Essential Cycling Skills for Triathletes
By Sharone Aharon, USAT LIII Coach
As triathletes, our athletes must master three different sports, each with unique fundamentals. Fortunately, the triathlon culture is one that is always seeking the latest training methods and striving for improvement. We are well aware of the need to develop better swim technique and running mechanics; however, due to the nature of the bike segment in triathlon, which is usually non-draft, we are a bit behind on cycling. We are often blamed by pure cyclists for being average riders or even unsafe riding partners. Regretfully, I tend to agree with them. Strong triathletes are often unable to ride in a pace line or in a group because they feel uncomfortable. It is not their strength which limits them. It’s their technical ability and riding skills that hold them back. No matter what level of cyclist your athletes are, consistent and progressive training will help them develop their cycling ability.
In order for your athlete to be an efficient rider you must train them in two major elements: pedaling mechanics and riding skills. Pedaling mechanics refers to the efficiency of your athlete’s power distribution throughout his pedal stroke, including what muscle fiber groups he is using to deliver power to the bike. Riding skills refers to your athlete’s bike handling skills. Development of pedaling mechanics is an important factor in achieving riding skills and a core component for these abilities.
Power production throughout the pedal stroke involves a smooth application of power on the pedal in four different directions. Starting from the top, at 12 o’clock, have your athlete first push the pedal down and forward, at 3 o’clock she shifts to a downward and back press, at 6 o’clock she shifts power application upward and back and at 9 o’clock to an upward and forward force. Both legs must work together, as one leg pushes down and the other lifts. Unfortunately, this application of power does not come naturally. We have to have our athletes practice this movement in order to achieve it.
Single leg drill (SLD) is the one drill that can help your athletes improve their power distribution. This drill should first be done on a stationary trainer. To perform SLD, have your athlete unclip one leg and rest it back on the trainer and keep pedaling with the other leg. Make sure the resistance is low and keep normal cadence. Have him focus on keeping his legs relaxed, and smoothing the transition between the upward and downward strokes. Alternate legs every 10-20 seconds at first and gradually increase the duration from workout to workout. Your athlete will instantly notice how much work it is to pull through the bottom of the pedal stroke and lift the pedal back up and over the top. Have her try to eliminate the dead spots at the bottom and top of the pedaling circle. Keep the pedaling motion as even and smooth as possible. This drill will seem difficult at first, but he should begin to see some improvement after a few short weeks. Below is an example for a trainer workout that you can easily modify to create a progressive program for pedal stroke efficiency.
15 min easy warm-up
5 x 20 sec SLD 40 sec both
2 x 3 min at HR zone 2 keeping 85+ rpm’s 1 min easy between sets
4 x 30 sec SLD, 30 sec both legs
2 x 2 min at HR zone 2 keeping 85+ rpm’s 2 min easy between sets
3 x 40 sec. SLD, 20 sec both
10-15 min easy cool-down
Cadence is the number of revolutions per minute that you turn your pedals when you ride. Cadence is the second factor affecting pedaling mechanics. Voluntary cadence typically ranges between 70 and 80 revolution per minute (rpm) however it is well documented that 90 to 100 rpm is a preferable cadence for cyclists and more so for triathletes. Cycling at a lower cadence for any speed involves using a bigger gear combination and putting more force into each pedal stroke. This action will force the use of fast twitch muscle fibers and can produce greater force. However, fast twitch muscles tend to fatigue quickly. While cycling at a faster cadence we mostly use slow twitch fibers which, when trained, can work longer with minimal fatigue. At first your athlete may feel that high cadence requires more work but after practicing for a few weeks a higher cadence will feel more natural, improve economy and ultimately improve his results. Triathletes pedaling at a higher cadence will benefit by starting the run on significantly fresher legs.
The fast spin drill is the most efficient drill for improving cadence. Have your athlete use light to moderate resistance, and gradually increase her rpm's until she begins to bounce on the saddle. Have her back off to the point where her stroke is smooth and hold that cadence for about 20 seconds. At the end, gradually have him bring his rpm's back down to about 90. The focus should be on keeping the muscles relaxed and the spin smooth. You're looking for a smooth, fast, yet relatively effortless motion. Below is an example of a workout that your athlete can perform on a trainer or on the road to improve leg turnover:
10 min easy warm-up
3 x 30 sec fast spin, 30 sec easy
3 x 40 sec fast spin, 20 sec easy
3 x 20 sec fast spin, 40 sec easy
3 x 30 sec fast spin, 30 sec easy
4 x 2 min at HR zone 2, keep cadence at 90 rpm’s or higher, 2 min easy between each set
8 min at HR zone 2, keep cadence at 90 rpm’s or higher
10 min cool-down
I highly recommend incorporating SLD and fast spin drills in every workout. During the off season phase you might want to prescribe them as the main set of your athlete’s key workout in order to build solid technique prior to the heavy base training. Continue incorporating them during the pre-competitive and competitive phases during the warm-up and cool-down, as it is always important to touch on technique. Make use of a trainer and do not shy away from rollers. These are great tools for the development of cycling efficiency.
