced chance of injury
Improved muscular force
Greater range of motion
Reduced rate of technique breakdown
Moving better in day to day life
This doesn’t have to mean taking out a gym membership and tackling the free weights if you don’t want, but taking the time to strengthen your core, improve your balance and stretch/roll your tight muscles, even if only for 10 minutes a day, will provide an invisible yet important benefit to your training.
Get a Bike fit
Hopefully when you bought your bike they helped you choose the right size bike, and may have raised/lowered the saddle for you to get it in the right ballpark. However there’s much, much more to being comfortable on a bike than this. From choosing the right saddle, right handlebars and right shoes to getting these setup millimetre perfect, a professional can really help you get dialled in. When we’re comfortable on our bike we can put out more power for longer, and run better off the bike. Visiting a fitter based in a shop comes with benefits as they have lots of different components on hand for you to try out. Expect to pay £200 for a comprehensive experience, before parts or labour installing them.
Take Your Bike Training Indoors
Chances are we took up triathlon because we love the outdoors. But if it’s February, raining, and we only have an hour available, by the time we’ve bundled up and head out the door, we’re not going to get much of a session in. Combined with the risk of ice and low light levels in winter, training indoors becomes a very efficient alternative. The benefit of riding hard without worrying about traffic is not to be underestimated, which combined with software such as Zwift can provide an engaging experience.
Riding inside help maintain consistency, and consistency breeds success. This combined with the ability to ride intervals is essential when taking your triathlon training to the next level.
Monitor Training Intensity
Swimming, riding and running to feel will get you a long way. However if you really want to get fitter, you need a gauge to tell you what’s easy and what’s hard. Whether you use heart rate, power or pace isn’t of huge importance at this stage in your triathlon journey, but measuring your data, understanding it and reviewing it is key to high level triathlon performance. I recommend picking up a book on training to help you understand the data and decide what to do with the results.
Get Race Specific With Your Training
You’re swimming in open water on the day? You’d better get to your local lake once a week. If you’re planning to ride 180KM on a triathlon bike, you need to be doing your long rides on it. If the on course nutrition is a brand you’re not familiar with, you’d do well to try training with it ahead of race day to see if it works for you. When training for a hilly race, you’d better get some climbing in your legs. Once you get within a few months of your event, you need to start thinking about your workouts and how they help prepare you for race day.
Work With a Coach
Triathlon is an incredibly complex sport where we have a lot to fit into our training schedule, and need to learn to pick our battles. Working with a coach who understands you, communicates well with you and knows how to get the best out of you is the best investment you can make in your triathlon training, and will help you race much faster than spending thousands on fancy wheels for your bike. There are hundreds of coaches out there, offering different levels of service for different budgets, so don’t assume you can’t afford it.
We offer very comprehensive training programmes, as well as consultations for athletes looking for someone to point them in the right direction. Take a look if you’re dedicated to taking your triathlon training to the next level.
As with everything in life, what once raised our pulse and dominated our every thought becomes slowly mundane. When we started out in triathlon we were all smitten with the bike tech, wetsuits, different events and all the toys we never knew we needed. We completed our first race, got faster quickly, raced progressively longer distances, until a day came when we no longer jumped out of bed to train every morning. How can we fall back in love with triathlon?
It could be that your performance hit a plateau, you picked up an injury, or you achieved everything you wanted to. For whatever reason you’ve lost your mojo and triathlon no longer gives you goosebumps. While you can never recapture the thrill of the first year or two in the sport, there are steps you can take to remember why you started, and hopefully get back to enjoying training. These tips are very generalised, and depend on why you’ve found yourself out of love with the sport, but should hopefully help you get back into the swing of things.
Find New Training Routes
To start with, exploring the roads in your local area by bike was a real buzz. Whether putting in a big training ride or simply saving money on petrol/public transport, it was a new way to see the world. Fast forward five years and you know every pothole, every corner and every gradient change within 10 miles of your front door. The list of places to explore is dwindling and with it the satisfaction of achieving something new.
To start with, look into some route planning software such as Komoot, Strava or Ride with GPS. These can help you both find new routes uploaded by others, or help you create a new route based on a destination such as a cafe or a piece of coastline. Be careful here though, as some software will try to take you down overgrown bike paths, through muddy forests or a really convoluted, slow route using cycle lanes, so it’s worth checking the route before you blindly set off.
Focus on a Single Sport
If you’ve always been a pure triathlete, you’ve probably missed out on a lot of events. It may be worth looking into cross country running, time trialling or long distance swimming. These events are usually much cheaper than entering a triathlon, and you can train for them alongside the other two disciplines. They may push you out of your comfort zone, but this is a good thing, as being outside your comfort zone was probably one of the things that appealed to you about triathlon in the first place! You may not even need any new equipment, just a sense of adventure.
Mix up Your Multisport
Triathlon is great, but so is duathlon, aquathlon, aquabike, swimrun, quadrathlon, off road triathlon and other variations that I’ve no doubt forgotten or have yet to be invented. If you are struggling with a running injury? Have a go at aquabike. Always way behind in the swim? Spend your off season racing duathlon to see how you perform there. Triathlon may still be your ultimate goal, but this is a good way to shake things up a bit. Falling in love with other multisports for the first time will probably help you fall in love with triathlon again.
Just Sign up for a Race
This is a high risk, high reward strategy. You need to put money on the table here, but there’s nothing quite like a race on the calendar to focus the mind and get you out the door, which can be the hardest part of some workouts. Make sure it’s something which is challenging enough to feel you have to train for it, but it’s also achievable within the time you have to train for it. Signing up for an Ironman with three months to go and minimal fitness probably isn’t going to end well.
Treat Yourself to Some New Kit
Let me make this clear, I am NOT suggesting you go out and drop four figures on a new bike to help motivate you. The chances are this motivation will be short lived, and very expensive if it doesn’t work out. Instead, think about buying yourself some new sunglasses, replacing your worn out bib shorts, or getting some new goggles you can actually see out of, things like that. This is unlikely to have a huge effect on its own, but should help make your return to training feel that bit more exciting, and different to last time.
Try a Structured Training Plan
Many clients I have coached have commented on how I have helped them fall back in love with triathlon by delivering flexible, detailed plans. The sense of specificity and the accountability of a coach who will ask questions if the training isn’t done and the knowledge that they’re working towards something special help motivate them. If you burned out in the past, failed to finish your big race or trained randomly with mixed results, structured training can help refocus the mind and get results. If you’re not looking for a coaching relationship, a training plan is an affordable way to bring structure to your training.
Step Away from Structured Training
If you have spent the last four years moving from coach to coach, or training plan to training plan, and you’re just feeling drained, taking some time away from a structured regime may be what you need. This could be for an entire season of self discovery or just for a few weeks, but it can really help you recharge mentally. Once you are back into the swing of training 5-6 days a week, you can if you wish look at returning to a more structured plan.
Join a Club
If you are used to training solo, which definitely has its advantages, it can be a lonely existence. While training in a group may be less effective at getting you race ready for a non drafting event than a solo ride on your race bike, it’s better than no ride, and can bring joy in its own way. Whether it’s the mid ride banter or getting to know other members at a cafe stop, it can be a reminder of why we started riding our bikes in the first place. After the isolation of Covid-19 lockdowns, this is a good way to re-engage with the human side of the sport.
Squad swim training sessions can be a good way for someone to have a look at your technique, while running sessions at a track add a competitive aspect to your intervals. Even if you only join in with the group workouts for the off season and early base period, it can help you build the momentum you need to get back on the triathlon wagon.
Sign up for an Event That Scares You
You’ve already achieved more than you thought possible, but what else could you achieve? Perhaps you could step up to a half or a full Ironman, or if you’ve already done that, perhaps an extreme triathlon, an off road triathlon, or just a tough Ironman course like Nice. If you’re genuinely unsure whether you’ll be able to complete a race or not, this can put the fear into people and encourage them to train with the same urgency as when they signed up for events earlier in their triathlon career, and saw the experience as a huge step into the unknown.
