Triathlon Body Mass and Pacing

Thoughts on Triathlon continued from the last article…

Body Composition: As a cyclist, I know that I perform well when I weigh about 163-165 lbs/74-75kg. I’m 6’2″, and that puts me at about a BMI of about 21. That’s great for cycling, but for triathlon, I’m not sure yet what’s ideal. So the question is: what do I want to weigh? Swimming may benefit from having more power, having thicker arms, and extra body mass won’t really hurt. Cycling generally would also benefit from having extra muscle mass and the power that would come with it. Most events are flat enough that extra watts would yield faster times even if accompanied by extra body mass. But, the big problem is that running is much more efficient at a lower body weight and is also going to reduce the stress on your body in training and racing. As long as you’re healthy, weighing less will usually make you a better, more injury free runner.

So, what’s the sweet-spot that’s going to allow you to swim effectively, bike quickly, and run efficiently? Well, that’s a tough one. I’m tend to think that the optimal triathlete body mass for me will end up being less than it has been for cycling, but I’ll have to feel it out and see how my training and racing goes as I experiment with trying to lose a few pounds. Without going into too much detail right now, I suspect that 155-160 lbs/70-72kg (or a BMI of about 20) will be my personal ideal body mass for triathlon. Hopefully I can preserve most of my cycling power but improve my running speed and reduce my chances of injury enough that it makes the total finish times lower.

Ultimately, any big changes in body composition will be due largely to dietary changes. I think it’s clear from research and personal experience for millions of people that “going on a diet” isn’t a long term or enjoyable strategy to change body mass. Rather, I think it’ll be key to always focus on getting good nutritious food with plenty of plant matter, healthy fats, maybe some meats, and mostly slowly digested/high-nutrient carbohydrate for more intense training, except perhaps for some hard training sessions and for recovery immediately following training sessions. I want to focus on changing eating habits in such a way that I’m still getting plenty of nutrition, but hopefully work with my body to have a less anabolic (muscle building and fat storing) hormonal state, largely through limiting insulin. This would be done primarily through limiting or eliminating sugars and refined carbohydrates in favor of slowly digested carbohydrates a times, like sweet potatoes, legumes, some fruit, maybe oats. And at other times, that will mean increased fat consumption and a reduction in carbohydrate intake generally, which should reduce insulin production and also encourage your body to rely more on fat for fuel because of a lower availability of carbohydrate for exercise. Basically, I’ve come to think that cycling macronutrients in the diet has promise as a training technique to allow for intense workouts with higher carbohydrate intake and increased adaptation to fat burning with a higher fat diet, done in alternating blocks of training.


paces, power, and energy

Calculating energy expenditure swimming is not easily done with any accuracy, so for all intents and purposes I’m going to leave that out of the equation. But, figuring out an optimal pacing strategy for the cycling and running legs of a triathlon is an interesting and potentially very useful academic exercise. In order to finish with the fastest time, you might assume that you want to have even pacing. Or, in other words, you might assume that you should aim for the highest average and most consistent energy expenditure per unit of time throughout the duration of the event. So, that’s going to mean that per hour you’d be burning the same number of calories in the water, on the bike, and on the run. Again, swimming it’s hard to measure energy expenditure, but cycling and running is a little bit more so. If you have a power meter, then you can know exactly what your energy expenditure is and there is zero guesswork about it. For running, you can estimate within a small margin of error what your energy expenditure is at different paces given certain assumptions like body mass. So, then it’s all set, you just figure out what wattage you want to push on the bike and what pace you want to run that’s going to be the highest average you can sustain for those two legs, right? Well, maybe not.

Triathlon isn’t a calorie measuring contest, it’s a race. So, time matters and not power or pacing, per se. So, with this in mind, it’s good to remember that as you increase your speed on the bike (and running, but to a much lesser extent) your power/calorie expenditure goes up exponentially. So, if you want to increase your speed by 10%, then you need to increase your power output by about 20%. Likewise, if you reduce your speed by 10%, then you save about 20% of the energy (per hour) that you’re using to cover that ground. Running, however, is much more linear, and if you increase your speed by 10% then your energy expenditure may go up, say, 11%. So, it seems like saving a little energy on the bike may lose some time but make up for it in saved energy that you can use to run faster. But, the bike leg is the longest, and is generally about 40-45% longer than the run leg. So, what do we end up thinking is the best pacing strategy? Again, I’m sure I will learn more from personal experience what is best for me, but it seems you may want a 95% effort on the bike in order to save just a little extra for the run. That might mean that I sacrifice 2m on the bike in order to try to gain 3-4m on the run. We’ll see how that plays out.

