The Triathlon Execution Magic of Riding Steady, Part I: What is Steady?

150 150 Rich Strauss


Steady wins the race!

As our members, training plan customers, and readers swap their training hats for their pointy racey-racey hats,  leaving their trainers behind to test their fitness on the road in preparation for their races, we see a lot of discussion about riding steady, I can’t ride steady, OMG HTF am I supposed to ride hills like this, etc. So let’s talk about how we want you to ride your bikes in training and racing.

What is “riding steady?”

By this we mean a nearly constant effort, regardless of hills, downhills, winds, etc, with few to zero surges of power/effort. To explain why, let’s toss out some powergeekery terms:

  • Average watts: the physics of you riding your bike — rider with weight x, aerodynamics of y, puts up z average watts for 112 miles on the Ironman® Wisconsin bike course and puts up a 6:xx bike split. Average watts is the physics of what’s going on there.
  • Normalized watts: a construct created by Hunter Allen and Andy Coggan, normalized power attempts to account for the fact that all watts are not created equal. The metabolic cost of watts gets much, much higher as watts increase and normalized watts tries to account for this. In short, normalized watts is how tired you felt after producing your average watts above.

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Normalized watts allows us to compare two very different rides, to normalize them. For example:

  • Timmy does a flat ride and his average power (Pavg) is 200w.
  • Billy does a big climbing ride and averages 200w (assume Billy and Timmy are identical twins on identical bikes)
  • Timmy’s Pnorm (normalized power) is 210w. However Billy’s Pnorm is 225w. In short, though Billy and Timmy both produced the same average watts, Billy’s style of riding made him more tired. Billy’s ride was harder, more costly to his body.
  • If we divide Pnorm by Pavg we get Variability Index (VI), a measurement of how variable or “non-steady” each ride was. Timmy’s VI is 1.05, Billy’s VI is 1.125. A lower VI ride is more steady than a higher VI ride.

Using these definitions of average watts (physics of riding your bike) and normalized watts (how tired you got while producing those watts), we can now talk about how we want you to ride your bike on raceday:

Produce your optimal average watts while making yourself as less tired as possible.

That is, Pavg and Pnorm should be very close = we want to see a low VI.

What does this style of riding look like on the road?

How We Want You to Ride

Goal watts: based on your fitness, the length of the course, etc, your goal is to ride at 220w.  So you’re riding on the flats at 220w.

  • Hills: the road starts to go up. You look at the PM monitor and dial in about 230-240w. You maintain this effort across the crest of the hill and keep it up (or dial it down to about 220w) until you hit about 34-35mph…then you just coast, or you keep pedaling at your goal watts until you spin out. If coasting, as you drop under about 30mph you start to pedal again at 220w and your speed bleeds down to your normal cruising speed.
  • Headwinds/Tailwinds: are invisible. You just ride at 220w into the wind and 220w with the tailwind.

Contrast this to…

How Everyone Else Rides

  • Hills: watch the people around you. You’ll see that as the hill starts they step on the gas and may quickly put several bike length between them and you. Remember that the metabolic cost of watts increases exponentially, not linearly. There is a BIG price to pay, later in the day, for stepping on the gas like this. Next, you’ll see them come off the gas and, if the hill is long enough, this gap between you and them stabilizes. As the hill reaches the crest…watch their body language as they come WAY off the gas. Shagged from their effort, they keep these low watts up just past the crest of the hill and then keep pedaling, weakly, on the downhill, or being to coast right away…their 27mph to your 35mph.
  • Winds: step on the gas into the wind (see exponentially higher cost of high watts). Also, resistance increases exponentially with wind speed. So your 220w into a 20mph wind gets you 18mph, while their 275w into the same wind gets them ~20-21mph. But when the wind changes, they come way off the gas with the wind. While you stay on 220w. Your speed is now 30mph to their 24mph.

So you and your non-EN friend go round and round the bike course, exiting T1 and entering T2 together. And of course, you’re identical twins…again :-). Both of you finish with average watts of 220w. However, your style of riding has created a Pnorm of 230w while your friend’s style as created a PNorm of 250w.

You’ve both done the same physics = same bike split, but we could say that your style of riding was more efficient, making you less tired.

Rich, Patrick, and many, many EN athletes have been racing like this for years. It absolutely, positively works, in that you can see just how hard everyone else around you is working…and not getting anything for it — doodes charge up hills, killing themselves to get to the top…and then shut it down, again and again and again. Before long they just go away or end up suffering on the run.

Go here for Part II: Learning the Skill of Steady

Interested in learning how to make better execution decisions on race day?

Sign up for our latest FREE virtual seminar, The Ironman® Execution Seminar. In seven lessons we’ll teach you everything you need to know to achieve your best long course triathlon performance!

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