Sunday, April 27, 2008

Aero Bars

I have wondered what the deal with aero bars is for some time. All serious triathletes use them. But why?

Aerodynamics, I've been told. Well, ok. So why don't the guys who do Tour de France use them? You know, the pro cyclists? Surely if being aerodynamic made that much of a difference in speed then everyone would be using them. Surely.

So why do triathletes use them? And why do tri bikes have flat tubes and road bikes round ones? The standard answer is always 'aerodynamics.' They are called 'aero' bars, after all. But that can't be all there is to it. Again, if it were that great, the pro cyclists would be using it, too.

Also, I know pro cyclists spend a lot of time and money making sure their aerodynamic position is perfect. Remember that "Chasing Lance" series on the Discovery Channel? They showed him in a wind tunnel with an aero helmet changing his body position ever so slightly, making sure he was as aerodynamic as he could possibly be. He wasn't using aero bars.

And why does our local cycle club discourage the use of tri bikes in their group rides? That I found truly baffling. Was it just road bike purist snobbery? What could the big deal about dropping down into aero position possibly be?

There was something there. Something I was missing. Some reason why triathletes use tri bikes, and very expensive ones at that, and cyclists ride (also very expensive) road bikes. But what?

The answers to these questions has taken me a surprisingly long time to find. Months of googling, talking to cyclists and triathletes, reading articles, and bike shopping. Just in case you've pondered the same questions yourself, I bring you the answers that I've found at last.

And let me point out that a whole lot of triathletes don't know what I'm about to expound upon here. "Aerodynamics" is the extent of the reasoning behind why they ride a tri bike. That and because everyone else does. So let me 'splain, to those of you who care and don't already know this:

First of all, it's not just that a tri-bike has aero bars. The entire geometry of the bike is different. On a road bike your position is flat. On a tri-bike, the frame is shaped such that you ride with your butt up and your shoulders low. You rest your forearms on those aero bars and really get low. The reason for this is not aerodynamics. It is so that you use different muscles in your legs. Instead of pushing down on your pedals, you are actually pushing back somewhat. You're using more butt muscle and different parts of your quads and hamstrings. Those are now different than the parts of the muscles used in running.

It is also an aerodynamic position. This makes you somewhat faster. So why don't pro cyclists ride this type of bike? Turns out they do. For time trials. In situations where they are riding alone and nothing but speed matters, they ride an aero bike.

Why don't they ride them in a peloton? Because a tri bike is not as maneuverable as a road bike. A tri-bike is super-stiff and does not respond as quickly as a road bike. In the tight quarters of a peloton, you need to be able to react to the guys around you instantly. Riding a tri-bike in a situation like that means you are likely to cause a wreck. No wonder cyclists don't want to ride with a guy who is on one.

But in a triathlon, where drafting is not legal, quick responsiveness is not as important as speed.

A tri-bike is also more uncomfortable than a road bike. It's not a bike that you're going to ride for over a hundred miles, day after day. It's hard on the neck and shoulders especially. If you're not going to jump off of it and run afterwards, you don't want or need to put yourself through that kind of suffering.

You'd think that clipping an aero bar onto a road bike would be the best of both worlds, but it's not. Clips-on allow you to get a more aerodynamic position, yes, which is nice for downhill and windy situations. They allow you to rest your arms and upper body a bit, too. If you buy the right clip-ons you can get adjustable pads that you can move to be right under your shoulders, so that's a good thing. But clip-ons don't change your bike's geometry and thus don't do anything to benefit your run. Clip-ons could make you a little more comfortable on portions of the bike ride, but they won't make you a faster runner.

I read an article somewhere (sorry, no link. Forgot where) that said the aero-bike geometry with aerobars is an invention that changed the sport of triathlon on par with sports discoveries like the Fosbury Flop changed high-jumping and putting the skis into a V-shape changed ski jumping. That's huge. Huge.

But it's not that a tri-bike with aero bars makes your bike time that much faster. It'll be a bit faster. Maybe a mph or two. The real time saving will be gained on the run. You use different parts of the leg muscles in biking and running now, so your running muscles are fresher. You won't have to spend the first two miles or so working through aches and cramps as your legs adjust from biking to running. Instead, you'll run right off the bike. You will run closer to your fresh running pace throughout, not your 'OMG I just rode for hours and my legs are tired' pace. So your overall finish time will be faster when you use an aero-bike, mainly thanks to a faster run time.