Aim to Qualify for a World Championship Event
This may not be in the reach of everyone within the next 12 months, but aiming to qualify to represent your country at a world championship event, or qualifying for the Ironman/70.3 championships as an individual is an admirable goal you can apply yourself to. While the qualification itself is never guaranteed and depends on who else turns up on the day, it’s a good way to really apply yourself and aim to perform to the best of your ability, rather than simply ‘good enough to get round’. To qualify you will normally need to be one of the top 3 in your age group to finish.
Choosing the right target race is also very important to maximise your chances of success. If you target a big early season race such as Ironman 70.3 Marbella you’ll struggle to make an impression, where if you find a less popular race in late summer your chances of success are much greater. Aquathlon and duathlon are also less competitive, and a good way to snag your first spot on the age group team.
Even if you don’t manage to achieve your goal of qualifying, you’ll probably be in the shape of your life and be able to place very well at some more local races as a result.
Attend Races as a Spectator/Support Crew
I encourage all athletes to attend at least one triathlon they’re not racing at. This may be a local race you’re not targeting, or supporting someone at a bigger race, but watching from the sidelines really helps give you some perspective. Not only can you learn from other athletes by watching what they do well (or not so well), chances are it will give you the itch to compete yourself. When I attended the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in South Africa in the early days of my coaching career, it really helped me fall back in love with triathlon. Not only was there the fact I got to travel out to South Africa, but the buzz of the event, watching athletes prepare, spectating the pro race, attending the expo, it inspired me so much I signed up for a 70.3 myself the next weekend.
Follow Professional Triathletes
Professional triathletes are some of the fittest athletes in the world. In this age of social media we can gain an unparalleled insight into their lives and their training regimes, as well as their lifestyle. Instagram is an especially well used platform by the pros, where you can find plenty of genuinely inspirational photos, videos and advice to help get you down the pool or out on a run. Watching professional athletes race is an acquired taste, especially over the Ironman distance, but is a fantastic way to see just what the pinnacle of the sport looks like, and what the human body can achieve. It may even help you identify the location of your next event!
Consume Triathlon Media
You can find triathlon themed documentaries, magazines, podcasts, books, videos and more to help teach you about the sport and engage with it more fully. This can be time consuming, and you’ll never finish them all, but it can give you ideas for new training sessions, new target races or simply entertain and inspire you. You need to take it all with a pinch of salt (everyone can’t be right), but broadening your horizons and finding new ways to enjoy the sport goes a long way to getting you out the door.
Sort out That Injury
You know the one, that niggle in your knee which stops you running fast, or that tightness in your hip which makes cycling progressively more uncomfortable after you hit the three hour mark. Not only do these injuries affect our ability to train the way we’d like to, they also present us with a big psychological roadblock. You may tell yourself “If I can’t run pain free, why bother with the cycling and swimming?” Suck it up and spend some money on a physio who can help you identify the cause of the injury, then do the exercises required to address the cause of the issue. Having a glass ceiling placed there by an injury which doesn’t allow you to train to the best of your potential causes the best of us to fall out of love with the sport. If you’re based in London, we recommend https://physioonthegreen.com
Are you struggling to fit training in because you feel so run down all the time? Are you working hard but not seeing results? There’s a good chance your issues stem from poor recovery. Most triathletes should aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night, with many pros getting closer to 9 with a nap in the afternoon. The best way to achieve this is to simply get to bed earlier, forgoing that last episode of The Next Generation or that glass of wine and heading straight to bed instead. Getting to bed by 10:30PM and up at 6AM to train should be achievable for most, and nets you a decent 7.5 hours of shut eye. Sleep is the only time the body can truly adapt to exercise, and no amount of caffeine will offset the damage done by consistently failing to get enough sleep.
Ensuring you refuel after workouts by eating sufficient amounts of carbohydrate and protein as well as allowing sufficient time between hard sessions are key to allowing your body and mind enough time to recover well. Without sufficient recovery you won’t really get any fitter, just dig yourself a hole which will take months to recover from.
I’m not suggesting a career change here, but coaching people, formally or informally, is a great way to reconnect with the sport. Whether you’re a qualified coach on poolside with a whistle or simply teaching a club mate how to fix a puncture, sharing your knowledge/expertise with newcomers not only helps them out, but gives you a sense of satisfaction that you’re helping the next generation of athletes.
Take a Break From the Sport
Have you been in a constant state of training for several years? Does the sight of your bike fill you with a low level feeling of dread? Do you check what today’s workout is while cowering behind the sofa? Is there a picture of your coach’s face on a dartboard somewhere in your house? The chances are the most productive thing you could do to help you fall back in love with triathlon, is take a break from triathlon. Distance makes the heart grow fonder as they say, and taking a step back from training may help you realise how important it is to you. I recommend athletes take at least one full week away from training at the end of a season, and normally a few more weeks away from proper structured training. Neglecting this can result in burnout and a loss of interest in the sport.
What if None of This Works?
I’ve listed some of the techniques which work for myself and those I’ve coached, but we’re all individuals at the end of the day. Ask yourself why you got into the sport in the first place, and how you can reignite that. If you started the sport for a sense of adventure, think about how you could make your training more dynamic. If you enjoyed using it to push your limits, find a race which will push you further than any event before. Perhaps you started the sport for its social reasons, but moved towards solo training over time, it might be worth reconnecting with other athletes, even if just for your easy workouts.
Sometimes though, no matter how hard you work at it, how much time you invest or money you throw at the problem, you won’t be able to get back in the groove of training. It may be that your priorities lie elsewhere now, you have too many responsibilities in more pressing areas of your life or recent events in your life have rearranged your priorities. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy exercising occasionally or that you can’t return to the sport properly at a later date, but sometimes it’s better to accept that you need to park your triathlon hobby for now and wait for the right time to restart. After all, not training every week for the rest of your life doesn’t make you a failure.
Falling back in love with triathlon is unlikely to be a life changing experience like when you first discovered the sport. It will be more like putting back on a favourite pair of slippers, or rediscovering one of your favourite hangouts as a child. It will motivate you to get outside and make the right choices for your mental/physical health, and help fortify your identity as a triathlete. Even professional athletes lose motivation sometimes, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
I hope this has helped you find your triathlon mojo again, if you have any tips that worked for you, leave them in the comments below to help others.
Covid-19 is still a problem in many countries, and will continue to be for many years to come. If you decide to travel outside of your local area for training or racing ensure you respect local restrictions at all times, regardless of your vaccination status, and research entry requirements for different countries if you plan to travel internationally. It is also worth researching the covid-19 refund policies different race organisers may or may not offer.
Billed at the world’s biggest duathlon, The London Duathlon is an annual event in Richmond Park that sees athletes competing over the sprint, standard and ultra distances in Richmond Park, SouthWest London. For the purposes of this article I will be focusing primarily on the standard distance as this is the most popular distance by far. All information in this article is correct as of the time of writing, the course has remained unchanged since the first event (to my knowledge), but the intricacies of how the event is ran may change from year to year with very little notice. Always read all the pre race information to avoid being caught out.
Arriving at the Venue
Richmond Park is completely closed for the event, so despite the fact there are car parks at the venue, they will be inaccessible on the day itself. You will need to find parking on nearby roads if arriving by car which can be challenging. Your best bet would be to take the train to Richmond Station and ride to the park from there. Bikes are permitted on the national rail, overground and district line, all of which are served by Richmond Station. You will want to be arriving at the event village at least an hour before your start time to allow you to prepare in a calm, methodical way. Nobody wants to be faffing around with their bike with minutes until the start of their run.
