Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tri Bike vs. Road Bike Or Race to Place vs. Race to Race

Over the last two years of doing triathlons, at some point people started talking about triathlon specific bikes. And I notice that a lot of people that pass me are riding really nice bikes, and when I look them up they're sport specific. I have wondered to myself (and really anyone who will listen) if a sport specific bike is more mental than actual. Does a bike really make that much of a difference?

My Current Bike
I have a mid-range road bike. It's a Giant TCR II from 2003, it's got an aluminum alloy frame with Shimano 105 components, it came with a set of Mavic rims, and Michelin Pro Race 3 tires. Overall this bike has treated me very well. I got it when I upgraded from my first hybrid bike, and to be honest I think it's a pretty decent bike. I just wanted a bike that would let me go out and get some mileage without killing myself. Because let's face it, it's a lot more satisfying to ride 15 miles in an hour instead of an hour and a half.

For the uninitiated, the difference between a decent road bike and a hybrid bike is difficult to describe. But imagine that when you step on the pedals on your bike it responds as if all of that effort you just put into pushing the pedal is directly translated into forward progress. They're lighter, they are less cushy, they absorb less of the energy put into them (both by you and the road - so a more bumpy ride :) It is basically like upgrading from a sedan to a sports car.

I've had this bike since about May 2004 - so it's the only bike I've used in my triathlons. The only upgrade I've made to this bike is to go through two GPS bike computers, and put on a pair of clip-on aero bars. Up until recently I've been reluctant to think about getting a triathlon specific bike. Really for three reasons
  1. The bike does not make the rider. If I can't muster a decent speed on a decent road bike, plunking down a few thousand for a new bike isn't going to catapult me onto the podium
  2. I was not convinced that there was significant difference between a road bike and a triathlon bike
  3. If you're going to throw down a bunch of money on a bike you'd better either be committed to the sport, or have tons of extra money laying around. And I do not fall into the second category :)
What Makes a Tri Bike Different
When scouring the internet you can find many descriptions of what makes a tri bike different. First things first, it's not obsenly lighter than a road bike, in fact it may weigh more. It's also not even really any more expensive than a road bike. But they are designed differently - the purpose of the two bikes is a lot different.

Triathlon is a non-drafting sport, meaning that when you ride your bike you're not allowed to ride close enough to someone else to benefit from their presence. In a bike race, or even group ride, drafting is part of the deal. Riding in a group has a major impact on the amount of wind resistance you have to deal with. Riding within two or three feet of even just one other person is significantly easier than being out on your own. So the triathlon bikes are designed to help you cut through the wind. This is accomplished in a couple of ways
  • Aero bars - Instead of putting your hands on your bars and riding around in a more or less upright position you bend WAY over and put your forearms on the bars. The biggest factor in a bikes wind resistance is the huge piece of meat sitting on it. So the goal here is to get that big sail of a body tucked in a nice small ball that is resembles an arrow more than a flapping wall. One side effect of this position, it's uncomfortable for extended periods. If you can't hold this position, you're likely to plop back up on your hands and "engage the meat parachute"
  • Bike Geometry - To solve the problem of aero bars being uncomfortable, the way the bike is built is different. Basically, a tri bike pushes your whole body forward on the bike. The result is that it's more comfortable to ride in that tucked position for longer. It also changes what muscles you use to power the bike. Now it's very easy for me to write that, I have read it a hundred times. I have also heard more technical descriptions. A tri bike has a steeper seat tube angle, a shorter top tube, and a shorter head tube. Oh yeah, that's the stuff, just imagine that in your head.
  • Aero components - Things are tapered and tucked to get out of the wind. When you look at an extreme aero bike head on it's very skinny. Heck, when you see them from the side they look all jammed together.

I was convinced it was all just marketing, "Hey put your rear up here and you'll be winning Kona in no time! The seat tube is steeper, how can you help but go a million miles an hour?!" I mean seriously, why can't someone put together a nice graphic to show me how a tri-specific setup is different. Or show me some real numbers about how riding a tri bike is somehow faster than riding a road bike in normal tri conditions (e.g., by yourself.) It must mean it's all hype, and as I like to say, don't believe the hype.

So I finally found an article that shows bike geometry differences and while I don't like the graphic they have because the bikes look the same with just different words written on them, here's my graphic that shows those two bikes on top of each other.

