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10 Tips for Achieving a Better Aero Position

how to get aero on the triathlon bike

Imagine two cyclists pushing the same watts – the rider with optimal aero position could shave off 2-8 minutes on an 18-mile ride and potentially an entire hour in an Ironman, compared to a cyclist with a subpar bike fit. 

Experts even argue that aerodynamics play a crucial role, influencing performance even at speeds as modest as 12-14 mph. Naturally, the faster you go, the more impactful aerodynamics become.

An astounding 85% of your cycling power is dedicated to overcoming air resistance, highlighting its pivotal role. Rolling resistance claims 10%, and the drivetrain’s friction takes up the remaining 5%.

The good news is that optimizing aerodynamics offers a pathway to “free” speed – a topic we’ll delve into further below. So, let’s explore some invaluable tips for achieving an improved aerodynamic position and unlocking your full cycling potential.

1. Invest in an Annual Bike Fit

Aero Bike Fit on Trainer

The importance of an annual bike fit cannot be overstated for triathletes and time trialists.

This proactive approach ensures that your aero position is continually optimized, promoting efficiency and comfort. An optimal bike fit not only enhances your performance and power output but also acts as a preventive measure against potential injuries

Aligning your bike setup with your evolving body dynamics for sustained well-being and peak performance. Additional benefits include:

Optimized Efficiency and Comfort

Regular bike fits ensure that your aero position is tailored to your body, promoting optimal efficiency and comfort. Doing this annually allows for adjustments to be made as your body’s flexibility and mobility change over time.

A well-fitted bike minimizes the risk of discomfort, pain, or injury, making your rides more enjoyable and sustainable in the long run.

Enhanced Performance

A properly fitted bike can significantly enhance your cycling performance. Small tweaks in saddle height, handlebar reach, or pedal cleat alignment can result in improved power transfer and aerodynamics. 

By maximizing your biomechanical advantages, you can ride more efficiently and potentially achieve higher speeds with the same effort, contributing to better race times or personal records.

Since up to 85% of aerodynamic drag is caused by the rider, it’s critical to optimize your position on the bike. The key equation to remember is:

Speed = Comfort + Power + Aerodynamics – Friction – Drag. 

2. Establish a Comfortable and Sustainable Position

better aero position on triathlon bike

This brings us to another critical aspect of aerodynamics, closely tied to the significance of annual bike fits the sustainability of your position throughout the event.

While achieving the most aerodynamic posture is crucial, it becomes equally important to ensure that this position is sustainable for the entire duration of your event. Even with the most aerodynamic setup, constantly shifting out of your position to stretch and readjust can result in significant time losses.

As Matt Steinmetz from 51 Speed Shop emphasizes, comfort is the key to sustaining your position throughout the event. If discomfort hinders your ability to maintain your posture, the advantages of aerodynamics become inconsequential. It’s worth noting that the time trial/triathlon position is not inherently natural for the body. 

While improvements in flexibility and training can enhance your ability to sustain an aerodynamic posture over time, attempting to force yourself into an uncomfortable position may ultimately impede your speed.

Considering these aspects, annual bike fits play a crucial role in aligning your bike setup with your evolving body dynamics, ensuring a sustainable and aerodynamic position that contributes to improved performance.

Saddle Position & Chamois 

Choosing the right saddle is a subjective decision, and it’s advisable to experiment with several options before settling on the most suitable saddle for you. The choice of chamois also plays a significant role. 

If you frequently experience issues such as chafing, saddle sores, and numbness, opting for a less bulky chamois is recommended. Bulky chamois can potentially bunch up in sensitive areas, causing more discomfort than relief. Opting for a thin, quick-drying chamois, such as those found in triathlon shorts, can contribute to maintaining a comfortable and aerodynamic position.

One common error observed in new riders involves sitting on the bike seat as if it were a chair. Aside from being suboptimal for aerodynamics, this posture can lead to discomfort quickly. Achieving a more comfortable and aerodynamic position involves tilting the pelvis forward to the maximum extent possible while maintaining comfort. 

Although this adjustment may sound challenging initially, adopting this posture proves remarkably effective for both speed and comfort. Additionally, it can alleviate tension in the spine when assuming an aerodynamic position

3. Your Back Type Matters

triathlon bike aero position

For an extensive period, John Cobb has held a prominent position as one of the most sought-after bike fitters globally. Often dubbed “Mr. Wind Tunnel,” he gained renown for collaborating with Lance Armstrong during his early Tour de France campaigns and numerous other elite professional triathletes. 

John employs physiological indicators and muscle activation points to assess body position power, utilizing this information as a foundation for his adjustments. He categorizes riders into two distinct position types, labeling them as “A Back” and “B Back” riders, which significantly influences his decision-making process.

