Blagger’s Guide to Race Nutrition

Image credit Nils Nilsen

Nutrition is the single most complex issue in long course triathlon, and the most subjective from individual to individual. While less of a concern for the sprint and Olympic distances, by the time you look at half Iron and Iron distance events it can be the difference between finishing strong and not making it off of the bike. Many marathon runners talk about “Hitting the wall”, a point in the race where you are suddenly blindsided and unable to walk. In triathlon we normally refer to this as bonking (pipe down at the back), but by the time you reach this stage you’ve already made a mistake by letting your energy reserves become depleted. The bad news is that you can’t simply “push through” the wall, your body is literally empty and will start breaking down muscle fibre in search of energy. The good news is that it’s completely avoidable with the right fuelling strategy.

During any event over 90 minutes you need to take on extra calories to maintain performance, let’s take an Ironman as an example. We normally start around 6:30AM, and most people are on the bike by 8:30AM when your body is already expecting the calories from Breakfast. We need to keep topping up our energy stores throughout the day, and the only way we can do this is by taking on calories in a way that won’t upset our stomach. If we pull over to enjoy a Sunday roast halfway through the bike and then jump back on our trusty steed to put out 200W our stomach will be less than cooperative. We need to find a way to take on calories in a consistent and measured manner that is easy for our digestive system to process.

Fuelling slows us down, that much we can’t deny, and when you’re feeling strong tearing up the bike course, you don’t want to slow down by reaching into your back pocket/bento box to extract and unwrap our fuel source of choice. Our heart says to keep pressing on, but our head tells us to be smart and take on food, guess which one we should listen to?

There are various different ways to take on calories, each with their pros and cons which we’ll look at here:

Gels

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A sweet semi solid substance that you slurp up, these provide a (nearly) instant injection of energy, breathing life back into tired muscles. If you’re wobbling all over the road and shaking, nothing will get you back in the game quite like an energy gel, it achieves this by containing very simple sugars that are easily absorbed. However as soon as you start to get back in your rhythm you will start to crash again as they quite simply put you on a sugar high, followed by a predictable crash. I wouldn’t want to fuel any event longer than an Olympic triathlon solely on energy gels, something that releases energy in a slower, more sustainable manner is essential for success at middle and long distance.

Pros: Easy to digest, give you an instant boost

Cons: Can be sickly, some require water to wash down, only give a short term pick up

Energy Bars

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All nutrition manufacturers will have their patented energy bars, these vary from brand to brand but are generally oat based, very dense and energy rich. These are a much more sustainable way of replacing depleted energy stores than energy gels, and are a much more natural way of taking on energy which will appeal to many simply out of principal. The oats will release energy slowly, and the bonding agent is normally sugary, as a result these can still be fairly sweet and are normally very chewy. This is all well and good if you’re rolling along at 70% of FTP chatting to friends, but I’ll never forget the time I came across a 20% gradient in Yorkshire with a mouth full of an apple and blackberry energy bar.

Pros: Sustainable energy release, individually wrapped for easy transportation

Cons: Can be very expensive, difficult to chew, still quite sweet

Real Food

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Image Copyright Tesco

As time goes by and I see past the marketing that brands push, I have found myself moving towards real food over branded energy products. This is a personal choice as I have very low fat reserves so my nutritional demands are quite unique, but I find myself craving something substantial to line my stomach, items such as pistachio cookies, crisps and ginger cake to keep my stomach from turning itself over and protect against stitches and cramps. This is also the cheapest way to fuel yourself, a batch of homemade flapjacks will cost far less than half a dozen branded energy bars and allows you to control the texture, sweetness and portion size to taste.

Pros: cheap, more satisfying, enormous variety

Cons: Can be difficult to transport, preparation time for homemade food

Sports Drinks

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I use this as an umbrella term to cover various branded products that contain carbohydrate in the form of sugars and electrolytes to replace lost salt. This is a fuel source favoured by many long distance athletes due to its easy consumption and transportation, some (very successful) athletes even manage a diet of nothing but sports drink and energy gels. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse but we’re all individuals and need to find what works for us.

Pros: Very easy to digest, take on fluids and calories at once, less likely to neglect hydration

Cons: Has to be mixed (difficult mid race), slow absorption into bloodstream, easy to take on too many calories.

It’s worth mentioning here the role that course nutrition plays, for most middle and long distance races fuel stations will be provided for athletes to get a drink and something to eat. I encourage my athletes not to rely too heavily on these stations and to be as self sufficient as possible, it’s not unheard of for feed stations to run dry, and the products there may not be to your liking. Aim to be self sufficient, but do your research on the nutrition that will be available at the feed stations, the brand and the products they will be stocking, if this information isn’t available on the race website, E-mail the organiser and ask. If they are only carrying peanut and vanilla Powerbars, then buy some and try them while training, if you find one of them really upsets you, then you know to avoid it on race day. Many races will also provide you with a special needs bag at the halfway point, make use of this and ensure you have enough nutrition in there to comfortably get you to the end of the race, just in case you previously hit a pothole and jettisoned all of your nutrition in the process.

Electrolytes

Electrolytes is simply a fancy sounding word for salt, but if they tried to sell salt tablets they’d probably sell an awful lot less. As I alluded to earlier, replacing salt is critical for endurance athletes, especially if you’re a heavy sweater, we work with all of our athletes to create a bespoke hydration plan to improve performance and avoid a potentially fatal condition known as hyponatremia where the blood becomes so diluted that it starts to affect brain function. Luckily getting your electrolyte balance right is a lot simpler than food, and there are four ways to keep yourself topped up.

Sports Drinks

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Yes, sports drinks again. The vast majority of sports drinks will include electrolytes required for peak performance without having to worry about taking on extra supplements. If unsure, check the ingredients and look for potassium, sodium and/or chloride.

Electrolyte Tablets

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There is such a thing as too many calories (more on that later), so electrolyte tablets in water allows us to keep our levels topped up without excess calories. These will often be mildly flavoured, and are more palatable than sports drinks although personally I find myself craving good old plain water when I hit the 4/5 hour mark in an event.

Salt Tablets

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If you don’t take to the taste of dissolvable electrolytes you can use a small oral tablet at regular intervals instead. These are easy to swallow and tasteless, although easier to forget to take, and can be fiddly to transport, if you lose your stash of tablets you can find yourself in big trouble.

Salty Snacks

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Some athletes simply prefer to take some pretzels with them, providing calories and electrolytes in one tasty combination. The only issue is how you plan to transport them, although salty snacks will be available at most aid stations.

Now we have an idea of how we are going to replace our calories and electrolytes, we need to understand how much to eat and when, there are two main problems people can run into, eating too little, or eating too much.

Under Fuelling

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Julie Moss collapses within 100M of the finish line at Kona 1982. Image credit Carol Hogan

When you bonk, it’s not something you can push through, it is your body quite simply breaking down like a car spluttering its way to a halt with an empty fuel tank. This can come almost without warning, and is often preceded by a feeling of strength as you throw yourself out of the saddle and hurl yourself up a hill, before your body starts to shake and you start to weave around the road. Once this has happened to you a few times you don’t take any chances out there and always make sure you have a spare gel or bar to fall back on, picking a cornershop flapjack up on your way through the next village when you use your last bar up. You can also find yourself in big trouble if you get lost and have to ride/run longer than you were expecting, nobody ever regretted taking extra food on a ride.

