Tri Talk Triathlon Podcast, Episode 57

Conjugate sequence training, aerodynamic aerobar positioning, and cycling for a running PR? No kidding! All that, today on Tri Talk.


Welcome to Tri Talk your podcast source for triathlon tips, training, news and more. I want to specifically say hello to listeners from Mason City, Iowa and Columbia, Missouri. In Iowa, I have heard great things about the Mason City Multisport Club, also known as MC-squared. In Missouri, I can’t thank the Columbia Multisport Club enough for their loyal following of Tri Talk, and want to say hello to one of the stars of Columbia Multisport, “Ted Z”. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is Tri Talk Episode 57.

It is good to back after 6 weeks away from the show. I can’t thank Eric Schwartz enough for covering for me and for doing such an outstanding job for the last 2 episodes. As much as I love my coaching, writing, and training in the world of endurance sports, being away for the last 2 episodes made me realize how much I do love doing this podcast. Mainly, I think, because I love the sound of my own voice.

Today on Tri Talk we have three hardcore, scientific topics to indeed help you swim, bike, or run faster. We’ll lead off the show with a review of data that is from tri-geek heaven. How the position of your aerobars affects your overall aerodynamics and power. Also, have you had enough on periodization over the last 2 months? We’ll that’s too darn bad! Because I have some research on an alternate periodization technique called conjugate sequence periodization. For some athletes, this method of training could be the missing piece to their peak performance. It’s risky, but we’ll take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of this different form of training. Finally, lot’s of talk lately around running less to run faster. I’ll spend a few minutes on some research around why this might work for you.

Let’s get onto the good stuff! Many of you may have already seen this data, but it is worth a prime spot on today’s episode. is probably the coolest site out there for a triathlete. is pretty cool too, but if I spend the next 10 years building up my website, I hope that it is 1/10 of what is today. Back in November of last year, John Cobb from published some data on aerobar positioning and the impact to aerodynamics which included, if not necessarily startling results, at least some very interesting results. All the data listed below is based on a moderate 40K ride at 19.17 miles per hour, or your basic age grouper speed.

For example, completely unrelated to aerobars, they wind tunnel tested the impact of leaving your jersey’s zipper open while riding on the brake hoods. You know those guys who ride with the jersey zipped all the way down? They probably shave their chest just for the occasion? They look cool, but it turns out it is not so fast. You’ll lose 56 seconds over 40K from leaving the zipper down. Yikes! So, it is better for you, and it is better for the rest of us to keep your chest to yourself on the ride.

Now what about aerobar positioning? When I talk about aerobar positioning, I’m referring to the angle of the aerobars in relation to the ground. A flat aerobar position would be the bars close to parallel to the ground. John Cobb took a look at bars high, bars medium and flat, with high having the wrists being just a few inches from the head, and medium being a more reasonable 20 degree angle in relation to the ground.

In these first 3 positions, the elbows pads were placed about thigh width, or fairly wide. What was somewhat surprising was that the fastest times were recorded with the high hand position. That’s right, not flat, but very high. In fact it was 9 seconds faster than the flat position over 40K. It is interesting to note that this article came out in November, but back in September I met with Steve Hed of Hed cycling at Interbike, who spent time trying to convince me that the high aerobar position was in fact the best position for many cyclists. I never included that interview in the podcast, because frankly I didn’t believe him. This wind tunnel test helps support Steve Hed’s theory that the high aerobar position can be faster.

However, there is more. John Cobb also tested aerobar position with the arm rests fairly tight, no longer at thigh width, but bringing in the arms in to a very narrow position. At that point, the fastest position was not the high aerobar, but it was still not he flat position either. At that point the best position was the medium position, this time by a significant 35 seconds over the flat position. That is some serious time savings, getting awfully close to he savings from an aero wheel over a 40K. Note that in both tests, again, the flat position was never the fastest compared to the medium or high.

Does this mean that you should go and move your aerobar positioning to a medium or high position? Not necessarily. First, although the medium aerobar height was the fastest with the narrow arm position, it was the slowest with the wide arm position. If you ride with the elbow pads at thigh length, this test would indicate the medium is not so good. The medium was only the fastest with the narrow arm position.

Second, since we are talking about as much as 35 seconds in aerodynamics, the best aerodynamic position also needs to be weighed against your power output. Your ability to generate power could also be significantly different in each of those aerobar positions. A best-case scenario would be for you to look at your power output for a given HR in each of the 3 positions, even if you had to use the poor-mans power meter setup from episode 54. If you have significant power drop in the medium or high aerobar position, its not worth it.

Finally, comfort. Especially for long-distance racing. If you can’t handle the narrow arm position for more than 90 minutes, just set the arm pads wide. It’s no good to be in aggressive aero position if you keep coming out of the aero position because its not comfortable. The best aero position is one where you are even more comfortable in the aero position than you are on the hoods or drops.