The London Duathlon event village can be found on the east side of the park, next to Roehampton Gate. It is accessible by a footbridge which you will need to carry your bike up and over. If you struggle with this, there are plenty of individuals present I’m sure will be happy to help. When you enter the event village, take the time to attach your race number to your top, your bike stickers to your bike and attach your wristband. This will be required to remove your bike from transition, so do not remove it until you leave the venue.
Setting up Transition
Your wristband is your ticket into transition, an athletes only area where you will find a number of racks for you to place your bike. The last time I did the event it was a free for all, if this is the case I recommend you place your bike close asp possible to the end of one of the racks, to make it easier to find. You can also place a coloured towel in front of your bike for improved visibility if this helps, but you’re unable to tie a balloon or similar to the rack as an identifier. The run will be the first discipline, so make sure you leave everything associated with the bike leg (sunglasses, nutrition, helmet e.t.c.) with your bike to access it later. Large bags are not permitted, but can be left in the bag drop area.
Once you have your bike left in an appropriate gear ready to go, it’s time to walk the transition area. Find the “run in” banner which indicates where you will enter the transition area following your first run. Walk the route you’ll take to your bike to commit it to memory. Then look for the “bike out” banner, which is where you’ll start the bike leg. Repeat the process for “bike in” and “run out”, there should only be one of each.
The start line
Get to the start line with at least 10 minutes before you’re due to start. You will be placed in a holding area, then called forwards into a small black marquee where a pre recorded race briefing will be played, followed by three beeps which signify the start of the race.
Run 1- 10KM
You will start your run on a short grassy section heading towards Sawyers Hill. Yes the race start with a hill. The adrenaline will be pumping and you’ll be excited for the day ahead of you, but remember, you’ll unlikely to finish any faster than two hours, so don’t get carried away. This event is hard on your legs, and going hard on the first 2.5KM up a hill is a good way to kill your legs for the rest of the race.
Once you reach the top of the hill you’ll take a left onto a slightly undulating section, followed by a notable downhill which will allow you to pick up the your feet again after the long slog of Sawyers. This doesn’t last forever however as you then make a left to cut through the middle of the park on a flat section, passing some large ponds on your left. After the ponds, you’ll then make a left hand turn onto a short out and back section which is there to bring the distance up to a nice round 10KM. Here there has traditionally been a water station for you to replace water lost through sweat, which I recommend you take advantage of unless you are carrying your own water. From here you are treated to a final downhill section before you make a left at Robin Hood Gate roundabout and run the last 2KM to the transition area where you’ll begin the bike.
As you exit transition you will merge onto the bike course. It’s VERY important you give way to other cyclists who may be travelling at speeds in excess of 30MPH, as you really don’t want to have to cause them to swerve, or even crash into you. Once on the course, it’s important you stay left at all times except when overtaking yourself, and always make a check over your shoulder before you make a change in direction, just like you would with a mirror in your car.
You are treated to a nice section of flat to help you find your cycling legs, before you make your way up the steepest hill on the course, Broomfield Hill. As you approach this, make sure you’re in your smallest ring at the front as you’ll need it, and change down gears slowly as the road kicks up to ensure you don’t find yourself pushing unnecessarily hard. You will run out of gears on this hill, as it kicks up to over 12% at its steepest point. The good news is you can see the top of the hill from the bottom which allows you to pace it appropriately, and remember you have to climb it four times, so riding up it as fast as you can to show off is unlikely to set you up for long term success. If you find the going really tough, you can always get off and push, but please don’t weave around to try and reduce the gradient. You can have up to five riders side by side on the steep sections of the hill, so don’t take up more space than you have to.
Once you summit the hill you pass a car park on your left, before a short downhill. Your lungs may be screaming at you, but it is worth pushing a bit here to get maximum speed on the downhill and carry it into the short uphill which follows. From here you follow a long flat section before you approach a right hander into some dense tree cover. Change into your big ring here if you haven’t already as you’re approaching a decent down Dark Hill, a steep, gently sweeping downhill towards the roundabout at Kingston Gate. Don’t leave your braking too late here as you run the risk of locking up your brakes and taking a one way trip into the hay bales at the bottom of the hill. If you are a nervous descender and like to ride the brakes on the way down, ensure you stay to the left as it’s a technical fast section of the course.
After making a right at the bottom you start another long, but gentle hill. To start with your barely notice it, until you reach a short, steep downhill followed by a short, steep uphill which I recommend you try to carry speed into. From here you will see runners on the 10K making a left down the middle of the park. This means you are now sharing the road with runners, so you only have 50% of the road to ride on. This makes it very tight, and you can find the road blocked by slower cyclists passing even slower cyclists, so keep an eye on your speed and be aware of the possibility somebody may swing out in front of you with very little notice. This uphill continues until you pass another car park on your left, which is followed by a short downhill to a roundabout at Richmond Gate where you’ll make a right.
After turning right, you’ll have a very short, gentle uphill until you descend the hill you ran up at the start, you may even see some of the runners suffering up it as you descend past them on your way down. The biggest issue here is that the runners are still taking up one side of the road, and this is a very fast downhill where some riders will hit 40MPH, maybe even more in a few cases, with very little margin for error. This is the most dangerous part of the course, so I recommend you treat it with respect and check twice over your shoulder that there isn’t another cyclist about to overtake you before moving right to pass a slower rider. The steepest section is at the top of the hill, it starts to slowly flatten as you approach a roundabout, before dropping down again taking you back towards the event village. Do a right at the roundabout at the bottom of the hill and you’re more or less back at the event village, now repeat this three more times!
Pacing is very important here, as it’s easy to get carried away, especially on the hills, and find yourself really suffering on the last lap, losing all the time you made up on the early laps. It may only be 44KM, but with 330M of vertical ascent and four 90 degree turns a lap, you may need to think of it as being closer to the equivalent of 50KM. I can push 4 watts per kilo at FTP, but every time I’ve done the race it’s taken me around 1:20 for the bike. That does’t take into account the bike, weather, aerodynamics or how I paced it, but it should give you a rough idea of the challenge that lies ahead of you, especially if you are relatively new to cycling. There has been no nutrition or water on the course when I have done the race, so make sure you take some with you to avoid running out of gas.
Run 2- 5KM
Once you finish your fourth lap you will be very happy to rack your bike and start your second run. The bad news is, your legs will likely feel like lead, and the run starts with a series of uphills. Firstly you will run up the first half of Sawyers Hill, make a left at the roundabout, then make your way up the Ballet School Hill, which is a relatively steep hill taking you up to the water station you visited on the first lap. It’s highly likely that you’ll develop a stitch or have to walk at this point if your fuelling strategy wasn’t spot on. This can be very disappointing, but focus on your own race, and acknowledge that it won’t cost you more than a minute or two.
Once you get to the top of the hill you can grab a drink from the water station and head back down Spankers hill towards Robin Hood Gate, which puts you within touching distance of the finish line. As you get closer the sound of the PA system and the buzz of the event village should push you on to dig that little bit deeper before you make a left hand turn to the finish. You will have finished The London Duathlon!
By this point you should have a medal around your neck and a big smile on your face. There will be water and snacks which I recommend you partake in to refuel and repair your body following your effort. Once the adrenaline has worn off make sure you have something proper to eat that has high protein content, whether this is food you have bought from home or one of the vendors. Once you’re ready it’s time to collect your bike from transition and head home to tell your friends about your achievement and plan your next event.
Often the butt of many jokes on Twitter and dismissed by many experienced athletes. I believe running power is a misunderstood technology which can provide an athlete with unparalleled insight into their training. Here I want to give a more balanced introduction to running power for those considering it.
