How to Train for an Ironman - Part 3 - Biking

author : Tre_bor
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This is part three of a five part series on how to train for an Ironman. In Part 1 I looked at the overall Ironman strategy and some preparation tips. In Part 2 I wrote about swimming specific advice for a beginner Ironman athlete. In this article I would like to take a look at the bike section of Ironman and try to offer up some information about how to get through it unscathed. So let's dive straight in! 

Discipline: Cycling

Distance: 112 mile - 180 km

Avg. Time: 6 hours 40 minutes

% of Total Race Time: 60%

Biking

1. Your Neck and Back 

Being on a bike for 6-7 hours is tough. It's physically tough but mentally tougher and it's made worse when you are uncomfortable. To make it more bearable you need to have good conditioning. Your neck and back will just not be conditioned to staying in those positions for that length of time. The best thing to do is get out there on the bike and spend time in the saddle. Doing this builds up your conditioning and gives you a chance to practice your race nutrition at the same time.

In addition, you should spend some time working on strengthening your muscles each week as this will help massively. For example, to help your lower back, do plank holds which also help to build your abs and as a result you will achieve a more stable position on the bike.

To strengthen your neck, lie on a bed facing down with your head off the end and raise your head and look forward. Repeat this and also hold it in the upright position to simulate what it will be like on the bike. Don't forget that you will have the weight of your helmet so put that on too. Just close the curtains so the neighbors don't see you...

Another good exercise for the neck is to get on your knees and put your forearms on the floor like they will be in the aero position on your bike. Then look up at the TV. This will mimic the position you are in on your bike. If you want to make it harder, add your helmet. I used to do this for 15 mins at a time while watching The Game of Thrones and have the ad break as a rest, but only when alone as it did look very strange!

2. Ride long

You should be doing long rides every week from at least three months out. You will miss the odd one so let's just say that you make 10 out of the 12 rides. Ten times of doing something is not a lot, so three months is a minimum. Your rides should be 150-180km in length, regardless of how long it takes you.

Get to know a good route where you don't have to stop often and you can stay in the aero position for as long as possible at a time to simulate what it'll be like on race day. Also, make sure that you do everything as you will on race day. Practice your nutrition, what clothes you will wear in the heat, what you will wear if it's cold and wet, etc. And don't forget your tire puncture repair kit.

3. Get Fatter Tires

It's usually the case that the faster you want to go the slimmer the tire you have. Most road bikes will have 23c size tires. However, some recent research has shown that using larger tires can help to decrease rolling resistance. The testing done on rolling resistance is done using a perfectly smooth surface where the slimmer tire offers the least rolling resistance. However, no roads are smooth like this and the addition of bumps and potholes means that a larger tire, which goes over the bumps and potholes, actually offers the least rolling resistance and therefore could offer a faster ride over the course.

In addition, larger tires are much more comfortable. Comfort in an Ironman race is a big thing so having a bigger cushion of air between you and the road is going to make it a little easier.  Now I am not talking about switching to mountain bike tires, but just a small increase. I switched from 23c to 25c and used latex inner tubes and noticed a big difference in feel. It was smoother, with far less impact from bumps and vibrations. I'd highly recommend going slightly fatter and even up to the 28c size if they can fit on your bike without rubbing against the frame.

4. Race Simulation

There is nothing that can totally prepare you for race day. However, you can mimic this by doing two things:

  1. Have multiple races lined up before your main event
  2. When you go for long rides wear, do, eat and pace yourself like you will for your actual race

You should make sure that everything is the same so that you know exactly what it will be like on race day. You need to know how to change a tire with whichever method you are going to use, such as using a hand pump or practicing with Co2 canisters. Your nutrition should be accessible and planned out before you go.

You wouldn't stop to eat in a race so don't stop to eat when you're training; eat on the move to prepare yourself for how you'll do it on race day. Likewise, if you need a long break make sure it's quick and not an excuse for a 20 min rest. Obviously if you are doing interval training and not a long ride this is different but when you are doing long rides this needs to be the case.

5. Practice with CO2

If you are going to use CO2 to pump up your tires you need to know how to use it. I bet there are a lot of people out there who have it with them but haven't used it many times, if at all. I've seen this happen before where a friend of mine was using his CO2 for the first time in a race. He wasn't sure how to control the flow of the gas so he let it all out while it wasn’t attached properly to his valve meaning that he had no more gas and still a flat tire...

