Tri Talk Triathlon podcast, Episode 75

You can listen to the audio by clicking above, or download it here

Holographic bracelets, regional bragging rights, and a wind tunnel teaser. Today, on Tri Talk.

Welcome to Tri Talk your podcast source for triathlon tips, training, news and more. If you are listening from China, you’re not alone, welcome to the few hundred dedicated fans in that country. If you are listening from Greenland, you are a dedicated but solitary fan, and I appreciate you taking the time to listen to the podcast. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is Tri Talk Episode 75.

This is going to be a long episode, based on how long it took me to prepare it. I hope you enjoy it. This is a test-heavy episode for you today. First, we’ll give you an introduction to a series of publications I’ll be doing based on wind tunnel testing with Joe Friel. This is just a teaser, and is just meant to whet your appetite for more information, but you’ll get some great and useful information out of it to help you bike faster. Next, onto a test of holographic bracelets. They’re shinny, they’re hip, but do they improve performance? We’ll see. Finally, if you can stay with me that long, I’m going to provide you with a report I did for USA Triathlon ranking each state based on triathlon performance. How do the triathletes in your state stack up with the rest of the country?

I spent last week-end at a wind tunnel with Joe Friel, and he and I will be publishing the results in our various publications over the next several weeks, and in particular over the next few Tri Talk episodes. Some of the information we have for you is amazing, and some simply reinforces what we already knew. We particularly targeted apparel, compression gear, helmets, and hydration systems, and I’m excited to be bringing the results to you over the next several weeks.

 

One of our major goals Joe had was to look further at the research John Cobb has done on aero helmets, particularly that the head down position with an aero helmet as the most aerodynamic position.

John’s theory is that the head down position is more aero because of two factors. 1) The head down position results in less frontal area, as more of your big head is below your shoulders, and 2) That the smooth surface of the top of your helmet allows for better airflow compared to presenting your bumpy face to the wind. There has also been thoughts from other leading coaches that the tail itself sticking up assists in airflow.

Another one of the things I wanted to test was if visors were universally better than no visor.

We took 8 leading aero helmets and tested all of them in both a head up and head down position, going immediately from the head up to the head down position in the tunnel, and then quickly switching helmets. Many of these helmets were tested with both the visor on and a visor off as well. For helmets with no visor, a standard par of sunglasses was used.

We also tested a standard road helmet with large vents, but we did something that we think may not have been done before. We tested the road helmet in both the head up and head down position as well. A road helmet in head down position has not been considered in the past because it has no tail, and consistent with John Cobb’s theory that the head down with an aero helmet also offers a smoother surface than a ventilated helmet, the road helmet theoretically should perform poorly head down compared to other aero helmets.

The results were very interesting, to say the least.

First, 7 of the 9 helmets tested better in the head down position, with 2 helmets testing better in the head up position. This is very consistent with John’s research, but it was interesting to know that it was not universal in our tests. But in general, a cyclist will perform better with the head down.

However, what was very interesting is that the road helmet performed better with the head down. While this is consistent with the head being lower, the fact that it exposed huge vents as its frontal area seems to indicate that head position is far more important than airflow over the helmet itself.

What was also fascinating was that of the 9 total helmets, the standard road helmet came in 5th best in both the head up and head down position. That’s correct, the road helmet outperformed 4 of the aero helmets in both head up and head down. As the owner of a triathlon retail store I find this very upsetting, that an inexpensive helmet could outperform our pricier aero helmets.

This does not mean that you should throw away your aero helmet, because remember that 4 other aero helmets performed better than the road helmet.

The visors offered more information to the puzzle, but unfortunately did not solve the puzzle. 1 of the 3 helmets tested was more aero with the visor, 1 of the 3 was less aero with the visor, and one had no change with the visor. I’m disappointed that I could not add more confidence to my theory that a visor is an important element, it really seems to depend on the helmet and the visor.

The most eye-opening thing to me for the day was the incredible distribution of helmet performance. It was eye-opening and scary. The difference between the best performer and the worst performer was terrifying. We’re talking minutes over a 40K TT, and tens of minutes over an Ironman.

How many times have you heard the phrase, “an aero helmet will give you more speed than a set of aero wheels.” Well, this is true, but only for half of the helmets we tested. I’d like to add a new statement to the triathlon world, “the wrong aero helmet will wipe out the aerodynamics gained from a set of aero wheels.”

Right now, I know what you are thinking. “Tell me which helmets did good and tell me which ones did bad!” Didn’t I say this was a teaser?

