Being Aero for Triathlon
So, you've trained and prepared countless hours for the big triathlon. You've eaten all the right foods, worked out the way your trainer suggested, but you still can't seem to improve your speed in the biking portion of the triathlon. It isn't a matter of biology at this point. It's a matter of physics. Aerodynamics, specifically. It's like the Bob Seger song says: "You're running against the wind."
Since you likely don't have the superpower of manipulating air, the only thing you can do is to make yourself more aero, short for aerodynamic. That is, you're going to change your body position, technique, and equipment so that more air flows around you rather than against you, allowing you to gain those precious seconds on the road.
By reading this piece, you'll learn about the basic biking position, the importance of conditioning, the science of becoming aero, equipment mod recommendations, and more.
Being “aero.” What does it mean? How do you do it? Let’s start at the top.
Basics of Aerodynamics
Here's the part where we have to drop some science on you. Don't worry, you won't be tested. If you understand the basic ideas behind aerodynamics, you can learn more than simply being told to take a specific position or use specific products.
Aerodynamics is the study of the motion of air as it interacts with a solid object; in this case, you and your bike. Even if there is no wind, relative motion means that there is.
Laminar vs. Turbulent Airflow
Laminar airflow occurs when there is a smooth transition between the solid object and the surrounding air. It creates a smooth, streamlined flow that offers little resistance. If you pour a bottle of water out slowly, it comes out easily because the air molecules slide past the water molecules without much conflict. Therefore, the liquid comes out at a steady rate with little interruption.
Turbulent airflow is the opposite. When a solid mass meets air head-on, it has to push the air out of the way. The air molecules have to change their direction completely. Per Newton's third law the reactive force causes the solid mass to slow down. If you lift the same water bottle and completely up-end it, the water comes out in fits and starts because it and the air are chaotically jostling their molecules around one another.
Obviously, you want as much laminar airflow as possible for aerodynamics.
You might also know it as wind resistance. This is simply the force that opposes the forward motion of any object through the air. No matter what, you're always going to have drag. Two types exist: friction drag and form drag.
Friction drag occurs purely because of layers of air molecules sliding against one another. That's an inviolate fact of nature. It doesn't have nearly as much effect as form drag Form drag occurs with turbulent airflow and non-aerodynamic objects.
Speed also contributes to drag. The following equation sums it up:
D represents drag force. CD is the drag coefficient, which we'll talk about in a moment. A represents the surface area making contact with the air - usually the foremost surface. The Greek letter ρ is the accepted variable for fluid density; d is used for distance. Finally, V represents the velocity of the solid mass.
You'll notice that the formula uses the square of the velocity; the faster you go, the more drag force increases. At speeds of 40 miles per hour, virtually all of your energy is spent overcoming wind resistance which is why you likely won't get any faster than that.
The drag force is partially determined by the drag coefficient. This number takes into account the shape of the solid object and the ease with which the fluid moves. Air is going to be the same generally from one place to another, so the defining factor here is the shape. A cyclist sitting upright might be compared to a cube or rectangle shape with a drag coefficient of about 1.05.
Meanwhile, a triathlon biker in an aero position is streamlined and likely has a drag coefficient of 0.4 or lower. All other factors being equal, the biker with less drag coefficient experiences less drag force and can reach peak velocity with less energy.
Benefits of Aero Position in Biking
Aside from the speed and power of your legs, the main limitation to your velocity when biking is the aerodynamics of your profile. If you assume a more aero position, you reduce your drag, increasing your potential speed and endurance.
Basics of Aero Position
You want to have your torso close to level with your forearms pointed forward and your feet parallel to the ground as you pedal. Your head should be lowered, but raised enough to see ahead of you .
A parallel shape has the smallest possible drag coefficient. It takes time to get used to it, but aerodynamic positioning is a critical part of your training if you want to be successful in a triathlon.
Different schools of thought regarding the aero position exist. Some want you to be extreme, with your body resting on the upper tube of the bike and completely parallel with the ground. Others allow a more relaxed posture on the saddle that feels more natural.
Ultimately, everyone is different, so you'll need to try multiple approaches to find out what works best for you. Being aero won't do any good if you can't maintain it.
The human body isn't naturally aerodynamic at all, so you're going to have to put in some serious practice time in the saddle, stretch, and condition your muscles to get used to riding long distances in an awkward position. Work your way up to it and make sure your body is in the condition to do so.
