Sunday, February 12, 2006

These are a few of my favorite things...

Responding to my sister-in-law Iris' thoughts that maybe she needs a few gadgets (and going WAY beyond that inquiry...), I thought I'd share a few of my favorite things. Happily for you, I'm just like Oprah, and this blog is just like her show. So, if you'll check under your chair periodically, you'll find that I've provided for each and every one of you some of my favorite things. In the rare instance that I made a mistake and you don't have said gadget under your chair, please contact the intern here at i3, JoJo. She was tasked to take care of this.

First, a few thoughts and remarks: Triathlon is an extremely well marketed sport, and every twenty minutes there is a shiny new thing for your bike, or to improve your swim, or make you run faster. At its soul, it really is about a single person and his unique engagement in three disciplines, each with its own strategies, difficulties, and rewards. And it is its soul that I love. After that, the rest truly are just details. If you have shoes you can run in, something to swim in, and a bicycle, that's all you need. But there are so many shiny sparkly things out there that transcend need into want, and seduce you with promises of less weight on the bike, and more water repellant, and more responsive to your feet on the run, and wick away this and that, etc. etc. etc. Some of the gadgets are, by nature, pretty unnecessary. Some provide significant benefits. And in very few cases, some are so beneficial that I find them required.

A second point: I am, as you know, a gadgety guy. I always have been, and I always will be, and I am precisely who they're marketing to. Remember Clear Pepsi? Right, I was one of 36 people who actually tried it. It's just the kind of guy I am, and I enjoy that part of triathlon, and of life. Stuff is cool. Not everybody's like that, and that's okay. I am. That said, I don't think much, if anything, that I own is wholly superfluous. Some if it's not technically "necessary", the same way a speedometer in a car isn't "necessary", but you sure are better off with it.

Okay, so I'll share with you some of the things I have, and why I have them, and why they matter. In the course of it, I'll try and maybe introduce or educate you on some of the nuances of triathlon gear. Be warned that it's a really long post, and except for Todd or anybody else considering triathlon, I doubt you'll find it useful at all. That's okay, I'll still be entertained.


In triathlon, you don't change clothes between sports. Check that: you can, I guess, but you shouldn't. Check that again - in Ironman, you actually do, or can. But in general, what you wear in the water needs to be something you can get on a bike with, and then run around in. So it needs to be made of something moisture wicking, so that it dries very quickly, and then built so it's comfortable on a bike and a run; no chafing, well-padded, etc. Some people race in tri-shorts - these are basically like cycling shorts, with less padding. The padding is made of a fast drying chamois, and it's thin enough where it doesn't act like a sponge. In the water, you want whatever you wear to be skin tight. Everything not clinging to you - even your hair - creates drag in the water. Drag slows you down, but more importantly creates an inefficient environment where you are having to work harder to move through the water. The harder you work, the more tired you are, the more you'll pay for that drag later in the race. If you wear tri-shorts, they're made so you can get out of the water, run to transition and throw on a shirt, and get on your bike. They're dry in literally minutes.

Personally, I prefer a tri-suit, which sort of looks like a cross between a leotard, a wrestling uniform, and something David Lee Roth wore in the '80's. I like it because it covers your torso and trunk, and is made of material that compresses the muscles throughout the triathlon. I don't know if this matters or not, but for me it's like how everybody likes their shoes tied a particular tightness, or their hats a particular size - it just feels right to me. I also save time in transition by not having to put on a shirt. I own and have tried several tri-suits, and my favorite is the Elite, made by a company called Orca. The schtick to the Orca Elite is that it's made of some crazy polymer something or other that is totally waterproof or something. This means it repels water completely, allowing the swimmer to glide through water without picking any of it up. If I were a more competitive swimmer I'm sure that would matter more - and you can actually feel it when you wear it (and it's pretty cool), but for me I like it best because it's most comfortable. What it's made of and how it fits gets me through all three events without any discomfort.