Blue = Tri Geometry
Red = Standard Geometry
So there we have it, a tri bike definitely moves you forward on the frame, apparently to the tune of 70/30 split instead of 50/50 weight distribution. Some of the side effects are stability and handling, but if you're riding by yourself and basically in a straight line - who cares right? Other side effects include comfort in the aero position and using different leg muscles to turn the cranks. The goal is to go as fast as you can while cutting down on the effort to do it. Because when you're done with your amazingly fast bike leg, you need to hop off and do another fast running leg.

So how much benefit do aero bars give you (and the position they put you in?) Again, there are lots of anecdotal conversations, and I personally feel like it's actually more comfortable, but I wanted to see some actual numbers. And then I found this guy basically doing the comparison I wanted. The numbers are a little tricky, because he does things like sets up a road bike with aero bars, but then doesn't use them. At first I was frustrated by this, but then I realized that in fact after about 10 miles of riding I get up off my aero bars to stretch my back, so you could say that a road bike with aero bars at some point or another will force you out of aero into the normal riding position. If you look at his last little graph, he basically says that the difference between a road bike and a full on tri-bike is 3 miles per hour (for a guy who is already averaging 25 miles per hour.) That article is basically contending that an aero road bike may suffice as your triathlon bike, but if you buy the argument that a tri bike is more suited for triathlons due to it's different geometry then what you gather from this is that the aero position clearly has big benefits.

So it's clear that a tri-bike isn't just hype. They are designed for a different sport, and that design can have great benefits. So the question is, when should I get one?

Tri Bike or Road Bike
This conversation is as old as the bikes I'm comparing. If you search the internet for this topic it's full of opinion and comparisons. It almost always boils down to a few points
  • The bike doesn't make the rider. A good rider can go fast on any decent bike, so if you're just looking for speed then look in the mirror. I read this as - if all you want is speed spend more time on the bike you have.
  • Don't bother with a tri bike if you're not going to be doing a lot of triathlons. A tri bike is a great bike, but its designed for triathlons which are ridden basically by yourself on mostly flat terrain with a small number of turns. If you're planning on lots of group rides, or rides with challenging climbs or lots of twists and turns, then a tri bike is not for you
I am a personal believer in the first point. When I started riding this season my average speed was in the mid to low 17s,  I would be happy to be able to hold 18 for 10 miles. When I ended the season I was up over 19 miles per hour. To put that in perspective, the people who usually podium in my age group average around 21 to 22 miles per hour. So let's say I had run out and bought a tri bike at the end of last year, and for arguments sake let's say it made me 2 miles per hour faster. So without any additional work I would have been .. where I am. Except a little poorer.

I am also a believer on the second point. I am not someone who jumps on a wagon as soon as it starts going. Before this season I had done four triathlons the year before, and one before that. So to buy a tri bike at the start of this season seemed a little premature. What if I got back to MN and the tri scene was non-existant or my motivation died? That would have been pretty rediculous.

I actually believe I'm now getting dialed in on those two big points. I have completed 10 triathlons, and have a tentative race schedule planned for next year that has 17 potential races on it. I have also seen significant gains in my overall speed, and my goal is to get very close to being able to close that bike speed gap next starting with the base I developed this year.

So I'm sold, clearly a tri bike is more than just a set of aero bars and some nice wheels. They can bring you a lot of speed if you use it right, and if you're racing to win and are going to be doing it for the foreseeable future, it's probably worth the investment.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Triathlon Training - By Me

So I follow a bunch of blogs from various triathletes ranging from pro to age groupers, though I am by far the least experienced and slowest. The one thing I always wished I knew was how these people were training. I did read a great blog entry once about reading how other people train. It went something like this: When you're reading about someone else's races or training keep in mind that you are not them. And while some guy may run 10 miles at a pace you can't hold for one mile you should not feel bad about that. Train your own way, and try to pick up some tips from wherever you can.

So here's how I trained this year.

My weekly schedule was pretty much set.
MondaySwim am (2,800 - 3,600 yards). Bike pm (18 - 35 miles)
TuesdayShort run  pm (3 miles)
WednesdaySwim am (2,800 - 3,600 yards). Long run (7 miles) or focused bike workout (e.g., hills, tempo, intervals)
ThursdayBike pm (18 - 35 miles)
FridaySwim am (2,800 - 3,600 yards)
SaturdayBike run brick. (Bike 20-50 miles, run 3-7 miles - don't rest much between bike and run)

For my swim training I joined a masters swimming program ( it's a great group. The coach has lots of experience both coaching and swimming, and he has done a great job nurturing this group. I had been a part of this group with my wife about four years ago, and while the group has definitely grown in that time, it is also neat to see that there are lots of people still there. It's a testament to the quality of the group.

