Complete Beginner’s Guide to Triathlon and Time Trial Cycling

by Zach Nehr

Blog ▸ Complete Beginner’s Guide to Triathlon and Time Trial Cycling

Of the three triathlon disciplines, cycling can feel the most complicated. To run, you just put your shoes on and go. You can do the same in the pool (just don’t wear your running shoes). So here is your complete beginner’s guide to triathlon and time trial cycling.

Cycling can be much more complicated – what kind of bike do you need? Should you use aero bars, and how do you get comfortable in the aero position? And what groupset, bike computer, or heart rate monitor should you use for time trial cycling?

We’ll answer all these questions and more in this post. Here’s what we’ll cover in this article: 

  • Triathlon and Time Trial Bike Gear
    • Bikes
    • Groupsets
    • Helmets
    • Shoes
    • Wheels and Tires
    • Electronics 
    • Saddles
  • Road Bike vs. Triathlon Bike
  • Triathlon Bike vs Time Trial Bike
  • Triathlon and Time Trial Bike Training
    • Get started with two workouts per week
    • Bike interval training sessions
    • Intervals to do Before Your Goal Race
  • How to Get Comfortable in the Aero Position

TRIATHLON AND TIME TRIAL CYCLING BIKE GEAR

Starting with the basics, you’ll need some gear for triathlon and time trial cycling. The options are almost limitless in the bike world, but we’ll narrow it down to the basics.

First up, we’re talking about the bike. Below, we have the bike gear you need to get into triathlon and time trial cycling. This equipment will help you enjoy the sport and perform well, all without breaking the bank.

Here, you can learn more about triathlons and road bikes for beginners on our YouTube channel here

Bikes for Triathlon and Time Trial Cycling

If you’ve never biked before, we recommend buying a road bike rather than a triathlon or time trial bike. A road bike is much more versatile than a triathlon or time trial bike. And once you’re thinking about your first triathlon or time trial (TT), you can always add clip-on aero bars to your road bike – this is a quick and cheap solution to getting more aero on the road bike without slashing the cash for a whole new bike. 

Triathlon gear is expensive, but you shouldn’t be refinancing your house for your first bike. We recommend looking for used bikes under $5000. You can undoubtedly find a high-quality bike for much less than that, but it depends on what’s available in the market. 

There are a lot of different bikes to choose from including road bikes, triathlon bikes, and time trial bikes. We’ll cover each of them and tell you which bike might be best for you. Let’s get started. 

Once you know 100% that you’re going to be committed to competing in triathlons for a long time, and your finish time is important to you, then you can start considering the purchase of a triathlon bike.

Road Bike vs. Triathlon Bike

triathlon and time trial cycling. black road bike parked beside brown wooden wall

A triathlon bike is meant for riding in the aero position – your backside is further forward on the saddle, and your arms are nestled in the aero bars. 

In contrast, a road bike offers three prominent riding positions: the hoods, drops, and tops. These are all positions on the handlebars, called drop handlebars, instead of the aero bars found on a triathlon bike.

The road bike allows you to try more riding positions than the triathlon bike, which is best for beginners who may be struggling to get comfortable on the bike. Generally, a road bike should be comfortable right away, whereas it takes time to get comfortable on a triathlon bike. 

Different Riding Positions for Road Cycling and Triathlon

A road bike’s position is much more upright than a triathlon bike’s. This can be good or bad – an upright riding position is good for comfort and climbing, but it is terrible for aerodynamics. An upright riding position will slow you down. Still, it is much more comfortable than the aero position on a triathlon bike.

Because of the handlebars and frame design, a triathlon bike is much more twitchy than a road bike, which means that its handling is quick and sharp. That’s because triathlon bikes are designed for riding in a straight line or around a course with very few corners. Triathlon and time trial bikes are not meant for group rides. Stick with the road bike for your local club ride.

Road bikes are designed for a much wider variety of terrain, including city streets, mountain descents, and fast criteriums. Riders can throw a road bike around corners, whereas a triathlon bike will not be as nimble. 

Bike Groupsets

triathlon and time trial cycling. black mountain bike gear set

The groupset is everything that makes the bike go – the gears, brakes, shifters, chainrings, derailleurs, and more. Most entry-level triathlon and TT bikes come with a Shimano 105 groupset, an introductory and mechanical groupset.

