Inspect A Gadget

With its three disciplines, triathlon lends itself to a bewildering number of high-tech bells and specialist whistles. But what do you really need?


Posted: 23 November 2009

Triathlon is a gadget-lovers' dream: you could buy something new every day of the year and still have plenty of bits and pieces to ask for in your letter to Santa. From heavy-duty wetsuits to lightweight aero bars, and innumerable shiny items in-between, a triathlete's budget can easily become stretched to breaking point. Most bits of kit claim to make our bikes lighter, our legs faster and our training more effective, but you may wonder if you can be a triathlete and stay on the good side of your bank manager.

Here's our pick of the kit you simply must have, and how to adapt kit you may already own to make the most of your training and racing. 

Garmin Forerunner

A Garmin is a GPS-enabled sports watch that measures time, heart rate, intervals, distance, pace, speed and calories. It's packed with amazing features to help you get more out of your training, such as the Virtual Partner (race against it to improve your times) or interval option, so you can boost speed without heading to a running track. The unit is also compatible with a bike's cadence sensor. You can download sessions to your computer in order to pore over them, if that's the sort of thing you're into. We tried out the 405CX and, like most Garmin owners, already can't imagine training without it.

Essential?

You could certainly train without one, but if you're a fan of analysing every detail of your sessions, a Garmin should be on your wish list. The beauty of it is there's so much in one (small) unit.

The alternative

A heart-rate monitor will track heart-rate zones and give calorie information, and a GPS unit will tell you where you've been. You could even make use of free online mapping tools like Google Earth or www.mapometer.com.

Wattbike

The Wattbike has been developed over the last seven years through detailed consultation with British Cycling. It's designed to be an exercise bike unit that mimics real cycling. It captures a huge range of performance data that is otherwise only available to elite athletes from tests and is great for evaluating power and measuring improvement. Its on-board monitor allows you to view your statistics as you cycle, and you can also connect it to your computer and analyse data to your heart's content. It's also compatible with most heart-rate monitors. The Wattbike costs less than some triathletes spend on a second road-bike frame. 

Essential?

No, but it is unique - and the only static bike endorsed by British Cycling. Claire Johnson, an age-group triathlete, says, "The Wattbike is useful for learning about your cycling technique, the balance between left and right leg and generated power - and it does make you focus on your training, as you become obsessed with watching the data."

The alternative

If you want to measure wattage and accurately evaluate a range of performance data, there isn't an alternative. You could pay to be tested periodically at a sports performance lab, or use a power meter,
but they involve tinkering with your existing bike to augment or replace elements of the setup. 

Heart-rate monitor

A heart-rate monitor consists of a chest strap and transmitter and a receptor unit (usually worn as a watch). The best-known brands are Polar, Suunto and Timex, and prices start at around £60 for a basic unit. "Heart-rate monitors are a valuable tool because they enable us to measure, control and replicate sessions - and be objective," says Duncan Scott, Level 3 BTF coach at www.TheTriLife.co.uk. "It can be difficult to stay in a low heart-rate zone. Athletes often complain that as soon as they start to run, their heart rate is up to 80 per cent of their maximum. It's useful to learn how to calculate heart-rate zones and react to the data. However, no one should rely too heavily on one piece of kit. It's worth falling back on rate of perceived exertion (RPE) from time to time."

Essential?

No - plenty of professionals don't train to heart rate, and there's nothing to say you should, either.  

The alternative

Use a watch, your finger and good old-fashioned maths. Use your index finger to locate your pulse (below your jaw or at your wrist) and count for 15 seconds. Multiply by four to get your heart rate. This isn't always convenient, and it's much easier to get a true reading of your resting heart rate if you use a monitor.

Turbo trainer

A turbo trainer is a unit you slot your bike into for at-home interval sessions, short rides or simply avoiding filthy weather. Tim Don, 2006 ITU World Champion says, "Given typical British winter, I'd urge everyone to get a turbo trainer. You can do a quality session in half the time it would take you out on the road. You don't have to negotiate traffic or junctions, just get on and ride. You won't be exposing your bike to all the winter grit on the roads, and if you think about the cost of decent winter bike clothing, buying a turbo makes sense. Cheaper units are noisier, so if you want to watch a DVD while you train, consider paying a little extra for a fluid version." Look for brand names such as Tacx, CycleOps and Elite and expect to pay at least £90. Ask a coach for turbo sessions or use your knowledge of run training to recreate interval workouts.  

Essential?

You can do your bike training without one and remain fit but if you add one or two turbo sessions to your training regime you'll see a difference in your race times. 

The alternative

If you don't have a turbo trainer, try a spin session at the gym, a solid static bike or a dedicated interval session out on the road. The downside with spin or gym bikes is that they're set up differently to your own bike. Meanwhile, the challenge of trying to do speed work on the road is traffic. And wind. And road junctions. And rain.

Tri bars

Also known as aero bars, tri bars extend out in front of you on the bike, giving you the option to flatten out into a more aerodynamic position as you ride. They can take some getting used to, and some people just don't feel confident bowling along in traffic or among other competitors while leaning down on
their bars. On the other hand, being more aerodynamic will make you faster for the same amount of effort.

Essential?

