Putrajaya 70.3 – wilting under the blow torch

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Back in December, myself and two friends (my athlete Kylie and Caleb from Freedom Sports Medicine) decided to head over to Malaysia in April to try our hands at the 70.3 race in Putrajaya, a new, planned government city just south of Kuala Lumpur. None of us had visited Malaysia before, and only Caleb had raced in the tropics before. While I’ve done a bit of long course racing over the years, this would be the first 70.3 for my travelling companions and my first long course race in over 2 years.

My goal for this race was different to past long-course campaigns. While I wanted to have a good race, my primary goal was to use the race and the training as a way to develop some base fitness going into the Australian winter, to set me up for a solid preparation for the 2016 ITU World Cross Triathlon Championships in November. Through injury, illness and work/study pressures my training hasn’t really gotten out of second gear since I suffered my motorcycle accident and ‘medical mishap’ in spring 2014. That said, most of my best training and racing have been completed in the 6-12 months following a block of long course racing, due to the large fitness base I’ve been able to accumulate in these periods. A solid race with good execution was the goal.

My preparation for this race was relatively short coming from virtually zero fitness around Christmas, and while I had an ‘okay’ preparation through early 2016 it was still a bit inconsistent and I knew going in that I wasn’t as fit as I had previously been for other long course races. The plan was to race conservatively and try to get as many of the little things right as possible, especially preparing for unfamiliar, extreme conditions.

Luckily (or so we thought), summer in south-eastern Australia lingered on well into March providing us with some long periods of hot mid-30s weather to train in. Kylie and I took full advantage of this and scheduled long brick sessions each weekend. Caleb lives in Melbourne and also took advantage of the warm weather. Many long rides and runs were completed in the height of baking Australian summer days to acclimate our bodies.

However even at 35+ degrees, the dry heat in south-eastern Australia is completely different to the oppressive humidity of south-east Asia. High humidity prevents sweat from evaporating as efficiently, which limits the body’s evaporative cooling capacity. To compensate, the body’s sweat rate increases, which speeds up the rate of dehydration and depletion of sodium and other minerals. In a long race this significantly increases hydration and sodium needs, which are difficult to fully replace at the best of times. The gut can only absorb fluid at a finite rate, which means you can be sweating out more fluid than your body can physically replace. Lack of sodium in the bloodstream inhibits muscle function (read: cramping and reduced power) and many other biological processes including neural function, and can be extremely dangerous at extreme levels (hyponatremia). Dehydration at its simplest level thickens the blood, forcing the heart to work much harder to pump it around the body to deliver nutrients and effect cooling and restricting muscle output.

Spending significant amounts of time in tropical conditions to acclimate is the key to performing well in these conditions. The body adapts to the conditions and reduces sweating, utilising more efficient cooling processes – this is evident when one observes that the locals never seem to be sweating as much as the tourists! A couple of weeks is usually required as a minimum to acclimate. Unfortunately we only arrived in Malaysia on the Wednesday night before the race, giving us three full days. While I’d planned to use a few sports science ‘tricks’ to assist with acclimation, the weeks leading up to the race were hectic and we simply ran out of time to implement these to any great effect.

After seeing a few of the sights of KL on Thursday and Friday and a chilled-out preparation day on Saturday, race day Sunday brought with it an overnight low of 26 degrees and a predicted top of 34, with humidity rising to over 80%. The water was like a hot bath at over 30 degrees, so Kylie and I opted for the excellent Zone3 swim skins for the non-wetsuit swim. The race had a rolling start – a format I’m not a fan of, but it was what it was.

With a crowded starting ramp and around 1,300 competitors we lined up as far up the front as possible and entered the water around 2 minutes after the first age groupers were released into the water. I set about picking-off people in front, but it was very crowded for the first half of the swim and it was clear that many people had ‘overstated’ their swimming ability in order to start in the first wave and give more time to make the cut-off. I found some clear water at the turnaround and had a fast return to transition, clocking a 29:20 swim which was 3rd fastest in my age group and the 11th fastest age group swim outright. The swim skin was comfortable, felt fast, and really made a difference.

7_m-100715093-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1268_004170-571974After shedding the swim skin and tearing through transition, I made my way out onto the two lap, rolling bike course. The course is interesting and scenic, with a good surface for the most part (apart from a few dodgy bits). While there are no steep climbs on the course, it is constantly rolling and has one long (around 3km) but shallow incline per lap at around 10km/55km.

I was fairly isolated for the first 20-30km as I settled into my rhythm and started taking in nutrition, apart from a few of the other good swimmers. While I was following my plan to the letter and even taking in a bit of extra electrolyte drink, I started to feel quite uncomfortable around the 35km mark as a big, powerful group caught me from behind. I stayed with them for a while but there were two main protagonists at the front who were surging on the climbs and I was having to push very hard on the descents to keep on the back. Around the turnaround point, I started to feel the first signs of cramping in my right quad.

12_m-100715093-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1268_007183-571979I let the group go at the base of the main climb as there was no way I would be able to stay on. My focus shifted to survival as I knew my body was complaining and the cramping getting worse. My power output dropped significantly on the second lap and at the 85km mark the sharp spasms began. At the final left-hand corner prior to transition I almost binned it as a lapped competitor I was overtaking swerved into my path causing me to lock up my rear wheel and go into a full speedway drift, accompanied by another sharp spasm of my right quad. I got off the bike in around 2:31 not looking forward to the torture to come.

After applying arm coolers and socks in T2 I eased my way out onto the run course and immediately found my heart rate headed sky-high. I wasn’t able to control its ascent except by walking, and even at a walk my heart rate was settling around where it normally does for my long runs at sub 5min/km pace. To combat the very strong desire at this point to pull the pin, I derived a strategy of ‘run until your HR hits 160, then walk until it drops to 140’, which worked well for keeping me moving forward but at an average pace slower than 6min/km. At each aid station I drenched my hat and arm coolers in icy water, put ice in my suit, and took in as much cold ‘isotonic’ drink (100 Plus) as my gut could handle.

