TNS Training: Power Up for a Faster Ride

POWER UP FOR A FASTER RIDE, by Brian Melekian of TNS Training.

Tips for top performance from TNS Training


The principles of riding a bicycle are the same whether you are training for a criterium stage race, triathlon or simply want to improve your performance in training. Although racing in a stand alone bicycle race differs from racing the bike leg of a triathlon, the principles are the same – the object of any bike race is to ride as efficiently as possible to cover the race distance in the least amount of time. For the purposes here, we are going to focus on improving your performance in the triathlon bike leg, or time trial. Time trials are a true race against the clock. As a competitor, you must ride at your limit from start to finish. There are many components of a time trial that contribute to a good ride; these can include equipment selection & aerodynamic position. Wind is the cyclists’ biggest enemy; whereas we work against the water when swimming and against gravity while running, we are constantly battling the wind while on the bicycle. The trick is to reduce our exposure to the wind while putting ourselves in the most efficient, powerful position on the bicycle. However, success in the time trial is most dependent on your physical ability to generate power to the pedals. Improving power (and presumably speed) is our focus here.


Safety First

The best ride is the one that gets you back safely. Safety is the first and most important factor. The ultimate goal of any ride is to make it back. Taking a little time before each ride can go a long way towards making this happen.

A quick inspection of your bike can identify any potential red flags that can put you at risk once out on the road. Start with the tires and wheels – any holes, scratches, scuffs or foreign objects in the tire? Are the wheels smooth and is the tire tucked completely into the rim. Check your tire pressure. The recommended tire pressure is listed on the tire sidewall – make sure your tire pressure falls in this range. Under inflated tires will slow you down and are more likely to flat. Check the dropouts and quick release levers to make sure everything is secure. Next, check the brakes. Give both brakes a quick, firm squeeze. After you’ve determined brake safety, try spinning each wheel independently. Wheels should spin quickly and freely without any friction from the tires or rims. If you find your wheel rubbing against your wheel rim, do not just open the brakes wider. Loosen your quick release lever, adjust the lateral position of your wheel and tighten the lever again. Simply opening the brakes wider reduces their effectiveness to stop you when needed.

Look at the chain. If your bike chain is overly dry, it is more likely to skip, bind or break. If it is dry, lube it. On the flip side, do not over lube your chain. This will attract sand, debris and road grime which will reduce the lifespan of your components.

Once a week address the nuts and bolts of your bike. Check them to see if any have rattled loose and tighten them if they have.While all of this can be performed at home with little to no equipment, it is a good idea to have your bike tuned up by a mechanic every couple of months or 1,500 miles, whichever comes first.

Definition of terms

Speed – a measure of the velocity of the bike, measured in miles per hour (mph) or kilometers per hour (kph). Although speed is not necessarily a good measure of power because it is greatly affected by opposing forces such as wind, grade, road surface, and numerous other factors, it is important to remember that there is a direct relationship between speed and power. Of course races are won by the fastest rider, not the rider with the most power.

Cadence – literally, how many times do you spin the cranks, measured in revolutions per minute (rpm). Under constant conditions, if rpm increases, power increases. “Normal” rpm for most riders on a flat road is 70-90 rpm. Depending on the rider, lower rpm will typically result in increased muscular fatigue while higher rpm will typically result in higher oxygen utilization, heart rate and glycogen usage. The trick is to find the cadence where you can produce the most power for a given period of time with the least amount of muscular and/or cardiovascular fatigue This ideal rpm will change based on the type and length of your race.

Power – a measure of the work over time done by the rider to push the bike forward, measured in watts.

Power/Weight Ratio – a measure of power over a given period of time relative to the body weight of the athlete. This ratio can be improved by reducing body weight, increasing power, or a combination of the two. It is widely speculated that a professional rider must have a power/weight ratio in the neighborhood of 7.0 watts/kg to win the Tour de France.

Heart Rate (HR) – A measure of the frequency of an athlete’s heart beats, measured in beats per minute (bpm). As exertion increases, heart rate will increase. Heart rate is greatly affected by heat, hydration and fatigue and will change throughout the day. Thus, heart rate is a good tool but not the most reliable tool for measuring fitness.


The Bicycle –  There are two questions that people usually ask when preparing to jump into the world of triathlon and buy a bike for the first time. First, how much do I need to spend and second, what is the difference between a road bike and a tri bike/which one is right for me?

The answer to the first question is a matter of personal preference. There is a tremendous difference between a $500 bicycle and a $1,500 bike. The frame will be lighter, the components better and it will be generally more sound. The difference between a $1,500 bike and a $5,000 bike is not as great. It is generally better to start on the lower end to make sure that you are going to keep at it for a year or more. Better to grow out of the bike then to end up with a $4,000 machine gathering dust in your house.

As for the question of road vs. tri bikes, the answer is more clear. The biggest differential, aside from the aerobars, is the geometry. Tri bikes tend to have a steeper seat tube angle (74+ degrees) as compared to road bikes. This angle not only puts you in a more aerodynamic position, but it also recruits your hamstrings and glutes (those big ol’ cycling muscles) as opposed to putting the emphasis on your quadriceps, which you are going to want to save for the run.