Note that trisuits are meant for race day, and not every day training. They're very durable, but they're not meant to hold up in daily washes, or subjected to countless hours of chlorine. For race-specific training, I wear something called jammers, which are basically just the bottoms of a trisuit. Skin tight, and long through the thigh for muscle compression. None of this clothing is flattering, by the way. Not the point.

In colder water or longer distances, a Wetsuit is preferred in the water. These aren't wetsuits like you think of or have seen surfers or skiers wear, but the principle is the same - keep you warm. Triathlon wetsuits are made with special sections, so that your arms can move easily and without constriction, and with a tighter seal around the neck and wrists, so that water doesn't get in. An added benefit of the wetsuit is that they're naturally buoyant. The biggest obstacle in swimming, as I've said, is drag. Typically (and this is a whole other conversation), a human form doesn't swim well because we tend to swim at an angle, with our heads higher than our feet. This means we're pushing more surface area through the water. Ideally you want to push as little surface area as possible, so you try and glide on top of the water, as close to horizontal as you can. A wetsuit will aid in that, lifting your trunk up a bit more than you naturally would. This causes significantly less drag, which equals less effort required, and faster speeds. USA Triathlon, which governs sanctioned Triathlon events around the world, and the World Triathlon Corporation, which governs Ironman, won't allow wetsuits when the water is over 78 degrees. Any colder than that, and many triathletes wear them. They're kind of a hassle to take off in transition, as you might imagine skin tight rubber just out of a lake might be, and takes some practice just to be able to get off in a timely way. I wear mine if it's uncomfortably cold, or if I'm in specific training for a long distance race - like Ironman - where I need to get as much practice with the wetsuit as possible. I always notice significant time savings when I race with a wetsuit as opposed to without. My wetsuit is a 2004 Orca Predator

Swimcaps are almost always required at races, and usually they're part of the racing package, colored according to your heat or wave, or having sponsor names and logos on them. They're usually bright colors, partly so support kayaks and boats out in the water can easily see swimmers heads. Even if they weren't required, I'd wear one (I have a silver Nike one for training - note: I like blue and silver, so I buy things that are blue and silver. Not because I'm fashionable or have any thoughts about color coordinating. Just because I like blue, and I like silver), because friction on the head is already an issue in the water, and hair just drags you down. This is a telling sensation - when I'm training, I wear regular swim trunks and often no cap. It's literally like pulling a parachute, the drag is so bad. That's good in training - increased resistance helps build strength in the water. But in racing, or race-specific training, you want smooth smooth smooth. So I cut my hair short for race season (considering shaving it completely for this summer...) for training and so it doesn't pull underneath the swim caps.

Goggles are, for me at least, a meticulous thing. I must have a funny shaped skull or something because I had to try seriously 5 or 6 goggles before I found some that fit me well, were comfortable so my eyes didn't feel like they were popping out of my head, and that DON'T LEAK. NOTHING sucks so bad to be out in the middle of a lake in a race with arms and legs flailing all around you, and your damn goggles are leaking so that you have to flip over on your back and empty them. Besides slowing you way down to deal with the hassle, it's dangerous and it's a total fun killer. Anyway, after much trial and error, my goggles of choice are the TYR Velocity. Clear (or whatever) in the pool, and metallized in the open water, to act as sun glasses - the swim starts early in the morning, and often the sun is at a perfect height to really get in your eyes when you breathe and sight for buoys and landmarks.


Geez, where to begin. The whole bike is a gadget. Everything on the bike is a gadget. A triathlete's bike is like a hot-rod in the garage or a shiny red corvette. You're always tuning it up, always looking for ways to add more personality, or make it cooler, or make it better. Not, probably, because it requires any of those things, but because it's an extension of yourself. I don't know if I can articulate this, or if I can do anything to not make it sound dumb, but you just don't spend hundreds of hours and literally thousands of miles on a bike and not grow emotionally attached to it. So there are things you do to the bike because they improve performance, and there are things you do to make it more yours. I love my bike. Just looking at my bike makes me happy.