Over fuelling

While the effects are less dramatic than under fuelling, taking on too many calories poses a risk in itself. Once you’ve bonked a couple of times you find yourself taking all precautions to try and prevent it happening again, which can present other issues. The primary issue is stomach emptying rates, your digestive system can only work so fast, especially when exercising hard as it’s diverting the vast majority of its energy to the muscles. Think of how long it takes to digest a big Sunday Roast, now imagine trying to digest that while running an Ironman marathon rather than in front of the Antiques Roadshow. If you keep pushing food down your throat when your body is already full it will protest violently, and this is often the cause behind the gastronomical distress that athletes experience during a race. This can result in stitches, stomach cramps, violent bowel movements and/or vomiting, which you want to avoid at all costs.

The easiest way to avoid over fuelling is to ensure your carry some water without any carbohydrate content. A lot of athletes know they have to keep hydrated throughout a race, but if all they have is sports drinks they will start taking on 500ml+ an hour of sugary liquids along with energy gels, bars and real food, a recipe for disaster as the stomach simply can’t keep up with the calories you’re filling it with.

One point I’ve tried to hammer home is that what nutrition is incredibly individual, and you shouldn’t try to copy the nutrition plans of your training partners or favourite pro athletes. There are more factors that affect nutritional needs than I could possibly list without boring you all to death, but it’s important you experiment in your training. Standing at the side of the road draped over your handlebars struggling the find the energy to clip back in is a rite of passage in triathlon, and you have to get it wrong a few times to find out what works for you. It’s important you make these mistakes in training rather than on race day, so play around and find what works for you. Unfortunately the chances are you will experience GI distress to a greater or lesser extent during a long distance triathlon, which leads me onto arguably the most important piece of advice in this entire article.

Never trust a fart during an Ironman.

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 run disc brakes?

If you are looking at buying a new bike ahead of next season and have been visiting some bike shops in search of your new steed, you will have noticed that many bikes come in disc and non disc brake versions. Disc brakes use two brake pads to pinch a disc rotor that is affixed to the wheels of your bike, one on the front and one on the rear. In this respect they work like rim brakes, by creating friction that slows the wheel, however the big difference is that they are pinching disc rotors and not the rims of the wheel.

So what are the advantages of disc brakes? Let’s take an objective look at the benefits.

Improve performance in the wet
People talk about disc brakes having “more power”, which suggests they probably didn’t have their rim brakes set up correctly, it’s perfectly possible to lock up your front or rear brakes with rim brakes, but where discs definitely give you more stopping power is in the wet. When you apply rim brake pads to rims in the wet, the first two rotations the wheel makes are simply dispersing water from the rim before the pads bite and start slowing the bike. Even when the rims are cleared of water braking performance is vastly reduced, which can be the difference between keeping it rubber side down or ending up under a tree, or even worse, a car. Disc brakes achieve this improved performance by using far more viscous brake pads than rim brake equivalents.

 

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Personally, I’d be looking for all the help I could get when descending in these conditions. Image credit EdBookPhoto

Save on expensive wheels
Wheels are the most expensive upgrade you can buy for your bike. If you’re shelling out four figures on a new set of hoops, you don’t want to have to replace or re-rim them a couple of years down the line because the rims have worn away after thousands of hours of braking. Replacing a disc rotor will cost a maximum of £60 to replace when it wears down, a significant saving compared to replacing your expensive carbon wheels.

Resistant to brake fade
If you encounter long descents when riding, disc brakes can help keep you safe, especially if you are a nervous or inexperienced descender. Some descents can last the best part of an hour, and the novice rider may find themselves riding the brakes for the majority of this time as they speed towards hairpins and sheer drops. Doing so will keep you safe in the short term, but using rim brakes like this will result in temperature building in your rims. There are three problems with this, braking performance decreases, tubes are prone to exploding due to the build up of heat, and carbon rims can be damaged. With disc brakes the only problem you need to worry about is a reduction in braking performance, which they don’t suffer nearly as badly as rim brakes, especially high end disc rotors which provide improved heat dissipation. This means you can sit on your brakes for much longer before you notice a fall off in performance.

However there are some downsides to running discs as well

Risk of bending rotors
If you crash in a very specific way or your bike is not properly handled during transit, there is a possibility your rotor can become bent out of shape and cause brake rub as a result. However such crashes are rare and rotor covers are available to buy to protect your bike in transit.

Sharp edge hazard
Anyone who follows professional cycling will be aware of the controversy surrounding disk brakes. The UCI (international governing body for cycling) ran a trial on disc brakes in the pro peloton. During one race, a rider got caught up in a crash and ended up with a gash on his leg, which he blamed on a disc brake rotor. There is no evidence the cut was caused by a disc brake rotor, however the UCI suspended the trial following the incident, before introducing them again following a review. The jury is out on just how much of a hazard rotors present as there are no confirmed incidents of a rider being injured by a disc brake rotor, but the risk is almost nonexistent in non draft legal triathlon where we have to maintain a minimum distance between us and the rider in front. I’d wager far more accidents have been prevented by reliable braking in the wet that will ever be caused by disc brake rotors. Nonetheless certain governing bodies (including France and Spain) have got cold feet about disc brakes and are currently not permitting them in their events, so it’s worth checking the race information for your event before you make a purchase.

Wheel compatibility
This is a problem for many riders who already have a garage full of wheels, your disc brake bike will not be compatible with any of your current wheels. This means you will have to restart your wheel collection if you make the switch to discs, a costly endeavour indeed.

Weight/aero penalty
For the weight weenies or aero obsessives out there, yes disc brakes weigh marginally more and are slightly less aerodynamic than standard rim brakes, but the differences really are tiny, and any time lost due to this penalty can be made up again with improved confidence when braking. Bear in mind that one of the world’s most advanced triathlon bikes, The Cervelo P5X, is only available with disc brakes, and if it’s good enough for the world’s greatest IRONMAN athletes, it’s good enough for me.

 

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Cervelo P5X, possibly the world’s most advanced triathlon bike, available only with disc brakes (image credit Cervelo)

On balance I believe that disc brakes are a superior product and are the way the industry is going to move in the next 5-10 years. There will always be a place for rim brakes due to their simplicity and the fact we’ve been running rim brakes for as long as anyone can remember, but it’s already come to the point where some bikes such as the P5X, are disc brake only.

If you spend a lot of time around road cyclists and have bought up the possibility of switching to disc brakes, there’s a good chance at least one of them will have tried to talk you out of it, even if they don’t seem to have much of an argument against them. The truth is that roadies are very resistant to change, they’re a superstitious bunch who have probably been riding rim brakes for 30 years and don’t see the need to change. If they are comfortable riding rim brakes, I’m certainly not going to try to change their minds, people should run whatever they feel comfortable riding. However you are not a road cyclist, you are a triathlete, and we’re looking for outright performance over tradition and romanticism.