From a training perspective, joining a good group provides many things. First a good coach can put together some really great workouts. They will do distance sets, sprint sets and sort of "resting days." A good coach will also pay attention to your stroke, and help you tweak your stroke on the fly. And since I come back three times a week they can keep seeing it and keep reminding me. Swimming with a larger group gives me motivation to get better, to train better so I can be better. I would definitely recommend people find a masters group no matter what their skill level.

I don't really do any open water swims, mainly because the lakes are cold, and I haven't been able to find many local people to swim with. Since swimming is my strong point I don't worry about it. Many people do try to get in some open water swims though.

Prior to this summer my bike training consisted of just going out and biking. I'd maybe throw in the occasional interval workout with .25 mile fast, .75 mile soft pedaling. The main problem with that was that I was almost always training alone, and never went much further than 10 miles.

So this summer I found a bike group to ride with ( again, it's a great group to be a part of. There are about 100 members and at any given day there are anywhere between 20 and 50 riders split up among five groups. The groups range in speed anywhere from 13 mph average to 20+ so there's a place for anyone. The group really gave me a variety of things, they knew the local  routes that are bike friendly, they knew how to string together a 20 mile ride on the fly, they knew how to turn an easy ride into a challenging ride, and because the skill range is so large they were always pushing me.

While riding in a group is totally different than riding in a triathlon (drafting for one) simply being in the group on a regular basis makes you a better rider. You can watch good riders, people can offer up tips, you get experience riding close to other riders which really helps with your bike handling.

The one thing this bike group doesn't offer is any sort of speed work. It's really just go out and bike as hard as you want for a bunch of miles. So I tried to augment those two weekly rides with another mid-week ride where I would toss in some hill repeats or speed work. In theory this would work great, the reality was that it didn't work out that well. I did it a few times, but in the end I just didn't stick to it.

So two years ago when all of this started I couldn't run a mile. So I did couch to 5k. The following summer I worked on shorter runs and tried to throw in tempo and interval runs in. I mainly did that because I still was having trouble running three miles straight, so instead of just running out of steam on a three miles I wanted to have a different excuse (e.g., I didn't run the whole time because I was really hitting the intervals hard.)

After that summer my wife and sister got me signed up for a couple of half marathons. Over the course of that training I (obviously) got my mileage way up over 3 miles. I was also peppering in some speed work, because I had set some goals to get faster than I was. This training was instrumental toward me being a better runner, I dropped my run times almost a minute per mile, and now a three mile run is an easy run, and I do six or seven miles without really putting too much thought into it.

Things that could use more focus
  • Bike speed work and hills. Whenever anyone talks about building speed (bike, running, swimming) intervals is where it's at. I've also read that if you're running short on time and can't put together two hours for mileage that a shorter hill workout is a great substitute.
  • Running - I need to work on speed (more intervals) and form. I know I have a slight heel strike, and I would not be surprised to find out there's something else I could tweak. It's not uncommon (in my life) for someone to comment on my running, and not as in that 'you look great' way :)
  • Transitions - I literally have never practiced a transition. I pay attention to articles and what other people suggest. But I think it's coming down to trying some new techniques and just practicing.
The one thing that I am really missing from my training this summer is a good group of triathletes to hook up with. I got supremely spoiled while in FL because I was able to hook up with an excellent group of people ( It is a fantastic group of people covering a wide variety of skill levels from total newbies (like I was) to top age-group finishers and iron distance veterans. I knew it was a good group when I found it, but I really miss that now that I'm in MN. I'm hoping to connect with a few more people close to where I live, it's just that one extra thing that I could use.

    Friday, September 9, 2011

    Season Training Notes

    I started training for the tri season in April this year.

    Swim yards26:40 hours
    Bike1,207 miles56:42 hours
    Run233 miles22:52 hours

    This season started immediately after my running season, which started immediately after last tri season. The goals going into this year were to start at least as good as last year and then later I decided to focus on the bike.

