Four Keys of Long Course Triathlon Bike Execution


While the Ironman World Championships in Kona are in just a few days, there’s still a lot of long course racing left on the calendar. These are our Four Keys of Long Course Triathlon Bike Execution, to help you get your mind right about how to ride the long course bike>

The Delta Isn’t as Big as You Think

Most athletes understand that the “delta,” or difference, between a “good”, go hard, try to make something happen swim and an easy, stay comfortable, just get me to my bike swim is relatively small. Usually 3-5 minutes in our experience. And most people can be made to understand that the difference between a good run and a bad run can be several minutes to several hours. That is, it’s easy to wrap your head around the fact that the difference between running 9 minutes miles or walking/shuffling 16-20 minute miles adds up very quickly and can make a huge difference in race times.

However, most people are unaware of the relatively small difference, in the context of a very long long day, between a hard bike and a comfortable bike. We call this the COULD bike split vs the SHOULD bike split.

Your could bike split is the split you dream about, the split you think you could ride, and it’s often seen as validation of the hours and hours of training you’ve put in on the bike. By contrast, your should bike split is the split you should ride, the split that sets up the run. In our experience, the difference between could and should is usually only about 10-15 minutes. We say “only” because the consequences of that could split accrue very quickly in the last miles of the run, to the tune of 6-10 minutes lost per mile. Ask yourself how good will that could split look when you’re walking the last 8 miles, or more, of your Ironman?

Beware the Disconnection Zone

Understand that the most dangerous portion of your race is the first 20-30 miles of the bike. During this time you’re riding within two “disconnection zones:”

  1. Internal Disconnect: it feels like you’re riding easy and your heart rate may tell you that you’re riding easy. But if we put a powermeter on your bike we’d see that you are not riding easy. In fact, you’re likely riding much harder than you think you are and certainly much harder than you should.
  2. External Disconnect: at the same time that you’re all whack, everyone else around you is whack too, blowing by you like it’s a road race. It can be very challenging to not get caught up in this dynamic and ride too hard as a result.

And in our experience getting it right in this first 30 miles is so critical to the overall success of your day. Your body is at it’s most hydrated, fueled, and relatively fresh state. It’s critical to leverage this period by front loading your calories and fluid to the early miles of the bike. And the Could/Should Delta in this first 30 miles is even smaller.

We recommend you try this exercise in your long rides for two back to back weekends:

  • The Could First 30 Miles: ride the first 30 miles of this long ride relatively hard, at a Zone 2 to Zone 3 effort, recording this segment as lap. Then carry on with the rest of your regularly scheduled ride.
  • The Should First 30 Miles: the next weekend, do the same ride but ride at a solid Zone 1 to very low Zone 2 effort for the first 30 miles, recording this as a lap also.


  1. What was the time difference between your Could and Should 30 mile splits? Surprisingly small, in our experience. Now consider how easy it is to give back that time and more in the last 8 miles of the Ironman marathon. Remember, time gets away from you very quickly if you implode on the run.
  2. At the end of each ride, how fatigued were you? In experience, pacing errors in the first 30 miles strongly express themselves in the last 30-40 miles of your ride and it’s very easy to give back whatever time you gained in the first 30, as you come significantly off the gas, sit up, etc.

The Bike is Your Fueling and Hydration Platform for the Run

How was your fueling and hydration state at the end of your Should vs Could ride? In our experience, riding easy and keeping your heart rate low for a good 30 miles on the front end allows you to get a significant head start on your hydration and nutrition.
By contrast, if you’ve gone too hard early on the bike and haven’t fueled and hydrated well as a result, it’s nearly impossible to catch up, especially in the last 30 miles. And it’s nearly impossible to make up any hydration deficit on the run, especially in the last 8-10 miles.

