Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Time Trialing – Truth or Consequences

By PCG Associate Coach Brian Murphy 

Some of us are old enough to remember the TV show called Truth or Consequences.  On the show, contestants received roughly two seconds to answer a trivia question correctly before the buzzer sounded.  If the contestant could not complete the "Truth" portion (most failed), there would be "Consequences," usually a zany and embarrassing stunt.  We’ve often heard time trialing referred to as “The Race of Truth.”  However, like the famous TV show, if you are not well prepared to answer the “Truth” question, you’ll suffer the “Consequences” and the “Truth” will remain a mystery.  The “Truth” in time trialing is simply being truly the fastest rider on race day.

Unlike any other bike racing discipline, pitting oneself against the clock in a time trial race, not only levels the competitive playing field but moreover places significant demands on a racer from physiological and psychological standpoints.  There are no team mates to work with, no opportunities to share the workload, or periods to sit in to recover.  It’s just you pushing yourself super hard in FTP/VO2 land to be the fastest rider on race day.

So, let’s assume you have gotten your aero position totally dialed in with your w/cda optimized.  You have trained really, really hard and your fitness along with your performance metrics are peaking for the big race.  Race day is approaching and you now need to drill down the details.  Using a pacing model, like Best Bike Split, you prepare your race plan and start thinking through how best to execute your race plan when the starter says, “Go!”  But, of course, the “best laid plans can always go awry” or better put, given the surname of this article’s author, Murphy’s Law intervenes and you have to respond to the unplanned circumstances that arise.  This article offers a few proven tips to consider incorporating into your race preparation and race execution to truly perform at your best and avoid unwanted consequences.

As a Peaks Coaching Group coach, I interact with athletes of all abilities and phenotypes.  For this article, I asked a renowned Masters Time Trialist and friend, Dean Phillips, if he would be willing to let me pick his brain about his race prep and race execution secrets.  Dean is a master bike fitter and a co-owner of FitWerx in Massachusetts.  I’ve known Dean for 10+ years and have watched him transform himself from a pro triathlete to a UCI Masters World Track Champion.  Dean recently added another rainbow jersey to his cycling wardrobe by winning a gold medal in the 3km Individual Pursuit at the UCI Masters World Track Championships in Manchester, England.  In this race, he missed breaking a world record by a mere 0.7 seconds!  Along his journey from Ironman Triathlete to World Champion Masters Track Phenom, Dean has accumulated 2 world titles and 5 national titles, consisting of road time trial, individual track pursuit and team track pursuit podiums.  Complimenting these achievements, Dean rapidly ascended through the road racing ranks becoming a Category 1 road racer.  Bottom line….Dean knows how to go really fast on a bike!!

As a coach and Cat 2 racer myself, who loves time trialing, I was delighted Dean agreed to be interviewed and share a few of his “secret sauce” TT tips.

Q – “Dean, from a high level, how do you approach planning for a race and executing against your race plan?”
A- “I try to control every variable I can.  I’m definitely a creature of habit, so routine is very important.”

Q – “Can you give us an example of what you’d consider a race prep routine which is unique to you?”
A – “Beside the usual pre-race steps of course inspection and making sure I’m well fueled and hydrated, I have a fixed warm up routine I do prior to every race and workout. Basically, I start my warm-up at 50% of FTP and every 5 minutes increase the intensity by 5% of FTP.  I’ll do this for 30 minutes and throw in a few 1 minute openers at race pace.  I aim to finish my warm up within 5 minutes of my start time.  I try to do this away from other people, so I can get both my body and mind in the right place.”

Q – “You do the same routine prior to every workout?”
A – “Yup.  Like I said I’m a creature of habit.  I guess it comes with being a former mechanical engineer.”

Q – “How important is it for you to develop a pacing plan and following that plan?”
A – “Anyone who knows me, knows I’m into the details.  I’m a big believer in using race planning models, like Best Bike Split, to craft a race pacing plan keyed to power metrics.  From the race model, I’ll create a cheat sheet of power targets along the race course that I tape to the top tube of my TT bike.  Of course a model is simply that and variables, like weather, change on race day.  But, having a modelled plan allows me to have confidence to meter myself so I do not blow up.  I find this very helpful particularly when it comes to pushing more power on climbs.”

Q – “So, it sounds like you are telling us you stay with the plan you’ve scripted.  Since you mentioned it, how do you respond to unexpected variables, like changing weather?”
A – “Wind, temperature, rain, etc. will certainly impact the speed I will go, either positively or negatively.  It arguably effects all of the racers you are competing against somewhat equally.  So, I just stick with my power plan, premised on setting normalized power as a boundary condition of target against my Best Bike Split plan.  I’ll adjust the percent power numbers up to 110% for short TT’s under 20 min.  I’ll vary power as much as 15% on hills, but 5-10% is more typical depending on length and grade. Power variation for headwind is less, only 5% in extreme cases like straight headwind. Usually, I won't adjust my power more than 5-10 watts (2% - 3%) for quartering headwind variations.  As a rule, I pay more attention to the hills than the wind.  I find being on top of my power plan during a race truly helps me pass the time in the pain cave.”

Q – “You focus on maintaining constant power output.  Do you focus on your cadence technique?”
A – “No, I let power win out and view cadence as more of an output of TT performance than an input.  For me, cadence is on auto-pilot during a race.  What I’m more concerned about is my aero position.  In addition to extensive equipment testing, I do a tremendous amount of field testing various aero positions.  To me, it’s all about getting narrow with my frontal area and lowering cda without compromising too much power. Frequently, I’ll position myself on my TT bike in front of a mirror to watch how my hand position effects the position of my shoulders.  One thing my testing has found is having my head lower between my shoulders, is not always faster.  During the race, I try to stay in my aero position as much as possible.  Even on moderate climbs.”

Q – “Are there times where you will deviate from the plan if you are feeling better or worse than you expected in a race?”
A – “I try to clear my head at the start and be confident in my fitness and form.  I try not to think about how I feel during a warm up prior to the race because, with a little muscle burn and elevated heart rate, I’m likely to get a bad answer.  We all know, as we launch from the start, adrenaline takes over and we feel really strong.  It is during these first few minutes of a TT, where I need to hold myself back and trust the power numbers.  While I listen to my body, power is my primary guide.  If I’m feeling good going into the 2nd half of the race and I’m ahead of my plan splits, I’ll gradually increase my power above the plan.  Evidence shows, going harder in the 2nd half of a TT yields better results.  Sometimes we are forced to deviate from the plan.  Perhaps, there is a traffic conflict forcing you to slow down.  When unexpected situations like this arise, don’t panic and overcompensate to gain back lost time.  Relax, because in most cases, you probably have not lost as much time as you think.  Trying to gain back a perceived time loss can be costly to your race performance.”

So, truth be known, beyond being in top form, your secret sauce techniques to being fast in a TT are 1) Control all the variables you can and be a creature of habit, 2) Develop a power based pacing plan and stick to it, 3) Clear your head prior to your start and be confident your fitness is there, 4) Worry more about hills than wind, 5)  “Don’t go out to hard” and 6) Expect the unexpected but don’t overcompensate when surprises occur.”

“Dean, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

“You are very welcome, Brian.”

Brian Murphy is an associate coach with Peaks Coaching Group. He is a USA Cycling Level 2 coach, a TrainingPeaks Level 1 coach, a certified Hunter Allen/Peaks Coaching Group coach and an active Masters racing competitor (Cat 2 Road & Cat 3 CX).  He can be contacted at