Tri Talk Triathlon Podcast, Episode 77

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

Why your choice of apparel may be more important than your choice of helmet or hydration, and what you’ve been missing from my supplemental blog. It’s textiles and typing!

Today on Tri Talk we conclude the preliminary wind tunnel test with a look at apparel. Is apparel as important as other cycling hardware? It’s certainly more important than I thought before the tests, and we’ll take a closer look. Plus, you may not know that I blog additional content that has never made it to the podcast before. I’ll give you a brief sample of what you have been missing, and I can assure you it will not help you swim bike or run faster.

Let’s get onto the good stuff!

Unlike frames, wheels, helmets, and hydration systems, triathlon apparel is rarely tested in the wind tunnel. Yet the potential for apparel to impact aerodynamics is just as great, as our recent preliminary testing indicates. The reason that testing apparel is so often disregarded is unclear to me. Is it because unlike their triathlon hardware colleagues, the textile manufacturers themselves never test nor tout the aerodynamic properties of their products? Is it because triathletes assume that anything without an airfoil is unworthy of consideration? Or could it be that self-appointed multi-sport pundits have simply neglected this section of the industry.

As one of those self-appointed pundits, I know I’m guilty. It’s not that I considered apparel irrelevant, it’s that I considered it aerodynamically insignificant. But then, two years ago, I was reviewing the results of an athlete who has done his own wind tunnel visit and had put an emphasis on apparel. I was surprised to see the significant difference in performance between his choices of apparel. I was determined to add it more rigorously to a future test.

And yet, when the time came to prioritize products in the tunnel, sure enough hydration and helmets took priority, while apparel became a secondary test “if we had time”. I regret that we did not have more time to test, because it ended up being the most eye-opening part of our preliminary tests. It seems that even when I was conscious of the neglect, apparel continues to be undervalued.

My goal going into these apparel tests was not to determine the “fastest” suit, but rather to get some idea of the delta between outfits. Would the performance difference between the best and worst be similar to what we see with hydration? Or would it be something akin to my theory about coming out of the aero position to drink: measurable, but inconsequential.

Additionally, with the growing popularity of compression gear when racing, as opposed to recovery, I wanted to get some idea of how wearing compression on the bike would impact aerodynamics. This is an interesting situation for half and full Ironman athletes, because many compression products recommend a maximum of a few hours of use during exercise, and therefore those longer-distance athletes would not wear the compression during the bike. For Olympic and Sprint distance, this would still be a relevant test.

I encourage the reader to review the Preliminary Wind Tunnel Results on Hydration Systems for disclaimers and clarifiers regarding baseline equipment, rider size and position, etc. as the apparel tests immediately followed our hydration tests during the same visit. Like that test, these apparel tests were done with 0 degrees of yaw, which makes them slightly more than interesting in terms of results. The reader may be disappointed in the limited number of products tested, due both to my limited vision plus the goal of simply determining the potential spread of apparel performance.

I’ll present this preliminary data in the same manner as the hydration results. Both in a 180k and 40k distance, with the 180k IM distance having the rider output at 150 watts, and the 40k Olympic distance at 225 watts.

What can we learn from this initial wind tunnel run? Again, not much until we complete the additional yaw tests, but there are a few things that stand out:

–         I always imagined that wind tunnel testing would bring peace and clarity to my life. Instead, it has done nothing but add anxiety. The difference between the best and least performing apparel is frightening. Gone are my innocent days of telling athletes that they can pick apparel purely based on price, carry capacity, comfort, and color. A difference of 13 minutes between 2 leading one-piece tri suits over an IM distance event is sending my adrenaline through the roof even as I write this. Ever wonder why your buddy always seems to come ahead of you on the bike, when you two have the same power to weight ratio? It’s these little unknowns. A seemingly inconsequential choice between name-brand tri suit A, B, and C can cost 13.5 minutes. My only consolation is that I have been racing with the Lift Foil for the last 4 years. Whew.

–         The fact that some two piece apparel outperformed the tri suits is scary. Perhaps this is just repeating the paragraph above, but I would have thought that all one-piece would outperform all the two-piece.

–         The compression gear result has to be the most interesting. Yes, the CEP compression improved aerodynamics, while the 2XU slightly decreased performance. All I can say is that I am looking forward to only shaving from knee to mid-thigh from now on, and let the compression gear cover the rest of my shave-scarred legs. Remember, CEP recommends that you not exercise for more than 2-3 hours at a time in their socks, so it just may not be a reasonable choice for half and full Ironman racing, but the possible time savings for CEP is quite tempting for the shorter distances. However, like the tri suits, not all compression appears to have the same aerodynamic result. It is just as possible that adding compression will slow you down as speed you up.

