Aerobic and Anaerobic- What You Need to Know

Aerobic and anaerobic are two words that many in the endurance coaching world including myself bound around on a daily basis, yet for the aspiring triathlete these can cause confusion at first.

The terms refer to how the body generates energy, imagine a six year old at sports day, belting across the school field towards the finishing line. When they finish their run they will likely be breathing heavily, exhausted from the 25M sprint they have just completed. When they move into secondary school and start running the 1500 on the track and cross country they soon realise something, if they want to run longer distances they have to slow down.

Once they run longer distances at a lower intensities they are not nearly as out of breath at the end of the effort. They may be exhausted and collapse in a heap with sore legs and no energy left, but their lungs will not burn in the same way as before, they will not be recovering from what is known as an oxygen debt.

The reason you experience an oxygen debt after short efforts is due to the body relying primarily on its anaerobic system heavily for short, hard efforts, this is where your body creates energy without oxygen. I won’t go into the science of how it works here, but what you need to know is that the anaerobic system can only function for around 2 minutes before the athlete accumulates a large oxygen debt and has to slow dramatically, this is our fight or flight reaction that allows us to escape from danger. Many predators in the animal kingdom rely on their anaerobic system heavily as they sprint after prey, if the gazelle manages to slip from the cheetahs grasp or zig zag enough to tire the cheetah, it can avoid becoming lunch as the cheetah has created an enormous oxygen debt it must recover from, akin to the six year old who has sprinted full pelt over a short distance and has nothing left at the end.

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A Cheetah relies on its strong muscles and high anaerobic prowess to hunt down its prey, but if it mistimes its sprint or the animal escapes, it is unlikely to make the kill (photo credit Federico Veronesi)

On the other side of the equation we have aerobic fitness, this is energy created using oxygen. This is much more efficient and is one of the leading reasons for our dominance as a species, where our prey relied predominantly on their anaerobic system to escape danger, we were able to keep them in sight and slowly run them into exhaustion as they were unable to hold the pace that we were over longer distances.

As triathletes we are focused almost entirely upon the aerobic system, as it is very rare that we will be putting the hammer down and become predominantly anaerobic when racing even a sprint distance triathlon as we will need time to recover from this effort. The exception to this is in draft legal triathlon where you may launch an attack off the front of the pack to try to bridge to the next group, which upon joining you will be able to sit in the wheels of for a minute or so while your body recovers from the oxygen debt.

This is the reason that so much triathlon training is done at an “all day” pace, to ensure we are building and strengthening our aerobic system and not our anaerobic system. The mistake that many athletes make is doing all of their training way too fast and making very little headway on the aerobic development side of things. You may be able to run a very quick 5K, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a great marathon experience, I can vouch for that one personally!

This is where things get confusing, I am a fairly gifted anaerobic athlete, I can push myself harder and go deeper than many others over shorter periods, but tend to suffer over especially long efforts. Normally when I mention that I have a strong anaerobic system and that 5K is my best distance to an athlete a metaphorical finger is waved in my face. “Aha! But a 5K is over 2 minutes, so it’s not an anaerobic effort”. This is of course true, but what people don’t always realise is that your body is never generating energy on a 100% aerobic or anaerobic basis. If that were the case a 100M sprinter could run with his mouth gaffer taped shut and still hit the same time as his rivals.

Anaerobic energy is created in addition to the energy that is being generated aerobically, you are using anaerobically generated energy while reading this. It is only an incredibly tiny fraction of the energy being created (think several decimal places), but is it ticking over like a pilot light, ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice.

To illustrate this more clearly here is a graph created using WKO4 (more information here) that visualises the energy systems used by an athlete at different timeframes. The data is collated using the athlete’s best performances at the time periods listed on the X axis, with the maximum power than can sustain for that period on the Y axis. I use these graphs to help athletes gain a better understanding of their individual physiologies to help us understand where we need to focus our training effort.

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Today we want to focus on the green and the blue lines, the green line represents aerobic contribution, the blue line anaerobic. If we start to the left of the chart we can see that at 1 second there is very little contribution from the aerobic system as the body has not started increasing the rate at which it pumps oxygen to the muscles yet, but using glycosides the body can create energy within the muscles and get us moving immediately. As we look closer towards the 10 second mark the aerobic system is really starting to get up to speed now, additional oxygen has been absorbed from the lungs and is being pumped to the muscles to get them fired up.

For this athlete, it is at one minute 6 seconds that the crossover occurs, and the aerobic system takes over as the primary fuel source. The aerobic system has fuel, it can continue indefinitely for as long as it has fuel, the anaerobic system making a tiny contribution that can increase on hills or when accelerating hard.

Looking at the 20 minute data point, the anaerobic system is still contributing 10W of power, which is still a respectable amount, I’m sure if this athlete saw their FTP drop by 10W they would be mortified. Remember, this is looking at the athlete’s best 20 minute effort, not all 20 minute efforts use such a proportion of the anaerobic system.

Going back to the graph, it would look very different for a track sprinter compared to a time trialist (which this athlete is classified as). In a sprinter the anaerobic system would make a much greater contribution, it would continue for much longer before the intersection with the aerobic system as sprinters need to hold maximum power for as long as possible. Their aerobic system will be very weak comparatively and they would struggle to keep up on a gentle Sunday club run as a result.

So now we’ve gone through the science, let’s have a look at the takeaway points, and how a better understanding of the two energy systems can aid your training:

-There is no benefit to developing your anaerobic system for most triathletes. I know an extremely successful athlete who has raced at Kona, yet claims he can’t sprint for toffee (never seen him sprint so can’t confirm this). He doesn’t need to train or develop his anaerobic system, he’s happy to let it fall by the wayside almost entirely to focus entirely on his aerobic system. That’s not to say that he won’t start leaning on anaerobic pathways during some sessions (such as hill reps), but the goal of these sessions is to develop muscular force, not to increase anaerobic ability although this may come as a byproduct.

-You’re never completely aerobic or anaerobic, the body is always using both, even if in very small amounts. Your anaerobic threshold is where you start to produce energy primarily from the anaerobic pathway and should be avoided for the majority of your sessions

-Avoid using large amounts of anaerobic energy in your training. It feels good as it leaves you feeling more fatigued, and changes in your anaerobic system are faster to gain and easier to track than gains in your aerobic system (“I’m 5 seconds faster up that hill!”), but are of little use to the vast majority of triathletes when it comes to race day. I know I’ve certainly fallen foul of this one in the past.

-Many fitness tests require you to use large proportions of anaerobic energy, as triathletes we are not testing you for improvements in these areas, rather trying to assess your current weighting between aerobic/anaerobic energy sources. If an athlete puts out the same amount of watts over a set period as his previous best but the anaerobic contribution is lower then the previous test, this will result in an increase in FTP when uploaded to WKO4.

I hope this has given you a better understanding of the role that aerobic and anaerobic pathways play in endurance sport, leave any questions in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

How we use WKO4 to Improve Cycling Performance

WKO4 is a complex piece of software that allows me as a coach to analyse my athlete’s data in unprecedented detail. It uses a powerful mathematical model to calculate metrics that allow for much more accurate training, by giving an accurate estimation of your FTP as it changes over time as well as providing us with individualised training zones along with new ways to review data and track progress.

It’s easy for me to get caught up in the science and mathematics, so I’ll try to keep it simple to give you an idea of the benefits of training with us and how it can help develop you as an athlete.

Power Duration Curve

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This is the heart of WKO4, it takes data from millions of points over the last 90 days to give an estimation of how much power an athlete is capable of producing at different timeframes. Taking this example of my own sorry excuse for training in the previous 90 days, you can see two lines, the yellow line and the red curve.

The yellow line is my Mean Maximal Power, the maximum power I can hold for any duration, you can see some definite drops at points where you can see I haven’t given it any good data beyond that point until it meets the next drop, this is very common towards the end of the power duration curve.

The red line is the model that WKO4 has created, estimating what it believes I can achieve by filling in some of the blanks and looking at my physiology. You can see it doesn’t have much raw data (yellow) for between 15 minutes and 1 hour, but it looks at all the data I have given it and gives me the benefit of the doubt, if I were to do some hard riding in this time period it would give me a more accurate number, whether this lowers or raises my FTP is not important to me, the most important thing is ensuring my zones are correct so I’m training in the right zones and stimulating the right energy systems.

