Complete an Ironman: Update 11 – Ironman Lake Tahoe 2014 Was Canceled

This is one of 14 updates about my 2014 challenge to complete an Ironman – you can see a list of the others here.

4:30AM – Alarm goes off, grab breakfast and mix my fuel drinks

5:00AM – Drive to T1

5:30AM – Go to T1, get marked with my race number, get the bike set up and add a few things to my bike bag

6:00AM – Wetsuit on, final things finished, a light rain starts

6:20AM – Head down to water, walk in to knee deep, get ready to warm up, race starts in 20 minutes.

6:25AM – The announcer comes in over the loudspeaker.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have some unfortunate news about today’s event….”

Due to the low air quality caused by smoke from the nearby King fire, the race was canceled. Where we were for the swim was fine, but the run and bike courses had unhealthy levels of smoke particles in the air.

They canceled the event for the health of athlete, volunteers & spectators.

It was the right call. No one wanted to hear it.

Getting Here

I’ve worked hard to train for this Ironman. I made sacrifices. Today was supposed to be the climax to a season of hard work. It is disappointing to not get to experience that as planned.

Most of us travelled for this race. I drove a few hours and took a week off of work. Some athletes flew from around the world: Australia, Scandinavia, Brazil. We all booked hotels or houses – more expenses that now seem in waste.

I have to remind myself though that on the large scale of things, today is still a great day. This is an inconvenience, but the fact that I am physically, financially and schedule-wise able to even think about doing an Ironman puts me in something like the top 1% of the world on the basis of  wealth.

I have to remind myself that my home is not on fire and I haven’t lost my life, loved ones or property.

Today is not a bad day – I have nothing to complain about.

Getting There

What is next?

We’ll find out Tuesday what the Ironman race officials are going to do. I suspect we’ll get a refund or free entry into a future race.

My goal was to complete an Ironman by the end of the year and that is still possible. There are 5 races left, though a few of them are booked up. Perhaps they’ll expand registration for one or even open a new race for us.

On top of that, Ironman is actually just the name of a race series of one company – there are other races of the same distance put on by other companies. I said I wanted to complete an Ironman, but I’d be fine if it was an Iron-distance race. That gives me two other options.

Depending on what race I pick, I’ll need to figure out logistics. How will I get there, where will I stay. Lake Tahoe was my first choice because of the close proximity – any other event presents logistical concerns. I’ll figure that out in stride. Thankfully three of the options are within a day’s drive of me.

The toughest part of picking another race will actually be adjusting my training. I’ve designed my training plan to put me in peak physical condition today. If I race another even in November or December, I’ll have to figure out how to adjust my plan. I’ve taken the last few weeks easy to prepare for this race, I suspect I’ll need to build my milage back up a bit and then taper again.

Final Thoughts

Completing an Ironman was my personal challenge for 2014. If it wasn’t difficult it wouldn’t be a challenge. I thought I knew all of the difficulties, that they were mostly physical, but this was one I hadn’t planned on.

The challenge goes on, this is just one more facet to fight through.

Complete an Ironman: Update 10 – Race Strategy

This is one of 14 updates about my 2014 challenge to complete an Ironman – you can see a list of the others here.

I’m sitting in a cabin in Lake Tahoe, days away from my first and what may be my only Ironman. I picked up my race number today. Despite the forest fire raging not too far from here and the smoke filled air, I’m trying to relax and stay focused.

As I sit here I’m thinking back to my first day of training and the two miles of running that had me winded. I’m thinking back to the first time I clipped into the bike pedals and how I fell four times on a three mile test ride of my new bike. I’m thinking back to my first trip to the pool and how I timidly got into the slow lane.

And day after day I did a little more. And now 100 miles on the bike isn’t intimidating, neither is the marathon or the 2.4 mile swim. For me the only question is how fast can I do it.

Some people race an Ironman to complete – they just want to finish. I decided early on that I’m here to compete. I want to get a top spot in my age group and qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona.

I’ve done the training, I’ve got the fitness, my gear is tuned up and ready to go. Now it all comes down to executing a solid race strategy.

Ironman Racing Strategy

There is nothing you can do to win an Ironman on race day – your ceiling is already set. There are, however, thousands of things you can do to lose an Ironman on race day.

How to Lose an Ironman in 1 Day

Even if you have spent months working hard, putting in the miles, toughing through the pain, there are decisions you can make, actions you can take and accidents that can all ruin your day. The race is so long that a mistake early can cost you hours. This isn’t a 5k where you can just jog it in – if you mess up, you’re either dropping out or spending a long painful day walk/jogging a marathon and seeping in your failure.

The ways you can fail include, but are not limited to:

  • Forgetting your bike shoes
  • Going out too fast on the bike
  • Eating something for breakfast that doesn’t sit well
  • Going out too slow on the bike
  • Not eating enough
  • Crashing your bike around a tight corner
  • Getting disqualified for drafting >3 times
  • Eating too much
  • Blisters
  • etc.