There are two classifications of bicycle - a road bike, and a TT (time trial), or triathlon bike. The TT /triathlon bikes are basically the same thing. The difference between a tri-bike and road bike exists in their geometry - road bikes are like your average 10-speed that everybody's familiar with, with the curly handle bars. They're made so you sit a little further back from the handlebars, and also so that you have different handlebar positions - aggressive on the lower curls, or more relaxed on the upper bars. Your brakes and gear shifters are typically connected. You're positioned on the bike so you can easily sit up and look around you, so you can negotiate turns in one position, and other things you typically do on a "road" environment. A tri-bike has a closer geometry, so that you're sitting closer to your handlebars. This gives you more power from your hip flexors down going into the pedals. On any bike, all power is transferred from the engine - you - to the pedals, and from the pedals to the tires. So you want the most ideal position for transferring as much power to the pedals as possible. My bike is a 2005 Specialized Elite, named Ol' Blue. Here's a picture of me and Ol' Blue:

In a triathlon bike, you're basically looking for four things: 1. A stiff frame. As I said, all power is transferred to the pedals. In a stiff frame - one where the composite of the frame provides very little "give", you get more energy transferred from the legs to the pedals. In a less stiff frame, energy dissipates more from the legs through the rest of the bike, then to the pedal, resulting in wasted effort and inefficiency. Frames are made of many things - titanium, aluminum, carbon fiber, or proprietary materials. Aluminum - or any metal - requires welding of the different pieces of the bike. These are inherent places of weakness, and disturb the natural energy absorption of the bike frame; you WANT the frame to absorb road vibration and similar energy. You DO NOT want the frame to absorb your own efforts. My bike is made of some special composite, where it's made entirely of one piece. That's pretty cool, but my bike is pretty much the base model of triathlon bikes. There are some freakishly dope rides out there. 2. An aerodynamic experience. The biggest factor affecting cycling performance is - just like in the water - drag. The higher up a triathlete sits on the bike, the more surface area there is for wind. Clipping along at 20 mph or so, a high position on the bike is just like holding your hand vertically flat out an open window of a car - you're like a big sail. The more aero a person's position can be - the more horizontal with the ground - then it's closer to holding your hand horizontally flat out the window - less drag. The seat on a triathlon bike is positioned so that you can more comfortably bend your body into an aero position. This is assisted by aero-bars - those are the vertical things sticking out of the handlebars on my bike (look at the picture again). Aero-bars allow you to put your elbows on pads close to your body, and then your arms are bent with your hands straight out in front of you. The result is that you're kind of lying on your bike, instead of sitting on it. It sounds uncomfortable, I suppose, but if you're fit right, it really isn't. Notice on my bike that the gear shifters are at the end of the aero-bars, and the brakes are on the ends of my cowhorn handlebars - no swoopy, curly handlebars on the tri-bike. Because we're racing mostly straight, we don't need our hands in a steering position for most of the race. 3. Speed. The biggest deterrent to speed - after wind - is weight. The more weight you add to anything, the harder it is to pull up a hill. This is why I'm working to lose as much weight as I can before the season. Contenders look to save weight anywhere - a gram here or there can win or lose races for them. Lance Armstrong was so familiar with his performance that he could tell just from his time trials how much weight needed to come off his bike - and we're talking grams here - in order to improve. I'm not quite that fast (but almost), but there are some general things about triathlon bikes that naturally save weight. Taking off the metal required for the curly handlebars saves weight. Using composite materials saves weight. A more compact frame = less material = saved weight. Beyond that, everything you put on the bike, then, adds weight. So you're conscious of how much weight you're carrying in extra stuff, as well as race or training gear like fluids and foods. My bike is freakishly light - 16 or 17 pounds. Amy easily can lift it with one arm. When I'm on a long training ride and I load it down with 3 or 4 Gatorades, I've added maybe 2 pounds to the total weight. You wouldn't think that would matter a lot, but the bike handles completely differently with more weight, and I notice clear and distinct improvement with every emptied bottle. And I'm just a triathlon hack, so imagine what the pros much feel like. Lance Armstrong notices improvement changes after just a few grams. That's literally the equivalent of taking a leak before you ride and losing a few grams. Crazy. 4. Comfort. The single most important thing on your bike is your fit. There's a very precise way of fitting on the bike so that you're generating as much power as possible, but also positioned so that you're most aero and most comfortable. You don't just raise the seat a bit and call it a day - in fact, it's best to spend 1-3 hours being fit by a professional, who puts you on your bike and takes all kind of measurements and readings to get you in the best possible situation.