The running power meter was inspired by the bicycle power meter, which collects data from a strain gauge in a pedal, crank arm or wheel hub to calculate how much force is being applied by the athlete. This allows them to pace and race better on hills, into headwinds, at altitude and in the heat. The running power meter is not a true power meter in the respect that it is based on an algorithm, using accelerometers rather than a strain gauge. Combined with the pace at which an individual is running to generate a number measured in watts, this gives the athlete an insight into how much energy they are expending to achieve forward momentum.
As a runner, I would put money on you having trained with pace, heart rate and RPE in the past. So to start with I’ll break the pros and cons of each method down to help you make the right decision for your training.
Rate of perceived exertion is how hard you feel you are running, whether you are going eyeballs out in a race (RPE of 10) of gently jogging along on an easy run (RPE of around 4). It’s an important skill to develop for runners of all abilities even if they also use technology, as data doesn’t have all the answers and can fail at any point.
If you are having a bad day, RPE will make sure you don’t over exert yourself and push you towards exhaustion or overtraining
It removes the risk of setting targets that are too high/low for an event
Newer runners will struggle to understand what their bodies are telling them, and may be based on what they perceive as “getting a good workout” rather than achieving the goals of the session
Will cause most runners to head out too fast when fresh, then fade as they didn’t pace themselves well enough
Difficult to accurately measure training load, fitness or fatigue
Requires many years of experience to dial in, and even then the best of us make mistakes
Heart Rate gives us an unparalleled insight to how the body is performing, if your heart rate is outside of normal parameters, your body is trying to tell you something. This helps us avoid overtraining by pushing too hard
Relatively inexpensive, most modern running watches will come with a heart rate monitor built in or come with a free chest strap
Tracking your heart rate over time provides a valuable insight into how well your body is adapting to exercise.
There is a large delay between your body’s exertion and and an increase in heart rate, so it is difficult to use it to pace races with lots of hills/surges as the feedback isn’t immediate, and your heart rate may continue to rise for up to 30 seconds after a tough section
Lots of factors outside of training can artificially inflate our heart rate. A lack of sleep, high levels of stress, temperature, altitude and mensural cycle to name but a few will all affect our heart rate and may result in us running faster/slower than we should
Prone to dropouts or false readings. Where 10BPM is a huge difference, battery or connection issues can leave you vulnerable
Sticking to heart rate based training can be incredibly frustrating for new athletes as they feel they need to walk to keep their heart rate in the correct zone
Pace is probably the most popular method of measuring running intensity, and is still the most important. Let’s assume I put a running power meter on the foot of every athlete starting a 5K run. The winner wouldn’t be the one who put out the highest number of watts or the best horizontal power. It would be the one who ran the fastest. However there are issues when using a GPS watch to measure pace
Cheap, comes with all fitness tracking devices, or you can use you phone
The winner of the race is the athlete who runs the fastest, so it’s the purest way of tracking intensity
GPS watches can lose signal, or struggle to find it in areas such as woodland or around high rise buildings
Large events place so much strain on GPS systems that they cannot keep up. This resultis in athlete’s watches giving false readings, and getting out of sync with the race organiser’s distance markers. This can result in widespread confusion and frustration
GPS watches are very sensitive to changes in direction. They expect you to continue running in a straight line. Making a U turn or sharp corner can leave the GPS struggling to catch up
It does not take gradient or headwind into account. If you are running up or down a hill, pace data is of very little use
Susceptible to headwinds
Finally, this brings us onto the running power meter. For my money, this goes a long way to correcting the flaws of other methods:
Takes hills and wind into account (new generation Stryd only)
Provides advanced running metrics such as stride length, ground contact time, running efficiency, form power and leg spring stiffness
Reliable data in all situations
Measures distance precisely using the accelerometer inside the power meter, giving you an exact pace rather than GPS estimate
Allows you to track improvements easily
Unparalleled treadmill accuracy
Can be confusing at first, requires time investment
Expensive, at £200 for a Stryd unit, on top of a compatible watch, it’s a definite investment in your running
The data can become all consuming, and athletes run the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture (running faster)
Any long term changes in athlete weight require re-calibration and redundancy of previous data
Can be tricky to use if you are aiming for a specific finish time
The biggest benefit for running power for me is consistency and the low margin for error. While the algorithm behind running power is up for scrutiny, as long as the data that is outputted is consistent that’s the most important thing. Whether an athlete is running on a treadmill, up an alpine pass, a road marathon or simply on a jog with friends, I know I have good data which represents their effort, using it to track improvements and calculate fatigue.
Hopefully that has given you an insight into the advantages of using running power over other methods. Next up I’m going to delve into a bit more of the science:
What is running power?
Running power is measured in the arbitrary measurement of a running watt. This is a combination of force (in newtons) and speed (metres per second), with higher numbers translating into faster running. When you hit a hill the power meter will recognise this and increase the power to represent the additional effort you are using to fight gravity. On the downhills it will recognise the gravitational assist and lower the power number to represent the reduced level of force you are having to generate yourself. This helps us pace our runs much more accurately.
Training with Running Power
Hopefully by now the concept sounds appealing at the very least. So how do you get started? First off you need a running power meter. I would recommend against any power meter which generates numbers based on speed derived from a GPS signal. This will normally involve an algorithm which looks at your cadence and your speed to generate an estimation of power. For my money though, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Running power in itself is an algorithm. So an algorithm that is required to generate another algorithm has a large margin of error. I use a Stryd footpod which is easily the most popular running power meter available currently. I will be writing the rest of this article on the assumption this is what you are using.
These numbers, like those from a cycling power meter are fairly meaningless without a benchmark. Is 250W a lot? What should you be hitting in your intervals? Is there a number you should be staying below during your event? When is your run too easy? To find the answer to these questions, we need to find a threshold, a point where an effort becomes unsustainable. The simplest way to use this is to use the Stryd auto CP (critical power) calculator. This harvests the data from all of your runs to give you an estimation of your ability. It’s important you feed it a variety of data points, from sprints to 5Ks and long runs. Don’t expect an accurate number after a few easy runs.
Zone training is nothing new as we have zones for pace and heart rate. What’s different here is the fact that thresholdis calculated by looking at thousands of data points rather than a single point. This means our threshold is much more accurate. It also updates automatically with time. Smash out a big hill session which included your best two minute power? Your threshold may improve by a couple of watts. Absolutely storm that cross country race? You may see a nice big boost to represent that. It’s important to note that these are based on a 90 day rolling average, so any data older than 90 days will disappear. This can result in sudden increases/decreases to your threshold power even if you’ve spent the day on the sofa.
The way our power threshold updates itself automatically reduces the need for formal testing every 6-8 weeks. For me this is arguably the biggest benefit of running power. Ensuring your threshold is always up to date.
I don’t like running on a treadmill, however, sometimes it’s a necessary evil. This can be due to the weather, or when we’re in a country where wearing sports clothing in public is not appropriate. One of the frustrating issues I encounter as a coach is accurately recording treadmill workouts. Treadmills vary significantly in accuracy, and the indoor running mode included on sports watches leaves a lot to be desired.
You may be lucky enough to have access to an indoor running facility such as a sprint track or even a full 400M. The lack of GPS signal can be a issue if we want detailed information from our session, but a running power meter provides us with all the information we need, without the GPS accuracy issues which plague even outdoor tracks.
Running with power is the perfect way to record your indoor runs as we get meaningful figures that can be directly compared to your outdoor runs. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re a serious runner who trains indoors regularly, a running power meter is an essential purchase.
My preferred way to train on the treadmill is using Zwift. This is software which takes you through a virtual world as you run where you can also join races and complete workouts. It’s free for runners and pairs with your power meter, so download it and give it a go.