Above is a chart that I made up using a few pace/calorie calculators for running that I found online and some estimates based on personal experience for cycling speed at different powers. We won’t assume all of the numbers are right on, but they’re close enough to be considered very reasonable and more importantly show important trends… Basically, if you want to run faster, then you can have better aerobic fitness or you can weigh less or both. If you want to ride faster bike legs, then 90% of that will be determined wholly by your power output, with minimal impact coming from body mass. The problem is that more power on the bike may be easier with more body mass (and therefore more muscle), but running will be hindered by that extra mass. I think at the end of the day, I’ll be aiming to keep a power level in the low-to-mid 300w range (say 320-350) and a pacing that will put me in the low 1:20s for the run (~4min/km pace). I’m really looking forward to learning how to best approach the body mass and pacing questions. As important as these issues may be, it’s important to always remember that health and fitness comes first. No matter how much you weigh and how well or poorly you pace the event, fitness is key no matter what.

Thoughts on Triathlon

As I work on transitioning into triathlon, I’m clearly approaching a different set of challenges and have to orient my training very differently than I’ve been doing for road cycling the last several years. The obvious questions I face, along with any athlete, is how do I best train for my goal events? Well, here are some of the main topics I’ve been thinking about, which I’ll post a few articles about:

– positives and challenges as I move to triathlon

– training structure and periodization (and how it will differ from past training)

– body composition/body mass

– pacing (bike versus running, even pacing versus not)

To get things started, I thought I would address two of these issues. The first two and last two listed above seem highly related to me, so I’ll do two at a time.

Positives: I’m happy with all of my cycling experience and hope that I can sustain a lot of the bike fitness that I have from road cycling as I try to enhance my swimming and running fitness. With the cycling fitness that I have, I will probably lean on that training more than the others as I transition into running and swimming more and more. This is largely because my workout quality and risk for injury will probably be better on the bike than running, but the aerobic fitness will carry over well to running. Swimming, on the other hand, seems like its own thing to a certain extent and relies on its own training and technique development.

That being said, I’m also pleased to look back on my running background and derive some level of confidence about my previous ability to train at a relatively high mileage and my previous running performances. Already, I know from the feel of things that I am basically as fit of a runner as I ever was in past years, because my training paces and faster running paces in workouts feel very much the same. But, I do have a little extra body mass that helps with cycling, but just hinders efficiency running and increases the stress on my bones and joints. (Not that it matters, but I used to weigh about 138-142lb/63-64kg as a runner through high-school and early college, whereas as a cyclist I have been more like 162-165lb/73-75kg.)

Concerns/Challenges: My biggest two concerns or challenges are swimming and injury prevention, primarily with running. More specifically, swimming is an event driven largely by technique, and I know that I will need to work on improving that in order to be competitive. I’m confident that I can, but at the same time, it’s not like running and cycling where you generally will get better by just doing the sport. Swimming requires learning and practicing good technique. Ultimately, it’s the sport in which I have the least experience and the most room for improvement.

In order to try to move forward and keep a good outlook on things, I’ve proactively tried to focus on improving technique and taking positive lessons or experiences out of every swim practice. Rather than be concerned about how I might not be a good swimmer now, I can try to identify things (or use other people to help identify things) that I can work on and improve. And, just as a general observation and experience that I’ve had so far, it seems like swimming should probably look easy. If you look like you’re trying hard, you’re probably not working very efficiently and are wasting energy, so if you can make it look easy, that is likely to be a very efficient technique… Clearly that won’t necessarily teach you anything about what good technique is or what’s going to be fast, but it’s something to keep in mind.

As far as injury prevention is concerned, I’ve never had any serious running injuries in the past and have been very happy about that. Even in college as I worked up to keeping a pretty steady 50-80 mile training load per week, I was able to avoid anything other than minor passing aches and soreness. That being said, I haven’t run much in several years and have more weight impacting my bones and joints, so just being aware of those things, I am trying to be proactive in keeping the volume and intensity of my running modest. I intend to increase it slowly and steadily, paying attention to any discomfort that I feel, so that I can hopefully avoid any trouble.

Overall training structure and periodization: Triathlon is definitely a very different sport than cycling and has very different energy demands, so the training structure will necessarily be different in order to accomplish different goals. I’ve done a lot of thinking about how I want to arrange my cycling, running, swimming, and cross training.