In order to avoid those, I’m planning every detail. Lets look at a few facets of my strategy.

Determining A Race Pace

How do I know how fast to go? If I just wanted to finish I could just take it at a similar effort to my workouts and go with that.

But I want to race. I need to know how fast to go so I don’t start too fast and crash or start too slow and leave energy on the course.

And now for a brief glimpse into the mind of a maniacal competitor.

To find my pace, I scoured through the results of last year and searched for athletes who use Strava, a fitness tracking program. As a member of Strava, I can see the workout history of those athletes that share their training, which is most of them.

Using this method I was able to find a number of athletes across a four hour range of finish times and compare my workouts in the months leading up to the race with theirs. Based on that I was able to figure out times that were possible for me if I raced well.

ironman-lake-tahoe-finishers-2013

You can see above that Timothy Mallen, who got 2nd place for my age group and qualified for Kona last year, biked a 5:29 split. Based on a practice loop of the course in August I can see compare some segments that we both rode over. This particular segment is about a half hour long, which is a good measure. You’ll see that I was about 10% slower than his race split and a bit slower than another split he had a month earlier on that same segment. 10% slower than 5:29 is 6:03.

comparing-paces-on-strava

After doing this with a number of athletes, I was able to triangulate into some splits for the bike and run.

Goal Finish Time

You can see above that I highlighted a time of 11:01:45. That is about what I think I could achieve if I raced perfectly.

That all of course depends on the day. If it rains or the wind picks up, things change. But now I at least have a target, and can adjust it if necessary.

I don’t think Kona qualification is realistic at this point – so I’m not going to ruin my day trying for it. If I feel good though…

My exact goal is going to be to break 11 hours. Oddly enough, if you look back to when I started training, that was the goal I was going to give myself 95% credit for. (100% was only achievable if I qualified for Kona.)

I plan on achieving that through splits of:

  • Swim – 1:15
  • Bike – 5:59
  • Run – 3:30
  • Transitions – 0:15

To achieve the above requires a swim pace of 31 minutes per mile, bike pace of 18.6 mph and a run pace of 8:00 per mile. All possible.

Alternative Goals

The Ironman is such a tough race that many things can go wrong which could all ruin my ability to hit my goal. If that happens, I don’t want the day to be a wash so I’m actually setting a few goals.

Goal #1 is to finish. I’ve never finished an Ironman before so I want to do that and won’t do anything that will dramatically decrease my chances of doing so. Even going out fast isn’t that much of a risk when it comes to finishing.

Lets say I bike too fast and at mile 10 on the run I am spent and can only walk from there out. If that where the case I’d be somewhere near the 8 hour mark, meaning I’d have 9 hours left to walk 16 miles. I’d have to walk less than 2 miles per hour. Easy.

Goal #2 is to finish under 14 hours. That is the median finish time for Ironman races. So be being under that, I am at least in the top 50%.

Goal #3 is just in case something goes wrong during one split. It is to hit my other splits. If, for example, my bike breaks and I need to wait an hour for a mechanic to fix it. There will be no way I can finish in 11 hours at that point, but I can still get back on my bike, go hard and try for my run split.

Goal #4 is to not walk. I’m here to run. No matter how slow, even if a walk is faster. If everything goes wrong and I can at least keep running, I’ll be proud of myself. I’m ok with stopping if I need to throw up/massage a cramp/visit the port-a-john/etc., but no walking allowed in my race.

Splitting My Energy

Those times all seem possible, but the question in a triathlon is always whether it is worth it to borrow time from one segment to go faster in another.

For example I could try and bike 30 minutes faster, 5;29 which would buy me 30 minutes on the run so I’d only have to run a 9:09 miles.

In fact, if you look at my splits, compared to other finishers, you’ll notice that my run is a bit faster than others who will bike at the same pace. Most people have a ratio closer to 6:4 where as mine will be 12:7.

I come from a running background, so it makes sense that my run split will be a bit faster than some other athletes with similar overall times. They might be better swimmers or bikers. My reasoning actually goes one step farther than that though.

I did some research on energy output and what the ideal split was and found an article written by Alan Couzens about energy pacing. He argued that since the main inhibitor in an Ironman is a limited supply of stored energy, that the fastest time would come from using each bit of energy in the most efficient way.

As it turns out, this is different for everyone but one thing remains true. Energy is taxed less on the run than on the bike or swim. The reason is simple – wind & water resistance. Since wind resistance grows exponentially as you go faster, each bit of energy put into the bike is taxed. At 25mph you might only get .6 speed for every 1 energy – where as on the run you might be able to achieve a better 1-to-1 ratio.

I am bought into this theory and because of that I am making a few adjustment to my race strategy.

