Seven Steps to Improve Time Trial Performance
As a pure test of cycling athleticism, little compares with the time-trial. Every roadie will want to have a decent TT in their repertoire if they want to be successful either in that specific discipline or in stage racing.
The time trial is often called the ‘race of truth’ as there are no team tactics, no drafting behind another rider, no tricks or gimmicks. The artistry lies in harmonizing yourself and your bike, bringing together the best possible position, technique, effort-management, and timing.
This article is not a comprehensive set of instructions but rather a collection of concepts to ponder and develop, perhaps along with your coach, as you hone your TT abilities.
Position: where rider meets bike
Whilst it’s true that any bike-racer will find benefits in efficiency from an aerodynamic position, nowhere is this more true than in the TT. The issue here is drag (sometimes referred to as wind resistance). Importantly, drag increases as the square of velocity (road speed), and thus the power needed to overcome the drag increases as the cube; the take-home here is that pushing a hole in the air is where almost all your effort is going. Therefore, making yourself as small as possible (reducing frontal area) and adopting a posture giving yourself an aero profile are equivalent to ‘free speed.’
Getting low and narrow in the cockpit is the key. The first objective is to get the air flowing over your back, not onto your chest. If you can get your upper back something like parallel to the ground, that will be a good start. It helps to be sufficiently flexible in the hamstrings and glutes (and lower back) so that these muscles are not ‘calling the shots’ too much on the position. Tight hammies in particular can send ‘please sit up’ messages to the brain, making the TT-tuck position difficult to endure.
Get help with your position on the bike
The dedicated ‘tester’ (as we call TT specialists in the UK) will likely stretch often, as sufficiently flexible hamstrings, gluteals, ITBs and general musculature are a boon when seeking a super-low position.
Next, aim to get the arms narrow (within the profile of the torso) by placing the arm-rests as close together as tolerable. This may tax the upper arm and shoulder muscles (particularly deltoids) so you’ll want to make sure you’re strong enough and adapted to the position.
If you’re riding ‘Merckx style’ (ie no TT-specific cockpit, old-school) then grip the bars next to the stem and bring your elbows in. This requires enough reach to the cockpit so that you’re not banging your elbows and knees together.
Basically, the smaller the hole you make in the air, the faster you will be, all else being equal. There are limiting factors: sheer discomfort, the ability to take full breaths, and the constriction of the leg muscles.
If your current aero position is unbearable, and you find yourself frequently shuffling around on the bike, altering your position and wrestling with the cockpit, then dial it back (more conservative, less aggressive) until you can stay in aero position for the duration of your event.
Equally, if you feel too low, such that your diaphragm feels trapped; or too narrow so you can’t take a full breath, then adjust your position until you feel the motor can function optimally – but always with an eye on getting as aero as you can without compromising power and breathing. It’s important that you can get power to the pedals, but this does not trump low drag. There’s a sweet spot where you’re tucked in small, but still generating your power.
If your leg muscles (particularly hip-flexors) feel compromised by your position, dial up some space. This might involve raising the bars a bit or bringing your effective seat-tube angle into a steeper position; you can slide the saddle forward on the rails and raise the seatpost correspondingly to achieve this. You may want to work with a TT fit specialist, as optimizing can require quite subtle adjustments.
Once you’ve got your position more-or-less dialed, ride in it a lot. Fine tune if necessary, and remember that you don’t have to go hard just because you are riding in the TT position. Endurance rides in the position will also help you adapt. The comfort requirements for 50 miles are different from say, 10 miles; in any case, you want the best possible aero/power combo you can muster.
The bike-fit and tolerance for the discomfort of an aggressively aerodynamic fit will vary with the duration; one can usually cope with a deep position for, say, 20-30 minutes that might be unbearable for an hour or more. Experiment to establish your own best position, and remember that if your power is compromised (outweighing the benefits in reduced drag) or you’re shuffling about, then you need make allowances (more conservative, by degree) until you are in the most wind-cheating, most powerful, most comfortable position you can find.
In training, you’ll be aiming to develop certain key elements of fitness: your highest power at threshold (legs and engine); your optimal aero position (bike-fit, flexibility, posture); the self-knowledge for hovering in the ‘sweet spot’ of maximum effort without blowing. Training for power-at-threshold does not simply involve spending all your time riding at threshold. You’ll want to have built a solid base, as you would for any sort of road racing, and then worked your way up the training pyramid towards harder efforts, including intervals and efforts specific to the intended duration of your TT, for example 10 or 25 miles and so on.
If you intend to race hilly TTs, then weight is a key factor, both yours and your machine’s.
Work methodically (with your coach if you have one). Obviously, it’s important to prepare your engine and technique, but in the time-trial’s world of marginal gains, every detail is important.Learn More About Wenzel Coaching Training Plans for Time Trial
An astute time-trialist will fine-tune their ability to enter the pain-cave to the extent that they are meting out as much second-by-second power as possible without having to recover or losing power as the event progresses. For racers with great technique and skills this involves keeping the fire burning downhill as well as on the flats and climbs. At the 1993 Isle of Man TT Chris Boardman maintained his 500W whilst descending, with enough gear inches to propel him at 60mph!
