I have wanted to follow up on a plan I wrote out for run training in triathlon (or just in general) since last year, but have been too busy! Now biking is probably my "weak" point of triathlon, but it's not for lack of understanding of how to improve, but just is a long process! Below is a good method to follow if you are just getting into building fitness on the bike.
Similar to the run, biking requires muscular and cardiovascular fitness. I separate the two types of fitness because by simply running or swimming a lot, one will build plenty of cardiovascular fitness, but it is not specific to the musculature responsible for propelling you forward on a bike. However, there are a lot of cross over gains to be achieved by high volume swimming and running, to get good at biking, one must bike a lot. In George Hincape's book, he mentions, "he who is on their bike the longest, usually prevails." Outside of doping issues, this is a realistic statement. In order to build a robust musculature and aerobic system for biking, many individuals will improve with simply 12 weeks of "base" building, where total mileage increases are the focus.
In the base phase, a lot of people think it only means long and slow riding. I do not recommend only long and slow riding because not only it is tough to stay motivated to do that, but scientifically your body needs a new stimulus every 6-8 weeks to keep adapting. During this base phase of 12 weeks, most of the riding will be easy, by necessity. If it were too hard, injuries will occur because too much volume and too much intensity is not sustainable. Take the average number of hours/week you were riding in the previous year and try to increase by as much as your schedule will allow. Personally, I rode between 8-10 hours/week in my base before, and in this build, I am trying to sustain 12-15 hours per week. It is important to not neglect your other events if you are training for triathlon, but if you are simply riding… ride away! During this base period, I have a few 'go to' workouts that break up the monotony, but should be planned on days when you will not be overly fatigued before. Examples of these workouts are:
30 minute- 1:30 'tempo' ride. Tempo is really a nebulous term that gets thrown around a lot, but I personally like to think of it as "comfortably uncomfortable." Perhaps a more finite description would be applicable, so I try to ride around 160-165 HR, which represents 70-80% of a maximal HR. The important part of these is that your power (or speed, or feeling) improves through the base phase. If you start out the year riding 30 minutes at 250 watts within this zone, hopefully you can maintain that for 1 hour or 1:30 by the end and the 30 minute tempos are now slightly better, say 275- 280 watts. For me, I like to begin the base by pacing off feeling and HR, and reading associated power numbers as my 'output.' As the season looms, power becomes the 'input' or the pace you plan to ride.
During this time, some other 'fun' drills can be employed during long rides (especially if you are forced to be on the trainer) as they can build power but also break up monotony. Power is made of two components; force and velocity. Overgear work can be useful to put your bike into a gear in which you will ride at 50-60 RPM to work on the force component of power. Undergear work can be used to boost your maximal cadence and may help with neural facilitation. Examples of this would be 10 by 30 seconds at 120-140 RPM.
After this longer base period, a robust musculoskeletal system has been crafted, and it is time to really begin to hone in on race specific training. Total mileage or hours/week will stay relatively high initially but the focus begins to shift to having more quality over sheer quantity. For the next 4-6 weeks, workouts such as 8 * 5minutes with 3 minutes recovery should be performed with the goal intensity being best average. This ideally can be measured by power output during each 8 minute interval. Recording HR data is useful to pair HR and power data ad hoc. Other workouts are variations of this: 4 by 10 minutes, 10 by 6 minutes, etc.
During this period, the weekly long ride should be continued as the increases in capiliarization are generally always beneficial. If you are training for a longer distance race, incorporating race specific pacing to these longer rides can be beneficial too. For those longer races, I believe it is crucial to maintain the "long tempo" ability to suffer, so 40 minute - 1:30 minute blocks of "tempo" riding as before are helpful. Similarly, the longer the race, the less intense the race pace should be, so these longer blocks begin to be close to race pace.
The final 'block' I want to write about includes the last 2-3 weeks prior to racing. After a longer base period and a strong interim 4-6 weeks of relatively high mileage with solid workouts, it begins time to taper or refocus depending on your season goals. If you have an "A" race coming up, now is the time to reduce mileage and increase intensity in shorter workouts such as 10 by 2 minutes with 2 minutes recovery or a pyramid of 1,2,3,4,8,4,3,2,1 with best average being the goal.
On race week, it is completely about doing what you need to succeed. A lot of people think this means take time off, but this strategy does not work for everybody. Steve Magnuss has written a few useful articles on maintaining muscle tension before races. This means we should still have that "strong" feeling about ourselves and intensity should be performed on race week, but the extraneous mileage should be decreased. I like to have my last hard workout three days prior to the race, and it includes something like 5 by 5 minutes on the bike or 1,2,3,3,2,1 fartlek running. After that, it is all about recovering for the race.
I got a lot of great feedback on my running training post, so please feel free to contact me with questions or comments.