Cheating the Wind: The Physics of Draft-Legal Racing

Unless an event’s rules specifically allow it, drafting is illegal in triathlon.

Draft-legal races are much more popular in Europe where the triathlon culture is more entwined with road cycling. It’s my general observation that Americans are less comfortable with the idea because we don’t often ride in large packs. We also tend to ride “triathlon bikes,” which are set up to conform to the rules of long-course racing rather than Olympic (i.e., draft-legal) events. We find drafting equally despicable for its lack of fairness and safety. But whether you’re concerned about just how much advantage someone is obtaining by cheating in an Ironman® or thinking about jumping into draft-legal racing, it helps to have a perspective on just how much drafting influences outcomes.

cyclists, pace line, cycling, drafting

The basic principle of drafting is this: the closer you get to another cyclist, the less air resistance you encounter. That “sweet spot” of reduced drag caused by the lead rider’s disturbance of the air is called the slipstream. But where is the slipstream and how much advantage does it offer?

Back in the 1970s, the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team consulted Doctor Chester Kyle from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to answer these questions. Kyle is something of a pioneer in the history of American cycling aerodynamics. He was an innovator of recumbent frame geometry and his revolutionary bike designs helped the 1984 Olympic team haul away more medals than the next four U.S. Olympic cycling teams combined. Much has changed since then—air has not—so the findings from his research in 1979 are still relevant.

In tests run both on the road and in wind tunnels, Kyle discovered that a rider can reduce wind resistance by 38% if they ride within twelve inches of a leader’s rear wheel. At a distance of two meters, the follower still maintains a 27% drag savings. He was able to establish the following equation describing the relationship between distance from the lead rider and the savings in drag.

drag-formula

 

 

From this equation, Kyle concluded that at a distance of three meters the effects of trailing in someone’s slipstream is negligible. Plug 3 in for in the equation and the result is 1, meaning you get 100% of the wind resistance. That conclusion is still the commonly accepted model by the people trying to make cyclists better at drafting.

Here are a few items of interest for draft-legal racing:

  1. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the second, third, or even fourth competitor back in the pace line. Kyle found that everyone gets the same relative advantage regardless of position.
  2. The only thing you might want to consider while jockeying for a spot is the size of the person you get behind. Bigger people offer more blockage.

In a research paper published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 1998, Tim Olds established the relationship between the proximity of two cyclists and the VO2 savings gained by the trailing rider (see graph).

Faster triathlon science: drafting

This is why drafting is such a big part of competitive strategy in ITU racing. There is a direct correlation between the physics of your surroundings and your internal physiology. Not only is there an influence on your speed on the bike itself, but the reduced effort you experience by drafting can save your energy for the run as well.

This cuts both ways, though. If you exit the swim too late to catch on to the “lead draft pack,” then you will either have to settle for riding with the second group or risking the muscle burn to catch up. Of course, it can be of relative detriment to you if someone drafts on your wheel as you “bridge the gap” to the leading riders; you do all the work, only to have them possibly run away from you after the transition. How professional ITU athletes balance their swim-bike-run effort depends both on individual training and overall team strategy, but at the end of the day it all comes back to the same scientific principles that affect us all.

In the next post, I’ll discuss how a poor understanding of science actually penalizes athletes for obeying the rules in races that don’t allow drafting.

References:
The Dynamic of Bicycle Finals: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis of Slipstreaming. Alexander Dilger and Hannah Geyer, 2009.
The Science of Drafting: Easy Riding in the Slipstream. Jeffrey P. Broker, Ph.D. USA Cycling Performance Conditioning Cycling, Volume 11, #2.
The Mathematics of Breaking Away and Chasing in Cycling. Tim Olds. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 1998.
Maybe It Looks Funny, but Chester Kyle’s New Olympic Bike Could Turn Out a Winner. Monty Brower. People Magazine, August 6, 1984.
Analytic Cycling. http://www.analyticcycling.com.

