How to train for cycling in long-distance triathlon: The Basics

Sep 23, 2021

We all know that being strong on the bike is critical to the success of any long-distance triathlete. But how do we train for it? In this short blog, we’ll briefly describe the main session types when training for the cycling leg of long-distance triathlon. For much more detail, check out our courses; LDT 102 on training programme fundamentals and LDT 104 on training monitoring.

At EndureIQ, we promote a three-phase model of training planning for Ironman triathlon; a general preparation phase, specific strength phase, and competition phase. In the general preparation phase, our goal is to build a strong aerobic base by accumulating a large overall training volume, whilst also increasing our maximum aerobic capacity with a small number of targeted, high-intensity interval training sessions. We, therefore, aim for a highly polarised overall training intensity distribution, where the vast majority (~85-90%) of our training time is accumulated below the lactate threshold, with perhaps 1-2 of those high-intensity sessions per week. As we transition into the specific strength phase, our goal now moves to build strength and endurance in more race-specific scenarios. In this phase, we still want the majority of our overall training time to be accumulated below the lactate threshold (~75-85%), but in these sessions, we now want to be building strength endurance at low cadences – those that we use while riding up steady hills. We can add to this in our workouts. The competition phase is our final tune-up prior to race day. In this phase, we are building confidence at our race-specific intensities and working on our race-day plan. We want to build strength and durability at the Wattage we are targeting for the 180 km.

To achieve these goals, we have a range of session types available to us. See below for a brief overview of the nine main session types:

1. Recovery: These sessions are all about active recovery, and helping you freshen up ahead of more demanding sessions. Recovery sessions should be low physiological stress, low effort, and leave you feeling better after getting off the bike compared to when you got onto it.

2. Basic endurance: Long-distance triathletes require a strong, well-developed aerobic base, and a high overall training volume. Therefore, basic endurance sessions are a major component of the long-distance triathlon training programme. These sessions take place below the aerobic or lactate threshold, and, whilst are more effortful than recovery sessions, do not generate large amounts of physiological stress that require significant subsequent recovery. Long weekend rides on undulating terrain, or low-intensity mid-week sessions the day before a high-intensity workout, are good examples of basic endurance sessions.


3. Aerobic threshold: Slightly more intense than basic endurance work, aerobic threshold sessions take place right around Ironman intensities. These sessions again generate modest physiological stress but are aimed at developing endurance at Ironman-type intensities. These sessions are important throughout the season.

4. Strength endurance: Strength endurance sessions look to build fatigue resistance specific to your event. These sessions typically involve low cadence, high torque work between the aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. Long hill repetitions are a great way of completing strength endurance sessions. Strength endurance becomes more important in the specific strength phase of the programme. These sessions can be quite demanding and may require training in the subsequent 24 hours to be at low intensities in order to facilitate recovery and adaptation.

5. 70.3 development: These 70.3-specific sessions are a must for half-Ironman athletes. These sessions look to build fatigue resistance at intensities similar to 70.3 intensity.

Again, these sessions can be quite demanding and may require training in the subsequent 24 hours to be at low intensities in order to facilitate recovery and adaptation.

6. Threshold: Our threshold is the highest intensity at which we can achieve a metabolic steady state. Threshold sessions look to push this power output up and extend the duration that it can be sustained. These sessions take place at a higher intensity, typically involving repetitions lasting 4-16 min. Threshold sessions may be accumulated in the specific strength phase. These sessions are highly demanding and require 24-48 hours of low-intensity recovery.

7. Long VO2max: At the beginning of the programme, we often want to push up our maximum aerobic capacity, or VO2max, in order to give our thresholds and competitive intensities more room to improve later on. Long VO2max sessions involve high-intensity repetitions of 2-5 min, with up to 2 min of recovery between intervals. The purpose of these sessions is to push your oxygen uptake and heart rate up to near-maximal values to drive adaptations. These sessions are highly stressful and require ~48 hours of low-intensity recovery.

8. Short VO2max: Short VO2max sessions are an alternative aerobic capacity-boosting workout. Less common in long-distance triathlon, these sessions involve high-intensity repetitions lasting less than a minute, with a 2:1 work-to-recovery ratio.

9. Anaerobic capacity/speed: Probably the least common session in long-distance triathlon, speed sessions involve very high or even maximal power outputs over very short periods, with longer recovery periods.

Hopefully, the information above shows just how many tools we have in our arsenal when looking to get cycling fit for long-distance triathlon. The key to optimising your training programme is understanding when to deploy them within each week, and phase-to-phase. Check out LDT 102 to learn how best to do this!


Endure IQ's weekly Brew Up newsletter brings you Dr. Dan Plews' weekly top 5. Everything from the latest science and tech, to must read books/podcasts, and weekly workouts.



Get the latest Brew Up newsletter from Endure IQ's founder, Dr. Dan Plews.