First off, the events themselves will be determined mostly by your ability to sustain a high pace for a long time, whereas in bike races that’s very important but so too is your ability to put in much more intense efforts intermittently at crucial moments. In training for bike races, intensity usually rises progressively throughout a training cycle, but for triathlon, it seems a different approach should be taken. Roughly speaking, I think that the first 2/3 of a training cycle for a triathlete should get higher in volume and intensity as the athlete tries to build up their endurance and high-end aerobic fitness. This would look similar to a traditional progression for a bike racer. But, in the last several weeks before a key event, the triathlete will probably engage in a cycle that narrows the focus (and reduces their intensity a little) to focus specifically on training at or around race-pace, building their tolerance to those intensities. I think I’ll approach the sport by trying to build the most endurance and aerobic capacity that I can before narrowing the focus down to threshold or just below as I get ready for goal events. I will still want to be doing some longer and more intense workouts to try to sustain a high level of endurance and aerobic capacity, because I think that will still be important. So, that might look something like this graph:

triathlon macrocycle

A training cycle might start out with moderate volume, but quickly increase over a few months and then sustained at a high level before being reduced in the last 3-6 weeks before a key event. Intensity would also start out at a moderate level, slowly increase, and then peak maybe 2-3 months out from a key event before being decreased to focus more specifically on race-pace intensities and less so on above threshold efforts to develop maximal aerobic capacity or anaerobic fitness. Likewise, cross training (e.g. strength training, plyometric training, flexibility training) would start off at maybe 2x/week, progress to 3x/week as volume and overall foundational fitness progresses, and finally could be reduced as sport specific training intensity increases, at which time it may be included just 1-2x/week. Of course, this is vague and general, but I hope gets the idea across. Basically, you still want to develop maximal aerobic fitness, but I think that then it will be good to focus that fitness on race-pace specific training for 3-6 weeks going into a key event so that you can use your fitness to its potential by increasing tolerance to the sub-maximal efforts required by triathlon.

Again, because of my recent background, I will rely more on cycling than running to gain fitness initially, but will increase my running volume as I find that my body tolerates it (i.e. that I get less and less sore or stiff from running). I do think, however, that I will never engage in truly high-mileage running, because of the increased risk for injury and because I know that runners are more prone to anemia than cyclists or swimmers, largely because of the trauma that blood cells sustain while pounding the roads or trails.  I don’t know if this was the case with me, but I do know that I personally had low blood values (i.e. hematocrit, hemoglobin, etc.) back when I was a runner, whereas the last few years as a cyclist, my blood values have been much more normal (say, hematocrit around 42-44 versus 36-38 as it was 10 years ago). Of course there are other factors in involved in this, so it’s hard to say for sure, but it’s definitely something I want to monitor. To that end, with moderate running volume I will focus more on brick workouts and running at or around race-pace more than just getting in mileage at slower paces. This should allow effective training at a lower volume and maximize the improvements at race-pace, because runners tend to get the most efficient at the paces they regularly practice. For that reason, I want to practice the neural and muscular stresses of running at those paces more than I want to rack up a lot of miles just for the sake of doing so. (Again, I would insert a plug for my favorite book on endurance sport training, Better Training for Distance Runners by Martin and Coe, advocating for multi-pace training as opposed to the popular but increasingly outdated Lydiard method.)

Likewise, I will try to develop good swimming technique through practice in training sessions, but there is limited fitness to gain from swimming itself. Even though it is probably my biggest liability right now in the sport, it’s also the shortest leg and relies the least on fitness per se and more on technique and being able to quickly and efficiently cover the distance. Just like biking, as you increase your speed swimming, the effort and energy required goes up exponentially, but for the time gained, that curve is even steeper. Namely, if you go faster on the bike and try to save 2-3m then you probably have to go maybe 4% harder, but if you want to save 2-3m on the swim, then you have to go probably 10-15% harder assuming you’re swimming in the mid-20m range. Again, 70.3 favors fitness and effort in cycling and running more than in swimming. I will do what I can to get as fast as I can, but focus on doing so in the most relaxed fashion that will allow a smooth transition into the bike leg with minimal wasted energy… again, assuming you’re an average to good swimmer, saving 2m on the swim will likely tire you out and cost you more time later in the race.

