Ask the Experts: Jim McConnel

The highlight's from our webchat with coach and triathlete Jim McConnel



jim mcconnel, triathlon

Jim McConnel has competed in the XTERRA (off-road triathlon) World Championships for the last few years, finishing 21st in the world in 2008. He is also been a sports massage therapist, triathlon coach and brand manager for legendary triathlon bike manufacturer Cervelo at Madison.

Jim knows all there is to know about how you can get the best from both yourself and your bike. His philosophy is simple: train smarter, not harder.

He joined us to answer your questions and offer advice on all things cycling.

Read the whole forum debate. 

Q. I have a question about your philosophy 'train smarter, not harder'. Can you explain exactly what you mean and how it translates through the range of abilities from beginner to elite? kittenkat

A. It is the same principal for all athletes – whatever the level. Put simply 'train smarter, not harder' refers to the idea that by taking the time to sit down and think about the goal you have, you can break down the steps to achieve that goal all the way to the separate sessions you will need to do to get there.

The added even ‘smarter’ layer is that for all normal folks, we have to work out how best to use the time we have available to fit in those key sessions. An example might be to use your regular commute as a training run – then you are not wasting time spent travelling. It’s always best to do this with another person who can look objectively at your daily schedule – can be a coach, does not need to be.

Q. What will make the most impact on my cycling apart from training: race wheels or a proper bike fit? Red_dog_chris

A. You need to consider that in the bike and person package, 80 per cent of the total drag comes from the rider. So if you can get a bike fit that puts you in a more aero position, you should deliver quicker split times for the same effort.

Bike fit is not all about aero though – it’s about comfort too. You will definitely come off the bike with a better rested body from riding in a more comfortable position. This should enable you to produce a quicker run split – giving you the overall gain you are looking for.

Bling wheels will help aerodynamics to a degree (see manufacturer data for claimed savings) and of course make the bike look more pro. Personally, I’d take the qualified bike fit first, and once I was faster from those changes, invest in the wheels as a present to myself.

Q. As I work away most of the time, a lot of my training has to be on a spinning bike. When training for long distance, how can I maximise my returns on my training time, for say two to three hour sessions? WildWill

A. If you need miles, then you need miles. Spinning bikes can do this for you but they are monotonous. I would look outside these training windows for the opportunity to get your long bikes in on real roads with friends if possible, but if not, then suggest you arrange multi brick sessions instead: 40 minutes on the spin bike, 20-minute run, 40 minutes on the spin bike, 20-minute run spin bike, for example. Work at different tempos to keep your focus, build through the session perhaps, and get your body used to changing discipline and energy demands.

Q. When training for IM Lanzarote, if I am looking at 3 bike sessions a week how would you structure these to get the most benefit and improvement on a hilly course? M…eldy

A. If it was me, and I had three bike sessions a week, I would do the following as a basic. Session 1: long ride, building up to the magic six plus hour ride across about eight weeks so mentally you know you can handle the kind of distance you will race over. Preferably done on a day when you can really relax, eat and sleep afterwards as it will drain you. Arrange friends to ride part or all of the way and plan in advance what you will do and how you can mix up the routes.

Session 2: this has got to be a two to three hour endurance ride where you mix hills and recovery on the flat. It will be important to get used to going uphill for a prolonged period of time as Lanzarote features a hilly windy course and you need to not to get daunted by the length of some of the climbs. Will be easy if you live in the Peaks or the Lakes.

Session 3: a session that could switch between a 90-minute recovery ride one week to an interval ride (turbo-based possibly) where you try and build your power and top end speed. I suggest building from 6x4 minutes effort right through to 3x20 minutes over a course of six to eight weeks where you are working very closely to your sustainable threshold.

Q. Can triathletes learn to go round corners or is it a genetic thing? Ian M
Q. As Ian has alluded to, not everyone is born on a bike and with Triathlon growing at a rate of knots there are people taking to the sport who have not grown up with the techniques such as cornering and descending. Can these be learnt and what are your three tops tips?
M…eldy

A. Triathlete's take a lot of stick for poor bike handling, especially from pure cyclists. Sadly, not all triathletes are born cyclists and so can sometimes need to learn the basic skills before they take it to the race course as they have missed out on the formative years racing bmxs all over the local rec. Skills sessions can be run on a flat car park, grass area and show people how to safely and efficiently corner, but here are three ideas that can help too.

