Invest in the right equipment
As with almost everything else, the right equipment will do you a huge favour in getting better performance. Your aerodynamics and mass are essential in a time trial, so the right equipment will make you much more aerodynamic and light. A time-trial bike weighs significantly less and allows you to take a much more aerodynamic position. Your body position will also change due to the bike’s specifics, further reducing your wind resistance. Moreover, the bike’s design is aerodynamic, so don’t underestimate its power.
An aero helmet, a skinsuit, and an aero wheelset will give you some extra push down the road. Mind you, we are talking about seconds, but when you are racing the clock, seconds are all you can strive for in the short term. Don’t expect the equipment to ride instead of you. The pedalling and the power input will all be up to you.
Still, if you don’t have the equipment or the funds to acquire it, don’t despair. Having the right weapons is just the tip of the iceberg. What really makes the difference in time trials is you.
Perfect your position
Positioning is absolutely everything. You may have the best and most expensive gear, the lightest bike, the most aerodynamic helmet, and the most oversized poly wheels, but if your position is wrong, you’ve wasted your money. So, instead of investing large sums in things that will cut mere milliseconds from your overall time, invest time in perfecting your position and learning to hold it for the entire race.
This is the reason why time-trial bikes are that much faster. Their geometry allows you to get into the perfect aerodynamic position. Naturally, you can do the same on a normal road bike, but it will take a bit more effort. Still, roadies who’ve perfected the position often beat those who use time-trial bikes in races.
As you can imagine, it’s not something you can do by just jumping on a time-trial bike. It’s a skill you need to learn and perfect. Most riders find it extremely difficult to put in the same amount of power when they are in the optimal position. Naturally, with enough training, you can manage to find your rhythm despite the pose.
Work on your pacing strategy
Once you learn the right position and can hold it as much as needed, it’s time to start working on your pacing. This is where the strategy and tactics come in. There are several tactics when it comes to pacing, and they depend on the trail’s length, terrain, and weather conditions. For example, if you are riding on flat terrain, it’s a good idea to go for negative splits. This means you should start a bit more conservatively and gradually increase your pace. This way, you will have enough energy to burst into a sprint in the last 200 m.
On the other hand, if it’s a mountain trail, you should build your strategy according to your strengths. If you are a strong climber, then by all means, gain as much time as possible on the climb. If you are a sprinter, then wait for the end sprint to win these precious seconds.
The weather is also not to be underestimated. Wind direction will give you a hint when you should push the hardest. During tailwinds, you can conserve a bit of your strength so you can keep your pace during the headwinds. Building your pace strategy precisely will prevent you from not giving your all or burning out before the finish. Still, to build your tactic, you need to know the route.
Recon the route
Before a race, the least you can do is recon your route. If you can’t ride the trail in person, you can use training equipment and applications like Rouvy, which will get you to the right spot at the right time. Reconnaissance is essential, as small bits of information can add up to some extremely precious seconds. For example, knowing exactly how fast you can take a sharp turn will give you a huge advantage during the race.
Moreover, knowing the terrain, the tarmac, and even the potholes along the way will help you position yourself better on the road, so you can be faster. Most importantly, if there are some steeper downhill sections, you will know precisely where to break to keep your speed optimal and carry it seamlessly through the turns. Once you know the route, you can adjust your training sessions so they can be most efficient.
Ride like you mean it
Now we’re talking. This is the part where you will improve your stamina and pace. Your first order of business is to build yourself a proper training plan. Make sure to include a mix of aerobic endurance, threshold work, and interval training. This will improve your overall physique. And definitely plan a progressive overload. One of the biggest mistakes newbies make is pushing themselves way too hard on the first training session, which ruins the entire point of the planned progression. Gradually increase the intensity and duration of the workout so it can be just outside your comfort zone.
When training for a time trial, anaerobic training is essential. So, make sure to include interval training with short bursts of anaerobic pushes, which gradually increase. This way, you will increase your ability to sustain high efforts.
Most importantly, try to gradually increase your pace so it stays just above your comfort zone. Your muscles need to grow, and they will grow only when they go past their limit.
To round it all up, you should also include some stretching and core-strength training. This will allow you to keep the time-trial position for longer periods without feeling the back and hip pain that’s most commonly associated with this type of ride.
Keep track of your progress
Naturally, you need to keep track of your progress. Strive to beat your own records, to keep your heart rate down, despite riding faster. Keeping track of your progress will not only give you a psychological boost but will also show you if you are doing something wrong. Analysing your results will give you a data-driven estimate of your strengths and weaknesses. This will not only help you improve your training sessions but will also give you invaluable information when building up your pacing strategy.
It might be a good idea to ask someone to take some videos or photos of your practice ride. This way, you can see if you keep your body in the right position and if you make other small mistakes you can’t otherwise catch while on the bike.
Hydrate and eat properly
Finally, you need to consider optimising your eating and hydrating. Know the rules of the race and whether you can eat during the trial. If so, pinpoint the spots where you can take your energy gel or wolf your energy bar. This will minimise the time loss due to changing from the perfect position. The same goes for hydration.
Hydrating is essential during any ride, especially in hot weather. Make sure to know precisely where to drink water and how much you’ll need to stay in top condition. The more accurately you calculate the amount, the lower your overall weight will be, so try to be precise.
Finally, several hours before the race, have a carbohydrate-rich dinner with some proteins. This will give you the energy you need at the start.
Most importantly, stay calm
The easiest way to improve your time-trial performance is to just calm down and stop stressing about it. You won’t win. Not on your first try. Feel the race, feel the excitement, and learn to stay calm and not follow your instinct to push hard during the adrenalin-infused start. Give yourself enough time to prepare and to warm up. Don’t worry, there will be time for winning races. The only sure way to succeed in this direction is not to quit. Everything else is just technicalities.