Does the science of speed interest you? You’ll be fascinated by Jim Gourley’s new book FASTER: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed.

FASTER by Jim GourleyJim Gourley is an astronautical engineer and triathlon journalist. His new book FASTER takes a scientific look at triathlon to see what truly makes you faster—and busts the myths and doublespeak that waste your money and race times. With science on your side, you’ll make the smart calls that will make you a better, faster triathlete.

FASTER is now available in your local tri shop or from these retailers:

FASTER is published by VeloPress, leading publisher of books about triathlon. See more books for triathletes at www.velopress.com/category/triathlon.

Now’s Your Chance to Ask a Tri Scientist!

The Scientist (aka Jim Gourley) is happy to take your questions about the science of speed, the physics of triathlon, and how you can get faster for free!

cyclist, triathlete, triathlete cycling, traithlonGot a question about swimming, cycling, or running? Ask the Scientist!

The kinds of questions we’ll answer: Anything related to the physics of swimming, cycling, or running. We do not review specific products or brands, but we will wield the cleaver of science to confirm or deny the validity of entire product categories. (The Scientist reserves the right to ruthlessly mock outlandish advertisements and overstated manufacturer claims.)

But unfortunately, we are unable to reply to questions like, “Should I buy the new Garmin EVOtech WristStrong Lunar GPS + Hellfire Tri-Droid with Integrated Spindle-Sensor?”

Why not? Because there are plenty of even more opinionated gear reviewers out there who love to list product pros and cons.

The Scientist does not do that because science usually finds that products are either worth buying or not worth buying. All the nuances in between should be left to the gear reviewers.

Instead, Free Tri Speed uses physics, science, and actual published research studies to comment on the validity of product features (e.g. coil springs inserted into the heels of shoes), product categories (deep dish aero wheels vs. disc wheels or wetsuits that claim to mimic fish scales), or athletic techniques (swimming with cupped hands vs. swimming with fingers slightly apart).

swimming, man swimming, triathlete, triathlon, swimmerThe Scientist loves questions about outlandish product claims, misleading advertising, confusing jargon, obfuscated white papers, and–most of all–how triathletes can save money using better technique or the gear that brings the most bang for the buck.

Questions? Fire away! Please email The Scientist. (By emailing us, you give us permission to republish your question online. We will include your first name and last initial unless you request otherwise in your email.)

FASTER by Jim Gourley

Jim Gourley is an astronautical engineer and triathlon journalist who has written on the science and technology of triathlon and cycling for Triathlete, Inside Triathlon, LAVA, USA Triathlon, and 3/GO magazines.

His new book FASTER takes a scientific look at triathlon to see what truly makes you faster—and busts the myths and doublespeak that waste your money and race times. With science on your side, you’ll make the smart calls that will make you a better, faster triathlete.

FASTER is now available in your local tri shop or from these retailers:

FASTER is published by VeloPress, leading publisher of books about triathlon. See more books for triathletes at www.velopress.com/category/triathlon.

How Running Is Like Angry Birds

I recently did an interview with Richard Diaz for his Natural Running Network podcast. He began by asking me about efficiency in running, and I first gave an overview of the forces involved and how they break down into vertical and horizontal components. After the interview, I thought about how difficult it is to explain this concept to someone without getting lost in all the different elements that come into play as a result of horizontal and vertical force. Then it occurred to me that there’s already an almost universally understood example of how changing the magnitude of our vertical and horizontal force components changes efficiency of movement. It’s everyone’s favorite smart phone game, Angry Birds.

