5 Weeks to a Stronger Bike

Want to see solid gains on the bike before your next goal race? Take to the hills. 

As a triathlete, your calendar year should not be a linear build of balanced swim, bike and run sessions. Rather, you’ll want to pick specific times of the year to work on certain aspects of your race. The mid-season is a good time to tackle a bike-focused plan.

A few reasons why you would want to add a mid-season bike focus phase into your training schedule include:
1. You feel you are under-performing or are feeling weak on the bike in general.
2. Your key event(s) has a demanding bike course.
3. Despite a strong cardiovascular engine and top run fitness, you have not been able to run well off the bike (increased strength and efficiency on the bike will leave you with more energy for a stronger run).
4. One particular aspect of your cycling is not up to par, such as your climbing.
5. Your key race(s) is a long-course event that is late in the season, and you’d like to ramp up the training volume for that occasion.

Typically, the bike segment of triathlon is the longest leg time-wise, and it is critical that you are in peak riding form for your goal race(s). Training on hills can be very effective and efficient in helping you achieve this peak form with your cycling. Hilly routes amplify a deficiency and are also prime opportunities to make gains in cycling competency and fitness. Hill climbing is central to this plan.

The program

This program places an emphasis on cycling while still helping you maintain swim and run fitness. It is important to do the sessions in the order listed. There are some optional sessions and duration ranges for athletes of differing abilities, time availability and accumulated fatigue levels. If you started racing in April or May, you should plan for a mid-summer block of limited racing or no racing at all. You will build your triathlon training schedule around your bike focus, with 50–60 percent of your allotted training time being in the saddle.

This five-week program targets athletes who are racing Olympic-distance or half-Ironman events and have been swimming, biking and running at least two to three times per week. You should be comfortable running a minimum of 75 minutes and riding more than two hours, with some interval work or racing under your belt. Be more conservative if you have done less training. If you are racing longer, increase volume and decrease intensity slightly, while following similar principles.

By the end of the five weeks you will be ready to taper into your key race, and you will be riding hills stronger than ever!

Types of hill sessions

Low cadence climbing or simulated climbing: Riding at a lower cadence in a big gear recruits more muscle fibers per pedal stroke and builds cycling-specific strength. Slowing the cadence allows you to focus on being efficient. This can be done on an evenly graded hill, on the flat into a headwind or on a trainer using a large gear.

Hill accelerations: Hill accelerations are short, dynamic climbs that start by accelerating quickly out of the saddle and then pedaling seated, with speed for the duration of the interval. They are done at approximately 85–90 percent of top speed for the listed duration. They build leg speed, efficient central nervous system recruitment of muscle fibers and lactic acid tolerance.

Classic hill intervals: These intervals are done at or above race effort for one to five minutes. Typically athletes ride up and down the same stretch of hill to gauge progress and create a repeatable effort across the set. The last half of the interval set is challenging and trains lactic threshold. You will build strength and an ability to sustain a harder effort for a longer duration.

Hilly base ride: Riding on hilly terrain guarantees you will get some quality work in and will give you a chance to practice your climbing and descending skills. Ride the hills with confidence and let your heart rate creep up a little on the ascents. Remember that this is primarily an aerobic effort. Practice keeping some pressure on the pedals on the descents as well.

Climbing Technique Tips

Seated:
• Sit farther back in the saddle to gain leverage on the pedals.
• Bend elbows slightly to maximize biceps effectiveness.
• Avoid rocking side to side or back and forth.
• Keep your upper body “quiet” and utilize core muscles.
• Pedal full circles, pushing forward in the shoes and back at the bottom of the stroke.
• Keep ankles at 90 degrees throughout pedal stroke.
• Practice and employ proper gear selection to maintain a high cadence whenever possible.

Standing:
• Accelerate for three to five pedal stories when transitioning from sitting to standing.
• Keep your chin down and your butt up.
• Keep elbows bent to maximize biceps’ pull on handlebars.
• Rock the bike just slightly from side to side, but paint a straight line up the hill with your tires.
• Employ a quick and light cadence: “Dance on the pedals.”