–         How much is additional yaw testing going to make on apparel? I would imagine not nearly as much as hydration and helmets. Considering my theories have only been right 50% of them time when going into the wind tunnel, we’ll have to wait and see.

–         Those of you who have been following the results of all 3 sets of tests (helmets, hydration, and now apparel) will note that it is an apparel item that has both the best performance (CEP Compression) and worst performance (De Soto Forza) of any other of the 36 products tested. Meaning, according to our initial tests, apparel may be the most important equipment choice you will make. When you think about it, this is really no surprise. What is going to expose to the most surface area? A water bottle, a helmet, or 50% of your body? It makes sense that apparel could be the most significant factor in your overall aerodynamics.

Overall, the apparel testing requires much more research, with both a broader range of product, and a broader range of yaw to complete the results. Until then, I’m keeping my Lift Foil and adding CEP compression to my Sprint and Oly racing, just in case.

You’ll recall my long argument against using aerodynamics as the primary factor in choosing a hydration system, and the same applies here. Sure, the Lift Foil looks good initially, but until the 2011 edition, it had no pad, and it still only comes in black. Can you imagine doing a full IM on a hot day in a black one-piece with no pad? For a Sprint-distance junkie like myself, this is no problem, but an IM athlete would have to consider comfort, temperature, price, and pockets as equally important elements in choosing a trisuit.

This report concludes our preliminary report on helmets, hydration, and apparel. I look forward to the next set of tests.

Moving on! To prove to you that you’ll want to add our blog you your browser’s home page, here are two samples of what you have been missing. The first, from June of 2010, was written after I experienced my first penalty in triathlon, entitled:


Crime and Punishment

It’s happened. After 7 years of triathlon, 20 years of endurance racing, and nearly 100 races, it finally happened. Like the antagonist Raskolnikov of Dostoevsky’s epic novel, from which this blog is entitled, I’m suffering the psychological and social consequences from violating the law. And as you’ll soon discover, I literally broke the law. Not only USAT Competitive Rule 5.4, but Utah Code Title 41, Chapter 6a, Section 708.

First of all, I did it. Guilty. Red handed. Culpable. I explicitly waive my Miranda rights. This blog isn’t about making excuses. I’ve talked my way out of speeding tickets, moving violations, and dirty dishes when I felt that an injustice was about to been done. In this case, as soon as the head referee told me the violation, I said to myself, “Oh yea, I remember that. I did do that.”

Let’s get something straight. It wasn’t for drafting. If you assumed my penalty was drafting, I’m insulted for 2 reasons: First, I’m so fast on the bike I can’t possibly take more than 5 seconds to pass someone, let alone 15 seconds. Second, people who draft are wicked, and I’m not wicked. There is an extra level in the Underworld for people who draft (see the Apocrypha, Book of David, Chapter 1 verse 1).

It went down like this: Already devastated from a disappointing 3rd place finish at the Cache Valley Triathlon, I was sulking and packing up when I saw the TriUtah race director, Chris Bowerbank. Apologizing that I had to leave early to start a 2 hour drive back home, and that I would not be at the awards ceremony, Chris looked sadly at me and said as gently as he could, “David, I’m sorry, you didn’t come in 3rd.” My first reaction was “Sweet! The first two got a penalty! Lousy cheaters.” Chris continued, “You got nailed with a penalty.”

Me? Ambassador to triathlon with a following of dozens? Former Vice-chair of the USAT Regional Council? Winner of the 12-participant 2010 Buffalo Duathlon? Winners of my caliber don’t break the rules. I marched over to the head referee, ready to file a protest that I did NOT draft (Excuse me, have you seen my bike splits buddy? I need to draft like Governor Arnold needs more muscles).

Verifying that my race number was correct, he confidently turned to me, and without reservation said, “Crossed a solid yellow line.”

Oh. Yeeeesssss. You mean THAT violation.

It all came back to me. Late in the bike ride, approaching a tight left turn, there were two cyclists just ahead of me. It was a clear situation where a bottleneck was going to occur, and slow me down. The turn had clear vision, and there were no cars approaching from the other direction. I deemed it “safe” to make a pass. I could have either a) held back outside the drafting zone and waited until all 3 of us had made the turn and then make the pass or b) accelerated and catch them before or at the turn. Choosing the later, we reached the turn about the same time. Letting out an authoritative “On your left!” (and I mean REALLY on the left) I took the left turn like a Cat 1 rider, cutting so far on the inside of the road I could have picked the dandelions that decorated the adjacent field. I wasn’t only riding on the left side of the road, I was riding on the inside of the shoulder of the left side of the road.

