What does the future hold for triathlon
Credit: Dan Seex
Training

What does the future hold for triathlon?

This year we've celebrated the magazine's 30th birthday but what will the next 30 years hold for triathlon, in terms of racing, gear, nutrition and training? Will it be more, or less revolutionary, than the last 30 years? We don our VR headset to find out...

Where will triathlon be in 2049? Sadly, some of us will long have departed this mortal coil. Or maybe not if advances in genetic and personalised mapping continue apace; in fact, is it fanciful to think that there’ll have to be five-year age-groups up to 120 years old, such will be our (artificial) existence?

What follows is our examination of the world of triathlon, including racing, gear and nutrition, to ask just how will multisport look in 30 years? Of course, that’s a big remit and the mind can run wild. So when examining the research and gathering our experts, there’s also an element of pragmatism, basing evolution on current thinking.

In other words, predicting new materials, training epiphanies or nutritional thinking on pure imagination lacks the empirical groundwork triathletes demand. We love data, after all. So that’s why many of the innovations and forecasts from our band of experts progress current thinking, so supporting ideas with reasoned arguments.

Right, time to cover ourselves in sticky wearables, slip into our Halo transcranial-direct stimulation headwear and start predicting tomorrow’s triathlon world…

Biofeedback rewards

Experienced triathletes appreciate that wetsuits are more comfortable, more flexible and of a greater variety than ever. But despite the occasional eyebrow-raiser (raised plastic arm panels, anyone?), arguably they’ve not evolved significantly. That’s set to change if Roka have their way, as they’ve filed a patent for biofeedback. And Roka aren’t the only ones dipping their toes into analytical waters.

“We’re working with a company called Incus on a tool that attaches to the back of your wetsuit to measure velocity, stroke rate, GPS… a whole host of useful data that just doesn’t exist right now because it’s so difficult to collect accurate information in water,” says Dean Jackson, founder of Huub Design wetsuits. “That’d then feedback to your goggle or straight to an iPad beside the lake.”

In 2016 Incus were labelled one of the 50 top start-ups in the UK. They’re based at Loughborough University’s Advanced Technology Innovation Centre and specialise in applying artificial intelligence in sports. It’d certainly be a feather in the Huub (swim) cap if the collaboration can reap biofeedback rewards.

Of course, by 2049 biofeedback will be at such a nano level that you won’t even know it’s embedded
in your Yamamoto. If today’s neoprene material of choice remains the pick of the future, that is. “We’re looking at a couple of neoprene alternatives from the Far East,” says Jackson. “But improvements won’t centre solely on performance. We’ll need manufacturing processes that are far more environmentally friendly with recycling and transforming old wetsuits becoming commonplace.”

One-atom thick graphene

When it comes to bikes, carbon would have long since been replaced by the one-atom thick graphene, first seen on Dassi’s Interceptor bike in 2017. Graphene’s foothold will stem from its light weight, ability to conduct electricity and the fact that after many years of trying, manufacturers finally create machines and processes that can mass produce this game-changing material.

Graphene’s voltage-friendly properties mean performance parameters like power output and speed will be transmitted through the frame and projected from handlebars featuring an integrated screen. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. “Whatever the advances, key is balancing a triathlon bike’s aerodynamic attributes with stiffness,” says Phil White, co-founder of Cervélo Cycles. “But with future lightweight and stronger materials, that’ll arguably be easier than ever.”

White suggests this combination will make aero road bikes, or advancements of, the norm. “Traditionally, a lightweight climbing bike is faster than an aero bike over a climb of minimum 5% gradient,” he says. “As the scales balance, that advantage will simply disappear.”

White is now freelance and actually sees the greatest gains from clothing, suggesting that Simon Smart and the team at the Silverstone wind tunnel are currently working on the ‘next-gen suits’. It’s a point picked up on by aero specialist Xavier Disley.

“Fabrics is a big gain and something we’re looking at,” he says. “We’ve developed a couple of woven fabrics specifically for the bike leg. They will have been debuted at the Tour de France, and the results are insane. You’d be surprised how much drag you can cut by weaving your own fabrics.”

That’s in contrast, says Disley, to off-the-shelf fabrics “like that stripy stuff you see everywhere and then just stick it into different places. Essentially, 80% of drag is the rider so if you can improve 5% of that, it’s about 3% of the whole system, which is a lot more than if you used, say, an aerodynamic shifter.”

