Prior to reading this post, it is worthwhile reading the post TT Rider as the post below is intended to be read with the TT Rider post in mind.
The post below borrows heavily from an article I wrote that appeared in the September 2002 issue of Bicycling Australia entitled “Foundations of Positioning”. When I get the time, the original article will be posted in Articles under the Publications tab.
IRONMAN TRIATHLON POSITION: How marketing overcame reality for some.
While I would never call myself a triathlete, I competed in my first triathlon in 1983 and have dipped in and out of the sport occasionally since. Why?
I’m a bike fitter and it is hard to understand what a triathlete goes through running off the bike unless the experience is personal. I’m not trying to establish any credibility here as a triathlete. I’ve got ‘football shoulders’ meaning I’m a crap swimmer; have too many severe joint injuries to be able run consistently without injury and am a reasonable bike rider. So while I’ve probably done 20 shorter distance tri’s in my life, a triathlete I will never be. I have paid attention to the development of the sport though. As an outsider looking in, I came to the belief early that there is an unreasonable emphasis on aerodynamics in triathlon, particularly Ironman triathlon, and that this overemphasis is the cause of injury and diminished performance in many triathletes.
A bit of history follows.
The very first aero bars available in my part of the world ( and probably elsewhere too) were the Nitto’s pictured below.
Forget the bull horn bars in the pic; it was rare to find a pair of Nitto’s attached to bullhorns in the late 80′s / early ’90′s in triathlon. More often than not they were attached to road bars at the time. The Nitto aero bars became a big deal after Greg Lemond used them to win the ’89 TT finale of the Tour, coming from 51 seconds down to win the Tour from Fignon by 8 seconds on a mainly downhill, 25km course from Versailles to the Champs Elysee. As a pertinent digression, I don’t think the use of aero bars was the major reason that Lemond made up a significant time gap at over such a short distance.
Explanatory Note no.1: Lemond’s ’89 win over Fignon:
There are 2 videos below.You will note in the video footage of the ’89 Prologue, neither rider obviously favours one side in the sense of dropping one hip. They both look GOOD when viewed from behind. You will also note that in the final stage TT, Fignon hangs to the right and drops the right hip on every right side pedal down stroke.This is particularly evident around 4 mins into the second video where the camera car is behind Fignon for some time. His form looks like CRAP. When the right hip drops like that, it puts a hole in the rider’s torque curve. That is, the riders right hip is moving towards the pedal as the rider is trying to apply force to the pedal. Result?
Lower and jerkier torque production equals less power. At the same time, he isn’t rebounding all the way to the centre line which means that the left leg is having to reach further than normal; also equalling a probable drop in power. Why?
Because Fignon had been suffering from the mother of all saddle sores on the right side for the latter stages of the ’89 Tour. Magazine photos of the time showed that 2/3 of the right side of his seat had been cut away to try and relieve pressure. However, for the final stage TT Fignon rode an unmodified seat after a sleepless night of pain. He was foolish to shun the use of aero bars but he lost the 10 seconds that decided the Tour in the final kilometre. Aero bars are not worth 10 seconds per km.
Prologue (and bear with me until you see Fignon, it wasn’t possible to edit the video length)
Final stage TT (also wasn’t possible to edit length)
French friends involved in elite cycling at the time, told me that Fignon left the podium and was admitted to hospital that evening for surgery on the cyst. In my view, Fignon was not able to give his best on the day because he had a problem which was affecting his health, comfort and general ability to apply pressure to the pedals. Don’t forget that he had cracked Lemond on 2 out of 3 of the last mountain stages which is where he got his 51 second lead from prior to the final stage TT. On the other day of those last 3 mountain stages, Lemond retured serve by cracking Fignon. For mine, the ’89 Tour was the last GREAT tour.
I do not doubt for one moment that aero bars helped Lemond. Nor am I trying to detract from a great comeback victory by Lemond. However, I think the full story of that victory was more complicated than the “Lemond only won because he had aero bars” scenario which was what I heard day in, day out for about 12 months after the ’89 Tour.
