The past weeks I’ve heard a lot of advice from people on how to pace the bike leg in an ironman. It seems fairly agreed upon that pro elite athletes ride at 80-85% of their FTP, essentially tempo, to avoid blowing up on the run.
Then more recently, I read an interesting question from someone asking, “how long could someone ride at tempo?”
This helpful chart says 2.5 – 8 hours. A pretty wide range. Also, 8 hours? Holy shit. A few weeks ago I did a 5.5 hour ride at 70% (high endurance) and felt absolutely destroyed. Full body cramps. Questioning if I was still alive. Crying tears of blood to get through the final hours.
So now I want to try this. This morning I had no intentions of anything but a normal training ride. I did a 6 ride outdoors yesterday, a 3.5 hour ride at .7 the day before, and a 5 hour ride at .6 the day before that. But, I was doing another long ride today, and as I placed my final sixth bottle of electrolytes on the table next to my bike, and clipped in and started pedaling, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head “how long can you ride at tempo for?”
I normally stay fairly low carb, all my workouts so far this week except for the .7 ride had been fasted and no carbs during. But in preparation for what I vaguely anticipated being a longer and harder ride today, I had prepped with a whopping 150 grams of carbs the day before (2 sodas and a bag of popcorn) the epitome of high performance food. This is one of the reasons I stay low carb. Once I start eating healthy carbs, I also start drinking 8 sodas a day, countless bowls of popcorn, chocolate, chips, and wash that down with a few more sodas because it complements the salty goodness so nicely. Why do I have the self discipline to train 15-20 hours a week, manage a full time job, eat huge quantities of vegetables, whole foods, time my protein intake, avoid alcohol like its literal H1N1 virus, avoid processed and fast food, but can’t stay away from soda? Beats me. But that shit’s delicious. Fuck electrolyte carb mixes. I’m going to start putting soda in my bottles for races.
Each bottle has 1 liter of water, and 80 grams of carbs, 67% maltodextrin (glucose), 33% fructose, and 1 gram sodium, and 100ish milligrams of potassium, magnesium, and calcium, respectively. All those micronutrients get added at the end of my “make your own sports drink” ritual, and I start getting board of measuring things out and start just throwing the shit in. My body will figure it out.
I cue up the 6 hour free ride on trainerroad, because that’s the longest free ride they have, and warm up for about 20 minutes, going from 100 watts, to 150, to 200, to 240, sitting un-comfortably at .7 of my FTP (345 for reference). My legs are tired from the previous days efforts, or so my whining brain tells itself. If I had a nickel for every time I complained and made excuses about something uncomfortable: Jeff Bezos would be the second richest man in the world.
But I’m consumed by some self-destructive desire to try out this “tempo” thing. How hard can it be? When I did triathlons I didn’t have a ‘power meter’ or know about what an intensity factor even was to guide my effort. First you swam, grumbling about the duration of the swim (not because it’s too long, but because it doesn’t scale compared to the bike and run, because race officials are scared of triathletes drowning) Lets see how big the sport becomes if people have to swim for 8-16 kilometers for 2-4 hours. But anyway, after swimming twice the actual distance of the swim course, because open water swimming is surprisingly hard, I hop out of the water. And go as hard as I possibly can on the bike, smash the hills, then deal with searing knee pain for the remaining marathon. That’s how men do triathlons: really idiotically.
Fast forward to now, hearing about all this pacing and .8-.85 save yourself for the marathon shit. Tempo must not be that hard, these people are essentially riding their bikes like they’re out for a Sunday afternoon with the kids.
So I pick up from .7, 240 watts, and see how 270 feels. Feels fine. And I set 270 as my minimum power. Now, if you’re damned quick with numbers, or just also have the same FTP, you’d notice 270 is not .8. But I know myself, and if I set 270 as the minimum power I’m consistently going to be well over it, and I hate trying to maintain an exact number, so we’ll just hope that averages out to .8, and if it doesn’t, we’ll figure out a mature way of dealing with our failure like throwing the bike in the dumpster and swearing never to ride again.
I have 10 and 3 second power, cadence, heart rate, and intensity factor (for the entire ride, not for the lap). I also cover up lap time and overall time on the trainer road screen. Looking at any sort of clock for efforts over an hour in length is the path to madness. Things feel pretty normal, maybe a little worse than an endurance effort, but I’m listening to my audiobook and occasionally sipping liquids. 30 minutes-ish go by, and I swap my audiobook for my “intense interval” playlist. 7 songs, non repeating randomization. If the same track played every 7 songs, that would give me a way to tell how time is passing, which again, leads to madness. If you think 7 songs is crazy to listen to for hours on end: I can also put on a single song, and listen to it on repeat for hours.