Post Run Analysis
Once you get back from your run your watch will upload your data to an analysis platform of choice. Most software now supports running power, however the level of support varies considerably. If you are a basic user the Stryd Power Centre will offer enough information for you, with the bonus of being free. TrainingPeaks offers some basic functionality, but if you are a serious runner only looking to analyse data, and have little to no interest in purchasing a TrainingPlan then I recommend using WKO instead. It costs the same as a year of TrainingPeaks premium with far greater support for running power. There’s a steep learning curve however, so if you’re a new runner this is probably overkill.
Assuming your threshold is accurate, you will be able to see in detail how hard you ran. This data will be far more insightful than pace or heart rate, and pick up small, rapid changes much better. This could be jumping over a fallen tree or sprinting for a couple of strides to make it across the road before the lights turn green. While these aren’t necessarily actionable data points, the power meter ensures that these efforts are recorded and reflected in your training load calculations.
If you are so inclined, you can take a real deep dive into your data looking at the advanced metrics offered by WKO. Here you can see your leg spring stiffness, duty factor, percentage of power generated horizontally or vertically, and all manner of other metrics, which I’m not going to go into here.
Two metrics that are worth paying attention to however are running efficiency and horizontal power.
Running efficiency (RE) looks at how effective you are at turning watts into speed. As you may remember, higher speed means higher watts. But you can also create power simply by jumping up and down on the spot, so this metric looks at how efficient you are. Running efficiency is quite a finite metric, but when running at threshold, anything below 0.97 requires improvement, 1.0 is a good score, and 1.03 or above is likely the realm of elite runners. An improvement in RE over time at the same pace/power suggests that you are improving as a runner.
Percentage of power generated in a horizontal plane (or horizontal power) tells you how much power generated is transferred into forward momentum. As mentioned above, you can create power by jumping up and down on the spot, which would create 0% horizontal power, and 100% vertical power. You can’t create 100% horizontal power, but if you can get it up to around 75-80% this suggests you are moving fluidly.
These metrics will vary from run to run, and will be lower on easy or hilly runs so make sure you’re only comparing these with like for like runs.
The real danger here is getting lost in the numbers and over analysing every single data point. Or believing you aren’t capable of more than the software’s predictions. We should still be runners at heart, hitting the roads/trails for fun and the challenge of pushing our limits. Running power data is so in depth we can run the risk of becoming data analysts first instead of athletes.
Running Power for Triathlon
So, if you’re a triathlete, how does this fit into your training? How can you use it to run faster off the bike? The answer is in form power.
When we run off the bike we’re never going to run as well as we will at a standalone event. Depending on your event and ability you may be up to ten hours into the race at this point. Your legs will be tired and stiff from the repeated pedalling action on the bike. Your mobility may be impaired and your legs will be fatigued. This can mean you find yourself not running as quickly as you’d like. Add to this the accumulation of fatigue over the rest of the run and pace isn’t as useful.
Running power takes this into account. It recognises that you’re putting in the effort, even if you’re not travelling as quickly as you would normally. This is form power, it looks at the vertical and lateral movement from the foot compared to the horizontal power which we touched on above. While generating a high amount of form power is bad news for our running, what’s worse is not taking this into account and pushing harder because we feel we’re slacking off.
This becomes imperative to our pacing. We may know we can hold 5:00 for a marathon when fresh, but after a hard 180Km on the bike this may be 5:20, maybe even 5:30. If we stick to our guns (and pride) aiming for 5:00 per KM we could well be slowly running ourselves into the red. Aiming for a power target instead takes our loss of form into account, ensuring we focus on what our body is doing, as opposed to what we think it should be doing.
So, you may be wondering why more people don’t run with power at this point. I’ll break down a few most common issues people have with running power
Elite athletes don’t use it
It’s true, not many professional runners use Stryd. There are some notable exceptions such as Ben Kanute and Olympic Triathlon Champion Gwen Jorgennson. More often than not this is the choice of their coach rather than the athlete, who will adapt an “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. Truth be told, if I had an athlete who was winning races training with pace and/or heart rate, I probably wouldn’t suggest they switch to running power. Elite athletes are often training at a level where they can’t afford to try something new, especially going into an Olympic year, so they stick to what they know.
Some very successful coaches out there won’t even want their athletes to wear watches. They’ll stand next to the start/finish line of a track with their stopwatch, barking splits out to runners as they complete every lap. While this is an extreme example, many coaches who qualified in the 20th Century aren’t interested in opening their minds to new training methods. There is nothing inherently wrong with this if they’ve been coaching for 30 years and had great success with their current methods, but they may not be getting the most out of their athletes.
This also extends to athletes who may not understand what running power is, how to set it up, or how to use it to make themselves faster. To them it’s just a number that appears on their watch. I hope to demystify it in more detail with more articles in future.
Just not appealing
For some, training with heart rate and pace is enough, or even too much in some cases. If you live a very busy life and don’t have the time, headspace or inclination to look through your numbers after a run. For some, running is a time for them to switch off, lose themselves in nature, or blow off some steam. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s not a “mature technology”
It’s true that our understanding of running power is accelerating at a rapid pace. In fact it could be argued that the entire concept is in beta testing with rapid developments and new interpretations of the data on a regular basis. The concept is based on an algorithm and it’s hard to see how that could be changed currently, so it’s hard to see it becoming as reliable as cycling power any time soon. That being said, look at the way Team Sky and British Cycling advanced the knowledge of cycling power, first developed in the 80s, to emerge as a dominant force in 2012. There is a lot of potential in running power, and early adopters with the right guidance can capitalise on its benefits.
Early versions were poor
Running power meters first arrived on the scene back in 2015 with the Stryd chest strap. By the company’s own admission more recently, it left a lot to be desired. New generations have improved the accuracy and the stability of running power significantly.
The best thing of all though? Just because you record running power doesn’t mean you can’t also run with pace, heart rate or RPE. You can record all four at once, and choose whichever you want to dictate the intensity of your workout. Following a MAF plan? Increases in power can reassure you the training is working.
It may be you want a running power meter simply to record your pace more accurately, or you’re only interested in a single metric such as leg spring stiffness or horizontal power. As with everything in our sport, you only need to take it as seriously as you want. If you have the cash I recommend you give it a go though. It may be just what you need to take your running to the next level.
There are limited resources out there for running power, but I have a few recommendations:
Palladino Power Project
Steve Palladino is an accomplished running coach who has invested heavily in running power, and has created a Facebook group to act as an open forum to discuss running power. With up to date information and good discussions, I recommend you join: https://www.facebook.com/groups/PalladinoPowerProject
Run With Power by Jim Vance
Unfortunately this book is slightly out of date now and I’m hoping for a second edition. However it’s still the primary source of information for running power.
The Secret of Running by Hans van Dijk and Ron van Megen
This is a more up to date book which includes useful information on Running Power
As a company, Stryd have done a good job of creating a number of resources for runners. This includes articles on their website, their podcast and their Facebook group where runners can ask questions and discuss training with Stryd staff https://www.facebook.com/groups/strydcommunity
I hope this has opened your eyes to the potential benefits of running with power. If you have a running power meter and are struggling to understand your data, why not book in a coaching consultation with us here where we can talk you through the process and help get your training on track.
When I started triathlon in 2012 I felt confident the bike would be my strongest discipline. However, my background included riding a 12KM loop around the lakes near my parent’s house and not a lot else. When I discovered the world of road cycling I was drawn in. The clubs, brutal climbs, watching pro cycling, the cafe culture. It all felt like a world hidden in plain sight.
However, within these groups there were very few triathletes, and certainly no triathletes of a high calibre. I discovered, there’s a big difference between road cycling and triathlon cycling. Especially when you start looking at middle and long distance triathlon. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the difference between the pinnacle of both sports
This is an image from the 2020 Tour de France. As you can see it includes over 100 cyclists inches away from each other on standard road bikes wearing standard helmets. They’re getting ready for a bunch sprint, where the first athlete across the line wins the stage. Within each team you have specialists. Whether they are good at long climbs, short climbs, sprinting or are just all rounders, each rider has a role to play.
