Worse Bike = Better Run = Winning Race

author : alicefoeller
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"Setting up for a good run" can mean letting go of expectations on the bike.

If you hang around the triathlon community long enough, you'll hear the phrase, "setting yourself up for a good run," or "have a bike that sets you up for the run." What does that mean? Well, for most of us regular folks (meaning, not elite athletes) it can mean purposely not doing very well on the bike. Underperforming. Going SLOW.

This strategy is often theoretical, because it's quite difficult to have other triathletes flying past you on the bike and continue to pedal at the pace you would do on a slow recovery ride when you're not feeling very well. So most beginner athletes don't really gain an appreciation for this strategy. We come out of the water and get all jazzed up in the transition area, and we head out on the bike course with vigor and purpose. We push hard during the bike leg, turn in a respectable average speed, and then about halfway through the run, we break down and turn into walking zombies.

Am I right?

OK, not everyone does this. But I see a lot of zombies out there.

Slow down on the bike? Really?

It's hard to accept advice to go slow on the bike. It's the longest leg of the race (or at least it should be) and slacking off seems like a bad idea during a race.

But let's do the math:

Let's say your normal average speed on the bike during a race is 17mph. And when you go that speed, you feel great about yourself until halfway through the run, when you are walking and cramping and hating the world.

If you instead rode 16mph, you would lose five and a half minutes over the course of an Olympic triathlon, and about three minutes over the course of a sprint triathlon.

That seems like a pretty significant loss. 

But cycling is a little different from running. 

If you slow down on the bike, you can do so incrementally; If you start feeling bad on the run, you usually slow from a run to a walk, because there is a gap between your slowest running speed and your fastest walking speed. So let's say you were running a 10 minute mile, but you had to slow to a walk of about 4mph, which is a pretty fast walk, but is only a 15 minute mile. That's a loss of 31 minutes over the course of an Olympic and 15 minutes over the course of a sprint race.


Does it really work?

Yes. Last weekend I raced an Olympic triathlon. I wasn't all that prepared because I hadn't trained on the bike very much this year. I sometimes did a leisurely ride with my kids, sometimes put in a good, long effort on a weekend, but more often than not, I did a 30-minute trainer session or nothing at all. As a result, I didn't push it on the bike. I knew I was going to be passed by stronger riders, and I shouted them encouragement and congratulations and let them go. The only time I felt my heart really pounding was when I was climbing a decent hill. 

I had one of the worst bike splits of the 170 people in the Olympic division -- 127th.

I started out onto the run course feeling fairly good, but also hot and dehydrated. I was staying approximately even with most of the people around me for the first mile. Then something interesting happened. We headed down a very slight two-mile grade. The downhill was almost imperceptible, but because I was clear-headed and my heartrate was normal, I could see it and contemplate it. I realized that if miles 1 to 3 were a slight downhill, miles 3 to 5 were going to be a slow, grinding uphill. I filed this information away. I also leaned very slightly forward from my hips to take advantage of the slight downhill.

Because my head was clear and my coordination was good, I ran through the aid stations, clearly shouting what I needed to the volunteers and getting it accurately down my gullet (or onto my head) without stopping. When I'm fatigued on the run, I often lack the energy to interact with the aid station, and have to stop to get what I want. I also sometimes cough trying to swallow the liquids, or spill them and miss out on hydration.

I hit the bottom of the downgrade and made the turnaround smoothly, then started back up the incline. I knew it was a hill, and I thought clearly and adjusted my pace slightly to a faster cadence and shorter stride. I adjusted my breathing from in-two-out-two and changed it to in-three-out-three so that I could have a faster cadence without breathing overly hard and artificially elevating my heartrate.

Then I watched as others around me succumbed to feeling terrible, perhaps not fully understanding that they were climbing and it was going to feel harder. I moved steadily through the next mile and a half, then adjusted my stride again when the road flattened out. I headed to the finish and made it across the line having never stopped and never walked. I passed a lot of people on the second half of the run, and I finished third in my age group for the race.

So yes, you can be really slow on the bike and still have a podium finish. 

Try it! You might like it!


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date: September 29, 2016


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.

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