In 30 years’ time, lasers that map your body design your bespoke tri-suit, before a 3D printer weaves a fabric composition that matches your somatotype and swim, bike  and run technique will be standard. And aerodynamics will continue to dominate…

Where once wind-tunnels ruled, slipstreaming-measuring devices will become as commonplace as power meters, according to Disley. “We use numerous sensors in our aero work including the Konect from Notio,” he says. The Notio Konect mounts to the underside of an out-front computer mount and features a ‘pilot tube’ that protrudes from its body. Among many variables, it measures wind speed.

Crudely, by comparing this wind-speed data to the rider’s speed, the unit can estimate CdA (essentially, co-efficient of drag). “One of the key benefits of these devices is that you can accurately answer race-specific questions, like whether you should sprint out of the saddle or remain seated,” Disley continues. “Or when climbing, whether a rider’s more efficient sitting up on the tops, staying on their hoods or hitting the drops.”

The Konect’s not yet available to the mass consumer but other motion-capture devices from the likes of Leomo are. Time will see these become more accurate, smaller, cheaper and, importantly, easier to assimilate the data into actionable advice.

Move beyond the miles

And what about the run? Over to long-term 220 contributor Joe Beer. “I predict that the user group’s average age will rise,” says the Devon coach. “Aligned with this, I see a growth in the incidence of run injuries. That means ‘on-foot training’ will become even more essential – and that means embracing deep-water running, more technical drill sessions, run-specific strength work, weighted-vest prehab work and many other modes that’ll move beyond the miles-, minutes- or pace-based online obsession.”

Will the evolution of shoes prevent Beer’s Doomsday prophecy? Uniquely in this tech-savvy multisporting world, the humble run shoe’s remained just that. Yes, there’ve been outliers, like the bizarre-looking Adidas Springblade, but forefoot lugs like those seen in Newtons are generally as adventurous as it gets.

“Again, 3D printing your own, to suit your run gait will become the norm,” says Beer. This is important because, as fitness grows, subtle changes to run gait take place. Your mapping software will recognise this evolution, ensuring your incremental changes in footwear will be the result of performance, not marketing.

The buzz around transcranial direct stimulation and its endurance-boosting capabilities would have died down after
WADA deemed it illegal. And augmented-reality or virtual-reality units will complement every triathlete’s training armoury after motion-sickness issues were banished a long time ago. The growth in VR and brain training to boost endurance mean triathletes will finally be convinced of the merits of visualisation.

“And they should be as all the top athletes engage in mental imagery,” says neuroscientist Ian Robertson. “They visualise themselves and go through their routines beforehand, sometimes in real time. If you do brain imaging of people when they’re undertaking mental imagery of that kind, almost all the same parts of the brain that are active when you’re actually doing it are active when you’re imagining it. It’s only the final pathways tied in when sending signals to the muscle down the spinal cord that area’s active.”

Individualised fuel

Like training and gear, bespoke is the future for fuelling, too. “I believe that all nutrition, not just performance nutrition, will be individualised,” says head of Precision Hydration, Andy Blow. “There’ll be far more data, much of it from wearable technology and genetic testing, from which athletes can decide what kind of nutrition plans and products will work best for them.”

That data, Blow continues, will include a raft of physiological parameters including blood glucose, sweat rate, blood volume, core temperature and so on, which you’ll then cross compare with information on a performance level. For instance, speed and power output. “Your nutrition plan will also comprise external factors like weather and temperature, so athletes will enjoy much more detailed real-time feedback on what to eat and drink, in what quantities and exactly when to take it in to maintain optimal performance.”

All this data will be streamed via your wafer-thin, lightweight wristband that’ll instruct the most suitable nutritional intervention, whether that’s consuming sodium, swilling caffeine or ingesting a pill loaded with the perfect macro-nutrient split for your body at that particular time.

Session fuelling is only part of the story. Once your swim, bike and run efforts are complete, it’s time to refuel and repair for the next effort. So that means carbohydrates to pack muscle and liver cells with glycogen and protein to mend and grow micro-tears in your muscle. Around 600g of carbs each day refills muscles in two to three days. Similarly, daily protein intake of between 100 and 120g is more than adequate to repair muscle damage within two weeks, so that there’s no soreness or biochemical evidence of injury. That’s textbook. What’s less understood is rejuvenating your entire system.