19_m-100715093-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1268_009231-571986My vain hope was that by keeping my temperature down and smashing down the electrolyte, I’d be able to shift the hydration balance back far enough to be able to return to a continuous run and make up some time on the second lap. While I was able to increase the run:walk ratio on the second lap, this was at the expense of speed and the second lap split was pretty similar to the first.

I crossed the finish line in 5:16:09 for 23rd in my age group and 131st outright. While this was my slowest half Iron-distance race ever by nearly 20 minutes and a disappointing execution, I’m proud that I managed to finish in such tough conditions and I’ve learnt a host of lessons which will benefit both myself and my athletes in the future.

Caleb unfortunately suffered punctures out on the bike course and spent time waiting for tech support, but ran well in the heat to finish in 5:35:04. Kylie had the best race of the three of us in her debut 70.3. Despite losing her gel flask early in the bike, she adapted her strategy brilliantly and knocked out a steady, consistent race to finish in 5:39:41. This was her longest run in 12 months as she has been dealing with a range of foot injuries including a stress fracture due to an anatomical anomaly. She loved the experience and is looking forward to tearing it up at another half Iron-distance race soon.

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Race winner Craig Alexander clocked a 3:55:22, but was quoted after the race as saying it was ‘like racing under a blow torch’.

As always, special thanks must go to Ride 365, Zone3, Freedom Sports Medicine and Willpower Personal Training for the ongoing and much appreciated support. Without your encouragement and fantastic products and services this journey would be so much more challenging.

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Useful paradigms to ensure continual swimming improvement

Leading out the age-group swim at the 2014 Australian Cross Triathlon Championships

I’m one of those rare triathletes who was lucky enough to come to the sport with a swimming background. I learnt to swim at a very young age, and swam competitively in the pool from the age of 8 up to 14, specialising in the 50m freestyle and butterfly sprint events. While I never progressed above age-group regional level (NSW Country) and lost interest in pool swimming in my early teens around the time my peers were increasing their training considerably, swimming was never something I feared coming into triathlon. I’ve always had a healthy appreciation of the differing demands of my swim training and my cycling and running training.

Having been heavily involved with coaching novice swimmers as part of the Canberra Bilbys Triathlon Club Novice Program over the past few years, I’ve developed a strong appreciation of how lucky I am to have my swimming background, and how difficult it can be starting a learning journey in triathlon swimming in your 40s, 50s or even 60s. Swimming is unlike cycling and running in a number of ways, and the approaches one takes to swimming training and development must reflect the unique requirements of the sport in order to sustain continual progress. This blog post aims to provide some useful paradigms new triathletes can buy into to improve their chances of progression with their swimming.

Swimming is a ‘skill’ sport first, and a ‘fitness’ sport second

Land-based sports like cycling and running, while unquestionably having important technique and skill elements to them, come much more naturally to most new athletes than swimming. After all, we use many of the same muscles and neural firing patterns for these sports as we do in our everyday movements – things like walking to the shops or scaling a flight of stairs, have more in common with running and cycling than they do swimming. Water is a medium that most humans are not exposed to regularly, and did not evolve to move through efficiently. As such, the process of efficiently and quickly moving one’s body through water is an extremely complex skill that must be learnt over time.

Swimming has more in common with sports like tennis than it does with cycling and running. In tennis speed and fitness are important, however it doesn’t matter how fast you can move around the court if every return ends up over the baseline or in the net. As such, top tennis players spend huge amounts of time working on their forehand, backhand, volleys, lobs and other strokes, under a range of conditions, to ensure they can perform these skills automatically under pressure. Swimming is no different, except that triathletes coming in with their cycling and running mindsets tend to skip skill development in favour of just ‘going hard’. It doesn’t matter how big your aerobic engine is if you’re applying pressure to the water in the wrong directions, creating huge amounts of drag with a poor body position, and wasting energy with extraneous muscle contractions – you’re not going to go fast. If you’re fighting the water, the water will win every time.

Developing efficient movement skills in the water is the number 1 most important factor in continual swimming improvement. This is particularly important for triathletes who don’t have as much time to dedicate to their swimming as pure swimmers. Every session needs to have a clear and purposeful focus on improving one or more aspects of movement efficiency.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do aerobic development sets. Swimming fast and swimming fatigued are incredibly important skills in and of themselves, particularly given this is what we do in a race! However your mental focus during these training sets should still be on your stroke efficiency, breathing and pacing, rather than just putting your head down and ‘going hard’. As a broad rule of thumb, swimmers should do at least one aerobic development set each week specific to their ability and the demands of their event, and those who swim more regularly can focus a greater amount of time in the water on aerobic development. Aerobic fitness developed from cycling and running also contribute to swim fitness.

The great news is that, while fitness levels will fluctuate throughout the season, well developed movement skills tend to ‘stick’ better. A technically sound swimmer can still swim quite fast off a low fitness base, and improvements from year to year will be better retained rather than disappearing over the off-season.

Swimming needs to be practiced regularly to maintain progress

Now that we’ve established that skill development is of primary importance to sustainable swimming improvement, we need to look at how we can facilitate this in our training. It’s a well-established principle of skill development that, given a choice between increasing the frequency of practice or increasing the duration of practice, the former is the preferred approach. Given how foreign the wet environment is to humans and the limited opportunities to practice swimming movement skills out of the pool, regular swimming practice is essential for continued improvement.

Regular, short sessions allow the athlete to start and finish the session mentally attuned, helping maintain focus and retain learning of ‘good habits’ – fatigue can lead to disintegration of technique, which can result in bad habits working their way in at the tail end of the session. The reduced time between sessions also assists with the express habituation of learning. In my experience, the vast majority of newer triathletes don’t swim often enough to support effective skill development, resulting in stagnation and eventually a mindset of ‘I’m just not a good swimmer’.

As a rule of thumb, newer swimmers should aim to practice their swimming at least 3 times per week to allow continual, sustained progress. As a swimmer improves, this needs to increase further as the technical skills being developed become more difficult and complex, the technical inefficiencies are smaller and the focus required to improve is even greater.

Practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes progress

I see many swimmers who just turn up at squad and go through the motions; doing vaguely what the coach says, but not really engaging with the exercises or thinking about what they’re doing. Poorly executed technique drills not only won’t result in the desired improvement, they can ingrain bad habits which make your swimming worse.

The primary focus of any swim training activity, whether it be drills or an interval set, should be on excellent execution. Swimmers need to become attuned to their body, feeling what they are doing well and what they aren’t doing well, and making small adjustments as they go. Video analysis can be hugely beneficial in this, allowing athletes to see things that aren’t visible to them while swimming, though seeing oneself swimming on video can be uncomfortable! Blissful ignorance of one’s flaws is, however, a recipe for stagnation.

Coaches have a great responsibility to convey to their athletes a strong understanding of how to perform the activity properly, and to correct things when they aren’t done properly. They also need to ensure that the activities and drills are appropriate for the skill levels of the swimmers, and that as swimmers master new skills the activities are progressed to drive continued improvement. A good swim coach is an asset; if you’re not getting the above from your current coach, raise it with them or find a better coach.

Swimmers need to focus on their weaknesses, and regularly step outside their comfort zone

Let’s face it – working on our weaknesses is uncomfortable. Doing what we do well give us a feeling of competence and confidence, however trying to repair our inadequacies can be frustrating and demoralising.

Henry Ford is credited with saying ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’, and nowhere is this more relevant than in swimming. If the goal of your swimming is to maintain a false sense of competence, burying your head in the sand about weaknesses and never improving, then by all means continue to do the same things every session. However, real progress comes from stepping outside our comfort zone and challenging our skills, coordination and fitness. It doesn’t feel nice to start with, but over time you will develop real confidence and competence by mastering skills you never would have acquired had you not taken that leap of faith.

Stepping outside one’s comfort zone regularly also helps swimmers to achieve something even greater. Instead of mastering the performance of a particular skill, the athlete masters the skill of learning skills. What that means is, faced with an unfamiliar challenge or set of conditions, the athlete has the ability to figure out an appropriate solution on-the-fly, rather than just relying on the limited tools they have at their disposal and hoping for the best. The positive impact of this cannot be overstated. Athletes who have this ability will often beat far-superior competitors in races with tricky conditions, and are usually far more consistent in their performances than athletes with a ‘2D’ approach to training.

Next time you’re at the pool, try a new drill you haven’t tried before, or spend some time working on form strokes (backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly). Swim in open water regularly, in a range of conditions, in a pack and solo, and with and without a wetsuit. Try out some crazy ‘brain twister’ strokes, for example freestyle arms with a dolphin kick, or breaststroke arms with a freestyle flutter kick. Learn to dive and tumble-turn. Try swimming freestyle with one or both of your eyes closed. All of these will make you a more versatile swimmer in the long run.

Progress in swimming is a long term, incremental process requiring regular, effective and consistent practice over years, not weeks.

The older we are when we start swimming, the more challenging it becomes. Humans experience peak development of their neural pathways prior to the age of 9. Beyond that age, our ability to learn and master new skills (of any kind) diminishes and it becomes harder to change the way our brains talking to our muscles – the essence of learning any motor skill.

However humans are incredible creatures that do retain the ability to learn new skills well into old age; it just takes a little more effort. The video below is a great illustration of this point.

It is important for adults who are new to swimming to approach the sport with a long view. You WILL get better over time, but you need to practice regularly, effectively, and consistently. There’s no greater joy for a coach than when one of their athletes has an ‘AHA!’ moment and makes a huge improvement quickly, however the reality for most swimmers is that significant improvements occur in small increments over years, not weeks. Detaching yourself from outcomes and focussing on the improvement process will maintain your sanity at those challenging times where everything seems to be going backwards, allowing you to stick it out until the rewards finally come, and improve your enjoyment of swimming and swim training.

I hope new triathletes will take some of these ideas and apply them to their own approach to triathlon swimming. They will help you set a course of continual improvement each year, and hopefully take away some of the frustration that can arise along the way. I also encourage you to become students of the sport, as having a deeper understanding of the why will enable you to execute the how much more effectively.

How to ride a time trial bike in the wind

Image from Triathlete MagazineRace day. It’s 5am and your alarm is going ballistic. You sit up and rub your eyes, then pause for a moment and listen. A howling wind is blowing outside. A sinister grin creeps onto your face.

You eat breakfast, pack the car and drive down to the race site, the wind buffeting your car. As you prise your bike from the roof racks, other competitors walk past with shocked expressions as they see the full disc wheel attached to your steed. As you set up transition the competitor next to you says, “Man, you must be crazy to ride a disc in this wind.” You turn to him and smile knowingly, then quietly gather your gear and head off towards the start.


I’m constantly amazed at the anxiety, apprehension and downright fear people express to me about riding a time trial bike in the wind, particularly with deep-dish race wheels. In my experience, many people go to extraordinary lengths to psych themselves out, based on a lack of understanding of how their equipment is designed to work, proper riding technique and aerodynamics. The outcome is poor results and a mindset that ‘I just don’t race well in the wind’.

This post aims to provide some practical tools for racing fast and safely in windy conditions, as well as dispel many of the myths surrounding equipment and race wheels. While much of the content applies to other riding situations, please note that this information is targeted towards triathletes and time trial cyclists riding in safe conditions on reasonable roads and/or wide shoulders. Poor/narrow roads, traffic and other cyclists in close proximity are hazards and must be taken into account. If in doubt, stay home and ride the trainer.

Wind and cycling – some basic science

Put very simply, ‘wind’ is the movement of air from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure. Various things influence its speed and direction across the Earth’s surface, including (but not limited to) landscape features (mountains, trees, buildings, lakes, oceans), gradients of temperature, pressure and moisture, and the Coriolis Effect.

Now for some light high school physics revision – vectors (I know you all loved those!). The area of land containing a race course can be thought of as a two-dimensional vector space. Within that space, the wind moving through the area can be represented by a vector – it moves in a certain direction at a certain speed. A cyclist riding along the race course could also be represented by another vector, traveling at a different speed on a different path. As the two collide, the net angle of incidence (known as the ‘yaw angle’) and the net force of the wind on the cyclist will be a combination of the speed and direction of both the wind and the cyclist.