You can also see several white lines moving from left to right, these help give me a good idea of my strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t even consider me to have a ‘recreational’ level sprint and I haven’t done any big power work in the last 90 days, however it classifies my 10-30 minute power as “excellent”. This does not compare my wattage to other riders, but rather looks at my W/KG, how many watts I can output for each kilogram of bodyweight. The curve clearly shows that my sprint power is a weakness, but I’m training for an Ironman, it’s not a limiter to my performance and my focus is elsewhere as a result.

mFTP

This stands for modelled FTP, and gives you one of, if not the most accurate idea of what your FTP is. Many people believe FTP is the highest power you can hold for an hour, which has resulted in several slightly masochistic riders going out and riding as hard as they can for an hour to get their FTP number. The alternative to this is the vastly more popular 20 minute test which I have previously used, but moved away from in favour of using WKO4’s mFTP, there are two reasons for this.

Firstly the highest power you can hold for an hour is an over simplification which has taken root in road cycling at every level, however this is not an absolute value, and has only ever been described as an estimate, the definition of mFTP that exercise physiologists use is *deep breath*

“The maximum power you can hold in a quasi steady state without fatiguing”

This can range from approximately 30 minutes to 70 minutes and is expressed in WKO4 as TTE, or time to exhaustion. The eagle eyed among you may notice that my TTE is currently very low, which informs me this is a weakness and something I need to address.

The 20 minute test is also flawed in that it takes 95% of your 20 minute power and calls this your new FTP, however for many this isn’t the case. For 70% of athletes this may be accurate, however for 15% they may need to take 97% of that figure, and the other 15% may need 93%. mFTP removes the guesswork from FTP calculations as rather than looking at a singe data point (your highest 20 minute power value) it looks at millions of data points from all of your riding to calculate your mFTP.

The lack of formal testing will come as a welcome relief to many, including myself. I can’t think of any athlete who has ever come to me and relished in these 20 minute efforts, they tend to dread these tests and they result in long recovery periods as the athlete is totally cooked. Last year I worked with a very strong athlete who I helped qualify for the World Championships that I remember building himself up for a 20 minute FTP test. He had the goal of hitting a certain number, worked out what power he’d need to hold for the 20 minutes to achieve this figure and guess what? He hit that number. The figure was a good result, but could he have gone harder? Or was it only the target he had set himself that got him through the test to hit that number? There’s also the issue with pacing, it takes a number of tests to give you a true understanding of how hard you can push yourself in those 20 minutes.

That’s not to say that we don’t do any testing, like any mathematical model, the more data you feed it the better the data it outputs, for this reason we ask athletes to perform a series of tests to give us a baseline at the start of the year to give us accurate numbers. I am writing this in early January in the middle of testing myself, once the initial tests have been completed (5 minute, 20 minute, 1 minute and 15 seconds) we then look to maintain these values over the year, using charts such as this one to identify where we need to give the curve more information:

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The software is asking the athlete for more information at the 2 second, 52 second and 1:29 point to give it more information. Timing a 2 second test seems almost impossible, and a 1:30 test seems unnecessarily stressful to me, so in this situation I would give the athlete a 52 second test and leave it there, as the 1:30 and 2 second data points will populate themselves over time.

iLevels

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This is short for individualised levels, and represents the training zones recommended by the WKO4 model for different intensities, taking into account each athlete’s individual characteristics.

If we take two athletes with an identical FTP, but one of them is focusing on sprint triathlons and the other on Ironman, they will have very different power duration curves. WKO4 takes this into account and ensures that each athlete is working at the correct intensity to provoke the desired training effect, as opposed to the one size fits all approach that is used by most others, including the primary TrainingPeaks website. To combat this I spend time every week updating athlete’s iLevels on TrainingPeaks to ensure they match those on WKO4.

Many of you will be familiar with terms such as “tempo” “sweetspot” and “threshold” but the exact meaning of these may be unfamiliar to you, for many they are simply terms used to express how hard they feel they are pushing. The traditional 5 power zones are active recovery, endurance, tempo, threshold and sprint, but with WKO4 these are expanded to include:

Zone 1: Active Recovery
0-56% of FTP

This is the zone you will find yourself in when resting between intervals or if things have gone wrong in a race (happens to the best of us!). In this zone you’re riding, but you’re not really generating much of a training effect, so we aim for at least zone 2 in our longer workouts.

Zone 2: Endurance
56-76% of FTP

As a triathlete this is where you will spend the vast majority of your time. It’s not exciting, it’s not sexy and it can be dull, but it’s necessary for a strong aerobic foundation that allows us to race harder for longer on the big day itself. This should feel manageable and you should be able to sustain it for at least 2.5 hours. You can never have enough base fitness, but once you are able to ride for several hours with minimal changes in your heart rate it’s time to develop our training. As you can see this is quite a large range of your FTP, meaning it is easier to sit in this zone than other, which is a good thing as you’ll be spending a lot of time here!

Zone 3: Tempo
76-88% of FTP

This zone is where things start to get serious, some athletes will be able to stay here for an hour or two, others for up to eight hours, it depends on how well trained you are and more importantly the type of training you have been doing. This is the zone in which very well trained athletes will spend the majority of their Ironman 70.3 bike leg. However just because you can ride 90KM at tempo doesn’t mean it should be your goal for the race, as you still need to be able to run off the bike.

Zone 4: Sweetspot
88-95% of FTP

This is a great zone to sit in if you’re looking to boost your FTP, as for many road cyclists a high FTP is a badge of honour, something for them to brag about at the cafe stop. However as triathletes we use our FTP to base our race efforts off of, and it is as important for us to extend the time we can spend at FTP as increasing the number itself. As a result we spend less time training at sweet spot than road cyclists, but it still makes a frequent occurrence in the build period.

Zone 5: FTP
95-105% of FTP

This is your threshold value, or thereabouts. Sitting in this zone hurts, and you won’t spend much time here, nor will we train here for extended periods very often as the fatigue accumulated is significant, sweet spot is a much more economical way of boosting our FTP and resistance to fatigue.

Zone 6: FTP/FRC

This is the crossover point between our threshold and FRC, more details below

Zone 7: FRC

Your Functional Reserve Capacity looks at the amount of energy you can create while working above threshold, which is traditionally anaerobically. This is of little interest to us as non drafting triathletes as we don’t need to sprint or attack on the bike, so we rarely train in this zone.

Zone 8: FRC/PMAX

This is the crossover point between our FRC and PMAX, more details below

Zone 9: PMAX

This is the absolute maximum, or neuromuscular power we can generate in one complete revolution of the crack arms. Generally speaking efforts in this zone last for less than 10 seconds, the only time we should be in this zone is during fitness testing or potentially for a couple of seconds if we launch a blistering attack in a draft legal race.

 

This is only scratching the surface of the capabilities of WKO4, I have been using the software myself for a year, experimenting with it and playing around with the charts myself before I gained the confidence to start applying it confidently to my athletes. While its primary function is allowing us to monitor, and develop bike power, it also looks at pedalling effectiveness, aerobic development, fatigue resistance, provides you with a season review, power balance, the list goes on and that only covers the cycling side of things, there are a huge number of graphs for running and swimming.

If you wish to learn more about how we implement WKO4 in our training programmes, E-mail Simon@phazontriathlon.com for more information.

 

Heart Rate vs Power

Heart rate and power are the two most popular ways of measuring effort when cycling, but which is the most accurate way of measurement, and which should you use for race pacing? We put the two head to head in different categories.

Accuracy

As numbers geeks, accuracy is probably the number one concern when choosing between the two. In this scenario power easily comes out on top simply due to the data range we have available to us. While an athlete’s heart rate will very rarely fall outside of 40-180BPM, an athlete’s power figure can range from 0-1000W and beyond in the case of exceptionally well trained athletes. This gives us a much greater insight into an athlete’s effort by default, so it’s 1-0 to power at this point.

Reliability

Power meters are incredibly powerful pieces of equipment, but they do require a certain degree of maintenance. Once you purchase and install your power meter they require an initial calibration followed by periodic re-calibration, especially after travelling with your bike. Heart rate monitors are cheap and simple, as long as they have a good connection they will very rarely let you down.

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Wahoo Tickr, the heart rate monitor I recommend due to its bluetooth/ANT+ dual compatibility

Application of data

This is the power meter. Hands down. As a coach, when athlete uses a power meter it gives me a goldmine of information to trawl through. I have a piece of software developed by TrainingPeaks called WKO4 which I use to analyse athlete’s power files to within an inch of their life. It also gives a much better insight into an athlete’s form over time, and due to the huge amounts of data the power meter harvests athletes will find their CTL levels increasing quite sharply as the power meter gives a real insight into every detail of a workout. Even more data can be collected when using a dual sided power meter that collects data from both your left and right side. Most power meters function by taking the power data from your left hand side and doubling it.