Consider your typical Angry Birds scenario. There are some rather smug pigs arrayed along a field at varying distances from your slingshot. You pull the slingshot back, let it go, and your birds unleash their feathered fury. Depending on which pig you want to hit and how far away they are, you have very limited options on how to get your bird to the target. There’s only so much stretch allowed by the slingshot, which means there’s a limit to the amount of force you can use. The birds all weigh the same, and their aerodynamic properties are similar (at least until you hit the screen again and activate their special powers). So there’s only one thing you can do, which is to change the angle of your shot. Angry Birds Classic Screenshot_EN_05_1920x1080_HamEmHigh_MightyEagle Now, let’s think about what we’re actually doing when we point the slingshot further upward or downward. We know we have a finite amount of force to use. If we point the slingshot straight up, all the force moves that way. If we point it straight ahead, all the force goes that way. This seems intuitive enough, but it’s what happens as a result that really starts to illuminate the problem of efficiency in running. Point all your force up, and the bird lands right back on the slingshot. Point all your force straight ahead, and gravity causes the bird to hit the ground before he can get to the first pig. So, as we all understand, the solution is to point the bird just enough upward to resist gravity without sacrificing so much forward propulsion that it can’t get to the target.

If this ruins the game for you, I apologize, but the fact of the matter is that Angry Birds is nothing more than a repetitive trajectory optimization problem.

If you’re still in school, tell that to your teacher the next time he or she asks you what you’re doing with your phone. Maybe it will get you extra credit. Time and time again, we aim those aggravated aviary avatars with the goal of hitting new targets at different distances and behind increasingly clever obstacles. But running is a lot easier. We’re trying to hit the same target every time. We want to go as far forward and as little upward as possible. We all know that jumping rope can tire you out as fast as running without going anywhere. That’s because the majority of our energy cost in running is in the vertical direction. But rarely do we consider just how strenuous the sport of race-walking is. If walking is so easy, why is walking very fast so hard? It’s actually a matter of physics. Beyond a certain speed, trying to walk fast is like trying to shoot an angry bird straight ahead. Physics says that it’s much easier to go fast if you’ll create a little vertical force and bound a bit between steps. But the rules of race-walking obviously prevent that. Therefore, the whole principle of the competition is to go up against the laws of nature!FASTER: science of triathlon, science of running, running forces This is ultimately why running techniques have evolved the way we know them today. Coaches and researchers have worked together to understand what mechanics in running form best help athletes to consistently optimize their trajectory. Your coach or book on running form is a lot like those dots telling you the flight path of your angry bird. Instead of having a guy like me pop up on your game screen and resolving the trigonometric functions and resultant impact force of your bird every time you reposition the slingshot, a very smart programmer decided to make a game that was actually fun for you. And that’s what the coach is doing– making things more fun for you without killing you with math. But at least now you have a little bit better idea what he or she is doing. And the next time they tell you to work on stride visualization, you can take a break from your run and play a few rounds of Angry Birds.

Does the science of speed interest you? You’ll be fascinated by Jim Gourley’s new book FASTER: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed.

FASTER by Jim GourleyJim Gourley is an astronautical engineer and triathlon journalist. His new book FASTER takes a scientific look at triathlon to see what truly makes you faster—and busts the myths and doublespeak that waste your money and race times. With science on your side, you’ll make the smart calls that will make you a better, faster triathlete.

FASTER is now available in your local tri shop or from these retailers:

FASTER is published by VeloPress, leading publisher of books about triathlon. See more books for triathletes at www.velopress.com/category/triathlon. Angry Birds screenshot courtesy of Rovio.

Ask the Scientist: How much slower are clip-on aerobars?

Q: “I’m a competitive 25-29 age grouper who has placed in the top 10 overall in all of my races within the past two years. That being said, I just sold my tri bike and upgraded to a nicer road bike (w/ a power meter) to give me a little more versatility with how and where I ride. I live in the Rockies, so the road bike geometry is nice for the hills. Also, because I’m on a budget, I like the fact that I can compete in both cycling races as well as triathlons using one bike, even if that means a small increase in my bike split time because of added drag.

I read your post regarding the myth of aero bike frames, so my question is this: Can you quantify how much “slower” having standard road drop handlebars (with clip ons attached) I will be over the course of an Olympic distance race as opposed to the typical aero cockpit? How much of an aerodynamic penalty will having the shifters and drops out in the wind make, and is it even statistically significant?

