Get the Most Bang For Your Buck

Thursday, March 14, 2013 | By Alicia Caldwell
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Racing season is just around the corner, and many athletes may be pondering an investment in speed to give them an edge. And why not? Equipment and training have never been better in the sports of cycling and triathlon. The pertinent question then is what is the best investment, especially when it comes to the bike, to get the results you want? What gives you the most bang for the buck?

We know there have been wind tunnel studies and even more informal efforts to gauge how much time you can pick up on the bike with different equipment. Rather than duplicate those efforts, we decided to ask a handful of experts to give us their opinions, based on their substantial experience, on what they would choose given some roughly equivalent choices, price-wise. Here goes.

Bike Fit vs. Aero Helmet

You might expect that bike fitters would choose the former, but somewhat surprisingly, everyone we talked to went with a good fit over an aero helmet.

"It seems like longevity in the sport is tied to comfort on the bike," said Todd Carver, co-founder of Retul bike fitters in Boulder, CO. "You can buy carbon wheels and carbon stems, but comfort on the bike makes a big difference." Carver also made note of how riders were less likely to suffer injury if they had a fit that worked for their body structure. Furthermore, if the bike is more comfortable, athletes would be more inclined to go for a ride, thus conferring better fitness results overall. In addition, dialing in the fit, which may or may not be the most aggressive aero position, can help athletes find the right geometry to put the maximum power to the pedals.

Susan Williams, who won a bronze medal in triathlon the 2004 Olympics in Athens and runs a coaching business, agrees. "I think the bike fit is more important. You can be in a more effective position and use your muscles more efficiently with a better fit."

None of the folks we talked to diminished the value of an aero helmet, some of which come with a price tag that is roughly equivalent to a bike fit. A Retul fit, for instance, is roughly $300. Some studies show a helmet will shave a minute off a 40K bike time trial. It's just that comfort, injury prevention and efficiency were more valuable.

Winner: Bike Fit

At some point you might want to get an aero helmet to gain those extra seconds, but first things first - get comfortable and efficient.

Power Meter vs. Carbon Wheels

This question sparked more disagreement. Eric Schwartz, the 2004 U.S. National duathlon champion and a coach, is a big advocate of training with power so this question was easy for him.

"You'll gain more time with a power meter than you ever will with carbon wheels," Schwartz said. A power meter takes away the guesswork and allows training and racing with precision. A power meter can strip out other factors that affect a bike split, such as wind and heat, for a more true measure. "I don't think that one's even close," said Schwartz, who runs Endurance One coaching.

Joe Friel, noted triathlon coach and author of the popular Training Bible series, agreed. He has often likened a power meter to a tool that builds the engine of the car as opposed to burnishing the chassis. "The engine is the most important part of the vehicle and a power meter will help it to become more powerful," he said.

But Dave Robinette, a lifelong athlete who competes in the 70-74 age group and has four world titles, recommends going for the wheels. When Robinette upgraded to some Zipp wheels, a 404 in the front and an 808 on the back, he peeled two minutes out of his Olympic distance bike split. He had been riding some older carbon wheels of a different brand that he bought used on eBay. "My bike split was better than the best bike splits in the age group below me," he said of his results in a recent world-level competition.

Winner: Power Meter

Interest in power-based training has sparked innovation and new products on the market, and gear with a price point for nearly everyone. Turbo-charging your engine is going to make more difference for most athletes over the long haul.

Training Plan vs. Hiring a Coach

Those we talked to, admittedly many of them coaches, said the feedback you get from an impartial, experienced hand is invaluable, but in certain circumstances a training plan might be a good option.

Williams, who coaches through her business Elite Multisport Coaching, said if you are a beginner, just trying to gain the aerobic fitness to finish an event, you might be just fine with a training plan. "More experienced athletes tend to overtrain", she said, "and need someone to rein them in".

Robinette said he is self-coached, and only opts for a coach for specific needs, such as when he feels he needs some pointers on his swim stroke. "It depends on a person's experience level," Robinette said.

Schwartz, who also runs the website, said plans written for many people have to be general, so there's a limit to how much athletes can get out of them. Another factor is the complexity of the event, with an Ironman ranking on the higher end of the scale. "The more complex something becomes, the more you need a coach," he said.

Friel was unequivocal: "Coach. No question about it.”

One advantage of a coach over a plan is the motivation factor - while no one will know if you skip a workout on a plan, you’ll have to report the same skipped workout to a coach. The fact that you’re answering to an actual human being just might be the extra motivation to get you out the door, or to finish that last interval. Also, most athletes plan to complete a series of events through a season. Training plans primarily enable you to peak for a single event. A coach can help an athlete get the most out of a season stacked with multiple races. (Read more about why you may want to hire a coach).

Of course, pricing may be a deciding factor for an athlete. Generally a training plan is less expensive than a coach, but the price range varies widely for both. While Ironman or power-based cycling training plans by experienced and reputable coaches may cost between $50 to $300, monthly fees to a coach average approximately $160 a month based on a survey conducted by TrainingPeaks. However, there are certainly options that are less expensive for a coach depending on level of service and experience of the coach, and TrainingPeaks’ Coach Matching Service can find you a nationally certified coach within your price range, starting from less than $100 a month.

Winner: Coach

Having said that, your goals, experience and budget figure prominently in the equation. But it might be worth investing in a professional coaching relationship for at least a season to figure out whether it helps you achieve the goals to which you aspire.

Losing Five Pounds vs. Professionally Administered Lab Testing

It may be hard to measure the cost of losing weight in terms of cash - you could do anything from hire a coach to help you lose weight, purchase a nutrition plan, opt for healthier items at the grocery store, or cook all your own meals (in which case losing weight could actually cost less). But anyone who has tried knows losing weight definitely costs you in terms of discipline. Lab testing can measure where you are in terms of power and efficiency - and certainly progress in those metrics - while shrinking the muffin top might allow you to get to the finish line faster.

On this question, Friel was the lone proponent of metabolic testing as opposed to shedding a few pounds, saying it could be "very beneficial." He said the weight loss only would matter on a hilly course.

Carver, of Retul, sees it differently. He said losing the weight, so long as you can do it in a healthful fashion, is going to help an athlete's racing significantly. It enables an athlete to better regulate body temperature and improve body composition. "Losing weight is the best thing you can do for your cycling," he said.

Schwartz said he doesn't see a lot of use for having a VO2 max test done. And measuring functional threshold power or lactate threshold running pace is something athletes can do on their own via a field test.

Williams and Robinette both said weight loss - again with the caveat that it is done via lifestyle improvement and not binge dieting - is more helpful especially for triathletes. "That really makes a difference, especially on the run," Williams said.

Winner: If you’re looking for the bargain out of all of this - the true “free speed” - drop a few pounds.

That is, of course, assuming that you’re above your ideal weight and stick to a healthy diet and exercise regimen in doing so.

We noticed a common theme from the experts we talked to, who have decades of high level experience: focus on the basics first. Get comfortable and efficient on the bike. Have the good metrics that a power meter would provide for the hard work you are doing so you can measure progress. Get good advice from a professional. And if you can healthfully shed some ballast, that winter insulation, do it. You’ll arrive at the finish line, fitter, happier and faster than ever before.

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