Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bike Tool Kit Containers

Back in early October I did one of the Moment Cycle Sport shop rides on a rainy morning.  After the ride I expected my bike to be a mess, and I was not surprised my jersey had a mud stripe on the back, but I didn't expect my tool pouch to be thoroughly soaked along with everything inside it.  I looked around for a better tool pouch, but the ones I found were pretty much all alike.  So I put my tools in a Zip-loc bag and shoved them back into my old pouch.

After I installed my Oasis One-Twelve hydration system there was no longer room for a tool pouch under my seat, so I had to find an alternative, preferably something waterproof.  Since I was no longer using the bottle cages on my frame, the obvious approach would be to find a tool container that would fit into a bottle cage.  After lots of searching, I found the following products on the market:
  • The Cage Rocket Storage Pod, which is carried locally by REI, initially looked like an ideal solution, but it had two main problems:  First, it has a large base that keeps it from fitting into all bottle cages.  Second, the shape of the opening made it difficult to completely fill the interior. A minor additional concern is that REI didn't carry the waterproof version.
  • The Trek Waterbottle Softshell Pack isn't waterproof, and is soft enough that I was concerned it could pop out of a bottle cage.
  • The Bike Rider Tool Bottle is a screw-top bottle which seems to be available only in Australia.
  • The BBB Tool Can for Bike Tools is another screw-top bottle.
I also found two DIY solutions:
  • Use a 10 oz peanut butter jar.  This is the "free" version of the above screw-top bottles.  Unfortunately, I only get peanut butter in 40 oz jars, so this would cost me extra.  So I suppose technically it would belong in the list above.
  • Modify a 24 oz bike bottle.
Since I already had lots of 24 oz bike bottles, I decided to try that method before spending any money.  The instructions are dead simple:
  1. Cut away the indented ring.
  2. Fill the bottom with tools.
  3. Shove the top into the bottom.
Of course, few things in life are ever really that simple.  Making a flat, straight cut through a plastic bottle isn't easy (especially after a second cup of coffee).  I ruined one bottle figuring that out.  No worries: I had at least a dozen of them.

I next found that not all 24 oz bike bottles make good tool bottles.  First, you need at least 1" of bottle available between the indented ring and the cap, else the top won't stay straight when pushed into the bottom.  Scratch another bottle.  And the bottle must not taper too much near the cap, else there will be a gap around the top after it is shoved into the bottom.  One more bottle dies.

After destroying three bottles (and perfecting my bottle-slicing technique), I found some Bontrager bottles that had all the needed features.  Well, I did have some other bottles that also looked like good possibilities, but no way was I going to cut up one of my TCSD bottles!

My old tool pouch contained the following items, all of which fit nicely into my modified bottle:
  • 3 tire levers (2 aren't enough when my hands are numb)
  • 1 CO2 chuck
  • 2 CO2 cartridges
  • 1 tube
  • 1 patch kit
  • 1 set of Allen wrenches
  • 1 small rag (wrapped around the CO2 chuck)
When pushing the top into the bottom, I adjusted the height so it would be tightly retained by the bottle cage I was going to use.  Here's a closeup of the tool bottle on my bike:

As you can see, there nothing about it that shouts "Steal me!", which may be another advantage.

Since the whole search for a replacement tool container started after a rainy ride, I modified my other Bontrager bottle to hold a $5 plastic poncho.  That'll keep the mud stripe off my jersey!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Review: Oasis One-Twelve Hydration System

There are lots of "spendy" products out there for triathletes who have money burning a hole in their pockets and/or who may lack the time to shop around. There are $300 sunglasses that are indistinguishable from still high-end $60 models. Bike helmets that cost ten times more than an "ordinary" helmet with the exact same certifications. An expensive carbon bike accessory that saves weight equivalent to a sip of water, and is so delicate it will easily break if you rack your bike wrong.

You will find nothing but glowing reviews for these high-priced products. Which is as it should be: If you ignore cost, nearly all of these products truly are among the best available. Unfortunately, most top reviewers are either wealthy, work for a bike shop, or are reviewing a product sample, so they tend to discount the purchase cost in their reviews.

It takes extra effort to determine that some lower-cost products give up nothing significant (perhaps a tiny bit of style or weight), yet save 50% or even 80% of the cost. A common thread in many of my posts, particularly this one, is that I consistently advocate a value-based ("frugal") approach to triathlon, including not only equipment, but also things like training costs, supplements, and race fees.

For example, the $60 TCSD annual membership fee is easily the very best value in all of triathlon. The return on investment is so stunning, so overwhelming, that all other purchases are rip-offs in comparison.

Then there are those rare, unique, specialized products for which there literally is no competition. My personal example is my TitanFlex Al-Ti bike, the only product of its kind available that permitted me to continue in triathlon despite my bad back, and what's doubly amazing is that the TitanFlex is competitively priced.

Between the stratospherically-priced luxuries, the almost-free stuff, and the one-of-a-kind items, is a sea of products that offer varying levels of value compared to their competitors. Some of these products battle it out on the national stage, using marketing money to sponsor athletes and buy advertising in magazines and online. Other products eke out a meager existence with minimal marketing, selling one at a time here and there, relatively unknown and thus easily overlooked.

