When you train for a triathlon, you’ll need to make sure your bike sessions are fit for purpose. Regardless, you want to ensure your body gets accustomed to racing fast for as long as you need to.
To do that, the following two types of sessions are essential for riding indoors or outdoors:
- Fast, high-intensity rides to build up your Vo2 Max; and
- Long rides to build up your endurance.
These are the two key types of workouts you’ll need to complete the distance in a reasonably fast time. In this article, you’ll learn:
- How to benefit from the high-intensity ride; and
- How to accomplish the long ride.
Forget having to take time away from your family for months on end or setting up a stationary bike at your desk so you can get in extra three-hour rides while at work. With just two rides a week incorporated with the proper structure, you can become VERY fast.
Workout #1: The high-intensity ride
The high-intensity, or HIIT, ride should do what it claims: be eye-popping and super intense, so you feel fairly exhausted by the end! In the final three months before a race, you should aim for 30-60 minutes of riding, 15-30 minutes of which should be pretty intense. This will develop your Vo2 Max, which is your ability to process oxygen every minute. Here are the benefits of the short and ultra-intense ride:
- Short workouts improve strength and speed. As little as 10 to 30 total minutes of strenuous efforts throughout a week paired with sufficient sleep and proper nutrition will undoubtedly make you stronger and faster.
- Short workouts stimulate fat loss. The oxygen debt created by HIIT training raises your metabolism and fat burning after a workout. So, while you don’t burn a lot of fat during the workout, you’ll continue to burn fat after the workout is done.
- Short workouts improve overall health. Placing a significant load on our musculoskeletal structure through hard HIIT efforts causes our body to release anabolic hormones to help with the repair process. This release helps keep our hormones balanced and reduces the likelihood of overtraining, inability to make progress, sleep disturbances, and adrenal fatigue.
- Short workouts improve pain tolerance. Triathlon is going to hurt. Their faces don't show it, but even the pros hang on by a thread towards the end of a race. Studies have shown that HIIT workouts do a better job than any other workout of increasing an athlete’s ability to tolerate discomfort.
- Short workouts improve endurance. This sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true. HIIT training is so hard that your body makes the mitochondria fire better, which means your limbs will utilize oxygen more efficiently to convert it into energy. So, even with the same cardiovascular health and top-end VO2 Max, you’ll see improved speed and endurance performance because your muscles are optimized to use the oxygen they receive.
- Short workouts improve muscle recruitment. Triathletes who don’t force their muscles to work extremely hard operate at a lower muscle capacity than athletes who have access to more muscle fibers for the same task.
How to perform your intense bike workouts for maximum benefit
Even for full-distance Ironman triathletes, workouts as short as 20-60 minutes can be quite effective when done right. The positive effect, which comes from HIIT workouts, is two-fold. First, the rapid change from an easy recovery effort to a highly intense and challenging effort brings about a positive adaptation to the training.
The second piece, which goes hand-in-hand with the first point, is nutrition and recovery. Without proper rest and nutrition, you won’t be able to hit the top end of your ability during the workout, which is exactly where the gains are.
To get the most out of HIIT, try to structure your week in such a way that you don’t have a HIIT workout planned immediately after a tough day of training that will leave you with tired legs.
If you have flexibility in your schedule, you also may want to dose your HIIT training at certain times when you know your body is ready for it.
Workout #2: The Long Ride
It’s important to understand that HIIT training is not the only thing triathletes should work on in their training. The long ride is another essential part of triathlon training. The long ride is where you’ll teach your body to ride for an extended period, access fat as fuel, and build the confidence to cover your race distance easily.
I believe in the long ride so much that I frequently talk about “over-distance rides:” riding further than your upcoming race distance to build more endurance than you’ll need for the race. For example, do a 120-km ride if you’re training for a 70.3 half-Ironman triathlon.
While this might sound daunting if you’re just starting out in triathlon, I assure you that you can easily achieve this with the right training and the proper progressive build-up.
Also, the long, over-distance ride helps you mentally develop familiarity with being on the bike for at least that long and even longer. That means you'll not only be more comfortable psychologically with your race day ride but also the endurance required on race day won't force you to reach to your limits. After all, you have the run after that, too!
Many triathletes overlook this aspect: the long ride is the key tool in our toolbox to help build the body’s ability to make it through the entire race. Fortunately, too, it doesn’t take long for you to build up your endurance capabilities.
How do I build up the ability to go long?
For most of the year, “long” bike training can be relatively short. Then, in the final 3-4 months before the event, sequentially increase the distance and duration of the long ride 7-10% week by week, take a rest week, then pick up the pattern again.