I should also mention that I have been fitted for both road and tri geometry bike frames. I found that with the addition of a fast forward seat post on my road bike to supplement the clip on aero bars, I will be able to achieve the same geometry that I had on my tri bike. Knowing that body position is more critical to achieving aerodynamic benefits than having an aero bike frame, what kind of time penalty should I expect to see in my upcoming races as a result of my non-aero “converted” tri-bike w/ drop bars?”how to buy your next triathlon bike

A: Jake, thanks for the question. There are some interesting elements to this, so let me start with what might be most relevant to you up front, then get into the nitty-gritty.

You said you’re a competitive age grouper, and a relatively young one at that. I’m not sure what your goals are, but let’s look at it from an angle of trying to step up to the professional level. Depending on which direction you go, a road bike (or at least the skills of riding one) will stand you in good stead in the Olympic distance. Road bikes are the mandatory build in ITU’s draft-legal races. That’s not the predominant way of things in America right now, but it may become more popular over time. Either way, riding in packs and road races will give you invaluable handling skills. If you want to go far in the Olympic distance, you’ve made a very smart move.

Now let’s look at it from the least favorable situation of a non-draft event packed with super bikes. Your primary drawback in terms of aerodynamics will be your position. Even in your aerobars, you’re not going to achieve the same efficiency as your competitors. However, that’s only in terms of your position. If you go up against a similarly well-trained athlete on a time trial bike that lacks a power meter, I’d give you even odds. They may still ride faster than you, but you’ll be more consistent and go over your red line less frequently. You will be in a better physiological position going into the run.

To address the specific matter of your cockpit setup and its relative aerodynamic costs, it’s difficult to answer your question without knowing what you had on your triathlon bike and what you have now. Many typical triathlon bikes, like the Cervelo P2 and the more affordable versions of the Trek Speed Concept have cockpits that are only slightly more streamlined than a traditional road bike with clip-on aerobars. As a rule of thumb, I’d say that if it looks the same to you, it’s likely to look the same to the air. You only really start getting significant gains when you make all the radical adjustments seen in the super bikes: hidden cables, integrated stems, recessed brakes, and aero-shaped handlebars. So are you really losing anything to a TT bike with your road bike’s handlebars and such? Not really. You’d have to go to a wind tunnel and measure bike-against-bike to know, and in the end that’s just going to be a number. The difference you’re interested in exists on the race course, and out there your legs will be an overwhelmingly decisive factor.

The bottom line is don’t sweat it. Those bars aren’t going to slow you down enough to matter, and by the time they do you’ll be sponsored by someone who’ll give you both a TT and road bike. Thanks for the question and best of luck in your training and racing.

FASTER by Jim Gourley

Jim Gourley is an astronautical engineer and triathlon journalist who has written on the science and technology of triathlon and cycling for Triathlete, Inside Triathlon, LAVA, USA Triathlon, and 3/GO magazines.

His new book FASTER takes a scientific look at triathlon to see what truly makes you faster—and busts the myths and doublespeak that waste your money and race times. With science on your side, you’ll make the smart calls that will make you a better, faster triathlete.

FASTER is now available in your local tri shop or from these retailers:

FASTER is published by VeloPress, leading publisher of books about triathlon. See more books for triathletes at www.velopress.com/category/triathlon.

Problems are complicated. Answers are beautiful.

Problems are complicated. Answers are beautiful.

For me, one of the most engaging and educational parts of putting FASTER together was the art.

Early in the process my editor decided that it would be better to use infographics rather than photographs to explain the concepts.

FASTER science of triathlon weight lossThe illustrations you see in the book will help you visualize some of the more sophisticated topics and clarify what they mean to you as an athlete. Ironically, as simple as those illustrations make things for you, actually creating them was a challenging process that required several iterations.