I always carry a very small back-up pump so that if the gas doesn't work from the two canisters I have, I can revert to the manual method. The pump is so small that it easily fits in my pocket.

6. Brick to Swim then Bike

I'm sure that a lot of you guys have heard about brick sessions before. The idea of a brick session is to do one event after the other, just like in triathlon. Perhaps you might do a ride then a run. Or maybe a swim then a bike. The latter is much less common but most definitely needed. Doing a good swim followed by a cycle ride is very valuable because you can feel dizzy and not quite yourself after the swim section of a triathlon, especially if you are swimming in a wetsuit because your body position will most likely be very different when compared to being in a pool.

Try it in open water and attempt to keep the time between your swim and cycle (the transition) down to a minimum to mimic race conditions. This brick session will help prepare your body for how it will feel in a race and ensure that you are fully prepared. Taking on food soon after the swim can cause some triathletes to feel nauseous, so training with race fueling strategies will definitely help your body adapt, too.

7. Know the Course

I lived in London when I was training for Ironman UK and the thing about London is it's flat. The Ironman UK course in Bolton is quite hilly. Approximately 1,600m of climbing over 180km. So I needed to get out to ride some hills to prepare for both ascending and descending. We managed to get a long weekend in down in France in the mountains, about one hour south of Geneva at Lake Annecy. This was such a good idea because the mountains were very tough riding. One of them was from the lake up to a ski station, which was a route used as part of this year's Tour de France. It was 18km of uphill...Since doing that twice and other mountain routes I have never feared any UK hill again!

Ideally you would go out and ride the actual course. We didn't get a chance to do this so that was one mistake. If you can ride it you will feel so much more confident and know what to expect come race day and also how to train for the specific conditions that the course will impose on you. 

8. TT Bike or Road Bike

There are many differences between a road bike and a Time Trial (TT) bike, but I won't go into all of them now because I don't have enough space. To sum it up quickly, a road bike is built for riding in the standard seating position and a TT bike for being in the aero position with your arms on the rests out in front of you. It's not nice to ride a TT bike through traffic because the brakes are in one place and the gears another.

It's not always that clear cut as to whether it's best to have a TT bike or a road bike for a few reasons: 

  1. If the course has lots of downhill sections you will probably be faster on a road bike using the dropped handle bars unless you are really confident and experienced at it on a TT bike
  2. Unless you have spent a long time on a TT bike you will probably suffer more on a TT bike than a road bike because of comfort issues
  3. TT bikes are usually geared for flatter roads so going up steep hills you will find you have to push out a large, tough gear and perhaps drain leg power which you are not used to. In addition, it's nicer to climb on a road bike because of the rider position and you have better handlebars for it.

Overall, it really depends on your level of experience and the course as to whether it's better to have a TT bike or a road bike. I'd recommend having both - a road bike for the commute, winter rides and heavy traffic times and a TT bike for longer rides, the summer and racing. Just make sure that you are comfortable on the TT bike staying in that position for hours at a time before you decide to use it in an Ironman race. Being uncomfortable and having to sit up all the time will slow you down and defeat the point of using a TT bike, unless you just want it to look good of course...

9. Time Saver

The bike section of the race is the longer discipline and as such you should have spent more time training for the bike than the swim or run. This is the stage of the race where you should be able to make up time, but not always...If you are going 21 mph and want to increase your speed to 23 mph, which is just about a 10% increase, you'll actually need 25% more power to do so. This is because of the air resistance. Air resistance is the biggest factor preventing you from going faster. So, the faster you go the harder it gets to go faster. Using a large amount of power up in your legs can kill your muscles for the run, so just be aware that it's better to pace yourself and make up time on the run.

That concludes this article on the cycling part of an Ironman race. I hope that you can take some tips away from it and use them in your training and preparation for your next Ironman race, and that none of the information has put you off doing your first Ironman!

In the next article I will be focusing on run specific details for the marathon part of the Ironman triathlon, but if you have any questions about the bike section please let me know below in the comments area and I will try to answer them.


Author Bio: Robert Jackson this year became an Ironman! He believes a balanced, yet consistent, approach to training and diet will deliver results. Having started out with a fear of the water, he managed to complete the 3.8km Ironman swim in 1.5 hours just 11 months later, proving that "anything is possible...". Robert has recently created a website to guide those looking for protein powder. Click here to find out more.

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date: March 20, 2014

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Tre_bor