Hilly Triathlons - How hard to push the hills?

Hi guys - have been racing triathlon for maybe ten years across all distances, but never able to square two common rules of thumb with regards to pacing triathlon bike legs (or TTs in general), and I have a hilly olympic distance triathlon coming up in June that I’m trying to work out my pacing for on BestBikeSplit.

In a nutshell, we all know that in a TT/Triathlon you want to:

  1. Hold the most even % of FTP possible (say 85%-95% for Olympic distance)
  2. Go hardest when you’re going slowest (as wind resistance is exponential, so you stand to gain more)

BestBikeSplit gives you the option to set your target avg FTP AND your maximum % of FTP…and I’ve never found any rules of thumb for relating MAX %FTP to Target Avg FTP (i.e. for Olympic distance - Avg 90% FTP…never go over 110% FTP).

Over middle and long course racing it feels easier; just don’t let it go over FTP at any point, but when you get down to sprint and olympic it seems there could be a lot more to gain on hilly courses by surging for a few minutes on the climbs and recovering on the descents.

Keen to hear if any of you have any ways you approach this or rules of thumb you use?

Course profile below, for anyone’s interest - Eastbourne Triathlon in the UK - 36km with ~800m of elevation. Have done it on a TT before but seriously thinking of doing it on the aero road bike this year…

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Looking at that course profile I think I agree with everything you said! I’m a triathlete that has a horrible run but usually the top bike split at a regional event…and always doing less-than-half distances. Just to give you a feel, I’ve never run a sub-20 5k so that helps frame what I’m about to say!

First thing I would do is dust off my road bike, which has a Vision Metron M.A.S. front end. Looking at those two descents it’d be better on a hybrid road setup than on a TT. Especially descending back into town.

Also, both those climbs are in that 6% to 8% range where you could grind it out on the sticks with the right gearing. For me, that’s always a mistake because even if I maintain a conservative power output my hamstrings/glutes will hold me back on the run. I would use the Mike Woods approach & climb out of the saddle in a fashion that more closely mimics running.

So I’d take the roadbike, put the extensions on the vision M.A.S, and take some power/aero data (just very gross analysis using mywindsock, for example) on a similar climb. Back annotate bestbikesplit with that info. Use those numbers to plan my race.

That is one interesting bike course!

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@Brennus Yeah I was thinking go road bike as well. Had a look at event photos from the past couple years and ~3 of the top 10 were usually on road setups rather than TT.

Regarding max%FTP, how hard would you push on the climbs? Interestingly I ran the event through BestBikeSplit with a max%FTP of 125% and 105% to see what they impact would be (with consistent NP), and it shows the same finish time on both :thinking:. Which seems wrong to me, but every time I’ve raced using BBS plans they’ve been pretty plum-on for predicting overall time.

So on this basis I’d probably just climb at FTP and then have a modest recovery on the descents? BBS link for interest: Best Bike Split.

I’d say it depends on what kind of rider you are.

I’m not a triathlete, but I would ride the hills at c.110% or possibly a touch higher, before settling back to around FTP over the rolling bit at the top and recovering on the descent. But I’m happy riding over threshold and I know others aren’t (and I’ve got no idea what it might mean for a run afterwards!)

If you’re a punchier rider, then going a little over FTP (110-115%) will be faster. If you’re not punchy then I guess you’d ride it at 100-105%


Uphill, sweet spot for long course and throughout for short course. You’re looking at threshold uphill at beachy head olympic.

Assuming your threshold and zones are nailed on by now.

Bike type, if you’re looking to win I’d stay on a TT.

Great question and one which is of interest to me since I have an event this summer with 560m height gain per 26 km lap, 24hr, with the steepest sections at 20%. I’ll likely be at least 110%FTP or so for at least two to three minutes per lap. So the question we both face is one of how hard is optimal. Obviously how well you recover from hard efforts is key to this but FWIW I found one study which looked at lactate after hard efforts and the findings for their study population (n=not many, and all 21ish recreationally active males) were quite stark: stay below LTHR and recovery to sub-2 mmol/l took around 4 minutes. Go much above that and recovery times go out to 5 or 6 times that length. Many many caveats, of course, but possibly of interest.