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Garmin Vector 3 Pedals, a very popular option for those looking to measure left and right power

Affordability

This one is easy, heart rate wins hands down, a heart rate monitor will set you back around £40, with power meters costing £300 at the very least. If you purchase a triathlon watch it may even come with a wrist based optical heart rate monitor as standard. For the athlete on a budget, heart rate is the winner on practical grounds.

Response time

One of the major downsides with heart rate is how long it takes to react to changes in effort. Your heart rate will often take several seconds to respond to an increase/decrease in effort, as we can see below. 

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The above is a short excerpt from an athlete’s workout. As the power (purple) dips and rises we can see the heart rate takes significantly longer to react, it reacts less evidently (which goes back to our initial point on accuracy), and is still increasing in response to the surge to 350W 30 seconds afterwards. If I only had heart rate data to go off, this graph would tell a very different story.

Effect on Performance

Everything comes at a price, and the same is true with power meters and heart rate monitors. A power meter will add a small amount of weight, but we’re only talking about a handful of grams here, with some brands coming in much lighter than others (for a price!). Meanwhile heart rate monitors will obviously add a small amount of weight by virtue of wearing them, but the main issue athletes worry about is the chest strap. While I’ve never had a problem, some athletes do and find that it uncomfortable. For those who can’t stand the chest strap there are now various optical heart rate monitors available which sit on your wrist or your arm, however these are not as accurate as standard chest strap versions.

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Wahoo Tickr Fit. Image courtesy of BikeRadar

Battery Life

Most heart rate monitors use a standard coin cell battery which can last for many years, where power meters will normally only last a matter of weeks, or even hours if broadcasting data via bluetooth.

Sampling rate

This is a slam dunk for power meters, most will have a sampling rate (the rate at which they measure the power output) at around 50HZ, which is higher than basic heart rate monitors. The exception in this case is heart rate monitors which are used for heart rate variability (HRV) monitoring which have a higher sampling rate and a price tag to match.

Suitability for pacing

Both methods are very useful for pacing, but for very different reasons.

Power data is very useful as it is an objective measure of what is coming out of your legs.  Using Best Bike Split we help our athletes create a bespoke plan that tells you what power to hold at which section of the course. 180W on the flat, 190W at is starts to kick up a bit, 210 on the steep section, it gives us a blow by blow plan to ensure you pace your bike leg to perfection.

Heart rate is affected by a huge variety of factors such as temperature, stress, any infections your body may be fighting, fatigue, you get the picture. While this is its weakness, it is also its strength as it tells you exactly what your body is going through at the time. If your heart rate is sky high your body is trying to tell you something, and you’d do well to listen to it.

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A Best Bike Split race plan calculated with power data. We would never be able to work with such accuracy using only heart rate.

 

This brings us to the underlying point behind this article, and the answer is that they are best used in conjunction with each other. Relying solely on power but with no insight into how your body is coping with the effort can lead to burn out, while only monitoring your heart rate lacks accuracy. This is a subject I will cover in more depth in a future article on aerobic decoupling which I will link to here when completed.

When the Kickr Kicks Back

Today I managed to increase my FTP by an unprecedented 9W without intending to, and found myself in the top 4% of times on one of Zwift’s most popular segments, but how did I manage it? I thought my days of such improvements were behind me, where did this form come from?

As some of you may be aware, Zwift are running a series of events called “The Tour of Watopia” throughout April which take you around the most popular routes on the now famous island. I decided that aiming to complete all of these would be a good way to keep myself motivated as managing a rapidly growing business really eats into your time available to train.

The first stage was around The Big Loop, taking in the epic KOM and the Mayan ruins, as the gun went off there was a predictable surge as groups started to establish, but it’s only a Zwift race and I was just looking for a stretch of the legs, so let them get on with their attacks and span my way round taking in the scenery.

The second event is the Road to Ruins, a much shorter route with less elevation but the shorter nature of the event meant I was less conservative with my power figures, finding myself just outside of the top 120 riders, not going to sniff at that.

This morning was A Tour of Fire and Ice, a route which takes you through the volcano and up the Alpe Du Zwift, their new expansion replicating the legendary Alpe D’Huez climb in France, 12KM long with an average gradient of 8.5%. I went up it last week on a recce and came in at just over an hour, I thought I’d have been better up the mountain given that I weigh as much as a half empty packet of crisps, but I figured a lot of people were probably fiddling their weight to help them post competitive times and I was hardly pushing hard. As we approached the foot of the mountain in the race I noticed I was now within the top 100, that’s decent. 

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Starting to make my way through the field as we approach the first hairpin

By the time I hit the second switchback I was in 50th. With another 19 corners to go I started doing some very rudimentary maths in my head, and realised that the race was on, I’d taken the bait and I was going to chase down the front of the race. 

What followed was 46 minutes and 52 seconds of pushing hard and maintaining a fairly consistent power. I was taking places hand over fist, and working at a far higher power than my FTP figures told me I could hold, but I felt completely in control and pushed on. At the end of the ride I crested the mountain in 19th place, with the 13th fastest time up the climb within the event itself. I was rewarded with not only a solid result which could have potentially been a top 10 finish if I had followed the attacks at the start of the race, but also a massive 9W increase in FTP.

With the release of the Alpe Du Zwift expansion I saw lots of people posting FTP increases on social media, boasting about how within the hour or so it took them to get up the mountain, they set a new FTP. “Absolute nonsense” I thought to myself, if you can hit a new 20 minute PB within an hour effort then you simply weren’t trying hard enough in your 20 minute FTP test. However here I am a few days later with egg on my face, within my 46 minute ascent I managed to hit a new 20 minute best. This makes no sense, and what’s even more confusing is that I averaged 219W for an hour, which is only two watts lower than my previous FTP, so the writing is on the wall, I didn’t push hard enough in my previous FTP tests. Bearing in mind I did my last FTP test only a month ago and I haven’t put in enough training to warrant such an increase, we have to ask what has caused such a result to appear. I believe there are a few factors here

Rabbit to chase

Even when I made up 50 places in the first two switchbacks, I knew I wasn’t in a position to win the race, the guys ahead of me would be as fast if not faster than me up the climb, and they arrived at the foot of the climb several minutes before I did. However as I started taking places hand over fist, I was motivated by shutting down the next cyclist, then the next, and the next. Using each rider as a target I kept myself motivated and it reminded me of the way that I race a 5K run, picking my way through the field using the athletes ahead as targets. This gave me the motivation to push myself further and harder than I would do with only a clock and my power figures for company.

Distance vs Time

I knew that the faster I rode up the mountain the sooner I’d get to the top and the sooner it would all be over, the same can’t be said for a 20 minute FTP test where no matter how hard you push the torture is not ending any sooner. 

Higher Resistance

Why is it that riding uphill is harder than riding on the flat? Mostly it’s just because of the increased resistance provided by the gradient and gravity. This is well simulated by my Wahoo Kickr which means that I can’t spin my legs out, I have to keep up a higher power to keep moving. I can’t shift down a gear or two when my legs start to tire, I can’t increase my cadence to lean on my aerobic system, the resistance prevents me from making it easier for myself, so I’m more likely to keep a high power for longer. For those who don’t have a power meter for the road, a high quality trainer such as the Wahoo Kickr is fantastic for replicating the demands of steep climbs.

 

After I finished my ascent I collapsed over my handlebars in the same manner I did at the top of my previous FTP test, both times convinced that I couldn’t go any harder, when it’s clear from the numbers, that I could have gone harder both times. WKO4 estimates my FTP sits at 138W, 8 W higher than the already incredible 8W increase calculated from my 20 minute best effort.

Unfortunately this means I have to ask myself some very difficult questions, namely why aren’t I a much better cyclist? Why do I struggle to hold the wheels on fast, flat rides? I’ve always been fairly handy on the hills, but if I use the FTP that WKO4 believes I should be riding at then I should be hitting 4.5 W/KG at threshold pace. Bearing in mind that 5 W/KG is normally the domain of professionals or at the very least top level age groupers, this leaves an awful lot of difficult questions for me to mull over. Do I struggle because I believe I will struggle? Are there other factors such as bike handling skills, or a simple lack of willpower/belief in myself that are holding me back? Is it simply that I look at people with legs the size of my head and tell myself there’s now way I can keep up with them? Is my nutrition strategy all wrong? Am I just not willing to push myself hard enough? These are difficult questions to ask with no clear answer. I’ll have to do some soul searching in the coming days for answers.

Now that I have my nice high FTP and I know that I can hold that power over those times, this will hopefully help me to dig deeper and put out the figures that deep down I know I’m capable of achieving. 