A yaw angle of 0⁰ is where the net wind force meets the cyclist directly head-on, with higher yaw angles indicating a net wind force coming in at an angle. HED Cycling has a great little tool which allows you to calculate the net wind speed and angle on the rider (the ‘apparent’ wind). I encourage you to have a play with it to get an understanding of how changing different variables affects the wind force as experienced by the rider. In completely still conditions, a rider traveling at 30km/h will experience an apparent wind force of 30km/h at a yaw angle of 0⁰.

An important observation to make is that a change in the wind or rider speed will influence the net yaw angle, as well as the apparent wind force. Given any constant set of (not head-on) wind conditions, the faster a cyclist travels in a given direction, the smaller the yaw angle. This means that fast riders tend to experience the wind more ‘head on’ (at a higher force), while slower riders will experience it more ‘side on’ (with less force) under the same conditions. Similarly, given a constant rider speed/direction and wind direction (again, not head-on), the faster the wind speed, the larger the yaw angle. This reflects the increasing influence of the wind’s energy over the cyclist’s energy.

To state the obvious, in order to push a cyclist off their line at high yaw angles, the airflow needs to actually interact with the bike/rider ‘package’. The lower the bike/rider’s drag, the less interaction occurs. The mass of the bike/rider also plays a small part in resisting the force of the wind (inertia). The result is the sideways ‘push’ we associate with a crosswind moving us off our line. There are other ways in which wind affects the handling of the bike however, which I will describe later.

Weathering the storm

Many cyclists’ first instinct when faced with windy conditions is to ‘fight’ the wind. Watch any windy triathlon and you will see scores of riders sitting up on the hoods or bullhorns, tensing up and gritting their teeth as they try to ‘smash through’ the wind. Not only are they going slower and wasting energy, they’re also doing untold damage to their self confidence! If you try to fight the wind, it will win every time.

With this in mind, the first step in limiting the wind’s influence over you is to get aero. Assuming you have a good fit/position on your bike (if you don’t, come talk to me!), you need to stay down on your aerobars and get as small as you can. Whatever you do, resist the urge to sit up and fight!

Next, try to maintain a fairly high cadence into the wind (at least 90rpm, preferably higher), and don’t go crazy on the power output – keep it fairly similar to non-windy conditions. Yes you’ll temporarily go marginally slower into the wind than if you try to smash through it, but you’ll avoid wrecking your legs so you’ll have more juice in the tank to power past everyone when you turn around and pick up the tail wind.

Riding ‘with’ the wind

As every cyclist and triathlete knows, hanging onto your bike in a gusty crosswind can be a handful. However, it doesn’t have to be if you know how to ride ‘with’ the wind, a technique I call ‘buffering’. To do this, it’s important to have a good understanding of what the wind is doing and the space you have available to occupy on the road.

Let’s assume we’re racing a triathlon in Australia, which means we need to keep to the left of the left hand lane unless overtaking (to avoid a blocking penalty). That means we have half a car lane of lateral space to work with, which in Australia is approximately 1.5 metres. Now let’s assume we have a wind yaw angle of 15⁰ on the left of the bike, meaning we’re experiencing winds that want to push us towards the middle of the lane.

Rather than trying to fight to keep your line on the left of the road, make use of the 1.5m buffer you have. Keep to the left of the lane, and when the wind blows, let it push you. Rather than fighting to stay within 10cm of lateral space, use the whole 1.5m at your disposal to absorb the gust, and concentrate on staying relaxed.

Yaw buffer right

Similarly, with the wind coming in on the right side of the bike, position your bike towards the centre of the lane and buffer to the left when the wind blows.

Yaw buffer left

It’s possible to comfortably absorb some enormous gusts within a 1-1.5m buffer zone. Knowing this, and making full use of all the lateral space you have, will save you lots of physical and emotional energy, which you can use to make time on your frazzled and burnt-out competitors.

The deal with wheels

The conventional wisdom is that deep-dish and disc wheels are a handful to control on a windy day, and this perception is magnified when races such as the Ironman World Championship ban disc wheels ‘for safety reasons’. There have been a million articles written about the pros and cons of various wheels which I don’t intend to replicate, however I will try to explain how different wheels affect your handling – and your bike split – in the wind.

Even in the most aerodynamic position, the rider’s body contributes the vast majority of the drag of the bike/rider package. Wheels make a noticeable but small contribution, but rest assured if it’s super windy, you’re likely to be blown around no matter what wheels you ride!

As mentioned earlier, a sideways ‘push’ isn’t the only way wind impacts on bike handling. Many people experience twitchy steering while riding in the wind. This is a result of a complex interaction between the wind and the front wheel, resulting in a twisting force on the the steering axis, and is the most dangerous aspect of windy conditions.

As the wind interacts with the leading and trailing edges of the front wheel at a large yaw angle, the trailing edge (usually) will produce more drag due mainly to the different profile it presents to the wind at the angle of incidence. This difference in drag between the leading and trailing edges creates a twisting force on the axle, which is transferred through the forks to the handlebars. This upsets the overall balance of the bike. Thus, the front wheel has a much greater influence on bike handling than the rear wheel in the wind. The below picture (with thanks to Bike Rumor and Knight Composites) demonstrates this effect.

knight-composites-crosswind-lift-diagramDeep-dish race wheels come in various ‘depths’, from shallow 30mm deep rims up to 100mm+ deep. Within those options, different brands offer different rim ‘profiles’ or cross-sectional shapes, ranging from traditional ‘Deep-V’ to modern U-shape profiles, which seek to reduce the drag difference between the leading and trailing edges of the wheel (including the tyre) and thus make the wheel handle better. One of the most effective things you can do to improve your bike’s handling in the wind is to use a front wheel with a similar drag profile for the trailing and leading edges.

In addition to deep-dish wheels, there are also full rear disc wheels (these also come in a variety of different ‘profiles’, including flat, toroidal, lenticular, etc., designed to work best in different yaw angles) and moulded carbon wheels with 3-5 spokes such as the HED 3 or Mavic iO.