Basta rides a road bike. He bought it about a year and a half ago, when we first got the idea that we wanted to become cyclists. It's a Specialized Roubaix. A good, entry-level bike. It retails for around $1300. He's ridden a lot of miles on it, he's very fond of that bike, and he's made good gains in his biking skills with it. He did Oceanside on it.

But now that he's a triathlete, he's completed a Half Ironman, and he has his sights set on a Full, he needs a proper triathlon bike. Now that I understand the benefits, I know he absolutely needs one. He wanted to hold off until his Full, but I want him to get one for his upcoming Vineman Half.

Let the shopping begin.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Breakthrough On Wheels

I think we had a little breakthrough on the bike tonight.

It is super-windy so Basta opted to ride the CompuTrainer. He hasn't done that in a while. He'd forgotten how to connect everything and lead the leads the best way to keep them out of the way of the turning back wheel and the pedals. He's really not good at that kind of thing. Sigh. So I did it for him and turned him loose.

When I came back in the room about 10 minutes later, he had the display on SpinScan but it was flat. No bars at all.

"Honey," I said "Why don't you have SpinScan going"

"Oh it's not working," he said. "I'm not paying attention to it, anyway."

"Dear," I pointed out, "SpinScan is why we bought that CompuTrainer. SpinScan will make all the difference in your pedal efficiency and thus your bike speed. SpinScan is THE most important thing to have working." (No doubt you power and heartrate people will disagree with me, but right now Basta's pedal technique sucks and he needs to work on that first. Power later. Heartrate maybe someday).

I looked closer at the readouts and saw that the sensor wasn't detecting RPMs any more. I had him stop pedalling and tweaked the sensor a hair forward. Tada, RPMs. Now we were getting some useful information.

Useful to me, anyway. Basta didn't understand at all what those bars were telling him. Despite all my trying to explain. It isn't exactly clear at a glance what those bars are telling anyone, so I've done some reading on it. It makes sense to me now. I thought I had passed that knowledge on to Basta. Not very well, obviously.

So we went through the explanation again. "Ok," he said, "but how do I get the bars more flat?"

"Pedal efficiency. Pressure through 360 degrees on the pedals. Remember that graph of how your foot position should be that I showed you from yesterday? "

"No. I mean I remember it, but it didn't mean anything to me."

Sigh. He's not stupid. Really he's not. He's an effing lawyer, for Christ's sake. He passed the Bar on the first try, lo those many years ago. He's far from stupid. This just isn't his thing. He doesn't get this stuff by reading articles like I do. He needs to be shown.

That's why this is working for us. I like to read and study and show. He listens and adapts, usually.

So I had him pedal slowly and showed him what his foot position should be on the pedal as it rotated around the circle. I had to actually hold his heel and move it into the place it should be through a few rotations. Then, the breakthrough occurred. He got it.

He started to spin again with renewed vigor. The bars responded nicely and the previously deep valleys on the top and bottom became gentle little dips of lesser power. Bravo!

He said it was hard to do on both legs at the same time. Agreed. I suggested he focus on one leg for a while and then on the other. Soon enough it will become second nature. Like everything, it takes practice.

Before long he was commenting on how much he felt it in his ankles and calves. Yes. More strength there will make him run faster and be less prone to running injuries, too. This is all good.

Now to continue this when he's out on the real road. I think he will. He ought to see more of those coveted miles per hour, too.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Proper Form

My but the internet is a wonderful place. So much information out there that makes my life so much easier.

The hard part, of course, is separating the junk and bs from the real information, but that's also part of what makes it fun.

To wit -- proper form. How does one run efficiently? Swim? Pedal properly? Well, just turn to the internet. Good people have taken the time and effort to post their expertise and make it freely available to all. Love them for that.

How to swim?

Well, we started with the Total Immersion approach. It is fantastic, as everyone knows. Read the book, get the video. Roll and balance that body, baby. Basta has that part down.

Now that we're in a Build phase again, it's time to address proper form in all sports again. Basta is ready to get some finer points of his swim technique improved. Well, how about a nice little coaching session from six-time Ironman Champion Dave Scott? Beauty: He has several very well-done videos there. Do a search on Dave Scott Swimming. Thanks, Dave!

Here's a cool video of Olympian Sara Hall doing running drills to improve form and thus speed. I don't know if Basta will do these but I certainly will. Anything that might improve my running speed is a good thing. Improved running form reduces injury and that's a very good thing. Plus, you can do these down the hall in the privacy of your own home. Don't have to feel like a dork out there with people watching if you don't want to.