Going back to the power generation from your aerobar position for a moment. I have ridden with my aerobars at medium height for 2 years now. I did it because I found that for speedy time trailing, such as for Olympic distance or less, I can generate more power when my aerobars are up a bit, and not flat. This is because I really grip those bars and use my upper body to generate power, even in the aero position. Now, distance triathlete purists will say, “no, no, David, your hands and biceps need to be relaxed on the aerobars.” Yes, for half and full Ironman racing, I would be worried about energy expenditure. But, for Olympic distance racing, I’m only going to burn 2,000 calories, which I have already stored as glycogen and ready to use. I can afford to be less efficient and more fast. When I grip those bull horns, and really use my upper body to help generate power, it makes a huge difference in my power output. Again, I bring this up because for me, I can generate more power as a result of the medium aerobar position than the flat position. I just can’t engage my upper body as much when the aerobars are flat. By the way, this is also exactly how Tour rider Levi Leipheimer sets his aerobars up when he time trails.

Moving on. I recognize that 3 of the 6 podcasts prior to this episode all already had at least one periodization topic in the episode. Tri Talk has indeed been heavy with periodization topics, but there is no better time to discuss periodization than early in the training season (with all due respect to our great listeners in the southern hemisphere). Plus, periodization is so broad and so deep, that it touches many of the elements we incorporate in our day-to-day training. However, this periodization discussion will be very different from what you may have heard before.

The classic periodization process is also referred to as “linear periodization”. This is due to the staggered but ultimately linear increase in volume over a period of several mesocycles, a single mesocycle typically representing a 4-week block of training for an age-grouper in classic periodization. Again, the concept of classic periodization is to progressively shock the body into an adaptive response that ultimately increases performance on race day.

There is a proposed alternative method to linear periodization called conjugate sequence periodization. This method of periodization follows the same broad look at periodization, which is planning the year around peaking at competitions, separating the training year into periods of microcycles and mesocycles with early gradual increases in volume. But, there is a difference in how those mesocycles are managed. By the way, if you are new to Tri Talk or to periodization definitions, you may want to listen to Episode 52 as a refresher course on the definition of periodization cycles, which might make this next part easier to understand.

In linear and in conjugate sequence periodization, the mesocycle is broken up into 4 distinct microcycles. But unlike linear periodization, where the 4 microcycles are essentially the same with small increases in volume, conjugate sequence uses an almost reverse volume increase technique. Also unlike linear periodization, where the microcycles are all the same duration, let’s say 7 days each, conjugate sequence has varying durations among the 4 microcycles. Before I give you an example of what a conjugate sequence mesocycle would look like, let’s discuss the science behind why it would work.

Conjugate sequence takes advantage of a phenomenon called the Long-Term Delayed Training Effect, or LDTE. LDTE occurs after a period of high training volume, when training volumes return to “normal”. At that time, strength and endurance improve. Although this effect was first observed in weightlifters, two studies in 1992 from the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise both revealed the existence of performance gains from the LDTE in endurance runners and cyclists. LDTE occurs basically after a dramatic drop in volume. Unlike a classic taper, where the volume decreases gradually, LDTE occurs after a fairly immediate drop in volume.

LDTE is unlikely occur in classic periodization, because there is never a long enough drop in volume for the phenomenon to occur. A typical rest week in a 28-day linear periodization mesocycle is about 7 days, and then the athlete returns to the previous volumes. In conjugate periodization, the drop in volume lasts up to 20 days of a 28-day mesocycle cycle, allowing enough time for LDTE to occur.

But, most of those 20 days are not easy days. While taking advantage of the performance improvement from LDTE, the amount of intensity increases in that microcycle far more than would occur in linear periodization.

So let’s look at an example of conjugate periodization mesocycle. In this example, the mesocycle is 28-days, or 4 weeks, similar to a linear periodization mesocycle. The first microcycle of the mesocycle would last 8 days. And those 8 days would be devoted to volume, training at low intensities of 60-80% of your aerobic capacity. This is Zone 2 and very low Zone 3 types of intensities for those 8 days. The second microcycle lasts from 2-5 days, and the focus is speed sills and rejuvenation. This is the time to focus on swim drills, cycling drills, like one-leg drills, and running drills. The volume is cut in half from the previous 8-day microcycle. The purpose is not only to focus on speed-specific drills, but some recovery needs to take place from the accumulated fatigue of the previous cycle to prepare for the upcoming intensity of the next cycle. After the second speed skill microcycle, an intense 5-8 day intensive endurance cycle begins. Again, the volume is half of the volume from the first 8-day endurance microcycle, but the intensity now includes race-specific intermittent or intervals training, or competing in low-priority races. It is critical that during this 3rd intense cycle that recovery is watched carefully, which will be a real challenge. The final microcycle is essentially and easy week focusing completely on active recovery, lasting 4-7 days. The total conjugate sequence mesocycle would therefore last up to 28 days, or 4 weeks.

