I once read something Lance Armstrong said, which I have found to be mostly true. He said, and I'm paraphrasing : the bike is for show, the run is for the dough. I have no doubt about the accuracy of his statement. Usually, a triathlon boils down to how strong you can be in the run. Just ask a guy like Chris Lieto who kills the bike every year in Kona, but ultimately gets run down during the marathon.
However, after a weekend of racing, I decided to revisit some of this wisdom. For the race, I managed to come in third place and was faster in the swim, transitions, and run but slower in the bike. That must mean the above saying is inaccurate, right? So I decided to take a look at it from a pure numbers perspective. Take a look at the numbers and graphs below and make your own conclusions.
In the above picture, you can see how speed plays out for a half ironman distance race for the bike and run disciplines. For a rider who increases their speed from 17 to 18 mph, there is a time difference of nearly 11 minutes! A one mph difference in the run, say from 7 to 8 mph saves 14 minutes! While increasing your speed by one mph for either discipline would be significant improvement and probably unrealistic for most (especially for the run), the point is to demonstrate how much time will be saved for each discipline. In the chart below, you see an improvement in the swim by .5 mph (also a significant, probably unrealistic improvement) saves you only 9 minutes.
What does this mean? Look for balance. Ideally, you'll be good at all 3 events but the run and ride are the biggest time savers. Don't ignore the swim but keep in mind for any event, most of the race is spent running and riding. So, plan your training accordingly. For each of the disciplines, the shorter the race the smaller the differences in time savings so balance becomes even more important.
Another thing to consider is race strategy. At the half distance, most athletes won't go at full speed. They hold back working in a low heart rate zone in order to conserve energy for the next leg of the race. All three disciplines "cost" significant amounts of energy. The question becomes more of a cost/benefit analysis. Which one "costs" the least yet yields the greatest benefit. It would be very difficult, and energy consuming to get 1 mph extra out of your run for a half distance. To get .5 mph more of your swim, well...please pass along your secret. However, a 1 mph increase in the bike may be the more realistic of the above scenario's for that distance. Keep in mind the Chris Lieto reference above.
What do think? Where would you push and where would you hold back?
The next blog will analyze the energy costs of all 3 disciplines. This may help shed some additional light on this topic.
Scott Flynn, owner, coach and triathlete of 10+ years with Threshold Multisport Coaching, holds a MS in Exercise Science and multiple nationally recognized fitness certifications (CES, CSCS). For more about Threshold coaching packages click here.