So what are the takeaway points for others here? I guess the hard truth is that we can all push harder than we think we can, given the right motivation. Fitness testing isn’t sexy and is far from engaging, pedalling your bike into nothingness or running along with lungs burning as the clock ticks down. While we can learn to get better at these tests by playing mind games with ourselves to push our bodies further, we are all motivated by different things. I’m clearly motivated by chasing anonymous riders down on a virtual mountain, other will be motivated by holding the wheels of those faster than themselves and others with a specific playlist blaring in their ears. We’re all individuals so play around and find what makes you tick.

Where is the Best Place to Invest in Triathlon?

Image copyright AMC

The products that promise to make you faster in triathlon are literally endless, every trade show or press release that comes my way promises free speed for a price. Whether this is in the form of miracle nutrition supplements, super aero bike components, advanced cycle clothing or running specific underwear, they all claim to be great value for money, and promise to solve all of your problems. Having worked in triathlon retail for two years I have helped hundreds of triathletes put together the right package for them and their budget, so I wanted to share with you the advice I have picked up and shared with customers over the years. Obviously I can’t cover every single piece of equipment, but I’ll do my best to cover the most common purchases.

It’s worth mentioning that for each item listed there are cheaper options as well as more expensive options available. Just because something isn’t listed as good value doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it, I’m the proud owner of many of the items that I list here as being poor value, however for the new athlete there are a other purchases which should come first and will offer your more bang for your buck.

Good Value

Power meter

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Stages Cycling 105 5800 Left Crank Arm (RRP 449.99)

Probably the single best investment you can make in your fitness, especially if you are working with a coach who can use the data to monitor your fitness closely. The power meter not only records data, but displays it as you ride to help you pace your rides effectively. Heart rate also helps with this but as it’s so easily affected by other factors such as fatigue, illness and stress,  power is useful as an absolute measurement of what’s coming out of your legs. The savvy athlete/coach closely monitors the relationship between heart rate and power to track fitness and fatigue.

Heart Rate Monitor

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Wahoo Tickr, RRP £39.99

If you can’t afford a power meter then a heart rate monitor is the next best way to monitor your effort levels. A chest strap gives you much more accurate readings than the optical heart rate monitors found on newer triathlon watches, so are recommended for serious training.

High Quality Clothing

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Castelli Evoluzione Bibshort (RRP £80)

Invest in high quality clothing which will keep you warm and comfortable when riding and racing. Cheap clothing is a false economy as it will be uncomfortable resulting in unenjoyable training, chafing and it will likely fall apart quickly.

Tools 

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X Tools 18 piece set (RRP £39.99)

This covers all bike maintenance tools, chain lubes, grease e.t.c. If you learn to fix your bike yourself this will give you confidence and save you lots of money on workshop labour fees. High quality tools are important if you plan to do a lot of work on your bike, but there is no need to spend money on workshop quality tools if you are occasionally tinkering with your own machine.

Elastic Laces 

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Xtenex Elastic Laces (RRP £9)

There’s no excuse for this one, these will save you lots of time in transition and allow you to get running sooner. Tying laces with cold hands after a chilly ride is near impossible, a problem solved with a £5 pair of elastic laces.

Good Quality Goggles 

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Aqua Sphere Kayenne Goggles With Polarise Lenses (RRP £30.00)

Swimming isn’t much fun if you can’t see where you’re going, you’re blinded by the sun or your goggles keep taking on water. A good pair of open water goggles can be picked up for cheap and will provide you with a far more enjoyable experience in the water. All goggles have a shelf life, so treat yourself to a new pair ahead of race day.

 

Dumb Turbo Trainer

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Tacx Blue Matic Turbo Trainer (RRP £139.00)

Is the weather too cold to conclusive riding? Too windy? Not enough time? Throw your leg over a turbo trainer and get a good quality workout in from the comfort of your garage. The fitness you will gain from getting rides in when you’d otherwise be forced off of the bike results in enormous gains in fitness.

Coaching 

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Coaching can be in the form of monthly training plans, or coached sessions such as an introduction to open water swimming (above)

 

Some people struggle with the concept of paying for coaching as they want to walk away from a transaction with something carbon fibre in their hands. But when you consider a year of coaching with Phazon Triathlon costs less than a rear wheel, the expert guidance and support you will receive from a coach will help shave hours, not minutes off of your finish time.

Premium Tyres

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Continental GP400S II Tyre (RRP £60)

As covered in a recent article, a good set of tyres will help prevent punctures, provide extra grip and reduce rolling resistance. Because nobody likes to end up in a ditch or standing by the side of the road trying to wrestle a tyre off the rim as other stream past.

Appropriate Running Shoes 

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On Running Cloudflow Running Shoes (RRP £120)

A pair of running shoes that fit you well, are comfortable and not too worn are essential to your performance ,by running in ill fitting and/or worn running shoes you vastly increase your risk of injury. You also need to ensure the shoes you wear are suitable for he distances you’re running and the terrain you’ll be running on.

Swim Toys 

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Speedo Power Paddles (RRP £13)

 

Investing in a modest collection of swim toys (pull buoy, fins, paddles, tempo trainer e.t.c.) will vastly improve your swim if used correctly, shop around and you’ll find some good deals going.

Clip On Aero Bars

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Token TK9741-2 Aero Clip On Bars (RRP 39.00)

Using a set of clip on bars can save you time hand over fist by lowering and narrowing your position on the bike. It’s very difficult to get a comfortable position on a road bike with clip on bars, but the good news is you’ll be able to revert to the hoods if they prove to be too uncomfortable.

Sports Massage/Physiotherapy 

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If you feel niggles or tightness appear from training, be sure to get them seen to by a professional. Sports masseurs can help you treat the symptoms of the pain and advise on the potential cause, but sometimes it takes a full screening with a physiotherapist is essential to address the cause of the injury.

Bike Fit 

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Sigma Sports Bike Fitter James Thomas (image copyright Sigma Sports)

Ride your bike in more comfort and produce more power. It doesn’t take an awful lot, just a high quality bike fit. The free fittings that shops provide aren’t worth much at all, make sure you visit a bike fitting specialist who uses their experience and knowledge of biomechanics rather than relying on technology

Triathlon Watch 

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Garmin Forerunner 935 GPS Watch (RRP £470)

With smartphone apps that record your rides and runs for you, the real benefit of a triathlon watch is for recording swims, talking to ANT+ sensors and keeping an eye on your pace as you run or your metrics as you cycle. If you are following a training plan, a triathlon watch becomes an essential for following workouts.

Mid value

Hydration Systems

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Profile Design FC25 Hydration System (RRP £75.00)

The ability to lean forwards and take a drink saves you a lot of time and effort, reaching behind your saddle or to your downtube every time you need a drink is feels cumbersome after using one of these. Most come with a mount for a GPS computer as well which solves the tricky issue of attaching computers to aero bars.

Premium Tri Suit (£150)

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Huub Dave Scott Long Course Trisuit (RRP £190)

A more expensive tri suit will provide aerodynamic gains and dry quicker, but these are both luxuries, and for longer events many people will drop the tri suit in favour of sports specific kit anyway. The most important factor is one you feel comfortable in. If the difference between a well fitting or ill fitting suit is £50, then splash the cash. You won’t regret it on race day.

Clip In Pedals 

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Shimano 105 5800 Carbon SPD Pedals (RRP 99.00)

The words that strike fear into the hearts of many, this system allows you to put power down quickly and also increases the power you gain on the upstroke, especially on the hills. They also keep your feet locked into a (hopefully) efficient position reducing the risk of injuries.

High End Bike Shoes 

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Specialized S-Works Trivent Tri Shoes (RRP £275)

This assumes your existing shoes provide relative comfort. Upgrading into a more lightweight shoe with a stiffer sole will increase performance, especially over longer distances. If your current shoes are ill fitting then a new pair of shoes are very important.

Aero Helmet

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Lazer Wasp Air Triathlon Helmet (RRP £349.00)

A good aero helmet will save you a lot of energy, sometimes as much as a set of aero race wheels. Spend your time trying on different brands until you find one which fits like a glove and is appropriately ventilated for the conditions you’re racing in. Taking a helmet with no vents to Lanzarote is just asking for trouble.

Poor value

Triathlon Bike

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Cervelo P3 Ultegra Di2 (RRP £4,299.00)

I’m a big believer in triathlon bikes, the additional comfort they provide and access to gear shifters from the aero bars save you a lot of time, but you could buy a decent car for the same cash. I recommend people get a couple of seasons under their belt on a road bike before they take the leap and upgrade to a TT machine.

Smart Trainers 

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Wahoo Kickr (RRP £999.00)

I love my smart trainer, but if you already own a basic turbo trainer, you will be paying a lot of money for luxuries such as ERG mode and variable resistance. If you’re buying your first turbo trainer and have the money to spend, absolutely go for a smart trainer, but if you’re already running a dumb trainer, look at items further up the list before you upgrade to a smart trainer.

