Get Faster, Know your Numbers

Triathlete on the bike course of an Ironman race
November 21, 2016

Jim Hallberg


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I hear over and over again about the notion of not being able to push oneself in a particular discipline. For some, it might be swimming; for others, running, and today I’d like to discuss biking. I’d like to discuss riding faster!

In our world, that is the name of the game, and as coaches, we often hear the words, “if I could only ride faster”. Many of us have power meters, slick bikes, fast wheels, and a perfect bike fit. We’ve conditioned well with plenty of training and good nutrition. If that’s the case, then what is limiting us from riding faster? Genetics? Faster wheels? How about taking a look at the goals of your training and of each interval.

Let’s break it down.

What makes cycling different from swimming and running is that on an average day, we base those off of distance covered and the time it takes. Improvement is garnered when we hit our target time and hit our target pace. For example, 800’s on the track in 3:15. We do our swim intervals by the clock, and of course, our intervals are not simply swim 5 minutes fast, but a set distance such as 300’s, measured again, against time.

With bike intervals, we rarely base our efforts on distance but rather use only time. We look at our overall miles ridden for the day, but rarely do we do intervals and compare them to the distance covered based on the time it took. The reason is the wind is far more unpredictable and a far greater adversary to our need for accuracy. We may look at the overall speed and distance, but what about specific intervals?

Consider an interval with 10 x 3 minutes of hard effort. Did you go faster, did you cover more distance with each interval? Did you progressively work harder? Did you hit your goal speed? It’s hard to tell without a power meter; we are subject to hills and wind. But we know the hills will not be going away.

How to get faster, in the most BASIC level of getting faster, with or without a power meter:

Mark out a distance, something like stop sign to stop sign or one speed limit sign to the next speed limit sign. Use a route that you normally ride. I recommend measuring a 1-mile distance, 5-mile distance, 10-mile distance all the way up to a 40k. Some intervals do not require accurate distances, and you could simply gauge it from a fence post to another landmark – something that usually takes you several minutes to ride. You’ll want to identify something you can repeat and easily get to as part of a training program.

Have an idea of your efforts for these distances spread out throughout your route. Efforts based on speed or time required to cover the distance. How much time is it taking you to cover such distances? Where are your efforts based on the part of the season you are in?

You can most likely cover certain or particular distances quicker the closer to race season you are. For example, in the winter months, I know what a good average speed would be for certain routes I take. Yet those same routes a few months later will be a few miles per hour faster. Don’t be discouraged if you are not as fast in April and May as you were last July and August; this is normal progression. You just want to be faster than last April.

Learn to break into the next level. Go out and beat that time.

Another course of improvement in your training and racing:

Choose an average speed you would like to sustain for particular intervals, or distances, or races. This is very applicable for races and routes for which you are familiar.

For example, if you want to average 20 miles per hour you’ll likely need to spend what feels like a lot of time at 22 mph. Due to the start and stop, cornering, and undulations in the terrain, you need to work hard at spending as much time above your goal race speed. This can be broken up based on familiar speeds up hills, rollers, and flats.

Start by overreaching your goal average speed by about 2 miles per hour for up to an Olympic distance race or 40k, 1 mile per hour for half. The longer you are out there, the closer your average will be to your planned goal. But, it's amazing how much work is required to stay there, and how quickly your average speed drops.

For practice, let's say you are headed home from a ride, and you need to do the last 10 miles fast. Choose an average speed you would like to hold (and can realistically hit), then add 2 more mph. If you have averaged 20 miles per hour for this route, you need to learn to beat it and work hard to do so. No settling in, get out of your comfort zone, but stay relaxed – go do it!

You need to be realistic. We would all love to ride at 32 miles per hour for an hour.

Go fast, work hard, and KNOW that going faster still hurts, so accept the pain. Learn to ride – and run – and swim – in a manner that even though it hurts, and you want to stop, you are really relaxed, focused, and smooth. Relax your shoulders, loosen your grip on the bars… breathe! Be stronger and thus faster.

Going forward:

You should know how fast you can go for 30 seconds all the way up to 30 minutes, and everything in between, in order to have a productive training session. Know your interval distances, and know your previous times. Try to reach those distances in less time! For example, I know I can go from point A to point B, and my best time is 7 minutes and 45 seconds. The next time out, I’ll try to do that route in 7:30.

For timed intervals (5 x 5 minutes for example), pick an average speed you feel you can sustain, and then add 2 miles per hour. Adjust for hills and wind.

If you have a power meter and are going by a zone or percentage of threshold, stay focused and relaxed and see if your interval average speeds are measuring up to what you want to ultimately accomplish. If you are hoping to go faster, or you expect to be going faster, maybe you need to retest your threshold with a different mindset. How fast can you go rather than how many watts are you putting out? Some people are bad test takers and they feel they are working super hard (which you likely are), but maybe you need to focus on going super fast.

I hope this helps, take care and be safe!

Written by Coach Jim Hallberg

USAT Certified Coach

USA Cycling level II coach

Coach Jim Hallberg notices that some athletes spend too much time focusing solely on their strengths or just on their weaknesses. As a coach, he believes you should work on both. Your strengths can give you a competitive edge in one or more of the disciplines but spend an inordinate amount of time on them and you can forgo progress in other areas. Not enough time and you’ll see them diminish. Same with your weaknesses.  Coach Jim works with you to build a plan to balance the two and make you the best overall athlete you can be!

Coach Jim is a 5X USA Triathlon National Champion, a USA Triathlon Level II Certified Coach and USA Cycling Level II Certified Coach.

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