This is an image from the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. The world’s fastest Ironman athletes converge here every year to take on the famous course. Riders here are keeping a minimum of 12 metres apart unless overtaking, tackling the course with special triathlon bikes optimised for aerodynamics. They also wear clothing and helmets optimised for speed while riding solo. Once they finish their 180KM they then have to run a marathon.
It doesn’t take a sports scientist to notice that these events are very different. Even if you are taking on a triathlon on your road bike, you still have to keep a distanvce between competitors, and still have to run at the end.
The vast majority of road cyclists aren’t really training. The definition of training is specifically structuring your riding for optimal performance at an event. Most road cyclists are just riding around, enjoying the cafe culture, trying to be the first to the top of the hill, and maybe entering the odd sportive. For them cycling is a way to socialise and see more the local area/world. This is absolutely fine, but as triathletes we have our eyes set firmly on race day. We need to think about our riding very differently if we want to optimise our performance. Here are a few tips on how to keep your cycling triaining specific. We’ll be assuming for the purpose of this article you’re not racing a draft legal race.
Focus on Steady State
When you’re on a triathlon bike course nobody cares about your ability to sprint. You won’t impress anyone by being the first to the top of the hill. Finishing with the fastest bike split doesn’t actually mean very much. It’s far more about setting yourself up well for the run without losing too much time. Even the very fastest Ironman cyclists will be putting out pretty comfortable power outputs over an Ironman bike leg. Knowing that it will start to sting towards the end, and they still need to run a marathon.
Triathlons either take place on closed roads or on roads carefully chosen to minimise encounters with cars. Most courses tend to be pretty flat. As a result, there won’t be much chance for respite once you’re on the bike, except braking for corners. To allow for this, you need focus on a continuous, steady power output for the duration of the bike leg. This prevents us from building up fatigue as a result of pushing too hard at any given point. Especially important on hills when it’s easy to get carried away.
There is absolutely a place for hard intervals to develop your cycling fitness. But these need to be chosen thoughtfully and with purpose. Simply exhausting yourself every ride by pushing hard isn’t the best use of your time.
Get used to riding solo
I have no problems with athletes who occasionally join group rides on the weekend. It adds a nice motivational boost, especially in the winter with conditions not conclusive to long rides. The issue comes however when athletes become allergic to riding solo, and need someone to ride with them. While I don’t want to downplay people’s fears about riding on the road solo, if you ride carefully it’s mathematically no more dangerous than walking down the street. You’ll probably be on your own at points on race day, so you need to feel comfortable in this situation.
Riding solo allows you to focus on your own power outputs, get better at reading the road, and develop resilience to the boredom which can come with long, lonely miles, and results in a lack of focus if you’re not careful. By the time you get to within eight weeks of your race, at least every other ride should be done solo.
Become self sufficient
This is a continuation of the previous point, but in triathlon cycling you need to become self sufficient. You can’t cycle along praying that the puncture gods are on your side. You need to know that should the worst happen, you have everything required to get back on the road.
This also applies to carrying supplies, food and drink. You probably won’t be wearing a cycling jersey on race day, so you can’t stuff your pockets with food and tools. You have to carry all the fluids, food, and tools on your bike. There are normally aid stations on course providing you with water and selected sports nutrition. At big events will have roaming mechanics, but these can take over an hour to reach you, and won’t help with punctures or other minor mechanicals.
Aerodynamics For Triathlon Cycling
When riding solo, your biggest enemy is aerodynamics. The benefit of group riding is that riders in front of you disrupt the air, where you can slipstream them. Just like in Formula One Cars will. However, when you are riding on your own there is no windbreak, so we have to do what we can to reduce drag. The best way to achieve this is to narrow your profile as much as possible and use clothing/accessories. These allow for the smoothest airflow possible around the rider and bike. The rider creates around 90% of drag, so the primary focus should be here rather than on fancy wheels or handlebars.
The best way to narrow your profile is with a pair of clip on aero bars which can be affixed to the majority of handlebars. This gives you a basic aero position, which will be worth minutes on most courses. This position is very different and intimidating for many. Without access to the brakes, twitchy steering and feeling closer to the road, it can be intimidating. It may also be uncomfortable to start with, decreasing the hip angle and recruiting more of the hamstrings than you’re used to. This is a definite learning curve and unsuitable for beginners, but worth sticking with as the gains will be significant.
Choosing the right kit to wear is important whatever your sport. However what you wear during triathlon cycling is of paramount importance. Something like a flappy arm sleeve on a jersey could cost you several minutes as it disrupts the airflow. Most racers will opt for a triathlon suit which is close fitting, quick drying, and with a thinner chamois pad than you’re used to. Sleeved suits are the choice of many as fabric is more aerodynamic than skin. They also offer more protection against the sun. Purchasing an aero helmet is another cost effective way to get faster.
Getting Intensity Right
Getting the intensity right during triathlon cycling is paramount. If you undercook the effort you give away a lot of time in what is easily the longest discipline. If you go too hard you lose a lot of time on the run. I see most athletes going too easy in shorter events and go too hard in longer events. You can find recommended intensity factors (percentage of FTP) in this article, under the intensity factor section: https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/an-introduction-to-trainingpeaks-metrics/
You can use a heart rate monitor if you don’t have a power meter. Just swap the power zones for heart rate zones. By incorporating race simulation rides in your training you can set a target intensity.
The Importance of Power
For road cyclists power numbers can be a point of curiosity, or a bragging point. Unless you are really training with purpose, there are probably better places for them to invest their hard earned cash.
As a triathlete however power meters become all but essential if you want to compete at a high level. They are the best way to measure your intensity (see above). Combined with your heart rate mean it’s easy stay in the sweet spot for your race.
You will hear interviews with some of the most successful pros out there who don’t use power meters in races. They claim that “racing is flat out”. This is all well and good if you’ve been training and racing for twenty years and know exactly what your body is and isn’t capable of, but if you don’t know your body well, power becomes very important to manage your training and racing more precisely.
Eating on the go
Most road cyclists will acknowledge the importance of eating on the bike, but most of the time this is pretty simple. They’ll often take on the majority of their nutrition while stationary. Either at a feed station during a sportive or in a cafe at the halfway point of a ride. Triathletes are afforded no such luxury, and must get used to eating on the move. This may sound simple, but conditioning your stomach to take on hundreds of calories while tucked up in an aero position takes practice. When you get hungry towards the end of the bike you can’t put off eating knowing that you’ll soon be sat in a cafe tucking into a cooked breakfast. You still have the run where it’s even harder to eat, so you need to keep the calories coming.
Practice retrieving your food and eating it without slowing down. The more you get used to this, and digesting while on the move, the easier it will be.
Riding in hot conditions
Most triathlons take place in warm conditions. The combination of water temperature and air temperature must be high enough that athletes are unlikely to suffer with hypothermia. Even if things are a bit nippy first thing, even late season races will warm up during the bike. There are of course some notable exceptions, but these are events generally geared towards more experienced competitors.
This means that you need to prepare for racing in warmer temperatures. In some climates this can be very difficult to replicate. If you are training for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, it can be difficult to replicate the humidity and heat in a temperate climate. There are various ways you can acclimatise for the heat, but I won’t go into these here. The main takeaway point for the purposes of this article is that you don’t need to acclimatise to riding in the cold. If you’d like to ride outside through the winter then I’m not going to stop you, but you don’t need to invest in a full winter wardrobe and risk your neck on icy roads as a triathlete as you’ll never race in these conditions.
While the sports of triathlon cycling and road cycling are very similar, there are also a number of differences which you should pay attention to if you want to be competitive. You can complete any triathlon with a road cycling mindset. Riding a standard road bike, stopping at feed stations, showing off on the hills, but those who overtake you at 40KPH looking very comfortable manage to do so because they have trained in a very specific way. Focus your training in the same way and you’ll take huge chunks off of your bike split.