Deep Section Wheels 

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Lightweight Fernweg Clincher Wheelset (RRP £5,549.00)

Not quite as essential as some people would have you believe, a nice set of wheels will save you a lot of time, but you need to be going quite fast to get the most out of them. If you’re new to triathlon you’ll barely be able to get up to speed to make the most out of them, and the weight penalty may offset the aero benefit. Save these for when your times start to plateau.

High End Wetsuit

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Orca Predator Fullsleeve Wetsuit (RRP 649.00)

Upgrading to a top end wetsuit is a lot of money for not a lot of benefit. It will be more flexible, and *slightly* more hydrodynamic, but simply putting on a more expensive wetsuit won’t help your technique. If you struggle in the swim, that money is better spent on swimming tuition. When you start knocking on the door of the top 20% in the swim, that is the time to start looking at performance wetsuits.

Components 

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The Brand New Shimano 105 R7000 Groupset (RRP varies)

High end components sure look good, and yes they’re marginally lighter but on TT bikes components are the last thing we should be worrying about as once you get to Shimano 105 level, the only tangible benefit beyond this point is weight saving, and bike weight is the last of our concerns for most triathlons. The best time to upgrade your groupset is when your current one wears out, as they’re very expensive to purchase as a standalone item.

Sports Specific Nutrition

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PowerBar Energize Bars (RRP 1.50)

Buying specially branded energy gels and energy bars only really provide you with a convenience. An energy bar is nothing you can’t make in the kitchen yourself and many people choose jelly babies over energy gels anyway. If you find that these products really hit the spot for you and you can’t imagine yourself racing without them then by all means stock up, but the costs can add up very quickly.

GPS Bike Computer 

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Garmin Edge 820 (RRP £370)

GPS head units such as Garmin Edge or Wahoo ELEMNT units are great for cyclists as they provide routes you can follow, display your data clearly as you ride, and can even be used in conjunction with your smart trainer. However this provides very few functions that a high end triathlon watch can’t, so this falls down the list.

 

You may have noticed a pattern here, items which improve your fitness and comfort are high on the list, where equipment based purely on race day speed lower on the list. Investing in yourself is far more important than investing in your bike. Yes top end bikes are sexy, but at the end of the day it’s what’s in your legs that matter, and the ability to put out big watts far outweighs aero/weight.

Road Tyres 101

Tyres, how much can be written about those pieces of rubber that sit on your wheels? Have you ever given a second thought to these since buying your bike? If not then you really should, they’re the contact patch between you and the road, and spending a few pennies on upgrading them can reap huge benefits, being the difference between you smashing a PB, sat on the side of the road fixing a puncture with everyone else streaming past you.

Tyre types

There are three types of tyre available to the cyclist, and not every type of tyre is compatible with every wheel, so pay attention to the wheels you have and the type of tyre you pick off the shelf. If in doubt, pop into your local bike shop for advice.

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Image Credit Swimbikesurvive

 

Clinchers

Far and away the most popular choice and what I’d currently recommend for the vast majority of my athletes, the standard tyre that you most likely have on your wheels. It holds a butyl/latex inner tube in place under high pressure, and if a sharp object makes its way through the tyre then this will pierce the inner tube, resulting in a puncture. This is relatively easy to fix and you’ll be back on the road in no time at all.

Tubular

There was a time when clincher tyres were heavy with poor grip, and the racing cyclist used tubular tyres, also known as tubs. These work in the same way as a non tubeless car tyre, the entire tyre inflates rather than a replaceable inner tube which means that if you get a puncture you have to change the entire tyre. This involves gluing the tyre onto your rim, so not only would you have to carry a spare tyre, you’d also have to carry the kit to affix it to the rim. As the glue takes 72 hours to set fully, you can’t even roll home safely, so very few cyclists will use them for training. They still have a place in racing when you’re followed by a team car, or in a time trial where a puncture is essentially a DNF and their marginally improved grip, ride feel and weight saving can pay off, but now that clinchers have come so far, there’s very little reason for the amateur triathlete to run tubs.

Tubeless

These work in a similar fashion to clinchers in that they are held in place by your rim, the difference being that there is no inner tube, with direct inflation of the tyre pinning itself in place. Tubeless tyres have improved rolling resistance (more on that later) and are more lightweight than clincher tyres with tubes, as well as providing unparalleled puncture resistance. Before inflating the tyre the majority of people then insert a sealant into the which will immediately seal any holes that appear as the result of a stray nail or shard of glass. If your tyre rips or you experience an especially large puncture then the tyre may not seal itself

So why isn’t everyone running tubeless? If you get a puncture which the sealant fails to repair as it is too large then, you’re up a famous creek without a paddle. Another problem is the historic lack of choice in the tubeless market, manufacturers like Hutchinson have been making tubeless tyres for years, but it’s only recently that the heavy hitters in the tyre market have been making tubeless tyres, and even more recently that wheel manufacturers have started bringing out a bigger range in tubeless ready rims. There is also the difficulty in getting them setup which is an art in itself, and unless you know what you’re doing is probably best left to a bike shop.

However I believe that these problems will be overcome and in five years time most of us will be running tubeless setups. The cycling market is traditionally very superstitious, however markets like triathlon are pushing innovation forward at an increased rate and bringing old fashioned cyclists around to the benefits of new tech.

So which system should you run? At the time of writing (early 2018) I would recommend clincher tyres to most for their ease of use and the large variety of compounds available. Most of us know how to change a puncture and tubeless would likely involve a reinvestment in wheels, something not appealing to many.

So which compound should you go for? What’s the difference between the tyres that came on your bike and the tyres that cost £50 a pop? Let’s look into the factors that make tyres such an important consideration.

Puncture Protection

Let’s start with the big one for many new triathletes, the dreaded puncture. If you are unlucky enough to ride over a sharp object it will try to make its way through your tyre and pierce your delicate inner tube, resulting in a flat tyre, which for some is as good as a DNF. However don’t think that more expensive tyres have better puncture protection as that’s just not the case. The more puncture proof material that you place between the tyre and the inner tube, the heavier the tyre becomes, and the more sluggish the handling, so it really is a balance between performance and puncture protection. You can even get solid tyres which are obviously completely immune to punctures, but handle like an absolute turd. This is acceptable for your hipster commuter making their way through Shoreditch, but for the discerning road cyclist is nothing short of heresy.

Grip

The biggest factor for most cyclists is the grip that a tyre offers, which allows you to corner faster and can be the difference between making a corner or ending up on the side of the road as your bike washes out from underneath you. Upon upgrading to a nice grippy tyre you’ll feel confidence in the way it sticks to the road, reducing the amount of speed you need to scrub off before cornering. Grip and TPI (threads per inch) tend to go hand in hand, so look for a tyre with a high TPI for improved grip.

Rolling Resistance

Without wanting to get too wrapped up in science here, this refers to how well the tyre rolls on the tarmac, and the energy which is saved from having a tyre with improved rolling resistance. This comes down to the rubber used and the friction that is created between the tyre and the road, using the same principle as fuel saving tyres that you see advertised for cars. Think of the difference between riding a mountain bike tyre on the road compared to a slick racing tyre, that’s an extreme example of rolling resistance.

Weight

Well it wouldn’t be an article on road cycling kit without discussing the weight of the item in question would it? Choosing high end tyres is a very economical way of saving weight on your bike, and it also on the most important area (the wheels) which allows for faster accelerations.

Width

How wide a tyre is dictates the amount of grip it offers, the pressure it can be run at, and how aerodynamic it is. The industry has made a huge lurch towards wider tyres and rims in recent years as testing suggests that a wider tyre run at a lower pressure provides much improved rolling resistance, comfort and grip. The only scenario where you may want to run a slimmer (under 25mm) tyre is in triathlons or time trials, which provides the triathlete with a bit of a problem.

A slimmer tyre will provide us with improved aerodynamics, but this may be outweighed by the improved rolling resistance of a slightly wider tyre. In years gone by 19mm tyres were the norm, where now it’s very rare to see a 23mm tyre as most roadies move towards 25s and 28s. I don’t have a silver bullet answer as everyone is different, however personally I advocate comfort and grip over aerodynamic performance. The differences will be incremental either way so feel free to experiment and see what works for you.

One word of caution is that many older road and even some newer TT frames, are designed to run 23mm tyres, and may not be able to run anything wider. This is dictated primarily by the clearance around the frame, although your brake calliper will also play a part in dictating how wide you can go. To add another variable into the mix, some tyres will balloon up larger than others, with some brands 25mm tyres coming up closer to 28mm. This can even be affected by the width of the rim you are using, it can be a real can of worms, however Schwable have created the below table to help people calculate what they can and can’t run on different rims. This is designed for their own tyres, however as long as you’re not at the extremes of the range you should be fine.