There are two prominent groupset makers in triathlon: Shimano and SRAM. When you start looking at all the different offerings, suddenly, it can become overwhelming. You will hear a mix of terms like 105, Dura-ace, AXS, Red, Wireless, Force, et

As a beginner, you should be looking at the second-cheapest groupset options available. Especially if you’re shopping on a budget, you’ll want to keep the cost down. Beginners don’t need wireless electronic shifting or the high-end offerings from SRAM or Shimano. Stick with the basics when looking to buy your first triathlon or time trial bike, but don’t go for the cheapest option. 

Shimano 105 and SRAM Rival are the cheapest groupsets available. Still, you can get more bang for your buck with the next step, which is Shimano Ultegra or SRAM Force. These groupsets are lighter, faster, and easier to use and are not super expensive.

Triathlon and Time Trial Cycling Helmets

When it comes to buying speed, the biggest bang for your buck is your helmet. You can spend an extra thousand dollars or two on wheels or a new frame, but the gains per dollar will be less than upgrading your helmet. 

Most riders have road bike helmets which are rounder, more vented, and less aerodynamic than triathlon helmets or TT helmets. A specialized triathlon or TT helmet will have an aerodynamic design, fewer vents, an integrated visor, and possibly even a hole that you can feed a water spout through for cooling on the go. 

Overall, triathlon or TT helmets are faster than road bike helmets. However, they are also faster, hotter, and heavier. They can also limit your visibility, which makes them less than ideal for riding on the open road. 

Road bike helmets suit most bike riders because they are more versatile, adjustable, and comfortable. You can fit a cap or sweatband under a road bike helmet, and you won’t be limiting your peripheral vision with a visor. 

We recommend buying an aero road helmet, a blend between a triathlon helmet and a road bike helmet. Aero road helmets offer the best of both worlds regarding ventilation, aerodynamics, visibility, adjustability, and comfort.

Aero road helmets are best for beginner triathletes and time trial riders because you can wear them for everything – you can wear an aero road helmet for a hot road race, a criterium, a time trial, or an Ironman. Thanks to the balance characteristics of an aero road helmet, you’ll never be sacrificing a significant amount of triathlon or time trial performance. 

triathlon and time trial cycling. woman in white and blue stripe long sleeve shirt wearing black and white bicycle helmet riding

What Shoes to Buy for Triathlon and Time Trial Cycling

Triathlon shoes and time trial (or cycling) shoes have very subtle differences. For one, triathlon shoes are easier to slip in and out of because of the quick transitions in triathlon. There are more vents in triathlon shoes too which help dry your feet after the swim and keep them cool on a hot day. 

Most triathlon shoes have a large opening and Velcro strap that makes them easy to put on. There is also a loop on the shoe’s heel which helps you pull the shoe on tight. 

However, many triathletes are choosing to wear road cycling shoes during their triathlon instead of triathlon shoes. In the last decade, road cycling shoes have become better-vented and more comfortable, and they’re easy to slip in and out of, too. 

Unless you are entirely dedicated to triathlon, we recommend beginners buy road cycling shoes since they are much more versatile than triathlon shoes. Plus, you won’t be doing any transitions in training when you’re just starting with triathlons.

Road cycling shoes are also superior for time trials since they are stiffer and more comfortable. You won’t be transitioning during a time trial either, so you won’t lose any performance without the Velcro strap and heel loop. 

Wheels for Triathlon and Time Trial Cycling Bikes

Wheel choice is one of the most popular topics in the triathlon community. There are deep-sectioned wheels, carbon wheels, disc wheels, and more. In this section, we’re talking about race wheels for triathlons and time trials. In training, you can use any basic training wheel. This helps save your race wheels and tires from possible cuts or damage, but if you only have one set of wheels, you can certainly use them for training and racing.

The fastest wheel combination for both triathlon and time trials is a rear disc wheel and a deep-sectioned front wheel. A disc wheel is a wheel that is completely filled in with carbon material, and there are no spokes which improves the wheel’s aerodynamics. 

Deep-sectioned wheels have a thicker rim which improves aerodynamics compared to shallower rims. They are also easier to handle than disc wheels which can catch lots of wind. That’s why you’ll never see any triathlete or time trialist using a front disc wheel. 

Deep-sectioned wheels come on a spectrum. The deepest wheels have rims that measure about 100mm deep, whereas moderately deep-sectioned wheels measure 40-60mm deep. The cheapest and most basic training wheels measure around 20mm deep. 

Disc wheels are a bit tricky because they are not best for everyone. The best rim depth for triathletes is generally 80mm deep for a front wheel. We only recommend disc wheels for riders who weigh more than 150 lbs (68kg), who average more than 35kph (21.8mph) in their race, and whose race course doesn’t have many corners. A disc wheel will do more harm than good if you don’t fit those criteria.

