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Coffee with Coach: Is More ($) Better?

Date: 
11/12/2008 - 15:38

September/October 2008 By Mike Arenberg. When it comes to training I’m often asked, “Is more better?” Recently I was asked an additional question regarding equipment for triathlons: “Is more faster?” No other topic is more confusing or contentious than equipment used in triathlons, especially in regard to swimming and cycling. Is a $5,000 bike truly faster than a $1,500 bike? Is a $500 wetsuit faster than a $300 wetsuit? How much faster? The premise has always been: the most expensive gear is necessary to be the fastest performer.

The majority of triathletes out there aren’t attempting to qualify for Kona, or age group world championships. They’re out there to compete with themselves against their own personal bests, and enjoy the camaraderie of the triathlon environment. Many look for shortcuts to those personal bests through purchase of expensive equipment vs. spending a little more time training, or making their training time more efficient by learning more about exercise physiology. It’s my belief that you’ll gain more by spending more time training, as well as more money on a heart-rate monitor, rather than a more expensive bike or wetsuit. Let’s get specific …

Bike

When it comes to the bike, the fact is that it’s the engine on the bike that’s most important. Bike cost has little to do with bike speed. Your performance on a $1,500 vs. a $5,000 bike is primarily related to the engine (you), not the ride (the bike). At any race distance, the bike becomes a factor only after years of training and racing. Better components mean better shifting, more durability and a few paper clips worth of weight savings. How much that weight savings means in terms of time over 40K or 112 miles is marginal at best.

A Shimano Dura Ace group weighs 2,374 grams, or 5.23 pounds, and costs $2,500. Compare that to a Shimano Ultegra, which weighs 2,703 grams, or 5.95 pounds and costs $1,200. You’re going to spend twice as much for a weight savings of less than ¾ of a pound, and you’ll get only slightly better shifting and a little more durability. If you spend your money on a good training program, you’ll reap much greater rewards.

However, there’s one big difference you make by spending some money on your bike: good wheels. If you have money to spend, then a set of light, aerodynamic wheels is the biggest bang for your buck, and where the most time gains can be made. Even so, the time gains are not what you might think for spending $1,500 to $2,000.

At the top end of the spectrum a set of Zipp 1080s ($2,500) will save you 36–38 seconds per hour over a set of Zipp 404s ($2,000). A set of box rimmed 20–30 spoke wheels are about 30 seconds slower over 40K than a set of aerodynamic wheels. The cost of a good set of box rimmed wheels is about $500. A set of deep rimmed wheels can cost upward of $1,600–2,000. A $1,000–1,500 investment for a 30-second savings in a 40K time trial. Where it starts to pay off is when you’re talking about speeds around 25 mph. A box rimmed wheel (18-spoke front/20-spoke rear) requires 312 watts to maintain 25 mph, while a set of aero wheels requires only 294 watts to maintain 25 mph. A 10+ watt savings could mean as much as 2–3 minutes over 40K. Again, this depends on your goals and the level at which you race. If you’re competing for a top spot in an age group triathlon, Ironman or time trial, the investment may be worth it to you.

Zipp did extensive testing in a wind tunnel comparing multiple Zipp models with a set of Mavic Ksyrium wheels, costing $600. The following numbers are based on time savings over 40K, at a constant output of 300 watts.

Model Cost Time Savings
Zipp 202 $2,100 42 seconds
Zipp 404 $2,100 62 seconds
Zipp 808 $2,300 72 seconds
Zipp 1080F $2,500 108 seconds
Sub9 rear (WHAT’S THIS???)

Anyone reading this can do the math and answer their own question. Is it worth it to spend an extra $1,500 to $2,000 to gain between 42 and 108 seconds over 40 kilometers?

An aero helmet is another item you see cyclists spending a lot of money on. There’s about a 4% savings, or 2 minutes to 2 minutes 20 seconds over 25 miles with an aero helmet versus a regular cycling helmet. Other areas of time savings: Aero frame bike versus standard is 1 to 2½ minutes over 40K. Aero fork versus round fork about 30 seconds.

Make your equipment work properly for you: Spending some money at a bike shop to be properly fitted into the aero position could save you up to 6 minutes (aero position versus standard road position) in a 40K time trial.

Swim

Almost all wetsuit manufacturers have a couple of grades of neoprene, which doesn’t affect durability, but drastically affects the fit and function. A more expensive suit is made of a more flexible neoprene, which helps the suit go on and come off more smoothly. The expensive suits also have more pieces, contributing to a more tailored fit and improved range of motion. Many people purchase a sleeveless suit if they’re new to triathlon, as sleeveless is less expensive. The benefits of a more expensive full suit include an increase in buoyancy as more of your body is covered in neoprene, less drag due to a tighter seal around your wrists, shoulders and arms, and the ability to swim comfortably in colder temperatures.

Recently I tested a Blue Seventy Helix full suit and did a relatively unscientific study of my own on a lake where I swim a lot of miles, comparing it to an older Ironman Vo2 Stealth version. Over a 1-mile lake loop, the $500+ Helix was about 60 seconds faster than the older Vo2 Stealth. Now the question has to be asked, do I want to spend $500 on a new wet suit for approximately a 2-minute gain in a 2.4 mile swim leg (or a 45-second gain in an Olympic distance race 2–3 hours long) in a race 10–17 hours long? DOES THIS MAKE SENSE? The time savings between a wetsuit swim and a nonwetsuit swim is about 3–5 seconds per 100 meters, or about 45–90 seconds over 1,500 meters. The better swimmer you are, the smaller the difference.

So, do you spend more money to be only a few minutes faster? That’s a question each individual needs to address according to their personal goals. A person with the goal of simply finishing won’t care how many minutes are saved with a more expensive wet suit, while a serious and experienced competitor may decide to take the financial plunge. Just don’t expect to ride or swim like a pro just because you’ve got the same gear!
In the end, the decision to spend money to improve race time is up to the individual and individual goals. Money could be better spent on improved training techniques with a heart rate monitor or power meter. Spending more time on training is going to get you more than spending additional money on equipment.




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