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Why ‘Hard’ Courses Are Easier

A smart strategy for finishing a hilly bike leg with energy left for the run.

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Last September I brought 15 athletes to Madison, Wis., ready to unleash their hard-earned fitness upon the Ironman Wisconsin course. On Friday morning of race week, however, several of them chose to attend the pro panel and had their confidence shaken by tales of a “brutal” bike course that would surely “chew you up and spit you out.”

Most triathletes are familiar with the dire warnings about the Ironman bike courses at Coeur d’ Alene, Lake Placid and Lake Tahoe; while races like Arizona and Florida are known for being “easy” and “good for first timers.”

Thankfully, my athletes had 36 hours to rein in their concerns and seek confidence in their training. Courtesy of tools such as GPS, cadence and power meters that most of these athletes had onboard, I was able to conclude afterward that the Wisconsin bike course was actually no harder than Florida or Arizona. For many it was even easier!

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How is that possible, you may be asking, given the never-ending hills through dairy land? The answer resides in two pieces of advice:

Stay steady on the climbs

Just because the road tilts upward (and the spectators are screaming at you) does not mean that you have to ride any harder. You are the one in control of your effort, not the terrain. Cruising up any hill with a modest power increase of only 5–10 percent is easily achievable by shifting to the easiest gear and keeping the cadence relatively high and will still keep you well below threshold. If your power and effort are still skyrocketing, however, then you have ample room to back off your cadence 30–40 RPM before your pace slows enough to cause the bike to lose stability.

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Coast the downhills

The reward for climbing all of these hills is the opportunity to relax and recover on the way down. My athletes enjoyed 10–15 percent of their total ride time at a cadence of zero. For several that meant an hour or more spent not pedaling. If you tried that approach in Panama City, you’d likely still be out on course! Coach Alan Couzens’ popular “50-40-30-20-10” rule suggests that the faster you ride, the easier you pedal, until eventually you coast at speeds greater than 30 mph (or 50k, hence “50”). Great news for those racing a hilly triathlon this season!

Anyone who’s ever done a set of intervals knows that it’s easier to accumulate a greater amount of total work by interspersing measured doses of effort and recovery versus doing one long, steady effort. This is exactly why a hilly course may actually feel easier when compared to racing a flat course that requires consistent power output for five to eight straight hours.

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Pro Tip

Racing a pancake- flat course? Toss in periodic “watt breaks,” whereby you simulate a downhill stretch by proactively backing off your effort/power by up to 50 percent for 30 to 60 seconds. You may sacrifice a small amount of speed in doing so, but the energy savings and mental break may combine to improve your overall time.

Before you sign up for a hilly race:

– If you are a heavier athlete, you may struggle to keep your climbing effort within an optimal range, even with careful use of shifting and cadence management techniques.

– If you lack confidence in your bike handling skills, you may not be able to fully enjoy the benefits of high-speed coasting. You also risk dropping a chain or worse when the course turns sharply or presents a sudden steep pitch.

– If you are concerned about making the 17-hour cutoff, you may be better off selecting a “faster” course, even if it means having to pedal the whole time.

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