Seeing how an artist with as much background in physics as I had in graphic design was something like describing a bank robber to a police sketch artist and then comparing the drawing to the actual suspect. It was eye-opening to see how something I thought was obvious could be muddled to someone else. It’s also a great demonstration of a critical point I make in the book. Whether you’re talking about learning to ride a bike without training wheels or understand wheel aerodynamics, things are only difficult until they’re not. To see the principle in motion, go try to teach a 4-year-old to tie their shoes.

walt disney, epcot center, florida, r. buckminster fuller, imageEven in science, problem-solving requires creativity and a certain willingness to reject the Establishment at times. In that way, it’s an art unto itself. A particularly brilliant solution could even be considered beautiful. R. Buckminster Fuller, the certified genius who solved the mathematics behind the design of Disney’s iconic Epcot Center dome and for whom the molecule Buckminsterfullerene is named, once said that “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” In other words, a solution must be simple by its very nature. If it’s complicated, it’s probably still a problem!

If it sounds like I’m talking in circles, my point is that you should never give up trying to solve a problem because it’s too complicated. Once you see how simple the solution is, you’ll wonder how you ever thought it was difficult in the first place.

I was reminded of this principle by the story of Volker Steger, a photographer who received the rather challenging assignment of taking expressive portraits of Nobel Prize-winning scientists. Getting a Nobel Laureate to ham it up in front of the camera is a complicated problem. But Steger came up with a brilliantly simple solution. What better to get them excited than the very ideas that had garnered them the Nobel Prize in the first place? He asked them to illustrate their ideas with crayons and then pose with their sketches.

The results were simply beautiful.

Does the science of speed interest you? You’ll be fascinated by Jim Gourley’s new book FASTER: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed.

FASTER by Jim GourleyJim Gourley is an astronautical engineer and triathlon journalist. His new book FASTER takes a scientific look at triathlon to see what truly makes you faster—and busts the myths and doublespeak that waste your money and race times. With science on your side, you’ll make the smart calls that will make you a better, faster triathlete.

FASTER is now available in your local tri shop or from these retailers:

FASTER is published by VeloPress, leading publisher of books about triathlon. See more books for triathletes at www.velopress.com/category/triathlon.

Ask the Scientist: Am I a hopeless swimmer?

Best. Question. EVER.

One of the best parts of writing Faster has been the conversations it’s started.

I have not only received questions from several athletes, but stories of their own personal experiences and how reading the book helped them confirm suspicions they had of their techniques and equipment. There have even been a few very smart athletes who have shared their own research, which looks very promising for the future of sport research.

But the question I received last week is the cherry on top. Robert F. wrote in with one that really tested my ability to come up with a good explanation. It also demonstrated the underlying passion that defines the athletes I wanted to reach. So despite the difficulty of the challenge, I couldn’t resist sinking my teeth into it.FASTER swimming drag vs. lift

Here’s the question:

What is the state of the art for understanding how good swimmers swim? I keep hoping someone will put a distance swimmer in one of those motion capture suits with all the dots that are captured by the cameras and used subsequently for 3D animation. Put the swimmer in a transparent endless pool and capture the result.  Compare an efficient swimmer with an inefficient one and have both position and timing data. Why is that so hard?   

What questions should I be asking of a potential coach to ascertain whether they can actually instruct?

I’m a 51 year old frustrated “adult-onset” swimmer who has been unable to find a coach to help me swim more efficiently. I’ve been to Total Immersion clinics, drilled endlessly, read the “Pose Method” book; bought several types of fins, paddles, gloves, timing devices, and watched countless free-style technique videos on YouTube. And in 6 years I’ve gotten to the point where I can generally sustain 2:00 100s regardless of distance. I can do it in the pool and in open water. (The benefit of a wetsuit is countered by sighting and other issues.) I completed my first Ironman® back in September with a swim split of 1:38. My stroke count is generally 24 for a 25 yard pool. If I were to sprint that 100 yards, my time would be 1:40 and my stroke count would be 30. If, as I’ve been told, I take fewer strokes, I go slower. One coach I recently enlisted told me “your stroke looks fine. Perhaps you’re just a slow swimmer. After all, I’m just a slow runner no matter how much I run.”

