The time trial, or ‘race of truth’, is at first glance a remarkably simple race: just ride as fast as you can over a set distance. But the TT has hidden depths which conceal a host of techniques and potential pitfalls – here we attempt to discover some of the secrets this race harbours, and dispel some of the myth and misinformation surrounding it.Five Things to Avoid
- Starting too hard: This is probably the most common mistake riders make during time trials, and is often the cause of significant time losses. The irony of losing time due to a frantic and unsustainable effort to make time is usually lost on the dejected rider, but an honest race review or examination of power files generally reveals the problem. The temptation to put the turbos into gear while you feel fresh can be overwhelming, but stick to your race plan – work into the effort over the first few minutes of the event to avoid building excessive fatigue early in the race that will cause a necessary decrease in speed later on. You may never recover to hit your goal pace if you start too hard.
- Making changes too close to race day: Despite the obvious dangers, many riders just can’t help themselves. They just have to tinker with their bike, their position or their bars, and simply can’t leave well enough alone. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many riders neglect this rule. Train with the position and equipment you intend to race with – do all your fine-tuning and experimenting during practice sessions and have any final adjustments made at least several training sessions before the event. Also under this heading is the exact opposite – poor bike upkeep. Overlooking tiny details such as a worn chain, an ageing bottom bracket or under-inflated tyres can cost valuable seconds.
- Being a slave to the numbers: Power meters, heart rate monitors and cycling computer analysis are all amazing tools that give us feedback about our performance, but don’t allow the numbers they give to rule your riding completely. Get used to what different heart rates and power outputs feel like and do some of your interval training on perceived effort alone. Cover up the numbers on your monitors, go by feel and then look at the data later to see how close your estimates were. The most important heart rate and power zones to be able to ‘feel’ for time trials are lactate threshold heart rate and functional threshold power.
- Lack of mental preparation and focus: time trialling is a painful business, so being prepared to suffer should form part of your race preparation. As your key race approaches, it’s a great strategy to do some race simulations as part of your training plan. If you are fortunate enough to have a power meter this task is relatively simple, but it can still be done with a fair amount of accuracy using speed, heart rate or both.
Establish your goal time or power output for the race – for inexperienced riders this might be a bit of guesswork, but for those who have time trialled before it should represent a realistic improvement over previous efforts. (Keep things in perspective, though, and remind yourself that road and weather conditions have a huge influence over your TT results). There are two equally valid methods of race simulation and build-up – either riding at your projected race pace but for a shorter distance than your race will be, or riding your entire race distance but at a slightly slower pace than race day. Either way, a linear progressive improvement should be the result as the weeks roll by and your race gets closer. Here’s how it works:
Let’s say you weigh 75kg and your goal is to complete a 40km TT in one hour and 10 minutes. This works out to be an average speed of 34.3kph, with a power output of 248 watts (you can easily figure this stuff out by visiting bikecalculator.com). Start your training by doing your own TT at race pace (248W or about 34kph) for 15km which, if your goal is realistic, should be taxing but not incredibly difficult. Two weeks later, preferably on the same course, simulate another TT, once again at your target pace or power output but this time for 20km. Begin this strategy 10 weeks out from your race with the 15km effort and you should be on target to complete a 35km time trial at race pace two weeks out from your event, which then gives you plenty of confidence during your taper.
The other approach is to ride a 40km TT every fortnight for 10 weeks, but to gradually increase your power output or speed each time you ride. For example, if your target time for 40km is one hour and 10 minutes, your first effort might have a target time of one hour and 18 minutes (30.75kph), then two weeks later you might aim for one hour 16 and so on.
Either way, you have built up your speed, endurance and mental preparedness to the point where you know you have a very realistic chance of hitting your target. Your body has been through it before, and just as importantly, you have developed the psychological toughness necessary to suffer out there on your own.
- Overtraining/lack of active recovery: Everybody, it seems, is getting busier and busier – working harder, working longer hours and trying to cram in family life and cycle training. One of the appealing things about time trialling is that you can dedicate relatively small amounts of time to training and still be successful, as long as that training is sufficiently intense. Chris Boardman famously won two Tour de France prologues on 12 hours of training per week, so it can be done. The downside to this is that many riders jump on the wind trainer or hit the streets, do a quick, well-planned high-intensity session then leap into the shower and have dinner or go about their day.
Just as important is the cool-down and the recovery ride, yet they are often overlooked. This is particularly important for masters and veteran riders – there is no real reason why you need to lose the speed you had in years or decades past, as long as you are sensible in your training. One noticeable difference as athletes age is the ability to perform back-to-back hard sessions: maybe you could do intervals three days in a row when you were 25 with no ill effects, but a quarter of a century later you probably won’t get away with it. Older athletes can definitely still train and race at a high level, but be mindful that the harder you push yourself the more you need to actively manage your recovery. This doesn’t just mean lying on the couch: post-workout stretching, proper attention to diet and easy recovery rides will all help.
Five Things to Do
1. Go harder uphill: Even though riding at an even pace throughout your TT is generally accepted as the best approach, there is one exception – attacking the hills with a bit more aggression than your power meter would suggest is wise can actually pay dividends. Because there is a stronger aerodynamic drag at higher velocities, applying 20 watts more power riding uphill will save you more time than you will lose by reducing your power by 20 watts on the downhill. Try it during training – the numbers will surprise you!
2. Train with intensity: Make every workout count by having a plan and doing your best to stick to it. Planning and goal setting are crucial components to any successful training program and the more specific your goals are, the more meaningful and informative your data (power, heart rate or level of perceived exertion) will be. Without specific goals, even the most dedicated and motivated athletes can fall well short of their potential. Here are some suggestions for some interval sessions that can be done out on the road or at home on the trainer:
Threshold intervals eg 3 x 12 minutes at a pace or power output you could only just sustain for one hour. Have a three to eight minute recovery between efforts.
Sub-threshold intervals, eg 2 x 20 minutes at a pace or power output 3-5% slower or lower than your Threshold intervals. Have a five minute recovery between efforts.
VO2Max intervals eg 4 x 3 minutes at well above your threshold pace or power. You should be breathless and fatigued after three minutes. Take a longer recovery between each effort as the intensity lifts – take as long as 10 minutes between efforts if you need it.
Remember to have an easy recovery day after putting your body through a gruelling interval session – and masters athletes might need two or three days recovery. Everyone is different, and it’s vital to be fully recharged before beginning your next hard workout.
3. Find your happy medium: there is a sweet spot to be found somewhere between your best power output and the most aerodynamic position you can find. When you start to drop the aero bars very low you begin to lose power (as you close the angle between your torso and your legs). Training regularly on your time trial bike can help limit this from happening – if you race your time trials on your road bike, practise getting as aero as you can while riding in the drops with your elbows in close to your ribs. Experiment (in training, not on race day!) with various aero positions and find which works best for you in terms of comfort, ease of breathing and pure aerodynamics.
4. Know when to go for it: Just as starting too hard is a common mistake, not knowing when to absolutely go for it is an equally common error. Experiment during training rides, and get to know when you can light up the afterburners and bury yourself all the way to the line. You should cross the line with absolutely nothing left in the tank.
5. Have some fun: You will never enjoy a time trial unless you like to suffer, so ‘fun’ is maybe the wrong word. We all have triggers that provide motivation for us – spend some introspective moments thinking about why you want to race a TT, whether it be to crush your rivals, to set a new personal best or to help improve your road or track racing. The satisfaction that comes with training intelligently and then executing a well-planned race is a special feeling: tick all the boxes during your preparation, race as hard and smart as you can and you’ll go away knowing you did all you could to ride your very best time trial.