    I did some light swimming in March and April - nothing really that structured. I really hit the pool starting in May. Almost all of these yards are in the pool as part of a team, the coach kept pushing me out of my comfort zone, and while I didn't get much faster, it did have lots of benefits.

    I really hit the bike hard this year, it was clearly the focus with almost twice as much time training on it than anything else. I found a good group to ride with, and that really helped a lot. I also made a point (at least early in the summer) to put in some long rides (e.g., 40 miles or more) because I was going for larger events and didn't want to just die on the bike just because I hadn't ever ridden that far.

    Having just come off a running season where I had dropped my run pace by almost a full minute I was feeling really good about that so I pretty much put the run on maintenance mode. I had turned some of my running days in to short bike days, and stuff like that.

    Monday, September 5, 2011

    August Training Notes

    This month my totals look like this

    Swim8,500 yards2:30 hours
    Bike216 miles11:32 hours
    Run37 miles5:25 hours

    So last month I was lamenting how hard it was to get up and go swimming. This month it shows. I am actually surprised to see the run and bike numbers so high, though I did have two races in this month, and when I would miss a swim I would try to make it up with some running.

    That many yards really equates to about 4 workouts, it's always hard for me to get up, but when you've got a new baby at home and you're already sort of tired from that it's even harder. Plus I was pretty much done last month mentally :(

    The biking miles stayed pretty flat, I wasn't feeling particularly strong on the bike, but my wife kept pushing me out the door to get in the miles. She's great!

    So I was worried about the running all summer. I made a decision to prioritize the bike over the run, and that's what I did, and in the end it all worked out. Again, the extra miles came from days when I would miss the swim, but then take some time to get out and run.

    Thursday, September 1, 2011

    Tri Season Notes

    This season I did 5 triathlons, three sprints and two Olympics.This season marks my second full season of races. So here's how it lined up.

    Spring Training (Sprint)6:581:3531:4418.528:219:27
    Egg Hunt (Sprint)9:052:0434:1417.529.489:35
    Trinona (Olympic)23:111:251:27:3217.857.469:17
    Lake Front Days (Sprint)6:411:3140:5819.828:068:30
    Maple Grove (Olympic)25:591:351:22:3319.253:038:32

    What I see
    • Egg Hunt swim is an anomaly, either the course is longer than advertised, or the timing mat is way after you get out.
    • Trinona is the only wetsuit swim, it's also my fastest pace. The wetsuit makes a big difference.
    • Other than that the swimming training adds a less tangible benefit in the form of confidence and overall conditioning for the rest of the race.
    • Spring training tri is likely an anomaly again, my guess is the bike course isn't as long as they say it is
    • After that you can see that the bike legs get significantly faster. Summer time group rides really go a long way to building up speed.
    • The first three races all had walking in them. The first two I just couldn't muster the strength to handle it. The third I had some sort of back cramp. The last two I was able to run the whole way through.
    • Even without lots of run training my times came down. This is likely due to overall conditioning brought on by hard swimming and biking and just keeping the running up.
    • Holding the same pace on a 5k and a 10k probably means I could have pushed the run leg faster in Lake front days race. Especially since the longer race had five little hills in it.
    It's surprising to me that all my swimming training didn't have a more noticeable impact on times. But it does provide a lot of confidence. I would not have had the guts to tackle the longer distances without taking time to put in the yards. It also takes away the fear of draining my energy on the shorter races.

    The bike work has a very noticeable impact on times, it basically boils down to a 2 mph gain over the course of the summer.

    The big surprise of this summer is how the run has come along. I really was just putting in the miles and not thinking much about building speed; I did maybe one tempo run all summer.

    Next Season
    So the goals for next season line up like this
    • Start the season in as good or better shape than where I finished.
    • Add another 1 or 2 mph on the bike. If I can get average speed up over 20 mph consistently that will help a lot
    • Bring the run pace down. When people talk about going fast on the run they are thinking around six minutes average. When I talk about it I'm thinking around 8 minutes, 8:30 if I'm doing a triathlon. That needs to come WAY down.
    • Practice transitions. They are finally starting to hurt me. Adding two minutes in transition is like running an extra 1/4 mile, or 3/4 mile on the bike.
    • I'm also going to try to fit in at least one half iron distance event.
    This season is over for me. I am taking a pretty long break, my goal is to take it easy for the next 3.5 months. I'll pick it up again in January.