So it became a ‘fact’ that Lemond only won because of aero bars, and as it was the fastest Tour TT ever ridden (slightly downhill course with a tailwind) every triathlete went out and bought a pair. After all, you could buy performance. Lemond had ‘proven’ it and the marketing guys loaded it on in cycling and tri mags.
That started a mindset that is still around, and not just in triathlon circles. We all want something for nothing and aero bar marketing tapped into that. Spend money on aero equipment equals extra performance. Just spend money.
There was a practical problem though. In the late ’80′s, most road TT bikes had 700c rear wheels and 650c front wheels and while a few people used them in tri’s, the overwhelming majority used road bikes. Stems were quill type as per the Nitto pic at the start of this post. So a whole lot of tri guy and gals mounted Nitto aero bars on their road bikes as there were no specialist ‘tri’ bikes at that time. And guess what?
They couldn’t reach them.
1. There was no reach adjustment in the early Nitto aero bars. One size fitted all.
2. Aero bars with elbow pads centred over the bar that they are mounted on require a shorter stem for best fit on the aero bars than would be used for a given rider using road bars alone. Technical knowledge wasn’t widespread in tri circles in the late ’80′s / early ’90′s, so most took the easiest route. Rather than shorten the stem, they moved the seat forward. That worked in the sense of making it easier for the athlete to reach the aero bars. So it became another ‘fact’ that triathletes needed to sit much further forward than road riders, at least in the minds of many doing it, simply because of the lack of adjustment potential in early aero bars.
Fast forward to the ’92 Barcelona Olympics where Chris Boardman won the Individual Pursuit using a technology laden Lotus bike. The Lotus track bike had aero everything, even chain rings, and there was a lot of coverage of the technology in cycling, tri and mainstream media. This cemented in many tri minds that a focus on aerodynamics and aero equipment was everything and Lotus released a road / tri version.
There were several jarring notes to that assessment, but at the time, I got sick of highlighting to tri people who wanted aero, aero, aero “just like Boardman”, that there is a large difference between a position that is tolerable for a 4km pursuit at close to 60 km/h average speed versus what is sensible for a 180km Ironman bike leg at 2/3 of that pace and less than 1/3 the power output (outright elite contender), or just over half that pace and 1/8 of the power output (average age grouper).
I also got sick of pointing out that all Lotus frames of the time had 72 degree seat tube angles. Even allowing for Boardman sitting towards the nose of the seat, his effective seat tube angle is no more than 74 degrees in the pic above. Not 78 or 80 degrees as was becoming a bit of a tri thing in the late 80′s / early 90′s.
Note: That 4 – 6 degrees difference in seat tube angle might not sound like a lot, but for a male of average height like me (5’11″) it represents 48 – 60mm of seat movement further forward than Boardman rode.
Lastly, relative distances and power outputs aside, all ignored the fixed wheel effect of Boardman’s Lotus track bike. The forward movement of a fixed wheel track bike allows the momentum of bike and rider to be carried through the dead zone in the pedal stroke because there is no slack in the transmission. Far more so than on real world tri courses with hills, undulations and winds from various directions while using freewheel transmissions. Move forward too far over the bottom bracket and you increase the size of the dead zone either side of top and bottom dead centre. This is apparent to anyone who tries climbing while seated on a steep seat angled TT bike versus the same person on a road bike. Sitting further forward is also much easier to cope with on a track bike because of the fixed gear and shorter duration of effort.
Another thing that further separated the cycling component of triathlon from mainstream cycling was the tri mindset, and for that cyclists bear a large part of the blame. Many triathletes in the early days didn’t have much of an idea of how to ride in a bunch, particularly when using aero bars. In my part of the world (and probably elsewhere) a lot of tri people got yelled at and otherwise abused for making mistakes or using their aero bars while riding in bunches. There developed a bit of an US and THEM mentality on both sides. For a lot of tri people, it became imperative to be seen while riding as something other than a cyclist. The usual signs of differentiation at the time were aero everything as far as equipment and position were concerned,while wearing uncoordinated fluoro coloured clothing. I think this was a lost opportunity for cycling in the sense that triathlon as a sport felt “We’re innovative and different. We don’t listen to them” whereas those same tri people listened to running coaches and swimming coaches while at the same time walking away from any body of cycling related knowledge, or alternately, cherry picking according to “aero is everything” beliefs.