Finally, I like this article on pedal power: Especially the simple graphic in the middle. I've watched a bunch of videos of pro cyclists on YouTube to see how they pedal and it seems pretty clear. Need to continue those one-legged drills and focus on the SpinScan readout on the CompuTrainer to get it perfected.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


The rest/transition phase is over, on to the next event.

Basta needed these two weeks of Very Little Exercise. He was tired. He skied four days, as mentioned. He swam a few times. He didn't run or bike. Letting the knee heal and the body recover. He ate a lot.

He felt run down and like he was battling a cold. He used Zicam and it never developed into a real cold. He may have had the bug or he may have just been showing signs of high physical exertion. In either event, he's fine now.

His knee is also fine. It apparently was sciatica because the yoga did the trick. The pain migrated up his leg and into his hip. From there the area of pain reduced until it finally left completely. Now all he needs to do is continue these 15 minutes of yoga every day and he will remain pain free.

Now, back at it. His next event is Vineman on July 20. He has 14 weeks between now and then. Plenty of time to get his bike down to sub-3 range. Sub-6 overall is the goal. He's already fit so we can launch right into a couple of Base phases and then Build and Peak.

Along the way we have lots of events we can do. We could really do one every weekend if we wanted to, and all of those within driving distance. We are already signed up for Wildflower on May 3, doing it as a relay.

I think he should do the San Diego bike tour on May 12, probably the 66 mile/106km course. (since I now have a number of Basta's friends and relatives from Europe reading, I'll try to remember to put distances in metric, too. Easier than looking it up yourselves or doing that conversion in your head. Plus, it sounds longer to us. Oooh, Basta's riding 106km! That's a long way!) San Diego is a couple of hours away from us.

There's a Half Marathon at the end of May down in Mission Viejo. 45 minutes away.

There's the Playa Del Run, held about 2 miles/3k from our house. That's an aquathon, a nice little ocean swim followed by a run up the bike path along the beach. It's not a long event, but it's so close to home it's hard to skip.

Then there's the Huntington Beach Pier Swim, another local event, on June 7. Start on one side of the pier and swim around to the other. About 1/2 mile (.8k) total distance. The fun part about that one is that wetsuits aren't allowed, and the water is dang chilly around here. Estimated water temp that time of year is around 67F/19C.

So, busy busy. It will be an active spring & summer. I'm sure other events will pop up, too.

Basta rode his bike with the club yesterday. Their typical short but hilly ride. 32 miles/52K in the canyon. It was very warm and very windy. We set temperature records yesterday. He had a tough ride. He doesn't do wind well and he doesn't do hills well. So it was good training for him.

Today, official rest day. I am working on his master plan and his detailed workouts for next week. He's ready to run again. He likes swimming. He'll ride the bike until he actually enjoys it, too.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Recovery week

We had a great time skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho. Basta skiied me into the ground, which really pointed out the expanding gap between our fitness levels. Must work on that.

He ate plenty of ice cream. A whole lot of calories all around. He was constantly hungry. That's a natural side effect of his big calorie expenditure all at once on race day, plus the appetite stimulation of the sugar. It's ok. He can afford it. He's still skinny and will be back in training soon.

He's been complaining of knee pain around his left knee. As with most of his aches and pains, I assume they will go away on their own soon enough. But just like his shoulder pain, this one hasn't. It's not debilitating, but it's there. Whenever he runs or walks, he feels pain in his left knee.

Not really pain, though. Tightness. Soreness. More of an 'awareness'. Like it might become pain if he continues running on it. Ok.

Can you isolate the pain? Is it on or under the kneecap? No. Behind the leg? Sort of. Does it feel puffy? No. On the side of the knee? No. Outside? Inside? No. No. It's not really 'in' the knee. More 'around' the knee.

Frustrating. Not a knee pain that is normally associated with any of the running injuries or pains. A fairly long research bout led me to the belief that it is his sciatica radiating down to his knee. He has a chronic problem with that. A problem that yoga cures nicely. Yoga that he's not doing.

I finally got it out of him why he's not doing the yoga. He thinks he's so fit now, that his core is so strong, that his sciatica is cured for good and won't come back.

Well. Unfortunately not. I told him the information I'd found on knee pain and sciatica and he agreed that was probably what was going on. And he agreed that yoga was the answer. AND, he's now actually doing yoga. He's committed to doing it every day, and he's done it 3 days in a row now. Hooray. His pain is starting to diminish. I hope he actually makes this a part of his life now. He'll be a much happier athlete for it. He'll be more limber, have less pain, and less injuries.