Tips for Being More Aero
There are a few things you can do to improve your aero.
Competing in a triathlon, riding in aero, or doing any physical exercise isn't an instantaneous decision. It requires conditioning so your body can handle it, especially on race day. Biking is a full-body workout, so you'll want to tailor your exercise regimen to target a different muscle group each day.
The core of your body consists of the abs and lower back muscles. All motion and strength stem from a powerful core, so you shouldn't neglect to condition it. One of the best core exercises is the plank. To do a plank, assume a standard pushup position, but prop yourself on your forearms as though you were going aero. Keep your torso parallel to the ground for a minute.
Similarly, the transverse plank works the transverse abs, the muscles on the side of your body. To do a raised plank, assume a regular plank position. Then use your core to twist one side of your body so it faces directly sideways. Hold it for 30 seconds or as long as possible, then go back to regular plank and repeat the exercise on the other side. Repeat twice and add more reps as your strength increases
Your transverse abdominals and hips are what keep you steady when traveling through sharp turns.
Another good core exercise is the bridge. To perform a bridge, lie down in situp position: back flat on the floor, knees bent, feet flat. Use your hips and glutes to lift your back off the floor, bringing your torso and upper legs into a straight line. Don't use your arm muscles to push.
In addition to the basic leg exercises like squats, leg lifts, toe raises and extensions, you should also focus on your hamstrings. Hamstrings, along with quads and glutes, provide power to your pedaling.
One of the best exercises for hamstrings is the wall sit. To do it, lean against a wall and ease down into a chair position without moving your back away from the wall. When your thighs are parallel to the ground, hold the position for 30 seconds or until failure. Stand up, rest, and do it again.
The hamstrings, the muscles on the backs of your legs, provide stability in the second phase of your pedal stroke;
Of course, when talking about leg exercises, you can't neglect the squat. With or without weights, it involves standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, pointed slightly outward. Then, you lower your body until you're nearly sitting on the ground. At that point, stand back up without the use of your arms. You should be lowering and raising your body purely on leg power.
Squats give a workout to the glute muscles.
It isn't just your core that provides strength and stability. Your chest, upper back, and arms will get fatigued over long rides in the aero position if you don't work them.
For a full upper-body workout, you can't get much better than a simple pushup. To do a proper pushup, plant your hands and feet on the ground, keeping your legs and back completely straight. Lower yourself to the ground slowly and push back up with your arms. Don't use your core and don't allow your back to arch during the pushup. Different hand positions strengthen different areas of the chest.
For example, a wide grip strengthens the outer pectorals. A triangle grip with the hands centered under the body enhances the inner pectorals.
The pullup is another good exercise, as long as you have a pullup bar. Grasp the bar with your palms facing you. Without using your legs, pull yourself upward so your chin is at the level of the bar. Hold the position for five seconds and slowly lower yourself.
To work your triceps, try dips. They work on the same principle as pushups. To do a dip, sit down and prop your feet onto a raised surface, legs pointed straight out.
Use your arms to support your upper body and move it forward out of the chair. Then, using the chair as support, lower your body toward the ground and push yourself back upright.
Although biking itself is a great cardio workout, it can't hurt to put some time on the treadmill or doing other aerobic exercises like swimming, jogging, or sports. Aerobics require oxygen and get the heart pumping blood through the muscles faster.
A healthy cardiovascular system enables you to keep going at your top pace for longer. Also, cardio is an effective fat burner. If you've got a little extra around your midsection, it might be harder to go into aero position.
Proper Pedaling Technique
You'd be surprised how many people don't understand how to pedal efficiently. On the forward and downward motions, you want the knees and balls of your feet to be doing most of the work. As the pedal circles backward, pretend you're scraping mud from your shoe, driving the pedal backward.
Lift your foot in Zone 3, or the 7 to 12-o'clock position on the pedal, During the first part of the downstroke, your foot should be parallel to the ground or slightly below, transmitting more power. On the transition, you should point your toes downward at about 20 degrees.
Align your hips, knees, and ankles and keep them that way throughout the pedal stroke. Your hips and pelvis should not move, they should only stabilize you..
Comfort is paramount here. There are a few ways you can maximize it.