The final straw was the popularisation in tri circles of the idea that prioritising aerodynamics as an essential to Ironman performance was ’fact’; that anyone could quickly achieve an aerodynamic position by rotating their entire position forward around the bottom bracket. This fitted in with those preconditioned to moving their seats forward in the quest for aero. If forward is good, further forward just had to be better.
Anyway, the upshot of all of the above, and other influences as well, was that triathlon went down a marketing dominated ‘everything is subsidiary to aerodynamics’ path. So much so, that they have influenced road TT bike design as well.
So let’s start with a few facts.
1. An Ironman triathlon is not a TT in the sense of a road TT. The pace is not as high and cannot be due to the much longer duration of an Ironman bike leg and because of the need to save enough energy to run effectively once off the bike. Riding absolutely flat out at TT pace in an Ironman equals falling in a heap during the run. So realistically, the pace is that of a 75% effort road TT.
2. An Ironman bike leg takes 4.5 – 5 hours for a hotshot and 5 – 6 hours for a typical age grouper. That is a long time to spend in more or less one position. To my mind this means that there needs to be a greater emphasis on comfort than outright speed because an Ironman bike leg is not about outright speed; it’s about relative speed. It’s about riding fast enough to be competitive and still having plenty left in the tank for the run. That precludes the athlete from giving everything on the bike.
3. Triathletes are viewed by the marketing arm of the cycling and multisport industry as a milch cow to be milked. Come up with a reasonable sounding line of bullshit and it will sell. This has been proven many, many times. Mainstream cycling is not immune to this either, especially recently, with the entry into the sport of a lot of middle aged people with money to spend.
4. Lastly, the “aero is everything” mentality or undercurrent has created a large number of customers for me who ride radical forward position style bikes. These bikes have their place, but in my view that place is:
- NOT as the sole training and racing bike for a majority of people. Better to have a more conventional bike for most training and ride the TT bike once a week to maintain appropriate motor patterns. Then switch to the TT bike exclusively in the weeks before an event.
- NOT for dysfunctional, don’t stretch, 50 hour a week office workers who complete 12 – 14 training sessions a week without appropriate emphasis on body maintenance and structural improvement. That would describe a large chunk of the age group field at many Ironman tris.
Now let me be clear. Anyone can get on a steep seat angle, forward position TT bike and ride it. The question is to what effect and at what risk of long term injury?
I am happy to believe that my clients comprise a skewed sample of humanity as most of them seek our help because they have an issue with their bike position. Even so, I see a disproportionate number of triathletes who ride TT bikes in radical forward positions who have problems. Simply, when the seat is moved too far forward, there is a weight transfer forward which has to be supported by the upper body. If this is too exaggerated or not appropriate for the rider, the following problems can arise.
Quote by Andrew Richards, 2001. “Dr Roger Sperry, 1980 Nobel Prize recipient for brain research, demonstrated that 90% of the energy output of the brain is used in relating the physical body to gravity. Only10% has to do with thinking, metabolism and healing”
Given that is the case, what are the muscles most needed to resist against the omnipresent force of gravity?
Muscles that act posturally (i.e. that work to allow a body position to be held in space).
What are the muscles most used to propel a bike?
Muscles that act phasically (that work dynamically to allow movement).
