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Triathlon Hydration Systems

Triathlon WaterI get asked all the time about what I eat, how to carry enough liquid on my bike, what “triathlon hydration systems” I use to hold it all, and so on. This obviously applies much more so during Ironman, half-Ironman, or other long course racing. Over my years of training and racing, I have tried nearly every kind of triathlon bike hydration possible. Today and for you, I am going to answer some of those questions once and for all! Let me acknowledge that just because one hydration system works or has worked for me doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Likewise, just because I didn’t like or don’t use something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. You need to experiment during training to determine what you need/want to carry and the most ideal way for you to do so. These are just my opinions and observations.

To start, recognize that the primary objective of any triathlon hydration system you use on the bike is hydration but, many triathletes also use some kind of water-based nutrition. Do you have to do that? No, of course not, it just happens to be extremely convenient and, generally, easier than having solid food. Plus, as an added bonus, most of the current water-based nutrition products on the market also contain some electrolytes. Can you say “Bonus”!?!? This enables you to easily kill two birds with one water bottle, err… stone.

Let’s have a brief discussion of racing objectives.

Know what you are going to want/need during the race: This question obviously depends primarily on the distance of the race, the number and location of aid stations, the race-day conditions, your fitness, and your intended pacing. You need less for a sprint than you do for a full Ironman. Experiment and refine during training.

Take only what you think you need: If you only need one water bottle, don’t take three (or more). I see people leaving T1 in sprint races with extra cages hanging under their saddles. Don’t ever do that. Even in long course racing (you know, Ironmans), there’s typically aid stations every ten or so miles. You basically can stop at a free Circle K every 30-45 minutes!

Keep it simple: The less complicated your nutrition, the better. I once saw a bike at an Ironman event with EIGHTEEN (yes, 18) gel packs taped to the top tube AND a packed Bento box. Don’t ever do that.  In fact, if I see you doing that, I am going to tell USAT to stop you from racing.  Forever.

Keep your bike as light as possible: The 2011 Cervelo P2 weighs 18.2 pounds and costs nearly $3,000. Similar quality bikes cost and weight about the same. Why spend that much money only to add a few pounds of water, gels, and stuff???

So, with that being said, here are your triathlon bike hydration options (remember, this is entirely my opinion based on my experiences and my race-day objectives):

Frame-Mounted Bottles Only

Your bike will have either one or two mountings for water bottle cages. If you have two, you have enough capacity that you can stop reading after this paragraph. Two full-size bottles are more than enough to complete even a full Ironman. You can easily ditch empty bottles and grab new, full bottles (of either water or whatever “ade” is being served) at the aid stations. Even if you want to use a mixture of something special (as I have at times), you can have one bottle totally dedicated to water and make a concentrated mixture in the other. Problem solved; please stop reading.

If you only have one mounting (as many time-trial bikes do), you can still go with only one water bottle under certain circumstances. I did this the entire 2010 race year, even during Ironman Arizona and have largely continued with this tactic. My only deviations from it are when the temperature is high enough to require a second bottle of water for hydration and self-splashing purposes.

Triathlon Hydration SystemsFor me, having one water bottle on my bike, mixed with PowerBar’s Ironman Perform, is great. It keeps it clean and simple, reducing the chances for unforeseen problems. However, on hot or windy days, when additional water or glucose is needed, or at long-course events with minimal aid stations, this presents problems. At Boise 70.3 2011, I ran out of liquid and did not reach another aid station for nearly fifteen miles; far too long to be without water on a hot day. However, I have gone with one water bottle for many half and full Ironman events and, depending on the course and the conditions, I believe this to be ideal.

Water Bottle in the Aero Bars: the Torpedo Mount

This hydration system is basically a horizontally-mounted water bottle between your aero bars. You can use a regular water bottle or some of the more specifically-designed models. Both have their pros and cons. A regular one is great as you can discard it and grab a new one at each aid station but then you have to remove it to drink. You also cannot totally dial in your aero-position when the water bottle is frequently changing during a race. The specific ones (e.g., SpeedFil’s A2 or Z4) are awesome. The position can be fine-tuned so you are as aero as possible but you cannot move or change the bottle. The refilling system is also very easy and does not splash (a serious pet peeve of mine). But, you can use any mixture (no way to really mix) and must refill with whatever is on the course. Still, I find this to be my favorite option.

Triathlon Bike HydrationWater Bottle in the Aero Bars: the Wind Sail

For these, you can either buy the aerobar-specific bottle (e.g,. Profile Design) or create your own system. I have done both and think the aero-specific one is better. Very little chance of it falling on a bumpy course and most hold more than the typical water bottle. My complaints are the straw in my face was annoying, having the liquid splash out of the aero-bottle (this happens frequently and seems impossible to prevent) was even more annoying, and the bottle impacting my aero position (I had to “bow out” my forearms just a bit) was beyond annoying. Relatively easy to refill, but that always resulted in more splashing. A self-created “cage” works too, but was even worse for my aero-position. I tried both above AND below the aerobars; neither proved effective. One small issue I noticed periodically with the aero-bottle was, in medium or greater wind, it made things feel less stable. During Wildflower 2011, a particularly strong gust of wind lifted my front tire off the ground and set it back down about 1-2 inches to the left. Scared the living hell out of me. Consequently, I have never used this system again (and never will).

Triathlon Hydration Saddle MountsBottle Cage under the Saddle (aka The Drag Parachute)

X-Lab and Profile Design make the two most common saddle cages. They generally hold the bottles without dropping, often allow a place for a small repair bag, and are easy to replace at aid stations when empty. My biggest complaints are they tend to inspire everyone who uses them to take way too much stuff on the bike (e.g., more tubes, cylinders, pumps, etc., than necessary) and they act as massive wind foils. I can’t argue with the effective usefulness of the solution, but they definitely detract from the aerodynamics of your bike. Do the pros use them? Yes. But, pros are super-human and paid to use them. I am, much to my eternal sadness, neither of those two things. Just like the Wind Sail, aero-bottles, I stopped using mine.

Triathlon Bike HydrationDouble-Sized Frame Mounted Bottle with a Feeder Straw: the Trough

I experimented with this solution because it allows for more than one bottle, is aero, doesn’t splash, and is extremely easy to refill at aid stations.

However, I have two issues with this. One is that making concentrated mixtures is impossible once the race begins as you obviously cannot remove the bottle and shake it. This is not an issue other than during full Ironman races, as I like using a concentrated mixture on the bike. Without dismounting, that won’t be possible during the second half of the bike leg. Two, you are almost guaranteed to take more than you need. We all know the drill: if you have a suitcase for a trip, you fill it. Same with this solution. Have 1,000 ounces of capacity? Be ready to drag that behemoth up each hill.

In the end, I will end up using either a single frame-mounted water bottle whenever possible. When required due to environmental conditions, my Torpedo mount will be ready!

Thanks for reading!

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