My next bike will be a disc brake bike, as I believe the pros outweigh the cons, however it is a personal decision and comes down to your personal circumstance. If you are an experienced racer who is perfectly in tune with their rim brakes and their limits, then it probably isn’t worth the reinvestment for you, however if you are new to the world of road cycling and looking for your first bike, I strongly recommend you consider disc brakes.

The Importance of Sports Massage

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Alex Gold of Active Biomechanics gets to work on releasing a client’s quadriceps 

Sports massage is a term that you may well have heard thrown around in magazines or at club training, which can initially conjure up images of candles and whale music while a beautiful masseur lightly releases the tension in your muscles. Unfortunately this is about as far from the truth as you can get, a sports massage normally involves being taken into the spare bedroom of someone’s flat, or dumped onto a treatment table at the finish line of a race, where someone inflicts so much pain on you that many people compare it to childbirth. However as triathletes we are no strangers to pain, and these beatings should become a regular part of your training ritual.

So what is the purpose of the pain? Why should we pay someone good money to beat us within an inch of our lives? The benefit is two fold, injury prevention/treatment and addressing imbalances. Muscles will slowly tighten over weeks, months and years of training until they become so tight that they overwork another muscle group, pull on a tendon or trap a nerve, all of which can result in substantial time sat at home unable to train, every athlete’s worst nightmare. As someone who has spent the last three years battling injury, I’m trying to help people recognise how important a regular sports massage is to your training.

When you first visit a new masseur they will ask you a few questions about any injuries you’re suffering from along with a brief history of your health to allow them to treat you effectively. They will then conduct some flexibility tests which normally involve a lot of sucking of teeth in my experience, before they knuckle down with the hard work.

Normally from the initial assessment and some prodding they’ll have a good idea of what’s causing the pain. It may be that your knee pain actually comes from your glutes or your plantar problems can be traced to your hamstring, the whole kinetic chain that runs through your body is incredibly complex and it requires an experienced professional to locate where the problem is coming from. Once they’ve located the problem, they can begin the treatment.

How painful they are depends on how supple you are, if you have been training for years and never had one, you may want to find something hard to bite into for your first visit, but if you make monthly or bi-monthly visits to the treatment table the experience will be altogether more bearable. The methods of sports masseurs vary between each individual, but primarily involve applying pressure to different areas to relax and release the muscle. Often the pain of the treatment is followed by a brief moment of ecstasy as the muscle releases, before they move onto the next area and the ordeal begins again.

How much pressure they apply depends on the severity of the injury and your own tolerance for pain, I’ve had it before when a masseur has rubbed oils to my IT band which has made me whince, “You won’t like it when I get the elbow in then!” he quipped. The experienced therapist will use conversation as a means of judging how much pain you are in and how much pressure they can apply.

If you arrange treatment for a specific injury then the vast majority, if not all of the session will be spent working on that area, however if you simply ask for a tune up they will spend more time working on various areas of the body, focusing on areas that are worked heavily by your sport of choice. Prevention is better than cure, and even if you are not experiencing any significant tightness or pain, a regular massage will help keep things supple and improve your performance.

However sports massage does have its limitations, sometimes the cause of the tightness is so deep within the muscle that trigger point therapy may be able to get where a masseur’s elbow cannot, and some people even report acupuncture has helped them overcome injuries. Both of these methods are considered alternative treatment by medical bodies and results cannot be guaranteed.

Sports massage is invaluable, but there is a lot that you can do to help keep muscles supple in you day to day life. A thorough warm up and cool down for every training session is very important, it’s tempting simply to collapse over the line or through the door and spend the rest of the day horizontal, but time spent gently turning the legs over followed by some gentle stretching will help prevent injury.

You should also enlist the help of a foam roller to release tension after hard training sessions. Foam rolling techniques warrant a separate article themselves but the basics are moving the foam roller up and down the tight muscle until you find the most painful spot and holding it for 30 seconds, or until the muscle releases. This will go a long way to preventing injury, but the occasional services of a professional who can reach deep into the tissue are still important.

After three years of relentless training and racing, I have since spent three years battling injury caused by neglecting sports massage and foam rolling, and hope to save my athletes/readers from the same fate. If it’s something you’ve been meaning to get round to, now is the time to take the plunge to help avoid an injury blighted season.

The Importance of the Off Season

The off season is the period between the last race of your season and the first structured training session of the next year, it is arguably the most important part of the year for athletes, as our body needs time to rest and recover from the season of hard racing and training.

This is often a period of the year I struggle to guide some athletes through, as they instinctively want to keep training and racing, especially if this if their first few years of racing in multisport. This is partly due to a puppy dog level of excitement, they’ve found this fantastic new hobby and want to keep going, but is also linked to a fear of losing hard earned fitness from the previous year. Here we take a look at why it’s so important to coast your way through the off season and vastly reduce training volume/intensity.

First and foremost, as a species we are not meant to be active for 52 weeks of the year, the winter was traditionally a time of rest and a fight for survival, stockpiling resources and trying to stay warm. While we now have innovations such as central heating and Gore-Tex to get us through these winter months, the body still expects a period of down time each year. This is why the winter is the ideal opportunity to wind down, although if you’re big into your cyclocross and/or duathlon you may wish to skew your year slightly so it starts and finishes later.

It’s natural for us to put on a little bit of weight and take things easier for a short period over the winter, but this doesn’t have to be for the duration of the season, just a handful of weeks. This should be a minimum two weeks, and even up to 6 weeks in some circumstances, which will depend on how well you recover as an athlete. If you are a lifelong competitor in their 30s then you can probably get away with only a couple of weeks, but if you’re a masters athlete or someone who is very new to the sport and feeling run down, a six week break is preferable to throwing yourself back into training too early.

Training and competing in triathlon is hard, really hard, and it’s easy to lose sight of this. When training your body will be in a near constant state of stress, which prolonged exposure to will eventually take its toll. Overtraining is the single greatest threat to an athlete’s progress, and has bought many promising athlete’s careers to a premature end. While we’re probably not looking at fatigue on this level, we still want to turn up to race day feeling fresh and ready to go, rather than beleaguered and nonchalant about our race.

I’m going to take this opportunity to tell you about a friend of mine who I used to ride with, let’s call him Jack. Jack, was and is a very talented cyclist, we both started road cycling around the same time and we both joined a low profile cycling club in the spring of 2013. He spent the year heading out on rides with groups faster than him, hanging on by the skin of his teeth, until week after week it got easier, and he eventually started leading the faster rides himself. When November came many of us took the month off, and restarted training in December with long, easy rides, however Jack declared “I don’t believe in base training”, containing to lead rides every weekend, racing people up the hills and giving it full gas all the way through the winter. When April came Jack was so exhausted that he started suffering from chronic fatigue and had to take the rest of the summer off of the sport he loved while his body slowly recovered.

While this is something of an extreme example, it serves as a reminder of the physical dangers that come with constant training. The other side of the coin is the advantages of time off. You may be keen to crack on with next year’s training, especially if you’ve just signed up to your A race, but training solidly for 11 months ahead of your race is going to involve a lot of ups and downs, a small break of a few weeks will help you come back with a renewed hunger. This is perhaps of more importance to experienced athletes than novices who will be keen to ride the wave.