Typically when I meet with a coach, all I get are vague instructions. No one has been able to define “getting the feel of the water” in a manner which has made a difference to me. I couldn’t care less about understanding the physics of swimming. I just want to a way to model someone who swims well. Put me in a motion-capture suit to generate the position and timing data and a pair of Google-glass type swim-goggles so I can monitor (overlay) what I’m doing versus the model, and I’ll get better.  

Now my answer:

There is a lot going on with this question. Robert is obviously pretty frustrated with his progress, and even more so with the prospect that there’s really no way to break through his barriers. From a physical performance perspective, it will take a knowledgeable coach to help him improve his technique and speed. But it’s now reached a point for him that it’s also a question of science and faith. It’s a real bummer when you ask someone for help, and they tell you that you might be beyond help.

So let’s make that the first issue we address: Robert, any coach who’d look at you and suggest that you might just be a slow swimmer isn’t much of a coach to begin with. Coaches are human performance engineers. It’s the coach’s job to listen to a problem and develop a solution. Imagine if the NASA engineers during the Apollo 13 mission had told the astronauts “Maybe your spaceship is just too busted to get you home alive.” People who really care about and take pride in their job as problem-solvers don’t hand a problem back to you and say “it’s too hard.” They at least take a shot at solving it.

As to the other elements of your question, let’s break down the concepts to better understand them:

  1. You want to know the difficulties of modeling the motion of a swimmer in the water. This is based on several assumptions that might not be accurate or even helpful to you.
  2. You discuss the desire to become both a “more efficient” and a faster swimmer. These are not necessarily the same thing.
  3. You specifically mention stroke count and 100m splits as your metrics for technique and performance. However, you then throw in some “fuzzy factors” such as age, relative experience, and “sighting and other issues.”

Let’s start with the motion-capture idea, which is actually quite good. In fact, it has been accomplished.

As you can probably tell from the video link, the technology necessary to do it is sophisticated and expensive. It’s also somewhat limited. Based on what I’ve seen, the technology can model your position, velocity, acceleration, and form. These are all things your body does. What it can’t do is tell you what the water around you is doing. How much propulsive force are you generating with your hands? What is your drag coefficient? These are based on interactions between you and the water. While the software is probably able to extrapolate some guesses on these things, it would still take the engineers and a coach to figure out what’s working, what isn’t, and how to get you into a better swim stroke. At anything less than Olympic-level competition, spending less than one week a year (and thousands of dollars) with this type of equipment would be nearly pointless. We can do better.

Sadly, I’m forced to use the one thing you said you’re not interested in. I hope you’ll bear with me while I employ a little (yep, you guessed it) physics.

Let’s talk about the second part of your problem; the idea of efficiency versus speed. It comes pretty intuitively to most athletes that becoming more efficient makes them faster. I even make the same case with research and math several times throughout the book. However, we need to distinguish between the two in this case because of your circumstances. You mentioned that any time your 100m split time decreases, your stroke count goes up. That means you’re getting the speed you want, but at the cost of some efficiency. The possible confusion that might result is that you’re not considering the possibility that other factors might have changed.

In general, there are two ways to go faster in any situation. You can either reduce the amount of resistance against you, or you can increase your propulsive power. That’s a constant theme throughout the book, which you’ve latched onto here. Your description of the two cases suggests that you took the second option. By increasing your turnover, you pushed through the water more. However, you make the dangerous assumption that that’s the only thing you changed in your speed experiment.

Let me ask a dangerous question: When you increase your stroke rate or turnover, does that influence the other elements of your body position? In other words, did increasing propulsive force also cause you to increase the resistance against you? If so, you’re like a cyclist who stands on their pedals to push through a strong wind. You’re doing harm to your own cause. Extremely good swimmers need fewer than 18 strokes to cover a length of 25 meters at top speed. By reducing the amount of movement associated with an arm pull and getting the most out of each stroke they do use, they incur less drag.

