Return on Investment Series, Part 3: The Bike

150 150 Rich Strauss

Coach Rich at Ironman® Wisconsin

In Part I we introduced you to our Return on Investment (ROI) training approach. In Part II we applied this tool to the swim. In this installment we turn to the bike, providing you with:

  • A simple tool to become a much faster cyclist with a minimum of time investment.
  • A mindset that will keep you focused and ensure that you spend your cycling time most efficiently.

Interval Training — the High ROI Tool for Becoming a Faster Cyclist

The best predictor of your cycling speed at all distances is your speed for one hour.

Let’s say you currently can time trial a bike at 20mph for one hour. This 20mph for 1hr fitness expresses itself as 17mph for a 4hr bike ride. We’re making these numbers up, but we’ve all experienced this and you get the idea.

By focusing on increasing this 20mph 1 hour time trialing ability, you increase your 1hr TT speed from 20mph to 22mph. This will always result in an increase in 4hr speed, say from 17mph to 19mph. From this and from our own training and coaching experience, we’d like to introduce you to a few thoughts:

  • If you want to ride fast, you need to ride FAST! That is, no amount of riding 17mph will create the ability to ride 19mph on race day. Actually, it can. In our experience, 15-20+hrs PER WEEK of easy to steady riding can in fact make you a faster cyclist. The problem is that it’s completely impractical for everyone reading this article!
  • You’re not going to get hurt! The bike is not the run: it’s non-impact, your feet are nailed to pedals attached to straight cranks attached to circular chainrings…there is very little to go wrong, there is very little technique or bio mechanics involved, compared to the swim and run, assuming that you’re on a bike that fits you reasonably well. For these reasons, high intensity cycling is much less risky than high intensity running — two different sports warranting different approaches. The net is that we have never seen an athlete injure themselves by riding too hard too soon…other than by running into stuff! So while Timmy spends months and months riding at 17mph to “build his base,” earning permission to become a faster cyclist, Tommy is riding 23-24mph a LOT, pushing up that 19mph 1hr TT speed to 20, 21, 22mph. April rolls around and Timmy’s 1hr TT speed is still at 19mph, while Tommy’s speed is at 22mph. That’s a big head start to give someone at the start of the season and, in our experience, this speed differential also expressed as cycling distance increases. That is, it’s Timmy’s 17mph 4hr speed against Tommy’s 19mph 4hr speed…in April.

Get to WORK to Become a Faster Cyclist

Step 1: Test

Warmup and then time trial for about 40 minutes, recording your average heart rate. This heart rate is a close enough approximation of your lactate threshold heart rate. Use this number to determine your training zones. The most common heart rate training zone framework in the triathlon space is that created by Joe Friel. See this calculator.

Step 2: Do Interval Training

Create one session per week where you do intervals of 8 to 20 minutes in length at Zone 4, per the zones above. Do about 30-50 minutes of cumulative work interval time. For example, 3 x 15′ = 45′ of total work interval time. The volume of this session does not matter. Warmup, work, cool down, done.

Step 3: Repeat Step 2

In our experience, this one session is the most effective, time efficient workout you can do to become a MUCH faster cyclist and it’s never too early to insert this session into your cycling week!

Training Stress vs Training Volume — The Mindset of Time Efficiency

Your body is lazy and will only adapt itself to the training load you place upon it. Through progressive overload, subjecting ourselves to a cumulative training load, or stress, that increases incrementally over time, our bodies adapt — fitness is increased and the expression of this is the ability to swim, bike, or run farther and faster.

The power training world offers us a tool we can use to estimate the training stress we deliver to our bodies during a ride: Training Stress Score, or TSS. TSS is a function of the intensity and volume of the ride. Please go to for a more complete discussion.

Two common TSS scenarios:

  • A 3 hour ride with a lot of Zone 3 and 4 time will have a higher TSS score than a 3hr ride in Zone 1-2. Higher training load means a higher potential for improved fitness with the same time invested in the ride.
  • A 4-4.5hr very challenging ride, with Zone 4 intervals and a mix of Zone 2 and Zone 3 riding, will have the same or higher TSS as a 6hr Z1-2 ride. In this case, we achieve the same or better training stress with less time invested in the ride.

To better relate this discussion to Ironman® training and racing, we can tell you that a well executed Ironman® bike leg typically accrues about 275 to 310 TSS points. We can use this as a benchmark to gauge how close we’ve come on a training ride to performing the work we’ll do on race day.

Let’s now compare two different styles of the “long bike,” the cornerstone of the Ironman® bike training week:

  • Typical 5.5 hour Ironman® training ride, as 90 minutes at Zone 1 and 4hrs at Zone 2 = 279 TSS points
  • Typical EN 4hr ride, as: 30′ of Zone 1 warmup, 45′ of cumulative Zone 4 interval work (see our example above), 90′ of Zone 3 time, 60′ of Zone 2 time, and about 20′ of additional Zone 1 time as rest intervals mixed in with the riding above = 269 TSS points

We’ve put ourselves and thousands of Ironman® athletes through this style of long riding since about 2007. These are our observations and notes for you:

  • Both rides racked up TSS points similar to what these athletes will see on race day. That’s a good thing and, when executed week after week, is an excellent tool for building Ironman® cycling endurance.
  • However, the harder, more focused ride achieved nearly the same TSS with 90′ less time invested.
  • In addition, the more focused ride includes 45′ of that “make me a faster cyclist” Zone 4 time, to compliment your weekday interval session.
  • Zone 3 is where the money is: by boosting time spent in Zone 3, we significantly increase the TSS of the ride while still being able to accommodate the Zone 4 “get faster” work and Zone 2 “Ironman® specific” work. In fact, we’ve found Zone 3 to be so valuable that our Sunday ride is dedicated to racking up as much Zone 3 time as possible.

In short, “WORK is SPEED Entering the Body.” It’s our motto, printed on the backs of our TeamEN training jerseys and racing singlets. Your goal as an age group Ironman® triathlete is to maximize the amount of WORK you get done in the time that life gives you.

Much like return on investment, once you adopt this WORK ethic, many training decisions will just fall into place.

Interested in learning more?

Please register to download our “Heart Rate Training Redefined” ebook — we discuss fitness as the ability to perform work, the importance of sport specific training and much more! Register to download the ebook and we’ll even send you a FREE copy of our Four Keys of Race ExecutionDVD, a $37 value!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.