Does More Saddle Time Equate to Faster Bike Splits?

author : Troy Jacobson
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How to get faster and still keep your job and family

By Coach Troy Jacobson

One of the more popular questions posed by triathletes of all levels is “how do I get faster on the bike?” The answer is simple… train consistently, train hard, follow a progressive training regimen, eat a high performance diet, recover judiciously, stay healthy and you’ll likely get faster.  Simple, right?

Ok, it’s not that simple really. It’s actually quite a complex equation that varies from person to person according the Principle of Individual Differences.  We all respond differently to training and a ‘one size fits all’ approach rarely works.  With that said, there is one thing that most age group triathletes can do in order to ride stronger and faster and that is to… (Drum Roll Please), Ride MORE!  

Busy athletes

So let’s begin our discussion by narrowing down our target athlete for this article.  I’m going to address the typical (if there is such a thing) age group triathlete who is juggling a busy life (family, career, etc.), comes from an athletic background other than competitive cycling  and has an ambitious schedule of multisport training and racing.  Realistically, this age group triathlete has between 10-15 hours per week to devote to training and incorporates training for three sports (plus perhaps supplementary strength training, flexibility training or otherwise) into that block of time.  Desire to get faster and their dedication to do so is NOT a limiting factor, but time to spend on the saddle is.

If we look at the elite cyclist or triathlete, time and genetics are on their side.  Simply put, they have the tools (genetics) and the opportunity (time) in which to develop their abilities and near their potential.  Add a little bit of motivation in there and you have a recipe for the development of a superb athlete capable of achieving the highest level of human performance on the bike.  These athletes devote many hours to practicing their craft and nearly as many hours recovering from their hard work.  So how can we, as age groupers, learn from the pros?

First, let’s peek behind the curtain and see what they do in order to develop their talents.  We’ve all seen NIKE’s commercial with Lance from several years ago where he says something to the effect of, “What am I on? I’m on my bike 6 hours a day. What are you on?”
While 6 hours per day of riding is probably a slight exaggeration, it’s probably not too far from the truth for athletes at the highest level to commit that amount of time to training, at least during critical training phases throughout the year. 

Overall volume of training is a critical factor in terms of developing one’s aerobic engine (cardiovascular and supporting functions) and muscular endurance.  When higher workloads are placed on the body (The Overload Principle) in controlled incremental doses and followed by adequate recovery, the body responds by adapting to that additional stress by getting faster and stronger.  It’s noted that pro cyclists, during certain periods of their annual training cycles, will ride 30-40 hours per week, equating to 400-600 miles of aerobic endurance training.  World class swimmers, even those who compete in short events lasting under 1 minute in duration, will do double workouts daily, adding up to over 60,000 Meters per week.  And World Class marathoners aim for weekly totals upwards of 120-150 miles per week.  So, taking the very best in the business as examples … volume is important.  If you can train more, the result will likely be increased fitness, at least to a point.

Elite triathletes take overall training workloads to the highest level, training in all three sports to accomplish 30+ hours per week.  It’s fairly common to hear of the world class Ironman athlete, for example, to maintain a training schedule of 20-25K of swimming, 300-400 miles of cycling and 60+ miles of running each week during a ‘build’ phase of training.  That’s a ton of training stress on the body, but also a requirement in order to compete at the highest levels…especially if the goal is to do well at long course triathlon events like Ironman.

Translating the pro experience

So, how do we ‘mortals’ use this example set by our gifted friends at the elite level? Quit our day jobs, move to Boulder or Tucson, land a major sponsor and train full time? Stop dreaming … it ain’t gonna happen.  Since time is the limiter for most, age group athletes need to maximize every workout by training smart.  Furthermore, even if you could ‘ride lots more’, it’s quite likely that most of us would get overtrained and/or injured due to biomechanical inefficiencies and inability to handle the increased workloads.  In other words, it’s not recommended that you follow the training regimens of the top pros, unless you want to end up in the gutter.  I know of a couple examples where even top Ironman distance triathletes pushed the bike volume too high and ended up developing chronic fatigue syndrome, shingles or other health problems related to overdoing it.  There’s always a point of diminishing returns where high training volumes work against you, not for you.  That’s why a combination of quality training and aerobic training yields the best results when time is the primary limiter in the performance equation.