I even remember the referee riding up next to me right after that and lingering longer than I ever remember before. I thought he was just admiring my pass…

Snapping back to the present, and somewhat stunned that I really had done the violation, a few excuses for the head ref came to mind. Such as:

“Apologies, my good chap, I’m from across the pond and that’s where we ride in jolly old England.”
“You think that was dangerous? But I drive my car the same way.”
“I had to swerve to avoid a Democrat.” (an endangered species in Cache County)

But no, my shame overcame me, and all I could muster was, “You’re right. Thanks for keeping us safe.” I shook his hand, and walked to my car.

I said this blog would not be about excuses, but in my defense, it never even occurred to me at the time. I took that left turn the same way I took the multiple right turns: on the inside. But, just think if every hotdog in a triathlon did this? Inevitably, a head-on collision. Not only risking future events for everyone else, but injury and even death. That rule is a critical one. It’s not about a competitive advantage, it’s about keeping us safe.

Part of the irony is that in the TWO (yes two) pre-race meetings that took place, the outstanding official Carolyn Doll (a former USAT Board member who served with me) had gone over the rules. In both meetings she specifically covered riding on the right side of the road. I had sufficient warning.

Like Raskolnikov, I find myself isolated from the rest of the world after the crime has come to light. I haven’t spoken to another triathlete since the incident. I feel like I owe 4th place an apology, robbing him of the rare opportunity of crossing the finish line knowing he had a podium spot, with the cheer of the crowd and the smiles from his family. I feel tainted and dirty. Raskolnikov went to a Siberian prison. I went to Chevron and ate an entire box of Hostess raspberry-filled donuts (1,500 calories and one million grams of fat per box). I’m not sure who ended up suffering more, me or Raskolnikov.

There is some good that will come out of this. I hope this blog will educate others about this lesser-known rule, maybe even prevent an accident? Additionally, it has re-committed me to keeping the rules.
So here’s to the next 20 years of endurance racing. Penalty free.

And now, my never-ending complaint on:


Getting the Swim Distance Right

Dear Aly, Travis, Chris, Brogg, Joe, Aaron, and the hundreds of other fine race directors around the world,

Allow me to begin my letter with a brief review on how we arrived at the current situation.

In 1675 the Italian scientist Tito Livio Burattini introduced the word “metre” to the world as a proposed universal measure, to bring unity to a chaotic system of weights and measures. By 1791, France had adopted the meter as 1 millionth of ¼ of the earth’s diameter, and thus the metric system was born.

Fast-forward to 1989, and the creation of the International Triathlon Union. Based on the popular distance introduced by the U.S. Triathlon Series in the 1980s, the ITU standardizes the new Olympic distance triathlon as a 1.5 kilometer swim, 40 kilometer bike, and 10 kilometer run, and the Sprint distance as one half the Olympic.

It is tempting to argue about how “fair” this distribution of the 3 sports is. Runners and swimmers often complain that the Olympic triathlon distance is simply a steeplechase centered around the bike. To them I reply that baseball (a sport of running, throwing, and hitting) is unfairly biased toward throwing. Baseball hitters have very little opportunity to make it to first base, and in fact only do so about 20% of the time. Even if they do make it to first base, the odds of getting back home are slim due to the distance between bases. Were we to make baseball “fair” for runners and hitters, we would shorten the distances between bases, move the pitching mound back another 30 feet, and extend the outfield by another 200 feet to give hitters and runners a more even chance to score, thus bringing up an average MLB ERA from a miserly 2.0 to a 10.0. Why don’t we make baseball more fair? Because that’s the way baseball was invented! To propose that the distances in baseball or triathlon are “unfair”, “unbalanced”, and should be adjusted is an insult to the sacred institution of the respective sports. That’s just the way they were created, and if you don’t like the distances, invent your own triathlon distance and see how you fare.

Why this odd preamble regarding meters and baseball? To establish that a) a unified and consistent measurement of triathlon course distance is possible and expected and b) to pre-empt the argument that the modification of any of the 3 disciplines distances is somehow a justified protest to “balance” the sport, and c) to condemn any sort of multi-sport vigilantism in course layout. Now that I’ve established some history, and why the Olympic and Sprint distance swim are and MUST remain a 1.5 and 0.75 kilometer swim, let me share my bewilderment why it rarely is.

Race directors, I understand the need to adjust the bike and run distances for an event. Traffic, construction, intersections…it’s all about safety. You only have so much safe road to work with sometimes. I never have heartburn when the bike is cut by a couple of miles to keep me safe. Can’t fit a full 5k run into a loop in a residential area? No problem. That’s the cost of putting on a race.