The first is that I am going to crank it on the uphills on the bike and rest the downhills. My reasoning is that when going up the big hill, I’ll be averaging 10mph, a speed at which wind resistance is negligible so my energy can get used efficiently. Going downhill on the other hand I’ll be hitting speeds of 40-45mph. Fast enough that my energy will be basically useless.

The second things I am going to do is take an overall approach of starting slow and finishing fast. I like this for a number of reasons.

  1. The swim is first and my weakest, so this gives me an excuse to not worry about it.
  2. The run is last and as we see above, the place where energy is least taxed so saving energy for it makes sense. It is probably also my most efficient sport from a physiological standpoint due to my history so my energy will go much farther here.
  3. I like passing people – if I am passing people at the end of a race I find new energy. If I am starting to slow down, it tends to magnify. I want to let people get ahead of me so I can have the benefit of passing them later and use that mental boost to dig even deeper and push even harder.
  4. If I can’t actually complete my goal pace, I won’t be too far in debt. I’ll just keep at the slow pace without accelerating.
  5. If I can actually handle that pace and more, I can always go even faster. Since I’m already accelerating there is nothing stopping me from finishing the last mile at 5:00 flat.
  6. Mentally it is a nice challenge. Running exactly even splits is really hard mentally – it just wears on you. Trying to but each mile by 5 seconds gives you something to think about, a game to play with yourself. It makes the time fly.

Breaking Up The Race

Technically the race is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run. I’m thinking of it in segments though. By doing this, I’ll know what I’m supposed to be doing at every point in the day so I can focus on that.

The mental aspect of an Ironman is one of the toughest parts. Though I’ve never completed an Ironman I’ve learned a lot about what race day is like by reading detailed post-race analyses by other triathletes – I especially love those of David Rowe. From that I’ve been able to come up with the below strategy.

Part 1 – The Swim

Slow & steady. Go out slow. Draft faster swimmers. Stay calm, don’t worry about anyone else. Maintain good form. Kick towards the finish to wake your legs up.

Part II – T1

Wetsuit off & towel dry. It’s going to be cold. Arm warmers & gloves on. Helmet & glasses on. Clean feet to avoid sand or rocks in shoes. Start the timer. Hop on bike & start spinning.

Part III – Bike Miles 0 – 25

Nice and easy. It is mostly flat. It will be cold & you will be wet. Try and think warm thoughts. Get your legs ready for 9 hours of work.

Part IV – Bike Miles 26 – 50

Get rid of arm warmers & gloves. Keep heart rate between 150 & 160. Attack the hill. Keep up your cadence and pass people like a mad man. Tuck and take the down hill fast. Crack 45 mph. Keep that momentum going down to Kings Beach and around.

Part V – Bike Miles 51 – 75

Check your nutrition, you should be more than half done. If you got a flat or dropped a bottle, get your special needs bag. Keep your pace but don’t overdo it. Enjoy the break through the no-pass zone.

Part VI – Bike Miles 76 – 100

Attack that hill. Go faster than the first time – I’m going to check afterwards on Strava. It is ok if your heart rate crosses 160 for a bit. Fight through the discomfort and gain time now. Finish any food you have and drink up.

Part VII – Bike Miles 101 – 112

Spin. Crank up the cadence and get your legs feeling good. Now isn’t the time to race, you need to prepare for the run. Pee now – it is easier than while running. Take your watch off the bike mount and put it in your back pocket so you don’t forget it.

Part VIII – T2

Bike shoes off on the dismount. Grab your bag – socks & racing flats on. Race belt on. Watch strap on and clip in the watch.

Part IX – Run Miles 1 – 2

Easy. So easy. Get your groove. No faster than 8:00 miles.

Part X – Run Miles 2 – 13

Hold your pace. 8:00 per mile. Keep your heart rate in the 150 – 160 zone. Don’t chase anyone – you’ll catch them later.

Part XI – Run Miles 14 – 23

Take measure. If you feel good, start dropping the pace by 5 seconds per mile. Keep your heart rate under 160. Drink and eat something. The pain is coming. Pass people strong and feel encouraged.

Part XII – Run Miles 24 – 26.2

5k. Leave everything on the course. If you feel good run faster. If you feel bad run faster. Don’t walk – run until you can’t & then crawl. Your heart rate should be maxing out. You should be in pain and locking up. This is where we find out what you’re made of.

Wow, that was a lot of stuff. If you got tired reading it, just imagine how tiring racing it will be.

Keeping My Pace and Effort In Check

I usually train off of feel. If I’m supposed to do a tempo day on the bike, I sort of know what that feels like and try to push that hard. I usually check afterwards to make sure my pace reflected that sort of effort and correct next time if needed. For running I do use pace for hard workouts, my iPhone calls them out to me.

I’ll usually check my pulse periodically while running or biking as well just to make sure I’m not working too hard or too easy. I do that the old fashion way – finger to neck and eyes on watch.