From my experience both as a former elite level competitor and as a long time tri-coach, I have come up with a list of strategies for the age group athlete to consider when trying to boost performance on the bike while limited by time.

  1. Train according to a periodized program, gradually building your volume and intensity targeting a peak event (or two) each year.
  2. Consider incorporating training blocks focusing almost exclusively on the bike. For example, if you have 12 hours of training time in a given week and normally cycle for half that time (with swim and run comprising the other half), increase your cycling training load to 70-90% over a two-week block, then resume your normal time distribution after that.  Do this a few times a year.
  3. Attend an early season, cycling intensive training camp and load up with steady aerobic base mileage.
  4. Mid race season, take two weeks to re-establish your aerobic foundation with steady, longer aerobic training rides.  Try something I call 3x3. 3 days in a row of 3 hr, steady aerobic (zone 2-3) rides, followed by 1 or 2 days of short rides, and repeat the set once or twice more.
  5. Test yourself every 6-8 weeks on the bike.  Time trial for 8 miles or for 20 minutes, and measure your results to reassess training parameters.
  6. Do one longer aerobic endurance ride of at least 3 hours in duration (preferably longer) every week.
  7. Train on the bike consistently, year-round. 
  8. Try to ride at least 4-days each week. Five days is even better.
  9. Focus on technique development at all times.  Have the ability to ‘spin’ your legs at 90-100 rpms comfortably without bouncing around on the saddle.
  10. Have a Bike Fit Specialist dial in your fit for biomechanical and aerodynamic efficiency.
  11. If you wish to add mileage, do so in the range of only 5-10% each week. To much, too soon can lead to injury and overtraining.
  12. Do some strength work on the bike regularly, pedaling at high watts and low cadence ranges of 50-60 rpms.  Hill repeats are great for this.
  13. Measure and record your training results daily using a powermeter or heart rate monitor.  “That which gets measured, matters.”
  14. In the timeframe of 2-3 weeks before an important event, start systematically decreasing your cycling volume while maintaining some level of intensity.
  15. Do at least one ‘quality’ session on the bike each week, i.e. Interval Training.
  16. During the winter, when training more indoors, avoid excessive ‘Gray Zone’ training sessions or too many ‘party on a bike’ indoor cycling workouts at the gym.  Remember there’s a difference between training for competition and exercising.
  17. Build your base. 
  18. Plan to develop peak form only once or twice a year. It’s unrealistic to be in ‘top form’ year-round and the attempt to do so will only yield mediocre race results most of the time.
  19. Hire a coach to help you monitor your weekly workloads and to develop a comprehensive annual training plan for multisport competition. 
  20. Remember you’re a triathlete, not a bike racer.  The finish line is at the end of the run!

Leverage these tips to help you become a stronger rider. Remember, volume matters in your quest to ride faster, but so does having a strategic approach to your training with a blend of quality work and aerobic training.   Train smart and you’ll achieve your goals.

A former pro triathlete, Coach Troy Jacobson posted the day’s fastest bike splits at Ironman Canada and Ironman Florida in the late 1990’s.  The Official Coach of IRONMAN, The Head Tri Coach for Life Time Fitness and the creator of the Spinervals Cycling Video serious, learn more at

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date: May 18, 2011

Troy Jacobson

Since he started coaching endurance athletes back in 1992, Troy Jacobson has been widely considered one of the top coaches in the United States for single sport and multisport athletes alike. His success has helped to revolutionize multisport coaching and has brought the profession of 'online coaching' to an unprecedented level of acceptance.

avatarTroy Jacobson

Since he started coaching endurance athletes back in 1992, Troy Jacobson has been widely considered one of the top coaches in the United States for single sport and multisport athletes alike. His success has helped to revolutionize multisport coaching and has brought the profession of 'online coaching' to an unprecedented level of acceptance.

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