But the swim, for crying out loud, is another story. Water has no intersections, potholes, or railroad tracks. You can put those buoys anywhere you want. There’s no reason for a swim not be within 2% of 1,500 meters (a 100 foot margin of error). In fact, the ITU allows a 5% variance on the bike and run portion of an ITU sanctioned course, but shows no mercy for swim distance variation. Why not? Like me, they don’t see why the swim distance can’t be precise. A body of water is a race director’s blank canvas, where they are free to create. The swim is the first impression of your race for an athlete, and represents how seriously you take your responsibility as race director and attention to detail.

Granted, I haven’t taken my meter wheel or GPS and measured your swim course, but it doesn’t take a genius to look at some of the swim splits and discern that they are way, way off. For example, at a recent local Sprint event, the median time for the top 10 swimmers in a 350-person event was 14:22. Really? The 10 best swimmers out of 350, the top 3% of the field, averaged a 1:55 per 100 meters? OK, I’ll give you 1 minute from the water to the T1 timing mat for a median time of 13:22. That’s still a pathetic 1:47 per 100 meters for the top 3% swimmers over 750 meters. I don’t think so.

Or consider another local event, where the median time for the top 3% on an advertised 800-meter course was a 16:40. I’ll even give you a 3-minute buffer from the water to T1 for a ridiculous time of 13:40 for the top swimmers, or a 1:42 per 100 meters. And there are another half dozen local events just like this with obviously incorrect swim distances.

Sometimes I wonder if the race directors have been doing this for so long, they think they can eyeball the swim course, which results in “buoy creep”. I swear they get further away every year. The only thing “unfair” about the swim distance in an Olympic or Sprint event is when an athlete has trained for 750 meters and gets 1,000.

I tell my kids that the difference between whining and constructive complaining is that whining comes without suggestions for improvement. So, to avoid whining, allow me to offer some solutions to the potential reasons for an inaccurate swim distance course:

It’s not possible to measure that precisely.

Sure it is! Modern technology has provided us with laser measurement devices for just a few hundred dollars and accurate up to 200 meters. Just plant yourself in between buoy A and B, 125 meters from you to A, 125 meters from you to B = 250 meters between buoy A and B! Piece of cake.

The wind blows the buoys overnight, it’s not my fault.

Place them in the morning, or get heavier anchors. The 2008 St. George Triathlon was so windy, hundreds of swimmers were pulled out of the water due to swell, but those buoys didn’t move a foot. See reference to whining above.

Uh, I don’t place buoys, the volunteers do.

Please. You’re their race director, not their ecclesiastical leader. You can make it happen.

Who are you again?

Oh, I’m very important. You had better take heed.

I’ve got more important things to worry about at a race. I’m not able/willing to go to the trouble to get them accurate.

I appreciate your honesty. However, please don’t advertise your event as an Olympic or Sprint event. Advertise it as “a unique triathlon experience with a surprise swim distance somewhere within 500 meters of a standard swim distance.” If you advertise the distance as 750 meters, it better be pretty close to 750 meters.

I take my measurements very seriously, but the swim times still look long.

Ah, yes. Probably the #1 reason for a longer than necessary swim, and the easiest to correct. I do see race directors take the time to really create an accurate 750-meter loop, only then to place the first buoy 200 meters from shore. Remember that your swim distance needs to account for the distance from the shore to the first/last buoy. If you place the first/last buoy 50 meters from shore, and the athletes do one 750-meter loop, they have really swam 800 meters to get to shore. As a result, your loop must be only ~700 meters, with another 50 meters to shore to equal 750 total meters.

Is swimming my weakest sport? Yes. Do I complain about drastically shortened indoor pool events? No. Is this a pathetic attempt at an aging triathlete to try and gain some competitive advantage for next season? Perhaps. Would I still be complaining about this if swimming were my strongest? After some deep soul-searching, I can honestly say “yes”, because I’m a purist at heart, and I want the sport to be consistent across the world.

Of all the local races, this is my one and only complaint to the race directors. I’m spoiled that I can race 15-20 high-quality events in my backyard every year, and all of them are some of the best in the world. I regret that I didn’t first write a 700-word article singing your praises. But, make this one change, race directors, and like the Italian scientist Tito Livio Burattini, you’ll make a huge step toward the unification of a process badly in need of repair.

That’s all for this episode, I’ll be back next month with episode 78, and by that time I will have completed my first triathlon of 2011, so that episode will either be extremely upbeat, or extremely depressing. I’m afraid you’ll all be victims of my mood.

Before I go I want to give a quick shout out to who did a miracle on repairing a tear in my wetsuit. I’m not getting compensated for this prop, I just had a really good experience. I had a small tear in my awesome 2XU Velocity wetuit, and by the time was done with it, I had a hard time even finding the original location of the tear. Check them out at and tell them David Warden sent you, otherwise they are going to be really confused why they are getting so much more business all of a sudden.