How good is your “short” game?

By Hunter Allen

So often we train for longer races and endurance events lasting many hours and even days, but it’s rare when we train or do short races like a prologue or an uphill time trial.  These essential competitions seem to be in short supply throughout the good ol’ USA  and I wish each of us had more opportunities to prove our mettle in these unique events as they demand something different than a road race or a criterium.   The aspects of your fitness that these incredibly intense short fights demand are special.  Riders that excel in them are even called specialists.   Someone who has incredible handling skills in order to navigate sharp turns at light speed, combined with an unnatural desire to push themselves to the white foam producing, lung heaving state of suffering that so many of us avoid at all costs might have the ability to become such a “specialist”.   What about the rest of us?  Those of us that have trained for 100 -mile road races, for 40-mile crits and for the dreaded district 40km time trial, how should we prepare, strategize and pace ourselves in these other worldy sufferfests?

                One of the best ways to learn how to excel in any discipline you choose is through mimickry.  Watch the best and then do exactly what they do in the hopes that you’ll be able to duplicate their winning set of skills and effort.  Let’s examine a couple of these intense efforts by those few winners and see what we can learn. However, before we even examine those gut busters, I need to discuss the proper warm-up for a short time trial.   In general, the longer the time trial or effort, the less intense the warm-up you want to do.  For a 24 hour race, some light stretching would do. For a 40km TT, you’ll want at least 30-45minutes of fairly vigorous efforts including intervals done at your FTP.   For an event, that could only be 3-4 minutes long up to 15 minutes, you are going to want to really push it in your warm-up with intense intervals over your threshold and get in at least 30-45 minutes of warming up.  The goal of these warm-ups, are to:  increase the blood flow to the working muscles so that the muscles literally begin to heat up  and therefore loosen giving you a faster response to your internal drive.  Secondly, it is important to get over the “fight or flight” response  by getting your heart pumping near its maximum rate to assure the rest of your mind and body you are not being chased by a bear and are only at a bike race.   By doing multiple efforts “ramping” your heart rate to your threshold or even higher to your max, you’ll ensure that you get over this “fight or flight” response.   

Here’s my recommended  warm-up for your short game:  

15 minutes at endurance pace (Level 2: 56-75% of FTP) 90-100rpm

 3 x 1minute fast pedaling intervals at 110 rpm with 1 minute at 80 rpm between each. Focus on the speed and not the watts in this segment.  

5 minutes at Tempo pace (Level 3: 76-90% of FTP) 90-100rpm

(2) “ramps”, each 5 minutes long and ramping up to your FTP(Level 4: 100% of FTP) in minute 4 to 5.   

Ride easy for 5minutes between each at endurance pace (Level 2:  56-75% of FTP)

Finish the warm-up with 15-20 more minutes at endurance pace (Level 2: 56-75% of FTP).

Then roll to the start line.

*An important thing you should always take into consideration when the effort is short and that is your anaerobic capacity.  Your Anaerobic energy system works at its maximum when you are fully rested, so if your warm-up is too intense, you risk using up a good bit of this system and reducing your wattage in the first few minutes of the effort.  With this in mind, stay away from doing “ALL-OUT” type efforts in your warm-up when preparing for a short time trial.   In a longer time trial (greater than 15minutes), you should be able to do some all-out efforts if you like and not hurt your chances. *

O.k, now that is out of the way, let’s examine a hard prologue race.  Riding over your FTP will be the norm for very short events, so the numbers you will read about and see in your own training and racing will be higher than your traditional ride-at-threshold-by-the-book time trial.   In figure 1, You’ll see this rider started out strong and pushed over his FTP by 36% by averaging 572 watts in the first 45 seconds.  He then settled in to a rhythm for the next two minutes averaging 546 watts (still 30% over his FTP).  After 2 minutes and 45 seconds into the effort, his anaerobic capacity was clearly exhausted and his power started dropping off to the finish.   In the final 57 seconds, he averaged 483 watts (15% over FTP) as he struggled to the finish line in a winning time of 3:42.  One thing is clear from just reading the numbers, a winner in short prologues must have an incredible anaerobic capacity and also an ability to suffer to the deepest dark of dark places.

