How to Bike Fast

Written by Marty Gaal of One Step Beyond.

The ability to cycle fast is a result of several components: Strength and core strength, bike fit, specific muscular endurance, general stamina, and fast-twitch/slow-twitch crossover neuromuscular training. These are listed in this order because these are what I feel to be the order of importance.

Note: The info here may be useful for pure cyclists, but it is written with time-trialing in mind, not pack riding and furious sprint finishes.

Click here for a brief explanation of training zones.

First, let’s define what ‘cycling fast’ is in a triathlon. For purposes of this article, cycling fast will be your current top speed for a seated 1 minute sprint minus 5-7 miles an hour for sprint distance triathlons (~85-90%), minus 7-9 miles an hour for Olympic distance triathlons (~80-85%), or minus 10-12 miles an hour for half-IM and above (~70%).

Edit 2013 - this was written well before I knew anything about power meter training. The percentages above are based on maximum 1 minute effort. You could see that these correspond pretty well to an equivalent percentage of functional threshold (60 minute) power. These are roughly 100% FTP for a sprint, 90-99% for an olympic 40k, ~80-90% for a half-Ironman, and ~70-77% for an Ironman. The faster you are, the higher percent of your FTP you can maintain for distance X. Lots of people have written about FTP in depth so I'm not going to regurgitate it all here. The book to read is called Training and Racing with a Power Meter by Hunter and Coggan. You can also read quick summaries by these gents here on trainingpeaks.

Why do I choose these values? So you’ll have some general guidance on what sort of speed you should be able to maintain for those particular distances. These can be considered baseline levels - for shorter races you will race more in or near your anaerobic zone, and for longer races you will want to stay in your aerobic zone. These values are also approximately where I find myself at the races. I can hold about 33-34 mph for a seated 1-minute sprint and can hold 27-29 mph in a 10-mile sprint, 25-26 mph in an OD, and 22+ or so in IM. (Edit 2013: I am no longer as fast as I was when I wrote this 12 years ago, but I do still look good. :P)

Now, you may not be able to hold these speeds. Not yet, anyway. This is what I’m going to try to help you learn to do. This article will provide you with some strategies that may help you get there.

Strength and power - For this article we are going to talk about strength as it relates to cycling. So we’re talking about your legs and how much force you can apply to the pedals. We’re also talking about how strong your supporting muscles are - your torso, abs, back, and glutes. They all have an effect on how big a gear you can push.

To get strong in cycling, the simplest solution is to ride a lot. Lots of easy mileage. The more mileage you can put in, the better off you will be. Granted, don’t go nuts and put in 400 mile weeks if you have a job and want to keep your sanity. But 200-250 will go a long way.

That being said, maybe that’s too much for you because of time constraints. Other ways to build strength for the ride include weight training. I like to think that standing squats or seated leg press are the most all encompassing strength building leg exercises you can do. This winter my plan is to hit the gym 2 times a week and do several sets of leg press and squats. Calf raises can also take you a long way. Leg extensions and leg curls will help, but are not as crucial for cycling.

To support those muscles, it’s a good idea to throw in some hip abductor exercises and lots of core work. Core work is as simple as doing sit-ups and crunches, but you can use the exercise ball to roll around and put all sorts of resistance on hard to strengthen places. Hip abductors are harder to work but leg lifts are one method. Some gyms have specific machines for this.

Hill riding is next on my list after sheer mileage. If you can find a gradual climb that doesn’t force you to shoot through your (2nd) lactate threshold (LT - the point where lactate has built up so much that you eventually need to stop or slow dramatically - gasping for air, burning legs) and allows you to stay smooth and in your aerobic zone (your Z2) or the lower end of your anaerobic zone (Z3), do it. Warm up and then do repeated climbs on this hill. Will make you strong like Conan.

Another, less optimal solution, concerns fixed gear riding or big-gear push. Essentially, put your chain ring in your 2nd or 3rd largest big gear, then ride at a moderate, aerobic pace in this gear. This will help you ‘recruit’ more muscles than spinning. However, this is harder on all your joints and should be done intelligently. One time every two weeks for 30 minutes (after a warm up) is a good starting point.

Bike Fit - it’s hard to describe proper fit in an article without lots of illustrations, and my technical illustrator is on vacation. So go to your local bike shop or to learn how to fit yourself properly. This will make you more comfortable and better able to direct all your power to moving forward.

Specific endurance - Being strong alone is not going to get you to the finish line. You need to be able to maintain that power for a certain duration. Again, the simplest and most effective method to do this is saddle time. Ride lots of easy miles and some specific quality miles.

