It’s like the holy grail of triathlon. How do I get faster without training more. Where is the best place to spend money and what gives me the biggest bang for my buck? Everyone looks to Tri bikes and deep section carbon wheels first (Which is good because that’s what I’m selling in the day job) but there are a lot of much more economical ways to “buy speed” or even go after “free speed” some of which might surprise you. Click on through for the good stuff…
Pro cyclists who were less well prepared than amateurs.
I’ve read before that back in the early 2000’s drug use was so widespread in the professional peloton and that they got such a massive boost from drugs they didn’t need to worry about marginal gains. With the clamp down on doping they discovered that they had a huge surplus budget (the one not being used anymore for drugs) and at the same time had lost performance. It was only at this stage that they started looking where the amateur riders had already been chasing gains for a long time. What Sky’s pro team and British Cycling called Marginal gains.
Before I get into the good stuff it’s important to say that 80% or more of being fast comes from training, the other 20% comes from having the right kit and setup for the conditions. The 20% can make you faster but unfortunately it doesn’t make you fast without first doing the training.
- Tri bike. It’s important to look at the reality of any of the kit you are thinking of buying or racing on. Wind tunnel numbers and claims are all well and good but we don’t race in the wind tunnel, we race in the real world and how well we can handle a piece of equipment in real life has a much greater bearing on our speed than the claimed potential gains based on certain fixed conditions in a wind tunnel. If a bike is difficult to ride because an athlete weighs 60kg and the bike catches the wind and pushes them around then having the fastest bike on paper doesn’t translate to the real world. Fighting the bike in the wind means you’re going slower. A slightly less aero but more stable, easier to ride bike is almost always faster.
- Deep section carbon wheels. The same rules as above apply.
- Aero helmet.
- Bike fit. Most of us aren’t that 25 year old professional bendy, super flexible triathlete who spends 20 hours a week on the bike. We are for the most part 30-50 year old very part time amateur triathletes usually with all sorts of biomechanical baggage. Bad backs, dodgy knees, weak glutes or any number of old football injuries to work around. Talk about Bryan saying his first ride after a fit is with an Allen key and he adjusts things as he goes. The fastest fit over 1 hour might be the slowest over an Ironman if you can’t maintain it. One of the things I always tell people when they are setting up their bike is that there are a couple of big gains that should always be looked at first. Bike fit is paramount. Me and you are the most unaerodynamic part of the package and no matter how fast the bike, wheels and all the other bits are if we are sitting up like a big human parachute instead of trying to be as invisible to the wind as possible then we will go slower.
- Tri bars. Just bolting a set on the bike wont make you any faster, getting them fitted as part of a proper triathlon bike fit will.
- Posture, not fitting. Remember when your mammy used to give out to you for slouching and to “stand up straight” ? The same applies here. Having an expert fit you on the bike and improve your “position” is only half the battle. It’s what you do with that position that will determine how much you actually gain. Correct pelvic angle and “turtling” your head can make significant improvements to an already good bike fit
- Skin suit with sleeves. These are all the rage and the wind tunnel numbers seem to back up the claims but make sure that if it’s really tight (as it should be on the bike) that it’s not restricting your stroke in the swim. If so roll it down under the wetsuit until you get to T1.
- Short tail aero helmet. Less “crazy” looking and also claimed to be faster for most athletes. Whenever you move your head to check it’s ok to pull out to make a pass or just to stretch your neck the old style long tail helmets actually caused drag as the “tail” swings out into the wind. The new breed of short helmets don’t suffer from this problem.
- Shaving your legs. I’ve seen claims of savings of 40 seconds over 40k, thats between three to four minutes in an Ironman. As far as free speed goes this has to be one of the easiest to justify, especially if you’re very hairy.
- Shaving your arms. See above, less gains but sure if you’ve got the razor out…
- Shaving your beard. I always wondered at world class track riders chasing every single percent of gain they could only to rock up to the start line with a grizzly adams beard…
- Bottle placement on bike. Horizontal in between the arms is currently all the rage, aero bottles on the frame. There are gains to be had by taking stuff off as well as adding it.
- Food placement on bike. I was one of those people who started my first Ironman with a dozen gels taped to the top tube of my bike. Admittedly I was more afraid I wouldn’t even finish and wasn’t concerned at all about speed but if you want to go as fast as you possibly can then tidy up your food placement.
- Tyre & tube choice can be an area of significant gains as stiffer tyres with a higher rolling resistance lose time against softer, more simple tyres with lower rolling resistance.
- Tyre pressure. It turns out that less is more, or at least if you’re riding the right tyre/tube combination then lower tyre pressures are faster than higher ones.
- Race number placement. Do you really want to add a small parachute after spending thousands of Euro or Dollars on the faster step kit you can afford? Keep your number as neat and out of the wind as possible.
- Rear dérailleur pulleys. This is definitely one for the chasers of marginal gains. Expensive for a relatively small return but if you’ve already ticked all of the other boxes why stop here?