In fact, we provide our athletes with detailed nutrition, electrolyte, and fluid guidance that they rehearse and tweak several times before race day. Their goal on race day then is to view the bike as a fueling and hydration platform for the run, with their objective being to urinate at least twice on the bike. Everything else, including their bike split, is secondary to this goal. You. Must. Drink. on the bike!

Steady on the Bike = Ready to Run

Finally, understand that the internal and external disconnects, and the simple dynamics of a race, can be very costly on a hilly course due to the typical “surge-y” style of riding. That is, most athletes ride up a hill much too hard, then lollygag across the crest, and coast on the downhill, eventually giving up, and more, all of the “gains” they made by riding hard up the hill in the first place. In addition, the metabolic cost of these surging, on-the-gas, off-the-gas efforts is very high, burning matches that would be better spent in the last 8-10 miles of the run.

We teach our athletes to implement “terrain centric execution,” to ride the terrain in front of them in the most efficient manner in order to set up the run. This means essentially “flattening the hills” by closely managing their effort at the start of the hill, the most dangerous portion, then climbing at a very sensible effort, extending this effort across the crest and into the downhill, and only coasting when they are going faster than about 33-35mph. This speed is then carried across the flat and becomes a higher entry speed for the next hill and the next and the next. It’s about maintaining a steady effort and conserving momentum, to get quickly around the course, and matches, to spend on the run.


  • Begin by understanding that the time difference between your Should and Could bike splits is relatively small, while the mistake of riding that Could split has 26 miles to express itself. Have confidence that riding with patience and discipline will pay off on the run, and gain additional confidence from the mistakes you see other athletes making around you.
  • Be aware that the most dangerous part of the bike ride is the first 30 miles. In fact, to keep it simple, assume that 90% of the people around you don’t know what they’re doing, so just make sure you’re doing the opposite of everyone else in this first 30 miles. Going backwards up a hill? Great! Pedaling down a hill at 34mph while everyone else is coasting at 26mph? Awesome!
  • Next, commit yourself to getting off the bike as well hydrated and fueled as possible, yes, even at the expense of your sexy bike split. If slowing down and getting your heart rate in check is what you need to do in order to take the fluid and calories you’ll need on the run, do that!
  • Finally, practice terrain centric execution by flattening the hills, paying very close attention to your effort at the entrance, crest, and descent of hills, especially in the first 30 miles of the bike.
  • Jennifer (Ginger) Ropka

    Thanks so much for all of your excellent advice. I did IMLP this year and attended your session at the theater, as well as, I watched your 4 keys videos on You Tube several times. Very, very helpful. I love the way you break the race down and speak in a language that is both entertaining and truthful. I totally bought into your recommendation and had a super successful race. 12:42 and that was with a flat on the bike which cost me about 12 minutes! It was my first IM and I was not sure what to expect on the run even after having done runs off of all my long bikes. I kept expecting to “hit the wall,” but I never did! I really felt good the entire time. When I hit mile 18 I was thinking, “Now I can race.” (I am sure my pace did not pick up much if anything, but I was happy to be there and on my way back to town for a finish.) At mile 20 I was giddy with excitement and wanted to squeal, “Only a 10K left!” I refrained because I realized may people around me were on their first loop. At mile 24 ish, my Garmin died, but I knew how close the finish was and just picked it up to get there. Great day! Also, when I ran by your tent the first loop, I distinctly remember Coach Patrick commenting on my form as I ran by. LOL Thanks! The only thing I need to change is my hydration and/or electrolytes. I must have peed 12 times on the bike(and I am not exaggerating) and took 3 porta-pot stops on the run. Oh yeah. my transitions were kinda slow especially T1. But the execution, I don’t think I would change much. Thanks again for your tips!

    • Patrick McCrann

      JGR – Thanks for the kind words and congratulations to you. That was not an easy day for your first race, in Lake Placid is not an easy venue either. I hope you have enjoyed the rest of your season and are gearing up for 2017… We are launching our out season plans in the next two weeks… We would love to have you join us!

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