Other factors to help you climb:
• Drop extra weight–off your bike or your body. Climbing is about power-to-weight ratio. If you are still crying an extra 5 pounds from the off-season, it’s time to trim down. A pound or 2 off your bike helps as well, especially if you are a smaller athlete. Losing 2 pounds off your bike is more significant to a 110-pound athlete versus a 200-pound athlete.
• Pump your tires and oil your chain. Low tire pressure and a gritty chain will add resistance and slow you down.
• Practice shifting. Carrying momentum into and over a hill means timely shifting. Shift too early and you spin out’ shift too late and the hill overcomes you. Timely shifting as you crest the hill helps you accelerate faster over the top.
• Invest in a power meter. Learn your optimal power vs. cadence vs. heart rate on different hip grades to gauge efficiency. Or simply start chasing higher wattage outputs while climbing your favorite hills.

Coaching Abbreviations/Terminology

WU = warm-up | MS = main set | CD = cool-down | X’ = X minutes, i.e. 3’ | X” = X seconds, i.e. 30” | Zn = zone (heart rate or perceived effort), i.e. Zn 1 = Zone 1 | (brackets) = time indication for rest in between intervals or tasks, i.e. 4 x 3’ (2’) | RPM = cadence (repetitions per minute) | HR = heart rate | P-ups = pick-ups. Short accelerations at 75-85% of your maximum sprint speed | Alt = alternate | PE = perceived exertion

Single-Leg Drill

The single-leg drill is a useful pedal stroke skill exercise and is included several times in the plan. You may also become aware of a leg strength imbalance with this drill. It is best done on a stationary trainer or on a flat road. Unclip one foot, bracing it against the trainer or the seatstay tube. Try to keep your pedal stroke smooth all the way around—getting through the top of the stroke will be difficult. Initially, you may only last a few seconds before the hip flexors fatigue; at that point switch to the other leg.

Week 1

Monday
Day Off: Day off or recovery swim. Keep volume low, and emphasize drills and efficient aerobic swimming. resist the temptation to hammer!

Tuesday
Bike: WU: 15-30’ easy, include single-leg pedalling drills, and 2-3’ at 100-105RPM. MS: 4-6 x 5’ at 55-65RPM Zn 2-3 (2.5’ easy at 90RPM, Zn 1). CD: 15-30’.
Performance Pointer: Pedal in smooth circles, distributing the work evenly between the hamstring and gluteal muscles, and tune in to how that perfect circle carries the bike forward. avoid piston-style (quad-dominant) pedaling.

Run: Optional easy aerobic run, Zn 1-2, 20-40’.

Wednesday
Run: Tempo. WU: 15’ Zn 1 building gradually to Zn 2. MS: 20-30’ Zn 3 building gradually to Zn 4. CD: 15’ Zn 1. maintain a steady effort and cadence on flat terrain or a treadmill. Heart rate should gradually rise while the pace stays even.

Swim: WU: 400-800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 8-15 x 100 (20”) pull (paddles optional). CD: 200 with free and non-free.

Thursday
Day Off: Day off or recovery ride, 60-75 mins.

Friday
Swim: Endurance. WU: 300-600 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 2-3 x 800 (1’) at a steady aerobic pace. CD: 200 with free and non-free. Sustained efforts, keep the pace in control to maintain good form for the whole set.

Bike: 60-90’ ride. include 5-8 x 20” hill accelerations at halfway. Take as much recovery as necessary. The balance of the ride is in Zn 2. Hill accelerations build dynamic strength and teach you to recruit fibers efficiently. They are at 85-90% of your maximum pace. This should tune you up for tomorrow’s ride. Don’t overdo it!

Saturday
Bike: Hilly base ride, continuous riding for 2.5–4 hours. WU: 10-15’ flat and easy, Zn 1. MS: continuous with hills of 2 to 5 minutes at 3-6% grade and 65-85RPM, HR/PE raises from Zn 2 to Zn 3. CD: 10’-15’, HR gradually drops to Zn 1. HR may rise on the uphills but keep it under control by adjusting pace if necessary. If you don’t have the appropriate terrain, adapt by overgearing to ride at a lower cadence.
Performance Pointer: On longer hilly rides, gear down before the hill to prevent the buildup of lactic acid early in the ride.

Sunday
Run: Aerobic base, 75–120 mins, Zn 1-2, flatter terrain.
Bike: Optional afternoon ride, 60–90 mins, Zn 2.

Week 2

Monday
Day Off: Day off or recovery swim.

Tuesday
Bike: WU: 15-30’ easy, include single-leg pedaling drills, and 2-3’ at 100-105RPM. MS: 4-5 x 6’ at 55-65RPM Zn 2-3 (3’ easy at 90RPM, Zn 1). CD: 15-30’.

