By Phil Ellison
ZWIFT TEAM TIME TRIAL (TTT)
What is team time trialling?
Since WTRL introduced the team time trial to Zwift in 2020 these (predominantly) Thursday evening races have become a huge success across the globe. The format involves teams of 4-8 riders competing together to cover a set course as quickly as possible. Races vary typically from durations of 30 mins to 1 hour. Total Tri Training was an early adopter of these races back in the 1st lockdown period of 2020 and has seen up to 20 teams racing concurrently. The events initially served the primary purpose of bringing our community together and provided some light relief from the Covid restrictions and social isolation. Whilst some of our teams have continued to race, many have now dropped off or race more sporadically. As you may be aware, we provide almost daily opportunity for social interaction whilst training, through our structured Zwift training sessions, so the question then arises “How and where does TTT fit in to our schedules now?”.
The power of the TTT
Aside from the banter aspect of social interaction the TTT draws upon group effects that are also common in real life (IRL). Suffering as a group and working towards a common (team) goal provides additional motivation to do one’s best and builds bonds amongst group members. Just as in team sports some individuals will go a little further, dig a little deeper, in the name of ‘team’. This is unusual in triathlon, which is a highly individual sport. Further group effects determine that no-one wants to be the first to drop out or to “let the team down” again providing further motivation to “give everything”. These group effects can be seen to a lesser extent within the group workouts but TTT raises the bar considerably, “who will cross the line 1st?”, “who will have the highest wkg at the finish?”, “can we drop the team captain?”, “can we beat Team X?”.
The potential downside for those focussed on highly specific training lies in the unpredictability of the TTT. It is much more akin to cycling IRL from that point of view; to stay within the group a certain amount of power is needed irrespective of which training zone this puts us in and to build the speed on the front of the bunch usually pushes us up above threshold (and often quite considerably so). Now, we know that many of us love to be in control of our sessions, our effort level and our overall development. So how would we fit a TTT into our week and what do we stand to gain from it? Firstly, we need to assume that you are riding with a group of individuals of similar ability and that all are cycling as hard as possible on the given day.
How can it be achieved
1. The TTT certainly accrues both high power values and heart rates as previously alluded to. This would place it within the 20% (or so) of very hard training sessions (as described within polarised training where hard is hard and easy is easy – AKA: 80/20 (note these percentages are not fixed). Therefore, when building a weekly training plan this counts as one of your 2-3* high quality sessions (* varies between athletes).
2. See the TTT as a training race. Don’t put so much emphasis on it that you refrain from training (taper) in the days leading up to it. Your overall development, through consistent training volume and intensity, is more crucial than the actual race result. It is however prudent to schedule a lower intensity (endurance) training day on the day prior to the event, just as you would before any key session. Similar may be required the day following too.
3. The overall intensity of the ride is dependent on the duration with riders going a little harder for the shorter distance races. But a minimum of 30 mins of heart rate at or exceeding threshold is likely. This produces considerable (productive) strain on the body similar to a workout of 3×10-12mins at threshold. For the longer races, power may be a little lower on average, but HR will remain elevated at or around threshold giving even more minutes of quality work. *Stephen Seiler suggests, a key fact that underpins the training of most of the world’s top endurance athletes is the accrual of minutes at or above 90% of max HR (threshold for most) within their hardest sessions. The TTT could be 30-50mins of such work in the bag!
4. The overall structure of the ride can look like over/unders (name given to sessions in which the power requirement is either just above or just below a certain threshold). Your time spent riding on the front of the bunch (typically 30-60secs) is above threshold (more anaerobic) and your recovery within the bunch will be partial; but crucially somewhere under threshold (duration dependent on the number of other riders). If you can’t recover below threshold then your time in the race will be significantly shortened (as your anaerobic tank of energy will become depleted).
5. Unlike typical threshold sessions, whilst your average power and heart rate may look similar there will be some considerable spikes in power which determines that this session will also produce substantial strain on the anaerobic system. More bang for your buck? Possibly.
6. To react to the changes in power and speed a range of cadences will be utilised (from my personal experience overall cadence will be higher than usual). Gear changes interrupt the pedalling cycle and it is often easier to simply raise leg speed to generate more power (as opposed to shifting to a bigger gear). Maintaining the ability to utilise various cadences is a crucial skill in cycling performance.
7. Finally, but not insignificant by any means, is the fact that riders will often push to their limit. Whether this be in the middle or in the last kms to the finish line. The cognitive ability to go and go until you can go no further is likely to build mental resilience and re-set your perception of what is actually possible. This mental fortitude will be crucial come race day, whatever your chosen event. For context see below (Why shouldn’t I do the TTT?).
Example Training Peaks Charts from 2 WTRL Team Time Trial Races
The charts above show examples of HR (red trace), power (pink) and cadence (yellow) trends from TTT races. The first being approx. 30mins and the second an hour. You can see significant power fluctuations, especially at 9mins into race 2 (*chain came off resulting in a huge effort to re-join the group). Cadence is within the region of 85-100 for the majority. I’ve highlighted threshold HR on the second chart (solid red line). See how HR remains elevated above threshold from 10mins through to race completion despite the variances in cadence and power. That’s equivalent to 50mins of threshold strain on the body. Anyone fancy a session like 5×10 at threshold to mimic that HR response?? No, me neither!
The chart above shows the distribution of anaerobic and aerobic effort throughout a TTT event of 49mins duration. Heavy anaerobic contribution (red) comes above threshold whilst the anaerobic system can recover a little below threshold as the aerobic system contributes more (blue). Highlighting also the over/under workout appearance.
Why shouldn’t I do the TTT?
The benefits outlined above may be outweighed by other factors from time to time. These include:
1. Specificity of your training intensity and duration possibly becomes more important during your race build phase. Honing your power, nutrition, cadence for your key race will not be possible within the TTT structure.
2. Returning from injury, illness or time off.
3. During blocks of run or swim focussed training perhaps.
4. Week in and week out (50 weeks per year), with no signs of progression/improvement or understanding of points 1 and 5 (below).
5. When there are signs of over-reaching or even over-training. Once this slide begins then having a strong word with yourself (to the effect of ‘man-up’) will not work and the added stress will likely lead you deeper into the hole. It is imperative that you do not feel obliged to race. Do not fear letting team mates down! Control your own destiny and make sound choices for long term development…. something we try to empower all of our athletes with at Total Tri Training.
So, when used in the right way, at the right time of your annual training plan and set appropriately within your weekly schedule, the Team Time Trial could be a great session to leverage further fitness gains and have a BLAST (physically and socially)!
If this has raised your interest, then please discuss with your Coach and they should be able to find a suitable team for you.