“Very little attention has been given to the recovery of bones, tendons and ligaments,” explains performance biochemist Dr Rob Child. “These tissues are also damaged by exercise with initial recovery taking six weeks and full recovery up to three months. No commercial products adequately support the recovery of bone or connective tissue. In the future, these will be formulated to  help bones and connective tissues repair more quickly and better meet recovery needs.”

There are myriad supplements in the endurance sector, most focusing on energy provision during events, maintaining hydration and muscle recovery. “But one area that’s largely been overlooked is gut health,” adds Child. And that’s a huge area for research and intervention as the gut is pivotal in the absorption of carbohydrates, fats and protein, water and electrolytes.

“Clearly maintaining a healthy gut provides one of the foundations to athletic performance,” says Child. “However, endurance exercise in the heat can cause gut damage, resulting in heat illness and even death.  A wide range of nutrients have been shown to benefit gut health by maintaining gut cell integrity, preventing or resolving infection and reducing unwanted increases in gut permeability. A range of nutrients provide gut health benefits, but one of the most interesting is colostrum. This is derived from the cow’s milk produced in the first 24-48hrs post-partum, and has a markedly different composition to milk produced later in lactation. Colostrum reduces unwanted increases in gut permeability at rest and after exercise in the heat.”

WADA currently caution athletes against supplementing with colostrum because it contains high levels of growth factors, which they believe could resulting in a positive doping outcome.

“Experimental data show this isn’t the case,” responds Child. “As the benefits of colostrum become more widely understood more athletes will use colostrum, to maintain gut health during training and competition.” With recent research suggesting elite marathon runners have a different gut microbiome profile than slower runners, Child has a point.

So staring into 220’s crystal ball, how will the racing landscape look, both at elite and age-group level?

“I hope we see a return to real challenges not just courses designed for personal bests and fast times. It seems many of the very hard races, such as St Croix, no longer exist, as participation is directed towards flatter, faster parcours. The personality of the sport has changed. Why? Maybe it’s simply being driven by the search for increasing numbers.”

Who is this multisport masochist? None other than Craig Alexander, who revelled in pain, winning the Ironman World Championships in Kona three times. We suspect Alexander might get his way with the omnipresence of gravel bikes signalling a new era of tough, gnarly triathlons –  especially in the UK. The mix of our country’s roads becoming ever more clogged and the growth of gravel bikes, which everyone will own as the perfect bike for commuting, training and fun, will see off-road races become the norm, not the exception.

Go local

Then again, urban roads will still have a role. “City centres offer the best short-course experience,” says Nick Rusling, organiser of the Windsor Triathlon. “The city-centre, closed-roads business model hasn’t worked
so far particularly well outside London. It feels like there’s something to achieve here in the UK’s great cities.” The
banning of cars from city centres many years previous will grant Rusling his wish.

Rusling also suggests there’ll be fewer premium-quality races, but a growth in local events. This parochial focus will open the sport to all, heightened by Beer’s left-field idea. “I envisage events along the lines of ParkRun meets multisport where ad-hoc events change small venues each week,” he explains. “One week a sprint tri using the park lake, the next a short-lapped duathlon with run-bike-run-bike-run format. All short, minimal admin and designed to mix up weekend mornings.”

This eclectic mix will fire up multisport festivals but what about the vicarious side? Truly sticking in the mainstream’s consciousness requires excitement and simplicity.
“It’s hard to predict where that side of things will go but it’s worth watching Super League,” says Rusling. “It’s T20 for triathlon but the next two years are vital to see if it’s economically sustainable. Race coverage also needs to embrace technology the way Dimension Data has supported the Tour de France. This dimension helps overcome tedious minutes when attacks aren’t happening or the lead is clear cut.”

Cue immersive use of virtual reality but how far down the virtual path will tri walk? Will we compete against each other but never physically rub shoulders or clash flailing arms? “Never,” affirms Rusling. “Getting your hair wet, enjoying the wind and seeing the scenery with your eyes will always beat any other experience – and that’ll be forever.


 
 

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