Run: Optional easy aerobic run, Zn 1-2, 20-40’. Keep it easy for recovery. Take the day off running if you are newer or you have sore legs.

Wednesday
Swim: WU: 400-800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 5-8 x 200 (20”) pull (paddles optional). CD: 200 with free and non-free.

Run: Treadmill hills. WU: 15’ in Zn 1 building gradually to Zn 2. MS: 3-4 x 3.5’ hills at 5% grade (1.5’ off the mill), Zn 3 and rising to Zn 4 by the last 1-2 repeats. CD: 15’ Zn 1. Short rest. Practice getting on and off the treadmill by stepping aside, leaving it running at the desired pace setting, so no time is lost in acceleration and deceleration. Walk around the gym or stretch during recovery.

Thursday
Day Off: Day off or recovery ride, 60-75 mins.

Friday
Swim: Endurance. WU: 300-600 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 3-4 x 600 (1’) at a steady aerobic pace. CD: 200 with free and non-free.

Bike: 60-90’ ride. Include 5-8 x 20” hill accelerations at halfway. Take as much recovery as necessary. The balance of the ride is in Zn2.

Saturday
Bike: Hilly base ride, continuous riding for 2.5–4 hours. WU: 10-15’ flat and easy, Zn 1. MS: middle portion of the ride, excluding warm-up and cool-down, is continuous with hills of 2 to 5 minutes at 3-6% grade and 65-85RPM, HR/PE raises from Zn 2 to 3. CD: 10’-15’, HR gradually drops to Zn 1.
Performance Pointer: Stay seated on long climbs. You will use 10% less energy by staying in the saddle, meaning less work for your core and back muscles. Use the larger gluteal and hip muscles to your advantage.

Sunday
Run: Aerobic base, 75–105 mins, Zn 1-2.

Bike: Optional afternoon ride, 60–90 mins, Zn 2.

Week 3: Recovery Week

Monday
Day Off: Day off or recovery swim.

Tuesday
Bike: WU: 15-30’ easy, include single-leg pedaling drills, and 2-3’ at 100-105RPM. MS: 3-4 x 5’ at 95-105RPM Zn 2 (3’ easy at 90RPM, Zn 1). CD: 15-30’.
Performance Pointer: A short aerobic set at a slightly higher than average cadence is a great way to promote blood flow to healing muscles to help recovery.

Wednesday
Run: Easy aerobic run, 30-45 mins, Zn 1-2.

Thursday
Day Off: Go for a walk and stretch!

Friday
Swim: Endurance. WU: 300-600 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 5-8 x 200 (30”) at a steady aerobic pace. CD: 200 with free and non-free.

Run: 30-45 mins. Do 4-8 x 20” hill strides at halfway.

Saturday
Bike: 2–2.5 hour aerobic base ride, Zn 1-2, flatter.
Performance Pointer: Hills provide less aerodynamic resistance and you actually generate more power sitting up in the saddle. hands should be on top of the bars, relaxed in grip and wide enough to allow good chest expansion for breathing.

Sunday
Run: Aerobic base, 60-75 mins, Zn 1-2.

Week 4

Monday
Day Off: Day off or recovery swim.

Tuesday
Bike: Hill intervals. WU: 15-30’ easy, include single-leg pedaling drills, and 2-3’ at 100-105RPM. MS: 6-10 x 3’ hills at ~4-6% grade (2-3’ ride down for recovery) at 70-80RPM, Zn 4 and rising to Zn 5 by the last 1-2 repeats. CD: 15-30’ Zn 1.
Performance Pointer: the uphill set should start strong and be very intense by the last 3-4 intervals.

Run: Optional easy aerobic run, 20-40 mins, Zn 1-2. If your legs feel good, consider adding 4-6 x 30” (30”) at 10K rhythm/pace —no faster—to work on run economy.

Wednesday
Swim: WU: 400-800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 6-8 x 300 (40”) pull (paddles optional). CD: 200 with free and non-free.

Run: Treadmill hills. WU: 15’ in Zn 1 building gradually to Zn 2. MS: 4-5 x 2.5’ hills at 5% grade (1’ off the mill), Zn 3 and rising to Zn 4 by the last 1-2 repeats. CD: 15’ Zn 1.
Performance Pointer: The treadmill is a great tool for working on cadence. During warm-up, count your strides on one leg for 30”. Aim for 45 strides or more, which is equivalent to a 90+ cadence, a good measure of efficiency.

