A Swim and a Jog Away From Road Racing

This week we’ve got a guest blog post from Catalyst athlete Aaron Mahoney.  He’s made the transition from triathlon to road bike racing. Here he describes some of the lessons he’s learned along the way. Enjoy!

When I went to college, I took up triathlon, racing a handful of times during the summer. This culminated with racing Ironman Wisconsin last summer where I placed 19th in my age group. During my time training for triathlon, I always looked forward to the bike days. So, after finishing up my Ironman, I decided to try my hand at racing bikes. What follows is a list of the things I felt made up the bulk of my learning curve when adjusting from one sport to the other. 

  1. Training Volume  - Maybe the most noticeable difference between an IM distance race and that required for road racing is the volume of work put in on a weekly basis. During my build weeks last summer, I would put in around 16-18 hours of work a week, culminating at 20 hours before my taper. When I began my first block of cycling-specific training, I was initially (and wrongly) disappointed to see that I only had about half of the volume per week that I was used to. Feeling like my coach had underestimated my abilities (he hadn’t), I thought, “I’ll show him! I’ll bump up each interval’s power by 20%!” (that was dumb). I got done with the first day of intervals with a set of legs that were completely toast.  I kept up this stubborn overreaching all week, and ended with legs that felt like cement and the resurgence of an old overuse injury in my right hamstring. To this day I haven’t told my coach about that. Sorry, Jim. Lesson learned, more is not always better.
  2. Training Intensity - Similarly to the quantity, the quality of workouts changed dramatically. My aerobic base was fairly well developed from triathlon, but I had almost no experience in the anaerobic department (important for crit and road racing). And what a rude awakening it was. I went from performing prolonged sweet-spot intervals to these terrible things called sprints with my legs screaming in protest the entire time. While I’m unsure of the role perception plays in fatigue, I feel like anaerobic work is something that not only requires physiological adaptations, but a mental one as well. I’ve had to get used to being really uncomfortable. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve thrown up at the end of sprint workouts, for which I can thank my nutrition choices (more on that in a bit).
  3. Recovery - I’ve also found differences off the bike. Proper recovery plays a much more pronounced role in cycling than it does in ultra-endurance events. Again, I found this out the hard way. With IM training, I could bunch up the hard (read “long”) workouts back to back provided I took an extra easy day afterwards without much detriment to my training. Much to the chagrin of my coach, I tried to apply this approach to my bike training by putting a hard anaerobic day up against a VO2 day up against a threshold day. Each day I went without rest, my wattage would drop and my heart rate would rise. Eventually, I wasn’t able to train in the appropriate metabolic system because of excess fatigue, something that only an appropriately timed recovery day can solve. Again, sorry, Jim.
  4. Nutrition - I have never had problems with clean eating, so the most glaring difference between the two sports was the amount of carbohydrate needed, and the timing of when said carbohydrates were consumed. For long slow distance efforts, our body can use fats or carbohydrates as fuel for workouts. With crits and road racing, however, virtually all of the key efforts require carbohydrates. This required a slight change in my nutrition. The timing of eating said carbs is also important. Don’t consume the carbs needed for a workout or race right before riding. This is most likely common sense to most all of you, but I learned this lesson the hard way. Right before a Tabata workout, I thought it’d be a great idea to top off the glycogen tank with some pancakes. Long story short it wasn’t a good idea.
  5. Mentality I think this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the mental differences between the two sports. In triathlon at the amateur level, races are usually won and lost by minutes, not seconds. The strategy for the bike leg of the race is to race hard, but always save enough energy for the run. So if another racer passed me on a hill, I could always carry the (mostly valid) excuse that I was racing smart and pacing myself appropriately. In bike racing, especially crit racing, races are decided in a matter of seconds. This is something that I find to be shockingly personal. If I let an attack go, I’ve likely lost the race because the duration is so short. This means that I need to push with everything I have to stay where I need to be in the race. I often find myself holding back worrying that my best effort won’t be good enough, so I might as well wait and let someone else cover the move. This is something that I still work on. It takes a very unique (maybe insane, but who am I to say?) mindset that allows an athlete to absolutely empty the tank and leave it all out there in the race.

This is the culmination of the differences between the two sports. It’s scary, but also scary fun.