Each rim profile will perform differently in different yaw angles in terms of total drag, and will also be influenced by the particular tyre that is mounted and how the air flows around that tyre, as well as the number (less is faster) and type (bladed is faster than round) of spokes the wheel has.

As a general rule, most well-shaped wheels will perform similarly at small yaw angles. This is because everything is neatly tucked behind the leading edge of the front tyre, out of the airflow. However as the yaw angle increases, the depth and shape of the wheel becomes more important.

aero-chart

As you can see in this graph (with thanks to Flo Cycling) and at this link from HED Cycling, as yaw angle increases, drag decreases markedly up to around 15-25⁰, with the deeper wheels exhibiting the greatest reduction in drag. The Flo Disc and Flo 90 (a 90mm deep U-shaped rim) wheels’ drag numbers even drop below zero above around 12⁰ yaw.

To explain simply, this is because a greater interaction between the rim and the wind, combined with the tuned profile of the rim, allows the wheel to harness energy from the wind – in other words, the wind is pushing the bike forwards, like a sail propels a boat. The deeper the rim, the greater the energy harnessed. This is why the athlete in my earlier scenario was so excited – disc and deep-dish wheels are seriously fast in high-yaw wind conditions.

In contrast to regular spoked deep-dish wheels, 3, 4 and 5 spoke carbon wheels tend to outperform all others in very small (below 5⁰) or very large (above 17⁰) yaw angles, but often aren’t quite as fast in moderate yaw angles. A tri-spoke front wheel is an asset in very still conditions or when racing on a loop-course where you are likely to experience a wide variety of yaw angles. Obviously individual wheels have subtle differences in performance in different conditions.

Once the yaw angle gets seriously high, most wheels will ‘stall’ and increase in drag. However, these conditions are quite unusual or short lived. Modern wheel shapes are usually tuned to work best in the yaw angles most commonly experienced.

One last point regarding disc wheels. Rear discs have a bad reputation for being hard to handle, however this is contrary to the physics. Discs are very good at smoothing out turbulent airflow as it flows off the back of the rider, leaving less turbulence in your wake. Turbulence manifests from a mixing of low and high pressure air, and objects affected by turbulence tend to get buffeted around somewhat randomly and unpredictably (anyone who has experienced turbulence on an aircraft will understand what I mean). In these conditions, a disc has the effect of stabilising the bike, so the ‘push’ you experience from the wind is controlled and predictable. An open spoked wheel, by contrast, whips up the already-turbulent air and will move around somewhat less predictably, particularly in gusty winds.

But I ride really slow, surely the benefits of race wheels are negligible for me?

Actually, they’re even more beneficial. While drag is indeed lower at lower speeds and the drag savings will be less, the time savings are actually much greater due to the increased time you are out on course. Flo Cycling have a great blog post about this very topic which explains how this works far better than I can. In summary, getting aero will make you faster, regardless of how much or little power you put out.

Summing up

There’s no reason to be afraid of racing in the wind. With a basic understanding of aerodynamics, sensible equipment choices, a few skills up your sleeve, and a bit of confidence, you too can wake up on race morning with a grin when you hear those trees a-swayin’. Just don’t let anyone in on the secret. 😉

Race report: OTU Oceania Cross Triathlon Championships

Roosting singletrack at the Oceania Cross Triathlon ChampionshipsComing into this race I was not exactly brimming with confidence. My preparation has been, to put it bluntly, woeful, due to ongoing training disruptions and injuries (I’ll talk about these in another post soon). However, I knew I was swimming okay (not great) and my mountain biking skills have improved a lot since I took on this race last year. One can’t always be in career-best form at the start of every race, so the only thing to do is put the setbacks out of one’s mind and focus on executing the best race one can.

Cool temperatures and a little light drizzle greeted us as we drove up the hill from Jindabyne to Lake Crackenback resort in the morning, however by the time I’d registered and set up transition the clouds had parted and the sun was out. With an ‘adjusted’ water temperature of 18 degrees wetsuits were the order of the day for pros and age groupers.

After sending the open men off at 10am and the open women one minute later, it was the turn of age group men at 10:04am. I was a shade slow off the mark when the hooter went for the beach start, but it worked out in my favour as I slotted straight onto the feet of the fastest swimmer in the field and we quickly found some space and pulled away. He was slightly quicker and gradually eased away, but not before we’d both opened a significant gap on the field in the first 3-400m. This is where things got confusing.

The tight swim course was littered with a number of superfluous buoys, presumably intended to mark out obstacles in the shallow lake. However, from in the water it appeared that these were part of the course. In summary, this resulted in a lot of confusion, a few short stops to get my bearings and swimming around buoys I didn’t need to in order to avoid unintentionally cutting the course. I still exited the water a clear second, but I probably gave up 30 seconds or so than I didn’t need to.

I was through transition quickly, but struggled again with getting my feet into my bike shoes with the uphill start to the bike leg (more practice with these shoes required!). Once that hurdle was overcome I focussed my mind on getting my ‘eye’ in and relaxing to allow me to ride precisely and minimise mistakes.

My first of the two 15km laps felt a little sloppy early on, but I seemed to be making good time and passed some open athletes early on. I was caught by Ryan Lennox (AUS, M40-44) about 5km in, and I picked off the early leader Jonathan Grady (AUS, M30-34) as I turned onto the out-and-back river track about 10km in. On the way out along the river track I was passed by Martin Ralph (NZL, M45-49) and almost put my front wheel into a wombat hole attempting to pass an open female competitor along the tight river section of the course. On the way back along the river track I was caught by a hard charging Josh Roy (AUS, M30-34) who was moving very quickly, and I passed two elite competitors as I came past transition at the end of lap 1.

I had a bit more breathing space in the early part of lap 2 and was starting to really get into a groove, lowering my dropper post and treating the early singletrack section like a pump track. I knew I needed to take advantage of the good concentration level but not kill my legs for the run. It wasn’t until I was nearly at the far end of the river track that I heard the familiar accent of Paul Stapley (AUS, M45-49). I let him past at the turnaround then jumped on his wheel, hoping to get an easier ride back into T2 to save some legs for the run. Shortly before T2, young mountain bike specialist Jayden Ward (AUS, M15-19) rode past us.