Thursday
Bike: Trainer or long steady climb. WU: 15-30’ easy, include single-leg pedaling drills, and 2-3’ at 100-105RPM. MS: 20-35’ at 55-65RPM, Zn 2-3. CD: 15-30’, a long steady climb or simulated climb done in a time-efficient manner.
Performance Pointer: On long steep climbs, alternate sitting and standing to use different muscle groups. Just before you stand, shift to the next harder gear, then shift one easier when you sit again. these gear changes will help you maintain a steady pace during grade and cadence changes.

Friday
Swim: Endurance. WU: 300-600 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 1000-1500 straight, build pace by 1/4. Start aerobic and build to race pace. CD: 200 with free and non-free.

Bike: 60-90’ ride. Include 5-8 x 30” hill accelerations at halfway. Take as much recovery as necessary. The balance of the ride is in Zn 2.

Saturday
Bike: Hilly base ride, continuous riding for 2.5–3.5 hours. WU: 20-30’ flat and easy, Zn 1. MS: continuous with hills of 2–10 minutes at 3-6% grade and 65-85RPM, HR/PE raises from Zn 3 to the low end of Zn 4. CD: 20-30’, HR gradually drops to Zn 1. Overall endurance sessions shorten as the intensity picks up during the last 2 weeks of the schedule. Take a slightly longer warm-up and cool-down, ride the hills in the middle portion slightly more aggressively, letting HR rise to the low end of zone 4. Find longer climbs if you can.
Performance Pointer: When climbing moderate-grade hills, keep your cadence optimally at 75+RPM. On a long ride there is less strain on the joints with the higher cadence and it’s easier to fall into a good rhythm for carrying momentum up the hill.

Sunday
Run: Aerobic base, 75–90 mins, Zn 1-2.

Bike: Optional afternoon ride, 60-90 mins, Zn 2.

Week 5

Monday
Day Off: Day off or recovery swim.

Tuesday
Bike: Hill intervals. WU: 15-30’ easy, include single-leg pedaling drills, and 2-3’ at 100-105RPM. MS: 10-15 x 2’ hills at 4-6% grade (2-3’ ride down for recovery) at 70-80RPM, Zn 4 and rising to Zn 5 by the last 3-4 repeats. CD: 15-30’ Zn 1.
Performance Pointer: Shorter hills and more relative recovery means you should strive for a harder output and higher heart rates compared to last week.

Run: Optional easy aerobic run, 20–40 mins, Zn 1-2. If your legs feel good, consider adding 4-6 x 30” (30”) at 10K rhythm/pace.

Wednesday
Swim: WU: 400-800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 30 x 50 (20”) pull (paddles optional). CD: 200 with free and non-free. Shorter intervals, so pick up the pace!
Run: Tempo. WU: 15’ in Zn 1 building gradually to Zn 2. MS: 20-30’ Zn 3 building gradually to Zn 4. CD: 15’Zn1.

Thursday
Bike: Trainer or long steady climb. WU: 15-30’ easy, include single-leg pedaling drills, and 2-3’ at 100-105RPM. MS: 20-35’ at 55- 65RPM, Zn 2-3. CD: 15-30’.

Friday
Swim: Endurance. WU: 300-600 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 3-4 x 600 (1’) at a steady aerobic pace. CD: 200 with free and non-free. Compare your performance to Week 2’s swim.

Bike: 60–90 mins. Include 5-8 x 30” hill accelerations at halfway. Take as much recovery as necessary. The balance of the ride is in Zn 2.

Saturday
Bike: Hilly base ride, continuous riding for 2–3 hours. WU: 20-30’ flat and easy, Zn 1. MS: continuous with hills of 2 to 10 minutes at 3-6% grade and 65-85RPM, HR/PE raises from Zn 3 to the low end of Zn 4. CD: 20-30’, HR gradually drops to Zn 1.

Sunday
Run: Aerobic base run, 60–75 mins, Zn 1-2.

Bike: Optional afternoon ride, 60-90 mins, Zn 2.

Lance Watson, LifeSport head coach, has trained a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 30 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Contact Lance to tackle your first Ironman or to perform at a higher level. For more training tips, visit LifeSport Coaching on Facebook or on Twitter at @LifeSportCoach.