It’s an important time for goal setting and reflection as well, time away from the pool and the open road will help you remember why you started in the first place, as well as helping you question what it is you want to achieve. You’ve signed up for a big race, but why are you doing it? Why did you pick that race? What do you realistically hope to achieve? This is a good opportunity to sit down with a coach to help choose some realistic goals, and devise a plan for achieving them.

Rather than feeling destitute at the lack of training, use is as an opportunity to spend more time with your family and enjoy other active pastimes. Go for walks with your family, try a new sport which interests you such as rowing, you could even have a go at improving your weaker strokes to mix up your swimming sets. I encourage athletes to do a bit of training here and there if they feel like it, but it should be purely for enjoyment and done at a steady pace.

A coach is there not simply to set you a series of workouts every week, but to get you to the finish line in the fastest time possible, and time off at the end of the year is an important part of the process.

Do You Have What it Takes to Complete an Ironman?

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The question rattling around in the back of many people’s minds, what does it take to complete an Ironman? What follows isn’t a comprehensive list of attributes and prerequisites to complete a race, but are worth considering before you take the leap and book yourself a race entry.

Medical clearance to compete

While you do not have to be a perfect picture of health and fitness to complete your race, some ongoing conditions may require careful management during your training. People suffering with conditions such as diabetes, heart angina or even cancer have successfully completed Ironman races, but if you are in any doubt about any conditions you are currently suffering with, seek professional approval before engaging in training, and consider hiring a coach to help you manage your training in an affective manner.

Willpower

Triathlon, and especially Ironman isn’t a case of putting in the training beforehand, turning up on race day and flying around the course. It will hurt, you will think about giving up numerous times, it will push you to your limits and humble you. You are not entitled to an Ironman finish simply because you trained and paid your entry fee, you earn that title after pushing yourself above and beyond your limit, and for that you need willpower in spades.

Capital

I’m not going to try to tell you triathlon is a cheap sport, and there’s no getting around the fact that you need some money to finance your kit purchases. If you’re trying to get through on a budget you’re looking at £150 for a swimming wetsuit, £500 for a bike and £100 for a pair of trainers as the bare essentials. Add onto that race entry fees (up to £400 for an official IRONMAN event), travel, accommodation e.t.c. and you’re looking at the best part of £1500 to go from total beginner to Ironman finisher.

Time to train

This needn’t be excessive amounts, some people can complete an Ironman on 7 hours of training a week, but if you have just become a parent or are about to start a time consuming contract, it may be worth considering whether you have the time to put in the training you need. Ironman as a sport isn’t going anywhere in a hurry so it may be worth postponing for a year when you have more time to dedicate.

A support network

People in your life need to be behind you, from your friends to your partner and your parents to your boss, the more people who tolerate your reduced availability and habit of resembling a zombie at 3PM when the 6AM swim set catches up with you, the better. I hear stories about relationships which have been put under serious strain by a partner feeling abandoned by their other half who is training for a race, however I have also heard about many families who have been bought closer together by the experience, providing a role model for their children. You need people to pick you up when you’re down, kick you out the door when you’re lacking motivation, and to cheer you round the course on the day. Don’t underestimate the impact a strong support network will have on your race and preparations.

Experience in triathlon

I’m not saying your first race can’t be an Ironman, but I strongly recommend against it. There’s much more to the sport than simply stringing together a swim, bike ride and run, many lessons which you only learn on your first time out. If you aren’t interested in shorter events, than at least get a 70.3 under your belt before your first full distance. The more races you have under your belt before your Ironman the more relaxed you will be on the start line and the better positioned you are to earn that coveted title.

Motivation

I’m not talking about the kind of motivation that comes from watching a glossy video compilation on YouTube and declaring to the world that one day you will complete an Ironman, I’m talking about the kind of motivation which comes from forking out the hard cash to enter a race, and getting up at 5AM for a run. Where training for your race is more important than a boozy night out or a visit to a fast food chain. Your race has to mean something special for you to complete it. If you’re anything but completely motivated to get out and train, you’re unlikely to finish. It’s not for the faint hearted, and it’s certainly not easy. Thousands of people complete their first Ironman every year without an athletic background, but they complete the challenge because they’re hungry for it. You can’t turn up and “smash” an Ironman, you need a real hunger burning away inside of you to consistently put in the training and cross that finish line

There are very few people out there who aren’t capable of finishing an Ironman triathlon, athletes in their 80s and amputees frequently make it across the finish line, with enough passion and hunger I have every faith you can cross the line yourself.

Introduction to Turbo Training

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Image courtesy of Wahoo

Turbo training, or indoor cycling, is becoming increasingly popular among cyclists and triathletes of all abilities, allowing for incredibly focused and specific training with minimal fuss. As the winter approaches and brings with it strong winds, freezing temperatures and rain, indoor riding becomes all the more appealing.

 

I strongly advise all athletes I work with to purchase a turbo trainer to allow them to get specific and focused training sessions. An hour on the turbo is generally worth two hours on the road, and is worth even more when you you include all the time prepping your bike and getting changed for an outdoor ride, and if you live in a city, the distance you need to travel before you can get riding properly. I have athletes ride the turbo not as a last resort in bad weather, but all year round to allow us to fit more quality hours of training in every week. You can also train with specific metrics and monitor power closely, rather than simply going out for a ride to get some miles in the legs. Using Functional Threshold Power (FTP) testing you can accurately monitor your improvements and use the data to train at intensities specific to you.

The words ‘turbo trainer’ strike fear into the hearts of most old school cyclists, and hark back to the days where indoor training involved staring at a wall or watching a video of other cyclists racing while you pedal into nowhere using a heavy, expensive trainer that kicks up enough noise to make a jet engine blush. Turbo training has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, so let’s look at the new generation of training options and what they offer

Smart or dumb?

You’ll hear the phrase “smart trainer” thrown around on various websites, blogs and bike shops, so you can understand people’s hesitation in asking what exactly makes a bike trainer smart. A smart trainer will talk to electronic devices, broadcasting power data to them and changing their resistance based on the feedback they receive from the training software. If you’re riding a virtual course and reach a hill, the trainer will increase resistance, decreasing it when you reach the summit. This makes your indoor riding experience far more immersive and valuable with specific metrics such as accurate power and in build cadence sensors.

Direct drive or classic?

The term direct drive refers to when a cassette sits on the trainer itself which you mount your bike onto (after removing the rear wheel) and start riding. Wheel on trainers work by taking the bike in its entirety and bolting it onto the trainer. A metal drum is then pressed against the rear wheel to provide the resistance.

So which is better? You’d be hard pressed to find someone who chooses a wheel on trainer over a direct drive trainer. Wheel on trainers will rapidly wear some tyres necessitating the use of a specialist turbo training tyre, and the tyre/wheel change that comes with it before every indoor ride. Wheel on also tends to be noisier, and it feels very unnatural to ride compared to the smooth, progressive resistance of the direct drive trainers. Direct drive trainers are coming down in price, so I’d recommend looking at them as they’re so easy to use. If you have to change the wheel/tyre every time you want to ride indoors, it’s a barrier to you getting the workout done and you’ll find excuses not to ride.