Have the Right Fit
First, you need to have a bike that fits your body. Go to a professional bike shop and get fitted. If your seat is too high or the frame not large enough, your form will suffer and you risk injury.
Don't just buy the cheapest bike or the one the salesperson pushes on you, buy the one that feels best. You may pay the price for a poor decision later.
Getting a good stretch before riding not only reduces your risk of injury, it also makes your muscles more responsive and flexible. You should aim for about half an hour of stretches each day even on rest days.
Ease into Aero
If you aren't used to aero, take time to acclimate yourself. Resting a folded towel on your aero bars lets you drop into it gradually.
When you ride, try to alternate between an upright position and aero. As you become more accustomed to aero, you can increase your time spent in that position.
Making Your Bike and Equipment Aero
Although the majority of your aerodynamics is due to your position and technique, your equipment can play a part. Some of it can cost thousands of dollars, especially for high-end bike frames. If you're a professional biker with sponsors or have a lot of money on hand, this may not be a problem.
However, if you're an average triathlon competitor you likely won't be able or inclined to drop that much money on a hobby.
Hair on the legs may not seem like a big problem, but air can get caught in it and create slight turbulence as the air moves past your legs. By shaving, you can make your skin smoother and decrease the amount of form drag you experience.
Brake cables don't have to be flowing loosely to achieve their effect. With nothing but a roll of electrical tape or duct tape, you can secure your cables to the frame, giving air one less surface to affect.
Your head and shoulders are the foremost surfaces that catch the wind. It's estimated that you can shave a minute off your time traveling a 24-mile/40-kilometer ride.
Aero helmets typically have a heavier feel and construction than non-racing helmets. They also have varying construction. Some of them are long, almost teardrop-shaped and designed to curve smoothly against your back as you sit in aero. As long as you hold a perfect position, you have an aerodynamic advantage. If you dip or turn your head, the tail of the helmet lifts or turns and creates drag.
Others are shorter and rounder, sacrificing a little speed in favor of being more forgiving on the wearer's head position.
The biggest drawback to aero helmets is the relative lack of breathability. Standard road helmets have ventilation holes designed to keep your head cool during a race. Aero helmets lack these holes; they allow air to swirl and eddy around your head rather than flow smoothly past it They also have eye shields that don't run the risk of falling off as sunglasses would.
Therefore, you have to be careful about monitoring your heat levels. Hydrate yourself, slow down, or even stop if you notice any signs of heat exhaustion. These include dizziness, disorientation, blurred vision, headaches, and others. You need to do this even in cold weather. In fact, cooler weather makes it easier to overheat as you're more likely to overexert yourself.
A good trisuit offers a mix of moisture wicking, form-fitting, and aerodynamic benefits. It is usually made of fabric that clings tightly to the body but not tight enough to restrict freedom of movement. The idea behind tight-fitting clothing is simple. Flapping cloth creates drag as you're riding along at 25 miles per hour, and you need every advantage you can get.
You can usually wear a trisuit as a single piece of clothing throughout all legs of the race, lessening the time it takes for you to transition between one leg and the next.
Trisuits come in sleeved and sleeveless varieties. Sleeveless trisuits allow your body to get rid of extra heat more efficiently, but they sacrifice some speed. Sleeved suits create a smooth surface over the arms and shoulders.
A good trisuit will have a pad at the seat, making it more comfortable on long bike rides. It may also be water-resistant. Fewer things are more uncomfortable than a waterlogged seat after climbing out of the water onto your bike.
Bike wheels seem simple, right? They're round, they grip the road and propel you forward. What if we told you that your average spoked bike wheel could cost you a minute of time over a distance of 25 miles? A spoked wheel provides stability to the form, yes, but the spokes create turbulent airflow. A disk covering creates a smoother surface.
Deep-section rims may also help. If the rules of your specific event prohibit full disks, you can use deep section rims on your front tire to achieve a similar effect. The rim has a slight flare to it, creating two sections of fast-flowing air around the wheel that you normally wouldn't get with box rims. A box rim is the standard lip-and-inner tube assembly that non-racing bikes have.
The angle allows you to adjust or turn a few degrees off full frontal without experiencing too much drag because the rims redirect airflow.
Even your water bottle, when improperly placed, can create drag. Unfortunately, most bikers place the bottle in the most inopportune spot: clipped to the lower tube, which creates half a second of drag at 30 mph. If you don't want to buy a special aero bottle, you can use your standard one and refill it at aid stations on your race route.