San Dimas is an early spring race that many riders do on the west coast and includes a hill climb time trial for its first stage.   It’s a tough little stage, not too long and not too steep, and it’s a hill climb time trial, so by its very nature it’s a sufferfest.    In Figure 2, we see a rider who placed in the Top 10, do a good  job of pacing himself through the time trial.  In a time trial that is longer than 10 minutes, pacing becomes more a part of the strategy and it’s important that you don’t start too hard.  If you start too hard then you’ll blow up half-way through the TT and have nothing left for the final half.  However, if you hold back too much, then you’ll under-perform and your slower time will reflect that sub-optimal performance.    The rider in Figure 2 knows this very well and I gave him an upper and lower limit to his wattage for the time trial.  This can be a useful tool in a short (and long TT), especially if there are undulations to the course.  I told him to keep his watts over 365, but under  420 as much as his could and that would give him some goals to shoot for when he got tired.   The first 15 seconds he gets himself up to speed averaging 484watts, but then settling into his limits and averaging 391 watts for the next 12 minutes.   Keeping himself within these limits allows him to ride right on ‘the edge’ and have an extra push for the last minute.  In that last minute, he is able to dig deep and push to 109% of his FTP, which is 415 watts giving him precious speed that keeps him in the Top 10 for the stage.  The profile of this power file is the classic “double peak” profile that indicates a personal best effort has been done and this is something that I look for in time trials and also in training when an athlete needs to do their best.

The training for a prologue or shorter time trial must consist of four main components.    The first component is plenty of threshold training in order to have the highest threshold power you hold.  This means plenty of 2×20, 4 x 15 and 6 x 10 minute intervals done between 100-105% of your FTP.   The higher your FTP, the faster you’ll go.  Period.  Secondly, you’ll need to address your Vo2 max and Anaerobic Capacity in order to be prepared for the prologues and short hard bursts of efforts above your FTP during the time trial itself.    I would suggest doing  7 x 3, 8 x 2, and 10 x 1 minutes on a regular basis(Do 1 Vo2 max and 1 AC per week) in the final 4 weeks leading up to your event.  For the 3 minute Vo2max intervals, they should be at 115% or greater of your FTP, whereas you have to push even harder in the 1-2 minute efforts striving for 135% or greater.   The third component you must do is to come up with and master your pacing strategy.  By carefully analyzing the event itself, you’ll be able to figure how many watts you should hold for the event.  From that initial number you can dig deeper into the course and apply specific tactics along the way, like pedaling harder on the steepest sections.   Pacing is an art and it takes practice.  I highly recommend that you do some practice time trials using your power meter for accurate effort measurement and then download later for analysis.   The key things you are looking for are:  1) Sustaining power with an increase towards the end of the effort, 2) Did you start too hard? Evidence of this would be in a pre-mature decline in power before the finish, and 3) Were you able to push harder on the steeper/headwind sections?    The fourth and final component that you need to master is the easiest.  Rest.   When you are doing a very short time trial, you need to make sure your glycogen stores are packed full!   The shorter the time trial, the more important your anaerobic capacity will be for success. If you are coming into a stand-alone race on the weekend, you are best off just resting and riding very easy in the entire week before.  If you are doing a stage race and the first stage is short, then I would suggest to taper more than normal, so that the first time trial stage serves as your ‘blow-out’ or tune-up effort to open up the legs for the rest of the race.  Resist the desire to go hard the day before or in the week before, as your anaerobic capacity can be used up easily and quickly. 

Short time trials have special demands that can be trained for and the races themselves are great tests of truth. With an special discipline within cycling there are keys for success and if you are getting ready for a big event this spring that contains a short time trial, then make sure you adhere to many of the suggestions in this article for a top performance.  Remember that all of the best physical training will get you nowhere without the proper mental attitude as well, so when preparing for your event,  stay focused, prepare to suffer and dig deeper than before in order to win.

Come to one of Hunter’s Fall training camps or sign up for personal coaching at his website,  Hunter has a monthly power newsletter in which you can subscribe to so that you will quickly learn the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of power training and also some great insights into the best riders in the world.  Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former Professional Cyclist. He is the co-author of “Training and Racing with a Power Meter, co-developer of TrainingPeaks WKO+ Software, and is the CEO and Founder of the Peaks Coaching Group.  He has online training programs available at   and you can contact Hunter directly