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Maximising Aerodynamics for Faster Triathlon Performance

Maximising Aerodynamics for Faster Triathlon Performance

There is not a professional triathlete competing today that has not spent time in a wind tunnel or at least with some sort of aerodynamics expert in order to optimise their cycling position and choices of equipment. This is not only a costly but time-consuming activity and one which recreational triathletes will have difficulty emulating. Not only that, do you even know where the nearest wind tunnel is to you? We can learn a lot from the findings of the pros, without subjecting ourselves as a test-dummy though. Then there is just plain common sense when thinking about how we can make ourselves move faster through the air and of course, the water.

Swim – Not technically aerodynamics, probably better to call it hydrodynamics. Water is much denser than air so reducing drag will make an even more significant difference.

  • Body position – Many of the technique drills that we perform in the pool are aimed at improving our body position in the water, which reduces drag. Keeping our shoulders, hips, knees and feet all in the same line reduces out frontal area and the amount of our bodies that the water can get a grip on as we pass through it.
  • Hands – Simply thinking about how our hands enter the water will reduce drag. Seems like a simple thing but it is often neglected because triathletes think that the hand only pulls water backwards. The initial entry into the water, even if we don’t reach forwards, still finds our fingers, palms and forearms travelling against the flow of water. Even if that is a second, think of how many times you will do that in the triathlon swim.
  • Knees – As long distance swimmers, we should not kick excessively but there is still some kicking to be done. This should be generated from the hip, so that the whole leg is used like a flipper. Kicking from the knee will produce too large a bend and this then affects our streamlining, allowing the water to get a good hold on our big, cyclist’s thighs.
  • Feet – Unfortunately, because we also run a lot, our ankles and feet will not be nearly as flexible as a swimmer’s. This results in most triathletes feet pointing towards the ground to some degree, rather than pointing backwards. Working on a bit of ankle and foot flexibility will allow us to point our toes better which will not only improve our streamlining but also our kick efficiency. It will also reduce those annoying cramps in our feet that every triathlete experiences during swim training and racing at some point.
  • Cap and goggles – Our head is the first part of our body that breaks the water. Making sure our cap fits well will make a small difference but that is what we are working on here. If the cap supplied by the race is too big, wear another one underneath to smooth out the wrinkles. Also, put your cap on over your goggles so that the straps are covered. This will also secure your goggles better in rough water.
  • Kit – As tight as is possible, obviously. The seams around the neck, shoulders and legs need to be sealed and snug with no bagging. In a non-wetsuit swim, pockets on a tri-suit should be avoided. Rather use a bum-bag or the like to carry nutrition once on the bike. Remember that lycra will feel tighter when it is dry.
  • Wetsuit – The ultimate ‘legal cheat’ for triathletes if the water temperature allows them. Wetsuits both improve our body positions as a result of the added buoyancy and they also allow us to slip through the water because of the water-repellent nature of the material. No matter how warm the water, if wetsuits are allowed, use them. As for our lycra kit, wetsuits should be as fitted as possible without being restrictive. If cared for wetsuits last, so rather spend a bit more to get the best material that will fit extremely tightly but allow complete freedom of movement.

Cycle The fastest we will be moving in a triathlon. The faster we move through the air, the more significant even the smallest details become.

  • The Body – The body is the most important when it comes to cheating the wind. Most important is our frontal area. Narrower is more important than lower. There must be no gaping of clothing on the neck or in the chest. Sleeves are more aero than sleeveless but that will depend on whether wetsuits were allowed in the swim. If your suit has pockets, make sure they close snuggly and that you don’t overload them to produce a massive lump on your back.
  • Elbows – Get the elbows in as close together as possible. This may take time and improving shoulder flexibility so, an incremental approach should be used. Don’t worry, this won’t affect your breathing.
  • Shoulders – Roll your shoulders inwards to present a narrower frontal area. Tuck your head down into the space between your upper arms and thrust your chin forwards. This will keep your head low while still enabling you to look forwards while smoothing the airflow over your head, shoulders and back. Training like this, especially on the indoor trainer will make it more comfortable over time. It is not everyone’s natural position. Especially if we have wider, swimmer’s shoulders.
  • Head – We want the head low, filling in the space between our hands and forearms on the tri-bars and our shoulders and upper-back. Choosing an aero-helmet should be determined by how these components of our bodies fit together. We want the helmet fill in the gap between our head, neck and shoulders when in the tucked position. Some helmets will not be long enough in the tail and others too long with a bit sticking up like a fin. Some trial and error may be necessary and taking our bike to the shop may be necessary in order to fine tune our choice.
  • Bike – No matter what your bike manufacturer or shop tells you, with respect to aerodynamics, the bike is only important in allowing us to adopt our most efficient and aero position. The aerodynamics of the actual frame makes a very minor difference. That said, make sure that you smooth out everything that hits the wind as much as possible. Tucking in cables, frame numbers, bottles etc. are easy to do and should cost little to nothing.
  • Wheels – These are far more significant than the bicycle frame and the front wheel is more important than the back one, which is mostly hidden by the frame. The front wheel is also more affected by crosswinds, so it is always a compromise between the most aero (deeper rim) and handling (shallower rim). Being super-aero is not going to help you lying in the ditch on the side of the road.

Run – Most would say that aerodynamics do not play a role on running and they are largely correct. However there are some things that are easy to consider that may provide marginal advantages.

  • Drafting – Not allowed on the bike but perfectly acceptable on the run. Sitting behind or on the shoulder of a runner in front of us will definitely provide a small advantage, especially if it is a very windy day. Running behind and between two runners into a strong wind is almost as advantageous as sitting on someone’s wheel on the bike. This doesn’t have to be devious. Communicate with the people you are running with and take turns on the front. Everyone wins.
  • Kit – Reduce the flapping. We should be running in the same kit we swam and cycled in so this shouldn’t be a factor but, in aerodynamics, tight is always right.
  • Hair – Your long, flowing locks may make you feel like a Viking warrior but tie it up or wear a cap that prevents it from dragging you back. Keeping it off your neck will also keep you cooler.

Why go to all that trouble you may ask? Why would you not want to go faster for the same effort? Free speed is always worth it just like moving through transition faster… but that is a topic for another time…

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