For those new to triathlon, the bike leg seems relatively straightforward: mount, pedal hard, dismount, run. But it’s far more complex than that. To have a successful ride, a triathlete must pay attention to a whole lot of variables. Mess something up, and it’s not just the bike leg that suffers – the effects often snowball onto the run.
Even experienced triathletes blow it on the bike and pay for it later on. In fact, you might be making one of these crucial mistakes and not even know it. Read on for the top five ways to blow it on the bike—and how to stop those errors in their tracks.
Mistake #1: Underfueling
“One major way triathletes blow it on the bike is not fueling enough,” said Beth Peterson, RD, CSSD, LDN, of The Core Diet. In shorter events, you might be able to squeak by, but once you get into Olympic, half, and full Iron-distance races, glycogen depletion and fluid loss become key factors in fatigue. Fueling with simple carbohydrates (generally 60-90 grams per hour), along with fluids and electrolytes, is overwhelmingly associated with improved performance. “We know carbohydrates work,” Peterson said. Falling short of fueling requirements on the bike can quickly unravel a race, as glycogen depletion and dehydration are difficult, if not impossible, to make up for on the run.
The bike leg is the ideal spot to nail your nutrition. With its seated position, logistical ease of eating and drinking, and lack of mechanical jostling, it’s also the easiest place to fuel. Yet many triathletes don’t eat or drink enough on the bike. For some, the issue is finding the right food and drink that both tastes good and is well tolerated by the gut during intense efforts. For others, it’s figuring out how much to eat and drink during the bike leg. There’s also the issue of developing a taste (or at least a tolerance) for sports nutrition products, and handling them at race intensities.
All of this takes work, and all of this work should be done in training, so that you go into race day with a solid nutrition plan for your race. Yet many triathletes don’t do this, which brings us to the next major mistake triathletes make on the bike leg…
Mistake #2: Winging it
Underfueling can make you blow it on the bike (and then later, even worse, on the run), but so can taking in more than your gut can handle. All too often, athletes wing their nutrition strategies. They skimp on fueling during training, then try to up the ante on race day; or train in cooler climates, then increase their fluid intake dramatically at a hot race. The digestive system can’t handle such drastic changes, and gastrointestinal distress is the body’s way of making this known.
The solution? Have a tried-and-true bike fueling plan that’s been put to the test while training in similar conditions to race day, at similar intensities. Simply, train the gut. “Our gut adapts amazingly if given the opportunity, Peterson said.
Regularly practicing a fueling plan has been shown to increase carbohydrate absorption, improve gastric emptying, and reduce gastrointestinal distress, thus improving performance. But if you stray far from what you’ve practiced in training, be prepared to blow it on the bike – or, at the very least, spend a little too much quality time in the port-o-potty on the run.
RELATED: How to Train Yourself to Drink
Mistake #3: Poor pacing
Nutrition isn’t the only way you can blow it on the bike. In every race, athletes blast out of T1, hammer up hills, or put in surges to avoid getting passed – only to get passed later on, when they’re gassed.
It’s easy to fall into a pacing trap. Athletes might be chasing times, racing for an age group podium, trying too quickly to make up for a subpar swim, or unrealistic about pacing goals. With the exception of draft-legal racing, huge variations in output can blow a race on the bike leg for most triathletes. Research suggests that an even distribution of power and effort is the best way to minimize fatigue and optimize performance—particularly as race distances increase. Long-course athletes who maintain relatively even power and heart-rate outputs, despite hills and wind, have shown improved performance, and a constant-intensity bike pacing strategy has been shown to result in superior run times, lower perceived effort, and reduced muscular fatigue when compared to variable intensity efforts.
Fatigue in cycling during a triathlon race is multifactorial, with glycogen depletion, neuromuscular fatigue, and heat accumulation suggested to play bigger roles as the race distance increases. Granted, athletes do vary physiologically, so pacing strategies (especially in shorter races) aren’t one-size-fits-all. But in longer races, burning through carbohydrate stores, generating more heat with higher-intensity bursts, and generally burning the whole book of matches off the bat will catch up with you eventually—especially once you hit the run.
Mistake #4: Assuming flat courses are easier
Triathletes like to think of bike course difficulty in simply one dimension: elevation gain. They normally respect hilly courses, which is certainly valid. But are flat courses really “easier”? Faster, maybe. But easier? Not so much.
Few elements of riding can be more demoralizing than spending miles glued to the aerobars, barely moving into a strong headwind. Even in the absence of wind, maximizing performance on flat courses requires constant pushing in as aerodynamic of a position as reasonable. There are no uphills to change positions, no downhills to catch a breather, nothing to change muscle tension or just give the body a break.
On a flat course with consistent aero position, the entire posterior chain of the body is in constant tension. For an unprepared athlete, this means cramping and pain could be waiting to strike. But even the best athletes in the world struggle if they’re not specifically trained for the demands of a flat course, and that super aggressive aero position can quickly backfire.
While that flat course might lead to a faster time, don’t expect it to feel like a joyride. Train on flat courses (or on a trainer), and be prepared to spend most of your riding constantly pedaling in the bars. Otherwise, it could turn out to be a long, painful day in the saddle—followed by an even longer, more painful day on the run.
Mistake #5: Not knowing how to fix your bike
Sure, the occasional wetsuit zipper or shoelace break happens, but biking is obviously the most wrought with potential for issues. Starting with a bike not in full working order, or lacking basic mechanical knowledge, is by far the easiest way to blow it on the bike.
Bikes are intricate machines, and athletes ask them to perform with optimal efficiency, all while subjecting them to hours on end of abuse (and sweat) in training. Come race time, matters get further complicated by swapping out wheels and brake pads, or breaking down bikes for travel. Certain issues, like shifting difficulties, brake rub, loose bolts, and old tires, often become apparent when bikes are put under more load than usual.
The night before a race, triathletes often do a quick check of their bike by running through gears in a hotel room, or spinning around a parking lot. This isn’t enough. Fully test a race setup with a ride before taking it out on the race course, especially if the bike has been taken apart for travel or stuck on a trainer for months.
If you haven’t already learned how to mitigate basic bike issues, like flat tires or dropped chains, ask your local bike mechanic or triathlon shop to teach you these basics. If there are other issues with your bike during your pre-ride check, utilize the on-site mechanics, if your race provides them. Bike mechanicals may still happen, but having a ride ended by something preventable (or easily fixable) is a surefire way to blow your race.