Paul and I flew through T2 together and Paul led me out onto the start of the first of three 3.3km laps. The course was brutally technical and bore more resemblance to a hilly obstacle course than a triathlon run course, including a ~30 metre wade through the Little Thredbo River on each lap.

Running the creekImmediately upon starting the run my legs felt like rubber, and I realised I was in trouble early on when I was struggling to engage my major hip stabiliser muscles and had to rely heavily on my quads, which were somewhat toasted from the bike. I stayed with Paul through the first lap but started to really struggle on the second – not only was I having trouble with stability, balance and power, but I was also becoming quite dehydrated and a little low on sugar. I ceded almost a minute to Paul on the second lap as I struggled to pull myself together, downing whatever fluid I could get my hands on and taking a gel at an aid station. At the end of lap 2, Dave Stallan (AUS, M30-34) passed me up the final hill.

Lap 3 was marginally better than lap 2, but only just. The dehydration had subsided, but my quads were cramping badly. I clawed back about 20 seconds on Paul, but otherwise it was about consolidating my position. I finally crossed the line in 2:37:41, third in M30-34, 8th age grouper and 23rd outright. However, by virtue of the top two in my age group not being members of the OTU, I was surprised to be awarded the title of M30-34 Oceania Champion at the presentation ceremony.

It was a tough day at the end of a tough period, but as my good friend and former coach Gary Rolfe reminded me, my race performances this season have been incredibly solid given the disruptions I’ve had this season. However with talk that the Lake Crackenback course is under consideration to hold the 2016 ITU World Cross Triathlon Championship, I will realistically have to find another 10-15 minutes by then in order to put myself in contention for a podium.

As always a huge thanks to Zone3 and Solestar for the ongoing support, as well as the crew at Ride365 in Belconnen who have really looked after me lately.

Race Report: TreX Australian Cross Triathlon Championships and Multisport Festival, Bendigo

On the bike course in the Australian Cross Triathlon ChampionshipsThe last four weeks has been a bit of a roller coaster. I’ve completed two local triathlons in Canberra (an Olympic distance and a Sprint distance) finishing 3rd in each, and been training my butt off in between to try and recover some solid fitness for my biggest race of the first half of the 2014-15 season – defending my Australian Cross Triathlon age group title at the TreX Australian Cross Triathlon Championships in Bendigo, Victoria, held at Crusoe Reservoir just to the south-west of town.

After negotiating a somewhat convoluted travel schedule involving trains, planes, automobiles and bicycles, I arrived in Bendigo on the Friday afternoon. After checking in to my accommodation and arranging some food, I affixed my GoPro to my bike and went for a recon ride of the mountain bike course. The 10km bike loop (3 laps) consisted of primarily open eucalypt forest with a dry, hard packed, shaley surface. The course was about 80% singletrack or narrow doubletrack and was very fast and grippy if you stayed on the good lines, but quite loose and slippery off line necessitating solid concentration and keeping eyes well up the trail for the entire ride. There were a number of short, steep rocky climbs and descents to separate the seasoned mountain bikers from the beginners, and served to put a real sting into the legs ahead of the run. A truncated 5km loop (2 laps) was used for the sprint race on Sunday, covering much of the same terrain.

The 5km run loop (2 laps) was fairly fast by comparison to many other off-road run courses, but still had some challenges to negotiate. Consisting primarily of well-graded, undulating fire trail circumnavigating the reservoir, the course crossed a small artificial creek at the 2km mark and had a few short singletrack sections and obstacles scattered around the course. The final 800m was a long fire trail drag running the length of the reservoir wall, meaning the finish line was clearly visible ahead several minutes before we crossed it. The sprint race completed one lap of this course.

The swim course consisted of two 750m laps for the Australian Championships and one 500m lap for the sprint, in the calm freshwater reservoir. The race organisers threw an interesting spanner into the works by placing transition down below the reservoir wall, about 100m from the swim exit along an access road with a jagged gravel surface. Unless we wanted to cut our feet to ribbons, this meant leaving a pair of shoes in a designated ‘shoe drop’ area at the swim exit and putting them on for the run into T1. I opted for my running shoes, while many people wore their bike shoes (which needed to be removed in T1 anyway to allow for wetsuit removal).

TreX Australian Cross Triathlon Championships (1500m/30km/10km)

After an enjoyable recon ride and a good night’s sleep on Friday night, I rolled down to the race site on Saturday morning at around 8am for the leisurely 10am start. As all age group males would be starting in the same wave (3 minutes after the pro wave and 3 minutes before age group females), my plan was to race for a high overall age group placing and let M30-34 look after itself.

The age group field itself was small but stacked with some big names. Amongst the top contenders was Sam Hume (M35-39), considered one of Australia’s fastest age groupers, who has on his palmares Kona age group victory and an 8:38 Ironman PB (IM Western Australia). Next was Guy Andrews (M40-44), a three-time Elite Australian surf Iron Man champion in the prestigious Uncle Tobys Series, who would have to contend with Mack Clarkson (M40-44), an age group podium finisher at the XTERRA World Championships. Rounding out the contenders was Brian Millett (M45-49), an IM Western Australia age group winner and sub 9-hour IM finisher in the shortened 2013 Melbourne race.

The horn went off for the deep water start and I immediately copped an arm to the face dislodging one of my goggles. Andrews and Hume leapt off the front and in the melee I was unable to jump on their feet. After correcting my goggles I set about picking off those ahead of me, and by the halfway point of the swim I was in a clear third place. After exiting the water and re-entering after the ‘turnaround’, I settled into my rhythm and set about limiting the damage, while trying to build a lead over those behind me. I finished the swim in third place, roughly 2 minutes down on Andrews and 1:30 down on Hume, with Brian Millett around 10 seconds behind me and a small group about 30-60 seconds back containing Mack Clarkson.

