Notes From the Wind Tunnel: Data Driven Tips to Increase Speed for Racing Triathlon

Posted by Field Work Nutrition Co. on

In its essence, triathlon seems like a simple sport.  You swim, you bike, then you run.  But anyone who has been around the sport (or knows a triathlete), knows that the nuances and technicalities are debated and analyzed ad nauseam.  And to be frank, there is a lot of bad information floating around out there.

A few weeks ago, we had our co-founder Jesse Kropelnicki take a look at some nutrition rules to live by if you are racing Ironman Kona.  Now we are following that up with a technical run down from Cameron Piper.  Cam is a former professional triathlete, current professional bike racer, and also happens to work for Specialized in product development.  In his "day job" he spends A LOT of time in the wind tunnel with athletes and products, and has seen first hand what is fast and what is not...based on real data.  Cam is also a Field Work Swarm Collective member, and was kind enough to take the time to share some of his knowledge with our readers...enjoy!

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Having been a triathlete in the past, a lot of the same myths and perceptions I'm sure you've heard were also engrained in my brain before each race.  Now, with years of working in a wind tunnel under my belt and actually having the opportunity to empirically test these different myths with professional athletes, I have a much better grasp on what you should really focus on if you are looking to dial in your position on the bike for maximum speed!  Keep in mind, maximum speed may in fact mean less aggressive on the bike...but finishing the overall race faster (but we'll get into that).

I have called out a few important things to think about in the weeks leading up to your next race (which might be the Ironman World Championships in Kona!)… or to think about in the offseason as you prep for next year!  Hopefully you can take a thing or two away that will help you race faster and more comfortably!


FIT:

One thing that we always say during our fit classes is that "you’re only aero when you’re in your extensions."  Make sense?  In other words, if you "sit up" all your aerodynamic gains are gone...instantly.  Well, since your body makes up the largest portion of aerodynamic drag on your bike, it’s important that you stay in your extensions (or your most aerodynamic position - for people on road bikes this could be your drops) for nearly the entire bike leg.  On courses like the Ironman World Championships in Kona, the roads are very open and very straight, and you’re constantly getting battered by crosswinds - even more of a reason to stay aero!

What is the best way to ensure you "stay aero"?  Well you need to understand the limitations of your body:

How flexible are you?
What happens to your shoulders after swimming?  
Do you have previous injuries?  
How confident are you while riding in your extensions?

There’s a bad perception in triathlon that you need to lower your extensions as low as possible and go as long as possible.  The good news is that more and more people are understanding that this isn’t realistic for most people in triathlon.  This mantra was derived from time trialing in cycling - where cyclists only have to crush themselves for around 50km at maximum - and don’t have to worry about swimming or running.  So why would a triathlete think that adopting a position that works in cycling would work for them?

In the tunnel, we have found that a more comfortable position often leads to aero gains.  Pads higher or pads wider can mean that your shoulders become more relaxed.  What does this do to your head?  Well consequently, it means your head can relax more and can lower your overall drag.  Win-win, right?  Even if it means you're a few seconds slower over a 40km distance, you still have to remember that comfort = saved energy.  You don’t have to fight your body to hold a position, which means you’ll have more energy to put into the pedals or during the run!

So next time you’re playing around with your fit, find something that works for you.  Not the pro cyclist in your local group ride or your training buddy.  Do what makes you comfortable so that you can train (also very important to train in your aero position!) and race in your extensions for as much of the bike leg as possible.

SPEED:

It’s important to think holistically about the bike leg - and not obsess about one attribute, like aerodynamics for example.  One of these things that we have found at Specialized over the years is that we want to create "faster" products, not just aerodynamically faster products.  In doing so, we’ve done lots of research around wheel and tire pairings.   This means we’re taking into account the aerodynamics of the rim and tire interaction and the rolling resistance of the tire.  Just like I mentioned about fit, sometimes you make concessions for something that might be slightly slower aerodynamically for something that is considerably faster in another way - like rolling resistance.  

Rolling resistance of a tire can literally sap energy and time from your bike split - for example, the difference between a training tire and a fast rolling tire (like Specialized’s Turbo Cotton tires) can be over 12 minutes over the course.  TWELVE minutes!  The next question from people is, “well, what about that tire’s puncture protection?”  The typical answer is, “how long does it take you to fix a flat?”   For most people, the faster rolling tire wins.

Recently, with wider rim technology, faster rolling tires that are wider have been making the rounds.  So now you can pick a tire that might have a slight aero penalty, but rolls considerably faster AND is more comfortable - again, comfort can save you energy!  Think about the soreness you can avoid while riding in your extensions with a wider, more supple tire?  Or the other end… you do have to get off your bike and run, you know..

FUEL STORAGE:

A big thing for any triathlete is their nutrition strategy for the race.  It’s arguably more important than even your pacing strategy.  No energy (food / calories) = walking.  Plan our your nutrition to the point where you’re doing training rides with everything on your bike - and think it through!  Don’t just strap all your gels to your top tube, put them in a location that won’t hurt you aerodynamically and they are still easy to access.  Integrated storage for fuel can add up to minutes over a race.

The most aerodynamic position for a water bottle (for most people) is between your arms.  Why?  Well, your hands/arms shield the bottle AND it’s much easier to reach and drink from (versus sitting up and getting the bottle from elsewhere).  The second most aerodynamic placement?  Behind your saddle - but make sure you train with bottles here!  You need to make sure you can grab the bottle easily AND that it won’t pop out.  No one wants to lose a bottle and have to wait for the next aid station to get their fueling back on track!

AND FINALLY...

Probably one of the biggest gains you can see that doesn’t cost you a single dollar is shaving your legs (and arms!)!  Not only is it proven to be aerodynamically faster, it also makes you feel a little more fit!  And don’t forget it’s benefits in the swim, too…

AND REALLY FINALLY THIS TIME...

If you are racing Kona in about a week, it is probably not the best time to do any major tinkering!  Keep this stuff in mind and begin to incorporate what you can into your racing after testing some concepts in your training!

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About Cameron Piper

His role at Specialized started in 2014 in Aerodynamics R&D running the wind tunnel, coming straight from college, where he studied Mechanical Engineering at Villanova University.  This meant (quite literally) he was spending his time testing (day/night) and developing aero product and learning everything he could about cycling aerodynamics. He continued doing that for about 3 years before moving over to the Road Product team as a Product Manager for aero and triathlon specific products.

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