March 17th 2014
How to Maximize a Flat Bike Course
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The Asia-Pacific IRONMAN Championship Melbourne offers a case study in how to get the most out of yourself on a flat and fast course. Take these tips with you to your next race.
by AJ Johnson
In only its third year, IRONMAN Melbourne has quickly become a highly competitive race that welcomes a top-notch field. Serving as the Asia-Pacific Championship, top pros show up to this event to race for the title and valuable Kona Ranking Points.
The bike course is stunning and held on an expressway closed off to motorists. There is very little elevation gain on the IRONMAN Melbourne course. Less than 1,000 feet of elevation over 112 miles makes a pancake look lumpy by comparison. Many athletes make the mistake of concluding that it is a fast course, but this is not a guarantee. The lack of hills means athletes are tucked in the aerobars for hours, never really standing up and forced to use the exact same muscles for the entire ride. This often leads to back pain and a shuffle-run after a strong bike. Cliff English, coach to top triathletes like Tim O’Donnell and Heather Jackson, gave us some of his thoughts on how to prepare for a course like Melbourne.
Train flat, race flat
First, train with specificity. Though simple, this fact is lost on flat courses. Athletes will train in the hills specifically to be ready for a hilly race, but a flat course is not treated the same. “One definitely wants to spend the time in their bike position on the flat road adapting to that position,” says English. “Often, when people have back pain issues they have not put in the time in their bike position. Also, in the preparation it’s very important to keep up the strengthening work for low back and core as well as making sure to keep up flexibility.”
Race day strategies
So what can you do come race day? English reminds athletes that it’s OK to stand up every once in a while. “I do recommend getting out of the saddle every 20 or 30 minutes. While there is so much focus on staying aero, that can lead to getting pretty tight and “locked up” in the lower back area,” he says. You may give up some time on the bike, but getting through T2 ready to run (versus holding your back and limping) will save you minutes, maybe hours. So take a small penalty in aerodynamics to make gains down the road. English points out that with just a few pedal strokes you will vary the muscles you are using, which is very helpful.
A mental shift
Flat courses can be challenging on the mind as well; in English’s opinion, even more so than one with hills. While you may have a pacing plan, nutrition plan and even a transition plan, do you also have a mental plan? Says English: “Over the course of 112 miles your mind may wander to some strange places. It’s during these moments that your pace drops, or you’ll let your cadence dip, or forget to eat or drink. A mental lapse can be just as damaging to your success as a physical one.”
English recommends some strategies for keeping the focus. He says that counting pedal strokes for cadence keeps us alert and sharp while directing our focus to our pedal mechanics. He also recommends rolling through a few rounds of positive self-talk as well. A simple “I am efficient,” “I am relaxed,” or “I am right on plan” can be enough to keep your mind engaged. English also recommends breaking the course up into segments.
“A 10-mile segment, then four 25-mile segments is a good way to break it up. I think the last two miles needs no explanation,” he says. Staying focused requires practice just like swimming, biking and running—you need to practice this in training day in and day out.
So when you look at the course profile of your next 70.3 or IRONMAN event, don’t assume that flat equals fast. The bike may go by quickly, but if you haven’t prepared right, or if you lose focus on race day, your speed can quickly disappear. If you train smart, and execute well on race day, you’ll have the race you imagined when you first signed up.
AJ Johnson is the content director at TrainingPeaks.