Just like in linear periodization, these 4-week blocks can be repeated and placed back-to-back, creating a 12-week cycle that can easily be placed into your annual training plan. You should not do more than 3 of these mesocycles for a total of 12 weeks.

OK now that we have defined conjugate sequence, and how it could increase your performance through taking advantage of the Long-Term Delayed Training Effect, should you really use this?

This is a risky training alternative. It is risky because it is rarely used, and therefore it is tough to gauge how well it really works. It is primarily risky because of those 5-8 days of significant intensity. Injury red flags are flashing all over the place.

So who should consider conjugate sequence periodization? I would only recommend this training technique under a few conditions.

First, only for advanced athletes with several years of training and racing. These athletes know their bodies, know how to listen to their bodies, and are better in tuned to how this change will effect them. Second, only athletes without a history of injury from intensity. Some athletes are more injury prone from volume, but some are more susceptible to injury from intensity. The density of the intensity used in conjugate sequence is significant. Third, only after you have spent several months developing a solid aerobic base in the season. Going straight into conjugate sequence at the beginning of the year introduces many risks. It is best reserved for the Base 3 or Build mesocycles. Fourth, only if as an advanced athlete, you have found that after using the classic linear periodization for a few years, you feel that you have maxed out and are burned out with the same training routine, and just aren’t getting any faster. Some athletes simply respond better to higher intensities, and you’ll never know if you don’t try.

I have to thank Joe Friel who provided me with the data behind conjugate sequence periodization.


Can I also just tell you that I accidentally referred to conjugate sequence as “conjugal sequence” about 50 times when I tried to record this topic. I can’t tell you how many takes of this section I had to do as a result. This is why I am not ready for prime time radio. For those of you who don’t know why conjugal sequence is funny, then bless your heart and your beautiful clean mind.

Let’s wrap things up. I’d like to spend a few minutes on a topic that has generated quite a bit of buzz lately. There is a book out from Runner’s World called Run Less, Run Faster. I have not read this book, but I love the concept. The idea is to train at only 3 runs per week, with the other 2 workouts being a quality cross-training workout. Is it just me, or have we triathltes known this for years. I should have written this book first. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen this take place, where a triathlete is only running 3 days a week, and still makes a marathon PR because he was training for a triathlon at the same time. In fact, the free on-line running plans out on Runner’s World have gone as far as reducing the runs from 5 to 3 in their plans, with 2 days of cross training. I totally believe in this concept.

Having not read the book yet, I thought I would do a little research of my own into why this would work. There are probably a ton of reasons. Injury prevention, recovery, mental variety to name a few. But, I found at least one link between cycling training and a reason behind how that could help you on the run.

A 1996 study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine took 204 well-trained cyclists and runners and measured the size of their hearts. The size of cyclists hearts was overwhelmingly larger than that of the runners. It is probably because you can cycle for much longer than you can run, thus spending more time in a highly aerobic state. OK, you say, that’s nice. But so what? When you combine that with a second study published in the American Journal of Cardiology which took a look at the correlation between heart size and VO2max, then things get interesting.

There are many variables that determine your VO2max, unfortunately most of it is genetics. But, this second study I just mentioned found a high correlation between heart size and VO2max. In the fact the mathematical correlation was r=.80. A quick review on the how the correlation expression works: All correlation is measured between –1 and +1, with –1 begin a negative correlation, +1 being a positive correlation, and 0 being no correlation at all. A r=.80 correlation is considered a very high correlation, and would be sufficient enough to conclude that large heart size is linked to a high VO2max.

So to bring this topic back full circle. Theoretically, if you were to spend some serious time cycling, probably years of cycling, this could change your heart size, and therefore increase your VO2max and subsequently your run times improve. Lance Armstrong’s first marathon, which he completed in under 3 hours, is a pretty notable example of how cycling cardiovascular endurance can translate into other sports.

There are a few problems with this argument. First, there are lots of ways to increase your VO2max other than increasing your heart size. You could invest just as much time in interval run training and get the same results. Second, it goes against the principle of specificity, which says that you will always perform best when spending the most time training in your specific sport. The truth is that Olympic runners spend 95% of their aerobic workouts just running. This Run Less Run Faster concept has not been proven beyond the age-grouper or even lower-level elite athlete. I think this does work well for new runners, but for runners who are looking to squeeze out that last 15 seconds of speed off of their 32-minute 10K, you don’t need to bike, you just need to run.

But again, for us mortals, I think that this concept has huge potential for application, and is worth incorporating into your next running plan. Even if not for the potential in increased VO2max, which might take years, as mentioned, the injury prevention, recovery, mental variety in your training might make it all worth it.