Absolutely not. There are no rules to say you need to have tri bars on your bike, just as there are no rules to say you must have a road bike, slick wheels or bladed spokes. All these things can be considered the icing on the cake, and will help you to go faster. There are plenty of cheaper routes to extra speed, especially if you're new to the sport: consistent training and race experience are two of the best ways to improve. 

The alternative

Consider spending the cost of aero bars on something you know will help improve your times, such as a couple of one-on-one swimming lessons, or tri-club membership). You can always revisit the idea of tri bars once you've nailed the basics.

Race shoes

Triathlon race trainers are lightweight pull-on shoes designed to slash your running time. With features such as heel-loops and elastic laces, you can pull them on in seconds and be through the "run-out" exit while your neighbour is still struggling to tie a lace. Turn to page 43 for our race-shoe roundup. Race shoes often come in bright colours, so they might also help you to find your kit in transition. 

Essential?

No. In fact, not everyone should wear such lightweight racing shoes. If you're light, biomechanically sound and haven't been told to avoid fast, neutral shoes, consider investing in a pair that you save for races. But avoid a pointless spending splurge by first seeking the advice of a gait expert.

The alterative

Modify your favourite trainers to make them quicker to pull on in T2. Use elastic laces (also known as lock laces) in place of your existing shoelaces. These dispense with the need to tighten and tie laces once the shoe is on. Cut a short length of spare shoelace and stitch it firmly onto the outside of the back of the shoes to create a loop to help you pull on the shoe.

Bike shoes and clipless pedals

Most triathletes use clipless pedals - rather confusingly, the name for the unit that clips your shoes to the pedals. Being clipped-in makes your pedal stroke more powerful - you can pull up as well as push down, creating a circular action that ensures all your effort is being put to good use. Using rigid cycling shoes will help transmit more power through your stroke. Shoes and pedals cost at least £40 and replacement cleats (the bit on the bottom of the shoe that clips in) cost at least £15.

Essential?

You can cycle in trainers, but you'll find life easier with bike shoes and clipless pedals. Your bike times should come down with no extra effort.

The alternative

If you're nervous about being so attached to your bike, try cycling with trainers and flat pedals or toe-clips (into which you push the toe-box of your trainer). Cycling in running shoes will shorten their lifespan. 

Paddles, kickboards and pull buoys

Gadgetry extends even to triathlon's most uncluttered, though most technical, discipline, the swim. Most swimming pools will allow the use of kickboards (floats that isolate the legs), pull buoys (to isolate the arms) and paddles or gloves to add power to your swim stroke. Zoggs and Speedo are good brands to look for when selecting swim kit, and you can pick up paddles and floats from as little as £10.   

Essential?

Training tools aren't essential for swimming, and some argue you're better off spending your time focusing on good technique and interval training.

The alternative

Forgo the gadgets and focus on structured swim sessions. Work on intervals to build power, endurance and speed. If you feel you need one extra bit of kit, try a hybrid kick board/pull buoy. "I always take this versatile bit of equipment to pool sessions," says Darryl Carter, long-distance triathlete and coach. "It's useful for days when my legs are tired or if I want to simulate the buoyancy of the wetsuit."   »

The Essentials

Bike helmet

Approved with ANSI Z90.4, SNELL B90, EN1078 or an equivalent national standard. 

Bike 

The lighter, the better, but you can enter a race on any roadworthy bike of the correct dimensions (see www.britishtriathlon.org for the rules). 

Run shoes 

You can make them quicker to pull on by using elasticated laces. 

...and, for the ladies,

a good sports bra.  

Sports bars, gels and drinks

It's essential to fuel and refuel, but it's up to you whether you buy products or make your own. "Quite a few triathletes either can't tolerate drinks and powders or would simply prefer more natural options," says sports nutritionist Lucy-Ann Prideaux (www.simply-nutrition.co.uk). "Being inventive with juicing, blending fresh fruits and vegetables, or making fast and simple homemade energy bars from raw nuts, seeds and dried fruits can provide higher amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants."

The jury's out

Between the essentials and the wish list are a few items that could improve your performance if you know how to get the most out of them, but you might be better off spending your money elsewhere. 

Race wheels

Specific wheels for fast training and race day. They take some getting used to and can be expensive. 

Tri bars and clipless pedals

Becoming more aerodynamic and being clipped in will shave seconds off your kilometre splits but consider how much use you will get out of them if you don't feel confident.


Desert-island gadgets

No, we’re not suggesting you start training on a desert island, but we did ask three triathletes what they’d save if their house was on fire…

Tim Don, 2006 ITU World Champion

"I'm pretty fit at the moment so I reckon I'd have time to save two things. I'd have my espresso machine in one hand (I love my coffee) and my Garmin 301XT in the other. It's the new waterproof Garmin, perfect for triathlon - you can use it in the pool as well as during rainy or particularly sweaty training sessions."  

Andrea Whitcombe, former Commonwealth Games and Olympic athlete 

"It would have to be a power meter that measures wattage on the bike. I find sessions using my CycleOps PowerTap to be invaluable. I don't love going out for hours on the bike; I'd rather do a tailored session and get it done quickly. Measuring wattage shows you how hard you're going; there's no fooling yourself."

Helen Jenkins, 2008 ITU World Champion

"I can't go without my Suunto T6C heart-rate monitor at this stage of the season - I use it for all my quality sessions - turbos, tempo runs and so on. It's my most important training tool and looks great in the new Red Arrow colour."


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