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Time trial position: Should you train it, and how?

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(Image credit: Wattbike)

As the COVID-19 pandemic has flipped normality onto its head, one resulting side effect is a huge amount of uncertainty. This is the same at all levels from the top of the sport right down to grass-roots, and it means that planning and training for sporting events has become particularly difficult. It's entirely possible that you could set a goal event for the summer of 2021, train all winter and taper perfectly, only to find that the event is cancelled due to a last-minute localised lockdown. 

As the world continually enters and exits different levels of lockdown, isolation and quarantine, the one constant in many cyclists' lives is the pandemic-free world of indoor cycling. However, even for the most enthused Zwift racer, there's no substitution for real-world racing. 

With social distancing measures making mass start competition complicated, it looks as though the most likely form of COVID-safe competition is time trialling, which due to its individual nature, makes it much easier to successfully socially distance. 

Just as if you would train differently for a road race to a criterium, the way you would go about preparing for a time trial will differ, but not only in the type and amount of work you are doing, but in the case of TT, adapting to the physical position you're trying to maintain on the bike. Luckily, some of the best smart bikes offer integrated time trial extensions to simplify this logistical hurdle to your position-based training, and many indoor cycling apps have begun integrating strength and conditioning sessions to training programs. 

A study published in the European Journal of Sports Science in 2018, delved into power discrepancies between the aero and upright positions and found significant variance in the what riders were able to output on the hoods versus aero bars. 

Because of this variance in power, pro riders not only have separate TT-specific bike fits, they also undertake fastidious aero testing to find the perfect balance between loss of power and aerodynamics - as Cyclingnews saw first hand when on a training camp with Bora Hansgrohe. This luxury is well beyond reach for the vast majority of riders, so for the average Joes and Janes who are doing workouts prescribed based on FTP, it begs the question, should you train for the power or the position?

A double-edged sword

"There are two sides of that argument," says Eric Haakonssen, a Sports Scientist at Cycling Australia. "One could be purely on getting the mechanical work done and stressing the cardiovascular system; which would be an argument for doing it in your normal road position, upright."

"But from a physiological standpoint, it's a different task if you're asking that athlete to exert that same load in the (TT) position. You're putting the joints and the muscles in angles that are sub-optimal to produce power output, but puts the body in a position that optimises aerodynamics," he continues.

"Obviously, you want to try and close that gap between the mechanical work you can do in the TT vs the regular position. I think the only way you can progress towards doing that is to get good quality work done, in the TT position," he says.

We caught up with Time Trial and Team Pursuit specialist - and Wattbike sponsored athlete - Dan Bigham, whose long list of accolades include riding for the Ribble Weldtite road team, the Huub Wattbike track team, working behind the scenes optimising Jumbo Visma riders as well as helping the Danish national track team break the Men’s Team Pursuit World Record. He explained he spends the vast majority of his training blocks riding the indoor trainer, with most of that time spent in the aero position. 

"My theory is that you should do as much as possible in the position,” he says. “If you were to break it down, I probably spend 60-70-per cent, maybe more, indoors. Inside, there's no traffic signs or junctions, and essentially you just keep the gas on all the time and get really good quality."

For further arguments on the benefits of indoor cycling, read our rundown on the best ways to use indoor cycling for your outdoor goals

We need more power

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"The more time you spend in the position, the more you will adapt to it" - Dan Bigham, Huub Wattbike (Image credit: Wattbike)

Riding a time trial bike and a standard road bike both involve pedalling, but the mechanics of how the body drives those pedal strokes is different, and comparing the efforts isn’t quite apples to apples. Those who have just purchased a shiny new TT rig or have neglected their ultra aero machine are likely to see a notable drop in power when they settle in on the aero bars.

According to a 2015 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science which looked into the effect that the TT position had on muscle activation and crank torque, researchers found that dropping the torso angle caused the gluteus maximus to contract significantly later in the pedal stroke, and for a shorter duration, leading to a 2-3-per cent reduction of power output. So when you're riding in the aero bars, the biggest muscle in your body is contributing less, while other muscle groups are also working harder.

"You're using a whole bunch of other muscles that are still drawing on your cardiovascular system, just to hold yourself in the time trial position," Haakonssen adds. "You're probably activating your core a little bit more to try and stop yourself from moving around, and your body is probably more engaged from being in a less efficient position. You also might be working on shrugging or keeping your head down, activating all these additional little muscles that are going to draw on your cardiovascular system for energy and oxygenated blood." 