For the Ironman you can’t use an iPhone, so last week I got a Garmin Forerunner 310 watch. This watch uses GPS to keep track of my pace and distance and hooks up to a heart rate monitor to keep track of my effort.

I’ve configured my watch to tell me what I need to know in order to maintain the appropriate effort.

The first thing I did was set up auto-laps of 5 miles for the bike and 1 mile for the run. Each time I’ve got that far, the watch will tell me my pace and average heart rate.

I then set the watch to rotate through two screens. The first is a lap info screen that shows me my current lap pace & current lap’s average heart rate. This will basically tell me if I’m working too hard so I can immediately make adjustments.

garmin-310-lap-mode

The second screen shows my total distance for that sport – run or bike along with some overall stats such as pace, time and average heart rate. This lets me look at my performance overall to see how I’m doing. I might look at this and decide to adjust my expectations – and that could mean either setting them lower, or higher.

garmin-310-total-mode

I like having the information split by total and laps. As the day goes on, it is harder to move the average for the total, but important to know if you start slacking – that is where the laps help. Periodically though, you’ll want to know how you’re doing for the full day and it is easier to look than to try and remember how much over or under you were in every segment.

Nutrition

As I described in an earlier post about nutrition, I’m going with Hammer Perpetuem. This is in my opinion the most calorie dense and easy to consume method of getting calories. I don’t have to deal with unwrapping things or storing trash. I don’t have to grab stuff at the aid stations, which lets me focus on water. I don’t have to unzip or reach for food, I’ll have it right in front of me.

I actually made a change in the past week. I am now going to use the second compartment of my aero bar water bottle for the Perpetuem. That way I can take sips without moving, which will help me maintain my aerodynamic form. It also reduces the chance of dropping the bottle while grabbing it or putting it back.

To do this, I need to mix it a little less dense than I’ve been doing. I can usually get 2,000k calories into a 21oz bottle, but I found that was too thick for the straw of the front bottle.

So instead I’ll be mixing about 1,200 calories into a 24oz bottle that I put in a cage and starting with the front bottle filled with 8oz that has 600 calories. To make up for the missing 200 calories, I’ll use a few gels and grab a banana at some point during the day.

This will mean that I’ll have to fill up the front compartment twice. I’ll likely try to do that during a flat spot.

How will I remember to take sips? My watch is set to beep every 5 miles, so I’ll use that as a reminder to take in some.

I plan on front loading and finishing everything by mile 90 so I have a bit to let my stomach process it before I start running.

During the run I’ll have two Hammer Gels on my race belt. After I use those I might grab a banana or GU. I’m really just going to go on feel for the run.

Hydration

I typically go through about 24-30oz water per hour while biking. That means during the course of the day I’ll drink 130-180oz, or about 1.5 gallons of water.

Water weights ~8lbs per gallon so 1.5 gallons is about 12lbs. Not something I want to cary around with me all day.

My strategy is to operate like Walmart: just in time. I want to run out of water right as I get to the next water station so that my total average cary is as low as possible.

There are four water stations on the course where volunteers will hand out bottles. I’ve highlighted them in orange below.

ironman-lake-tahoe-bike-course-water

Since we do 2 1/3 laps, that means I’ll get to grab water up to 10 times. Since I can also start with my water full, that will mean I’ll need to grab on average, 15oz at each stop. Since they’ll likely be handing out either 16oz or 20oz bottles, that is perfect.

My plan is to grab a bottle, dump it into the bottle attached to my handle bars and toss the empty.

Now in practice, the first stop is only 5 miles in, so I’ll still have my starting water. Finally, the last stop is about 2 miles from the finish, so I’ll probably not be grabbing much there. That means that in reality I’ll 0nly grab water 8 times. Two of the times are right before the hill so I’ll go light there and to make up for it I’ll probably need to grab double at the stop near Squaw valley, which is right before a long downhill.

To make sure I’m drinking, my watch will beep at me every 5 miles. I’ll use that as a note to take a sip and probably be taking sips other times as well.

On the run I don’t have to be as careful. There are aid stations every mile and the cost of slowing is much less than when I’m on the bike. I plan to use cups to fill up my hand-bottle and sip from that periodically.

Drafting & Passing

Drafting is not allowed on the bike. Sort of. As a draft illegal race, during an Ironman you’re not allowed to stay behind another biker to get an advantage.

The actual rules are basically such that you have to say 23ft behind them unless you’re initiating a pass. A pass is a specific move where you catch them, pass to their left and then go in front of them. You have 20 seconds to do that or you get a penalty.

I plan on passing a lot of people, and as such I’m going to use my 20 seconds. I could easily just stay to the left and power through quickly, but I wouldn’t gain much in doing so.

Instead as I start the pass I’ll come into their draft zone and stay for about 10 seconds. That will give me a nice chance to lower my effort by about 5% for a bit before pushing it back up to pass them. I plan to stay right behind them until the last second and then pass to the left.