Similar to cycling efficiency, riding skills require knowledge and practice. Once your athlete has developed the ability to ride smoothly at higher cadence, the next most important skills you need to master are braking and cornering.
Although we rarely stop during a race, the skill of braking is fundamentally important. Teaching your athlete how to break properly will keep him safe and ultimately help him brake less. The braking action requires applying pressure on both breaks, mostly using the rear brake, and shifting his body weight towards the back wheel. Maximum braking effectiveness happens just before locking the wheel; however, locking the wheels will reduce your athlete’s ability to steer and may cause skidding, which in turn reduces braking effectiveness.
In order to master braking, you can teach your athletes three basic skills; develop a feel for the breaks, learn how to “feather” the breaks and know where to place her body’s center of gravity. Every bike has a different feel and will respond differently to pressure. Therefore, have your athletes develop this feel every time they get a new bike, service their breaks or get new wheels. “Feathering the brakes” is the skill of having your hands over the brakes and knowing how much pressure is needed on each break in order to slow down or make a stop at any speed, situation or weather condition. Shifting your weight towards the back of the bike will provide more traction to the rear wheel and make it more effective. The faster you go or the faster you need to break, the more weight you need to shift.
Acceleration and deceleration always requires more energy than maintaining the same speed. Skillful cornering will reduce the need to slow down, which will allow your athlete to preserve energy and maintain his position at the front of the pack. In order to go through a wide or sharp corner, teach your athlete to lean the bike into the turn, keep the inside pedal up and shift his weight to the outside by pressing his outside leg hard on the pedal. Have him keep his head up and focus on his traveling path. If he needs to slow down, he should always break before the turn and accelerate on the way out of the turn. On some occasions it is advantageous to down shift before a sharp turn so that you can accelerate more quickly out of the turn. For 1800 turns that are so popular in triathlons, your athletes need to master the balanced play between braking, pedaling and steering. As in other skills, practice makes perfect and experienced riders can sprint into the turn, break just before, steer around the lonely cone and accelerate out of it, leaving everyone behind.
Use the following progression to practice these braking and cornering skills. Begin with a 30 min ride and finish in a large, deserted parking lot.
- First ride around freely and try braking, using the technique at different speeds.
- Next, use cones to designate a “braking zone”. Try to properly brake within the zone without skidding or losing balance. Progression for this drill includes increasing the speed or decreasing the braking zone.
Make sure you are equipped with long sleeve shirts and long pants in order to minimize bruises during a fall.
Next, move to cornering using the lean and press technique. The progression for this skill training is as follows:
- First practice turns without steering on your own
- Second, ride in wide circles around a cone, progressing to faster and narrower circles
- Finally, practice figure eight circles around two cones. Again, the progression is faster and narrower circles.
Next, practice 1800 turns using both braking and turning skills.
- First, try the stopping and pedaling dance while you maintain your balance.
- Second, practice 1800 turns on your own without any barriers.
- Finally, create a 1800 turn with cones. Again, the progression of this drill is increasing speed and narrowing the turns.
Cycling fitness takes time to develop and requires proper planning. Similar to swimming and running, proper technique will increase efficiency, economy and safety, ultimately making you a faster rider. When planning your athletes program, make sure that you incorporate both pedaling mechanics and riding skills drills into your training routine. It is most beneficial to work on pedaling mechanics early in the season and keep touching on it throughout the season. Practice braking and cornering as soon as it is nice enough to ride outside. Plan ahead, start early and you will see great results as the season progresses.
Sharone Aharon, MS. Sharone has a Masters Degree in Exercise Sciences, is a USAT Elite Level III coach, and has been an endurance athlete and coach for over 20 years. He is the founder and co-owner of Well-Fit Triathlon and Training, a full service coaching company based in Chicago, Illinois. In January 2009, Well-Fit opened the only triathlon-specific training facility in the country. In addition, Sharone founded the Well-Fit Elite foundation, a non-profit company dedicated to supporting elite triathletes and creating a pipeline to the United States' national triathlon team.