I’m trying to spend a good bit of time in my aero bars, or at least drops, because triathletes do this in their TT position for 4-5 hours. But I also take nice long stretches riding out of the saddle. Triathletes don’t do that, so I’m already making this easier. What a wuss.
After a few hours, or few minutes, I remember just how horrible I felt after my 5 hour ride at a high endurance pace. It’s never fun when you cramp from your toes to your neck as soon as you stop pedaling, and are somehow still cramping while trying to take a shower and not slip and break your neck from muscle spasms. Objectively, a higher intensity for a similar amount of time should produce even more horrendous side effects. ‘Side effects’ makes us sound like drug addicts, but we aren’t drug addicts. We’re just adrenaline fueled junkies, who take risks, and engage in behaviors that alter the neurotransmitter levels of our brains in similar ways as taking amphetamines or cocaine, display addictive personality behaviors, and experience euphoria’s and rebound effects… nothing like drug addicts. Anyway, I start reasoning with myself that THAT ride might have been hard, but in the past few weeks I’ve piled on the training stress, nailed my nutrition with those sodas last night, and am far more prepared than I was then for todays effort.
After a few more minutes, I’m regretting everything I’ve ever thought about triathletes and riding at tempo. This is hard as balls. This is like having your teeth pulled without Analgesics, or antiseptics for that matter, I’m probably getting an infection from just how horrible this is. And I’m barely spending any time in TT position. Tops and hoods all day, I like being able to breath.
But I see a light at the end of the tunnel, I’ve drunk one bottle of mix, and there’s only five liters left. So if I finish all my bottles, I can honorably end the interval, because who could be expected to go upstairs, refill bottles, and then return to this hell.
This provides the benefit of motivating me to stay hydrated, and see how much nutrition I can actually take in. With the possible bonus of vomiting, nausea and gastric issues. It’s a six-liter time trial.
But how to get to the end of those six liters? It’s taking me a long time to drink even one. If you’re thinking, “oh, put on a TV show to pass the time, or a bike race!” I hate you. I wish I could pass time that way, TV somehow make endurance-training feel worse. Bike races without sound are normally fine, especially for rides at .6 IF. But I haven’t paid attention to my ipad, which has some rerun stage of the Tour on it, in over an hour.
Anyway, how to pass the time? Normally I focus on the moment, pedal stroke, core activation, sit bones, consistent effort. Be in the moment. And time somehow just slips by like the gentle endless flowing of water in a river. In this case though, the river is lava, I’m in it, people are screaming, wolves howling for my blood, and the sky is raining fire. But I get an idea: nothing is going to make the lava river go away, so accept it. Accept that in this moment my life is uncomfortable, there’s nothing to be done to try to stop it, shorten it, prevent it, or remove it, just accept the discomfort. Accept that you could stay like this forever; in fact, I am going to stay like this forever (or until those bottles run out, wink, wink). I’m going to pedal and pedal, and we’re going to find out just how long I can last at tempo.
Periodically I glance at heart rate. It’s been steady, fluctuating between 160 and 168 the whole time. And the longer I ride, the more I inwardly scream when I look at it, begging the damned number to reflect the state of being I am currently in. This interval is like being maxed out at 180, 190, 200. I shouldn’t want it to go up, I’m pretty sure a lack of cardiac drift is a good thing and I should be happy. But maybe I’m also hoping I’ll suddenly not be able to maintain power, so I can stop.
At 3 hours in my fan shuts off because it’s on a 3-hour timer, and somehow I have yet again forgotten to disable that timer. I turn it back on easily enough with my phone, but now I know how long I’ve been riding, which I don’t like, time does not have my permission to exist whilst on the bike.
But I get over it, and eons of time continue to go by. Seconds somehow stretching to the length of hours. The same seven songs cycle through, and I struggle bus my through another liter and another liter of liquid.
Finally I finish the last of the sixth bottle. Let my cadence fall, shift the rag covering up the time. It’s been 3.5 hours since starting the interval.
Couldn’t even make it to 4-5 hours like the triathletes do. I was wrong. Tempo is hard as hell.
I Briefly contemplate riding a low endurance pace for a while, and doing a second interval at a high endurance pace to even out the day and use up the 6 hour time. I quickly jettison that idea and unclip from my bike. No cramps though, so that’s nice.
How long have you ridden at Tempo for? In TT pose the whole time? my hat goes off to you.