Like I mentioned last week, triathlon specifically requires that athletes perform three different sports well: swimming, biking, and running. Due to the long distance of an IRONMAN, this is even more critical for this specific type of triathlon; the longer race means that there will not be a lot of places for an athlete to “hide” if they short-change themselves in training. Simply put: an athlete will never reach their potential at an IRONMAN if they are not committed to training all three sports well.
No matter how you view it - by completed time or by distance - the bike is the longest portion of an IRONMAN - period. With very limited exceptions, if it ends up not being the component of the race that takes the longest (by a margin of at least 10% when compared to how long the run leg takes), then something went wrong. Either the athlete didn’t train sufficiently enroute to race day or they didn’t execute their race plan properly.
Like the swim, the bike can be very misleading for athletes training for an IRONMAN. As I discussed last week, when it comes to training for an IRONMAN, most athletes overthink the swim, run too much, and spend an insufficient amount of time on the bike. In my experience, left to their own preferences and devices, a majority of athletes will make a choice to not spend enough hours in training on the bike.
Remember that a well-executed triathlon is the sum of its parts - the swim, the bike, and the run - and that each component of the race can only be completed well if the elements that preceded it were trained and completed well. Assuming that you take my recommendations about swimming to heart and you have appropriately trained for the swim, now it’s important to appropriately train on the bike so that you can run to your potential once the bike leg of the race is complete. No matter how great of a runner an athlete is, an athlete will never run to their potential in an IRONMAN if their bike leg is not strong enough, and that strength on the bike comes from sufficient bike training.
When training for an IRONMAN, I recommend that athletes have bike rides on their training schedule at least three days per week. For age group athletes, four days per week is actually optimal, but most age-groupers don’t have the time in their busy schedules to accommodate four bike workouts per week. For elite and professional athletes, the number of training sessions is higher than this, but how much higher is unique for each athlete.
In addition to this frequency of workouts, volume is important. Remember that the bike portion of an IRONMAN is the longest part of the race, and what you do in training for the bike is going to determine how well you are able to run. In combination with frequent sessions, bike volume should represent 50-60% of the total hours in a given training week throughout an athlete’s entire training plan.
It’s important to note that Doubling Up to Make Up will not be effective; having the aforementioned amount of volume in just 1-2 bike sessions per week or stacked together (i.e. on back to-back days with the other 4-5 consecutive days of the week containing no biking) will not be sufficient enough to train the body’s systems to build the endurance and durability that it needs to reach optimal performance in an IRONMAN. It is the combination of volume and frequency and timing of the workouts within a training schedule that yields the highest probability of success for athletes training for this type of triathlon.
I tend to prefer planning workouts based on duration for age group athletes. As I’ve said ad nauseum over the years, age group athletes are busy. They have a lot going on in their lives. Duration-based sessions are much, much easier to plan for in terms of the amount of time training is going to take up in one’s life. The longer the race being rained for is, the more that this rings true. (i.e. This difference may not be as significant when we’re talking about 45 minutes versus 12 miles on the bike, but it can be quite substantial when talking about 100 miles versus 6 hours on the bike.)
Distance-based plans don’t account for varied courses or for the variances that can occur day-to-day or week-to-week in pacing, so this means that an 80-mile ride one week might take significantly longer than an 80-mile ride on a different day. This being said, there is a mental component to training that is really important to consider; most athletes training for an IRONMAN are going to want to hit at least 100 miles on the bike in training in order to feel mentally prepared for the 112-mile distance that the race requires. Thus, at a certain point in an athlete’s preparation for an IRONMAN (usually about 12 weeks out from race day), I usually switch to distance-based rides for the athlete’s long rides while keeping the other sessions duration-based.
In terms of the type of training sessions, here are the four sessions I recommend (listed in order of importance to include in a training plan):
A longer endurance ride, possibly with some longer intervals to help prepare for adverse conditions or varying terrain on race day
An easy ride that focuses on handling and tactical skills
When planning or recommending only three bike workouts per week for an athlete, I will try to eliminate the recovery ride while keeping the other three types of rides in the athlete’s schedule. However, what types of rides I plan for athletes who I coach depends on a variety of factors (including the probability of whether or not they’ll execute the workout as planned if it’s unexciting or unfun for them ;) ), so the ride with handling and tactical skills is often the session that gets eliminated.
I’m going to pop up on a soap box and say this: Most athletes don’t find tactical or skills work fun or feel like it’s as important as other types of sessions - such as the long ride or an interval session. It doesn’t generate sexy or exciting stats to share with friends or on social media and the sweat factor (which is how many people determine the effectiveness of a workout) is low. However, regularly practicing handling skills is incredibly important for athletes to be able to handle their bikes safely.
In an IRONMAN, there are usually at least 3,000 other cyclists on the same course at the same time. In addition, the roads that the athletes are riding on are often not completely closed off to traffic, and the people in vehicles that are riding on those roads are generally not very enthusiastic about the fact that they are being delayed (or prevented) from getting where they want to go due to the ongoing race.
Since most triathletes devalue praciting bike handling skills, this means that there are literally thousands of cyclists on the road at the same time who do not know how to handle their bikes well and cannot recover from even a minor abnormality should it occur during their ride. (Read: An inability to recover from a minor abnormality will result in a crash.) Believe me when I say this: You do not want to be on a crowded course with angry drivers and be unskilled at handling your bike should the need arise to avoid an accident, debris in the road, or some other unforeseen condition.
Frequently practicing handling skills is one of the best ways to build confidence on the bike and to decrease the probability of getting into a cycling accident. Thus, it’s a pretty important session to keep in one’s training schedule.
Here are the handling skills that are (in my humble opinion) the most important to practice:
Bunny Hopping (If you don’t believe me, ask my colleague and friend Mark Turner about how this skill saved his life on the course at IRONMAN Florida.)
Retrieving a water bottle, drinking from said water bottle, and returning it to its bottle cage on your bike
Single-Leg Drills (Yes this can be done outside! You actually do this at least a time or two every time you clip in or out of clip pedals.)
At this point in my coaching career, I've coached dozens of individual athletes to IRONMAN finishes. Without exception, the athletes who I have coached who have had the strongest and best performances at IRONMAN are those who spent a sufficient amount of time on the bike in training and consistently practiced their handling skills. You’re getting the inside, secret scoop here, folks: The differentiator at IRONMAN-distance racing proper training on the bike. Go forth, take this knowledge, apply it to your own training, and see if it doesn't help you reach your potential in an IRONMAN!
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.