That seems minor, but as a slower swimmer, I’ll probably pass between 100-200 people throughout the day. At 10 seconds a pop, that is 15-30 minutes of drafting. So 15-30 minutes of not having to push quite as hard. I’ll take it.

In the swim, drafting is legal. I plan on following close to someone at all times. The best ways to do this are either right behind them so your hand just nearly touches their foot as your take a stroke, or right on their hip. I used to be horrible at this, but a few open water swim races and I’m decent now. I’m going to leverage that. With the flotation of the wetsuit and the advantages of drafting, I can easily swim my target pace with 10-20% less effort than I would use swimming solo in jammers.

What to Wear

This is one decision that I have been debating over and over throughout the past few days. My strategy will likely affect some of the above, but not too much.

When I hop on my bike in the morning, it will be 8AM, 30* and I’ll be soaking wet after swimming in a 60* lake. By the time I hop off of my bike it will be somewhere in the 1-3PM vicinity and likely 80-90*. I don’t have time to stop and change during the ride. So what am I to do?

One thing I am doing for sure is leveraging arm warmers and gloves that I’ll have in my bike gear bag to put on after the swim. I plan to toss them away part way through the race. The first 25 miles are going to be the coldest – they will be the earliest in the day, they are in a shaded part of the course and they are slightly downhill which means I’ll be moving fast and feeling a lot of wind hit me. I’ll likely toss them to my family where they’ll be cheering for me at a certain point.  But worst case scenario I just throw them away.

ironman-lake-tahoe-bags

I debated a number of strategies for what to wear but am going with the tried and true tri suit. It is going to be really cold, so to help, I’ll be filling two bottles with hot water in the morning. One to rinse off with and one to drink from. I’ll just have to tough it out until the sun comes up over the mountain.

Contingency Plans

I mentioned earlier that at last year’s Lake Tahoe Ironman, 20% of those people that started the race weren’t able to finish. 20%!!!

Stuff can go wrong – that is what makes it an Ironman.

Here are some of my contingency plans.

  • Flat tire – spare on bike & extra in special needs bag in case I need to use the first one. Also tools and CO2
  • Fumble with CO2 – these things are small and your hands are cold, the have just enough air for the tire so if you lose any you’re going to be on a low tire. I carry two and have two more in my special needs bag.
  • Dropped nutrition bottle – extra in special needs bag, can depend on course nutrition until then if needed
  • Mechanical trouble – multi-tool, tape & a few replacement parts. If that can’t fix it, wait for the repair truck.
  • Getting lost – biked & ran the course ahead of time
  • Watch malfunction – I’ll just bike by feel and I have an extra watch in my run bag so I can at least time my miles. It isn’t a GPS watch though.

Speaking of special needs bags – these are bags you get to put things in and can pick up half way through the bike and run. I’ve got some extra things in my bike bag but couldn’t think of anything to put in my run bag. So just for good measure I did this.

run-special-needs-bag

Conclusion

Did I cover everything? I hope so.

At this point there is nothing left to do but relax, visualize a strong performance and then get out there and do it.

Time to find out what my breaking point is.

See you afterwards for a race recap!

Complete an Ironman: Update 9 – Gettin’ Aero Wit It

This is one of 14 updates about my 2014 challenge to complete an Ironman – you can see a list of the others here.

On your mark ready set let’s go
Ironman pro I know you know
I go psycho when my new bike hit
Just can’t sit
Gotta get aero wit it

[Chorus:]
Na na na na na na na nana
Na na na na nana
Gettin’ aero wit it
[Repeat 3x]

-Will Smith (sort of)

I am one week out from my Ironman. My training is done. This final week is all about resting my body & mentally preparing for the race. There is almost nothing I can do to help improve my performance next weekend.

Almost nothing.

The one trick I have left up my sleeve is becoming more aerodynamic on the bike. Today we’re going to talk about that.

But first, a training update.

Training Data

Nine months. 3,176 Miles. 357.5 hour of training. Hundreds of hours of reading books, articles & blogs.

2014_09_13_runkeeper

You can see that over the past month my miles have been slowly decreasing. This is part of the plan. It is called a taper. Essentially I am resting my body so it is prepared for the race. During the season, when my weeks are full of long rides and hard workouts, my body is in a constant state of stress. If I raced during that time, I would be racing tired. The idea behind tapering is to leverage the benefit of that stress but to be fresh on race day.

My taper was simple in the weeks leading up to the race my volume was set to: 75%, 60%, 40% & 20% from my maximum. I also dropped my quality workouts from four a week down to three, two and eventually zero.

My body feels full of energy. I have to be smart when working out to take it easy, I have enough energy to go much faster, but that isn’t my goal for this week. That is my goal for race day.