One thing that is critical for me to clarify, is that unlike wheels or apparel, or even hydration systems, rider position and body type effect aero helmets tremendously. In our case, our rider was in a fairly upright Ironman position with a rounded, not a flat back. It is very possible that a more aggressive position or flatter back could result in completely different data, and to say that one helmet is “better” than another is very irresponsible for helmets. We might be able to get away with it for other gear, but the helmet is too unique.

Therefore, the only way to confirm which helmet is the right one for you based on your position and body type, is to get to a wind tunnel.

Also, this test was only done on 15 degrees of yaw, or with the wind coming at the rider at a 15 degree angle, which while that is a very realistic racing condition, we need to test again at 0 degrees as well, and see if some helmets do better or worse with 0 degrees.

Therefore, I am not going to publish the names of the helmets yet, but commit to doing that in the future. Joe may choose to do so, and I’m OK with that, but I’m not ready to do that yet. Also, we will be releasing the hydration, apparel, and compression results with specific time saving and product names in the near future.

The second critical thing for me to say is please, please, please don’t ride with your head down. I know that based on all this data you are going to be tempted to do that. It is a dumb thing to do. It’s like removing the airbags from your car to save a bit on gas mileage. You’ve got to keep your head up when you ride. I want you to repeat after me: I promise…to always ride…with my head up…

I need to give a big thanks to Jameson King, who was the Operations Manager for the wind tunnel project. We did 180 runs of testing in our limited time, and it was all because Jameson had a system down where we could swap hydration systems and be back testing again in a matter of minutes. He was like a NASCAR pit crew, and he put some outstanding thought into the correct order of the testing to maximize our time.

Moving on. One of our most recent tests is from a leading holographic bracelet company. You’ve probably seen commercials for these, the one where they try and pull down your outstretched arm, and when wearing the bracelet you theoretically have more power and can resist. These holographs are supposed to restore your energy balance. Even if that test were true, will a stiff arm make you a faster triathlete?

For our test, we took two sets of bracelets, and removed the holograph from one set and covered both sets with tape, so that we could not tell which bracelets had the hologram and which did not. All we knew was that one set had the holograph, and one set did not, and a set included both an ankle and wristband.

The test was quite simple. After a warmup, a cyclist would try and hold a specific heart rate and cadence, which was all they could see, and we would record their power for that given heart rate, swapping in and out both the two sets, and also testing without any bracelet as well. Our test pilot was PowerTri’s general manager, Jameson King, with me managing the testing.

For example, we started without any set on the wrist and ankle, and had Jameson hold a steady heart rate for 10 minutes. We then switched to set B, not knowing if it was the holograph set or the placebo set, with a band on the wrist and ankle. We cycled for another 10 minutes with set B, and then switch to set A. We repeated this process 4 times, so both set A, B, and no bracelets each had 4 10-minute tests. Two of those tests were done in Jameson’s Zone 2, and 2 were done in Jameson’s Zone 4 heart rate, so that we could test the bracelets at different intensities.

The environment was very controlled and consistent, and we only took the final 5 minutes of each 10-minute test to ensure that heart rate and the power device were stable. We monitored temperature, and each test was done within 0.1 degree Celsius of the previous test.

The results were, frankly, perplexing. The consistent worst performer was the bracelet without the holograph. The consistent best performer was tied between no bracelet at all, and the bracelet with the holograph.

Which really does not make sense to me at all. This would seem to suggest that if you are going to wear a bracelet or an anklet, make sure it has a holograph in it or wear nothing at all. Is it perhaps that any pressure on the wrist or ankle reduces performance, but the holograph has enough of an effect to counter the problem?

Frankly, the real answer is that our test was flawed, lacked sufficient controls, and had no statistically significant value associated with it. Personally, I would not wear the bracelet, because even if you accept the results, not wearing the bracelet was as good as wearing it. I was skeptical before I did the test, and I’m just as skeptical now.

Moving on. I want to say how much I appreciate our international Tri Talk listeners. Over ¼ of you listen from outside the US, and as a result I try to make Tri Talk as global as possible. However, sometimes I just have a story that is very specific to the US, and in my defense, it is where my racing and coaching takes place. This next section may have some interest to those in the US, but really, if you are outside the US, you can hit the Next button on our device and skip this section.

But for those of you inside the US, this section is all about bragging rights and another salute to triathletes’ ability to overcome challenges.

I’ve been wanting to do this project for a long time. Over the last 7 years, I’ve had the privilege of corresponding with and coaching triathletes from all over the country. Invariably, every triathlete I talk to thinks that where they live has the most competitive triathlon environment. I get invitations to race from California to Massachusetts, all with the premise that I’ll be blown away by the level of competition that their state has to offer. They can’t all be right, can they?