Among the minor players is the occasional gem of a product that deserves much wider recognition. The Oasis One-Twelve Hydration System is one such product.

Bicycle Hydration System Overview:

My involvement with "bicycle hydration systems" (a fancy name for anything on a bike that holds fluids that isn't a generic bike bottle) started when I got my Profile Design Airstryke clip-on aero bars, and saw how perfectly the Profile Design Aerodrink bottle fit between them. For most of my rides I would use it alone, without additional bike bottles.

For longer rides, many riders add bike bottles behind the seat. A large number of rear bottle mount systems exist, including the Beaker Concepts HydroTail, the Xlab Carbon Wing, and several systems by Profile Design. Rear-mounted bottles offer not only additional volume, but also provide improved aerodynamics when used instead of traditional frame-mounted water bottles. Many riders also find rear-mounted bottles are easier to access while pedaling.

After my back went out last year, I was no longer able to use a regular bike bottle: My weak back made it difficult to ride one-handed while holding a bike bottle, and also made it difficult to twist to the side to drink from one. On longer rides, I would use the time spent at stop lights to transfer water from my bike bottles to my Aerodrink bottle. This would clearly be impractical for non-stop rides and races, so I started looking into hydration systems that would allow me to drink from a tube, hands-free.

The simplest hydration system, and also the least expensive with the largest volume, is the popular hydration backpack, of which several bike-specific versions are available from a wide variety of manufacturers. While I find such systems ideal for use when riding upright, I haven't found a way to comfortably wear one while hammering in the aero position. There are front-mounted hydration packs designed for precisely this situation, but I doubt they'd be comfortable when riding upright, and they could block some ventilation on hot rides. Plus, I wouldn't want to take the time to put on a hydration pack during a triathlon transition.

Alternatives to hands-free bar-mounted and backpack hydration systems include frame-mounted and rear-mounted (behind the seat) systems which have tubing that runs from the reservoir to the bars. The best-known player in the frame-mounted hydration system market is the Inviscid Design Speedfil system. A less well-known rear-mounted system is the NeverReach Pro. The best prices I found for the smallest sizes of either system were around $100, including any required mounting kits and accessories.

While the Speedfil works great on regular "triangle" bike frames, it was not compatible with my monocoque TitanFlex. I also didn't like the idea of having to suck water up almost three feet vertically: It's like sucking on a milkshake, but getting only water for the effort.

The NeverReach has its own problems, the greatest being that it is not compatible with my ISM Adamo Road saddle. Another problem is that no local retailers carry it, so I couldn't check out the build quality. There were some unfavorable comments online concerning the mount, and I was unable to tell if it was due to the design or if the user either installed it or used it incorrectly.

The Oasis One-Twelve:

I made the rounds of my local bike shops to see if they knew of any systems I had missed. When I described my problem to Rachel at Moment Cycle Sport, she pointed to a system on a shelf behind the counter. It was the Oasis One-Twelve. And it was love at first sight.

The Oasis One-Twelve is the brain child of inventor and Ironman triathlete Dean Sprague, a prominent figure on the San Diego triathlon scene. The Oasis One-Twelve is named after the 112 mile bike leg of an Ironman triathlon.

I think it should be called the Oasis Sixty, since the system holds 60 ounces of fluid. The fluid is held in a pair of 30 ounce lightweight bike bottles that will fit in any rear-mounted bottle rack. The best part? The system costs under $40, less than half the price of any competitor's system.

The Oasis One-Twelve has a downside: It does not include the rear-mounted bottle rack, where the other systems mentioned above do include the mount. I looked at the rear-mounted racks previously mentioned, and they all cost well over $50, which would make the Oasis One-Twelve more expensive than the other systems. But once again Moment had a winning alternative: The $22 Tacx T6202 seat clamp. Combined with some spare bottle holders I had at home, it would work perfectly.

System Overview:

The Oasis One-Twelve system consists of the previously mentioned pair of 30 ounce water bottles, each of which has been modified with the addition of a 90 degree angled fitting at the bottom. The system also includes lots of tubing, an upper tubing stiffener, bite valve, and a generous length of Velcro strap material.

Surprising for such an inexpensive system, also included is a tubing cleaning tool. The separate Camelbak cleaning kit, for example, costs $10.


Installing the Oasis system was simplicity itself: Put the bottles in the rack, route the tubing, cut it to length, then cut the long Velcro strap to the number and lengths needed and apply. There are no screws or clips, so the system may be removed just as quickly and easily as it was installed.

I didn't cut the tubing until after I knew I had the length right: I initially installed it with the extra tubing in a loop, then took a quick (dry) test ride to ensure I could position the bite valve where I wanted it before making the final cut. If you make a mistake and cut the tubing too short, a union is included to rejoin the tubing. If you do it twice, replacement tubing is available for a small fee.

The above installation description assumes the rear rack is already in place, and is able to handle a load of 60 ounces of water. The Tacx seat clamp is made of fiber-reinforced plastic, and when mounted per the Tacx instructions it sags and bounces under the weight of the filled bottles.