A couple of noteworthy things, looking at my bike (here's the picture again so you can see what I'm talking about)...

Seat Post - that's just what it sounds like - the post that sticks up from your bike and attaches your seat. This is a critical point of vibration, because it's a small surface area to absorb a lot of road and rider vibration that, through the seat post, goes right to the rider. Mine is made of Carbon Fiber, with this thing made by Specialized called Xerxes - it's a little window of gel in the middle of my seat post - you can actually see through it. It's all meant to absorb vibration. Pretty cool.

Fork - is the other critical point, because it absorbs vibration from the front end of the bike. This is the piece on the front of the bike that the front wheel attaches to. Again, this is made of Carbon Fiber with Xerxes in it.

Wheels: Wheels are the most important piece of equipment as far as speed goes. Great wheels can significantly benefit you, and bad wheels can be a significant detriment. Imagine a fan - what a fan does is spin around and generate turbulence. It pushes the air around, and towards you. Bicycle wheels are the same thing - they're fans. The more spokes you have, the more air you push around. The more air you push around, the more turbulence. Turbulence = drag = slow. Most triathlon wheels have flat spokes - they're bladed so that they have as little surface area as possible actually going into the wind. They also have deep edges, so that the initial impact of wind is less significant to the wheel. I have Rolf Vigorracing wheels. As you can see, the front wheel has only 14 spokes, and the back wheel 16. I only use these for racing, so that I put as few miles on them as possible, keeping them longer. I have a different pair of wheels for training.

What's even better than these wheels? These wheels:

These wheels remove the spokes almost entirely, creating almost no turbulence. They're also made of ultra light-weight material, like carbon fiber or something similar, so that they're really lightweight. One advantage these have over spoked wheels is that in removing the spokes (and so the turbulence), there are also safety benefits. Example: last summer I was on a training ride, and I'd just come screaming down a hill, and then climbed a short hill - which thankfully slowed me down. At the crest of that short hill I heard and felt a POP! and suddenly my bike was out of control underneath me. I was going slow enough where I could hit the brakes and get off without incident, but when I examined what was going on, I broke a spoke in my front wheel. The spokes on a bike are a little like guitar strings - they're all made to have a certain amount of tension. It's the tensions of opposite spokes that gives a wheels its trueness - how "true" a wheel is is how flawlessly it spins - no wobbles or bounces. Anyway, a spoke broke, and was hanging out, getting caught up in the fork. I pulled it off, but with that one spoke gone, the integrity of the wheel was entirely shot. It now sat crooked on the fork and had a weird roll to it. I could ride it, but only very slowly, and only the limited miles it took to get home. It took me a long time to get the 10 miles home. Had I blown the spoke 20 seconds earlier, when I was blazing down a hill, it could have been really disastrous. Had I blown the spoke in a race - particularly a long distance race - well, that might have ended my day.

Sometimes you'll see an even more aero-dynamic wheel on the back, called a disc wheel, which basically looks like a solid wheel - no spokes whatsoever. These tend to weigh a bit more - more materials used - but there's nothing for the wind to grab onto head on, so they slice right through. They do, however, act like a big sail in crosswinds - this is why they aren't used in the front, because the handling problems would be horrible.