The central nervous system (CNS) will always prioritise the muscles that act posturally because in evolutionary terms, it is a precondition of efficient movement that we are able to hold a position in space (posture) while we do so. So it is imperative if we want to perform to potential on a bike, that we have a position on the bike that recruits the minimum amount of postural musculature. That way the CNS can devote more of it’s energy both neurologically and physiologically, to switching the lower priority, power producing muscles that propel the bike on and off in the most precise and efficient sequence. The only way to do this is to sit with the majority of the weight borne underneath the backside. If the position is rotated too far forward around the bottom bracket, there is a substantial weight transfer forward which has to be borne by arms, shoulder complex and upper back which forces the recruitment of a large amount of musculature extraneous to the job of propelling the bike. This is to the detriment of power output unless aerodynamic gains offset the reduction in power output to the point where road speed increases. While this is possible, it is not common at the speeds that are common in Ironman racing. Particularly age group Ironman racing.
LOWER CROSSED SYNDROME (click on link for more)
We live in a Western culture where we spend an inordinate amount of time sitting. 12 plus years x 6 hours a day at school, at work, in a car, bus or train going to and from work; watching TV, sitting at the computer and so on. The result of this is many, many people, certainly the majority of the clients I see, have tight hip flexors. Too much sitting cramps the hip flexors causing them to adapt by tightening and shortening and very few people stretch them out regularly. Why are tight hip flexors important?
Because the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body and one of the most powerful. It is also the prime extensor of the hip. If you want your upper leg, the primary lever in the pedaling action, to descend efficiently during the pedal stroke, then ideally, this is a muscle that you want switched on and strong, not mechanically and neurologically inhibited and weak. Addtionally, this tightness of the iliacus and psoas and consequent weakness of the glutes sets up a chain reaction of postural changes , which leads to tight spinal erectors
The nett effect of this is known as Lower Crossed Syndrome. Rotating too far forward around the bottom bracket reinforces this pattern of dysfunction in the many people already afflicted before they go near a bike, unless the bars are placed high enough to open up the angle between femur and torso. Much tri talk involves the claim that moving the seat forward while maintaining low bar position will also open up the femur / torso angle. It will, but given that many people suffer from Lower Crossed Syndrome a priori, the increased load on the front of the kinetic chain involved in pedaling from a too far forward seat position reinforces this pattern.
UPPER CROSSED SYNDROME (click on link for more)
This is the upper body version of Lower Crossed Syndrome. Again, many people are afflicted because of lifestyle before ever they go near a bike. The key to understanding its effect on tri position is that Upper Crossed Syndrome is characterised by a humped upper back and forward carriage of the head. When the body is rotated too far forward around the bottom bracket in an effort to achieve a lower, more aerodynamic torso position for an athlete with this common dysfunction, a greater degree of neck extension is needed to raise the head enough to see forward. This leaves many tri people (and road TT riders) with two choices.
1. Look up occasionally, say every 50 metres or so, and risk crashing
2. Put the neck and upper back muscles that allow the head to be lifted under a lot of pressure just to allow the athlete to see forward. What then happens to a greater or lesser degree, is that the upper trapezius
A lot of jargon I know, but the bottom line is that the shoulder complex that radical forward position uses to provide stability because of the forward transfer of weight and the need to bear it, becomes less stable and forces the recruitment of of even more postural musculature. This can only come at the cost of the power producing muscles that act phasically as outlined in NEUROLOGICAL MISMATCH above.
A side effect of Upper Crossed Syndrome is that tight upper trapezius muscles have a synergistic relationship with the scalenes
This brings about what is known as Paradoxical Breathing where chest breathing predominates over abdominal breathing. The mechanics of this, as far as I can see, are that Upper Crossed Syndrome causes a kyphotic (rounded) upper back which in turn is maintained by flexion of the trunk. This requires activity in the hip flexors and rectus femoris as they are flexors of the trunk. This prevents the diaphragm from descending fully, hence afflicted tri people, and I see plenty, cannot use their full lung capacity. The implications for performance should be obvious. I don’t want to give the impression that this issue solely affects triathletes. It doesn’t. However, too far forward a bike position increases the negative effects.