For beginners, we recommend a combination of 40mm and 60mm deep wheels for triathlons and time trials. That is 40mm in the front and 60mm in the back. This offers the best balance of weight, handling, and performance compared to other wheels including discs. 

A 40mm front wheel will handle better in crosswinds and corners, while the 60mm rear wheel will help increase your speed. 

If you’re shopping on a budget, you should look at aluminum wheels instead of carbon fiber wheels. You’ll be losing lots of speed, but you’ll also be saving lots of money on aluminum wheels. 

Fastest Tires for Triathlon and Time Trial Cycling Bikes

triathlon and time trial cycling. bicycle wheel

The conversation about tires in cycling has changed dramatically in the last 20-30 years. We used to think that narrower tires pumped up to super high pressure (120-130psi) were the fastest. Since then, we’ve learned that medium-width tires are fastest, pumped up to 80-100 psi. 

Tire material also significantly impacts speed, with some materials saving 10-15 watts over others. There are a few different types of tires to choose from, including tubular tires, clinchers, and tubeless tires.

For beginners, we recommend tubeless tires, which allow you to run a lower tire pressure without sacrificing speed. You’ll also be more comfortable on tubeless tires, which help cushion the impacts from the road.

When it comes to the tire’s material, we recommend going to bicyclerollingresistance.com 

On their website, sort the tires by “fastest,” then scroll down 8-10 results. This will skip past the race-day tires at the top of the list, which is incredibly fast, but they’re only suitable for one use – yes, they are that fragile.

The results you’re looking at will be the fastest tires you can use for racing and training. These tires are much more durable than race-day tires and can last you for upwards of three years. 

Lastly, you should go for 25mm or 28mm tires which offer the best balance between puncture resistance, speed, comfort, and performance. Make sure you double-check the width of your wheels’ rims and the amount of clearance in your bike’s frame to ensure that everything is compatible.

Do You Need Electronic Gear for Triathlon and Time Trial Cycling Bikes?

This is everything you will need to track, monitor, and store your training and physiological data. This includes heart rate (HR) monitors, bike computers, power meters, watches, and more.

We recommend that every beginner has at least an HR monitor for their bike rides. HR monitors are cheap (often less than $50), and they can wirelessly connect to watches, phones, bike computers, and more. You don’t even need to pay for an app to use an HR monitor – you can track your rides on Strava for free and use your HR monitor connected to your phone. 

Bike computers are a great addition to your triathlon or time trail bike set-up because of the easy-to-read and customizable displays. However, you can get most (or all) of the same information displayed on a watch or phone. This is preferred by most beginners who are just getting into the sport. If you’re exploring new routes and using a GPS, a bike computer is much easier to use than a watch. 

Lastly, there is the sacred power meter. Power data is precious for road riders but far less valuable to triathletes and time trial riders. That’s because triathlons and time trials are more often steady, solo efforts, as opposed to the explosive nature of criteriums and road racing.

As you progress in your triathlon or time trial career, you might find great use from a power meter. But it is not necessary to start with one. HR is the better metric for beginners because it is cheaper and easier to use and understand. 

Saddle Recommendations for Triathlon and Time Trial Cycling Bikes

You should never settle for the stock saddle that came with your bike, especially if it is causing pain or numbness. While there are a lot of painful things in cycling that you can get used to – such as riding in the aero bars or doing VO2max intervals – pain in your nether regions is not one of them. 

There are two ways that you can improve your comfort in the saddle: move the saddle or buy a new one. 

First, you can move your saddle fore and aft, or tilt it up or down. Subtle changes here can have a major impact on your comfort in the saddle, and just a 1cm tweak can sometimes alleviate numbness. 

Second, you can always buy a new saddle. It is impossible to recommend one saddle that is best for everyone – it doesn’t exist. Instead, we can tell you what to look for in a triathlon saddle or time trial saddle. 

For triathlons and time trials, you should get a saddle that has a split nose that is relatively short. This allows your hips to rotate forward when you are in the aero position, which you will be in for the majority of your rides. Split nose saddles help relieve pressure around your perineum and increase comfort in the saddle. 

For beginners, we recommend going to a local bike shop and trying out many different saddles. Some shops will even have a bike fitting set-up where they can switch the saddles out for you, one after the other. You’ll be able to feel the difference right away, and soon you’ll be going home with a new and comfortable saddle. 

TRIATHLON AND TIME TRIAL CYCLING TRAINING

Cycling is one of the easiest disciplines to improve in triathlon, yet too many riders get frustrated at the amount of time it takes. We’ve all heard that more time on the bike equals more fitness, but that only works to a certain point – Unless you’re a professional triathlete, you don’t have countless hours to train on the bike, and so you have to make the most out of the time you have. 