Swimming, swimmer, pool, imageThe converse is true as well. A swimmer’s technique is like Tai Chi or ballet. No one gets it right the first time and speed is the natural enemy of form. The body has to be taught to move the correct way slowly before it can do it quickly. At least in the initial stages, increasing efficiency is likely to cost you speed. That Olympic-level swimmer is able to maintain top speed at 18 strokes per pool length because they swim ten miles a day, every day of the year. Their motion is consistently as close to hydrodynamic perfection as possible, regardless of how fast they throw their arm through the air. It comes second-nature to them.

That sounds like the potential root of your problem. If things like sighting are countering the advantages of a wetsuit, then you have the earmarks of a novice swimmer. This gets away from the raw physics of speed and into the koans of Bruce Lee and Phil Jackson. To wit, there’s a difference between stuffing your head full of swim clinic info and forcing your will to perfection throughout the sinews of your arms and legs. Knowing fast and being fast are two different things. As Vince Lombardi said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” In short, you may be trying to go too fast too soon. That’s a judgment call you have to make, though.

That judgment should be framed by your expectations and history. In a world where Dara Torres returns to the Olympics and Diana Nyad finally makes it to Florida, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t hit a sub-hour Ironman swim at your age. However, goals require work to hit them. Are your goals reasonable in comparison to the hours you put toward them each week? Is your practice obeying Lombardi’s edict? Do you have any musculo-skeletal imbalances, strength issues, or “holes” in your overall fitness that would hurt your swim performance? Also consider things like body dimensions. Michael Phelps has extremely long arms, narrow hips and short legs. As great an athlete as he is, he’d be at a disadvantage for the other two-thirds of a triathlon. Do your body dimensions suggest a similar disadvantage for swimming? Again, these are factors that only you know, but don’t leave anything out when you make these judgments.

swimming, coach, professional swimmer, imageFinally, let’s talk about the one hole you clearly seem to have identified: coaching. For whatever reason, it seems pretty clear that you haven’t been able to find a coaching relationship that’s benefitted you over the long term. I’m not a coaching expert, and there are multiple factors for you personally that will influence the coach you choose.

But for my money, I’d give them a quick physics quiz. Use the principles I’ve described in the book and discussed on this blog to see what their grounding in technique is.

  • Is kicking important to propulsion?
  • What are their thoughts on sculling versus deep-catch stroke technique?
  • What are the various forms of drag and how do they influence a swimmer?
  • Do they think a textured suit will help you?
  • Do they understand the usefulness of drafting in an open water swim?

A good grasp of the fundamentals associated with their profession indicates that they read about developments in the sport and are interested in keeping up with the latest information. Even if they disagree with each other, someone who can cite research backing up their methodology is at least more proactive and likely to consistently evolve their training to meet your needs than someone who simply falls back on a certification clinic they attended eight years ago.

In the end, seek not the state-of-the-art. Put your faith in the fundamentals. Find a coach who understands them comprehensively, and can use them to outline a clear path to get you to where you want to go. Be realistic with them and yourself. And, if you have any more questions, feel free to ask. It was thoroughly enjoyable to answer this one. Like the ideal coach you’re bound to find, no problem is too difficult for me to at least try to solve.

FASTER by Jim Gourley

Jim Gourley is an astronautical engineer and triathlon journalist who has written on the science and technology of triathlon and cycling for Triathlete, Inside Triathlon, LAVA, USA Triathlon, and 3/GO magazines.

His new book FASTER takes a scientific look at triathlon to see what truly makes you faster—and busts the myths and doublespeak that waste your money and race times. With science on your side, you’ll make the smart calls that will make you a better, faster triathlete.