Training software

The vast majority of those training indoors will use training software to maximise the accuracy of their ride and stave off the boredom. Here we look at some of the options available to athletes.

Zwift

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The benchmark in training software, Zwift has exploded in the last couple of years, edging itself towards the world of mainstream fitness. The premise is simple, by turning the pedals you power your rider around a virtual course, providing not only a challenge in the undulating courses they create (including a full mountain climb), but a visual distraction from the monotony of indoor training. Several hundred riders can be found online at any given time varying from weekend warriors to professional cyclists, either participating in races, battling over the various jerseys that can be earned on course, following a workout or simply pooling round the course.

Zwift is an incredibly detailed topic which deserves an article on its own, but can be summarised as the most social and iadvanced platform.

Pros: social, being continually developed, incredible visuals
Cons: only three courses currently available

TrainerRoad

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Image courtesy of TrainerRoad

If Zwift is the excitable 10 year old of the indoor cycling world, TrainerRoad is the surly uncle. It’s been around for longer than Zwift and focuses more on performance. It works on the premise that you are given a series of power figures to hit, and you have to hold the correct power and/or cadence/heart rate for each effort. There is no visual representation of your efforts, it is more of a no frills experience than Zwift, instead focusing on its library of workouts and training plans designed by coach Chad Timmerman. It also has the unique feature of allowing you to minimise the software to watch your favourite film/TV show with essential workout information at the bottom of the screen. Athletes training with me are provided with turbo workouts, so the appeal of TrainerRoad is limited.

Pros: Extensive workout library, ability to minimise workout
Cons: Represents poor value for money compared to other software, no visualisation or social aspect

Bkool simulator

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Image courtesy of Bikerumour.com

Bkool are the underdog here, and something of an anomaly as they produce their own trainers as well as software. The Bkool software is unique in that is allows you to ride a huge variety of routes with video/google earth images to keep you engaged, rather than relying on the somewhat limited course offerings on Zwift. This can prove especially useful for those who have a big race abroad and want to preview the major climbs.

It has social elements like Zwift but with far fewer people using it, the scope for racing and training with friends is somewhat limited.

Pros: replicate courses from around the world
Cons: less social than Zwift, not many people use it

Tacx Training Software

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I am including this one as something of a warning more than anything. While Tacx were early adopters of training software, their involvement seems to have fallen by the wayside and it now their software exists as little more than a legacy product. Interestingly it can be used with the Tacx steering column to allow you to pick your way around virtual courses, but this is a pricey accessory that is only compatible with Tacx software. As they seem to have stopped marketing the software or including it with their latest trainers, they have either accepted that their efforts are better spent of manufacturing trainers, or they are planning a complete reboot of their training software (unlikely). While doing a bit of research for this article I noticed on the Tacx website they are now advertising their trainers using Zwift, so it seems the writing is on the wall for Tacx Training Software.

Pros: may have come free with your turbo trainer
Cons: dated, large one off payment to purchase

Accessories

So you have your trainer and your software, do you need anything else? Some of these are optional, some necessary depending on your setup

Turbo Quick Release

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A bona fide essential for anyone riding a quick release bike (so 99% of you) on an indoor trainer. This is a heavy duty rear skewer that can withstand the rigours of indoor training. A standard lightweight QR skewer can be damaged by being pinned in place with huge forces going through it. which can result in failure out on the open road. Every trainer recommends their use and will come with one to use, so please ensure you change your skewer everytime you move your bike indoors to avoid serious injury out on the road.

Training Matt

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A black grippy mat that sits under your turbo trainer, you’ve probably seen them in marketing materials for trainers and at demo stations. Their purpose is two fold, to protect the floor from sweat, and to reduce noise, especially important if you’re using it on anything but the ground floor. They roll/fold up nicely and look the part, but it’s nothing that an old piece of carpet won’t do…

HR monitor

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Hopefully you have one for your normal riding, but some workouts use heart rate as a metric for you to ride to, so they can prove to be especially useful on a turbo trainer. You can closely monitor your heart rate on a turbo to see how it reacts to different intensities, something you can’t afford to do out on the road.

Speed sensor

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You can use a speed sensor on your rear wheel to give you a virtual power reading even if using a dumb trainer or rollers. Not necessary if using a smart trainer.

Cadence sensor

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This little beauty sits on the inside of your non drive side crank and registers how often it passes the seat stay to give you a revolutions per minute (RPM) figure, also known as cadence. While not essential, it is very useful information when riding as it will help you realise when you’re pedalling too slowly or too fast. Some of the sessions that come with Phazon plans specify cadence figures so they’re an item we recommend. Currently the Tacx Neo is the only trainer with an unbuild cadence sensor.

Sweat guard

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When you’re pushing hard indoors with no wind to chill you, it’s pretty inevitable you’ll get a sweat on. This becomes a problem when sweat starts dripping from your face onto your headset, stripping the grease and leaving a salty residue which isn’t conclusive to smooth steering. A sweat guard will protect these sensitive areas from becoming damaged from indoor training. To reduce sweating and make your indoor ride more bearable, consider setting up an fan to keep you cool. I’m sure I won’t need to do a separate entry for this one…

Tablet stand/holder

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With Zwift and TrainerRoad offering mobile apps (Zwift is releasing an Android version very soon), many people will choose these over setting up an entire computer and monitor rig every time they want to ride, unless they have a permanent “pain cave” setup. Products are available to hold your phone or tablet either on your handlebars or freestanding in front of you. If you’re running aero or non rounded handlebars you’ll likely need the free standing version

ANT+ dongle

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If you’re planning to run ANT+ then this will be a necessity unless your computer comes with an ANT+ chip built in. If you already own a Garmin watch that comes with a USB ANT+ stick you can normally use the same one to save a bit of cash as an additional ANT+ stick will normally set you back around £30-£40. If you’re using a tablet or smartphone there are legacy products from yesteryear which can make your mobile device ANT+ compatible, but many of these will need expensive adaptors to make them work with modern devices so I suggest you invest in Bluetooth instead.

For more information on ANT+ vs Bluetooth see the section below

Riser Block

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Most turbo trainers will lift your bike off of the floor slightly, so to accommodate for this manufacturers provide a small block for your front wheel to sit on. Most trainers that require one will come packaged with one. Some people looking to replicate his climbing will often use a pile of books or similar to raise their front wheel more

Wahoo Kickr Climb

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Specific to the Wahoo Kickr series, you remove your front fork and slot your forks onto the notches provided, the climb replicates inclines of up to 20% and downhills of up to -10%. While it is easily dismissed as an expensive gimmick, it recruits different muscle groups to better replicate climbing, especially useful for those training for mountain events who will spend prolonged periods riding in this position.

Turbo tyre/spare wheel (wheel on trainer only)

Continental-UltraSport-Hometrainer-II-Turbo-Trainer-Tyre.jpg“Do I need a turbo tyre?” Is one of the most common questions I’m asked. The truth of the matter is it’s hard to tell, but if in doubt better to use one. They are an extremely hard rubber compound designed to withstand the rigours of being pressed against a metallic drum and spun around for hours on end. Some people report that they ride on the same tyre indoors and outdoors with no problems, while some find pieces of rubber being flung around their living room as soon as they start riding their road tyre on a trainer. It depends on the combination of your trainer and on your road tyre, but even if it doesn’t start delaminating visibly, you’re still putting a lot of wear on your expensive tyres and will have to replace them sooner. If you use a turbo tyre it it’s unlikely you’ll ever need to replace it.

