Triathlon Magazine Canada

Stronger, Faster Cycling in Long Course

- WITH MELANIE MCQUAID Three-time Xterra world champion Melanie McQuaid finished third at Ironman Chattanoog­a last year. She is a regular training columnist for Triathlon Magazine Canada.

THERE IS A saying in triathlon: “bike for show, run for dough,” but anyone who has successful­ly earned “the dough” knows a great run performanc­e is facilitate­d by strong cycling. Riding well in a longcourse triathlon requires three main qualities: endurance, strength, and optimized aerodynami­cs.


There are two types of endurance that factor into riding well over the length of a long-course race: general endurance and strength endurance. Since long-course bike segments take athletes an average of three hours for a half-distance race and roughly double that for a full-distance event, being comfortabl­e riding for long periods of time is essential.

General endurance describes how long you can sustain a given pace and is determined by your aerobic capacity. Aerobic capacity is a measure of how well your heart and lungs can get oxygen to your muscles. This aspect of your physiology determines both how fast you can go and how far. The simplest way to improve aerobic capacity is consistent­ly training more at an easy-to-moderate pace. There is no shortcut to the time commitment required to build aerobic capacity, and this is where beginner athletes should start.

Strength endurance is the ability to sustain high muscle tension. This specific type of endurance is developed by applying force to the pedals at lower cadence. Riding at a low cadence keeps your muscle fibres engaged longer, training them to fatigue less under load. If you want to ride faster for longer in long-course racing, this is the best training stimulus.

Long-course triathlon racing favours consistent, even pacing and smooth pedalling. Strength endurance trains you to hold higher power at low cadence, improves your fatigue resistance, and maximizes your pedalling efficiency. Athletes with noisy upper bodies rocking back and forth (which also affects aerodynami­cs, another key factor that follows) can improve on their technique using strength endurance workouts. Strength endurance workouts address technique, efficiency and the specific endurance qualities you need, so they should be a prominent feature in your long course cycling training.


Strength endurance, as described above, improves the length of time you can hold a certain intensity. Muscular strength is the intensity of force you can put into the pedals. These two terms are distinct. Your maximum muscular strength can limit your sustainabl­e force, so it is important to train.

The best way to train muscular strength is in the gym. Weightlift­ing simplifies the movement and overloads the muscles in ways cycling cannot. Weight training helps build strong legs, hips and glutes for applying force to the pedals and to withstand the stress of hours of repetitive motion. Strength in the upper body is also important in cycling for supporting a great aerodynami­c position, so a well-rounded strength program is beneficial for any triathlete.

Muscular strength work also improves your efficiency and pedalling economy. That means your pedalling technique and the amount of force you can apply to the pedals degrades less over the course of the race. Slowing down the least wins races, so this is a key training objective.


Optimal aerodynami­c positionin­g offers time savings of up to six minutes of time over 40 km, 12 minutes for 90 km and potentiall­y half an hour in a full-distance race. Getting aerodynami­cs right is important (if not the most important) detail in long-course racing. That amount of improvemen­t is difficult to achieve with any training modificati­on you can implement, especially if you are a seasoned athlete.

Drag is non-negotiable in cycling. Unlike riding uphill, where the battle with gravity is over once the terrain is flat, drag is always present to some degree. The bike contribute­s about 20 to 35 per cent to aerodynami­c drag, while more than 60 per cent is created by your body. There is a lot of seductive marketing behind aero equipment, but no amount of equipment modificati­on can trump poor physical aerodynami­cs.

Mobility is key for achieving better aerodynami­cs— adequate mobility allows you to attain a good position, or allows you to sustain an aero position for longer. Working on hamstring flexibilit­y, hinging mechanics and thoracic spine mobility are three areas to focus on for better aero positionin­g.

The basic shape you want to achieve is a flat torso, knees just behind your elbows, your head low with the space between your head and shoulders filled by your aero helmet and your arms comfortabl­y in front of you punching a hole in the wind. Creating a teardrop shape with the front of your body presenting the smallest area to the wind as possible is the goal. Having a bike fitter look at your body, your mobility and your bike is a good idea.

Aero positions are developed over months and years, not days and weeks. Once you have your position establishe­d, practise holding that position as much as possible. Incorporat­e ideal aerodynami­cs into training sessions and interval training. If you have a great aero position but can’t hold it for the duration of the race, you won’t benefit from the aerodynami­cs.

Working on your absolute strength in the gym, while simultaneo­usly training strength endurance in your aerodynami­c position, is an effective basic framework for all long course cycling training. Riding fast puts you in a position to run for the win and makes the longest portion of the race more fun. Try some of these tips for your next long-course race and see how riding stronger affects your whole race.

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