Gettin Aero Wit It

Why worry about aerodynamics? Let me set a scene.

Imagine that I put an engine on my bike that outputted a constant amount of energy – say 200 watts. If I started at a standstill and turned on the engine, the bike would start accelerating forward. But after a time, it would eventually hit a max speed. Lets imagine this happens at 20 mph, giving us a bike time of 5 hours 36 minutes.

Why would it hit a max speed? Well, eventually the forces working to slow the bike and the forces working to accelerate the bike will cancel each other out. At that point we reach our equilibrium.

We already stated that the forces accelerating the bike were coming from the engine. But what forces are slowing the bike?

There are four that we worry about:

  • Friction – which comes from the mechanical parts of the bike such as the spinning of the wheels.
  • Rolling resistance – which comes from the contact between the road and the tires
  • Gravity – which comes from segments of the ride where our elevation is increasing or decreasing (can be an accelerant – going down hill)
  • Wind resistance (drag) – which comes from my bike/body trying to move through the air faster than it can get out of the way

So since we already know the maximum output of our engine is 200 watts, the only way to make the bike go faster is to decrease the resistance. Even if we can decrease that resistance by 10%, that decrease will allow us to go a bit faster before the acceleration forces and resistance forces once again cancel out. This time that might happen at something like 21 mph, which would give us a bike time of 5 hours 20 minutes. A 16 minute savings without changing our engine. I’ll take it.

How to Reduce Resistance

Friction is something we minimize by using quality bike parts that are well maintained. From what I’ve read, the difference between decent parts and the best parts is negligible.

Rolling resistance is something we minimize by using slick racing tires that are inflated to a high pressure. Since my training tires had started to wear down – which increases the chance of a flat tire – I recently installed some Continental Grand Prix 4000s tires.

Gravity is something we minimize the impact of by having a lighter bike, body and supply set. This one only really matters when a lot of hill climbing is involved. On a flat course, once the bike is traveling at max speed, the momentum of the weight carries it forward, meaning it isn’t significantly harder to keep a 15lb or 18lb bike in motion on a flat course. On the down hills, weight is actually our friend, but I haven’t heard of anyone stashing dumbbells at the top of a hill just to get an advantage.

[Aside – I’d like to mention here that a top of the line bike comes in at around 15lbs. In fact, in most races you aren’t legally allowed to use a lighter bike for safety reasons. A decent bike might be 18-20lbs. There are a lot of people that are happy spending $5k to save that 3-5lbs. Now let me remind you that the impact of gravity is affected by the entire weight you’re carrying, which usually includes a 150-180lb person. If gravity is really a force you want to fight against – a few sit-ups per day is probably your best bet.]

How do we minimize wind resistance? Oh, the ways. There are so many products available for purchase that ‘make you more aero’ that it would be easy to spend $10,000. I’m not a fan of that strategy, nor a believer of most of the shoddy science, so lets talk about how we can decrease wind resistance in the most economical ways.

Body Position

This is by far the best way to save yourself time on the bike course. Apparently your body is responsible for 70-80% of the wind resistance you encounter while biking.

Tri-specific and time trial bikes are designed to put you in an aerodynamic position where you are leaning over your handle bars. This position is less comfortable, but much more efficient at cutting through the air.

Touring bikes and even racing bikes like what you see in the Tour de France don’t put riders in that position because of one very specific reason – they allow riders to draft behind each other.

Ironman races however, like most sanctioned triathlons, are noted as an individual sport and as such don’t let you draft behind others. Because of that, you need to be efficient on your own. Below are some shots of me adjusting my body position with the help of some clip-on aero bars and a new seat post.

getin-aero-wit-it-body-position

In the top pictures you can see that instead of my chest acting like a giant wind block, in the new position it is almost completely horizontal. In the lower pictures you’ll see that my head didn’t even fit in the first frame and I clearly take up a lot less space in the second frame. You might also notice how my hands and arms cut into the wind and then direct it outwards, away from my body. This is great for aerodynamics.

These pictures were from back in May. Since then I’ve made a few small tweaks, but the overall form remains very similar.

The trade off you deal with when changing your body position is speed vs. comfort. If all we cared about was aero, we might be riding something that looks like this. But aside from the fact that it isn’t legal for safety reasons, I sure would not want to be in that position for five+ hours.

super_aero_cycle_belly_whopper

Photo: Modern Mechanix

Clothing

The next aspect of aerodynamics is reducing loose clothing.

Loose clothing will inevitably flap in the wind. That flapping is you losing speed. It is basically like having a giant sail pointed in the wrong direction. By having tight fitting clothing, you allow yourself to cut quickly through the air.

Some materials are actually better at this than others. Time trial racers use special lycra suits designed to have very little friction with the air. These suits are great for short sprints, but would not be ideal for the Ironman due to the fact that they trap in heat.