The Tacx instructions have the clamp extending horizontally from the rear of the seat, placing the tall bottles far behind the seat, with them extending well above the seat, which makes getting a leg over a bit more difficult. Simply flipping the clamp over makes it extend down instead of back, which not only eliminates sag and bounce, it also places the tops of the tall bottles at a much more reasonable height.

The adjustment to the mount created some slack in the tubing, so rather than cut it again, I'm riding with a small loop. Just in case I decide to change the mount someday.

Once everything was in place, I added a tie-wrap around the neck of the bottles and through the bottle cages to ensure the bottles would not bounce out even on the roughest road, or while on my rather bouncy car rack. The installation instructions suggest using some of the provided Velcro strap for this, but the circumference of my TitanFlex frame used up too much. It would never be a problem on bikes with a conventional frame geometry.

Here's a shot of the final installation, along with the Aerodrink bottle (click on the image for more detail):

The package near the rear hub is instrumentation I'll discuss in a future post.

One side-effect of the installation is that I could no longer use my under-seat tool bag. Some folks are able to mount their tool bag vertically against the seatpost, but mine wouldn't fit due to the tubing from the bottles. My solution was to build a bike bottle tool box, which will be the topic of an upcoming blog post.

Test Ride:

On my first ride with the filled system, I had trouble getting water from the bottle to my mouth. After checking that I had not pinched the tubing by making any of the Velcro straps too tight, a quick email to Dean revealed I had missed a note in the manual: The bottle cap valves need to be opened slightly to prevent a vacuum from developing. With that done, drinking from the system was effortless on subsequent rides.

The bite valve works very well. I found it has an interesting feature: Bite too hard, and you get no water. I have chewed through several Camelbak valves, and I look forward to getting longer life from the Oasis One-Twelve bite valve.

The sheath around the upper portion of the tubing is flexible enough to allow the bite valve to easily be positioned as needed, and is stiff enough to prevent the tube from whipping in the wind and hitting me in the face while in aero. I much prefer it to the plastic straw in my Aerodrink bottle, which cuts into the roof of my mouth if I hit a bump while drinking.


The Oasis One-Twelve system falls into the "Insanely Great" category of my triathlon equipment purchases. I found absolutely no design or manufacturing flaws in the system. It is made from top-quality materials, and best of all, it costs less than all other equivalent products.

If you are looking for a hydration system, be sure to check out the Oasis One-Twelve before buying anything else.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My Broken Foot: The Movie!

Have you seen the recent "cheap" Geico commercials? Well, they're designed to imitate Xtranormal's product.

I decided to have a go at making my own movie, and needing a subject, I selected some material from my prior post. The result may be viewed here.


Monday, November 29, 2010

"They're RACING flats dammit, not TRAINING flats!"

I recently started an email dialog with RunBlogger's Peter Larson, and found a kindred spirit concerning some of the more technical issues of running. Here's a slightly edited version of what I sent him:

Hi Pete,

It's been 4 weeks since I broke a 2nd metatarsal running on hard surfaces in my racing flats. I got my flats in early September in preparation for my first-ever Olympic-distance triathlon (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run). The shoes (Saucony Kilkenny) gave me the Winged Feet of Mercury, immediately slicing 30 seconds per mile from my 4 mile training runs, taking me to a 9:00 PR pace for the distance (with rolling hills).

My last prior 10K was nearly 25 years ago (I'm now 54). I stopped running when the pain in all my leg joints didn't go away for days after even mild training runs. I was a hard heel-striker then, with flat feet, skinny weak ankles, and slightly bowed legs. Getting into triathlon 2 years ago meant I needed to find a new way to run.

First I went with shoes that would keep the road as far from my legs as possible (Mizuno Wave Creation 10), which made a return to light running possible. But I was physically unable to go much faster than a fast jog. I added orthotics, which helped a little. Then I got knee pain (chondromalacia caused by ITB Syndrome), and I searched for a new stride. I read about POSE and Chi Running, adopted a mid-sole strike, and 3 months later my PRs started to improve, though they soon topped out again.

Then in August of 2009 I lost my L5-S1 disc: It simply degenerated away, leaving no padding and lots of pain behind. Since I had by then become addicted to each of the triathlon sports, I refused the offered spinal fusion surgery and endured months of physical therapy to learn how to live with a damaged back. And in February of this year I became a forefoot runner: Any significant heel contact would cause intense pain at the site of my degenerated disc, so I had no alternative, since I refused to give up running (and triathlon).

My initial web searches failed to uncover any useful forefoot running resources. I had to feel my way into forefoot running on my own. The first thing I noticed was that the towering heel of my Mizuno Wave Creation 10 was hitting the ground way too early, and was forcing me to run either on my tip-toes or in a slight squat in order to avoid a painful heel impact, each of which caused other problems.

I switched to a cheap pair of Asics that had a much softer and slightly lower heel. By mid-summer my PRs again started to improve. Since I wasn't placing as much weight on my midfoot, I removed the heavy orthotics, and saw another improvement in my PRs. At this point, I was much more comfortable running a mile than walking one!

