The majority of articles on bike training for triathletes focus on higher-intensity workouts such as threshold rides, VO2 max intervals and hill repetitions. The authors of these articles (myself included) are well aware of the fact that, as endurance athletes, triathletes should spend most of their time training at a steady aerobic pace. But this type of training is not quite as interesting to write about as the higher-intensity stuff, so we overemphasize the higher-intensity stuff.
The average age-grouper does few or none of these workouts, however. Indeed, the variable of intensity is not really a variable at all in the training of the average age grouper. Every ride is done at more or less the same effort level. The only factor that distinguishes one workout from the next is duration. "Let's see: Should I do my 45-minute loop, my one-hour loop or my 90-minute loop today?" Oh yes, I'm on to you!
We triathlon coaches must not fool ourselves. The average age-grouper's willful avoidance of intensity manipulation in bike training is not the result of lack of information. You folks read our articles. It's really a matter of sheer stubbornness.
These fancy high-intensity workouts seem to require that you do all kinds of logistical preparation, find the perfect training environment (your favorite one-hour loop surely will not do) and control and monitor your power output, heart rate, speed, cadence, interval distances and split times with scientific precision.
You figure you get 90 percent as much fitness benefit from noodling through your favorite one-hour loop at a steady, moderate effort level time and time again as you would get from throwing some fancy high-intensity workouts into the mix. You reckon that the hassle you spare yourself by not doing these workouts is worth more to you than 10 percent greater fitness.
So you keep doing your loops.
I would like to propose a compromise. Your bike training does not have to be all or nothing—your way or the coaches' way. With just a little mental effort you can easily incorporate some valuable high-intensity training into the same old routes you ride two or three times per week.
By making this small effort you will get a significant boost in cycling fitness without adding any extra logistical stress or planning hassle to your routine. Here are four specific workouts to try:
1. One-hour Loop with Threshold Work1 of 5
Threshold intensity is more or less your 40K time-trial effort level. Training at this intensity will improve your performance not just in triathlons featuring a 40K bike leg but also in triathlons of every distance because it produces physiological adaptations that generally improve your capacity to sustain hard efforts.
To turn a one-hour loop into a threshold workout, just throw in one or two blocks of riding at your known or estimated 40K time-trial power level/speed. Don't worry about the effect of turns, winds and hills on your speed. Just maintain a consistent effort level.
Be sure to begin the workout with at least 10 minutes of easy spinning to warm up. Beginners should do no more than 10 or 12 minutes of threshold riding in their first session. If you're fit and competitive, you can build up to 2 x 20 minutes, or 40 minutes straight. (Note that doing a given amount of threshold riding in two equal blocks instead of one block is always a little easier.)
As you gain fitness, your threshold power level/speed will gradually increase. Allow this to happen automatically, rather than forcing it, by always riding at the same subjective effort level.
2. One-hour Loop with VO2 Max Work2 of 5
VO2 max intensity is approximately the highest work level you can sustain for 10 minutes. Training at this intensity produces big gains in aerobic capacity and fatigue resistance at very high effort levels.
The simplest form of VO2 max training is three-minute intervals. To incorporate VO2 max training into your one-hour loop, start with 10 minutes of easy spinning and then complete three to six intervals of three minutes apiece at the maximum effort level you could sustain for 10 minutes in race conditions.
Spin for at least two minutes after each interval. Limit yourself to three intervals in your first VO2 max interval workout. Build to five intervals if you're moderately fit and competitive and six intervals if you're highly fit and competitive.
Again, pay no mind to turns, winds and hills and how these factors affect your speed. The point here is to make do with your favorite one-hour loop, not simulate laboratory conditions—after all, isn't this supposed to be fun?
3. One-hour Loop with Power Work3 of 5
Power is the ability to apply force quickly. In cycling, it is the ability to turn big gears at a high cadence. Your maximum pedaling power is the greatest number of watts you can produce during a very short, all-out effort. There is a common misconception among triathletes and cyclists that maximum power is more or less irrelevant to endurance cycling performance, but it is not.
The best endurance cyclists typically have much greater maximum pedaling power than average endurance cyclists, and increasing your maximum power is an effective way for anyone to improve his or her performance in longer race efforts.
The best way to train your maximum power is to perform multiple short sprints. These can easily be incorporate into a one-hour loop ride. Cycling coach Hunter Allen recommends the following format: Start at a slow speed—five or eight miles an hour—and a middle gear in your small chainring.
Do a 10-second sprint with only one or two gear changes. Wind out the gear before you shift, like you do in a car. Go up to 120 RPM. Recover two minutes after each sprint. Start with just four sprints if you haven't done anything this intense recently (or ever!). Build up to six or eight sprints if you're moderately competitive or 10 or 12 if you're highly competitive.
Do make an effort to perform your sprints on a sensible stretch of road (no sharp turns, good pavement, relatively flat) within your one-hour loop.
4. One-hour Loop with Hill Work4 of 5
Most hill workout formats require that you ride up and down the same hill multiple times. Obviously, that doesn't work with a one-hour loop. A radical but still effective alternative is to simply work with what you have by attacking any and all hills that exist on your one-hour loop.
If there are three hills, two of them short and steep and one of them long and moderate, then ride each as hard as you can without emptying your tank for the remainder of the ride. If there's just one big mountain to get over, attack that.
This approach is certainly not as systematic as your typical, structured hill interval session, but it beats the common alternative, which is to ride the hills a little harder than the rest the loop but certainly not to attack them. You will definitely gain additional climbing prowess by working with what you have on that favorite route, whatever it may be.