This finally came to a climax when my little brother moved to Iowa for medical school, and sure enough, he called me and said that I would get my butt kicked in Iowa.

Those of you who have a little brother know that this kind of statement is unacceptable, and that it is the responsibility of an older brother to put his little brother in his place. It’s bad enough when your little brother is going to be a doctor, and you’ll have to live with that social class disparity for the rest of you life, but when he starts trash talking that he is now racing in a more competitive environment, well that’s when a Tri Talk episode is born.

So how can we do this? How can we measure which region or state has the fastest triathletes? There are multiple ways to look at this. We could look at Ironman Kona Qualifiers by state, or even qualifiers at the 70.3 distance, but that excludes athletes at the shorter distances. We could supplement that and look at the USAT National Sprint and Olympic Championships and see which states are represented, but there are problems in using that small of a sample size, and there are distinct geographic factors that would skew that analysis, based on the fact that many people can’t afford to fly to Vermont for a national championship.

Fortunately, there is robust solution already available to us. The annual USAT Ranking system gives us a huge sample size, with tens of thousands of ranked triathletes, distributed all over the country, and a formula that calculates performance independent of triathlon distance.

Now, I know that the USAT Rankings system is not perfect, but it is the best system currently available for this kind of exercise, and it is the same ranking and formula system used by other US Olympic organizations. If you have objections with using the USAT Rankings to determine which state has the fastest triathletes, I’ll conceded that this exercise is not necessarily the ultimate system for state-by-state analysis, but the best current system. Yes, I work closely with USAT, yes I’m a former Board member, yes I’m a big fan of the ranking system, but speaking objectively, this is still the best available method.

It is important that you have at least a brief understanding of how the USAT Ranking system works. You can go and listen to episode 66 and 66a, where I spent 2 full episodes describing the system. Yes, 2 full episodes. Or, I’ll give you the 2 sentence version. The system allocates pointes based on how well you performed relative to the field in a given race, which is also influenced by how the field was expected to perform based on previous rankings. It then averages the points of your top 3 races to give you a total score for the year. It usually gives out a value of between 50 and 110, with the higher score representing a faster performance.

It’s truly an under-utilized benefit from being a USAT member, and frankly another great reason to become a USAT annual member.

Although USAT publishes the annual rankings every spring, it is impossible to crunch the numbers based on that hard copy publication. I want to thank USAT for providing me with their proprietary 2009 ranking data in order to do this analysis. In fact, the full report can only be found at USAT, and that link is poasted at tri-talk.com.

I did a total of 7 different rankings based on every single triathlete ranked in 2009, and I’ll go over each of them briefly. Again, the full report can be found at USAT, and the link is at tri-talk.com.

First, lets take a look at just the pure top scores from each state. I simply took the median score off all male and female athletes from each state, and separated by male and female. However, some states only had a handful of total scores, and one state had just 4 total ranked athletes. The sample size for many states just was not enough to give a reasonable value. I therefore somewhat arbitrarily set a lower limit of 100 scores  as a minimum number of ranked triathletes. On my report at USAT, I have all the data in two sets, the raw ranking regardless of the sample size, and also a rankings only factoring in states that had at least 100 ranked triathletes.

Also, this report excludes data from Pros, it is only age-group data, so that Colorado won’t be ranked first in every ranking I did.

And can I just quickly say that someone is doing something right in Alaska, because Alaska has more ranked triathletes than Oregon and Vermont, and we’ll have had 2 USAT National Championships take place in Oregon and Vermont in 3 years. I’m going to start a campaign to have a National Championship take place in Alaska.

For the podcast today, I’m only going to list the rankings for states that had at least 100 ranked triathletes, and you can see the full unfiltered report at USAT.

The top 5 states based on median score for females are:

Minnesota

Washington

Wisconsin

Kentucky

Michigan

 

The top 5 states based on median score for males are:

Washington

Minnesota

Utah

Wisconsin

Colorado

 

That’s right, baby, Utah is number 3 in the nation based on median score for male triathletes. Score so far: Big brother 1, Little brother 0.

Kudos to Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin who made the top 5 in both male and female median score.

I’m not going to rank the bottom 5 for each ranking. That would just be rude. So instead I’ll just send you to the full report at USAT to see the bottom 5 in a passive-aggressive manner.

Let us pause and point out the flaws with this first rankings. The truth is, states that have a more mature demographic, or a lot more triathletes who are new to the sport in emerging markets, are going to be penalized using this calculation. I agree. But that is not the point of the first ranking. Regardless of why there are more slow triathletes from a given state, the fact is that if you compete in Washington, the overall performance of the triathletes there is better than in other states.

