What triathlon gear upgrades make you faster?

From aerobars and deep-rim wheels to wearing the colour red, we look at the kit choices that’ll deliver a new PB this season – guaranteed

No more flapping

You’ve done the training, refined your aero set-up on your five-grand Cervélo and are ready to race. All that’s left is to attach your race number. Everything’s fine beneath your wetsuit but, as soon as you exit T1, that race number’s violently billowing in the wind. Goodbye marginal gains.

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But it needn’t be so, according to the team at Nopinz. Instead of creating drag and tearing holes through your tri-suit via good old safety pins, they’ve designed the SpeedWallet – a waterproof, transparent holder that contains your race number and sticks to your suit. No edges are exposed, so no extra drag.

Athletes prepare for Hever Castle Triathlon

Research in 220 back in 2009 showed that a flapping race number added 27 seconds to a triathlete’s 40km time when generating 270 watts of power. That’s potentially more than you’d gain from some aero equipment and clearly much cheaper. Could this spell the end of the race organiser’s safety-pin holder of choice – Tupperware?!

Tri-suits

The best tri-suits clamp everything into place and are the true clothing of choice for keen triathletes. Whether one or two piece, though the latter comes with a government health warning – are versatile cuts of material(s) that can cope with the varying demands of swim, bike and run.

Part of their multisport functionality is mooted as aerodynamics – and, as long as you achieve the desired close fit, there might be something in it. “A baggy suit or clothing combination could provide more than 20% drag compared to a good one,” says Total Sim’s Lewis. Just don’t waste those marginal gains by stapling a race number to your top…

Tri-suits: what to look for

Shave your legs

In many quarters, a shaved man’s leg is the source of much Alpha ridicule. Not in triathlon, where a shorn limb’s a badge of honour. But why? The professionals contest that smooth skin’s easier for masseuses and medics to work with. The aerodynamic benefits of “keeping trim’ are, however, less well known.

Tri bike and razor

But, according to the head of research at Specialized, science says Tim Don and co need a shave. Mark Cote tested triathletes and cyclists in Spec’s wind tunnel after rating their hairiness on the Chewbacca scale.

First up was the hairy, multiple Wildflower winner Jesse Thomas. At the start of the test he registered nine out of 10 on the scale. After two 60-second tests, Thomas was shaved and retested. Cote observed an aerodynamic difference that equated to 79 seconds over 40km. He tested five other athletes over a six-month period and an average 70-second saving came back, though Cote conceded the subject pool wasn’t large enough for a significant conclusion.

Aero helmets

Of all the aerodynamic claims, those made for aero helmets are the simplest to understand. That slick teardrop shape flows seamlessly to your back for a smaller, sharper figure that offers less resistance through the air – an effect boosted by no or few vents.

Aero helmet

Numerous studies support the claims, with one study out of MIT Wind Tunnel in America showing up to 8% drag saving compared to vented helmets, equating to shaving off up to a minute over a 40km bike leg. That said, that was at 30mph. About 4% less drag is the norm, but remember: not only do you need a proficient aero position, there’s also the potential for overheating.

Related

Aero cycling helmets: how to choose the right shape

Aero helmets for triathletes – how and why to use them

Wetsuit panels

Aussie wetsuit manufacturer 2XU introduced forearm catch panels to the world in 2009. “Essentially it’s down to greater drag coefficient,” says 2XU’s UK marketing manager, Mike Martin. “The catch panels increase this drag and it’s this resistance that’s needed to pull more water and so go further with each stroke.”

Triathlon wetsuit
Triathlon wetsuit

2XU also uses nano-silicone coating on the reverse of the panels to reduce drag coefficient once the catch is complete. Fans are using them in their droves, while purists argue they provide an unfair technological advantage.

2XU isn’t the only company using such panels, but there are caveats. If the panels aren’t aligned properly, only half is presented to the water. Some athletes have also had issues with fitting. Most importantly, your swim technique and fitness need to be of the highest order.

Read our guide on what to look for in a tri wetsuit

“If you’ve something like a lazy horizontal forearm, even with the panels you’ll see very little propulsion,” says Dan Bullock, head coach of Swim for Tri. “Strength’s also an issue,” Bullock continues. “My partner, [top age-grouper] Vicky Gill, wasn’t strong enough to swim all 3.8km of an Ironman in them because it’s a huge load on the shoulders.”

Gill has a 9:42hrs bronze medal at last year’s European Long-Distance Champs, so she’s no weakling. But if you’ve ticked off the physical checklist, that increased drag coefficient could pay dividends.

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What gear do you think gives the biggest gains?