FASTER is now available in your local tri shop or from these retailers:

FASTER is published by VeloPress, leading publisher of books about triathlon. See more books for triathletes at www.velopress.com/category/triathlon.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched: Strategy, Superstition and Theory in Triathlon

Ever seen a bike in the transition area with a little bell hanging off the frame?

They’re known as “gremlin bells,” and as you might guess from the name, they’re meant to ward off “evil road spirits” that cause those random, race-ending mechanical failures you hear about so often. In all likelihood, that bike’s owner has more faith in a thorough pre-race tune-up by a good mechanic than a magic bell—but they also have some faith in the bell! After all, they’re called “random” mechanical failures for a reason: they happen for no apparent reason. So perhaps the best way to look at it is to say that we are 99.9% confident in pre-race tune-ups, and the bell is there to give us that last 0.1% of confidence.

Superstition is funny like that. Human beings are naturally thoughtful, curious and rational creatures. We like to experience the world around us and to gain an understanding of those experiences. But whenever we observe something that we don’t immediately understand, we “invent” an explanation for it. From comets heralding major world events in ancient times to UFOs causing phenomena in the skies today, we allow our superstitious side to create an unreasonable interpretation of things whenever we don’t see the reasonable explanation. We do it constantly, and where triathlon is concerned it doesn’t stop at those little bells.

Keep walking around the transition area and it won’t be long  before you hear some pretty crazy race strategies:

  • “Getting ahead of the pack on the swim is key.”
  • “I’m going to hold an average power output of x-number of watts on the bike.”
  • “I’m just going to keep my heart rate low and then hammer the run.”

Compare that to what you hear in transition after the race:

  • “Man, I just got crushed by those headwinds on the bike.”
  • “I think I came into the race too fatigued.”
  • “I guess I just had an off-day.”

All of those are possible explanations for a bad race performance, but there’s no reasonable evidence to back them up other than a feeling. It’s sort of like superstition.

Boxers and MMA fighters have a saying: “Everyone has a strategy until they get punched.” In other words, a fighter goes into a fight with certain beliefs of how events will unfold. What fighters call strategy, science calls a theory. No athlete ever enters a competition with a theory that says “I’m going to lose.” But in the case of boxers, 50% of all theories are proven wrong. So for the boxers out there feeling bad about getting knocked out, take a more positive view of things. You didn’t lose the match, you achieved an unpredicted result!

This is the fundamental philosophy of both athletes and scientists that our most important lessons come from our greatest failures. Kidding aside, triathletes who have bad races face the same dilemma. We improve and assess our performance, develop an understanding of it, and develop a prediction of how our race will go. That’s a great foundation for a scientific race strategy.

And then we ruin it with superstition.

Every athlete has a phenomenal “theory of self.” You intuitively know your capability better than any VO2max test or blood sample possibly could. But you are only half the story. What about the race course? Listen to the pre-race strategies again. Do any of them consider what the temperature, water conditions or terrain are going to do? Most of the time they don’t. It amounts to a strategy that’s waiting to get punched. Even worse, any unpredicted results are likely to be explained by superstition. That prevents learning, which in turn leads to future unpredicted (and undesirable) results.

We race in a physical world rather than a superstitious one. So it’s best to found our race strategies on physics rather than lucky charms and funny feelings. You get to know your body through training. Get to know your world with a little reading. Improving our understanding of the world around us makes us better prepared to interact with it. A better prepared athlete is less likely to meet with life’s little “random” catastrophes. A race strategy that includes predictions about what the elements are going to do has a better chance of surviving that first punch. It’s certainly more helpful than a gremlin bell.

FASTER by Jim GourleyFASTER takes a scientific look at triathlon to see what truly makes you faster—and busts the myths and doublespeak that waste your money and race times. With science on your side, you’ll make the smart calls that will make you a better, faster triathlete.

FASTER will be available this August in your local tri shop or from these retailers. Preorder now to find your speed advantage before everyone else!

FASTER is published by VeloPress, leading publisher of books about triathlon. See more books for triathletes at www.velopress.com/category/triathlon.