They are also not ideal for the run, and if you had to change clothing at T2, you’d probably lose all of the time you made up with the suit.

rydercrop

Photo: Velo News

You can see in the photos above that I’ll be wearing a black single piece tri-suit with no sleeves. It is made of spandex, so it is tight and won’t flap in the wind. It also cuts into the air decently. I’ll likely be supplementing that with arm warmers in the morning when the temperature will be in the 40-50s and then taking them off as it gets warmer.

Water bottle & fuel placement

There is a ton of debate around this one. The problem is lots of different people have done water bottle tests, but the situations are always a bit different that true racing conditions. Some companies make claims that X is the most efficient placement of water bottles and others state the exact opposite.

It turns out that they might both be right. Aerodynamics involve the flow of air around your entire bike & person. So sometimes doing X would hurt you if Y were true but help you if Y weren’t true.

It is very hard to test this stuff. There are wind tunnels, but I’m not a believer that those tests perfectly simulate riding conditions where leaning, climbing and pedaling all add considerations. In fact, some gear manufacturers test their parts separately, without taking into consideration the whole bike & rider.

Here is what I believe to be true about water bottle & fuel placement.

  1. Being dehydrated or underfuelled is much worse that any aero penalty. If you don’t drink enough, you won’t finish the race, which is much worse than finishing 5 minutes later because your water bottle created some extra drag. So avoid having your bottle placed in an annoying place so that you don’t use it often, or and awkward place that might result in dropping a bottle.
  2. Body position changes result int he biggest aero penalty, so getting out of your aero tuck to reach a water bottle in an inconvenient but aerodynamic place is much worse over the course of a race than the continual drag of a bottle in a slightly more convenient but less aerodynamic place.
  3. Between the arms is a great placement, it helps you cut into the wind and direct air elsewhere.
  4. Fewer bottles is better.

So what am I doing for water bottle placement?

Great question. I’ll have to let you know after my race because I’m still debating.

Here is what I’ve been practicing with though.

aero-water-bottle-placement

You can see I have three bottles on the bike.

The first bottle is an aerodynamically shaped bottle between the aero bars (handle bars). This one actually has two compartments on it along with quick fill lids. I’ve been training by using the larger of the two compartments for water and the smaller for an electrolyte mix. A week away from my race and I’m actually considering having my nutrition in the smaller one and refilling it periodically.

Here is the great part about this bottle. I can drink from it through those straws without changing my body position. It is also right in front of me so I’m constantly reminded of it. I actually have a bike computer that will beep at me every five miles as well to remind me to take a sip of each.

You can see that this bottle satisfies rules 1-3 above.

The second bottle is the one with the red lid on my down tube. This is where I usually keep my nutrition. I have to reach for it about every 15 minutes which violates principle #2 above. That is why I’ve been debating putting nutrition in the second compartment of the handlebar bottle. That way I could sip from that every 15 minutes and only have to refill it every two hours.

The third bottle is the one on the seat tube. I am not planning on using this during the race. I use it during training because I often need to bring a lot of water with me. During the race however there will be people handing out water bottles which I can use to refill my handle bar bottle. I am probably going to keep that cage their though just in case. If for any reason I needed to hold onto a bottle, it would be nice to have it there.

The fourth spot I am debating is right behind my seat. Some people have special holder attachments to keep water bottles back there, but I would just zip tie the cage that is holding the red bottle. The reason that placement is though of as more ideal is because your body is already blocking the wind up to that point. So rather than having a big bulge on your frame, you basically hide the bottle in the safe zone behind you.

The trouble with that is I’d have to reach for it. I haven’t practiced that much, so I’m nervous about making a change one week before my race.

I should mention that by using liquid nutrition, I have a huge advantage when it comes to aerodynamics. I can pack 2000 calories into a bottle and I might bring along an extra ‘flask’ of gel that I keep in the pocket on my back.  If I were bringing less dense food, like bananas, I would need to find someplace to keep them. If I were bringing less convenient food like 23 packs of GU, (same caloric equivalent) I would need to store, reach and open each, which would result in body movement. Finally, if I depended on the course nutrition, I would have to go through every pit stop, often slowing to grab things or avoid other racers. I like my strategy here.

Gear placement

The next thing is where to put the gear you bring.

Lets start of by stating the obvious, less is better. I’ve reduced what I’m carrying on my bike to:

  • spare tube
  • 2 x CO2 canisters
  • CO2 nozzle
  • 2 x tire levers
  • multi-tool
  • pack of chamois creme for emergencies

Where does it all go? Look in the photo below and see if you can spot it.

aero-water-bottle-placement

Did you find it? Most of the items are in that little black pouch behind my handle bars. That is a safe zone for aerodynamics because my arms and water bottle will be breaking the wind. The spare tube is actually shoved under the seat in a zip-lock bag. You can faintly see it if you look closely.