Another interrelated issue is that there are 20 odd muscles of the torso that play a part in breathing. Of these, 18 have postural implications in that they can be used to breathe with, which means that they have to be able to relax. Or, they can be used to bear weight, resist pedaling forces and stabilise the upper body if forced to bear significant weight as a too far forward position does. This means that they can’t relax to the further detriment of breathing efficiency. See next paragraph
A reader of this blog, Marc Howe, pointed me at this article about how this issue is being addressed for the TT positions of the riders on some pro cycling teams. If you are a triathlete or road TT rider, take the time, click on the link and read it. It is important if real world performance is your aim. Once you’ve read it, realise that the negative effects spoken about in that article are magnified for Ironman racing because of the longer duration of effort on the bike leg.
Anything that reduces comfort reduces performance slowly or quickly. Why?
When subject to pain, the body will autonomically self protect. How?
By increased activity in the muscles acting posturally and reciprocal inhibition of the power producing muscles that act phasically (as per NEUROLOGICAL MISMATCH). When a rider suffers from a sore crotch from bearing too much weight on the perineum or genitals and squirms around on the seat trying to find a comfortable spot, they have to enlist more postural musculature in an effort to stablise themself. In extreme cases, and I’ve seen plenty, this will involve the shutdown or near shutdown of the gluteals and a plethora of compensatory measures, all of which conspire to limit performance.
A sore upper back or neck will cause the upper body version of the same effect, as largely explained in UPPER CROSSED SYNDROME.
More over, I see a disproportionate number of Ironman competitors complaining of erectile dysfunction or genital discomfort, depending on their gender. If your position is such that it forces you to sit on the nose of your seat, supporting weight on soft tissue , DO NOT go and buy the latest tri seat with a heavily padded nose. These products are a marketing response to a physical problem caused by your bike position. The solution is to re evaluate and improve your position on the bike. Alternately, you could console yourself with the thought that you already have all the children you want; though I assume most people would still like to keep practising.
RELATIONSHIP TO GRAVITY
Many times I’ve had discussions similar to what I’ve written above with tri friends. Often I’ve been told “But Steve, you’re wrong. Nothing changes in relative position. All I am doing is rotating forward around the bottom bracket; nothing changes”. As a specious argument, this is world class! What about gravity?
As our relationship to gravity (position in space) changes, so do patterns of muscle enlistment. Sit upright on a chair with your arms held straight out in front of you. Now while maintaining the same position, lift your bum up off the seat and rotate forward until your hands contact the floor, trying as hard as you can to maintain the same relative body position. Once your hands contact the floor, try and convince yourself that in terms of weight bearing, “nothing has changed”. Anyone pushing this line is deluding themselves. All of the issues I’ve listed above come down to one thing; a less than ideal relationship to gravity while exerting force.
DIFFICULTY RUNNING OFF THE BIKE
A common transition area experience at T2 in an Iroman goes like this. Athlete finishes the bike leg and changes into running shoes. Goes to stand up and the hamstrings and lower back protest. Attempts to leave the transition area with bum sticking out and lower back and hamstrings protesting all the way. Finds that tucking the bum under and rolling the top of the pelvis rearwards relieves the discomfort but finds that kind of posture hard to maintain while running. Takes some kilometres to get into running stride and may or may not have further problems during the run.
When a rider sits too far forward, and if, for the reasons listed in LOWER CROSSED SYNDROME has gluteals that don’t work well, they can still ride, often quite effectively too. This is because cycling is a closed kinetic chain. There are pedals to push against. This means that even if the glutes aren’t working well, the action of the quadriceps in extending the knee will generate movement at the hip, with or without direct involvement of the gluteals, because there are pedals to push against. Riding in this inhibited state localises much of the pedaling load to the quads. Doesn’t matter. If you train hard enough and smart enough, the quads will cope, at least on the bike. But one of the quads, the rectus femoris is also a hip flexor. And the psoas and iliacus, also hip flexors, have been working hard in a compressed position because of the overly low torso position of the rider on the bike. Still no problem………………….that is until the rider dismounts the bike in T2 and attempts to stand up, which to do so requires lengthening of the hip flexors. Then the shortened and hammered hip flexors further reciprocally inhibit the glutes and pull the top of the pelvis and lower back forward because that is where they originate. With the glutes largely out of the way, the hamstrings then attempt to pull the pelvis back into position, but their attachment point at the ischium (sit bones) at the base of the pelvis offers far less lever length on the pelvis than that which the hip flexors are able to achieve. All of which explains the scenario above.