But this first ranking still does not answer the question of a “competitive” state. Can we change the calculation to look at which states have a high % of very fast triathletes?

The second and third ranking I did tried to do just that. Instead of a median score, I looked at the total number of very fast triathletes. What do I mean by a very fast triathlete? In analyzing the USAT rankings for the last few years, I believe that an athlete with a score of 90 or better, has a reasonable chance of winning a local triathlon of 150 participants or less. At a regional or national event, they would not win, but would finish very high at the race. Another way to look at this is that a score of 90 or higher puts the athlete in the top 3% in the nation. Not the score from just 1 event, but the final USAT score based on at least 3 events. I consider these triathletes of 90 or higher to be age-group elite athletes.

Based on total number of athletes ranked 90 or higher, the states for both male and female are in general no surprise, and also they are identical.

 

California

Colorado

Florida

Texas

New York

 

Again, this ranking is identical for male and female. With the exception of Colorado, this simply follows the population size of the top 4 states, and so it makes sense that these states would also have the most number of elite age groupers. Colorado still deserves some significant recognition, because remember, these numbers exclude Pro data, it is just age groupers, and so having Colorado have more elite age grouper triathletes than Florida was unexpected.

 

But this still begs the question of the most competitive state. Sure, California has the most number of elite triathletes, but they also have the most number of total triathletes and total number of events.

 

The next ranking looks at total elite athletes as a percentage of total ranked triathletes. I consider this to be the most accurate calculation of the most “competitive” state. Which states have the highest concentration of elite athletes, not highest raw number of elites, the highest % of elite athletes as a % of the total triathlon pool.

 

If we that calculation, then ranking for females would be:

 

Washington

Wisconsin

Minnesota

Colorado

Utah

 

And for males it would be:

Minnesota

Washington

Colorado

California

Utah

 

That’s right again, baby! Utah at number 5 for the highest concentration of elite triathletes. Score: Big brother 2, Little brother 0.

 

And again, consistency between the male and female groups in this ranking, with 4 of the 5 states in both the male and female top 5.

 

Finally, I also did a ranking by age group per state. Meaning, I took all the age groups, got a median score for each age group, and gave each state a ranking for each age group. In fact, it’s too much for me to read on the podcast, and I’ll send you to the USAT report to read it.

 

There was one problem with this age group report. You’ll recall that the whole idea for this project came from the assertion that I would get my butt kicked in Iowa. Although Utah came in higher in both the overall median score and concentration of elite athletes, it turns out that Iowa has the 3rd fastest age M35-39 age group in the country, which is my age group, compared to Utah at 5th in the nation for the M35-39. It looks like there are a lot of fast guys my age in Iowa who could kick my butt.

 

Therefore, I have to concede at least 1 point. Big brother 2, Little Brother 1.

 

Overall, one of the biggest stories from this report is how consistently Minnesota and Wisconsin are in the top 5 in just about every report. Especially if you look at the male age group chart, where Minnesota has 8 of the 15 age groups in the top 3, and Wisconsin has 6 age groups in the top 3.

 

Those two states have some pretty nasty weather in the winter, and I have to say it is a tribute to triathletes that they can overcome weather-related challenges and still perform very well in the summer. In fact, the top 5 in most reports consists of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, Colorado, and Washington, and 4 out of 5 of those states have winters that make it challenging to train on the bike. Maybe it has something to do with indoor cycling training?

 

A couple of other interesting notes: South Dakota only had 4 male ranked triathletes, but one of them is really, really fast. USAT did not provide me with specific names, but all I know is that if you are ever at a race, and the guy next to you says he is from South Dakota, be very, very afraid.

 

Overall, if I had to make a pick, I would have to award Minnesota as the most competitive state in the nation. It just pops too frequently in the top 3 no matter which ranking I’m looking at.

 

Even though Utah may not be the most competitive, I think it is certainly the hotbed of triathlon in the country right now. Yes, it is my home state and I’m somewhat biased, but in addition to the tiny state of Utah being ranked twice in the top 5 USAT report, consider these interesting facts:

 

–         Utah has the highest % of it’s population Googling the term “triathlon” compared to any other state.

–         Utah has the second highest number of triathletes per capita, behind Colorado.

–         Utah is one of only 9 states in the US to host an official Ironman event, and is the second smallest state behind Idaho to do so.

–         Utah is one of only 11 states hosting the new 5150 series from Ironman.

This little tiny state keeps popping up in just about every exclusive triathlon list. So to all the triathletes who have invited me to race in their state, my response is come and race in Utah, and we’ll show you how its done.

I want to say hello to Karen at Vasa. Thanks for your help, and it’s nice to be missed.

I’ll see you next time.