Some people like having a bag under/behind the seat. I have one of those for training, when I tent to cary a bit more, but won’t need it for the race. Which is why I am debating moving a water bottle back there.

Helmet

Helmets are designed to do one primary thing. Protect your head if you crash.

After that, most helmets are designed for one of two different and competing secondary goals. Make you go fast or keep you cool.

My helmet is designed for the former, though there are a few ways I can adjust it to make it cooler on a hot day, though each of those sacrifices speed.

A helmet does two things with air as it passes.

First it cuts into it. My helmet has a smooth front with no vents. Because of that, all air will be directed around the helmet. That means that I won’t have the benefit of cooling. Some helmets have lots of vents in the front and are great for keeping you cool. That air that brushes bye your head though is creating drag.

Second, it redirects it. You can see from the image below that my aero helmet has a long protrusion that resembles that of a Death Star Trooper. That is designed to help direct the air around the helmet and to my back. In an ideal world there is no gap between the riders back and the helmet, thus creating perfect air flow.

The orange line below shows what we want the wind to do.

wind-on-aero-helmet

I have tweaked my form slightly since this picture was taken so that the gap between my helmet and back is smaller. It doesn’t touch, but it is pretty darn close.

Upgrading helmets is not the most cost efficient aero upgrade. The helmet I’m using costs $400 new and will probably save me 5 minutes of time. I didn’t have another bike helmet and have trained using a snowboard helmet which has a hugely inefficient visor on the front so I knew I needed to get something. Thankfully I found this one on craigslist for much less than retail.

Disc wheel

There are some studies showing that the turbulence created by air passing through the spokes of the back wheel isn’t good for aerodynamics. A product invented to help with that is a disc wheel.

Zipp-Super-9-Disc-CarbonTubular-Rear-Disc-Wheel

This particular wheel from Zipp retails for $2,400. Wow! That is more than twice as much as my bike cost.

A disc wheel could actually help on your front wheel as well, but it is usually unsafe to have one. If you are riding with side winds, a gust can push against these wheels. If you have a disc on your front wheel, the wind can turn your bike because the front wheel controls the steering. That might result in a crash. The rear wheel is typically safe because it doesn’t turn and you are sitting with your weight right above it which holds you in place.

I went with an alternative from a company called Wheel Builder. Take a look at the picture below and see if you can tell the difference.

aero-back-wheel

 

Can you tell the difference? Well, the wind can’t according to testing. Basically my wheel is a plastic cover that snaps on. It is a bit heavier than having a carbon wheel since I am carrying spokes, the cover & the fasteners – but remember, weight isn’t that big of a deal. Oh, and did I mention it costs less than 1/20 of the cost of that Zipp wheel.

Shaving your legs

Now we’re getting into the minutia.

Cyclists have been shaving their legs for a long time. The main reason they quote is that in the case of a crash, shaved legs don’t get torn up by the asphalt as much and tent to heal faster.

Specialized, a bike company, recently did tests though and concluded that there was also an aerodynamic advantage. Do I believe them? Well, their tests were on legs that weren’t moving, and I don’t plan on spending much time with my legs not moving, so I can’t say I’m fully bought in.

But I’ll tell you what. Last week I was riding when I saw a small gnat stuck in my leg hair despite the fact that I was going ~20mph. I realized that if I bug could get caught in my leg hair, so could air. The difference between smooth and hairy legs is probably about the same as the difference between clothing materials. As I mentioned above though, spandex & lycra are faster than say… wool, so I guess that means I’m shaving.

I’d never shaved my legs before. I feel like this was a cycling rite of passage.

On a scale of one to Chewbacca, my legs might be a four. They actually don’t look quite as hairy as they are because the hair is light and about the same tone as my skin. I figured this would be quick – so I got started.

sahving-legs-to-get-aero

Turns out it wasn’t quick. I had to keep clearing hair out of the razor. My approach was a tub full of hot water and lots of shaving creme. The first pass took forever but then things got quicker. After about three passes I felt like they were actually smooth enough to make me faster.

Here is the comparison.

gettin-aero-one-leg-shaved

And here is what was left in the tub from that one leg.

leg-hair-in-drain

I suspect some advantage will also come from the mental aspect of this. Back in college I had a special pair of race socks I only used when racing. They were the same as the socks I trained in, but in better condition due to less use. The main advantage to them was that when I put them on, I knew it was go time. That was a clue to my body & mind that this was something special so treat it like such.

Aero Enhancement I am Intentionally Avoiding

I mentioned before that there are tons of product out there sold under the guise of making you more aerodynamic. I tried to only utilize those with real impact, paying attention to the cost/effect ratio.

The following are items I’ve intentionally passed on.

  • Aero frame
  • Behind the seat two-bottle holder
  • Aero seat post
  • Shoe covers
  • Aero front wheel or three-spoke wheel
  • Bullhorn handle bar
  • Aero shaped water bottle for frame