You have several other places to put your water bottle. Some riders elect to put it behind the saddle. The problem with that approach is it is hard to reach, especially if you aren't trained to it. You also risk losing your aero position and precious seconds having to re-establish yourself.
The best position for your water bottle is between your aero bars. First, this keeps your water close at hand and reminds you to stay hydrated. Second, it makes the space between your hands on the aero bars a little more aerodynamic. You can either tie the bottle in place or simply hold it if you're comfortable with it for that long.
Water bottles with straws exist as well, but the straw can cause problems. Just remember to practice opening, drinking from, and closing your bottle on the go so you can do it easily on race day.
For a proper aero position, you want your forearms to be pointed forward so they're in line with your motion. But how do you do that when you need to grip the handlebars of your bike for safety? The answer is simple: install a set of aero bars on your bike.
Aero bars are short parallel bars that attach to your main ones at the center, allowing your forearms to rest in the drops. Aero bars are lower than your standard handlebars. As always, you should get a professional fitting before deciding how low they should be. After a certain point, the hips can press too closely against the pelvis and not generate enough power to pedal efficiently.
Preventing Injuries When Riding in Aero and Competing
Safety should always be paramount when you race or train for any sport. If you suffer an injury or illness, your training may be sidelined for weeks or months, and all your hard work goes to waste as muscles atrophy. Here are a few things you can do to keep yourself in top shape.
Water is the natural lubricant of the human body. Not only does it play a part in almost every chemical reaction in your body, but it also keeps your joints able to move fluidly. Water also helps to keep your nervous system in balance; too much or too little water can cause debilitating muscle cramps. Aim to drink six to eight glasses of water per day to keep your body hydrated.
Hydration also helps you to stay cool on race day. Keep a bottle of water or sports drink with you and make sure to stop regularly for a refill when you need one. Even if you think you're not dehydrated, you can always benefit from a drink.
Always give your muscles a good stretch before working out. Stretching loosens taut muscle tissue and promotes blood flow, providing extra power to your muscles. The aero position puts a lot of strain on your back and hips, so you need to pay attention to those parts when warming up.
Start out with a standing stretch, Lift your arms and lace your fingers above your head. Then press your hands up and backward. You should feel the stretch in your upper back, arms, and shoulders.
Then, do a toe touch if you can. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend down without bending your knees and place your hands on the ground in front of you, or reach down as far as possible and hold for 10 seconds until you start to feel the burn.
Another good stretch is the hamstring stretch. It gets your leg muscles warmed up. To do it, sit on the floor with your leg outstretched and the other foot pressed against the inside of your knee. Reach for the toe of the outstretched foot without lifting your leg off the ground or locking your knee. Hold the stretch for 45 seconds. Then switch to the other leg.
When stretching, you want to make a smooth, controlled motion that forces your muscles and joints to the limits of your comfort. If it's painful, stop and try a more relaxed stretch. Also, never bounce when you do stretches; this can cause injury.
If you're riding in a triathlon, you're going to be in the bike saddle for a long time. If you're not used to it, you can become uncomfortable and your form will suffer for it. Take some time on a stationary bike with an adjustable saddle if you can find one. Increase your saddle time by increments of 5 minutes every week or whatever you feel comfortable doing.
One of the most common complaints of inexperienced bikers is saddle sores. These occur when you have sensitive skin being chafed from extended contact with the bike saddle. It can make riding uncomfortable to have saddle sores.
To prevent saddle sores, make sure you're clean and dry in your chamois, or crotch, region after you finish riding for the day. Try not to apply creams; they can trap moisture. You also need to let your skin breathe.
Indoor Trainer Work
Practicing your riding technique on an indoor trainer can help improve your form and prevent injury. An indoor trainer is a device that attaches your bike's rear wheel to clamps and acts as a sort of treadmill. You can set the riding conditions to whatever you like and get the same results each time.
This training method helps you determine where you could improve. Outside, you're subject to wind resistance and terrain irregularity, allowing you to coast and take a break.
By streamlining your equipment, making your form more aerodynamic and training diligently, you can find yourself placing higher or even winning your next triathlon. You don't have to have the most expensive equipment, even though it does help. The majority of problems with aerodynamics are because of the rider.
When you address them, your performance increases.