For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
If you’re tuning in to any of the upcoming coverage of the Hawaii Ironman, you’ll notice a variety of different methods being implemented to carry hydration. While the intense course conditions in Kona influence this, any athletes preparing for an Ironman triathlon will need to come up with not only their own personal nutrition strategy for their race, but also their nutrition transportation strategy.
Written by: Geoffrey Nenninger
Many triathlon-specific bicycles are more limited than their standard road-racing cousins in their ability to carry multiple water bottles on the frame. This is in part due to the aerodynamic tube shapes often used in the design of the frames, but also because many triathlon bikes serve double duty in manufacturers’ lineups as time-trial bikes, for which only one water bottle would be needed. What does all of this mean to the Ironman-minded triathlete? It means you’ll very likely have to employ at least one additional method of carrying your beverages with you, even if you plan on using the on-course nutrition available at aid stations.
Outside of the standard water bottle mounts found on bicycle frames, there are two main styles of hydration systems: behind the saddle and between the aerobars. Both have utility in that they allow you to add precious liquid capacity to your rig, but both also have unique quirks that should be considered when deciding which style to use. Many long-course triathletes use both.
Rear-mounted hydration systems most often are attached to the rails of the bicycle saddle and are positioned in such a way that they are shielded from the wind while also keeping the bottles within easy reach of the athlete in the aero position. Despite appearances, this is not actually always very aerodynamic. However, sometimes practicality trumps aero performance, and rear-mounted systems allow the use of standard water bottle cages, and therefore allow athletes to accept on-course bottle handouts. The systems are also often able to carry additional spare parts, such as CO2 cartridges and inflators, which adds to their practical utility. The largest disadvantage outside of the aforementioned possible aerodynamic drawback is that rear-mounted hydration systems are notorious for launching water bottles if an athlete rides over a large enough bump. XLAB and Hydrotail are both popular brands of rear-mounted hydration systems.
The between-the-aerobar systems’ biggest advantage comes with their location: right under the athlete’s head. This places them in a very reachable area for a tired athlete, and might even remind an athlete to keep drinking. While previous generations of between-the-aerobar systems were known to splash the athlete, most current systems have addressed the problem. Most systems are refillable on the fly, so an athlete accepting a bottle handout at an aid station can simply squeeze it right into his system. Jetstream and Profile Design both make popular and well-designed between-the-aerobar systems.
A new sub-category of the between-the-bars system is the torpedo-style bottle cage. With this method, a standard water bottle cage is positioned horizontally between the aerobars (and athlete’s arms). This was actually an older design that has been given new life with recent wind tunnel testing indicating that it is the most aerodynamic method of carrying a bottle, with some tests showing that it is faster to have the bottle and system than to not use it. While the positioning of the bottle is fast aerodynamically, it is not quite as easy to drink from as the more traditional between-the-bars systems that extend straws right up to the athlete’s mouth. XLAB makes a popular version of this system aptly name the Torpedo.
Other bike hydration systems, such as the Speedfil and the Hydrotail, offer their own unique advantages and disadvantages.
Remember when researching hydration strategies that there are no right or wrong ways to carry your liquids with you. Find a good triathlon store or discuss your options with your coach to help figure out which system will suit you and your particular needs the best.