In years past I have had Ironman athletes complain to me of this perceived overload of the hamstrings apparent when leaving transition at T2 and suggest that the solution was moving further forward, that they had overused their hamstrings on the bike! In reality, the opposite was the case. They had underused their hamstrings on the bike and the only reason for the the problem was a combination of too far forward a seat position and too low a bar position causing the reciprocal inhibitions explained above which becomes very apparent when the athlete stands erect and has to lengthen those tight, short, hammered hip flexors. If you have a good Ironman bike position and have done the training, you should be at race pace for the running leg within 200 metres of leaving transition.
WHAT TO DO
Option 1. Read TT Rider and position yourself as suggested in No. 2, Achievable Position. Done properly, this should allow you to train and race on your tri bike without problems for Olympic distance. For Ironman, raise your bars 20mm as a rule of thumb. Longer distance and longer duration means that the comfort / aerodynamics equation needs to be biased more towards comfort for real world, injury free performance.
Option 2. If you can prove to your own satisfaction that you can maintain a radical forward position for 180 kms and that the position:
a) Is beneficial to your cycling performance
b) Doesn’t hinder you running off the bike
then do so; but as a long term insurance policy, do most of your training on a well set up standard road bike with one reasonable length ride per week on the tri bike. As a race approaches, make your tri bike ride your long ride for the week. In the 2 weeks prior to racing; ride your tri bike exclusively. Once the race is done, move back to the road bike for several weeks.
For those who try option 2, be aware that a forward position pushed too far will cause semi permanent negative changes to posture and function over time. To offset the effects of this you need to stretch regularly and properly and use the road bike most of the time as outlined above. It also helps if you picked your parents well.
Above all, don’t listen to marketing driven arguments like “The top ten in Hawaii all rode full on, bum up, head down, ultimate aero positions” and think that even if true, that it means that you should too. With rare exceptions, the top 10 in Hawaii are pros or live their lives like pros. They do the same number of training sessions a week as a committed age grouper, with the significant difference being that after they finish a session, they have a rest, a massage or stretch.
In comparison, the age grouper goes to work for an 8 – 10 hour day of sitting. This difference in activity profile means that the position that a self selecting elite athlete with high body maintenance time allocation is not the best one for an age grouper with more demands on their time and a sedentary working environment.
Still, many tri people fall into the trap of making body maintenance (stretching/ core etc) an add on that can be dispensed with whenever time pressures arise, which they often do. One world class triathlete (who also has a biomechanics degree) that I know once said to me “The problem with age groupers is that they don’t realise that triathlon is actually 5 activities, not 3; and that swim, bike and run have the lowest priority if they want to be successful”.
So what are the higher priority other 2?
Sleeping and stretching.
His view of training was that if time pressures forced him to choose between a run, ride or swim session on one hand versus sleeping or a stretch session on the other, that there was a race day performance advantage in choosing the sleep or stretch every time. Better to get to race day 95% fit and 105% fresh and pull out a big one than reverse the equation and struggle.
Lastly; from time to time I see first time clients who suffer from all of the issues outlined above, but have got into the mindset that all of their performance problems can be solved with more volume or intensity of training. This works to a point, but once the tipping point is passed, and the athlete is struggling because of years of building muscle imbalances that strengthen dysfunction resulting from the belief and implementation of “aero is everything”, then there are no 5 minute solutions. Usually the athlete needs to rebuild their posture and neuromuscular function from scratch, which may take several years of conscientious effort. Tri’s are fun. Don’t set yourself up for an injury time bomb because you believe the hype. And there’s a LOT of hype.
Aero isn’t everything. Particularly if you are a typical age grouper.
Achievable, sensible, realistic, comfortable aero is fine.
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