“Secret” Bike Training: Commuting

a triathlete commuting on his bike
October 28, 2017

Brad Seng


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In recent years, I’ve done a lot of commuting by bike.  In general, I love being on the bike and riding to and from work provides a great preparation/decompression buffer between work and home.  In the mornings, I think through a fair amount of my day’s planning and in the evening, I reflect on the work day and think about family time.  Plus, when I’m home, I’m home.  I don’t give up family time in the evenings sitting on my trainer. 

I’ve been impressed by the training benefits as well.  I typically ride two to four days per week--averaging around 120 bike-commuting days (and around 3,000 miles) per year.  I ride year round--as long as the roads aren’t icy/snow-packed, I’m out there.  My commute is about 25 miles round trip and takes about 45 minutes each way.  All those little rides add up. Although it’s weird to look at my Training Peaks calendar and see a bunch of 12.5-mile bike workouts, the frequency (and structure) of my commuting has been pretty darn good as training (and has been providing solid racing results).

Some of my rides are recovery -- easy spins just getting from point A to point B, but a 45 minute time window gives a lot of great options.  My first 10+ minutes are generally warm up and then I sometimes include structured short or longer intervals, steady-state work, fartlek, spinning drills, etc.  I can work the uphills, the downhills, the flats.  There are all kinds of opportunity to get real work done.

A few notes about what I consider to be the ideal situation for bike commuting (the situation I’ve fallen into):  I think the distance I live from my office is pretty optimal--about a 25-30 minute drive versus a 45+ minute ride on roads with wide margins (and some dedicated bike paths).  I live east of my office so the sun is never in my (or a driver’s) face in the morning or evening--great for safety.  My job doesn’t require me to travel around town during the day and, perhaps most importantly, I have a shower at the office.  So with those optimal conditions, I thought I’d share some thoughts on how to bike commute if you have less-than-optimal conditions.

If you don’t have a shower at your office, there may be one nearby--health club/YMCA, neighboring office, or a friend who lives near where you work.  These are options that increase the hassle factor a bit, I know, but can be worth exploring.  Some folks can get away with a “bird-bath” in the office bathroom.  You can always leave a towel and some deodorant at your office.  I typically drive to work on Mondays and bring in my clothes for the week.

You don’t have to commute to/from your home and you don’t have to take the shortest route--I love to take the long way in or home!  Back when I was dropping my kids off at school in the morning, I’d drive my bike with me, drop them off, park next to their school, and bike-commute to work from there.  It takes a little extra planning in the morning but having something to do before work doesn’t mean you can’t ride in.  Note also that if you work just a few miles from your office, you don’t have to take the most direct route--take a longer way to get more miles in.  If you work say 30 miles from your office but don’t want to ride that long morning and evening, drive in part way and ride from there.  Again, there’s more hassle, but you’re converting time on your butt behind the wheel to time on the bike--great deal!  And if you work from home, you can always ride before and after work as IF you had a commute!

Riding in the dark is a little scary at first, I’ll admit it.  But my bike handling skills have improved more from riding in the dark than anything else I’ve done over the years.  You have to pay attention and be ready to react to road conditions much more quickly than you do in the daylight.  Obviously, great lights are important and I highly recommend two sets--one set (headlight and taillight) that go on the bike and another set that goes on your helmet.  Invest in bright, high-quality lights.  You don’t have to spend a fortune, but a couple hundred dollars is not unreasonable.  I find that cars give me more space when they pass me in the dark than they do in the daylight.  Plus, there’s nothing that makes you feel like more of a bad-ass than being on your bike in the dark and knowing that your race day competition is sitting on their asses in their cars at that very moment.

Keep in mind that you get some budget for equipment by not driving--using the standard mileage rate of 53.5 cents per mile this year, I’ll “save” over $1,500 this year by not driving my truck including $400-500 directly in gas alone.  I generally plow some of that savings back into making my commute more pleasant--great clothing, bike maintenance, etc.

Build up a wardrobe of the right clothing.  Cold-weather gear can be expensive but there are always team deals, end-of-season sales, and hand-me-downs.  Always think layers.  The best investments I’ve made have been in thermal base layers, multiple sets of gloves, and weather-proof tights.  You don’t have to start riding year round so give yourself time to find the gear that lets you ride comfortably in the conditions you require.  (I now have enough gear to allow me to ride in the cold down to single-digits.)

I started commuting on my road bike and this is a good option to get started but eventually, I decided to invest in a used cross bike that has become my dedicated commuter.  I added fenders and reflectors and it’s pretty heavy.  (Train heavy, race light!)  I mounted 38mm ebike tires that have super flat-protection and are nothing that I’d normally train (or race) on.  But the total package provides me with something that perfectly serves its purpose.

There can be a lot of obstacles but most of them can be overcome.  Before you give up on the idea of commuting, expand your thinking to see what’s possible.

Coach Dave's experience has shown him that athletes get the best results when they are both physically fit and technically excellent – but knows it can be challenging to slow down enough to work on form. An impatient person can learn anything in a hurry, but they will learn incorrectly. As a swim coach the most common question I hear after a workout is “How many yards was that?”. My favorite answer is “Why does it matter?” Yes, volume certainly has it’s place in training, and so does intensity. But ultimately there is a point in all three disciplines where to get faster you need to improve your technique. 

Coach Brad Seng enjoys working with athletes of all abilities who set a variety of personal goals. He understands difficult training days. Challenging days and subpar workouts are inevitably part of the triathlon landscape, as are the times when you’re feeling great and everything clicks. He believes there are lessons to be learned from experiencing both. Sometimes having to fight for a workout is just what’s needed to achieve an important breakthrough in mental conditioning.  

Coach Brad is a USA Triathlon Certified Level II, USA Triathlon Certified Youth & Junior, Training Peaks Level 2 Certified Coach and NESTA Certified Sports Nutritionist (National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association).

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