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Soft/hard rubber

A tyre manufacturer has to weigh up its options between how soft and grippy they want their tyre to be, and how many miles you’ll get out of it. Think of Formula 1 tyres which only last for an absolute max of an hour, or even the moto GP qualifying tyre which will start to go off after a single hard lap. The gripper a tyre is the shorter its lifespan, which means there is no perfect tyre for every situation. Some cyclists will use a very high mileage tyre such as the Vittoria Zaffiro for their training and a softer compound for racing. Personally I prefer to use a softer compound all year round as I like to get a feeling for how grippy my tyres are before I race, and I’m passionate about keeping it rubber side down.

Colour

Yes, colour can have an effect on the performance of the tyre, why do you think the vast majority of tyres are black? Rubber is black in it natural state, and to add pigment to a compound manufacturers have to reduce the silicon content. This is only marginal, but worth bearing in mind as you don’t want to find yourself climbing out ofa ditch and wondering if you’d be in a less compromising situation had you gone with plain old black.

Pressure

While it is a subject that warrants another article in itself, when choosing tyres it is worth checking the pressures you can run them at. Running tyres at a higher pressure gives a firmer ride and is preferred by those riding on smoother roads, however there is increasing evidence that running lower pressures actually reduces rolling resistance unless you are riding on roads that resemble glass. The graph below should give you a rough idea on what pressure to run, but some trial and error is involved to help you find a ride quality you feel suits you.

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Source: Frank Betro

So as you can see there is an awful lot more to the humble bike tyre than first meets the eye, and by now you are probably starting to realise there is no one tyre that is perfect for everyone. A city commuter will have very different demands to a time trialist, and someone who is riding on gravel paths will choose a different tyre to someone riding the perfectly smooth roads of Switzerland. Let’s look at some of the notable tyres on the market and what they provide:

Continental Grand Prix 4000s

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My go to tyre since I started cycling, I’ve never received a puncture or dropped it on a corner while running these, they have a solid puncture protection strip combined with a nice grippy compound that works well in all weathers. Traditionally I switch to their 4 season compound in the winter but just never got round to it this year and haven’t had any problems. These tyres are a staple choice of many road cyclists and it’s hard to go wrong.

Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons

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This is an evolution of the GP4000 tyre, using a harder compound that works better in the wet and at lower temperatures. This is combined with an increased puncture protection strip which increases weight and slightly affects handling slightly, however you’re unlikely to notice until you start giving it some real gas. These tyres also last longer than the GP 4000s, so many people choose to run them all year round.

Continental Gatorskin

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A staple of the city cyclist, these tyres are pretty much bulletproof. They’re an absolute nightmare to get on and off, but as the chances of anything making it through the thick puncture protection strip are so minimal, there’s a chance that once you’re attached them they’ll never need removing. All of this comes at great compromise to the grip of the tyre, and they are affectionately known as “Skaterskins” in some circles, after the number of riders who lose it in the corners trying to follow someone on superior tyres, especially in wet conditions. For the cyclist who simply wouldn’t be able to repair a puncture themselves or for a pure commuting bike they are an appealing choice, but unstable for the performance cyclist.

Specialized S-works Turbo

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I dabbled with these for a few months after picking them up on the cheap a couple of years ago. They rolled well, but didn’t inspire the confidence in the corners I had become accustomed to, not due to outright grip so much as the balance of the tyre. A perfectly functional tyre, but when I swapped them out for my 4 Seasons come winter, I wasn’t in a hurry to switch back to them come the following summer.

Specialized S-works Turbo Cotton

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This is one of the grippiest tyres on the market, boasting an impressive 320 TPI this tyre corners like it’s on rails, however is quite prone to punctures. An out and out race day tyre, which you’ll want to swap for the non-cotton version for training.

Pirelli P-Zero Velo

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The last name in vehicular tyres, Pirelli returned to the cycling scene last year with their velo series which have arrived to critical acclaim. While I have not tried them myself (as an F1 fan it’s on my to do list) I have heard great things from those who have tried them, although anecdotally they are not as resistant to puncture as similar tyres.

Pirelli P-Zero Velo 4S

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The winter version of Pirelli’s standard velo tyre, this tyre is the lighetst and highest performance winter tyre available, well suited for winter races such as duathlons. It is lightweight compared to other winter tyres and makes compromises with puncture protection to achieve this, however if you are looking to push hard in cold conditions, this tyre provides the highest level of grip in cold and wet conditions.

Pirelli P-Zero TT

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An out and out performance tyre it only comes in 23mm which is something of a shame as for longer events many prefer a wider tyre. However it is ultralight and boasts one of the lowest rolling resistances on the market, although this comes at the expense of puncture protection, making this the ideal tyre for PB hunters for who a puncture is as good as a DNF.

Vittoria Corsa G+

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Vittoria are interesting as they are at the forefront of graphene technology, an ultralight yet strong material used by frame manufacturer Dassi to reinforce their frames and by Vittoria to provide puncture protection. Many riders I know have moved to Corsa tyres in recent years, but given my six years of no punctures with Conti tyres I haven’t had a reason to join them myself. They also look the part with a tan sidewall on the tyres.

 

These are the tyres I’m currently familiar with, there are more manufacturers out there, and many more tyres available from the manufacturers above, however I would only be lifting information from other websites to include them here. Each manufacturer has a website which includes a wealth of information on each tyre and the technologies involved, so are a good place to start for more information.

To summarise, tyres fall into four main categories, all rounders, race specific, heavy duty and winter specific. This is the one component of the bike I’d always encourage people to maximise their budget for, as they can be the difference between a fast bike leg and sitting at the side of the road waiting for a lift home.

 

Should You Buy A Second Hand Bike?

For many, the appeal of second hand bikes are just too much to bear, and for some it is the only way they’re going to be able to afford a bike, let’s not pretend otherwise, but there are a few questions you should ask before you throw your hard earned money at a bike on Ebay or gumtree.

Is it stolen?
I hate to break it to you, but if a stranger offers you a full time trial bike for £150, it’s almost certainly stolen. Bike theft is a problem that has been around for as long as bicycles themselves, and it’s not unheard of for thieves to break into bikes shops or the team buses of professional teams and make off with a small fortune’s worth of bikes. These will be sold at a fraction of their original value in an effort to get them moved as quickly as possible. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

While any bike will end up with bits of chipped paintwork from being ridden on the road, look out for any especially fresh gouges, which could be a tell tale sign that a pair of bolt cutters may have been involved in its acquisition.

If you are concerned a bike is stolen, check for a sticker on the frame which may indicate the frame is registered to the police, you can discretely take a photo of this and then call the police to raise your suspicions. Handling stolen property is an offence in itself, so you can’t afford to be too careful.

Is it damaged?
While there may be a few dishonest individuals who notice a crack in their frame and decide to sell it onto the first mug they can find, these people are (I’d like to think) few and far between, but there are several honest cyclists who may unwittingly sell you a cracked frame, which you may only discover several months down the line.. If the frame is aluminium or carbon fibre it’s a bit of a death sentence for the bike, where if it’s steel or titanium then a repair may be possible. Either way, these cracks can start out no thicker than a hair but soon grow into a major safety hazard. Carbon fibre bikes are made of strong stuff, but if you hit a pothole in the wrong way or it falls sideways this can crack the frame. Another prime suspect is over tightening bolts by neglecting to use a torque wrench. There is never a guarantee a used bike is crack free, and the biggest benefit you get with a new bike is you know the complete history of it and all the bumps and scrapes it’s been through.

Are the parts worn?
So you’ve seen a £1000 bike going for £300, and you’re tempted to snap it up. But before you do, check with the owner when it was last serviced, how many miles the components have got on them, when was the last time the bearings were replaced?

If they go slightly cross eyed when you ask these questions, back away slowly. This person clearly has no understanding of bike maintenance and is unlikely to have taken care of the bike as a result. Your £300 bargain isn’t such a good deal when you discover that it needs a new drivetrain (£150), new wheels (£250) and all bearings replaced (£100+), plus labour costs for the mechanic breathing life back into your bike. It is almost always cheaper to buy a complete bike rather than building it up piece by piece, which is what you may end up doing.

A quick once over of the bike should give you an idea of how much use it’s seen, look for worn chainring teeth, worn rims and how much is left on the brake pads for an indication of the life it has left in it.

Why is the owner selling it?
This can answer a lot of questions quickly, if they are selling it because it is the wrong size or they just never used it much, this bodes well. However if they are more vague about their motivations, this can send alarm bells ringing, especially if they ask you to meet them in a public place to view the bike, and demand a cash payment.