When a friend suggested racing flats, I went to each of my local specialty running stores, tried everything, and when I finally tried the Kilkenny, it was love at first step. I got the shoes, trained well, did my race, beat my optimistic goal time, and kept on running in my racing flats. I searched the local shops for road shoes that would have a low heel compatible with a forefoot strike, but found nothing that fit my narrow flat foot.

In hindsight, a stress fracture was inevitable. Sure, it was not smart to run exclusively on hard surfaces in racing flats. But I also must share some blame with the shoe market, for not having a road trainer available that would fit my foot and running style, and also be stocked by local shops.

I somehow didn't find your blog until today, when I was again searching for road shoes. I've read a dozen of your general posts, and am working my way through your shoe reviews: We appear to generally think alike regarding technique and equipment, though we approached our beliefs from very different paths.

While I now consider myself to be a minimalist runner due to my forefoot stride, I also realize I'm a 'maximalist' runner: Maximally ignorant, that is. It took me way too long to learn the running vocabulary, which is the only way to get useful search results (when entering any area of specialization, first becoming 'buzz-word compliant' is mandatory). Where are the running glossaries?

I've reached the point where I'm willing to believe that my ideal road shoe, a padded racing flat, may simply not exist. And I'm wondering what I can do about that situation. So far, I've come up with five options:

1. Accept the situation: Do what's needed to adapt to the best fitting shoe available that has an acceptably low heel-to-toe (H2T) drop. But I'm concerned I'll have to adapt my stride to the point that I'll have problems switching back to my racing flats before races. And I refuse to give up my racing flats!

2. Find a shoe that's ideal in all respects OTHER than H2T drop, and have a cobbler slice away some foam to remove the excess heel height (a trivial task for any qualified cobbler). This would require a shoe with minimal heel structure, lacking things like wave plates and air/gel layers. The Brooks Green Silence may be a candidate, which I'll try out after my foot finishes healing.

3. Eliminate all hard-surface running, except for final race training and race day. Which means I keep running in my racing flats, but only on sand and turf. Not an easy thing to accomplish in my densely packed suburb, but not impossible (just impractical).

4. Add a thin Sof Sole gel cushion to the forefoot of my racing flats. I've already done this, just for insurance, but I doubt it is enough to prevent another stress fracture. And I haven't yet run in the modified shoe, so it may prove unworkable.

5. Create my own shoe.

As I've wailed and moaned about my shoe situation to friends, family, and members of the Triathlon Club of San Diego (TCSD, the Best Damn Club on the Planet, no lie), I found some kindred souls, one of whom is a mechanical engineer, and another who is a materials engineer with deep knowledge of polymers and foams. Me, I'm a software engineer with lots of simulation experience, and I also know my way around a sewing machine.

Unfortunately, we're all either lazy, time-crunched, or both, and would much rather work with an existing manufacturer than go off on our own. We simply want the shoes we want, and don't necessarily want to get into the shoe business.

Yes, I'm finally getting to the point:Some questions for you!
- What do you think of my options above? Did I miss any?
- Does my dream shoe already exist?
- What would you like to see in a new minimalist shoe suitable for forefoot road runners?
- Which manufacturers do you think would be most willing to work with motivated amateurs?

We've also discussed a shoe with a negative static H2T drop that would become zero when the forefoot sole is compressed. The shoe design would vary not only by foot size, but also by runner weight (possibly by swapping the insole). This would allow us to add sophistication to the forefoot without having to thicken or complicate the heel. It would be a shoe designed exclusively for forefoot hard-surface runners, though we might also be able to market it as a butt-lifting, leg-toning walking shoe!

Time for me to get back to reading your blog. Thanks!


Friday, August 6, 2010

Pain-Free Running, Part V

Much of the stuff in my prior running posts (here, here, here and here) went out the window when my back gave out on me almost exactly a year ago. This year (2010) has been a rebuilding year for me: Once my back recovered (see my back injury post here), I had to completely change my run and bike, both equipment and technique.

If you've read my posts about TitanFlex bikes (here, here, here, here and here), you know what I did: I got a TitanFlex Veteran bike. A future post will discuss the details of the bike changes: This post is about running.

As my back injury post mentioned, I've had to become a toe runner. When I began triathlon, my running technique started with me as a hard heel-striker. Early pain caused me to become a mid-sole runner with a strong arm-swing. When I tried to run after my back recovered, even the impact of a mid-sole strike was more than I could tolerate.

I had to find a way to keep the impact of my feet hitting the ground from reaching my lower back. I was already wearing some of the most advanced shoes available, and adding more cushioning would mean reducing the stability I needed. I didn't need cushioning: I needed suspension.

When I had my carbon bike, the saddle soreness issues I had were handled by switching to a seat with a better design and more cushioning. My running shoes already had the best design with the most cushioning I could find. When my back problems persisted, I was certain a TitanFlex was in my future, because I knew I could add suspension via the TitanFlex titanium boom. Could I add something similar to my run?

The only things I could think of were either to run with my knees bent, or switch to toe-running. Since running in a squat didn't seem practical, that meant toe-running was my only viable option. Toe-running would permit my foot to flex up and down to absorb more of the running impact before it got to my knees, hips and then to my low back. From a kinematics perspective, it was an elegant solution.

