by Sergio Borges
Hey Guys, Here’s the Part Two (of three) as I promised ! Enjoy !
Looking at a great champions like Michael Phelps (swimmer) , Fabian Cancellara (cyclist) and Haile Gebrselassie (runner) – all great athletes with many gold medals and World Championships under their belts. These athletes are very skilled and efficient in their specific sports. Obviously many years of training is necessary to reach the levels they have achieved.
All three sports require a high level of skill, particularly swimming and running. Athletes like Michael Phelps, for example, have spent over 15 years developing their skills, training an average of 5 to 8 hours per day. All of this time and work is required to develop skills in A SINGLE SPORT!
Our sport includes all three: swim, bike, and run. Many athletes and some coaches see triathlon as three separate sports: Swim + Bike + Run. However, triathlon is ONE sport and should be seen as swim/bike/run, in which every sport interferes or influences the others.
When training for triathlon, athletes usually make the mistake of seeing it as 3 different sports. Triathletes think that they should train for swimming like swimmers, bike like cyclists and run like runners. Athletes should not seek individual sports’ PR’s but instead, an overall faster result. Saving energy on the swim, reducing aerobic taxing and neuromuscular firing on the bike and teaching your body how to run on fatigued legs on tight muscles and reduced range of motion is triathlon!
Cycling for Triathlon
Cycling is no doubt the sport where athletes keep making mistakes, starting with improper bike fitting and finishing with over-distance training. I will leave the bike fitting issue for some other time and focus solely on training for now.
As you probably know, cycling is the least skilled sport of all three and for triathlon it is more about strength than skills. Unless you’re racing in a draft legal race (ITU), you don’t need to focus on acceleration, speed, group riding skills or spending time doing drills (ie. single leg drills). Instead, the focus for cycling is about developing strength and lactate tolerance. Most age group athletes have limited time to train on the bike, usually 2 or 3 times per week, so it’s important to make each session count!
In triathlon, the bike is all about arriving at the start of the run in control, without having accumulated overt amounts of aerobic fatigue, having worked the legs in a way that accommodates cycling fatigue without generating run fatigue. It is from this “don’t tax the run muscles” perspective that you can best understand how triathlon cycling is not the same as the sport of cycling.
In cycling, higher cadences are used to distribute an amount of work that has to be done (the wattage) into more “pieces.” Without getting into the specifics of why cycling differs from triathlon cycling other than to point out that bike races take place at much higher power outputs than triathlon cycling (in athletes of similar fitness), the price of higher cadence is higher aerobic stress and hence also greater glycogen consumption, which in cycling can be tolerated since there is no following run. The benefit of a higher cadence is that the workload on the muscles is spread out and the stress of each contraction is less forceful. Another reason higher cadence is need it in cycling is to allow for accelerations in case of a breakaway or attacks. In “regular” (non draft triathlon) we don’t have to worry about that.
In short, high cadence saves muscles at the cost of greater aerobic stress:
“Optimum cadence” is the point at which price balances benefit. As a triathlete, you are training to run after the cycling portion. But running on tired legs is much like cycling at high power outputs: The legs are already weakened, and the scarcest resource is a rested muscle. Attempting to run with a more forceful, longer stride rate in a triathlon will quickly lead to disappointment – the tired legs have nothing left to give. So just as a cyclist needs to increase cadence when working at effort levels at which the leg muscles begin to be significantly stressed, so too does a triathlete need to increase running stride rate to preserve the run muscles.
Many athletes ask me what’s the optimum cadence for triathlon and the answer is : “there’s no such a thing” ! You will all have your own “sweet spot” where cadence, power, efficiency will be in harmony.
But as a rule of thumb, the shorter the race, the higher the power/speed need it so the higher the cadence !
I have experienced with most of my athletes that have NO cycling background (cyclists are more skilled/efficient so riding at higher cadences require less cardiovascular effort) that they usually cycle at the ranges below :
Sprint Triathlon (up to 20km/12 miles) – 80-90rpm
Olympic Distance (up to 40km/25 miles) – 80-85rpm
70.3 (up to 90km/56 miles) – 75-80rpm
IM (up to 180km/112 miles) – 70-80rpm
Note : The longer the distance, the lower the speed/power so your muscle can tolerate a lower cadence due to less muscle force/contraction
If you ride at a lower cadence during a triathlon, you will also fatigue LESS your neuromuscular system (each rpm requires a muscle firing command by your neuromuscular system), saving it for when is need it – THE RUN to keep a high stride rate.
In conclusion, the most effective cycling style for triathlon (if you’re not a skilled cyclist) is to use big gears and lower cadences rather than adopting a higher cadence. Riding at a lower cadence promotes :
* Saving Neuromuscular system (“Firing”) to be used on the run
• Lower heart rate due to the slow contractions and high resistance
• Consequently conserves glycogen stores important fuel need on any endurance event !
Start thinking like a triathlete and race fast this season! Stay tuned for Part 3 where I’ll be revealing the “secrets” of fast running in triathlon.