Inside Triathlon followed the pair while Carfrae went out for an intense interval session with Steinmetz cruising alongside her. To make it to a particular uphill road he picked for her session (4×90 seconds, 2×3 minutes, 4×90 seconds all out), she had to ride over a steep, continuous climb. Carfrae elected to stay out of the saddle and grind a slow cadence for nearly the entire easy ascent, but when the hard work started, her pedaling technique changed dramatically. Steinmetz switched the hill on the fly to one shallow enough to allow Carfrae to hold a cadence above 80, and she attacked every interval from the aerobars and kept her pedals spinning with him offering constant reminders and encouragement. She wanted to jump up from the bars and ride out of the saddle but instead kept herself glued to the seat. Glancing between the expression on her face and the data on his Garmin, Steinmetz approved.
Carfrae’s bike coordinates have changed only moderately in the past two years, but her fit looks dramatically different. Her crank arms are shorter—165mm instead of 172.5mm—and her saddle is substantially farther forward, but the biggest difference is the way she sits atop the bike. Carfrae used to wrap her hands below the extensions to lever her elbows up off the pads and raise her upper body, simulating a higher bar position. The crank and saddle adjustment provided the relief she was seeking by lifting herself high on her bars. Now she drapes her hands on top of the shifters. Carfrae occasionally reverts to old habits, so Steinmetz takes short video clips from the scooter during her workouts and shares the footage at refueling stops or after the ride. This seemingly subtle grip change along with the saddle position adjustment reverberates through her entire position: Her shoulders and wrists relax, her torso drops closer to horizontal, and she scoots farther forward on the saddle.
In addition to working on her cadence and fit, Carfrae is giving cycling the priority in her schedule that used to be reserved for the run. In past years, her training schedule revolved around two or three key run sessions. Bike workouts were plugged into the recovery days that followed. “A lot of athletes can run OK when their legs are tired from cycling, but when you’ve done a really key run session it affects the bike quite a bit,” Steinmetz says. So they decided to flip the structure. “We’re putting a lot of the bike sessions first and leaving enough space for the tempo runs,” he says. The big question is whether Carfrae can maintain her devastating run ability without keying her week around that discipline. Based on her workouts so far, it appears she can. “I’m finding that the bike sessions haven’t taken too much out of my run sessions,” she says, with a hint of apprehension. Carfrae is still waiting for the real test on the race course.
Carefully designing and monitoring her most important workouts is another lesson Carfrae is transferring from her run training to cycling. Although Carfrae is a big believer in training by feel rather than racing as a slave to a device, she partially credits her otherworldly run ability to learning how to pace evenly using a Garmin GPS running watch or treadmill. Developing a feel for consistently pacing with a device helped her duplicate that effort when running without the feedback. Now she is using power to steady her effort on the bike. “In the past, I’ve done the work on the bike; it just wasn’t as specific as it is now and it wasn’t monitored,” she recalls.
The day after her short, intense interval session, Carfrae headed out for a long endurance ride with six eight-minute repeats just above 70.3 race power, then later moto-paced behind Steinmetz on the scooter. She was feeling the effects of the prior day’s training, but the power meter confirmed she was in fact still able to maintain the right effort. She may have ridden that effort in the past but wouldn’t have known if she was nailing the effort or if her body needed rest. Now she knows with certainty. Although she plans to leave the power meter on her bike for races, the screen will be covered and Carfrae will again be racing by feel. Recording the data allows Steinmetz to pore over the file and identify the things she does well and what goes wrong so the pair can tweak her training schedule accordingly.
With Wellington taking a year away from the sport and Dibens, another major threat, recovering from surgery, two of the benchmarks against which Carfrae might measure the success and failure of her new cycling-oriented plan are missing, but Carfrae’s main source of motivation is internal. “It’s improvement for me,” she says. “If I feel like I’m stronger overall as an athlete then I’m happy. If that means winning, fantastic. If that means not winning, or third, fourth, fifth, I can’t be anything other than happy.” Even though she can walk away from Kona feeling successful without the title, Carfrae has the potential to become the next Kona juggernaut if she and Steinmetz can reengineer her cycling just as Alexander did the year before.
Overhaul Your Bike Split
Carfrae is working to reinvent herself as a cyclist by diligently implementing a series of proven strategies. Each of these changes is relatively simple to make, and can help upgrade your cycling ability as Mirinda Carfrae hopes to do.
Train with focus. Carfrae isn’t just riding more miles to improve her bike split; she’s controlling her effort more specifically. Instead of going by feel, Carfrae is using a power meter to dose and track her effort. One key workout a week is typically dedicated to intense riding and another to longer endurance riding, which is no different than she’s done in years past. But now Carfrae and Steinmetz both look at her power and cadence data during the ride to ensure she hits the effort needed to get faster, then Steinmetz looks back at the data after she is finished. If she can’t hold her goal watt, they know to back off with a rest day.
Ride on fresh legs. Not all workout fatigue is the same. Although a hard day on the bike can deplete your body, Steinmetz says a hard run has much more impact on the next day’s training because of the physical pounding against the ground. Carfrae is finding a hard ride has almost no impact on a quality run session the following day, but that doesn’t work in reverse. To boost the quality of your bike workouts, schedule them before your hard runs, not after. Carfrae’s mid-week bike workout is now scheduled for Tuesdays and the run for Wednesday, the reverse of her schedule in years past.
Steady your effort level. Carfrae used to stand up and grind over rolling hills with a very low cadence—often below 60RPM—but at a very high power output, then recover over the backside. Steinmetz believes this up-and-down strategy was costing her time and energy. Now she is striving to keep both her cadence and power steady regardless of terrain. If you have a power meter, keep the number almost consistent over short hills. Otherwise, quickly drop gears as you start to tilt upward and strive to keep your cadence high rather than your torque on the pedals.
Tune your fit. Carfrae went through major bike changes before the 2010 and 2011 Ironman World Championships that allowed her to improve her fit, but she didn’t have the time to adapt before the races. She waited until after the 2011 event to substantially change her fit. One indicator she needed a fit upgrade was her grip. Instead of resting comfortably on the bars, she gripped beneath them and levered her elbows up off the bars to open her hips. If you find yourself using your arms to force your way upward, your fit probably needs work.