From the perspective of my body, it seemed to be an impossible goal. I have always had plantar fascia (PF) issues related to my extraordinarily flat feet, something handled by orthotics (to provide PF support) combined with reducing toe/calf use (to minimize PF stress). While running on my toes would reduce impact, it would cause a massive increase in PF stress. It would also mean my heel-stabilized running shoe would no longer be able to help keep my feet and knees aligned, meaning more torque could be delivered to my knees, and I already had a history of minor knee problems.

Things did not look good at that point. I was very worried that I would have to stop running, which would mean no more triathlons for me. Which meant I had nothing to lose by trying toe-running, even if it did cause additional damage. The irony of the situation is that I had spent the prior year learning to reduce calf muscle use in both my run and bike techniques.

I started toe-running during the last part of the physical therapy (PT) I was receiving from Rehab United for my back. I started with slow toe-jogging for 1/4 mile, gradually building my calf strength. The first thing I noticed was that the thick heels of my 'motion-control' running shoe were getting in the way, allowing my heel to strike before the calf had finished its job. So I went and bought some running shoes with thinner heels. I didn't really care about what shoe I got, since I had no idea how to tell a good toe-running shoe from a bad one. All I knew was that I wanted a shoe with a lower heel and a good fit. I wound up with and pair of last-year Asics that were on sale for dirt cheap.

By the end of my PT I could toe-run for a mile on a treadmill at a 10-minute pace. And I was doing it pain-free! There was one very odd thing about this: I had never before been able to comfortably run on a treadmill! My bowed legs meant I needed to do a bit of heel pivoting between my heel strike and the rest of my foot coming down, which the rubber treadmill resisted, meaning that treadmill running always gave me knee pain. What was going on here?

Moving from the treadmill back to the street had its own issues. When I started to run more often and at longer distances, my knees started to hurt again. This time, I knew it wasn't ITB Syndrome; It had to be something related to the foot and/or ankle. The only thing I could figure was that errors in toe placement and/or foot angle were adding torque to my knees. I needed to control both where I put my toe down, and ensure my foot angle was correct.

Since the biggest kinematic change was that my heel was no longer touching the ground, I adjusted my stride to allow my heel to barely touch before I pushed off. No impact, just a touch, to make it easier for me to tell what my foot angle really was. The thing is, when I made that change, the knee pain went away! I had no conscious awareness of my foot ever being at the wrong angle, so I wasn't sure what was going on. My best guess is that touching the heel gave enough feedback for me to intuitively (sub-consciously) adjust my stride to keep things in alignment.

As for the rest of my running gait, everything I had learned before about arm swing and body position still applied, though one minor change was needed: When going uphill, my calves really took a beating (remember that I touch my heel every time), so I needed much more assistance from my arms than my normal swing could provide. I first tried to simply swing my arms harder, but I soon reached the limit of useful motion. At the suggestion of a friend, I added some elbow-flexing during each stride (previously I had adjusted elbow angle only slowly, to account for the terrain, and not during each step). On steep hills, during each stride my arm swing starts with my arm straight at the bottom, and finishes with my elbow fully bent at the top. I use less elbow motion on medium hills, and none at all otherwise.

I soon was back to running my regular 2-mile run pain-free, though at a slower pace. I decided to try to pick up the pace, and found that the extra energy used by the calf was really costing me: I'd suddenly get exhausted, and have to walk for a minute before I could resume running (at my slowest pace). I assumed this was due not only to the increased calf use, but was also due to poor conditioning, and that I needed to improve in that area too.

It is common knowledge that to improve speed and conditioning, we must do intervals. In biking, hill-climbing is often the interval of choice, with timed sprints also included (often in the form of pace-line drills). In running, you can run hills too, but they generally take too long to be short enough to be effective for interval training. That left timed sprints, which in running are included in "wind sprints" and "fartleks".

OK, so I was going to do some intervals, which meant I had to run very fast over short distances. Which led to the question: How fast could I run as a toe-runner? Did toe-running have a kinematic speed limit? Since starting to run mile+ distances as a toe-runner, I had tried to slowly increase my speed, but only over a long-ish distance, which I had found was initially limited by my calf development, and was later limited by my conditioning.

Time for some test sprints. After warming up, I first sprinted for only about 20 steps, to see if anything felt obviously wrong. After briefly recovering at a slower pace, I upped the distance of each subsequent sprint, going flat-out each time. By the time I was too tired to extend the sprint distance, I had covered about a mile, all of which was done with no pain at all.

During the sprints, I didn't pay any attention to my Garmin, since I was totally focused on how the fast pace felt, and to try to maintain a very uniform and controlled stride. And my stride felt very smooth: I remembered what wind sprints felt like 20 years ago, when I was training to improve my 10K speed, and I recalled that they felt very jarring and uncomfortable. Now my fast stride felt like I was gliding over the ground, rather than trying to beat it to death with my feet.

When I got home and downloaded the Garmin data, I was astounded to find that some of my sprints were at a 5:30 pace, and all of them were faster than a 6:30 pace! I don't recall ever having run that fast before. And I did this while running as smooth as silk.

