How can endurance athletes increase their bike speed without changing their training habits?
There are two ways to increase bike speed without changing training habits. One way is spending money on aerodynamic equipment and the other is to lose weight.
Think about how weight affects bike speed. Several studies exist out there relating pounds to increase or decrease in average bike speeds. For this comparison, we’ll use an article by Dr. Linda Kennedy MS SLP ND.
Dr. Kennedy suggests looking at VO2 max as it relates to weight, height, BMI and Body Composition.
Simply stated, VO2 max is volume (ml) of oxygen consumed per minute at peak physical exertion per kg of body weight. For this scenario, say we have an athlete that weighs 175 lbs (79.4 kg) and has an oxygen consumption peak of 4,000 ml. The VO2 max would be 4,000 ml / 79.4 kg, or 50.4 ml/kg. This falls into the decent range. If the athlete loses weight and maintains that oxygen peak, VO2 max would increase. Assume they lose 10 pounds, 4,000 / 74.8 = 53.5 ml/kg. That now puts them in the better range. How does this relate to bike speed? Dr. Kennedy concludes from studies that the increase from 50.4 to 53.5 ml/kg would translate into 1mph faster average. This would roughly be 0.1 mph gained per pound of body weight lost.
So go out and lose as much weight as possible, right? Wrong. Some weight has to be left for lean tissue which is bone, muscle, water and everything else. If you lose too much, you start eating into lean muscle and decreasing your strength, negating increase gained by losing weight.
Look at Body Mass Index, BMI. BMI = body weight (lbs) x 703 / height (in) / height (in). For our example, assume the 175 pound rider is 6 feet tall. BMI = 175 x 703 / 72 / 72 = 23.7, which falls in the ideal range but could be improved.
As long as the ideal range for BMI is maintained, the “rule of thumb” of 0.1 mph gained per 1 pound lost will stay true. BMI at lower than ideal range could result in a loss of strength, and compromise immunity.
To determine the ideal weight to race at without sacrificing lean mass, focus on body composition, or percent body fat. Many methods exist on calculating body fat, pick one and go with it. For men, the lean range is 6-7% and the healthy range is 8-15%. For women, the lean range is 11-12% and the healthy range is 13-20%.
For our example athlete, at 175 lbs, assume 7.5% body fat and he wants to get to 6%. At 6%, 13 lbs is body fat and their lean body mass is 162 lbs. We know that lean weight = total weight – fat and fat = total weight times %. So, 162 = total weight times (1-0.06). Using some algebra skills, the new total weight is 172 lbs.
Total cost of losing 3 pounds is pretty minimal as all it requires is watching your caloric intake and adjusting your meals while maintaining your current training level. And now the athlete has gained 0.3 mph on the bike, not to mention what they will save on the run leg of a triathlon by not carrying around the 3 extra pounds.
Looking at aerodynamic equipment, many items can be modified or switched out on a bike to decrease drag and increase speed. Wheels, helmet, bike body type, handle bars, and components are a few items that can be bought and switched out to gain speed. These days, ZIPP wheels are the authority in aerodynamic wheel sets. A set of 404’s will run you $1200, 808’s are $2400, 1080’s are $2700 and just a disc wheel for the rear wheel goes around $2000. There are many types of brands out there and used is a good way to go, but any way you slice it, it’s going to hit the pocket book hard.
A good aero helmet will run about $150. Switching to a Time Trail or Triathlon bike frame will run $1200 to $2500 depending on the make and model. Aero bars can range from $600 to $1200. Lighter components can run from $1000 to $2100.
Conservatively you could throw down $3500 for an advanced aero setup. What does that get you? JM Nugent from Sportsci.org (Sportsci.org ) suggests it gets you around 2% gain for average cyclists to 3% for elite on wheel types. Assume conservatively a good aero helmet, aero bars and components gain you 5% more speed.
Assume a rider can average 20mph, gain 2.5% on wheels and 5% for all else, that would get them to 21.5 mph average. Over a Half Ironman or even an Olympic distance, that would be a nice gain. For a sprint, it may not really make a dent in the overall bike time.
In summary, losing 10 pounds could get you 1 mph, and losing $3500 could get you 1.5 mph (no increase for what losing the weight of $3500 from your wallet would get you).
Most multisport participants don’t have $3500 to part with. Could they afford a nice triathlon bike, an aero helmet and lose 5 pounds, probably. Take into consideration what types events this is all for. Increasing bike speed may not be as important for a sprint race versus a Half Ironman race. If you have the money, hit the local bike shop and load up! If spending the money isn’t an option, then don’t despair. Just think about that bowl of ice cream or that morning java stop and save some money, lost some weight, and bypass the sweets during race season.
Ryan Falkenrath writes the blog falkeetriathlon.blogspot.com, and is a married father of two, owner of three dogs and trying to balance life, work and multisport. Ryan has participated in multisport events since 2001. Ryan is also the Kansas Endurance Sports Examiner and you can read more of his triathlon thoughs HERE. Contact Ryan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on @TriJayhawkRyan
*All opinions expressed in this story are by the author and are not necessarily those of EMT.