When trying to figure out which bike is right for you, do your research. Find the local bike shop that is a good fit for you. You want to find a shop that not only offers the right value, but that can put you on the right bike for you (not just the bike that they want to sell you), that can get you fitted or point you in the right direction and that will provide mechanical support for years to come.

Increasing Your Power

Power does not just come from riding hills day after day. Power is the ability to turn more challenging gears with less effort (and with the least amount of lactic acid build up), resulting in a reduced heart rate and fresher legs at the end of the ride. No two cyclists or triathletes are built the same. Some will be able to spin an easier gear and save their legs for the run while this may burn others out too easily. Others may be able to turn a tough gear at a lower cadence without any negative effects on the run while the lactic acid build up would be just too much for others. There are clues about what type of rider you are, but ultimately the only way to determine which type of rider you are is through trial and error, and experience. Regardless of your body type or proclivity towards a particular style of pedaling, you will benefit from increasing your power during training.

You push the bike forward by spinning the cranks attached to the pedals attached to your feet which in turn spins the chain rings and ultimately the wheels. The bike goes faster because you apply more watts to the cranks and thus to the rear wheel. Whether you apply this power at 70 rpm or 110 rpm does not matter in this equation.

Regardless of power, many people leave a lot of their potential speed out on the course through inefficient pedaling. Most of the power delivered from your legs to the pedals comes during the first half of the pedal stroke. The muscles that are active during this phase include the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. The gluteal muscles are used to a much greater extent in triathlon due to the aerodynamic position. These muscles are most active during the first half of the down stroke, providing substantial power when it is most needed. The following drills allow you to improve your pedal stroke and target these muscle groups and transfer the strength gains  to specific on-the-bike applications.

Circle Drills

Think of the pedal stroke as a clock. Many people make the mistake of peddling from 1 o’ clock to 6 o’ clock and then easing up. Our legs are designed to be much more powerful when pushing than pulling, which explains this natural tendency. If you are able to pedal through the entire clock cycle (midnight to noon), you will make each pedal stroke much more efficient and meaningful. After a sufficient warm up, find a flat surface with minimal traffic and obstructions. While maintaining an average cadence of 70-90 rpm, mentally divide your pedal stroke into 4 even parts of a clock, 12-3, 3-6, 6-9. 9-12. Make your entire pedal stroke a complete revolution. At the bottom (6 o’ clock), imagine that you are pulling through the entire stroke and scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe. Train this drill in 1 minute intervals in the beginning and work up to 2 minute intervals.

One Legged Drills

In order to counteract the natural asymmetry most of us experience (one leg stronger than the other) it is important to train each leg in isolation and to increase power through the top center and bottom dead center of your pedal stroke. This drill is best when done on an indoor trainer and should be ridden at a moderate intensity level. To specifically target the muscles used in a time trial, complete the drill in your aero position. After a thorough warm-up, pedal with only one leg at 50-60 rpm in as hard a gear as you maintain for 30 seconds to one minute. The pedal stroke should be made as smooth as possible. Alternate and ride with your other leg for the same time period. Rest for 2-4 minutes between efforts by riding with both legs at a faster cadence (95 – 110 rpm). Repeat the drill 4 to 8 times for each leg.

Speed Ups

Find the cadence that is ideal for you in training (not in a race). Smooth out your pedal stroke & work on a higher cadence in training through a series of intervals designed to improve your coordination, balance and efficiency in a sprint or passing situation.

After a proper warm up, shift gears into a gear that is easy enough for you to spin at a cadence higher than that you are accustomed to, but not so easy that you feel no resistance. Increase your cadence to approximately 1 minute, repeating 4-8 times. Over time you should be able to perform this drill for up to 5 minute intervals. 

Power Ups

Develop power and strength on the bike, acclimate your muscles to turning harder gears and processing lactic acid more efficiently This drill is the opposite of the Speed Ups drill. In this drill, the objective is to shift into a gear so challenging that your cadence cannot exceed 50-60 rpm. Begin with 4-8 repeats of 1 minute intervals, ramping that number up to 5 minutes after building up your muscular strength and power.

Start Ups

Develop the extra power boost needed when overtaking another rider in a non-drafting triathlon. Gives your muscles more fast twitch fibers to recruit from, even in a slow twitch situation. This workout needs to be done on a flat section of road. Select a large gear, so large that you can only maintain it for 8-10 seconds at full tilt. Begin this drill at a low speed, almost a crawl. At “GO!”, jump out of the saddle and slam on the pedals, driving them down as hard as possible. Use your leverage on the handlebars as extra power to drive each stroke downward. This is a purely muscular workout and should be performed only in sets of 3 to 5 per session and only after a month or so of conditioning with the other drills.

In summary, the bike goes faster when you put more watts to the rear wheel. You can help to develop your ability to deliver power in triathlons by performing long intervals. These intervals will not only increase core strength, but will also improve your form and position while in race mode.

Brian Melekian is head coach of TNS Training.


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