Approximately 25% of riders fall into the “A Back” category. These individuals generally exhibit higher athleticism and possess good flexibility in their mid and lower backs.

The compression of the hip angle or diaphragm is less of a concern for “A Back” riders, given their flexibility and strength. They find comfort on bikes with slacker seat angles, typically ranging from 74 to 78 degrees, and can comfortably sit on the front of the saddle.

On the other hand, “B Back” riders, constituting the majority, have less flexibility in the lower back but can attain aerodynamics comparable to their “A Back” counterparts. These riders often have a broader elbow positioning, relying on shoulder flexibility.

A crucial aspect for them is maintaining an optimal “lat wing” angle, ensuring the latissimus dorsi muscle is as close to horizontal to the shoulder joint as possible, aiding in airflow over the hips.

According to John Cobb, enhancing pelvic rotation is paramount for improving aerodynamics in “B Back” riders. The more forward the hip rotation, the flatter the back, thereby enhancing aerodynamic efficiency.

In the interim, “B Back” riders can consider utilizing a frame with a steep seat angle (ranging from 75 to 82 degrees) or reversing the seat post to open up the hip angle, facilitating increased power transfer between the thighs and upper body.

4. Consider Shorter Cranks on Your Bike

shorter cranks

Triathletes should give careful consideration to incorporating shorter cranks into their cycling setup, challenging the prevalent notion that longer levers are indispensable for power generation. 

Contrary to common belief, the length of the cranks doesn’t directly affect power output. Instead, opting for shorter cranks can yield positive outcomes, notably enhancing aerodynamics during the upper portion of the pedal stroke and providing more breathing space around the diaphragm.

This proves particularly beneficial for those experiencing tight hip angles at the peak of the pedal stroke, alleviating breathing difficulties. Moreover, shorter cranks contribute to a smoother transition to running off the bike, placing less strain on the hips.

Additionally, they can play a role in reducing knee pain, offering a comprehensive solution for triathletes seeking improved performance, comfort, and injury prevention. Therefore, if you encounter challenges related to breathing or knee discomfort, considering the switch to shorter cranks may prove advantageous for your overall triathlon experience.

5. Should You Slam Your Stem?

A few years ago, the hashtag #slamthestem gained popularity within the cycling community, particularly among bike fitters and riders. Notably, John Cobb has gained almost legendary status for his inclination toward slamming the stem, a trend followed by Phillip Shama, the bike fit expert from Shama Cycles in Houston.

While the act of slamming or lowering the front end of the bicycle can effectively decrease frontal drag by lowering the head position, it comes with its set of consequences. The choice to slam your stem may result in an unstable riding position, potentially proving unsustainable over extended distances.

If you begin to experience discomfort, particularly tension in your shoulders or neck, or notice obstruction in your vision, it might be prudent to initially adopt a taller position and gradually work towards a lower stance as you accrue more training miles.

6. Prioritize Safety and Stability

Aero position triathlon training safety

In the realm of aerodynamics and cycling, Barry Anderson from Cyclologic emphasizes that achieving optimal aerodynamics involves more than simply lowering the bike’s front end or eliminating spacers.

The primary principle underscores the importance of establishing a stable position on both the pedals and saddle, allowing the rider to generate power effectively from both sides of the bike.

Stability on the bike not only contributes to enhanced aerodynamics but also ensures safety. It’s crucial to bear in mind that your position and the arrangement of components can influence the bike’s handling. For instance, a substantial stack between the headset and aerobars may lead to understeering. 

Additionally, maintaining visibility down the road is essential. While time trialists might focus on putting their heads down and pushing hard, triathletes, who often train outdoors, must remain aware of their surroundings, including cars and fellow riders.

7. Breathing In the Aero Position 

A crucial aspect when improving your aero position is breathing capacity. When a cyclist adopts a forward and aerodynamic stance, there’s a risk of compressing the diaphragm.

This compression can lead to elevated heart rate, increased ventilation, and additional stress on the overall system. It’s essential to bear in mind that finding a balance between efficient breathing and pursuing aerodynamic advantages is key.

8. Selecting the Proper Bike and Gear

triathlon bike aerodynamics

The choices you make in your equipment can result in substantial time, wattage, and energy savings during your course. Both cycling and triathlon are known for being sports that require considerable financial investment.

To spare you from potential pain, discomfort, and post-purchase regrets, it’s advisable to consult a knowledgeable bike fitter before investing in your bike. A proficient fitter can align your body geometry with frames that suit you best, all while considering your budget. Though it may entail an initial cost of $200-300, the investment in a good fitter can ultimately save you both money and time.