After an awkward transition involving far too many shoes, I headed off on the bike still in 3rd and set about hunting down Andrews and Hume. Coming out of the water in the middle of the pro women, I picked my way through them with medical precision and felt like I was ‘seeing the course’ well. With fast semi-slick tyres on my bike it was crucial that I stayed on the hard packed lines and avoided running wide into the loose stuff, which I achieved pretty well.

On lap 2 I passed Brodie Gardner, one of the pro males, who was standing on the side of the trail fixing a flat. I also started to come across age group females who were a lap down. While I hadn’t come across Andrews or Hume, I had a sense that I was having a very solid ride. I was also following my nutrition plan to perfection, though by this stage it was getting very hot. It took until halfway through lap 3 of the bike for Mack Clarkson to catch me. I stuck on his wheel for the remainder of the bike and rolled into T2 right behind him. With a quick transition I was out ahead of him and still maintaining 3rd place, about 3 minutes down on Andrews and 3½ down on Hume who had passed Andrews on the bike.

The final few climbs on the bike had really put the sting in my legs and as I started the climb out of T2 my legs began to show some signs of cramping. It was well over 30 degrees by this stage and my focus shifted from chasing down Andrews and Hume (I knew at this point I would not be catching Hume!) to settling my body into a sustainable rhythm and getting as cool as I possibly could. The fatigue in your legs as you start a cross triathlon run is more akin to that experienced in a half Ironman than an Olympic distance race, and so the run becomes as much a mental test as a contest of outright speed.

Clarkson re-passed me in the first kilometre and went on to record the second fastest run split, behind Hume. At around the 4km mark, Brian Millett (who had exited T2 about a minute behind me) slowly pulled alongside me with blood gushing from his left eye. “D’ya have a fall?”, I enquired. “Yeah smashed my face into a tree”, he casually replied, before easing ahead.

Millett wasn’t moving as quickly as Clarkson, and while he slowly pulled around 50m ahead over the following kilometre, I resolved to try to hold that gap as close as possible as a mental pacing strategy. As we came over the reservoir wall at the end of the first lap, I could see ahead that Clarkson had passed a fading Andrews, who was struggling. I hoped that if I could stick with Millett’s pace he would drag me up to Andrews and if Millett faltered I could even find myself on the overall age group podium.

Positions remained the same throughout most of lap 2, though Millett did extend his gap and picked up Andrews. As I turned onto the finish straight, Andrews was barely 50 metres ahead and I gave it everything along that long, painful drag to try and catch him, unfortunately coming up 13 seconds short and having to settle for 5th place age grouper and 9th outright. I’d also achieved the goal of defending my M30-34 age group title, finishing nearly 18 minutes ahead of the next competitor. While it’s a shame to have not really been pushed for the age group win, I’m very satisfied with the fact that I was up there mixing it with some of the most highly respected age group triathletes in Australia.

TreX Sprint Cross Triathlon (500m/10km/5km)

Sunday’s race had an earlier (thankfully cooler) start and a much stronger field for the M30-34 age group, with Mr. Solestar himself and super runner Caleb McInnes driving up from Melbourne on Saturday night and his clubmate Barny Sommerville also toeing the start line just a week after going 9:51 at Ironman Western Australia. Guy Andrews took to the start line again, as did Elite men Ben Allen and Russell Kennedy. Interestingly, Andrews chose not to wear a wetsuit for the 500m swim.

Three minutes after the Elite wave, the gun went off for age group men and immediately Andrews, Sommerville and myself formed a group at the front, intent on getting away from everyone else. With the benefit of wetsuits, Sommerville and I managed to hang on to a surging Andrews and exited the water around 45 seconds ahead of the next group containing McInnes, Mark Ashmore and Chris Moore (M25-29).

Andrews got a 15 second jump on me through transition and I got a further 10 seconds on Sommerville, once again putting me onto the bike in hot pursuit of Andrews. McInnes and Sommerville are less experienced mountain bikers and I expected to pull away from them, but I had to ensure I had a few minutes lead off the bike to account for McInnes’ lethal run. I chased Andrews as hard as I could, but I wasn’t riding as precisely as the day before and the fatigue in my legs was becoming quite evident on the pinchy climbs. On the two short laps Andrews pulled out a further 35 seconds on me with the fastest outright ride of the day, giving him around a minute lead starting the run. Daylight was third, so it was a race in two for the age group win.

I took off out of transition like a rocket, determined to not have a repeat of Saturday. My blistered and cut feet from Saturday’s race were screaming at me, perhaps hurting more than the exertion of the run. Around every corner I searched for Andrews, but around me another race was happening –I’d left T2 right in the middle of the Elite female race, where Jacqui Slack, Dimity-Lee Duke and Renata Bucher were having a ding-dong battle.

As we emerged onto the reservoir wall, a lone Andrews was only partially concealed by Bucher and Duke running shoulder to shoulder in a sprint finish. Unfortunately today Andrews had a bit more of a buffer, and crossed the line just ahead of a sprinting Bucher and Duke, 32 seconds ahead of me. I’d had a better run than Saturday, but Andrews had had a much better run than Saturday. A charging young gun Tom Barkmeyer (M16-19) came across the line third about two minutes after me, with McInnes and Sommerville a further 1-1½ minutes behind.

At that point I presumed that Andrews and I had finished 3rd and 4th overall, behind Elites Ben Allen and Russell Kennedy. What I discovered when I checked the results is that we had in fact beaten both Allen and Kennedy, to finish first and second outright! A great surprise to cap off a fantastic weekend.


With Christmas just ahead and the prestigious Bilbys World Championships aquathon behind us (I’ll have to wait for next year for another shot at the title!), I’ve got quite a bit of time before my next race of importance, the ITU Oceania Cross Triathlon Championships at Lake Crackenback in late February. I’ll be looking to put together a couple of solid endurance blocks to rebuild some of my base, with my annual pilgrimage to Jindabyne for the Bilbys training camp giving me an opportunity for a week of solid long swims, rides (road and MTB) and runs in the mountains with plenty of hills. I can then spend February and March topping up my speed ahead of Crackenback and XTERRA races in April.