The psychological red-line of effort commonly arrives before the physiological one. In my article (https://www.wenzelcoaching.com/blog/shades-of-red-blurred-line-mental-limits/) I discuss the perceived limit, its premature nature, and the benefits of overcoming one’s ‘please stop’ internal voices. Explore these aspects astutely in your training, with a view to really knowing your sustainable limit. Add to this self-knowledge of the effects of heat, humidity, wind and weather, and so on.
Importance of warm up
The pre-TT warm-up is absolutely crucial, as you want to be firing on all cylinders right from the get-go. Not one inch of the actual TT can be counted as warm-up. Neither do you want to make your warm-up so arduous as to burn even a single match from your book for the event itself. Your Wenzel Coach can help you develop an effective warm up routine. As with the actual race, this finely-honed self management takes practice and concentration.
Focusing the mind for a TT is a fine art. Eliminating distractions, bringing your motor up to working temperature, and attending 100% to the job in hand, are mental skills of a high order. Make a regular habit of honing your powers of focused attention, perhaps with meditation or yoga.
On the day of a TT, aim to get onto the start ramp ‘in the zone’, as you might find yourself sometimes in a race where you’re fully present, all systems go…you need to be in this state from the gun.
Leaving it all on the road
Meting out all of the available energy during a time-trial is not as easy as it sounds. Optimally, you’ll be right on your threshold (of Perceived Exertion, heart-rate, and/or power) throughout. As such you’ll be hovering on the red-line but not actually blowing up. ‘Boom and bust’ efforts, akin to a series of intervals interspersed with recovery, won’t yield the best time.
Do not go off too hot! This is a common error of many riders who get excited or distracted or decide to improvise. An early excursion into the red zone will very likely cost you later in the race. On the start-line, as you take a few deep breaths and focus your attention, remind yourself not to overcook, but to come smoothly and promptly up to a speed or power you know you can maintain. Establish the effort appropriate for the duration of the particular event. Relax and concentrate. You might develop some mantras to help you perfect the start and optimize your effort, such as “Breathe, smooth, into the zone” or whatever helps you.
Crossing the finish line at full speed but utterly spent is the hallmark of a successful effort. If you’ve got energy left, or you were already in damage limitation (let alone bonked), then something went awry.
At the very least, you should know through training how intense an effort you can make for the duration of your chosen race; preferably on the same course, and in similar weather.
You might need to drink or eat during a TT. Practice your strategies – what, when, and how – in training. If you know the course, pinpoint the best opportunities for fueling, such as safe, non-technical sections.
In bike-racing, one is somewhat entitled to choose a course that really suits one’s natural strengths. By all means seek out hilly, flat, or technical courses if you like. In some districts, word gets round about a particular course offering favorable pavement, wind/weather, and (sometimes) vehicle traffic (ie. quiet roads). Many event organisers offer the Merckx category for riders on standard, non-aero bikes. Often there are team competitions, for two or more riders racing together.
For sure, a pre-ride or recce of the racecourse is invaluable. You’ll be able to practice the route, hone the best line through technical turns, establish the energy demands and optimal gears of any climbs, and when to heap the coals on for the finish.
Wind-cheating equipment and strategies contribute to aerodynamic efficiency and will help you go faster for the same equivalent effort compared to a non-aero set-up. Here we include the drink-bottle, helmet, frame, wheels, shoe covers, shaved legs – maybe even shaved arms!
Machines specifically designed for time-trialing are available. The frame, wheels, and cockpit are (like the rider) optimized to make the minimal disturbance to air flow. The bike may have flattened, shaped tubes, deep rims, and ‘stealth’ parts, to keep drag to a minimum. The wheels in particular are very important, so you might think about an aero set , for use specifically in the TT.
There is solid evidence that 25mm tires and rims are faster than narrower ones. The science points at both aerodynamics and rolling resistance. Some manufacturers even offer a rim/tire combination which they claim reduces the drag.
Whatever your bike, there are some aerodynamic aids you can try. A water-bottle in the seat-tube cage helps optimize airflow around the rear wheel. There is typically dirty (ie. turbulent) air in the nape of the neck – those ‘tear-drop’ helmets help with that. Shoe covers clean up the airflow around the feet. Maybe shaved legs are faster than hairy ones – opinions differ.
Out on the course, if there’s a smoother area of pavement available, ride on it!
Supposing all these small adjustments together are worth, say, a second a mile in drag savings. If your TT is 25 miles, then you’ve almost half a minute of free speed there, all else being equal. The savings maybe even more, depending on the before-and-after changes you make.
Finally, if you’re someone who gets pre-race jitters, maybe losing sleep the night before, or feeling too nervous or agitated on race-day, then it’s worth getting a composure habit going.
Here’s an article I wrote on managing pre-race anxiety: https://www.wenzelcoaching.com/blog/managing-pre-race-anxiety/
Here’s a link to my video explaining how to develop self-calming strategies. The aim is to be optimally stressed, so that you’re alert and excited without being tense, distracted, or dyspeptic. You’ll be at your best when all of your energy – physical and mental – is used in propelling you forward!
Head Coach Paul Page-Hanson, M.A. practiced as a psychotherapist in London for over 10 years. Now in San Francisco, he is a licensed cycling coach, massage therapist and body work specialist working with all levels of abilities on the dirt and road. Paul is available for mental skills training and coaching as well as bike fitting and riding skills clinics.Learn More About Wenzel Coaching Training Plans for Time Trial