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What can triathletes learn from Team Sky’s sports science techniques? Garth Fox investigates.

Team Sky Pro CyclingYou would need to have been taking your holidays in another solar system this summer to be unaware of the success of Team Sky and British Cycling. First and second places at the Tour de France and eight Olympic gold medals at London 2012 make up just some of the phenomenal success stories.

The man behind both Team Sky and British Cycling’s success stories is Performance Director Dave Brailsford, the originator of the marginal gains concept. Marginal gains is the philosophy that no performance-enhancing tweak is too small or too much trouble to incorporate if it can bring success one step closer.

Team Sky and British Cycling are highly evolved, scientific and disciplined winning machines that remain necessarily secretive in their methods. Despite that, what can we learn from them as triathletes that don’t require an army of sports scientists and millions of pounds to spend on equipment? Well, the answer is that we can learn plenty, albeit with some gentle compromises. The trickle-down of sports science know-how from Team Sky might not turn us into Bradley Wiggins overnight, but there are certainly some good techniques that we might benefit from.

Performance Modelling
When you watch Wiggins setting off down the ramp in a time trial at the Tour de France, you are actually watching the last piece of a performance jigsaw being slotted into place.

Long before the race, the team’s sports scientists will have modelled the race route in terms of gradient, terrain and wind direction. By doing this they can plan the optimal distribution of effort that Wiggins should make in order to arrive at the finish line in the fastest possible time. They already know the physiological capabilities of the athlete, as well as the drag coefficient of both him and the bike.

This allows them to estimate not only his finishing time, but also where on the course he’ll most benefit from pushing hard and where he should try to recover. This is because when you’re already riding fast, the power that is required to go just slightly faster is very high. It’s all due to your drag force increasing exponentially with speed.

The very latest modelling techniques also allow the optimisation of race-day wheel selection by taking into account the effect of wind speed and direction at the precise time the rider is due to start. Research scientists have shown that modelling power distribution in this way can result in savings of between 10 and 30 seconds for every 30 minutes of race time. A power meter is crucial to performance modelling – even when you have one it’s still a complicated process (see for the detail).

Performance modelling is an in-depth reconnaissance of a bike route. Before your next big race, you should make an effort to get out and ride the course multiple times, getting a feeling for the corners, gradients and efforts required to go quickly.

Metabolic Bike Position
Your riding position influences your biomechanics, which in turn affects your comfort, injury risk and performance. That is why having your bike fitted correctly is so important. But what about performance? The fastest cycling position is the one that manages the best compromise between rider comfort, aerodynamics and power output. That is why Team Sky ensure that their riders’ positions are optimised for those variables by carrying out lactate and power testing while in the wind tunnel or during field tests.

If you have a power meter you can likewise easily determine which riding position is the most metabolically efficient, because it will result in the highest sustainable power for the lowest heart rate. It is then possible (with the help of a sports scientist) to accurately determine the rider’s drag coefficient without needing to buy very expensive wind tunnel time. To do this you’d need to factor in several variables such as wind speed, gradient and air pressure. There is software available online to help you with this. The Chung Method is just one package that can be found online.

Thereafter, it is simply a case of combining the best three variables of power, position and drag to replicate the sort of fine-tuning that is available to the best riders in the world. If you don’t have a power meter you can use a trial and error approach of fine-tuning your riding position and then checking your heart-rate response. This could pay dividends if combined with a basic knowledge of what constitutes an aerodynamic position.

Ergogenic Nutritional  Strategies
The consumption of dietary nitrates through the supplementation of beetroot juice has become a hot topic in the world of endurance performance. Beetroot juice is especially high in nitrates and bacteria in the mouth convert nitrate into nitrite, which, when swallowed, enables the stomach to naturally produce nitric oxide.

Nitric oxide has many functions within the body including improving blood flow and energy metabolism. Research has shown that these benefits lower the oxygen cost of exercise. Team Sky and British Cycling were both early adopters of this supplement. The juice is available in concentrated form, which makes it relatively palatable and cheap. The protocol favoured by British Cycling is to consume 70-140ml of concentrated juice three hours before a race or key training session.

Optimised Fuelling
When you exercise hard you use more energy than you can successfully consume without incurring stomach upset. But the more carbohydrate that you can get into the body, the better your endurance performance is going to be. Fortunately, the gut is trainable and over time can learn to accommodate larger quantities of carbohydrates.

One of the factors affecting how quickly energy drinks are absorbed is their osmolality, which is essentially a measure of how much good stuff is in them. Team Sky will adjust this to suit each individual rider but also will train their riders to be able to absorb more. The latest research suggests that if the carbohydrates are made from a mix of sugars such as glucose, maltodextrin and fructose in a 1:1:1 ratio, then as much as 90-100g can be absorbed per hour but a realistic and highly effective target to aim for would be 70-80g/hour for a triathlete weighing 70-80kg. The key is to apply the science, experiment in training and benefit when racing, just like Team Sky do.

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

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