With regards to the spare wheel, this is vital for those of us who don’t want to change a tyre every time we want to ride indoors. This is not only very time consuming and tricky, but it risks damage to your rim and increases the risk for blowing inner tubes by botching a tyre change. Drop a message on the forum of your club asking if anyone has any old stock/worn rear wheels they never use and can be donated for a good cause.

Bluetooth or ANT+?

The question on the lips of many newbies to indoor cycling, which protocol should they use? I’ll run you through the basics of each.

Bluetooth

The connection everybody has been using for many years, it has been slowly improved over the years but is still not especially long range or reliable. However most computers and devices can read Bluetooth signals so will be able to talk to Bluetooth trainers, making the process nice and simple.

ANT+

The ANT+ connection is generally longer range and more reliable than Bluetooth, however requires an ANT+ USB stick to communicate with your device, which is an additional expense. It is also slower to react to changes in resistance than Bluetooth, with up to 2-3 seconds delay between reaching a hill on Zwift and the resistance increasing. You can also attach the dongle to a USB extension lead to get it as close to your trainer as possible, minimising dropouts.

There’s no real right or wrong answers, I’ve used both over the years and not had major problems with either, it may be worth checking your trainer/sensors before deciding. If you own Garmin sensors which only tend to be ANT+ then it makes sense to use them rather than reinvest in an entire new set of Bluetooth sensors. My advice is to start with what is easiest for you, and try changing if you encounter issues.

Which trainer?

I’m not going to start comparing brands here, but simply compare different kinds of trainer and the advantages/disadvantages of each style

Cheap wheel on magnetic trainers

Examples: Tacx Blue Matic (pictured), CycleOps mag|
Approx £100-£200

T2650

These trainers are somewhat dated and likely to be discontinued in the next 3-4 years as smart trainer become more affordable. The resistance changes using magnets in the rear drum, controlled, by a trigger that is attached to your handlebars. They are loud and feel very unrealistic, but for the triathlete on a budget their are better than no turbo

Pros: affordable
Cons: clunky, unrealistic road feel, no data transmitted to software

Fluid trainers

Examples: Kurt Kinetic, CycleOps Fluid 2 (pictured)
Approx £150-£250

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These trainers do not change resistance in the traditional sense, but instead follow a set power curve that increases the resistance the more power you put down. This makes for a more realistic riding experience, but a less controllable one. I can’t really recommend them for use with training software

Pros: more realistic ride feel, no need to worry about changing resistance

Cons: very little control makes interval work difficult

Semi smart trainers

Examples: Tacx Satori Smart (pictured), Kimetic Rock and Roll Smart
Approx £200-£300

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These are magnetic wheel on trainers, but unlike their cheaper cousins they broadcast power to Zwift, giving you a much more accurate reading than the Z power that Zwift calculates using speed sensors and power curves. However they do not change resistance depending on where you are on course, although people will often manually increase the trainer resistance when they reach hills to replicate the slower cadence associated with going uphill.

Smart wheel on trainers

Examples: Tacx Genius, Wahoo Kickr Snap (pictured)
Approx £300-£500

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A smart wheel on trainer is ideal for those who want the full functionality of a trainer without the cost associated with direct drive. They tend to be less accurate and can’t create as much resistance as the big boys, but if that doesn’t really bother you then I can happily recommend one of those trainers. They tend to be much quieter at this price point, something which is worth the extra alone. Even if you don’t have neighbours, it’s nice to be able to hear yourself think when training.

Budget direct drive trainers

Examples: Tacx Flux, Elite Direto (pictured)
Approx £600-£800

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Don’t let the word budget fool you, you’re still looking at the best part of £700 for these trainers, but this is still a significant saving compared to the big boys. They can’t quite replicate the resistance of the top end trainers, but the road feel is vastly improved compared to wheel on trainers and the changes in resistance are smooth. I’d recommend most people invest a bit more and go all in for a top of the line trainer personally, but for those who can’t justify the extra expense these are a solid option. They can replicate a reasonable gradient and are more accurate than wheel on trainers, along with the buttery smooth feeling that comes with direct drive trainers.

Top end trainers

Examples: Tacx Neo, Wahoo Kickr (pictured), Cycleops Hammer, Elite Drivio
Approx £800+

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These are the top dogs of indoor training, the five star experience for the cyclist who has it all or will be spending vast amount of time on their trainer. They are the most realistic indoor riding experiences available, extremely quiet and able to accurately replicate the inclines on training software and give extremely accurate power readings.

You won’t get much change out of £1,000 if you’re looking at one of these, but if spending a bit more will make the experience more enjoyable and encourage you to ride where you might not otherwise, then it’s money well spent.

The differences between each are pretty minimal, so the best way to make the decision is simply to try riding each to decide which you  prefer the feel of.

ERG Mode

Ergonomic (or ERG) mode works by capping your power at a certain level during structured workouts. Once you exceed the target power for an effort it will lower the resistance to spin your legs out. This is incredibly useful as it allows you to focus on riding rather than staring at the screen trying to keep your power within the set parameters, and is favoured by many (including myself) for following structured workouts as it allows you to focus on your pedalling technique, audiobook or TV show rather than staring at numbers. The only problem is if you decide to stop pedalling or slow your cadence considerably as the ERG mode will whack the resistance up to full to compensate.

Which bike should I ride indoors?

Many people have a ‘turbo bike’ that has been retired from regular service and now sits on a trainer in their garage. This makes sense from a ease of us standpoint, you don’t need to worry about changing tyres or swapping bikes on and off the trainer, but at the end of the day we want to ride our race bike fast, and riding a different geometry on the trainer won’t give us the specific strength we’re looking for. This is especially true for people who have a road bike on their turbo but race on TT bikes, the muscle groups recruited and the demands put on them are quite different so train specifically for the kind of riding you’ll be doing. Many people will do a lot of turbo training over winter when you probably won’t be using your race bike on the roads, so consider bolting it onto your trainer for winter.

And finally… Can I use my carbon frame on a turbo trainer?

It wouldn’t be an article about turbo training without the contentious carbon frame question. The answer is that if your carbon frame is properly attached and you do not throw it around while training on it, you’ll probably be fine. If the quick release or thru axel is done up super tight you increase the chance of damage, but the biggest mistake you can make it doing it up too loosely as this will allow for the bike to rock around, vastly increasing the risk of damage. I know it can feel wrong to bolt your new carbon frame tightly into a static object before riding it, but if the frame is built to withstand the rigours of road use, it can survive being pinned into a trainer.

It’s worth mentioning that some companies such as Specialized currently void the warranty of a product if damage occurred while riding on a trainer. As indoor training increases in popularity you hope they’ll change their stance, but for now it’s worth checking the details of your manufacturer’s warranty if you want total peace of mind. Most of the time a bike suffers damage on the trainer it’s because the frame was already cracked and the turbo training was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

 

Hopefully this has given you an insight into the world on indoor training and allows you to make informed decisions of what setup to run. I’ll be wiring more in depth articles on specific aspects of indoor training over the coming weeks to make sure you subscribe or like our Facebook page to be kept up to date.