Okay, going back to my bike, just a couple more things:
See those two little lines on the fork of my bike? Just under the "S" logo? It's hard to tell, but those are actually attached to a device that talks to a little magnet attached to my wheel. The device reads my speed, and sends it to a little computer I have attached to my handlebars. I have a similar device attached to my pedal posts (you can't see it in the picture), and that measures my cadence - how many revolutions per minute I'm peddling. All of this information, then, is presented on a display that sits happily in front of me in the cockpit. Measuring my speed against my cadence helps me to understand how hard I'm pushing my pedals, and measuring that effort against my heart rate can give me all kinds of information - if I'm at a sustainable pace, if I'm going to blow my legs up before a run, if I should go to another, easier or harder gear to alleviate effort or speed up a bit, and more. You can't, in the course of an Ironman, be blind to this kind of information. You simply need to be able to accurately measure these things so that you're informed on what your body is going through, and how to fuel it, and what to do next. To that end, I think (after my bike) that the most critical piece of equipment I own is my Garmin Forerunner 301. This thing is amazing - it's a powerful computer with a built in GPS and heart rate monitor. It has different settings for if I'm on a bike or if I'm running, and it has countless bells and whistles. The most important are that it tracks my speed (mph on the bike, pace/minute on the run), and then compares that with my heart rate, relative to some other information I give it like my age and weight, etc. From that it spits out how many calories I'm burning, which is critical to know what I need to replace in the course of a long event like the Half Ironman, Marathon, or Ironman. It then tracks all of that, and puts it into my computer. It also shows me in a graph my altitude and speed. This is great after rides, especially if I rode a two or three loop course over and over - I can see, for instance, how fast I went up a hill on the first loop, versus the third loop. This helps me gauge how consistent I was, and what improvements I need to make, etc. I'd be totally lost without this thing.

Couple more things: Helmet: I ride with the Specialized Decibel. I like it because it's very light and comfortable, and also well vented to keep my head warm on the bike. It's also built to come apart in pieces on impact, and not just all at once - a typical helmet, on impact, will break in half and fall apart immediately, so that after your first fall, while you're still rolling around, your head is now unprotected. This one is (allegedly, I hope to never prove it) supposed to instead crack in pieces but stay on, so that your head remains protected.

Shoes: Cycling shoes are really important, because they're essentially the entire surface area of the pedal. In triathlon, you don't use normal, flat, bicyle pedals. Instead, you used clipless pedals - they're basically just little knobs. The "pedal" comes in when you clip your shoe to the little knob, and now your entire foot is basically a "pedal". There are lots of advantages to this over just your normal flat pedal - one is efficiency - all of your power is concentrated into a smaller area - the "knob", instead of being dissipated over the surface area of a flat pedal. Another is that, clipped in, you can power the bike on the upstroke of your pedal as well as the downstroke, so that your power comes from truly rolling your entire leg over the course of an entire revolution; you can pull your leg up, and since your show is attached to the pedal, you can generate power pulling your leg. On a regular bike, you only get power for about a third of your revolution - when you push down on the pedal with each leg. Another is safety - when you clip in your shoes to the pedal, you have to twist your foot to get it off the pedal. This takes some getting used to, and I've had a few minor spills because I couldn't get my foot off the damn pedal. But it's safer because, as fast as these bikes go, the worst thing would be to suddenly slip off a pedal and lose control.

In cycling shoes, then, you want the bottoms to be as stiff as possible. These aren't like regular shoes where you want nice give and cushioning in the soles - instead you want as stiff and solid as you can get. My shoes are made by Shimano. I've had them for 2 years, and they're great. My pedals are made by Speedplay, and look something like this.

Okay, last but not least, the run. A lot simpler here, because the bike naturally requires all kind of attention. I'll share only a few of my favorite things when running. I won't talk about shoes, because everybody's feet and needs are different.

The Nike Tailwind Hat is my favorite running hat, because it's soft and really lightweight and very absorbent. I like to pull it down low so it's on my whole head, and it does a great job wicking away moisture and staying comfortable. I have several different colors, and I usually wear something like red or yellow at races so that my friends and family can see me coming.