To find out the best way to incorporate this into your training and the kind of sessions you can attempt to improve your triathlon cycling performance, check out our Coaching Consultation page.
Also known as a sprocket or rear block by newer riders, choosing a road cycling cassette is probably one of the most underrated ways to improve your riding, especially on the hills.
So, what are the most important factors here? We’ll look at the following factors:
Range of cassette
Size of biggest/smallest cogs
Range of cassette
A cassette will either be described by cyclists as wide or narrow. A wide cassette has a large range, meaning the differences between your biggest and smallest gears will be large. This allows you to ride fast on the flats and still ride at a sensible cadence on the hills. Meanwhile a narrow cassette will make it much harder to ride up hills, as the rings tend to have fewer teeth.
If a cyclist is looking for one cassette to use in all situations I recommend a cassette with a wide range. You never know when you might find yourself at the bottom of a leg sapping climb on tired legs with no gears left. A narrow cassette is generally only used for specific events like flat triathlons or time trials. The small gaps between gears helps you find your “Goldilocks” gear while wide cassettes can make it hard to get comfortable if you’re forever in a gear slightly too hard or too slightly too easy.
As an example, an 12 speed 11-23 has rings with the following number of teeth: 11/12/13/14/15/16/17/18/19/21/23. In comparison a 32-11 has 11/12/13/14/16/18/20/22/25/28/32. If I was riding on my 11-32 at a power which suited a 15 tooth cog gear on the back, I’d have to choose between a 14 tooth or a 16 tooth, where if I was riding an 11-23 I could ride in the 15 tooth cog I was after. If you’re riding on rolling terrain this isn’t such an issue as you’ll never be in the same gear for long enough for it to be noticeable. But if you’re taking on a flat course such as Ironman Barcelona, you don’t want to spend 180KM unable to find a comfortable gear.
Range is intrinsic to the size of your biggest ring, which we’ll look at next.
Size of biggest/smallest rings
Cassettes are expressed numerically, such as 12-28 or 11-32. The first number refers to the smallest ring, the larger number to the biggest ring.
If choosing a road cycling cassette for a series of punishing climbs you’ll want to take a 28 at the very least. Potentially even a 30 or 32 if it’s an especially hilly ride.
23 is the lowest number of teeth you’re likely to find on the biggest ring of most cassettes. This is only recommended for strong cyclists riding on flat courses. 25 is traditionally what a lot of professional riders will use, dropping to 28s on mountain stages. For us mortals however 28 is a sensible all round cassette as we don’t have the power to push round a 25 tooth cog on a steep grade without wobbling all over the road.
The smallest rings are generally 11 or 12t (the t denoting number of teeth). These won’t make an enormous difference to your riding unless you’re planning to ride hard on the downhills.
Weight of cassette
Some cassettes cost £50 and some cost well over £300 (Campagnolo we’re looking at you). So what’s the difference? Assuming it’s the same brand and has the same number of gears/teeth, it’s just the weight. You can buy an expensive cassette to shave off a few grams, but that really is it. Shimano’s cheapest 11 speed 11-28 cassette, the 105, weighs in at 284g, with their top of the range Dura-Ace equivalent topping the scales at 192g. The 105 cassette retails at £50, the Dura-Ace at £199, so this is a very expensive way to save <100g. There may be minute differences in shifting performance, but you’re unlikely to notice them if your gears are indexed properly.
If I were to advise a new road cyclist, I’d recommend an 11-28 at the very least to help them up the hills. As they get stronger or if they live somewhere with very few hills they might consider a 25. I would only recommend a 23 for competition day, or race simulation rides, as the ability to get up a hill efficiently far outweighs the benefit of the smaller jumps in gears for me.
Most road cyclists will acquire a collection of cassettes over the years. This gives them the flexibility to choose the right cassette for different rides. I wouldn’t necessarily swap between a 30 for my hilly training rides and my 25 on flat training rides, but if I had a big ride (100 miles plus) or a race, I’d take the time to choose the right tool for the job.
Hopefully we’ve enlightened you to the benefits of choosing a road cycling cassette. But before you go and place your order, some really boring stuff. It’s easy to buy a cassette incompatible with your bike, so make sure you avoid the following pitfalls
Manufacturers are generally not cross compatible. Some Shimano and SRAM products will work with each other, but check with your bike shop before buying. Campagnolo is not compatible with any other manufacturer.
Make extra sure you’re buying a cassette which has the right number of gears. As both 11 and 10 speed cassettes are still expressed as 12-28, this is an easy trap to fall into. To complicate matters, older versions of group sets have less gears, so make extra certain it’s the product you’re after before ordering. Each generation of a groupset will have a code (such as Shimano R7000), so make sure you’re getting the right kit. It’s worth checking with your bike shop if you’re unsure what you have on your bike. As long as you order it through them, they’ll be happy to help.
The cassette that was on your bike when you bought it is often the largest it can take. If you want to go above this you’ll need to upgrade to a long cage rear mech. This isn’t an expensive upgrade, but it’s best to order and install the parts together to save on labour costs if you’re unsure how to do it yourself.
Finally, your cassette is a consumable part and will wear over time. The best way to prevent this is to keep your drivetrain clean. Find out how in our article here
The 2020 triathlon season has been the strangest we’ve ever seen, so what will the 2021 triathlon season look like? As a coach and race director who has been involved with the sport for eight years I wanted to share some thoughts (and speculations) on what 2021 will look like.
Will races go ahead?
Yes. As lots of events started happening late in 2020, I don’t currently see any reason why 2021 would be a complete washout. Not all events will go ahead, some race organisers didn’t survive 2020 so some events will disappear for good. The exact numbers and what that will look like we’ll find out in due time, but it depends on a wide range of factors.
But we have vaccines right?
In the last fortnight a number of highly effective vaccines have been announced, giving everybody hope that life can return to something resembling normal in the next six months. Whether these vaccines get approved, are free of side effects or enough can be manufactured to reach remote regions remains to be seen, but this is a massive boost. Here in the UK our government are forecasting the population could be immunised to the point where social distancing is no longer required by April. Even allowing for logistical issues, we should have a good rate of vaccination by summer.
Will I need a vaccine to race?
This is the big question no organiser wants to commit to this far out, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that to start with, probably. As the best vaccines are only 95% effective (which I should point out is still incredible), organisers will not want anyone who has a higher than usual risk of infection on their start line as the law of averages suggests there’s still an above average risk they’ll infect another person. As herd immunity starts to take effect from the majority of the public being vaccinated this may well be relaxed in time, but for the 2021 season I expect many organisers will be asking for proof of vaccination before you can take the start.
What if I can’t get vaccinated?
Most triathletes don’t qualify for “vulnerable” status and are under 60 so we’ll be towards the bottom of the list for immunisation. It may be that races will also accept a negative test result within the last 24 hours in lieu of a vaccination certificate to begin with if vaccinations are not available in your area, but once vaccines become widely available within each country, expect race organisers to take a harder line on this. If you’re unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons, I imagine most race organisers will be able to waive this requirement.
What if I don’t want to get vaccinated?
It’s your right not to get vaccinated, but it’s also the event organiser’s right to potentially refuse entry to anyone who isn’t vaccinated. Hopefully within the next few years the virus will have been stamped out for the most part and proof of vaccination will no longer be required. Until then, you may have to sit on the sidelines or find races which allow unvaccinated athletes. National governing bodies may provide guidance on this, meaning organisers may not have a choice in the matter if they want a race license.
Will there be any spaces?