How to clean your drivetrain

This may not be the sexiest of blog posts, but as triathletes we have a reputation of poor bike skills, and this extends to the maintenance of our machines. Today we’re going to look at how to clean your chain to ensure your bike is running at optimum performance for as long as possible.

“But I don’t have the time to clean my bike every ride, I put it in for a service every year!” I hear you cry, but do you also tend to acquire a bill for a long list of replacement parts with every service and think “Blimey, this cycling lark is expensive!”? While all components need to be replaced eventually, their lifespan can be multiplied ten fold with a bit of TLC.

After shorter rides you can get away with a quick wipe of the chain, but once every 200KM or so you’ll need to give your drivetrain a proper clean.

I’ve been selflessly letting the chain on my commuter bike get dirty to demonstrate the method to you, and as you can see a large amount of black gunk has started to attach itself to the chain, creating a black paste which will eat away at our components, wearing them away and requiring replacement parts to optimise shifting and performance. A tell tail sign that your cassette/chianset needs replacing is when the notches on the cogs start to resemble a shark’s fin rather than a smooth, symmetrical tooth. If in doubt, take it to your local bike shops, most bike mechanics are honest and will give you an estimation of how long you have left in your components.

To start the cleaning process we first need to give the bike a good wash down with a hose. Cleaning your drivetrain is a dirty job and you WILL get grease on you and your clothes, I’d hate for you to get black specs all over your brand new Ironman finisher’s shirt, so wear something you don’t mind getting a bit dirty. If you don’t have the luxuary of a garden then make sure you carry out the work above a surface you can wipe clean, and substitute the hosing down with a thorough wiping down of the chain. The aim is to dislodge any bits of grit and dirt that my be hiding between the links before we get serious

Take this point to notice how the raised areas of the chain are cleaner than the rest of the chain. This is a result of the chain rubbing against the front mech and reminded me that I needed to adjust the limit screws to minimise chain rub which lowers the life of your chain as well as creating an incredibly annoying grinding sound.

Before we clean the chain itself, let’s the the opportunity to clean all the easily accessible working parts, namely the chainset and the jockey wheels. As you can see below, these are prone to attracting black gunk from the road as they sit right in the firing line

Probably not the best example as I’m generally pretty good at cleaning them and there’s a limit to how dirty I’m going to let my bike get for an article, but it’s important we get rid of this before we clean the chain, otherwise it’ll be black again by the time we get to the bottom of the road. The best way to do this is spinning the crank and using a screwdriver to remove the offending muck

This is preferable to wiping them down as any cloth you use is liable to getting dragged into the workings of the rear mech. Also check the chainset (front gears) for any dirt, then we’re good to start on the chain.

It’s finally time to clean the chain itself, and for that we will need degreaser. Degreaser is perfect for getting rid of pesky grease that builds up on your chain, but also very good at stripping useful grease from your bottom bracket and wheel hubs, so to avoid the powerful chemicals getting into these areas I use a chain cleaning tool, specifically the Park Tool Cyclone pictured. Notice the number of bristles on the inside of the machine, the real problem is not the visible dirt on the outside of the chain but the paste that has made its way into the links of the chain where it is eating away at the metal. The bristles are there to get to the difficult pieces of dirt that you can’t reach simply by wiping the chain down. Fill the tool up to the indicated level with degreaser and then seat the machine over the chain, clipping it closed to sit on the chain like so:

The tool keeps the worst of the degreaser inside its workings, but you’re doing well if you manage to avoid the splatter that can erupt from the end of the roll. I recommend keeping it as level as possible to reduce liquid escaping, but you do need to give the chain a good dozen or so rotations to ensure the bristles do their work on the entire chain. If you don’t have a chain cleaning tool you can apply the degreaser using an old toothbrush, but a chain cleaning tool is a wise investment for anyone who regularly rides their bikes.

The chain is already looking much better, especially compared to the cassette behind it. Next up we need to give the chain a thorough wiping down to get rid of the degreaser.

Give the chain a good few spins through the rag, ensuring you clean every surface of the chain, and we’re rewarded with a nice shiny drivetrain.

We’re already looking a lot better, and you’d be forgiven for wanting to jump straight onto your sparkling steed and heading straight out for a spin, but there’s one more final step to be completed. Remember how I said degreaser removed grease both good and bad? Well we need to re-lube our chain. Notice I used the word lube (pipe down at the back) rather than grease, we need to use a cycling specific product as using standard grease would act as a magnet to grit and clog up our drivetrain.

There are two varieties of grease that are commonly used, wet and dry. Dry lube is much thinner and designed for use in warmer, dryer conditions. Wet lube is much thicker and recommended for use in challenging conditions, so riding in the UK essentially. The reason for this is wet lube is much heavier so harder to displace, but it’s also stickier so attracts more dirt and dust, requiring more regular reapplication. Dry lube tends to be washed out of your chain quite rapidly when the heavens open in my experience.

As I’ll be riding this bike in all conditions I tend to use wet lube most of the time, but may use dry on my race bike when the forecast is good. Whichever you choose, give it a good shake before you apply it to ensure the application agent and the lube bond correctly.

It is best applied at the cassette, slowly turning the pedals while applying the lubricant to the rolling chain, until the entire chain has been covered. We now leave the chain for 5 minutes, so grab yourself a drink and a snack while we wait for it to seep through into the links of the chain.

Remember what I said about wet lube attracting dirt? Well we want to reduce this as much as possible, so after we’ve waited for the lube to seep into the chain, we wipe off any excess lube with a rag. This is very important to ensure you don’t attract more dirt, creating the dreaded black paste.

We now need to wash the bike down once again, and this time go over the whole drivetrain (preferably the rest of the bike as well) with hot soapy water, scrubbing away the excess grit and grime, as well as any remaining degreaser from our sparkling chain.

The eagle eyed among you may have noticed that my cassette in the last couple of photos is matching my nice clean chain. The cassette doesn’t tend to attract gunk in the same way as the other drivetrain components so cleaning it is optional but it’s worth giving it a proper degreasing every now and then, if only for aesthetic purposes.

First remove the cassette from the rear wheel, undo the locking ring and pull the cassette into individual rings (the largest 3 rings are normally welded together) ready to clean. Now we’re away from the rest of the bike we can afford to be a bit more rough and ready with the degreaser. Decant a small amount into a container to avoid “double dipping” and contaminating fresh degreaser. We then take an old toothbrush, load it up with degreaser and get to work on the cogs. As you can see, the before/after results are quite satisfying for the minimal work involved. Once all cogs are cleaned, reassemble them in the correct order and reattach your rear wheel.

Now you’re running with a clean, well lubricated chain you may actually feel a slight difference as it rolls and shifts marginally better, as well as looking the part. Most importantly it will vastly reduce wear on your components, saving your the money and hassle of replacing them. All components have a limited lifespan however, so keep an eye on them. Generally the cassette and chainset will only start wearing significantly when the chain stretches over time, so keep on top of that with a chain stretch tool, which slots between links of your chain to indicate how far it has stretched. Regular cleaning will vastly increase the lifespan of your chain, with some people reporting they can get 10,000+ miles out of a chain.

