9/13/16

Become a better triathlete - focus on the bike



It's hard to find me not smiling when I'm on my bike.
Especially when I'm riding in Greenville.


Views like this make me so happy to be outside, in the mountains, surrounding myself by nature, on two wheels. Yes, our riding is challenging and it's not easy to settle into a rhythm but it's impossible to get bored and there are endless cycling routes to choose from, with so much to see, on two wheels.

I feel SO lucky to live in Greenville, where our roads are bike friendly and the views are spectacular.

It's common that many triathletes assume that to be a better triathlete, you need to be a better runner. While there is some truth in this statement as triathlon is a 3-sport event, but far too many triathletes remember the last sport as the sport that was the "failure" when it's the bike that allows you to deliver yourself to a good run.

Far too many triathletes fail on the run simply because of what precedes the run....the bike.
Sure, some triathletes are just "better" runners than others but some triathletes are better trained and skilled cyclists than others, which makes for better running off the bike. 

Now I believe that this blog needs to have some context as it's easy to go off in several directions on this topic. While I am not saying that you should stop trying to be a better runner and put all your focus on the bike, there are a few ways that you run better off the bike, simply by becoming a better cyclist.

1) Make sure you are properly fit on your bike. This should a non-negotiable investment that you don't even think twice about getting done as soon as you get a new bike and then at least 2-3 re-fits over the next year. When you are fit properly on your bike, you are more comfortable riding at higher intensities and for longer volumes. Your fit will help you ride more efficiently, thus you can run with "fresher" legs off the bike. A proper fit will also help you ride safer on your bike as you will feel more "one" with your bike (instead of feeling like you are on a bike that doesn't fit you - imagine that logic).
While any bike fitter can call him/herself a "professional fitter" it is important to do your research to ensure that your bike fit specialist/expert not only has experience but also has consistent testimonials, among all types of cyclists, who would confidently recommend this individual as an experienced fitter.
Lastly, once you get your fit, you need to do your homework. Many triathletes get very comfortable with a bad fit and when they are properly fit, they go back to old habits (ex. sitting on the saddle in the wrong place, not rotating the hips when aero, putting too much tension in the arms while firmly holding the base bars, etc.). It is important that you recognize that it takes time to get use to a good fit, especially after you got comfortable with a bad fit.

2) Make sure your bike is in good working conditions - Imagine where all that sweat goes when you are training? Or what happens inside your bike when you ride in the rain. Now imagine what happens to the efficiency of your ride when all that rust builds up inside the inner-workings of your bike. Now think about how great your bike rode when it was brand new.....overtime, without keeping your bike in good working condition, your bike becomes more difficult to ride as you train for your upcoming races. Without realizing it, you have to actually ride harder and put forth more effort when your bike is not maintained. A detailed tune-up is more than wiping off your bike frame and lubing the chain. Not only will your bike be safer to ride when you keep it in great condition throughout the year but it will ride more efficiently, thus allowing you to expend less energy to go faster. Your bike is an expensive machine and you need to take really good care of that machine. Don't assume that your speed on race day is all based on your fitness - a tuned-up bike is a fast and safe bike.
(I am incredibly lucky to be married to one very detailed bike mechanic. Karel will spend over 2 hours taking apart almost every part of my/his bike to keep it in top-notch condition, almost once a month, every month throughout the year)

3) Always work on your cycling skills - For many years, Karel always told me that I would be a better all-around Ironman triathlete if I was faster on the bike. His approach to make me faster was simple.... improve my horrible cycling skills. This was years in the making but I can finally say that I have good bike handling skills and great management of the terrain when riding.
Understanding how to best climb, descend, pace yourself, how to change gears, when to break, how to navigate in windy conditions, how to efficiently stand or sit, how to position your hips on the saddle, how to rotate bottles on your bike, how to take turns, working on a variable cadence and riding comfortably on any and all terrain will not only make for more enjoyable (and SAFE) riding but you will find that you save a lot of energy when you ride, thus helping you run better off the bike. When you know how to ride your bike efficiently, you are not as fatigued when you finish the ride, thus it makes for better-feeling legs when you start the run. Sadly, for many triathletes, riding on the trainer or riding in a straight line, on flat roads, doesn't improve bike handling skills and terrain management. If you want to be a better cyclist to be a better runner, you have to ride outside a lot.
For any individual who did not grow up riding on a bike (which is most triathletes living in the US), it can often feel like your bike is a foreign object that you are sitting on (which likely doesn't feel good when you sit on it when you are not fit properly) and then you have to control this expensive and fast object when you are on the road.
When you ride scared or tense, you can't control your bike (thus "speed wobbles" - it's not the bike, it's you causing the bike to wobble).
It is important to feel one with your bicycle.
I will be the first to tell you that my skills have improved greatly BUT I am still working on my cycling skills. I have improved tremendously in the last two years, since moving to Greenville as we have little flat terrain and a lot of different types of roads to ride on.
For most triathletes, working on cycling skills will pay off more than checking off your "long" ride workouts or thinking that running longer will make you a better triathlete (or more prepared). These long workouts are great for your confidence but they may falsely validate "readiness" before a long distance triathlon IF your skills are not up to par.

4) Have trust in your fueling/hydrating plan - A poor bike fit, coupled with a bike that is in poor working condition, combined with not-so-good cycling skills....sorry, but no amount of sport nutrition, even from the best sport nutrition expert, will ensure success on race day.
As you continue to work on tips 1-3, it is important that you continually work on your fueling/hydration plan in training to build confidence for race day. There is no reason why you should arrive to race day and have no idea how to fuel as you have months to practice, practice and practice. Above all, sport nutrition should be tolerable but you don't have to love it. Sport nutrition serves a function whereas real food in your diet is what you should love.
To ensure that your fueling plan works, I encourage you to include some race-prep workouts (around 3.5-4 hours for Ironman athletes and 2.5-3 hours for half IM athletes), which help you test your current fueling/hydration regime on the bike to see if your pacing and nutrition will set you up for a good run.

5) Make every ride a meaningful ride - Have a purpose for every ride and ride a lot. You are allowed to ride your bike for more than just a workout. When was the last time you took your bike outside and just explored a neighborhood without a Garmin to clock your speed and miles?
How about taking your bike for a spin (outside or trainer) to get warmed up before a run? How about riding your road bike for an EZ spin or just simply ride your bike for 20 minutes to work on your cycling skills? Are you riding to gain fitness, strength, speed or endurance or are you riding to improve your foundation and to work on weaknesses and skills? You can do both!
If you are always riding to check off workouts, in order to reach x-miles each time you ride, you are not riding with a purpose. At the end of the day, everything that you do in training should be designed to help you perform better as a triathlete on race day. If you are chronically underperforming on race day on the bike or always running far below your potential off the bike, ask yourself if there is something you can do in training to help you train smarter. Sadly, running more isn't the answer to being a better triathlete.

For any triathlete who wants to be a better all around athlete, take note of the middle portion of a triathlon (swim BIKE run) so that you can ride your way to a successful triathlon performance.