See an example for a 70.3 preparation with the target being a 120k over-distance ride:
- Week 1: 50 km
- Week 2: 55 km (10% longer than the previous week)
- Week 3: 30 km rest week (roughly 60% of the previous week)
- Week 4: 61 km (10% longer than where you left off)
- Week 5: 67 km
- Week 6: 40 km rest week
- Week 7: 74 km
- Week 8: 82 km
- Week 9: 50 km rest week
- Week 10: 91 km
- Week 11: 100 km
- Week 12: 60 km rest week
- Week 13: 110 km
- Week 14: 120 km
- Taper for the race
You’ll be amazed at how quickly your body progresses from that first ride and soaks up the endurance week by week.
How often do I need to ride long?
Just like we don’t have to perform brutal HIIT workouts day-in and day-out, we also don’t have to ride long all the time. Just one long ride per week is more than enough to build a massive amount of endurance.
How long is long enough?
This is where the concept of the “over-distance” workout comes into your training. Here’s how long you’ll want to build up to the 7-10% increments outlined above:
- Sprint: 35-40 km
- Olympic: 60-70 km
- 70.3: 110-130 km
- Ironman: 6 hrs
How early do I need to start going long?
This question can only be answered by first asking ourselves: “Where am I starting from?”
Remember that with your training, we want to accomplish two things. We want you to have the endurance for the distance of your race, and we want you to complete the distance at a race pace effort.
With those two requirements in mind, look at the over-distance targets we just mentioned and work your way backward from the date of your race, ensuring you have enough time to taper before your race. I recommend the following taper periods, which are what we use on the MyMottiv app.
To put this into practice, follow these guidelines:
- Your taper for a Sprint, Olympic, or 70.3 race should be one week; the taper for an Ironman should be two weeks.
- Your final over-distance ride should be 8-10 days from the date of your race for a Sprint, Olympic, or 70.3, and 15-17 days from the date of an Ironman.
- In the final eight weeks before your race, you should aim to complete the prescribed over-distance ride followed by a brick run on four occasions.
- During the final 12 weeks before your race, include a larger and larger portion (usually toward the end of the ride) of the long ride, which is performed at or just slightly above your desired race effort.
- Before 12 weeks out from the race, you’ll build up in 10% week-by-week increments.
Here’s what that structure would look like for a 70.3:
- Off-Season and Base Building Season: Weekly long ride of 1-2 hours at an effortless pace
- 19 Weeks out: 48 km ride
- 18 Weeks out: 54 km ride
- 17 Weeks out (rest week): 32 km ride
- 16 Weeks out: 60 km ride
- 15 Weeks out: 66 km ride
- 14 Weeks out (rest week): 40 km ride
- 13 Weeks out: 73 km ride
- 12 Weeks out: 81 km ride
*At 12 weeks out from your race, start including a portion of the ride at, or just slightly above, race effort beginning with 5% of the ride, then 10%, then 15% (include this portion toward the end of the ride).
- 11 Weeks out (rest week): 50 km ride
- 10 Weeks out: 90 km ride
- 9 Weeks out: 100 km ride
- During the final 8 weeks from the race: Perform at least three rides of 110-130 km, 25-30% of which is at, or just slightly above, the race effort (remainder of the ride is at an easy Zone 2 pace)
- 8 Days out from race: Over-distance ride of 110 km, 30% of which is at, or just slightly above, race pace (remainder of ride is at an easy Zone 2 pace)
- Final 7 days before race: Taper
This approach gives you all the endurance you need, and it prepares your legs to pedal for an extended period, even at a race effort.
How hard should the long ride be?
These long rides will be some of the easiest training you do each week! For most of the year, right up until 12 weeks out from your race, you can do the long ride at an easy Zone 1 or 2 pace. See our Zone training article here.
Going this easy is keeps you out of the low return on investment training zone that beats you down without much payback. You’ll burn fat during the ride and really improve your cardiovascular fitness.
The final 12 weeks before your race is when the long ride workout includes some degree of race effort. As outlined above, start by including just 5% of the total ride, somewhere at the end of the ride, at or just slightly above race effort and gradually build up this race effort portion of the ride from there.
Pairing your HIIT workout with a long ride the right way
As you can see, HIIT is great for many reasons, as is the long ride. Both are useful but must be built into a larger, properly designed training plan that incorporates all aspects of fitness required to get you across the finish line strong.
If you’d like to see exactly how to incorporate these rides into your own training, check out my Beginner’s Guide to all the various triathlon distances (Ironman, Half Ironman, Olympic, Sprint).
Triathlon Training 101: Everything you need to know to complete your first race
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