How to become a better time trialist

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There is nothing more satisfying than winning the race of truth: an individual time trial. Winning an ITT means you were the fastest rider on the day, that you’d mastered your race day pacing and left nothing in the legs, crossing the line exhausted but triumphant. So how do you become a great time trialist? Helen Kelly from Kelly Cycle Coaching put together this helpful advice, with input from Australian national time trial champion, Felicity Wardlaw.

Becoming a great time trialist doesn’t happen overnight; it requires the accumulation of months and years of preparation. So what steps do you need to get right along the way?

  1. You have to correctly train your engine
  2. You need to make the correct equipment choices
  3. You need the most aero position without compromising power/efficiency, and while staying UCI compliant
  4. You need to do a thorough reconnaissance of the course to decide on your pacing strategy
  5. You need great mental focus and be willing to really suffer.

How to train for a TT

I could write an entire article on the different methods of training for a TT. And, given everyone comes into cycling with different strengths, weaknesses and backgrounds, there is no “one answer” that fits everyone.

Before racing a TT you need a good base. You can’t keep the building upright if you don’t give it a good foundation. Same applies to you. You can’t go fast and hold a high speed without a fitness base. There is nothing to draw from if you haven’t done the base kilometres.

If you are preparing for a big TT, you need to work backwards and plan when to start your blocks. I asked Felicity Wardlaw how she prepares for the Australian Nationals in January, and she said “I start with a block of strength and endurance on the bike. This [is] mostly done in October and November”.

Wardlaw competed in road races and TTs during the Australian winter, competing in local events as well as the NRS races held on the east coast of Australia. She then took a break in September before getting back on the bike in mid-October.

During your base, you want to get general kilometres in your legs, so some long hilly rides are good. It’s also worth doing strength endurance work (over-geared climbing) at 65-70RPM, at approximately 80% of your FTP (functional threshold power — the power output you can hold for an hour). The slow, over-loaded contraction helps build muscle and strength in your legs.

During this phase Wardlaw aims to do 1,000 TSS (Training Stress Score) per week in 20 hours of riding. That’s the equivalent of riding at threshold for half of those hours.

By December, you should still be doing SE efforts to work on your power/weight ratio, but you should also be doing some specific TT efforts.

Examples of efforts to be done on your TT bike include:

a) two or three 10-15 minute efforts at 65-70RPM, at roughly 80-90% of your FTP, depending on your background in cycling
b) five, five-minute efforts at 110-115% of your FTP, done at race cadence.

Here’s a V02max session completed by Wardlaw in the final weeks before she won the National title, featuring four-minute efforts at 110% of FTP.

Click image for a larger version.
Click image for a larger version.

It might sound obvious, but it’s important to spend time riding a TT bike in training.

As Flick Wardlaw said:

“Your body tenses up when under stress and I have had to learn to really relax the upper body (hands, arms and chest) to endure my chest cavity remains open so as to not restrict my breathing. This has taken a lot of practice and focus, but once you realise the benefits and can do it I think it really assist performance.”

Your body

Core strength and flexibility are crucial for time trialists. You should be doing at least two core sessions per week to develop the ability to transfer power in such a ‘cranked over’ position.

This is the area that many riders never master. They can produce power when sitting up, hands on the flats of the bars, but never the same power in the aero bars. You should stretch daily and be getting regular massages to avoid tightening up as a result of your TT position.

I asked Wardlaw about her core and weights regime:

“It’s a balancing act when incorporating weights into training. Prior to focusing on the road, I use to lift heavy weights but found it really impacted on my mountain bike training. I gradually transitioned from heavy weights to focusing on more functional strength exercises, which doesn’t include lifting heavy weights and didn’t impact too much on training sessions on the bike.”

As you get a few weeks out from race day, it’s time to pull back the volume and retain the intensity. The sessions should simulate race day pain. There may be tears and screams. You need to turn yourself inside out and teach yourself to suffer and tolerate the pain.

Being willing and able to suffer is a key ingredient in a good time trial.
Being willing and able to suffer is a key ingredient in a good time trial.

Visualisation is crucial to be able to torture yourself so much. Think of something that motivates you enough to force yourself to hurt so much. Perhaps it is that Australian title and imagining yourself on the podium with your hands in the air.

Take whatever image works for you and think of this to get you through each effort. All athletes use visualisation so it is important to work on your mental preparation to dig into that ‘pain cave’.

Your equipment

Yes, equipment does matter. Your choice of wheels, helmets, aero bars and more will all affect your time. Do your research and pick the lightest and most suitable equipment for your needs (and your budget). Your cassette and chainring choice is vital so you can get the range of gears you need.

Not long after her Nationals win Wardlaw went to the Oceania championships, where she came second. She tells me that her gear selection might have played a part in the result.

“I clearly made the wrong choice and it was obvious when reviewing post-race data. I knew when riding over the course the day before it was an 11-tooth kind of course. I was having trouble tuning the 11-25 tooth cassette I had, so I decided I would much rather have gears I trusted than not knowing if it would click into the 11 or get stuck on the 12.”

“It was a silly error that I should have had organised well before this race. It would not have won me the race but I may have been 10-15 seconds closer to winning.”

Here is the data from Wardlaw’s Oceanias TT.

Click the image for a larger version.
Click the image for a larger version.

Your choice of saddle is critical also. The UCI rules allow your saddle nose to be at least 50mm behind the bottom bracket. With this rule, the position becomes more extreme than your road position and may take some adjusting to.

You also need to ensure your aero bar tips don’t extend too far beyond the bottom bracket, unless you have an exemption due to your height.

When I asked Wardlaw about her equipment, she told me: “I always run a rear disc. The disc I run is very light and I don’t think it impacts too much on hilly courses. I always take a selection of front wheels and choose the appropriate one depending on wind. For nationals I ran a 60mm front, whereas Oceanias I went with 80mm”.