Getting From Running to Cycling Fitness

Recently, I was chatting with a triathlete who has more experience running and feels more confident about it. This athlete also thinks that cycling is the hardest leg for them. How can a fit runner get better at cycling or become a better multi-sport athlete?

For those that like to get to the point, I’d suggest the following:

Bike as much or more than you run. Running and cycling both compliment each other, but cycling is less stressful to your body because it’s low impact. If you’re already a strong runner, then you should be trying to get fitter cycling by doing more of it and do enough running that you can maintain your fitnes there without letting it take away from your cycling development. Even if your running fitness wanes a little, you’ll quickly be able to pick it up again, but if you become a much stronger cyclist in the meantime, it’s worth it.
Ride efforts in a big-gear sometimes. Even just once a week, if you do several shorter efforts or a few longer ones at 60-75rpm, you can signifiantly boost your pedaling strength and endurance. Just start off with 2 or 3x5m riding tempo at 60-70rpm once a week. Later you can increase that until you’re doing 4-5x5m or 5-6x2m above-threshold at 65-75rpm.
Do some strength work in the gym. Do 2-3 sessions per week during foundational training. 1-2 per week as you ramp up your training intensity heading into competitions. Stopping 2-5 weeks out from your goal event. Nothing will specifically target raw strength and muscular endurance like strength training with resistance, so get to a gym and do some squats, lunges, box step-ups, quad extensions, hamstring curls, and calve raises. Start off doing moderate workouts for at least a few weeks or a month, then increase the weight slowly as you get stronger, and finally, for half of your workouts, reduce the weight back down a bit and do more repetitions, while keeping your other workout more power/strength oriented.
Do high-end aerobic intervals on your bike (3-10m long). Few things can do as much to make you a fitter athlete than intervals, whether swimming, running, cycling, cross-country skiing, etc. If you have a good baseline of general riding fitness, start adding in shorter, harder intervals each week. One day a week, just go out and do 3-5m repeats up a hill about 90-95% as hard as you can. Start with 3x3m and build up to 4-5x5m. Alternate each week with 8-10m efforts right around your threshold, keeping the efforts under control, but hard nonetheless. Start with 2 and build up to 3-4.

Personally, I feel like I have some good experience in this area since I started out as a runner, and had it as my exclusive focus for about 6 or 7 years before I started trying to get fitter as a cyclist. I got into running in high-school, starting off slow, but kept at it and kept getting faster and stronger year after year. By the time I was in my first few years of college, I was able to run 50-plus miles per week without difficulty, with hill workouts, speed workouts, and all that stuff you do if you’re trying to get faster running. At the time, I rode 2 or 3 times a week and could get through a 2 or 3 hour ride okay, but it wasn’t terribly fast. I could keep a steady pace, but never kick it up a notch, as they say. At some point I just started riding more and running less, and got better, but mostly in small increments. Eventually, I added things to my routine that helped me make bigger gains in my cycling fitness.

Distance running is primarily an aerobic activity, where you need strength, power, and some anaerobic fitness, but most everything is determined purely by your aerobic capacity and your sustainable speed at or around your lactate or ventilatory threshold (whichever you choose, or however you define it). On the other hand, cycling is an aerobic activity with much bigger components of strength, power, and anaerobic fitness. How much strength, power, strength endurance, and anaerobic fitness you have makes a huge difference on the bike, even if you’re only trying to ride steady. Plus, contracting your muscles on a bike is completely different from how you contract them while you’re running, so even if you’re a “strong” runner, it’s very different from being “strong” on the bike.

Most runners who are getting into cycling for cross-training or triathlon, or multi-sport athletes who feel better about their running fitness than their cycling fitness often describe some of the following weaknesses:

Strength and power… the rider can keep a steady pace at a moderate to high cadence, but when they’re going up a steep hill or want to accelerate, their only option is to shift to an easier gear because they don’t have the raw strength or power to push the pedals much harder at a similar or lower cadence. They can get up a steep incline, but their heart and lungs never hit their limit, it’s just their legs that give out and get tired or weak.

Strength endurance… the rider can ride steady and even dig for a few minutes at a time to get up a steep hill, but after a little while their power drops off, their legs feel weaker, and they can easily keep going because their heart and lungs are fine, but their legs just don’t have the strength to push harder. These riders may have the aerobic fitness to keep a steady pace, and even the power to push up a steep hill, but after a few such hills, or a stretch of headwind, they crumble as their legs weaken. When running, you make major contractions with large muscle groups for a split fraction of a second and then float for almost a second totally relaxed, and then repeat thousands of times. The idea is the same for cycling, except that you contract less maximally, but for maybe 1/4 or 1/3 of a second at a time. This might not seem like much, but it’s quite a profound difference. Imagine the difference between jumping-rope or high-skipping versus doing squats. Even if it’s just with your body weight, squats require more strength and much longer contractions, whereas jumping-rope and high-skipping relies more on the elasticity of your muscles and your ability to maximally contract your muscles in the quickest fraction of a second possible.