Very different race (!)

It’s the same guiding principle though - as little above your average target as you can - given the gradient and the bike/rider weight.

For the OP he’s protecting his run, for you you’re protecting the next 23hrs. You want to imagine the power you can hold for the last climb and use that from the start.

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Last time I did a sprint and Olympic, they were both on hilly courses. While I held back slightly on the Olympic (slightly), I was just maxed out on the sprint.

Looking up my race in Strava (nearly 10 years ago) it was about half the length, so I’d probably hold back a little. But I would probably still be climbing at least at FTP and spinning it all out on the DH.

TT bike will be faster…

IIRC, Most pacing strategies I have seen indicate that going just slightly over FTP (~110%) on climbs is about right…recover slightly on descents and then resume normal pacing on the flats.

When I did OLY races, I pretty much just went flat-out the whole time…even set a 60 min power record at Nationals one year.

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so, 10ish Watts, then!
Seriously though thanks for that. Not done anything remotely like this before so all help much appreciated.


So seems consensus is just over FTP up the climbs, threshold on the flats, and recover on the descents. Which sounds about right.

@BigRed I do quite a lot of Zwift racing in the winter and have a couple of comparable 1hr races where there are a few 120-130% FTP avg climbs but with a ton of 20-30s surges up to 200%, so it feels doable.

Interesting so many are saying take the TT, even with all the climbing and hairpin descents.

Thoughts on taking the road bike and just putting on aero bars? I guess it might risk tightening up the hips for the run if it’s in a road bike geometry…

I wouldn’t say consensus…

How well can you run 10km after a hard swim and an hour or more at or over threshold on the bike?

You aren’t recovering on those descents, you’re just stopping burning matches.

It will be slower……unless you use a reversible seatpost and alter your cockpit, a road bike will by default put you in a slower position.

Back around 2010, I was able to achieve a TT position on my Cervelo S2, but it took a lot of work and essentially converted the bike to a full TT rig.

You will lose more time on the fast sections in a road bike than you will lose climbing or in hairpins on a TT bike. You can train to descend better on a TT bike….a sub-optimal TT position will always be slower.

It’s a bit of an unknown for me at Olympic Distance as I’ve not raced one competitively for a few years.

I rode the European Middle Distance champs last year at 77% of FTP on a very gusty day (10% of total was above FTP!) but managed a 1h24m run, which was on-target (marathon pace for me, on the basis you aim in triathlon to do the run at your pure race pace of 1 distance up).

I’m wondering on that basis if I just aim for keeping time above FTP to <10% of total race time and never more than 105% FTP…

Interestingly BBS has it about 90s faster on the TT setup vs Road Setup, even accounting for being able to put out slightly more power in the road setup, so seems to agree with you.

I ride an Argon 18 Nitrogen which has the reversible seat post and is therefore both my road and TT bike anyway! :joy:

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Definitely do some brick runs - they’ll be in the oly plan anyway.

You want to be able to run near your 10k pace to get your best overall race result. I did that at an average 0.86 and 0.89 IF in my two PB Olympic races in ‘21 which also had my PB 10ks

In your place I’d aim for 0.9 IF overall bike and average threshold on the climbs, accepting that you’ll go a bit over on the day or when you practise the route. Make sure you can keep the power on over the crest into the descent.

If you can run 5k off the bike at your 10k pace in training I’d feel confident in the bike pacing.

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Awesome - have played around a bit more in BBS with a target IF of 0.9 and max FTP of 105% and it looks hard but quite doable. Which I guess is what you want going onto the run at olympic distance :sweat_smile:

Might import the target power file onto the turbo and try it with a brick a month or so before the race and see what happens with a 5km run off the bike as you suggest. :crossed_fingers:

Thanks for all the input!!

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