I started alternating my training runs between interval runs and distance runs. I've been seeing improvements in speed over my traditional 2-mile run, and I've been able to extend my distance to include 10K (6.2 miles), all without pain during the run. I've had some minor knee pain after the longer/faster runs, but it is in a new place, just above and below the knee cap (instead of under it), and the pain always fades within an hour or so. I've also had some hamstring weakness, so I've added exercises to my strength training to address that issue. And I've had some ball-of-the-foot discomfort too, so I suppose it is time to go shopping for 'real' toe-running shoes.

The oddest thing is that during this entire process I have had no PF pain, or even discomfort, at all! I'm at a loss to explain this. I did start out gradually, and I'm sure that helped, but it can't be the full explanation. Could it be that toe-running has helped my feet to become better than they were? I've been experimenting with removing the orthotics from my shoes, and so far I see no difference. They still hurt when I stand still for a while, but no worse than before. Yes, my feet are still flat, but they seem to be working just fine that way, with extra support no longer being needed.

That's about where I am today, still working on the sprints and distance. I've equaled my prior PR of 16 minutes for my 2-mile run, and I expect to get faster. My 10K time is approaching an hour, and I expect that to improve as well. It has to! I'll be doing my first-ever Olympic distance race in the Tri Classic in 6 weeks, on September 18th, and I want to finish in under 3:30, hopefully under 3:00!

But to get under 3:00, my bike time has to improve too. Evidently, I need to do more hills and pace-lines.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Frugal Triathlete

The first thing a new triathlete gets is a list of equipment needed to start training, which typically includes the following (minor generic items and consumables have been left off):

General Stuff:
  • TCSD Membership (required to get discounts from club sponsors)
  • TCSD timing chip (highly recommended: helps for the free club races)
  • Tri-kit (two-piece top/shorts pair) or trisuit (one-piece) (highly recommended)
  • Sports GPS (monitor and track run/bike/swim, recommended)
  • Heart monitor (recommended if no Sports GPS)
  • Gear bag (recommended) or Transition bag (optional)
Run Stuff:
  • Running shoes (highly recommended if you don't go barefoot)
  • Elastic laces (recommended)
  • Race belt (recommended)
  • Fuel belt (optional)
  • Hydration pack (optional)
Swim Stuff:
  • Triathlon swimming wetsuit (long-sleeved and/or sleeveless, highly recommended)
  • Latex swim cap (freely available)
  • BodyGlide and/or TriSlide (skin/wetsuit lubricant, highly recommended)
  • Open-water swim goggles (highly recommended)
  • Nose/ear plugs (as needed)
  • Neoprene swim cap (recommended for cold swim conditions)
  • Swim booties (recommended for cold swim conditions)
  • Swim suit (optional)
  • Pull buoy (optional)
Bike Stuff:
  • Road bike (required for beginners)
  • Bike shoes (highly recommended)
  • Tri/TT bike (optional)
  • Tri-shoes (optional)
  • Clipless (cleat) pedals (highly recommended)
  • Clip-on aero bars for road bike (optional)
  • Bike computer (recommended if no Sports GPS)
  • Spare tire (recommended)
  • Spare tubes (highly recommended)
  • Chain lube (required)
  • Tube repair kit (highly recommended)
  • Tire levers (if using clinchers, highly recommended)
  • Sew-up glue (if using sew-up tires - not for beginners!)
  • Floor pump (required)
  • Hand pump and/or CO2 inflater + cylinders (highly recommended)
  • Allen wrenches (highly recommended)
  • Under-seat tool bag or tail mount (highly recommended)
  • Food box ('speed/bento box', recommended)
  • Water bottles and cages (at least 1 of each highly recommended)
Whew! If you walk into local stores and try to buy all of the required and highly-recommended items above, it is impossible to get minimally 'decent' equipment for less than $2000, even if you make full use of all available TCSD discounts. Even $3000 would still be near the low end. I've seen new triathletes with money to burn easily spend $5000. And there is no limit: Some triathlon addicts spend over $10,000 on their gear!

There is an important saying in triathlon, something I call the 'Comfort Rule': Everything that touches your body must be comfortable. And, unfortunately, low-end gear is seldom comfortable.

Does this mean you should take on debt or liquidate a large chunk of your savings just to get into triathlon? What can you do if your budget is more in the range of around $1000? What trade-offs are available? Let's look at the more expensive items one at a time.

First, the bike: The obvious cost-saving measure would be to get a good used bike. When it comes to value, a good used bike will have higher-quality components than a low-end new bike. The 'Comfort Rule' above absolutely applies, which means you must get a bike that fits you, and is comfortable to ride for hours at a time.

What does it mean for a bike to 'fit' you? It means the fundamental dimensions of the bike frame, stem, bars and seat-post are compatible with your body, and the bike bars and seat have been adjusted to maximize your riding comfort, power and efficiency. Getting all this done is called a 'bike fit'. When buying a new bike from a local bike shop, a bike fit is included in the cost of the bike. It is not uncommon for the stem to have to be replaced as part of the bike fit process, and occasionally even the seat-post and/or bars.