Once you have your new bike and are gearing up for racing, you’ll likely explore options for aerodynamic upgrades. Wondering which upgrades are both crucial and cost-effective? The table below, derived from Barry Anderson’s wind tunnel research, can provide valuable insights:

EquipmentTime Saved Approximate Cost 
Aero Helmet 67” $200+
Time Trial Suit134” $250+
Wind Tunnel Positioning 56” $1500-3000
Aerobars 122” $200+
Aero Frame 17” $3000
Shoe Covers 30” $50
Rear Disc 29” $1000
Front/Tri Spoke42$700

My introduction to racing involved a basic road bike, and during my inaugural sprint triathlon, I achieved an average speed of 21 miles per hour (I may have borrowed some wheels for an extra boost).

By my second race, a 40k Olympic-distance triathlon, I incorporated aerobars I snagged on sale for $70, resulting in an improved average speed of 23 mph.

Crunching the numbers (assuming you purchase aerobars new), this straightforward upgrade can trim your time by 122 seconds for a $200 investment. Breaking it down, that’s $1.64 per second of savings, establishing it as the optimal financial and performance enhancement.

Moving up the cost scale in your pursuit of enhanced performance, you’ll observe that an aerodynamic frame shaves off just 17 seconds over a 40k distance, making it a relatively costly option. On the other hand, an aerodynamic kit proves to be a more affordable investment, offering over two minutes in potential time savings.

According to Jesse Frank from the Specialized Wind Tunnel, wearing a windbreaker on a cool day could potentially cost you four minutes in an Olympic-distance triathlon and up to 15 minutes in an Ironman triathlon.

aerodynamic cyclist in a time trial helmet

Investing in an aero helmet is also advisable. While numerous models flood the market, regardless of your brand preference, opt for a helmet that snugly wraps around your ears. The aerodynamic effects significantly depend on the shapes of your face, shoulders, and back.

While aerodynamic wheels may contribute additional weight, the potential aerodynamic benefits can often counterbalance this drawback. A standard front wheel typically incurs a cost of about 30-40 watts at a speed of 20 mph. In contrast, a high-quality aerodynamic 3-4 spoke wheel may only cost 15-25 watts, and a full disc wheel can reduce this to just 5-10 watts. In simpler terms, upgrading your wheels strategically can result in power savings of up to 10%. 

In many conditions, though, favoring at least a rear disc wheel is often advantageous. As always, the decisions on wheel selection will be contingent on the race day conditions, and tools like Best Bike Split can assist riders in making informed choices for optimal performance.

9. Choosing Your Hydration Arrangement

Trek Speed Concept SLR 9 Triathlon Bike

Ideally, an Ironman athlete should have a bottle strategically placed between their aerobars and positioned behind the seat post. While bottles behind the seat post offer optimal aerodynamics, reaching around to grab one interrupts the aero position, essentially slowing down the racer.

The most effective and practical location for easy access while maintaining an aero position is between the aerobars—sometimes, this placement can even enhance aerodynamics compared to having no bottle present! Conversely, the least favorable location to store a water bottle is on the frame, disrupting the wind flow.

Crafting your ideal aero position is a personal journey, requiring a balance between sustainability, efficiency, and practicality for your body. Keep in mind that your position should not only enhance performance but also be friendly to your wallet as you strive for your best performance yet!

10. Should You Shave?

What about personal grooming? According to Jesse Frank from Specialized, the extent of natural hairiness plays a role. Shaving your legs, depending on your hairiness, could potentially save you over a minute in a 40k race.

Additionally, shaving your arms could add another 12 seconds to your time savings. When it comes to facial hair, however, our heads aren’t particularly aerodynamic, so shaving facial hair doesn’t seem to make any noticeable difference.

Conclusion

Triathlon success goes beyond pedaling hard; it’s about being aerodynamically savvy. Improving your body’s streamlining not only boosts performance but also saves precious time.

Whether you’re a seasoned triathlete or a beginner, embracing aerodynamics is a key ingredient to maximizing your performance on the bike.

William Ritter Triathlon Coach
William Ritter
Endurance Coach at Fly Tri Racing | Website

William Ritter, from Tyler Texas, enjoys working with athletes that are looking to improve their performance in triathlon or running. He specializes in coaching triathletes and runners of all abilities. Ritter’s coaching is extensive and focused on the individual athlete, blending the art and science of coaching. Ritter is the Head Coach at Fly Tri Racing with over 13 years of coaching experience and 27 years of competitive experience. Coach Ritter is a USA Triathlon Level II Short & Long Course Coach, USA Triathlon Level 1 Youth & Junior Coach, USA Track & Field Level II Endurance & Youth Coach and USATF Cross Country Specialist. Including a TrainingPeaks Level 2 and Power Certified Coach, Ironman U, Tri Sutto Coaching Certified, USA Triathlon, Cycling Coach.