This is where interval training and build workouts come in. Just riding will increase your cycling endurance, while intervals will increase your ability to output higher levels of power for longer durations. They will help lengthen the amount of time you can maintain a certain power output if done in a gradual and honest matter. By that I mean that you need to be honest with the effort you put into an interval. Too much and you’re not increasing your aerobic capacity - you’re probably well into your anaerobic system approaching or beyond your lactate threshold, which is a completely different sort of training. Too little and you’re just getting general aerobic training but nothing that will help increase your power.

Confused? It is a little more complex than just “go hard go home.” Here’s a sample workout that will, over time, increase your cycling specific endurance (this is geared more towards short races):

Z2 here is aerobic threshold (AeT) or VT1, Z4 is 'sub-lactate threshold' while Z5a is 'over- lactate threshold.' Z5b is around V02max pace.

If you do this once a week, after a few weeks you should notice that you’re not as tired at the end of each interval. That’s because your specific endurance has increased. You can then lengthen the intervals:

These are both ‘build’ intervals, in that you progress through effort levels during the interval itself. Other intervals include only one level of effort, for example:

That sort of short recovery, high intensity workout is designed to 1) methodically increase your LT (this can be pushed out slowly and slightly over time), and 2) better equip your body to recover from high intensity (efficiency of lactate removal, buffering capacity (ability to withstand lactate buildup) and HR recovery). You would want to finish each of these intervals panting - but not gasping. Gasping means you are in a Z5b-c area that, in my opinion, most triathletes can ignore 95% of the time. You’re not training for a 200m swim or 400 meter run.

In my book, build workouts are for longer training days and include longer intervals at certain effort levels. These are useful for sprint triathletes as they will also aid in increasing the body’s ability to recover from higher intensity sessions. These are crucial to long distance athletes for half-IM and IM. A sample is:

An even longer build is:

Touching on your Z5a (somewhat interchangeable with your ‘anaerobic threshold) in a workout like this will help you to push the limits of your aerobic zone (your high Z2) outwards - increasing your LT.

To refresh your memory, in your aerobic zone you will be producing less lactic acid than you can remove, thus you will not hit your LT. In the anaerobic zone you will produce more than you can remove, and will eventually move beyond your LT if you don’t stop.

The longer workouts described above are designed to increase the upper range of your aerobic zone as well as speed up your lactate removal (recovery) system, while the shorter workouts are designed to increase the amount of time you can remain in your anaerobic zone without hitting your LT as well as increasing your lactate removal (recovery) system. Make sense now?

See, given enough time and training, you can train your body to 1. be able to remain in your anaerobic zone for a long time, and 2. push your lactate threshold out so you don’t have to enter it. I race all the sprints just under or just beyond my lactate threshold (Z4/5a or HR of 160-180, sometimes higher). My goal is to get to the finish line before I move beyond my LT. If you see me puking on the side of the road with a mile to go, I didn’t quite make it! You can also train your body to remain in your aerobic zone (Z2) nearly indefinitely. You’ll get tired and hungry before you have to stop for sleep.

Edit: On a sidebar, there are two LT points. The first you can exercise at and beyond for a while, depending on your ability to withstand lactic acid buildup and your ability to remove that lactic acid. This is Helleman's aerobic threshold, VT1, or Byrn's aerobic endurance threshold (AeT). The 2nd point results in another dramatic increase in lactate production from which you won't recover very quickly. This is the point you want to avoid in races!

The ideal in all triathlon distances is to be able to increase your aerobic zone so massively that you race exclusively in that zone and only go anaerobic for exceptional reasons. But, we’re talking about Mark Allen type ability - a HR of 155 that is exclusively ‘aerobic.’ Those of you with more slow twitch than fast twitch muscle are better designed to do this. That doesn’t leave the fast twitch athletes out, as you too can train your muscles to keep going for exceptional periods of time.

General stamina - all forms of exercise will increase your general stamina. Walking, swimming, running, picking flowers, and thinking real hard. Good stuff. It’s called adaptation. What this whole article is about.

Fast-twitch - what’s all this about fast twitch? Simply put, fast twitch muscle fibers are fibers that are capable of rapid fire responses for shorter amounts of time. You can ‘recruit’ these muscles for longer events by doing low intensity sprints - like 1-minute intervals on the bike (your Z4 as opposed to 20 seconds all out or Z5c) followed by short amounts of rest. Doing so ideally will blur the line between your fast and slow twitch muscles on the upper end and enable you to:

  1. increase your LT point
  2. sprint at the finish line
  3. push your Z4/5a outwards.

In other words, training fast and adapting to training fast will help you to race fast.

Marty Gaal

Now that you’ve read this check out a discussion of brick workouts.

Recommended reading:

Discussion of aerobic and anaerobic systems
CV training zones
Crucible Fitness training zones explained

* edited 5 March 2003 to clarify LT points and percentages...I never said I know it all!
* edited 17 September 2003 to give a name to that first LT inflection point...