If you choose to get a used bike, plan to spend additional money for a good bike fit at your local bike shop. However, most bike fits are done after the bike is purchased. How can you tell if a specific used bike will fit you before you buy it? I know of only one solution to this problem: Buy your bike fit first, then go shopping for your used bike!

Unfortunately, there are very few bike shops in the nation that will sell you a bike fit without either buying a bike from them or already owning a bike. Fortunately, we have one bike shop in San Diego that provides this service as a separate product: TCSD sponsor Moment Cycle Sport in Point Loma offers their 'Fit First' service, which puts you on a 'fit bike' that is adjusted until a good fit is obtained. A set of numbers describing the fit are given to you at the end, along with a thorough explanation. They charge about $200 for this service, though they do offer a substantial discount to TCSD members. (It is possible that other bike shops will provide a similar service in the near future, so be sure to ask around.)

So, you got your bike fit numbers, and now you're ready to buy a good used bike. The first place to shop is the TCSD Classified Ads, on the TCSD website. I've seen many truly excellent bikes listed there for around $400. Then check Craigslist, eBay (local only), local bike club sites, and the classified listings at local newspaper sites. You should be able to quickly find a decent bike that's within your budget. The goal is not to get 'the perfect bike', but instead to get a bike that won't hinder your first year of triathlon training and racing. The good thing about a $400 bike is that you'll probably be able to sell it in a year for the same price you paid, assuming you take good care of it. Think of it as a only a 'first bike', and not a lifetime commitment.

After you buy your bike, you may be able to adjust it to your fit numbers on your own, though if you have problems, a local bike shop may make the adjustments for a small fee (or possibly for free).

Now, I've talked only about getting a road bike. You could get a tri/TT bike, but that is certainly not recommended starting out, though you may well want to get one eventually as a second bike.

A side note: When shopping for used triathlon gear, it very much matters when you shop! Many triathletes get the urge to upgrade in the late winter or early spring, and will sell their old gear for whatever they can get in order to help fund their new gear. Another thing to keep in mind is to maximize the use of coupons, sales, and your TCSD discounts. There are several local vendors who, even though they are not TCSD sponsors, will still offer impressive discounts to TCSD members. And remember, REI annual member rebates are usually 8-10% of the price paid, so combining that with an REI sale can sometimes yield an unbeatable price.

So far we've spent under $200 for a bike fit, and about $400 for a decent used bike, for a total of $600 spent. Can we get everything else we need for just $400 more?

The next most expensive item is typically the swim wetsuit. A new one can range in price from $150 to $800. There certainly are used wetsuits available, but many of these will have some degree of damage that may be expensive to repair. Another option is to get a 'seconds' or 'demo' or 'return' wetsuit from a local manufacturer (of which there are at least 3 in San Diego, and at least 1 of them is a TCSD Sponsor). If you shop carefully, you should be able to find a quality wetsuit that fits very well for no more than $100. If you ask around, you may be able to get a perfectly serviceable wetsuit for free. I would recommend getting a long-sleeve wetsuit first, since sleeveless wetsuits can have several disadvantages for beginners.

One important note: Be sure to swim in your wetsuit before you buy it, or ensure you can return it. A wetsuit that fits well on land can have serious friction spots when worn in the water. Be sure to use BodyGlide around the neck when wearing a long-sleeve wetsuit. TCSD has a free Wetsuit Loaner Program (no link available) that lets you easily try many different wetsuits, and the Thursday evening TCSD Open Water Bay Swim clinic (see the TCSD Calendar) has its own inventory of free loaner wetsuits provided by clinic sponsor

Let's say you got lucky and found a comfortable wetsuit for free (it isn't really all that hard - just ask around on the TCSD email list), so we still about $400 left to spend.

The next most expensive must-have item brings us back to the bike: Bike shoes and pedals. It is almost impossible to find road shoes + pedals for less than $200 new, and tri-specific bike shoes and 'cool' pedals can add much more to the cost. Getting them used is difficult. And remember, the 'Comfort Rule' certainly applies here!

Fortunately, you can get new mountain bike (MTB) shoes + MTB clipless pedals (clone of Shimano SPD) for well under $100 (as low as $50 is you shop hard). Mechanically they work just as well as fancier road-specific shoes and pedals, and they even have some advantages for beginners. If you go this route, get MTB shoes with non-flexible soles that have laces with a single velcro strap over the instep (such as the Shimano MT31), then replace the laces with elastic laces. You will get most of the convenience and functionality of tri-shoes for a fraction of the price. Plus, the stationary spin bikes in many gyms are SPD-compatible.

That gets the total spent so far up near $700, leaving at least $300 to get everything else. If you shop carefully, you can get all the non-electronic items remaining on the list for under $300. For your apparel, be sure to check the TCSD Online Store, which has the best-looking and highest-quality stuff for great prices.

A note about electronics: This is one area where I urge beginners to either splurge a little, or have a serious talk with Santa. Rather than get a separate bike computer, heart monitor, pedometer and sports GPS, I'd recommend getting them combined in a single multi-sport unit. If you shop carefully, you can get a Garmin Forerunner 305 with heart monitor, bike pod, shoe pod (optional), and bike mount kit (which also includes a velcro wrist-band) all for under $300. Having this unit, and using its features as part of your training and racing, will pay significant dividends. And the bang-for-the-buck for this specific model is huge, since it can give you detailed performance data for all 3 sports: Run, bike and even swim.