We have a few more days of recovery. He's going to swim tomorrow. Easy, gentle swim. He wants me to show him what I mean by 'reaching long.' I hope I can find a good video on that. No running or biking this week to give the legs a rest. Skiing was enough for them.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Basta said that the swim lasted forever. He was expecting a protected harbor swim, and he got that for the most part. But towards the turnaround they left the close protection of the harbor and swam out to the breakwater. It still wasn't open ocean, but it was rough and choppy.

I'm not overly concerned about his swim time. He'll keep swimming. We'll do more open water training. We'll work on reaching long, gliding, and a strong pull. Maybe I can find a swim coach that will help us out, too. Over time I expect him to shave some minutes off his 1.2 mile swim time. Not a huge amount. He averaged 2:12/100. He ought to be able to get that down to 2:00 one of these days.

His biggest complaint on the bike was that I forgot to put the Motor Tab in one of his water bottles. He always rides with one bottle of straight water and one bottle of energy/electrolyte drink. The Motor Tabs work nicely. I had intended to drop a tab in his water in the morning, but I forgot. He didn't think of it because I always do that. So. He was out there for 3.5 hours with no electrolytes.

Now mind you they were handing out bike bottles filled with Gatorade at every aid station. But Basta had it in his mind that he wasn't going to stop or pause at those, so he didn't do it. A wee bit more flexibility in the mindset would have been useful here, I'd think.

He also had Gus, Shot Bloks, and a Mojo Bar with him. He wasn't calorie-free.

He said he started to cramp up about an hour into the bike. He blamed it on the lack of salt and electrolytes. So pick up on of those freely available Gatorades, dude. But no. He pressed on.

The course was hilly. Scenic, but hilly. The last hour or so was straight into a headwind. Basta averaged 16.3 mph. That is way, way too slow. The top 10 guys in his age group all did 20+. This is where we will spend our time working on improvement. More mph pay big dividends in time saved. He should be able to ride 56 miles in less than 3 hours.

We will do lots more riding. Group rides that push his pace, rides that take him into hills with people who know how to ride and can help him improve. He is good enough now that he can ride with a group, he enjoys it, and the club has plenty of good riders who are willing to help push and pace. I see nothing but good things in his biking future, and that will make all the difference in his finish times.

At last, the run. The run is his strong suit. He averaged a 9:31 pace. 42nd out of 88. Without putting in over 4 hours of effort before running, he can do a 7:44 pace over 13.1. With more training and more endurance experience, he'll be able to keep more of his fresh pace. I think we're good continuing what we're doing there.

He chatted with other runners as he ran. He sprinted the last mile. He had energy in reserve. He did not leave it all on the course. That's understandable, being his first Half and all. He wanted to make sure had enough gas to make it to the end. Now that he knows, he can pick up his pace sooner. He can also save the chatting for afterwards. Honey.

A lot of you emailed me on the stick-thin skinniness of his legs in the picture at transition. They're not really that skinny. Just a quirk of photography. He is thin, but his legs are a little meatier than they look there. They could stand to be more muscular, though, and we'll continue his weightlifting and sprints program to build those legs as much as they can be built.

He said he learned a lot. Like he needs to run with a hat. And he should lube up with a sturdy waterproof sunscreen in the morning. That he can do this distance and still have energy to do more at the end.

These events are so motivating, so stimulating, that it's no surprise that Basta is psyched up for triathlon again. He emailed everyone his results and pictures. He is very pleased he reached his sub-6:30 goal. He knows he needs to work on the bike and is looking forward to riding fast and often this summer.

His next event is Vineman, July 20th. 3 and a half months away. He's already set his goal for that: Sub-6. I think he can do it. It's a less hilly course and he'll have spring/summer weather to train in.

But the big news is that he wants to do the big one. Ironman. He's proud to have done a half but he says he has the bug now. He has to do a full. He's looking at them and deciding which one he wants to do. It has to be a destination location and a good time of year. Not sure which one yet. We have time to decide.

He showed me a brochure for a marathon coming up in a few weeks. "I need to do marathons now," he says. Yes. He might even have a Boston Qualifying time in him. Not in a few weeks, though.

Because we are going skiing next. Off to Sun Valley, Idaho for a week. I took a page from Bold's coach of last year and told Basta that his next week's training included nothing but sitting on his butt and eating ice cream. He took me very seriously and stocked up on several difference flavors, along with some cheesecake and chocolate-covered blueberries. He's embracing this training week hard.