Use your equipment in training so you are completely happy with it all. It shouldn’t just be saved for race day, thereby creating the risk that your gears might jump about under load.

The same applies to your bike computer and power meter. These are great tools for training and learning to pace yourself, but you need to be prepared in the event that they fail. So your training should often be ‘by feel’ so you can race without data if needed.

Indeed, Wardlaw told me that her power meter was playing up during the Nationals:

“During the National’s my power meter was not right, it was under powering, and I knew this from understanding what my perceived effort should be compared to what was reading on the Garmin. It played with my mind for a small part (I was worried I overcooked it in the first half) but I had to just block it out as there was nothing I could do about it.

“During the race I refused to look at my power meter and just concentrated on speed, cadence, heartrate, visualisation, breathing, position and let the legs do the talking. It obviously worked.”

Click here to read a previous CyclingTips article about getting the most bang for your bike when buying TT equipment.

Efficient and UCI-compliant bike position

Yes, you need to be aero but not so aero that you smack your quads into your chest and have so much neck pain you can’t keep your head up to see where you’re going. There may be a slight compromise if flexibility is an issue or if your core is a problem, to ensure you can generate the best power possible.


If you have a power meter, you can do several test runs with different positions to see how your power varies. You should make sure you do some longer TT efforts and check that you haven’t found a position that is ok for 5 minutes but not 45 minutes.

“I am lucky and can hold a very aggressive aero position for a sustained duration, whilst still remaining functional and maintaining power output”, Wardlaw told me. “Not many can do this. Flexibility in the back, hips, hamstrings and glutes is a must. I think having being a rower for several years has helped me with this.”

Race course review and race pace strategy

This is one of the most critical areas to do your homework on. You need to know the course very well. You need to have pre-ridden it to feel the road, the corners, to assess your cassette options, to decide if and where you may need to use the small ring, or if you can get away with cross-chaining it up a small rise, without losing momentum. It is all about keeping your power up, with good cadence and all without smashing your legs.

You need to be aware of where the wind is coming from and if you need to pace yourself according to steep terrain and wind conditions. For example, if it is an out-and-back course that gradually climbs on the way out, plus you have a headwind, then a greater percentage of your energy will be used on the first section of the course, compared to the return leg.

A TT can typically be decided by the stronger cyclists over the climbs and into the windy sections, compared to tailwind sections. But saying this, you can’t afford to freewheel or lose focus on the tailwind sections and descents. You need to keep the power on as much as you possibly can. Every second without threshold power could be a second lost.

It's important not to start out too hard. If anything, start a little easier and come home strong.
It’s important not to start out too hard. If anything, start a little easier and come home strong.

On a very undulating course, you won’t ride the course with even power. You will race above FTP power on the climbs and have ‘nano rest periods’ on the descents. Even if you use a 54-tooth chainring you may not be able to generate the same power on the descents, compared to the climbs. This is due to not having gravity to push against and reaching a speed (without any more gears) to push out the power. In these situations, it is best to get aero, recover as much as you can and prepare for the next climb.

At the beginning of a TT, starting out too hard is a very common mistake. Holding back and not smashing yourself in the first kilometre, particularly when your event is so important, takes a lot of control and discipline. But you can then build to your race pace, without having to clear lactate that built up after punching out of the gates too hard. Doing efforts in training and reviewing your power data can help you see if you punched out at 1000W, which is clearly not a power level you can maintain for 30-45 minute TT.

Mental training

This is a tough area to train. You can read books and get help from others, but at the end of the day, you need to train your mental toughness. You need to take yourself into time trial mode in training, and turn yourself inside out. You need to visualise something that makes you dig deep over and over again.

Yes it can and will leave you feeling completely exhausted. There literally may be tears in training as you wring yourself out mentally and physically. But if you don’t train yourself to do it, you won’t be able to do it on race day.

So find something that makes you angry, happy, motivated or whatever emotion works for you, and tap into that emotion to pull every watt of energy out of your body.

Mental preparation is a vital part of the time trial puzzle.
Mental preparation is a vital part of the time trial puzzle.

When asking Wardlaw about her mental preparation, she said:

“I learnt a great technique to manage pain during the race. I developed a series of power thoughts, power words and power images. I visualised I was a panther. I could then see myself looking through the eyes of this panther, in that I was fast, relaxed, smooth, powerful and lean. I practiced this during several training sessions and during Nationals I really used this to overcome the pain and transfer it away from the legs.”

Wardlaw also talked to me about finding the edge in TTing.

“TTs are about power to pedal, but mental strength is what can affect and impact on power application, in particular the ability to push into the red and hold it there. Gaining a mental ‘edge’ is a skill to learn and takes practice, practice and more practice.

“I didn’t have a sports psychologist guiding me, but I leant some great techniques from books, podcasts and web articles. What I learnt and taught myself, I think, helped me deal with the nerves and anxiety and pain often associated with ITTs. I learnt relaxation and visualisation techniques and I became a firm believer (learnt from many races) in ‘how you feel affects how you ride’.”

Time trialling is one of the purest form of racing. There are no last-minute attacks, no team tactics: it is purely about rider and machine going as fast as possible. Hopefully this article has given you some ideas on how to become a better time trialist. It is a tough discipline but the reward is worth the hard work.

Helen Kelly and her husband Bob run Kelly Cycle Coaching. Both are certified level 2 cycling coaches and Helen has raced professionally all over the world and represented Australia at the world championship level.

CyclingTips would like to acknowledge the work of Mark Fenner who has been Flick Wardlaw’s coach for many years. You can check out his website and learn more about his work at FTPTraining here.

Click here for tips on how to become a better climber, and here for tips on how to become a better criterium racer.

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