So, if you do get the Garmin, then we've blown the $1000 budget. But you'll certainly be under $1500, even if you have to pay for your wetsuit.

Another important item to consider spending extra on is your bike saddle. This is where the 'Comfort Rule' really matters. If you have any discomfort or numbness after your first 10 hours of riding, consider getting an ISM Adamo Road saddle. It costs under $150, and even elite competitors use it. When I got mine, it changed everything for me.

Finally, a note about online shopping (other than at the TCSD Store): I'm against it, particularly for beginners. You will very much need the support and wisdom of local vendors, since you will have a million questions, need some fast returns, and quick service. They are well worth it, and deserve to be supported, especially if they are one of our amazing TCSD club sponsors! The only possible exception would be for the electronics.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Back in the game...

After replying to a post on the TCSD email list, I realized I hadn't posted here in a while. Here's the post:

I have a friend who is a strength and conditioning coach with whom we were doing some circuit training. One circuit being a dumbbell clean & jerk.

Well....i believe this was the motion that has now left me almost immobilized.

At work today only because i work in an office environment.

I have the SDIT this Sunday and this injury (one that has never happened before) could not have come at WORST time!

Last week of training will be severely hampered if not totally eliminated.

Have any Club Members had lower back strains / sprains ect....

How long were you on the mend and what recovery aids did you use, if any, to speed up the recovery time of this injury.

Thank in advance for any input.

My training has been the best it ever has and i was looking forward to one good final week, before my first International Distance Race Sunday!

And my reply:
I'm no medical professional, but I have learned a few things about my own back over the past year.

First, find out just what HAS happened to your back: It could be anything from a muscle strain (most common) to a damaged/displaced disc (especially if over 40), or a damaged vertebra (rarely). Go to a Sports Medicine MD for a diagnosis, and also be sure to stop by Rehab United for a FREE Injury Assessment.

For what follows, I'm assuming your back hurts all the time, even first thing in the morning. I'll also assume some motions are impossible for you due to back weakness, and other motions cause varying degrees of added pain.

Since muscle strain is a common factor to just about all back injuries, you may be treating that anyway, no matter what else may be wrong, possibly with a combination of physical therapy and muscle relaxants. My own experiences over the past year with a degenerated disc taught me a few things:

1. Don't wait to seek professional opinions! See your Sports MD and Rehab United immediately. Waiting increases the risk of further injury, and needlessly prolongs the pain. I waited over 4 months, hoping to adjust my training to take the load off my back. Dumbest thing I've ever done (well, that depends on who you ask).

2. There are some things that can help temporarily, but may NOT lead to any real recovery: Applying heat/cold, sports massage, very gentle stretching, and NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, etc.). I used these, and the partial improvement I saw is what led me to delay diagnosis and treatment. Not smart! But do use them to help you "get by", but only until you do get your diagnosis.

3. Trying to "train around" a back injury is also of doubtful usefulness. I recommend you stop all running, biking and weight training until you get a diagnosis and training advice, though you may be able to continue swimming in the ocean or bay (avoid pool turns). After my initial injury, I spent months modifying my training, all of which simply made things worse and delayed my eventual recovery.

My current philosophy concerning fitness and competition is simple: I want to be doing this when I'm 80! Any injury or over-training that jeopardizes that goal gets corrected promptly and thoroughly.

My specific injury was a degenerated L5-S1 disc. The disc had been degenerating for a decade, but it became an issue only when my bike training reached new PRs. I was really hammering hard on the hills, and going faster than ever in aero. So when I started getting back pain, I naturally blamed my bike workouts. Turned out my flat-footed running was also a factor, and the two together did a double-whammy on my lowest disc and my back muscles.

The good news is that, once I was properly diagnosed, my recovery literally started with my first physical therapy session. After my therapy ended, I completely overhauled my training to minimize back stresses: First, I became a toe runner (I've got the calves to prove it). Second, I switched from my carbon princess to a TitanFlex (like switching from a hard-tail Harley to a SuperGlide), and I raised my bars 4 inches.

My expectation was that I would eventually compete again, but that I would be much slower than I was before (not that I was ever that fast). The reality has been surprisingly different! I'm now running at speeds I haven't seen in 25 years (though I'm still building my distance back up), and my bike endurance (comfort in the saddle) is better than before (though I'm still building power).

My new expectation is that my race times will become faster than ever! Strange but true: I never would have reached this place if my back had NOT failed. That failure led me to learn more about how my body really works, and to also learn how to use it better.

I also had a huge piece of Pure Luck: About 90% of those with my level of disc degeneration and pain get an immediate spinal fusion. I was a candidate for PT only because my core fitness permitted my back to take tons of punishment without allowing my spine to slip out of alignment. My Sports MD said my successful therapy and return to training will probably postpone my need for spinal fusion by 5 years. I'm hoping for 20.

'Nuf said: Take it easy, get to your Sports MD, and get a FREE Injury Assessment from Rehab United.
Hopefully, my next post won't be so long in coming...