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Apr
10:25 AM

To Aero on the Side of Caution

Written by Rebecca Heaton
Posted Jan 15, 2008
The good and bad of the aero position

Triathlon. It’s a blend of three different disciplines—swim, bike, run—that draws athletes who are looking to mix up their one-sport routines. One of the elements of triathlon that sets it apart, though, is something that is creating a stir for coaches and physical therapists—the aero position.

Other than in time trial bike racing, the only time you see cyclists on aerobars in a competition is in triathlon. But as more people get into the sport and assume that they need to go aero—because that’s what many of the pros do—but they aren’t physically ready to go low, problems arise.

 “Unfortunately I see a lot of age-group triathletes who want to get into an aero position but aren’t quite ready to be there,” says John Crawley of USA Triathlon (USAT). Currently the High Performance Manager for the USAT National Teams Program, Crawley is also a USAT-certified elite level III coach who previously worked for the U.S. Olympic Committee as a biomechanist specializing in time trial positioning on the bike.

 “Whenever anyone mentions triathlon, almost immediately there’s a vision of seeing an Ironman athlete in an aerodynamic time-trial position. So athletes that are new to the sport immediately think that they need to put themselves in that position.”

Unfortunately, according to Crawley, a lot of people are unprepared from a musculoskeletal standpoint to go aero as they have flexibility and strength issues to address in such areas as the lower back, core and glutes. Being able to effectively stay in that position for extended periods of time can take a toll on all of these areas.

Stuart Wilson, a physical therapist with Champion Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy (www.championsmpt.com) who also does biomechanical bike fits for cyclists and triathletes, agrees.

“A true aero position is something that experienced and healthy riders should be in. Beginners or riders with certain injuries or past medical histories should not or don’t need to go aero. There is a fine line where you lose power, coordination and strength, and position yourself for injuries when you are trying to be too aerodynamic. Even for healthy riders with good histories and flexibility, the big picture of just a good, basic bike fit is more important than just being aerodynamic.”

Crawley concurs that a proper bike fit is a good place to start. He also stresses the importance of good bike handling skills.

“It’s all about stability on the bike, which gets back to bike handling skills and developing that skillset prior to getting aero,” notes Crawley, adding that moving forward into an aero position puts a rider in an even less stable position. Particularly if someone is new to riding a bike, Crawley recommends that they forego concerns of going aero and instead focus on pedaling and handling, understanding position on the bike and getting appropriately fitted, learning how to ride in groups, tackling obstacles in the road, etc. Then they can slowly start to experiment with more forward positions.

Once a rider decides to move forward, though, it’s important to understand that a number of factors need to be taken into consideration. The first is potential loss of power.

While at the USOC, Crawley looked at pedaling mechanic patterns in positions ranging from upright on the brake hoods to down in the drops to full-on aero and noted that he typically saw a loss of pedaling effectiveness as a rider got more aero and that riders ended up having to deliver more power in their down stroke.

With that in mind, Crawley asks how will this ability—or lack thereof—to generate power on the bike affect the transition to the run? “A triathlete needs to ask himself can his key muscle groups work at their most effective levels [in an aero position] or are they compromising power delivery for the sake of being more aero?”

Both Crawley and Wilson note that learning to ride in the drops on your bike qualifies as an aerodynamic position and is much less stressful on the body. But if you’re still committed to putting aerobars on your road bike, it’s not just a matter of adding the bars. A professional bike fit, like that offered by Wilson, will incorporate the proper adjustments so that you can reach the bars in as little of a compromised position as possible thus reducing the risk of discomfort or injury.

Finally, if you’re eyeing that $5,000 triathlon-specific bike but have limited resources, hold off going in to debt. Crawley notes that one of the drawbacks of triathlon is that the gear can be extremely expensive, but if you’re just getting in to the sport, take the time first to learn bike skills and drills on a traditional, less-expensive road bike, play around with position in the hoods and drops and you’ll slowly start to realize that you might be able to get away with just that. But if you’re addicted to the sport and are looking to become a regular, all of these pre-steps will help you appreciate what it takes to truly go aero and do it right.

Comments & Feedback
Anonymous  - Interesting ... |Posted on: 05.27.2008
What a great article, specially for someone such as myself - just starting out
at the young age of 38. My first thought was exactly what you discussed
regarding the novices feeling that it was neccessary to throw the aero bars on
there in order to race properly.

Now I'll just keep riding the way that I'm
riding and go from there.

Good info!
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