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Improving Your Time Trial Performance :: Part One

For those who don't know Mark Fraser he is a level 2 British Cycling coach and the cycling co-ordinator for the juniors, in addition he coaches at a cycling club and also sometimes for British Cycling. He has kindly offered to share some of his experience with the seniors and has written this piece about how to improve your time trial performance. This will be great for those looking to cut off a few more seconds as they come past Audley End next year!
We hope that Mark will be able to do some more articles and also in the spring some practical sessions.


Whether you normally finish at the top or bottom of the results list, you’ll spend roughly half of the total duration of an Olympic distance triathlon on your bike. As an age-group triathlete that means you’ll probably be competing in a non-drafting race, so becoming a better time triallist can give you a much better overall race result.

Of course, time trialling is a sport in its own right. It used to be the least glamorous side of cycle racing but in recent years the achievements at world level of riders like Sir Bradley Wiggins, Emma Pooley and Alex Dowsett have given it a much higher profile. And of course these days it’s dripping with the kind of fancy techno-equipment that is catnip to most triathletes and cyclists! We’ll come back to that later, but I’ll set the scene now by saying that upgrading to a £3k super-bike is one of the least effective things you can do to improve your time trialling...

Many club-level triathletes can make a significant improvement to their time trialling performance without any increase in fitness. Let’s break down time trialling into its key components and look at how to get the best performance out of a rider. We’ll use the club’s own Audley End 10 mile time trial events as an example.

“Could try harder”

So, when you’re riding one of the club’s Thursday evening time trials, how hard are you trying? You’re trying hard, right? Flat out? Forgive me, but I’m going to suggest that you’re probably not trying as hard as you think you are, and almost certainly not as hard as you actually can.

Many triathletes spend a lot of time riding their bikes at a steady effort, but not much time at or beyond their true twenty to thirty minute time trial threshold (i.e. the maximum power that can be maintained for that period of time). Unsurprisingly, that tends to develop the ability to endure a long ride at a brisk pace but not the mental strength to really push hard in a 10 mile event. They are often very good at tolerating extended fatigue but not so good at tolerating intense effort.

It can take a long time to learn your true threshold – the maximum effort that you’re really capable of. It certainly takes courage to voluntarily hurt yourself as much as you need to if you are genuinely going to get the best possible performance out of yourself. I worked with one club member at the end of summer who wasn’t nearly as fast as he should have been considering his high level of fitness. One of the reasons turned out to be that he was scared of trying *very* hard, and the feeling of extreme discomfort that goes with that. It sounds awful doesn’t it? Yes, but the great thing is that a rider with little time to train but who has learned to ride at his or her true threshold can still beat a fitter rider who trains more. When I was racing rather more seriously than my comedy efforts of recent years I was often dropped by fitter riders on training rides, but I could still beat them in time trials because I had developed the ability to push very hard indeed.

As a guide, you shouldn’t be able to speak when trying hard over twenty or thirty minutes – you could say a single word or perhaps two if absolutely necessary, but no more than that. So how can you learn to try harder, and discover the highest level of effort that you’re actually capable of? Here are a couple of tips:-

  1. Interval training. Put together some short sessions with above-threshold intervals of 30 seconds to two minutes at well over race pace. This helps you learn and tolerate intense effort. There’s no point doing these kind of sessions though unless you’re fresh and mentally positive, otherwise they are just impossible. An hour or less is all you need for the entire session including a 15 minute warm-up and 15 minute warm-down. Easy then! No, not really, because you’ll know if you’re doing it right (i.e. trying hard enough) if you have butterflies in your stomach in the lead up to the session, apprehensive about what’s coming. You certainly shouldn’t be able to carry out a session with that kind of intensity two days in a row - maybe just twice a week.
  2. Ask yourself every ten seconds during every race: am I really trying my hardest right now? Could I actually try just a little harder? Say it to yourself in your head. If you’re trying hard enough you should have a slight doubt that you can maintain the effort until the finish.
  3. Do some human-paced training sessions – that is, team up with someone faster than you, riding directly behind them at their race pace. Psychologically it’s more manageable to raise your effort to a very high level when hanging on to someone else’s back wheel than it is when riding alone.
  4. Do some two-up or three-up training sessions – riding hard in a string of two or three riders of similar speed, each rider taking their turn at the front every thirty seconds or so. Your turn on the front will be done at above your normal time trial racing effort, recovering when you are sheltering behind team-mates. It’s a form of interval training of course.
  5. Experiment with trying “too hard” in less important races. Hold a level of effort which you expect you can’t maintain to the finish. Expect to blow up during the race, but see how far you can get before this happens – you might be surprised. And who cares if you end up doing a slower time as a result? Keep your eye on the long-term goal of improvement instead.
  6. Hill sessions. Again, another form of interval training. Most people can develop more power on a hill than on the flat, so it’s an effective way of reaching a very high level of intensity. I have a 16 mile route which strings together every hill west of Saffron Walden – the golden rules of this session are:-
  • ride at your absolute maximum whenever the road goes uphill, whether it’s just for 10 seconds or for two minutes.
  • recover by riding as gently as you like whenever the road is flat or downhill.
  • ride each hill as if it’s the only one you’ll do that day – in other words, don’t hold anything back for later in the session.

