Cycling Training

Progressive Bike Fit
By Matt Russ
March 21, 2007
-- I often fit athletes that are new to triathlon or have just a single season under their belts. After realizing the disadvantage of competing on a traditional road bike, many understand that it is time to go aero. Unfortunately, this can be a painful process. For starters, the head, which was formerly sitting more upright upon the shoulders (as it is designed to do), is now suspended out in front – creating a lot of tension, fatigue, and soreness in the neck in shoulders. The muscles of the neck, trapezius, and mid-back now have to work overtime to support the head. This is further exacerbated by being tense, in an unfamiliar position, on a new bike that handles very strangely (where are those brakes!). To get comfort and relief the athlete often ends of spending most of their time in an upright position on the pursuit bars; totally negating the aerodynamic advantage of their new bike.
The tri bike position is more forward in relation to the bottom bracket, and this utilizes a different mix of the pedaling muscles. Less emphasis is placed on the quadriceps and more on the glutes and hamstrings. It requires time to get acclimated to the position and an athlete’s power will initially drop in the new position as they get used to it. If the athlete spent most of their riding time in the hoods, or was previously in a more upright position on their road bike, the lower torso angle will stretch the lower back and hamstrings. Saddle pressure will also be affected. Instead of sitting more on top of the saddle, weight is distributed at an angle creating different pressure points. The same saddle may not feel the same, and the same tilt of the saddle may put pressure where you do not want it (you know what I mean). Even if you are fitted properly, you will have to adjust to the new position.
When an athlete purchases a top shelf tri bike an assumption can be made that they want to be fitted aggressively. The athlete themselves may ask to be in as “fast” of position as possible. After all, they want to get their moneys worth. This can lead to a serious case of buyer’s remorse after a few rides and even a return to their comfy road bike. There is a happy medium though. Fitting should be a progression and should never go from one extreme to another. The good thing about bikes is that they are adjustable.
For starters if you are currently riding a road bike and wish to go aero, buy a set of clip-on aerobars. No, the bike is not designed for this. No, it is not optimal aerodynamically. But yes, it is temporary and can be a good start. This in itself will require being fitted to a more forward position and adjustment of the road bike. Spend as little as five minutes at a time initially in the aero position and gradually increase the time spent aero. Go to a parking lot and get acclimated to the handling characteristics (or lack thereof) in the aerobars. Clip-on aerobars are a relatively inexpensive way to get adjusted to the position and a good first step.
When you are ready to drop the credit card on a new tri bike, let the shop know you are new to the aero position. They should begin by putting you in the least aggressive position. This means the aerobar pads will be almost level or just below the saddle. It should feel somewhat strange, but not horribly uncomfortable. Realize that this position is a good starting point, but you will want to get more aggressive as your body becomes acclimated. Most of your wind resistance comes from the torso, so by lowering the torso position, you will increase speed.
I like to take several progressions from this starting point for a newbie. An initial fit with several shorter follow-ups can greatly increase aerodynamic efficiency. Some comfort adjustments such as saddle tilt can be done by the athlete themselves, but I keep all measurements on file for reference and carefully mark all positions on the bike with tape or a paint marker. This also comes in handy when the athlete has shipped their bike across the country for a race and does not know where the components were positioned before their bike was disassembled.
Your fit should also be predicated on your racing. A triathlete who is racing mainly sprints or Olympic distance events may be able to tolerate a more aggressive position for the shorter time period. An Ironman athlete must be in a more comfortable position. I may even have two positions marked for an athlete who races both these event types; one for speed and the other for comfort.
Spend time stretching the back and hamstrings. If you are already tight in this muscle chain (which is common in triathletes) you will have to improve your flexibility in order to achieve the desired position. Stretching a muscle group beyond it’s familiar range and placing it under load is at the very least uncomfortable and may even lead to injury. If this chain is tight it will cause the pelvis to rotate forward, limiting your range of motion and power production. To achieve the flat back and aerodynamics desired you must have sufficient flexibility.
Strengthen the muscles of the upper back. Not only will this help you maintain the aero position, it corrects the inward rotation of the shoulders often caused by swimming. If you follow these guidelines, you will save yourself a lot of discomfort and enjoy your training more.

Matt Russ has coached and trained elite athletes from around the country and internationally for over ten years. He currently holds an expert license from USA Triathlon, an Elite USA Cycling license, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is head coach and owner of The Sport Factory, and works with athletes of all levels full time. He is a free lance author and his articles are regularly featured in a variety of magazines and websites. Visit www.thesportfactory.com for more information or email him at coachmatt@thesportfactory.com

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