We’ve developed a system that allows you to make huge gains on the bike in only two bike workouts per week. 

Get Started with Two Workouts Per Week

There are only two bike workouts that every triathlete needs: a long, low-intensity ride, and a short, high-intensity ride. These workouts should be completed each week and they can fit right alongside your swim and run workouts. 

Long Ride 

triathlon and time trial cycling

The long and low-intensity workout of the week is simply a long bike ride. This ride should be completed at a low intensity – that is, in Zones 1 and 2. 

Over time, you will increase the duration of this ride so that you are covering longer and longer distances, all while maintaining a low intensity. Eventually, your long ride should be slightly longer than the bike distance that you’ll have to race. This is called an over-distance ride. 

Building your endurance is simple: each week, make your long ride 5-10% longer than the previous week. Keep increasing the long ride distance until you can ride these distances or times:

  • Sprint: 30 to 35km
  • Olympic: 60km
  • 70.3: 115km
  • Ironman: 5.5 hours

In building up to your goal race, you should start doing these long rides at least six weeks out. That will give you plenty of time to build your endurance without overtraining too close to the event. 

Before we get into the workouts, it’s important to mention that you don’t need to do every bike workout on your triathlon bike or TT bike. If you also have a road bike, you will probably be much more comfortable in the road bike’s upright riding position. It can be easier to push big power, and it may be better for long days in the saddle. 

However, you should definitely be training on your triathlon bike or TT bike three months out from your goal race. This will give you plenty of time to adapt to the aero position. You don’t need to spend the entire ride in the aero bars, but you should try to complete the race pace intervals in the aero bars to get the most out of your workout. 

Short Ride 

The other key bike workout of the week is going to be a short and intense ride. These rides will only last 30-60 minutes, but they will be very hard. 

Targeting your VO2 max, the short and intense ride is meant to increase both your aerobic and anaerobic fitness in a short amount of time. Regardless of your goal triathlon distance, you will always benefit from a higher VO2 max. 

VO2max is best stimulated by short and intense intervals often called HIIT, or high-intensity interval training. These intervals can last anywhere from 15 seconds to eight minutes. 

We recommend starting out with shorter high-intensity intervals with longer periods of rest in the winter. As the months go by and you begin approaching your goal race, you should increase the high-intensity intervals while decreasing the periods of rest. Here’s an example: 

Short HIIT session in the winter:

  • Warm-up: 10 minutes of easy riding in Zone 1
  • Intervals: 6 sets of 15 seconds of hard effort with 4 minutes 45 seconds of recovery
  • Cool-down: 5 minutes of easy riding in Zone 1

Short HIIT session in the spring or summer:

  • Warm-up: 5 minutes of easy riding in Zone 1
  • Intervals: 6 sets of 8 minutes of hard effort with 2 minutes of recovery
  • Cool-down: 5 minutes of easy riding in Zone 1

These short, high-intensity sessions are quite taxing, and so you only need one per week to make significant fitness gains. You should start performing these high-intensity sessions in the winter, and gradually build up the intensity over time. 

Should You Do More Than Two Bike Workouts Per Week?

Yes! You can certainly add more workouts to your triathlon or cycling program. Especially if you are focusing on cycling time trials, then it can be beneficial to have three or more bike workouts per week. 

If you are thinking about adding a third bike workout to your weekly schedule, you should start by adding a session that includes low cadence, and strength-focused intervals. 

The low cadence strength workout will help increase your muscular endurance while also getting you accustomed to the time trial position. Low cadence intervals also keep your heart rate down, allowing you to complete a hard bike session without blowing up your cardiovascular system. 

If you’re looking to add a fourth bike workout to your weekly training program, you should do a 60-90 min easy ride. At this point, you already have a lot of hard sessions in your bike program, and doing four in a week can be detrimental if you are not including a recovery ride. 

All of your easy bike rides should be done in Zone 1 by both heart rate and power. They should feel extremely easy, and you should never feel like you are pushing hard on the pedals. 

If you are completely focused on cycling time trials, then you can include 5-7 rides in your weekly training schedule. However, you should never include more than three hard bike workouts in one week, and two is usually better. This gives your body enough time to recover in between each session. Without proper recovery, you are going to be digging yourself into a hole rather than getting stronger. 