I had a racing season a few years ago in which I only had time for two hour’s training per week, and doing this hill session twice per week for a couple of months was the most effective use of my training time. It’s a destructive session and it was tough mentally, but it was enough to make me quite competitive on the track and in time trials.

Goldilocks Pacing

So once you’ve tapped in to your hidden reserves and learned to push yourself to your true threshold, how do you pace a time trial? How do you make sure you’re pacing it just right to produce your fastest possible time - not too much effort, not too little, and at the right points in the race?

Firstly, forget about your heart rate monitor. A HRM isn’t a helpful tool for time trialling at all – there are many reasons why your heart rate doesn’t reflect your actual effort or the power that you are producing: heat build up; cardiac drift; heart rate lagging behind effort; air temperature; time of day; and more besides.

If you are fortunate enough to own a power meter that’s a more useful tool because that’s measuring the true force that you’re developing by turning the pedals. However, even a power meter isn’t necessarily a helpful tool when actually racing. For example, if you find yourself averaging a higher power than ever before during a time trial, what are you going to do? Most people will ease off because they worry that they’ll blow up. But perhaps you could have gone on to set a new PB that day. Or, if you see your average power is lower than you expected, what will you do then? If you’re already trying your hardest you can’t simply produce more power to ride faster. You’ll probably just worry that you’re doing a poor ride.

A bike computer or GPS device measuring your speed certainly isn’t helpful. There are even more reasons why your speed doesn’t reflect your pacing strategy – wind direction being one of the main ones.

Do use your bike computers, heart rate monitors and power meters to record race data though – they are all valuable tools to analyse your ride afterwards.

One place that a power meter is actually very useful, though, is to make sure that you don’t over-do it during the first two or three minutes of a time trial. Almost everyone starts a time trial way too hard because it takes a while for your legs, heart and lungs to reflect your true effort, by which time it’s too late – you might gain five or ten seconds with such a hard start, but you’ll lose thirty or forty seconds overall by having fatigued your muscles so badly right at the start.

I’d been time trialling on and off for about twenty years before I first used a power meter, and I thought I’d worked out how to pace events evenly. With a power meter I discovered that although I would average 300 watts for a ten mile event, I would typically average 500 watts for the first minute and 400 watts for the first two minutes. Adrenalin masks the effort. So, I had to relearn pacing.

You will produce your race threshold power over the first couple of minutes with what feels like very little effort. You’ll worry that you’re losing time in those first couple of minutes but your even pacing will definitely pay off overall.

On our Audley End “10” course it’s particularly difficult to hold back at the start, because you’re straight into a series of small hills. I recommend consciously holding back at least until you’ve passed Audley End House, and only opening up the taps once you’re on the long straight from there to Littlebury.

Similarly, most people try far too hard on hills without realising it, and nowhere near hard enough on downhill sections. It’s actually very difficult for any rider to produce their threshold power downhill – it takes a lot of concentration. Although a power meter helps you to measure and understand this, it’s by no means essential. My recommendation is to try just a *little* harder on inclines, but not so hard that you need to ease off a lot in order to recover after each hill.

Don’t forget to keep your effort up over the crest of a hill too – a lot of people ease off before the bike starts heading downhill. Maintaining your effort a little longer keeps your momentum going and you’ll start the downhill travelling faster.

Similarly, most people can’t help trying too hard into a headwind, and don’t produce much power when riding with a tailwind. Manage your effort into the wind carefully to avoid blowing up before reaching a turn in the course. Again, I’d recommend trying a little harder than average into wind, and concentrating very hard on producing your best power with a tailwind.

If you’ve paced the ride well you won’t be able to sprint for the finish line. Even Mark Cavendish would only gain two or three seconds overall with a 45mph sprint for the line with 200m to go. You’ll save a lot more time by having used that energy during the previous 9.95 miles of the race!

Certainly, think of the last half mile as an extended wind-up towards the finish line. You should reach the final one hundred metres having used up everything in the tank. You should be genuinely incapable of continuing at your racing effort beyond the finish.

If you do “blow up” during the race and need to recover, do this on downhill sections if possible where you won’t lose much time – many is the time where I’ve gone too far into the red and have had to actually freewheel to recover sufficiently. But at least on a downhill you can still travel at a decent speed and cover the ground- try to avoid having to go very gently on inclines as a lot of time would be lost there.

On the Audley End “10” course there are two particular points where I find I need to recover if I’ve over-cooked it: after the drag up to the turn at Stumps Cross, and after the short steep climb through Littlebury on the return leg. It’s important to recover enough to attack the last few bumps hard from Audley End house back to the finish, so ease off a little after Littlebury if you need to.

Hopefully you’ve come to the conclusion that good time trial pacing isn’t just about riding the bike as fast as you can for ten miles – to achieve the performance that you’re actually capable of you need to think quite hard about pacing in training and during the race itself. It takes quite a lot of concentration, and you do constantly need to be challenging yourself about whether you’re riding hard enough at that very moment.

Next time we’ll look at three other crucial aspects of successful time trialling: aerodynamics, pedalling cadence, and equipment.