Control your speed: use your brakes well in advance of any corner where you need to slow down so that as you go around the corner you are no longer slowing up and in fact are in a position to accelerate out of the corner.

Sighting: look up and around the corner. Do not focus on your front wheel as that will inevitably end in disaster and a poor line. Lean your body into the corner, with the inside pedal up and the weight of your leg in the outside pedal, down. 

Plan: be aware of those around you and decide what you are going to do before you do it. If it is a busy turnaround, remember that everyone is going to come to a standstill. It’s not just about you, and you do not own the road.

And have you ever seen a cyclist run? Usually there's a reason for that.

Q. Can you suggest a plan for turbo trainer sessions that will help with endurance training? I ask as I lose all motivation to sit on the thing any longer after 60 to 90 minutes and was wondering how I should best use that time. Tortuga

A. When I lose motivation I turn to Sufferfest and let the good times roll and my legs scream. Check their website for downloadable sessions that will keep your interest.

Q. Any advice on ideal heart rate zones as a percentage of max for Iron distance racing, please? I don't have a power meter. Also, since you're clearly a fan of hilly races, how do you flex your HR plan when the going gets steep? slowerthanilook

A. Percentage heart rate is really hard to get right for everyone as we are all unique. What I suggest you do is test yourself with a 'make your own' threshold test to establish how hard you can really go for how long. IM training is all about Bullseye - out of the red and in the black. Just how close you get to the red will depend on how trained you are.

I suggest check the web for an incremental turbo session that will gradually increase your output across 20-ish minutes. Try to do this session and if you have no formal recording devices, consider your perceived effort at each stage: legs hurt, brain hurt, can do, cannot do etc.

Find the maximum effort you can sustain for a couple of minutes and work back from that to establish something you can hold for a longer period - up to 20 minutes - ultimately when it comes to IM you will move up and down the range, but if you know the max you can work at without going into the red, then that will be a good start.

Q. A bit off the usual cycling question, but I have awful trouble finding my mountain bike in transition and was wondering whether you think it would be helpful to fit white tyres so it's easier to spot? P D 18

A. I think it's a great idea to fit white tyres to your MTB so you can find it in transition – should really help you find it when in a state of shock after the swim with blurry eyes and elevated adrenaline levels.

If it were not illegal to do so, you could also tie a helium balloon to the saddle. I would suggest, however, that if you were to do such a thing, your friends would laugh at you wildly and probably never let you forget it. But since it might still be dark on the exit of Ben Nevis Tri in two weeks so you might want to consider taking the risk.

Q. During the week I'm pretty time poor and therefore have to fit my training around work, family, etc. That means a 10K run, 40-minute swim or about an hour on the turbo. Basically I have around an hour in the evening but I don’t feel I‘m using my time efficiently, particularly on the turbo trainer. My goal is to ride faster and harder for longer. Can you recommend any turbo workouts? Miles Frith

A. No single session will get you there, I'm afraid. As before if you want an interactive and fun session, pick one of Suffferfest's downloadable sessions from their website.

Standard turbo fodder would suggest you do a four-week block to start, as follows: one session per week to build your endurance where the main set would start in week one as 6x3 minutes effort with 2 minutes recovery (easy spin) between each effort.

In the second week, you would build this to 6x4 minutes of effort, and in the third week do 4x8 minutes of effort. In the fourth week, you body will appreciate some variety, so try something different like 10x2 minutes at flat out, with as much recovery time as you need between efforts.

After that first four-week block, you can start building endurance again at a higher level thanks to your increasing fitness. Start with 4x8 minutes effort in week one, followed by then 4x10 minutes effort in week two, and 3x15 minutes effort in week three. In the fourt week, introduce another 'speed' session of shorter flat-out efforts, then finally move up to 3x20 minutes effort.

If you can manage 3x20-minute sessions at a strong, even interval pace, you really will have hugely improved your riding.


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