That’s the theory at least – I’m looking forward to seeing what the next few months have in store!

Review: Zone3 Victory D Wetsuit

Zone3 Victory D WetsuitThis is the review I’ve been hanging out to write for almost a year – and now I finally can. The Victory D is Zone3’s top-of-the-line, no-expenses-spared, cutting-edge, insert-whatever-other-superlatives-you-can-think-of wetsuit, specifically designed to meet the needs of the Long Course triathlete. It is available in both Mens and Womens cuts.

The feature list of this wetsuit is longer than Michael Phelps’ arm span. A combination of Yamamoto 39, 40 and Aerodome neoprenes which are distributed throughout the suit in a highly strategic manner – the result of an extensive R&D process which began way back in 2007. The suit features an upwards breakaway zip for easy removal and eliminating the risk of accidental opening of the suit during the swim. As with most Zone3 suits, the Victory D features their trademark Pro Speed Cuffs which make peeling the wetsuit off incredibly quick and easy. Having had Pro Speed Cuffs on a few wetsuits now, I still take pleasure at the comments and facial expressions I get from others as they see me effortlessly slide out of the arms and legs of my suit after an open water swim – with absolutely no lubricant required.

Consistent with its Long Course billing, the suit is designed to work with the swimmer in every conceivable way, supporting desirable movements and absolutely minimising loss of energy to the suit. Aerodome panelling (30% more buoyant than conventional neoprene) around the hips provides buoyancy support for maintaining a high body position with a light kick pattern, without upsetting balance in more refined or aggressive swimmers. The 5mm chest panel acts to reinforce good body roll and assists with sighting. The 1.5mm Yamamoto 40 arm panels are incredibly soft and supple, akin to your favourite soft cheese, and combined with 2mm back and front flank panels provide a suit with absolutely exceptionally functional and progressive shoulder flexibility – more on that later. Finishing off the package is a unique, titanium lined inner fabric. This is designed to bolster the thermal properties of the suit, both keeping the swimmer warm throughout a long swim and maintaining blood flow to the legs so that they still work when the swimmer emerges from the water.

Trying on the Zone3 Victory D for the first time!I received my Victory D with great excitement back in June 2014. While I was able to get in a very quick (15mins), cool (16 degrees), rough (choppy as hell) swim down at Jervis Bay shortly after receiving the suit, I had to wait until a few weeks ago to give it a good shakedown. I’ve since had a few opportunities to test it out in training and have raced in it, so I can share my highly enjoyable experiences with you.

After swimming in my excellent 2011 Zone3 Vanquish for a few seasons, my expectations of the Victory D’s performance were very, very high – perhaps unreasonably so. However, I also expected that this high performance would come with a trade off in durability. With that in mind I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the box to find a suit which wasn’t even remotely fragile looking and looked every bit as sturdy as my Vanquish which has taken a pounding and still lives on as a training suit three years on. While the Yamamoto 40 arm panels are noticeably soft and delicate (required to provide the additional stretch), these are ‘protected’ by sections of sturdier Yamamoto 39 on the forearms and around the back/shoulders to keep them out of the way of the high wear areas.

Into the water, and my first impression of the suit was how insanely flexible it is. I don’t care what other suits you’ve worn, you don’t understand just how flexible a wetsuit can be until you’ve swum in a Victory D – allow me to explain. The key is in the way the flexible arm panels are integrated into the rest of the suit – rather than taking a purely, “arms=stretchy, body=floaty” approach, Zone3 have designed each panel to gradually progress along that continuum as one moves inwards from the cuffs. Thus, you can really feel the 2mm panels around the back/lats and surrounding the 5mm centre panel ‘giving way’ to allow additional range at full arm extension, in the same way the muscles of the back and chest accommodate arm extension. As such, the suit provides what feels like limitless range of motion, with virtually no restriction. It sounds cliché, but apart from the buoyancy and support (the good stuff) it really doesn’t feel like you’re wearing a wetsuit.

The buoyancy through the hips hits a real sweet spot which I think will work well for a large proportion of Long Course triathletes. As a swimmer with quite good body position who doesn’t do a lot of races with swims longer than 2km, I found initially that my hips sat just a tiny smidge higher than I’d have liked and I need to ‘sink into’ the suit just a little bit more than in my Vanquish to facilitate optimal hip drive and kick power for short, fast efforts. However with more time in the suit I figured out a way to take advantage of the additional support to extract a bit of extra hip drive – win-win! The perfectly positioned and designed chest panel kept my body position level, facilitates easy sighting and eliminates that unbalanced ‘swimming downhill’ feeling many experienced swimmers get from a lot of wetsuits.

So how fast is this suit? Well, that depends on who is wearing it, so apart from saying, ‘really fricken’ quick’*, I think a more useful question would be ‘how will this suit help me get from the start line to the finish line faster than other suits?’. The exceptional shoulder flexibility will undoubtedly aid in maintaining speed and minimising fatigue in the back half of the swim, and may assist the athlete in getting settled in their aero position earlier on the bike if they ride in an aggressive position requiring stabilisation of the shoulders. The buoyancy profile encourages a balanced, high body position with a light kick, which will save energy for later in the swim but also for the bike. Both of these features together result in a suit which feels incredibly natural, allowing the swimmer to maintain good swim mechanics and improved efficiency. Finally, the breakaway zip and Pro Speed Cuffs will give you a clear edge in the transition area and make the wetsuit strippers’ jobs easier at your next Ironman. Depending on your swim mechanics and experience, these features could cumulatively be worth many minutes.

*For me, I had an absolute cracker of a swim at the local Triathlon ACT November Fest Olympic Distance race (race report coming soon!), despite being well below my best fitness (3-4secs per 100m in the pool) due to my recent ‘disruptions’. As a purely unscientific guess, I reckon the Victory D has trimmed 30-60 seconds off my wetsuit 1500m time, and would be proportionally even better over an Ironman swim.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m super excited about wearing this incredible suit throughout the coming season. I am happy to answer any questions you may have about this or any other suit in the Zone3 range.