This all puts extra load on your cardiovascular system, which can only provide so much fuel. But just like every other part of training, with work comes adaptation.

"The more time you spend in the position, the more you will adapt to it, and the less you will have to think about things like, 'ok I need to have my head down and my shoulders in.' As your position adapts, the more you can relax into it, to the point your front end is locked in, but you're not stressed,” Bigham adds. "Then you can deliver power much easier because you're not having to worry about controlling those muscles.

Bigham does note that even he sees about a 10-watt difference in the power he can produce in either position.

What can you do about it?

The human body is an amazing and adaptable thing that is forever trying to optimise for the stresses it undergoes. So if you stress it in a prescribed way, it will come back faster and stronger so that next time, it can better perform under the same stress. Therefore, training the body to ride in the time trial position (taking into account that you may need to drop your workout intensity by a few per cent) will better prepare the body for the eventual goal of performing in that position. 

More specifically, working out your time-trial FTP will help optimise training load and not only help you to get faster, but also help to prevent overtraining and burnout.

"Even if you can't produce the same mechanical power output numbers, you can certainly get your heart rate up to similar levels. You can definitely redline yourself in terms of your internal load, and the stimulus that you put on the body is going to be just as high as anything you could probably do the road position," Haakonssen says.

Off-bike work

A collection of indoor cycling-related apps have begun looking at the bigger picture when it comes to a cyclist's training, and when it comes to time trial training, mechanical efficiency and core strength work can be an important piece of the jigsaw. Wattbike's Hub app, for example, provides a real-time Pedalling Effectiveness Score, which measures the efficiency of the pedal stroke and whereabouts during the revolution the power is being output. Another example is The Sufferfest, which has begun integrating yoga and strength workouts into riders' training plans. 

Train indoors or out?

When it comes to those looking to improve their time trial performance, both Haakonssen and Bigham are big proponents of training indoors, in part because of the real-time pain cave analysis.

"The body will naturally creep back into old habits, and one benefit you can get from doing indoor training is that it's quite easy to give yourself feedback," Haakonssen says. "Really simple things like having a mirror in front of you; if you have an extra set of hands, trace your ideal time trial position on the mirror, or use sticky tape markers so you can see when you're slipping out of your ideal position."

Smart trainers and now smart bikes have also changed the equation because they make you do the work; if an interval calls for 320-watts, it will make you do 320-watts. But, we are now seeing more athletes harness the simulation aspects to improve race performance. 

"It's now possible to download gpx files etc. into different platforms and then ride the courses on smart trainers. We've been using FulGaz which has a lot of racecourses on it. This way the athlete can do their specific work, but also work on familiarising themselves with a course," Haakonssen says. 

"Familiarity breeds confidence," Bigham continues. "If you know exactly what that hill feels like; how long that straight is before you have to turn; then you can really get your head into it and memorise it. The more you ride a course, the smaller and more familiar it becomes; and the better you can perform on race day, not having to worry about what's coming up. All you have to think about is executing your race strategy." 

Bigham, who is a self-admitted data nerd, goes on to say one of the major benefits he sees from indoor cycling is not only having the vast amount of data at his fingertips but also with a smart bike, he can save his TT bike for race day. 

“I think from a mechanical perspective, the thing that I found good about the (Wattbike) Atom is, you can copy and paste your Time Trial position across. I can leave my TT bike in pristine condition and not have to worry about changing bits and bobs,” he says. “If I want to look at saddle height, fore and aft, stack height or whatever, there is no cable routing to faff about with. Plus, you can ride it really hard and not have to worry about snapping a chainstay or a seat stay.”

The value of a smart trainer to an athlete’s tool kit is immeasurable, however, for those looking to hone in on improving their time trial performance, a smart bike begins to make quite a bit of sense. If you’re looking to make adjustments to your position, instead of investing hours of your day dealing with bolts and cables just to remove a 2mm spacer; adjusting bar height on a smart bike can be as simple as a quick-release — the Wattbike Atom even comes with fully adjustable TT extensions and forearm pads. Plus, drivetrain components, like those super aero chainrings that cost a week's wages, aren’t being ground away during your training, so they will shift extra-crisp come event day.