Anaerobic fitness… maybe there’s good power and strength, good aerobic fitness from running, but any time the rider starts to go hard up a short rise or tries to sprint their buddy for the town line, they quickly see their power drop off and their legs burn and get weak within seconds. Unlike running, where power output is closely tied to running speed, on a bike, it’s quite possible to push hard for a few seconds and produce power levels that are 2 or 3 times as much as your threshold power. If your half-marathon running pace is 6 min/mile or 8 min/mile, or what have you, can you imagine running at 2 min/mile pace? Even if only for a short few moments, someone with a threshold running pace at 6 or 8 min/mile definitely won’t have the leg speed and power to run any faster than maybe 4 or 5 min/mile, whereas on a bike it’s completely different, and the anaerobic component can be much higher. If anything, competitive distance cycling is more like middle-distance (800m, 1500m, 1 mile) running than any distance event like the 5k, 10k, marathon, or what have you.

So, to address these potential shortcomings, I would almost say that for a multi-sport athlete who just wants to be stronger on the bike and keep a higher average speed or average power, the most key things will be on and off-the-bike strength training. Definitely, going to the gym to do weighted lunges, squats, hamstring curls, quad extensions, box step-ups, etc. will be a great help and not to be underestimated. On the bike, doing repeated 20-30s accelerations in a big gear, doing 2-5m intervals at 60-75rpm, and just doing hilly rides where you push the pace on the hills, but keep your cadence below 90rpm all will help you out immensely as well. I think that the two compliment each other.

Power and anaerobic fitness matters less for non-competitive cyclists and multi-sport athletes who mostly want to go faster for longer periods of time, but for competitive cyclists who want to outsprint their buddy, hammer up short rollers, or win bike races, there’s no way that you could underestimate the need for anaerobic and power oriented workouts. For those athletes it’s key to do sprint drills and workouts, all-out 30-60s efforts, repeated anaerobic efforts (e.g. 8x30s hard, 30s easy), etc. For those who are just trying to keep up with stronger riders or get a faster bike split, this is less helpful.

As a side note, don’t be too concerned about the prospect of putting on body weight if you’re considering adding strength training to your program. First off, in order to add much muscle to your frame, you generally need to not be engaged in endurance training and you need a surplus of protein and calories to build the extra muscle. If you’re keeping a steady workload of running or cycling, and/or you’re not seeking out extra calories and extra protein, then you’re probably not going to put on more than a couple of pounds of muscle, if any at all. Also, for any athlete who’s not already super-lean, strength training is likely to help you to get leaner. So, even if you added 2 or 3 or 5 pounds of muscle over a winter with added strength training workouts, you might also have a few pounds less body fat to go with it, making the gain in weight minimal or nonexistant. In either case, a lot of runners who want to be better cyclists will often benefit from an extra few pounds of muscle, even if their body weight goes up.

For me, I remember always being aware of the obvious fact that if you weigh less as a rider, you have to produce less power to get up hills. But, I definitely found that when I started lifting more weights and putting on muscle weight onto my thin runner’s frame that my cycling power increased much more than my body weight. In general, this is probably not a primary concern for most runners turned cyclists/triathletes, but if you’re built like a Kenyan marathoner, your cycling will definitely benefit from adding a few pounds of muscle. As a runner, I used to weigh about 140 lbs. and felt good and efficient at that weight for running. Late in college as I rode more and lifted more weights with the intention of putting on muscle, I got stronger and faster as a cyclist, even for climbing. I eventually topped out at 175-180 lbs, before I decided to try racing bikes and then lost some of that extra weight. I eventually found that I seem to ride fast and climb well at about 160-165 lbs. All of my best racing results have been achieved in that weight range. You wouldn’t guess it ahead of time that 20 extra pounds of body weight would help me climb better, but it seemed to do exactly that. And, whenever I get back into running workouts, I’m just about as fast as I used to be… at least when I do workouts. I haven’t done any running races for years, but I imagine the results would be similar.