For more information on subjects such as removing your back wheel and cassette which I can’t cover in detail here, enlisting g the services of YouTube or your cycling savvy friends. If you have any questions, drop them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.

Hierarchy of stroke improvement

Whenever people come to me for help with their swimming I do an initial assessment to work out where their swimming currently stands. There is normally a fairly predictively series of faults, here is a list of the most common faults and the order I will correct them in.

TIER1

Breathing

Here I’m looking for a smooth, controlled exhalation underwater followed by a slight tilt of the head to quickly take a breath. Holding your breath underwater increases the build up of C02 in your lungs, resulting in you tiring quickly.

Body position

A flat, hydrodynamic body position is critical for efficient swimming, sinky legs or swimming with your head out of the water make us work considerably harder than we have to due to increased drag.

TIER 2

Arm recovery

For an effective freestyle stroke your arms must exit the water after completing the propulsive phase, as air is far less resistive than water. Ideally we’re looking for a high elbow recovery to set us up for a great hand entry.

Kick mechanics

Many age groupers neglect their legs as wetsuits give us incredible buoyancy, but our leg kick also give us propulsion and balance to our stroke. A subdued, but assertive kick will yield great improvements. Working on your kick is especially important if racing in waters where wetsuits run the risk of being banned.

Tier 3

Hand entry

Your hand should enter the water in a relaxed fashion, just short of full extension. We’re looking for your fingertips (not thumb) to enter the water first, followed by your wrist, and then your elbow. It’s important to stay relaxed as energy used in this phase is energy not being used to pull yourself through the water.

Body roll

Also known as rotation, a slight roll from side to side as you swim will allow a greater extension of your arm, as well as providing a more stable, hydrodynamic platform to pull yourself through the water with.

Tier 4

Catch mechanics

Improving your catch is the fastest way for a swimmer on a plateau to improve. The catch is the short phase of your stroke between hand entry and the pull. When you tilt your wrist and forearm down while bending your elbow to give the largest possible area to pull back on the water with.

Body alignment

Your hands should enter the water in line with your shoulder and pull back, keeping your hands in line with your shoulders throughout. If your arms cross over the centre line of your body at any point this will destabilise your body, and your body will try to counter this with a scissor kicking action.

Stroke rate/length

Ensuring strokes are not to long, and not too short and finding a sweetspot that is sustainable over the distance of your event. A stroke that is too short will not move enough water, but a long, lingering stroke is an inefficient way to swim and promoted bad mechanics such as a wrist first hand entry.

Tier 5

Propulsive power

The majority of your stroke power comes from the propulsive, or pull phase, as your hand travels the length of your body, exiting at your thigh. It is important that the rest of the stroke is as relaxed as possible to ensure our energy is used here more effectively.

Kick timing

Adopting a 2 beat, 4 beat or 6 beat kick is a largely personal choice and different kicking patterns suit different situations, for instance most people will increase their kick rate when they approach a buoy in open water. Finding what works for you and changing things up is an advanced skill but crucial for efficient swimming.

This article has been simplified significantly to pick out areas to improve in, but in swimming every area of our stroke is linked to everything else, and it is the trade of swimming coaches to work to work out how different elements of your stroke are affecting others. If you are interested in a swim analysis session, check out the services tab at the top of the page.

This article is loosely based on a similar model by Swim Smooth.

Life after Ironman

The post Ironman blues are a well documented phenomenon, athletes in training spend every waking moment thinking about their race; training, planning and worrying, drawing up various scenarios in their head and spending most of their disposable income on products that promise to get them round in a faster time. This is completely natural and I’d be concerned if an athlete didn’t give much thought to their race, but after we cross the finish line and the elation has subsided, people end up with a large M-dot shaped hole in their life.

This is often inevitable, but affects different people in different ways. Some people feel a bit empty for a few weeks, other feel destitute, thinking that any training they do would be pointless now they’re an Ironman.

The best way to prepare for this period is to plan in advance, just like you are doing for your race. This doesn’t mean sitting down with a calendar and creating a strict itinerary for the month following the race, but take ten minutes to sit down with a pen and paper to list all the things you’ll have to look forward to with more free time and pencil in a few plans. Here are a few suggestions.

Spend more time with your family/partner

If you’re lucky enough to have a partner who is completely on board with your training, they’ll have been proud to support you, and no doubt been very patient with you and long days alone in the house while you put in the big miles, this is your chance to make them feel special again by spending more time together. Take them out to dinner without worrying about what you’re eating or when you have to be back, enjoy lazy Sundays mornings in bed together and treat them with a long weekend away without packing your bike or running shoes. This will help butter them up for when you announce your plans to complete another Ironman next year!

Catch up with friends

I hate to break it to you, but if you’re in training for an Ironman you’re probably neglecting your friends to a greater or lesser extent. You may not feel like you are, but the times you politely excuse yourself early from a party early or turn down an invitation for a night out in the name of training has probably led to you falling off their radar somewhat. This is your chance to reach out to them, flash around your finishers medal, tell a few heroic stories and remember what it feels like to stay up putting the world to rights into the small hours. Friends are a vital part of your support network so make sure you invest time in them while you can and remind them you care.

Finish that project

Whether you’ve been putting off pressure washing the patio or finishing that art project, these things tend to fall by the wayside in the post workout glow as you fall into an accidental nap on the sofa in front of the antiques roadshow. These little projects are a great way to keep that results orientated side of you in check, replacing the sense of achievement you get from a high average speed with a clean car or finally fixing the the shower.

The next step

This doesn’t have to be Ironman orientated, but having something booked for after your Ironman can help you pick up your feet in the weeks following the race. A cycle sportive is perfect as it’s low impact, affordable and gives you the chance to enjoy a new part of the world without worrying about performance. Give yourself at least a month between your Ironman and next event, to allow you to recharge your batteries both physically and mentally. Whether you ever want to complete an Ironman again is a question only you can answer in the weeks following the event, but having a small goal will help you keep focus.

Remember it’s good for you

Life is all about balance, and months of intensive training must be balanced with periods of total rest. All the best coaches talk about the need for an off season for athletes to get unfit, put on a bit of weight and live like normal people. This will slowly be replaced with gentle, recreational exercise if you start to get itchy feet after a few weeks, and slowly turn into a new base period. If/when you decide to return to training you’ll do so with renewed enthusiasm and energy.

Chat to your coach

The debrief following an Ironman is perhaps the most important conversation you’ll have with a coach all year. This could be your coach or a coach you’re considering hiring, but they’ll help you analyse your performance, look at how it went objectively and help you plan your next move. There are always things that went well, and always areas to improve, your coach will ask the right questions and help you reflect on your race in a constructive way. It’s all to easy to beat yourself up about areas that didn’t go well, but putting things into perspective and help you move forwards.

A temporary drop in mood is common in all walks of life following an achievement, and can be attributed to a fear of being unable to recreate the success, however if you feel you are struggling following a race, during your training or at any point in your life and need someone to talk, you can call The Samaritans free of charge on 116 123 for confidential support.