Sunglasses are often overlooked, but I think critical to the bike (especially) and the run. On the bike they act as a windshield, keeping dust and bugs and small birds out of your eyes. On the run they reduce eye fatigue from squinting all the time (for me, anyway), and also act as a windshield. I have Oakley Half Jackets - these are great because they're really lightweight, and they have interchangeable lenses. This is again really useful for the bike (these go on before the bike and stay on through the run) - on a cloudy day I put on yellow or pink lenses, with make things brighter. On sunny days, smokey lenses or blue lenses work great.

Socks are pretty important too, because a bad pair of socks can really amplify any kind of shoe or blistering situations. I really like Under Armour All Season Gear Lo-Cut socks - they're cushion-ey enough so they're comfortable, but they keep my feet nice and dry. Iris also gave me a really cool pair of Asics running socks for Christmas - these are actually ergonomic - there's a different "left" and "right" sock. Where did you get these, Iris? They're pretty cool, but I can't find them anywhere else.

Finally, shoelaces, which you'd think wouldn't be much of a discussion, but in Triathlon especially, shoelaces can be a real hassle - the time it takes to tie your shoes in transition is precious, and it's a pain in the ass to have to deal with a loose shoelace on the run, or an untied shoe. I use Speed Laces, the Bungee kind. These allow me to "tie" my shoes to a certain fit, and permanently leave them that way. In transition, I just slip them on. On the run, there's no worry about anything untied or circulation issues, and the Bungee laces have enough give where my foot can move around more naturally. I suggest these for any runners, too. They're pretty slick.

Well, I guess that's about all. This is the longest blog post in the history of the world, and took the course of 3 days to write. That might be an absurd use of time, but there you go. I'll keep you posted on new gadgetry as it comes into my world. Any questions, ask, and if you see anything blue or silver that would look cool on my bike, send it right along.


Todd said...

I'm pretty much speechless, sans two things. 1) How much there is to know about Triathlon and how much you've already absorbed. 2) How expensive this can get. Your list of gadgets in this blog I think cost more than my entire 15 year hockey career combined. I better go look for a second job right now.

xt4 said...

Yeah dude, Triathlon can get crazy crazy expensive. But it really doesn't need to be - don't get sucked into the hype. Find what works for you, and what you can happily afford. A lot of it is pretty extraneous. Some of it is necessary. There are things that I think are justifiable expenses - if I can make a correlation between expense xyz and the healthy lifestyle it encourages for me, I consider it worth it. Some of it is just junk, or junk to buy when you have some disposable income. And it's not unlike a lot of other "hobbies" - stuff like scrapbooking, or hunting, or poker, or videogames, or whatever. It's totally up to you how "into it" to get, and how much to spend on it. But like I said, don't let the soul of triathlon get lost in all the junk and all the dollar signs. At the end of the day it's the engine alone that drives all things. Get the engine in form, and everything else is gravy.

RunIrisRun said...

I can see I've been missing out. I think these items fall under Steve's "when we both have jobs" category. 6 more months and then I'll be a purchasing fool! For those who want to try the "magic socks," go to

xt4 said...

I hope everybody's not just overwhelmed with all the STUFF. There is a lot of stuff, and it can get expensive. In describing all the science that goes into this kind of endurance sport, I wanted to tell you some of the things out there that respond to the science. It's not, you know, a laundry list of "here's what you need" or "here's what to buy" or anything like that. It's just stuff. And some of it's great to have, and not too spendy at all - the right hat, or the right socks, or the shoelaces, or whatever. So hopefully I didn't make triathlon just sound like a rolling robot or something or a NASA expedition. Thanks for the link Iris!

xt4 said...

You ARE a dork for looking that up, and it was bloody HILARIOUS. Well done, diddy -

Patric said...

Let me list a few of my favorite things.
"Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things
Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things"
Wow Im a dork, I actually took the time to look up the lyrics to this song from the Sound of Music!!!!