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How to properly train for a time trial

In the first of a three-part series, TrainingPeaks provides advice on how to prepare for a time trial. Up next: Training for a criterium

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This is the first of a three-part series by Joe Friel, co-founder of and author of The Cyclist’s Training Bible. In this series, Joe will go over how to train specifically for your upcoming event, whether it’s a time trial, criterium, or a road/stage race. We’ll start the series with how to prepare specifically for a time trial.

Of the six common training periods (Prep, Base, Build, Peak, Race, Transition) the most important one for the outcome of the race is the Build. Known as “specific preparation” in sport science, this is the time starting about 12 weeks prior to an A-priority race and ending around three weeks before. Within this period, the most critical time is from seven to three weeks before the race.

The purpose of all training done in the five weeks preceding this critical time frame is to get the rider ready for these last few key weeks. Training done in the last two weeks before the race — the Peak and Race periods — is primarily for the elimination of fatigue while maintaining fitness.

In the critical five weeks, you must be focused on doing workouts that are very much like the race. The common race distance for most state time trial championships is 40 kilometers, and most riders will complete this distance in about 50 to 70 minutes. That means racing at or near lactate threshold (LTHR) using a heart rate monitor, functional threshold power (FTP) if training with a power meter, or about an 8 on a 0-10 rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. (Determining your LTHR or FTP requires field or lab testing; see “Joe Friel’s Quick Guide to Setting Zones” on the TrainingPeaks blog for guidance on that).

The purpose of training during these five weeks is to prepare to maintain race intensity for the anticipated race duration, and to do so with a pacing strategy that ensures a strong second half of the race. The actual workout is simple.

The time trialist’s key workout during the critical five-week period is something I call “cruise intervals.” Simply do 4 x 10- or 4 x 12-minute intervals with a 4:1 work-recovery ratio on a section of road that closely simulates the race terrain. Getting the recovery right is very important for preparing the body for the specific demands of a time trial. For a 10-minute work interval, the recovery is 2:30 of very easy pedaling. For a 12-minute work interval, the recovery is 3:00.

Each interval should be done at race intensity, whether you are using a heart rate monitor, power meter, or RPE. If using the former, be aware that heart rate is slow to respond, especially in the first interval. Do not go all out at the start of an interval to force heart rate up quickly and then slow down for the remainder of it. This reinforces bad pacing habits. Start each heart rate-based interval with what seems like an appropriate effort using RPE. Observe heart rate and make adjustments as each interval progresses. That brings us to pacing.

The key to proper pacing is the third quarter of the race. This is when athletes typically fade and lose the most time. Such fading is the result of having started too fast in the first quarter of the race due to uncontrolled emotions and inadequate pace preparation. When doing cruise intervals, always emphasize the first and third ones. Hold back on the first and make the third the strongest. Holding back at the start is not easy, but if rehearsed repeatedly in the critical 7-to-3-week time period it can become habitual. A power meter is especially beneficial in managing the early pacing, as power doesn’t lie. The same can’t be said of heart rate, which will tend to be artificially high, and RPE can be extremely low, in the first quarter on race day due to emotions and freshness.

Given the physical challenge of these workouts, do only two or three of them per week and separate them by at least 48 hours by doing easy rides. That means fewer than 15 cruise interval sessions will be done given that there will undoubtedly be a rest period within the five weeks. Each of these will have a significant impact on how high your fitness is at the start of the peak period. Every interval within every workout is very important. Training during this block of time must be consistent and highly focused. Every effort must be made not to miss any workouts. Recovery following each of these sessions is also paramount. Common recovery modalities such as sleep, general rest, nutrition, hydration, and massage must be emphasized and well-timed.

Realize that for the experienced time trialist it’s not how many miles or hours done in a week that is critical to performance. Do not train at a high volume during these five weeks. And focus on post-workout recovery so that each is done when relatively fresh. Try to be physically and mentally ready each time you do this workout in the critical time block. That will allow you to focus on what best predicts time trial success — intensity and pacing.

Editor’s Note: Joe Friel is a co-founder of and is the author of several books on training for endurance athletes, including The Cyclist’s Training Bible.