- Low friction chain: There are some expensive, faster chain options out there now or if you’re on a budget…
- Simply clean & lube current one. You would not believe the massively expensive bikes we see with drive trains so bunked up with dirt, grease and rust that is just cancelling out the gains you’ve made with the expensive bike.
- Cleaning the bike. The same as above, cleaning your bike is really important in terms of making sure that everything is working correctly and a good way to spot small niggly problems before they become big expensive ones.
- Ceramic bearings. Another small marginal gain and another expensive one but as I said above if you’ve ticked all the other boxes why stop now?
- Cleaning up the aerodynamics: Tidying cables, bar tape and any other bits of the bike that are sticking out in the wind is a cheap and easy way to save that half of one percent of drag.
- Spares storage on the bike. This is a pretty big area for some people as they tape tubulars onto the top tube or race with a full size saddle bag. Can you downsize to a smallest tidier one for race day and carry slightly less spares?
- Co2 instead of a bike pump. Using a Co2 inflator is a good way of cleaning up the aerodynamics of your frame as you can take the pump you need for training rides off and stuff the Co2 nozzle and canisters into your saddle bag.
- Remove frame mounted bottle cages. Riding with a correctly placed rear mounted bottle cage system is more aerodynamic than having cages on the frame.
- Bike cockpit: the first thing to hit the wind and while it’s probably less important than wheel choice it is one of the most important considerations when looking at where savings can be made on the bike. Having gels, lights or other unnecessary items clamped onto your cockpit is a big no, no. They might be needed for training but are they really necessary for race day?
- Electronic group sets. When Di2 was introduced it was the first time I saw a real potential to gain time from the group set, I don’t think there’s any considerable difference between Shimano 105 and Dura Ace when it comes to triathlon performance. However with the introduction of gear shifting on both the brake levers and the tri bars with Di2 I could see gains in Ironman. For the first time I could ride a tri bike like I did my road bike. I could climb out of the saddle and change gears, I could shift gears while cornering hard on the brake-hoods. On a technical course like IMUK I was guessing the gains to be in minutes rather than seconds. Ironman Florida on the other hand with big wide flat straight roads didn’t benefit much from it.
- Wetsuit choice. This might not seem like the most important area to focus on but the fact that a good wetsuit is worth for me about 10 seconds per 100m over a poor one, that’s a whopping six to seven minutes over an Ironman swim which equates to about a 10% saving. That’s a lot more than marginal and should probably be further up the list…
- Putting your wetsuit on correctly, in the same way as a good bike fit will make you quicker so will putting your wetsuit on correctly. Yep just wearing it in a certain way is quicker, there’s less restriction in the arms and upper body so you fatigue less and as a result slow down less which is just another way of saying you go faster.
- Elastic laces in your runners. But don’t train in them, you’re more likely to get injured.
- Tri shoes. These help getting on and off the bike faster. A small deal you might think? I know someone who’s got a couple of ten minute transitions in an Ironman (aside from me in Ironman France that is) The difference might be a placing in your age group or even a Kona slot. I missed one by two minutes once, albeit with two fairly fast transitions that day so I couldn’t blame the tri shoes.
- Practice your transitions. The same story as above and these practice sessions are often overlooked for long course racing but how long would it take you to take ten or twelve minutes off your swim? If you can lop that off two transitions with minimal effort it’s a bit of a no brainier.
- Wetsuit glide: Getting that wetsuit off faster will help with reducing your transition time and wetsuit glide or lube will help but be warned, don’t use an oil based lube as it will rot your wetsuit.
- Swimming straight. This one sounds really obvious but it has to be one of the most common mistakes we make. If over the course of an Ironman swim I add just 10 meters to every 200 I swim I will cover almost 4000m instead of 3800m. That 200 meters will take me about 3.5 minutes, if I have a particularly bad day and do an extra 10 meters every 100 because I don’t swim straight that will add at least 7 minutes to my swim time. Simply learning to swim straight can save you as much time as a whole years training.
- Biking straight. Well what I actually mead in not biking straight but taking the shortest legal line possible. In 2011 myself and Ais did IMUK which is a very twisty, technical bike course. When we checked our bike computers at the end of the day I had 179.9k, Ais had 182k. That difference was down to riding the best line through corners and on the twisty descents. At 30kph an hour it takes 4 minutes to cover 2k.
- Running the line of an intelligent runner. That’s what I believe it’s called when a marathon route is measured. They cut the corners as closely as possible and run the shortest legal route. When I ran the Malta marathon a couple of years ago I spent a long time running close to another runner who I like me had their Garmin set to beep every kilometre. For the first few k’s the beeps were almost simultaneous but the further we went a gap started to become apparent. Their Garmin was beeping before mine. I was running the shortest line, as Ais had told me to, they were pretty much staying on the same side of the road all the way and as a result running a much longer line through a lot of corners. By the half way point there was a gap of probably a couple of hundred meters between the beeps even though we were still running close to each other on the road. We were at the same point in the marathon but they had covered more ground than I had to get there. In the same way as running in the inside lane of a running track is the shortest, and fastest, running the shortest legal line of a marathon meant a PB for me that day.