More Bike Interval Training Sessions

Here are a few more bike training sessions if you are looking to add some spice to your training: 

One of the most popular HIIT sessions in endurance sports is 30/15s, also known as the Rønnestad protocol. This interval session has been shown to be more effective at increasing endurance performance compared to other types of high-intensity intervals. Here’s what the workout looks like: 

  • Warm-up: 10 minutes of easy riding in Zone 1
  • Intervals: 3 sets of 13x (30 seconds at 115% FTP* interspersed with 15 seconds  recovery) with 3 minutes of recovery between sets
  • Cool-down: 10 minutes of easy riding in Zone 1

*115% FTP is targeting your VO2max training zone 

Another popular variation of the Rønnestad protocol is 40/20s. In this variation, each working set should last for 10 minutes (10 reps) of 40 seconds at VO2max with 20 seconds of recovery. You might be surprised how different the 40/20s feel compared to 30/15s. 

Two of the more classic high-intensity bike training sessions are threshold and sweet spot intervals. Threshold intervals can be at 100% FTP or Zone 4 by heart rate, and each recovery period should last half as long as the high-intensity period. Here’s an example threshold bike training workout: 

  • Warm-up: 10 minutes of easy riding in Zone 1
  • Intervals: 4 sets of 8 minutes at 100% FTP with 4 minutes of recovery
  • Cool-down: 10 minutes of easy riding in Zone 1

Lastly, you can do sweet spot intervals which target an intensity just below your threshold. Specifically, the sweet spot is around 88-93% FTP or low Zone 4 by heart rate. Here’s an example sweet spot bike workout: 

  • Warm-up: 10 minutes of easy riding in Zone 1
  • Intervals: 3 sets of 20 minutes at 90% FTP with 5 minutes of recovery
  • Cool-down: 10 minutes of easy riding in Zone 1

Intervals to do Before Your Goal Race

As you approach your goal race, your bike interval sessions should become longer – meaning your race pace intervals should be getting longer. You can see the difference above when we compared a short HIIT session in the winter with a short HIIT session in the spring or summer.

For example, if your first race pace interval session is 3×10 minutes, then you could increase the duration of these intervals by two minutes each week. As you approach your goal race, you should be doing 3×12 minute intervals, then 3×14 minutes, and so on. 

You should tailor your race pace intervals so that they are representative of what you’ll be doing in the race. Ahead of race day for a sprint triathlon or 20km time trial, for example, you should be doing shorter, high-intensity intervals for 5-10 minutes. 

Long-distance triathletes who are on the bike for several hours at a time should focus on longer race pace intervals. For example, an Ironman triathlete may start with a 2×20 minute race pace interval session. By the time they are a few weeks out from their race, they may be completing 3×45 minute race pace intervals. 

This is possible because an Ironman’s race pace is a much lower intensity than a sprint triathlon’s intensity. You can read more about Ironman pacing here. Plug your numbers into our Ironman Triathlon Pace Calculator and you will learn exactly how hard you should be pushing on the bike.  

How to Get Comfortable in the Aero Position

Comfort in the aero position is one of the most underrated skills in triathlon. Without it, your back will knot up, your arms will be sore, and you’ll be losing watts all the time on the bike. 

Depending on your experience level, it may take you a long time to get comfortable in the aero position. No matter your starting point, you can get comfortable in just a few weeks using this protocol:

  • Spend 2-3 minutes at a time in the aero position. Then, take a break and sit up in a more relaxed position. 

First, practice in the aero bars while riding easy in Zones 1 and 2. Once you’re comfortable in the aero position for at least 10 minutes at a time, you can try using the aero position for race pace intervals. This can be much harder on your back and legs, so be patient and start with 2-3 minutes at a time in the aero position. 

You don’t have to be comfortable in the aero position year-round. We recommend starting your training in the aero position 3-4 months out from your goal race. With at least two bike rides per week and gradually increasing your time in the aero position, you will be more than comfortable by the time your race rolls around. 

Conclusion

We’ve covered everything you need to know in this beginners guide to triathlon time trial cycling. From bikes and shoes, saddles and wheels, to triathlon bike training and getting comfortable in the aero position. 

Start getting your equipment together one by one. Shop for used items and follow our advice so that you’re not buying the most expensive item on the market. There are a lot of options for beginners in triathlon and time trial cycling. 

Once you’ve got your equipment sorted, you can come back to our triathlon and time trial bike training section to start putting together your training plan. Remember that you only need two key workouts per week to make the biggest gains on the bike. 

Lastly, it’s time to get comfortable in the aero position. After a few months of training, you’ll be ready for your first race!

Sources

Zach Nehr

Zach Nehr

Zach has a degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is a certified coach, Cat 1 cyclist, and is a freelance writer having been published in many of the worlds largest endurance sports publications.