When countries around the world started locking down in spring 2020 race organisers started postponing events until the autumn, before rolling them into 2021 when it became apparent there was very little chance of the most events going ahead. As these events were rolled over, so were their entries, with all athletes registered for 2020 guaranteed places in the 2021 event. Not all of these athletes will take these places, some will have been so angry at the race organiser they refuse to have anything to do with them. Some will be unable to make the new date, some will simply have lost interest, but I estimate a take-up rate of roughly 60-70%. Even this low estimate means places in 2021 will be very limited, so it’s entirely possible that places at triathlons in 2021 will be hard to come by. 2020 was a tough year for event organisers, but they still had entry fees coming in for the events. Next year will be the real test as their income is slashed due to lack of places they can sell.
I hope organisers add extra dates (races on Saturday and Sunday for instance) or new events appear to provide more athletes with the chance to race, but there’s a chance next year will be very lean when it comes to available slots. If you’re on the fence about making the jump, I recommend you act now.
Will there be social distancing measures in place?
To start with, more likely than not. This may cause frustration for many who may have only been vaccinated to allow them to race, but when you consider how many athletes will live with immunosuppressed individuals who may not be able to get vaccinated for medical reasons, while the virus is still in heavy circulation it’s very likely sensible precautions will be taken to minimise transmission.
This all sounds a bit ominous, will racing ever return to normal?
Probably not in 2021, but you never know. It depends largely on the take-up of vaccines and the resulting infection rates. My inclination is that for as long as daily infection rates remain in the triple figures within most countries/states, that organisers will have to keep measures in place to minimise the spread. As important as triathlon is to us, racing is ultimately a privilege, and we can’t expect to receive special treatment because of how hard we trained.
As events went ahead in 2020 while no vaccines were available and daily deaths were in the thousands globally, I can say with confidence that races will be going ahead in 2021 in some shape or form. Whether your event will go ahead, you’ll need a vaccination or what the format looks like none of us can say, but by the time these details become clear you’ll likely be out of time to train for your event from nothing, so I recommend you take a leap of faith and act as if they’re going ahead.
All predictions made in this article were made on the 27th November 2020, and are purely speculative
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 training as a beginner, 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. This ensures you’re ready to go for the next hard session. 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, worried about failing to finish. But if you are so over trained that you’re exhausted on the start line, you’re not going to have a good race.
2. Progress Your Training
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. After reaching 5K run 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. Progress this by reducing the rest or increasing the duration of the hard running. Keep moving forward with your training on your hard days.
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 likely find yourself panicking and disorientated. Most lakes will provide coaching, to provide you with a much smoother transition into the open water.
4. Learn to ride at a consistent effort
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. Split 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 is free speed.
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. When you start to run out of this valuable resource your performance will fall off a cliff as your body runs out of glucose. Practice eating 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 race 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. This avoids any embarrassing extra laps on the bike or getting lost in transition.
8. Buy a turbo trainer
Training for the bike, especially if you live in a city 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). You don’t even have to worry about traffic, potholes or bad weather. It also allows you to train properly by following workouts, or take part in virtual events.
9. Train in poor conditions
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
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
Ergometer mode, or ERG mode as it is more commonly known, is a function of most modern smart trainers which allows the trainer to set the resistance for you. If your target is 200W and you go above this, the trainer will reduce the resistance to stop you from going any higher. If your wattage drops below the target it will increase the resistance to encourage you to put more force through the pedals and get back up to target.
To many cyclists this sounds ideal. It allows them to relax for a bit and watch some TV while they train or listen to an audiobook. Safe in the knowledge that their trainer won’t let their power drift too high or too low. However, it’s not without its problems, which I’ll go into here.
Riding in a vacuum
When riding in ERG mode you don’t have to think about gradients and changing gear. However as your target event is probably outside, this does not prepare you for the realities of racing a bike outdoors. Make sure you do your steady state rides outside of training mode on a virtual course to prepare you for this. This is especially important in the last eight weeks before your event.
The Spiral of Death
If your cadence drops significantly or you stop pedalling ERG mode will instigate what many call the spiral of death. This is when it increases resistance dramatically as you’re not putting out enough power. If you’re in the middle of a tough interval, this can feel like riding through wet cementas you try to pick the pace up again. We all drop our chain, have to answer the door or adjust the fan sometimes, so this is something to be conscious of. You may end up having to skip an interval or even abandon the workout as a result.
Problems with Power Meters
If you own a power meter you should be using it for all your training to make sure all the numbers match. This helps to keep your data clean and ensure all your intervals are accurate. There is something of a problem however as the training software will listen to the power meter, check the power output against the target, and then tell the trainer to increase or decrease the resistance. When the device creating the resistance isn’t the same as the device measuring the power, the ERG mode isn’t nearly as accurate or immediate to change reistance. This means you need to focus much more on holding targets, offering the worst of both worlds.
For harder workouts this can be beneficial if you feel you would struggle to complete it otherwise. However I find that more often than not it’s more effort than it’s worth.
Inability to change gear
You can physically change gear in ERG mode, but the trainer will pick up on this pretty instantly and change resistance. If you find yourself pedalling squares desperate to increase you cadence, the only way to do this is by pedalling harder to lower the resistance. If you’re really struggling in a workout however, your ability to hold this cadence may be compromised. This will likely result in your cadence slowing again and ERG mode “carrying” you through the rest of the interval at 40RPM. There is a time and place for this, such as a ramp test, but you can’t get through every hard interval this way. Disabling ERG mode will give you a more authentic training experience.
Perhaps the biggest issue I have with ERG mode is the way it encourages a slow, lazy cadence. Riders who start to fatigue will naturally slow their cadence, yet ERG will push back to ensure they stay within the power target. This can result in riders associating harder efforts with a slower cadence and ultimately spending most of their time in tempo and sweetspot at 70RPM, well below where I’d want to see athletes riding, even the low cadence advocates will race at 80-85RPM. You can’t afford to spend time fiddling with your gears trying to find the narrow cadence window you’re used to riding in from training.
Uneven wear on cassette
If you do a lot of riding in ERG mode, you will be doing a lot of riding with minimal (if any) changing of gear, which can create a lot of uneven wear on the cassette, wearing one or two cogs excessively which will lead to shifting issues.
I’ve given ERG mode a bit of a bad rep so far, but there are some definite benefits to using it.
No need to concentrate
If I have to use the turbo for my steady state rides, I’m happy with the entertainment provided by the scenery and the changing gradient, but that’s me, and I know not everyone is as easily entertained. For many, turbo training is the perfect time to catch up on the latest Netflix series or watch a film their partner isn’t interested in. With a pair of bluetooth headphones they can enjoy some televisual entertainment while riding, and ERG mode keeping them within the power boundaries. This is more useful for steady state workouts than intervals, as most software does not integrate with video, so you may end up being caught unawares by a sudden increase in resistance.
Helps you complete tough workouts
The mental element of training is just as important as the physical element of training, and for many the presence of ERG mode is the difference between them completing or failing a workout. I’d much rather someone limps over the line and completes a workout at a low cadence than they have to give up and bail twenty minutes in because they can’t hold the power without their trainer pushing back. This provides a safety net for many cyclists, and as long as they’re conscious of the shortcomings of ERG mode (not to let cadence drop too low, don’t stop pedalling, e.t.c.) then they should do whatever it takes to complete the workout.
So, should you ride with ERG mode? As ever… it depends. For workouts which include lots of micro bursts or short sharp increases in intensity such as V02 or sprints, absolutely not. If it’s an easier workout where you’re more concerned about going too hard than too easy and want to watch Breaking Bad while you do so, then it’s a good choice.
The difficulty comes with the middle ground, the tempo and sweetspot rides where riders may find comfort in the knowledge ERG mode will help them complete the workout. For this, I would look at how close to race day you are, if you’re six weeks out from your A race, then switch it off and learn how to control the intensity yourself. If you’re nine months away from your next big event and just doing some base training, then do whatever it takes to get you through the session.