Do some homework on the bike
Ask the seller for the model, year and build of the bike (i.e. Specialised Allez Elite 2013), and do some reading on it before you view it. If you go to view the bike and it’s different to what’s advertised, ask them what parts have been upgraded/replaced, they should be able to give you a comprehensive list. If they can’t, or tell you the previous owner must have changed them, this isn’t a great sign, as the more owners a bike has had, the more likely it is to have encountered problems along the way.

So what can a new bike offer you that a used bike can’t?

Warranty
You’ll receive a warranty from your manufacturer, often this can be a limited warranty for components and a lifetime warranty on the frame. This means that if there is a failure due to a manufacturing fault, that you will be able to get a free replacement. If the failure resulted in a crash which put you out of work or caused additional expenses then you may be entitled to compensation from the manufacturer. It’s worth clarifying that if you crash the bike yourself, this won’t be covered by the warranty.

Right size
Many new cyclists neglect the benefit of a well fitted bike, and when buying a bike from a reputable retailer they will take some measurements to ensure the bike is a frame that fits you. Always ensure you ride the bike (new or used) even if it’s only on a turbo trainer, to ensure the bike is the right size for you. While bikes are very flexible, and a lot can be achieved by fiddling with saddle height/offset, different stems, swapping out spacers e.t.c. it does involve compromises to handling, and there’s nothing that can be done about a frame that is too big for you.

Right geometry
What’s the difference between frame size and geometry you may ask? If you have to ask, I’d strongly suggest you purchase from a local bike shop. As an example, let’s look at the Cervelo S5 and the Cervelo C3

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Cervelo S5
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Cervelo C3

 

These are two vastly different bikes, designed for two very different purposes. The S5 is a road aero frame, cutting through the air in a very effective fashion with a very stiff, uncompromising ride. The Cervelo C3 is a road endurance bike, designed for long days in the saddle, providing comfort at the expense of top end performance.

There are two main measurements we’re looking at here, the length of the top tube, and the height of the handlebars in relation of the saddle. The S5 has a long top tube with handlebars very low, allowing you to tuck in for ultimate aerodynamics. The C3 has a shorter top tube with handlebars which sit much higher, giving you a more comfortable, upright position at the expense of aerodynamics. You wouldn’t want to take a C3 to a top end road race, and you wouldn’t want to ride from Land’s End to John O’ Groats on an S5. Choosing the bike that is right for you will save a costly reinvestment further down the line when you realise you’ve bought a pup.

Finance
Most bike shops will offer interest free finance on new bikes, this can help you spread/stomach the cost of a new road bike, especially if you’re keen to get started but are experiencing cashflow issues. Just be careful you’re realistic about what you can afford each month.

This being said, I don’t want to put people off of the idea of buying second hand completely, if you know exactly what you want, what you’re looking for and how to spot when you’re about to be mugged off, then there are significant savings to be made. However if you’re unsure of where to start, and even if you only are on a tight budget, I would much rather my athletes spend their money on a brand new, well fitting and safe bike which is designed for the purpose they’re planning to use it for, than spending the money on a higher spec bike that doesn’t fit and may let them down and may need replacing in a matter of months.

Should You Ride in Extreme Conditions?

As road cyclists/triathletes we generally pride ourselves on being hard. Riding up a mountain for 90 minutes? No problem. Dropping down a hill at 50MPH? Hold my beer. 12 hours straight with no break? Walk in the park. However there comes a time when cycling is simply not very sensible and has a high margin of risk associated with it. Never is this more appropriate than in cold weather, but not wanting to comes across as being a bit soft can make it difficult to make the distinction between it being a bit chilly and dangerous. Here’s an overview of different factors and how they should affect your decision on whether to ride or not.

Icy roads

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Untangling bikes following my crash in Richmond Park, with a London Dynamo member crashing on the same spot we just went down on

You don’t need snow for ice to appear, and it can be invisible in the form of black ice. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had very few crashes on the road, but one time did involve dropping it in Richmond Park on black ice. It’s impossible to spot until it’s too late and your front wheel will simply disappear from underneath you, giving you no chance to react or avoid a crash. To reduce the risk you can lower your speed, giving you more time to react in the unlikely scenario you spot it before it’s too late, and reducing the likelihood of injury/bike damage if you do hit the deck.

Top tips:

-Watch out for frost on grass/pavements as you leave. If there was a frost last night there is also a reasonable chance black ice will be around

-If there was standing water on the roads the day before a frost, this will likely translate into black ice come morning

-Avoid areas that are shaded by trees/buildings. Most frosty nights will be followed by a clear morning which helps to clear the ice as the sun rises, but dark lanes will be exposed to less sunlight and more prone to icing over. If you’re desperate to get outside try to keep on more exposed roads which will be more likely to warm up in the sunlight

-Roads with a camber will be more likely to collect water, ride further away from the kerb than normal

-Avoid bike lanes. This may attract the ire of drivers, but there’s a very low chance that your bike lane has been gritted, where the road adjacent likely has

Snow

Milan - San Remo
Riders of Milan Sanremo in 2013 experienced horrendous conditions before the race was stopped and riders shuttled further along the course in team buses where the race was resumed. Image copyright Cycling Weekly

It’s pretty obvious when it’s snowed, and just because of the endless pictures of people’s gardens on social media. However when it snows the bicycle is the preferred mode of transport for many, with lots of ‘fair weather’ cyclists breaking the mountain bike out of the shed when all the trains fail and the roads are gridlocked. Where cars will likely lose grip and end up involved in an expensive accident, the correct bicycle tyres will have a good level of grip and any crashes will be far less dramatic/expensive. However once the snow becomes more than a few inches deep it is far safer and quicker to walk, unless you happen to own a fat bike…

Top tips:

-Stick to bike paths and/or quiet roads, you don’t want to run the risk of sliding out on the snow and falling into the path of a car, or being collected by a driver which has got it wrong and lost control of their vehicle

-If you live in an environment with frequent heavy snow, consider fitting snow tyres to your wheels. These are wider tyres with studs/spikes in to help you gain purchase

-Slow it right down, leave more time for journeys and don’t try to use the ride for training

-You can gain extra purchase in the snow by wrapping cable/zip ties around your tyre (disc brakes only)

Low air temperature
Sometimes the fact that the air temperature is below -5 can be enough to put you off of cycling. The air will be so cold it will be difficult to inhale and exposed skin will sting, making for a thoroughly unenjoyable experience. The correct clothing will go a very long way to making the experience more bearable, but keeping your extremities warm is a real challenge, and if you are unable to effectively operate your brakes you are putting yourself at great risk.

Top tips:

-If you are experiencing cold hands invest in high quality winter gloves and a pair of merino wool glove liners, these will make a world of difference

-Invest in a pair of winter shoes or some overshoes, and use a layer of tin foil underneath your sole to reflect heat back

-A cycling cap/skull cap will make a big difference, some even include ear flaps which will benefit those whose ears resemble pork chops after a ride

-Layers, layers, layers. Using a base layer, a short/long sleeve jersey and cycling jacket is far more effective than simply putting on a big coat or the thickest jacket you can find. Each layer traps warm air, resulting in a very insulating effect. It is also very flexible if you feel start to overheat and you can start to remove/undo layers without exposing bare skin

-Don’t stray too far from home, try to ride laps of an area rather than a huge out and back ride in case you start to develop the early signs of mild hypothermia. These can include shaking, confusion and slurred speech. If you or one of your riding partners goes from excessive shaking to feeling surprisingly warm, call an ambulance immediately. For more information on hypothermia symptoms and treatment visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Hypothermia/

-Exercise extreme caution when exerting yourself in extremely cold temperatures where capillaries shrink and it becomes harder to pump blood, vastly increasing the risk of a cardiac event.

Gusting winds

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Geriant Thomas gets caught by a sewing and ends up in a ditch during Ghent Wevelgem 2015 (image copyright Eurosport)

Strong, constant headwinds that you battle into are one thing, but a strong sideways gust can immediately displace you into the middle of the road or a ditch. These are normally associated with gales and hurricanes, so think very carefully before riding in these conditions. Even Geriant Thomas ended up in a ditch during Ghent Wevelgem 2015, and if it can happen to Geriant Thomas, it can happen to any of us.

