Dr. Dan Interview Series Part 1: Cycling
Dr. Dan Plews is a world class endurance sports scientist and coach. He’s one of our founders and leading minds behind the TRIQ app and also happens to be the IRONMAN® Kona age-group course record holder. In our 6-interview series we will try to ask him as much as possible about the triathlon sports, his personal journey and the science that allows the TRIQ app to plan triathlon training in a truly dynamic way.
When did you first start cycling?
I’ve been cycling for as long as I can remember. First I would head out with my Dad when he was training for marathons (he was running, I was cycling), then we would start to head out with me and my Dad both cycling. I must have been less than 9 years old. But I loved it and got good really quick. I remember I out-split my Dad on the bike sections in the triathlon when I was just 9 years old. That surely took him by surprise!
What do you like about cycling—on a sports and personal level?
It’s the ultimate escape and independence. When I was younger and couldn’t drive, I felt like it was just such a great way to go out, see the country and not depend on anyone. It’s a real feeling of “play”, a feeling I have even to this day when I head out on my bike.
What makes people good at cycling?
Well there is very little technique to cycling on the road (MTB riding is a different story). However, effective cornering and using the road for speed need to be practiced. But mostly good cycling comes down to having good physiology and a good engine – and of course a good bit and aero position help too!
What percentage of your training did you spend cycling in preparing for Kona?
In the lead up to Kona I trained (on average) 21 hours per week for 21 weeks. For this, ~50% of total hours was spent cycling. All of this with the exception of one longer ride per week was spent inside on rollers using Zwift.
How did your approach to cycling develop from your early beginnings to Kona level?
Consistency, and playing the long game. Success doesn’t happen overnight, it took me years of consistent cycling to get to the level. But I’m also very systematic in my approach, using power and HR to ensure each session is as targeted and specific as possible.
What kind of bikes do you ride?
My race bike is a Trek Speed Concept at the moment. But I also own a Trek Madone road bike and Cannondale Scalpel 2 Mountain bike.
What are your thoughts on the correct pedal position for triathletes?
Some people believe that you can literally have the cleat on the heel of your foot. I’m not that far fetched, but I do believe the cleat should be pushed as far toward the heel as possible. This helps a heel down at the back of the stroke, and not strain the calves. There is a video of me explaining it A VERY long time ago – it’s quite funny actually: youtube.com/watch 42,000 views!!
How did you analyze your bike set up and perfect it before Kona?
I was very specific again. I used computer technology which calculates the CDA (Coefficient of drag x frontal surface area), tweaked the position and then went to a cycling velodrome and tested the position using different equipment (helmet, glasses, visor, suits) and slightly different positions.
What kind of bike courses do you love and hate?
I can deal with any course to be honest. But having grown up in Yorkshire, I tend to climb pretty well.
What is your racing personality cycling in a triathlon?
I’m patient and controlled. The art to a good IM triathlon is to “lick everyone else’s plate clean before you start on your own”. So I will only do what I need to do to be in a good position for the run. “Cycle for show and run for dough!”
What are some different group settings you enjoy in cycling training?
I don’t cycle in groups anymore. Now I prefer to go cycling with just one other person. Normally a close friend so we can have a good chat.
We know you also do a lot of virtual rides, what do you look for in those?
I ride a lot on Zwift, as it’s just so much more entertaining. But because I’m always specific with my training I don’t do any group rides or races. The only group ride I do is my own Endure IQ group ride.
What are your race preferences regarding drinks, transitions etc. for triathlon cycling?
I use SFuels for all my nutrition (racing and training). It’s very natural and not full of nasties and alcohol sugars like many other sports companies.
What are some of the most important things to mind in cycling training for triathletes?
Harder is not better. The adaptations to training are very specific to the intensity, and you want each week to be a well-rounded one. So if it’s an endurance ride for example, at a specific intensity, make sure it’s just that.
Have you been in cycling accidents? Do you have safety advice from your experience?
I’ve had quite a few, which have included trips to the hospital and a lot of stitches. One of the worse ones was when I was racing in Thailand and crashed into a boulder. I split my chin clean open, and my mouth closed so fast I smashed a lot of my back teeth. The best advice I can give is, when out on the road always assume a driver is going to do a stupid thing. Then when they do, you’re at least half ready for it (+wear a helmet!)
Can you think of an eye-opening experience you had in regards to cycling?
Nothing eye-opening. But man, I’ve seen some beautiful spots. One year me, my brother and Dad cycled from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic sea across the Pyrenees in France. The cycling scene in Europe (France, Italy, Spain) is awesome. Cyclists are just loved over there.
What are your thoughts on FTP and other ways to measure cycling intensity?
The FTP refers to the maximum work-rate that can be sustained for 60 min. The FTP concept is derived from studies which showed strong correlations between average power during a 60-min time-trial and both 40-km time-trial performance on the road and LT. Due to the almost unreasonable demands associated with performing an ‘hour of power’, the 20-min FTP test was proposed, in which 95% of the best-effort power of 20 min is accepted as FTP (FTP20). However, this ‘correction factor’ was not research-derived, and recently 90% of 20-min power has been shown as a better estimate of 60-min power. Recent studies have compared FTP20 with traditional laboratory-derived MMSS estimates, with a largely poor agreement between the measures. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the 20-min FTP test is an estimate of the 60-min average power, and the 60-min average power is not tied to individual physiological responses. Indeed, it is likely that a key training adaptation sought in endurance sport is improved ‘durability’ at intensities approximating the LT and MMSS. Basically FTP is the power you can hold for 20 minutes and nothing else. It can still be useful for exercise prescription though.
Can you share some general advice regarding nutrition before and during long bike sessions?
This is dependent on a lot of factors. But the best advice is to take some food with you. I would not eat for the first 90 minutes to promote fat oxidation and then, if you’re hungry, look at taking some healthy (banana, dates) CHO (carbohydrates) after that.
From handlebars to aero clothing, what tweaks should recreational triathletes prioritize?
Having aerobars is THE main thing that will make you more aero. That and then a good position, trying to get your torso horizontal to the cross bar.
What is your personal setup for virtual rides?
I ride rollers (Inside Ride) – these are a smart roller that will then connect to Zwift. I then use the power meter on my bike to prescribe the power. I’ve also recently gotten a Wahoo Kickr, which is great for doing strength based efforts and not having to think about balancing!
What was your most annoying flat tire experience and how do you prevent them?
I once had multiple flat tires on the hill at Hawi on the Kona IM course. I ran out of spares. This is literally the furthest point from Kailua (where I was staying). I had to hitch a ride back.
What did you learn the hard way when it comes to cycling?
When you’re doing multiple days of cycling, start using shammy cream BEFORE your ass gets sore.
As a coach, what single most important general wisdom do you have for cycling triathletes?
As always: Training is the most important. But learn the trade of cycling, don’t just get the best TT bike straight away and ride inside all the time. Mix it up! Use an MTB, go on different terrain and mix it up!
What should TRIQ users keep in mind to make the most out of their TRIQ cycling sessions?
As I mentioned already, intensity specificity is everything when it comes to getting the most out of your cycling. At TRIQ we have a number of specific cycling training types: Endurance, Aerobic Threshold, 70.3 development, Strength Endurance, Short VO2max, Long VO2max and Anaerobic capacity (find out more in our article about this). When performing these sessions, the prescribed power is specific to you and the training adaptations trying to be made. So be metronomic in your training and stick to the numbers prescribed by TRIQ to get the most out of every session.