Top tips:

-Use weather forecasts to check the direction, intensity and gust factor of the wind before riding

-Ride in a position that will give you the chance to react to any gusts to give you time to react. If they are trying to blow you into the ditch, ride slightly further out than normal. If you are riding in a group, single up to reduce the risk of getting taken out by another rider

-Don’t risk high winds in an effort to bag your local KOM, not only are you putting yourself in great danger, you’ll also have the nagging feeling that you didn’t really deserve it

-Avoid exposed roads, and favour quiet lanes with buildings/hedges that will act as a buffer

-Don’t run deep section wheels in gusting winds, particularly in coastal areas (read: IRONMAN Wales) unless you are very experienced in handling them

Heavy rain

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One of my all time favourite sports photos, Richie Porte, Romain Bardet and Geriant Thomas hit the deck during a wet stage 2 of the 2017 Tour de France (image copyright Cycling Weekly)

We’re not talking a quick shower here, more a constant, torrential downpour that can result in flash flooding. While top coaches are often quoted as saying “Don’t worry about the rain, skin’s waterproof!”, and this is true to an extent, there is a point at which heavy rain can put you in more danger than it’s worth. Firstly there is the obvious lack of grip and increased stopping distance in the wet, especially when running rim brakes. There is also the risk of flash flooding which can leave you no choice but to ride through deep puddles with no idea of what lies below the water; there are a variety of videos you can find on YouTube of cyclists riding through a puddle and disappearing over the handlebars as they hit a pothhole. Mixing cold temperatures with heavy, consistent rain is a fast track to hypothermia, so I recommend you turn around and head home if the heavens open on a cold winter’s day.

Top tips:

– Avoid riding through puddles

-If riding in a group allow extra space between you and the wheel in front. This will give you extra time to react to any crashes and reduce the spray from the wheel in front

-Allow for an increased stopping distance, brake earlier into corners and when approaching junctions

-Run lower tyre pressures to improve grip, 10-20 PSI should do it as running them too low will put you at risk of pinch punctures

-Invest in a high quality waterproof jacket such as the Castelli Idro to protect yourself from the worst of the rain, and keep you warmer for longer

So with the worst that winter can throw at us, how do we decide when it’s too dangerous to ride? We’re all individuals who love the open road and want to get out there as much as we can, but there comes a point when you have to put things in perspective and ask if it’s worth it. How likely is it that you’ll come off? How much will it cost you to repair damage to your frame? How much fitness will you lose if you break a bone? Will you lose income? And ultimately, what do you stand to gain from heading out in the foul weather? If the risk outweighs the reward, it’s probably time to jump on the turbo trainer, find our introduction to turbo training here: https://phazontriathlon.com/2017/09/26/introduction-to-turbo-training/

Or if you are in the southern hemisphere and more worried about the scorching summer sun, fund our tips on hot weather training/racing here: https://phazontriathlon.com/2017/06/21/training-and-racing-in-hot-conditions/

Is Your Triathlon Bike Slowing You Down?

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A triathlon bike in its natural habitat of Kona, in the hands of Jan Frodeno on his way to another Ironman World Championship win in 2016

The title of this will confuse many, how could a triathlon bike slow you down? They’re more aerodynamic, which means they’re faster, and all of the pros race them in non draft legal races, how could a triathlon bike slow you down?

If a triathlon bike was the outright fastest and most comfortable way to get round, why wouldn’t people ride them all the time? The answer is a triathlon bike involves a lot of compromises in the way of bike design, and they can be difficult to get comfortable on, something those of you who have ridden one can likely attest to.

For those who need a basic explanation, a triathlon bike makes you faster by lowering and narrowing your profile against the wind. The bike frame itself is also tapered to make it cut through the air as fast as possible, but as the least aerodynamic thing on the bike is you, the focus is on getting yourself lower and narrower. Most have shifters on the bar ends and electronic models also have shifters on the bullhorns to make it easier to change gear when braking, climbing or descending.

The compromise is that to improve airflow around the bike the frame, more material is needed to reduce turbulence, which results in a bulkier frame, increasing weight. On a pan flat course this isn’t a problem, but if you find yourself on an undulating course this can become an issue. Not only does this increase weight when climbing, but it makes the bike less stable on the descents, which combined with the fact that brakes on triathlon bikes are normally less efficient than on road bikes, can lead to you handing over minutes to those on the road bikes on the hills. If you can make that time back on the flats you’ll be faster overall, but if a course is especially hilly you may be better off going for a light, responsive climbing bike.

There is also the question of wheels, most stock triathlon bikes will come with a very basic set of wheels to make the price point more appealing, but most triathletes will upgrade the wheels into something more aerodynamic such as a rear disk wheel or deep section rims. These are not only heavier and slower to accelerate but are a handful in crosswinds, to the extent that certain courses especially prone to strong winds ban them. If you are on a flat piece of road in good conditions they can shave minutes off of your bike split, but they’re not always the right choice.

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Sure it’s fast, but you wouldn’t want to get caught in strong crosswinds
You also need to be going at a fair rate of knots for the aerodynamic benefit to really kick in, around 30-35KM/H depending on the course. Can you maintain that speed for the duration of the bike course? Chances are that on shorter distances you can, but over half iron or full iron distances you really need to be able to ride a bike well to reap the rewards of a tricked out triathlon bike.

Along with ability to maintain speed is also the question of core strength. While properly setup aero bars can be very comfortable as your weight rests on the elbow pads, you need to make sure you have the core strength to maintain that position for the duration of your race, as you will be in a plank like position. If your core collapses in the bike leg your run will likely be a disaster as your can’t support your body in an economical position, adopting what many call the “Ironman shuffle”.

If you race on your triathlon bike you really need to train on it. That’s not to say that you should bin your road bike, as it is important for group riding sessions (which I believe are an excellent way of building bike fitness), but you should stick your race bike on your turbo over winter and take it out at least once a week in the spring to get used to handling it on the road. You should get used to riding on all conditions in all terrain on your race bike, whether it’s descending down a steep hill in the rain or threading it through a series of fast corners, you need to be confident in your handling ability to minimise time loss in the hills.

You should also put it in for a full professional service at least once a year, clunky gear changes will not only frustrate you but lose you time hand over fist, not to mention the possibility of pieces falling off! I it is also important to re-index your gears when you re-build your bike on race day. Whether your flew it halfway round the world or stuck it in the boot of your car for the local sprint race, it doesn’t take much for your gears to take a knock and play havoc with your race.

Most importantly, make sure to get a proper bike fit to get yourself into a comfortable and economical position. Your aerodynamic position may save you 25W, but if you’re putting out 50W less than on your road bike because you’re not used to the position (which engages your hamstrings and glutes far more than a road bike position) you’re actually going slower than on a road bike. Your position doesn’t necessarily have to be as far forward and as low as possible, look at the picture below of the Great Britain men’s team pursuit squad at the 2016 World Track Championships.

2016 UCI Track Cycling World Championships
Photo credit unknown

Notice the variation in width of the aero bars and the height of the stack, there’s no ideal position as it’s very individual. Of course not all of us can afford £2500 to spend in the wind tunnel finding our optimal position, but notice how they’re not as low and as narrow as possible. I personally find having my bars close enough for the knuckles of my thumbs to rub actually makes me more stable than having them wide, but it’s very individual, and comfort is king. If you’re comfortable you’ll be able to put out more power for longer, if you’re scrunched up and can’t breathe properly, you’re just handing advantage to your rivals.

Just to add to the confusion, a lot of professionals will take a triathlon bike even on a very hilly course. This is because they’re exceptional athletes who can handle a bike better and put out more power than most of us ever will, allowing them to still put out some serious watts on the flats where most of us would struggle as our legs are trashed from the hills. Just because Daniela Ryf can pull it off, doesn’t mean you can.

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Daniela Ryf climbs the famous Solar Hill at Challenge Roth (Getty Images Europe/Stephen Pond)
In the Tour de France where they use both road and aero bikes in competition, some will even put clip on aero bars onto their road bike to offer the best of both worlds in mountainous time trials. This offers a sizeable advantage without any of the drawbacks of a full aero bike, but when using clip ons we have to reach away from the bars to the STI shifters to change gear, increasing our profile against the wind and slowing us down. They’re a great option for hilly races or for trying an aero position without buying a whole bike, but it involves a number of compromises so should be carefully considered before taking to a big race.

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Richie Porte rides clip on aero bars to 4th place in the mountainous time trial of stage 18 in the 2016 Tour de France (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
So to summarise, a triathlon bike will take minutes off of your triathlon time if you are accustomed to riding in an aero position, it is perfectly setup for you, you have the core strength to maintain the position, the course is flat, and you have the strength/endurance to hold high speeds for the duration of the bike. If however a triathlon bike is just something you throw your leg over on race day, the benefits will be much smaller than you expect, and in some cases may even slow you down compared to your tried and tested road bike.

If you have a triathlon bike and are looking to unlock it’s full potential, organise a 1 on 1 coached session with me for only £30. E-mail simon@phazontriathlon.com to register your interest