Aero Helmets: Are They Worth It or Not?
First Off, What Exactly Is an Aero Helmet?
We’ll let the picture do the talking.
Is it worth putting on one of those hot, goofy looking helmets or not? This is a question I have asked myself again and again.
I have been very resistant to aero helmets because of my doubts about them to date. In fact, my wife and training partners have been reminding me that I have said several times that I will never use an aero helmet, but I also said years ago that I would never wear tight bike shorts. Now I am perfectly fine walking around in triathlon shorts and no shirt, and I even stopped in the grocery store the other day in bike shorts. So, being my tolerance for goofy-looking apparel and gear is greater, I finally decided to look more deeply at the science behind the effectiveness of aero helmets. Here is what I’ve found…
Wind Tunnel Testing of Aero Helmets
In a wind tunnel setting, aero helmets definitely appear to be a lot of bang for the buck (compared to other things). They are definitely a better deal than the outragously expensive wheelsets we are all riding on nowadays. Some of these studies make aero helmets out to be incredibly effective, however when you look at comparisons to other products and clothing (such as bike gloves and water bottle placement), you will start to wonder if it is really worth the criticism when your dad sees a picture of you in this helmet.
Unfortunately, wind tunnels are our only meaningful methods of gaining evidence for the effectiveness of helmets, bike designs, wheels, etc. due to real life conditions having too many variables at any given time. Although wind tunnels are generally accepted as accurate, they are not the real world. For example, a specific wheelset may provide much greater benefit than your stock wheelset in a 12 degree headwind, however it may have no advantage at all in a straight headwind with 70% humidity and the temperature at 93 degrees. Conditions in the real world are never completely predictable. There is not adequate real-world evidence to help make a clear decision about whether an aero helmet is beneficial or not. Anecdotally, there are many people out there claiming they help, BUT of course they are going to say they help if they dropped $150-350 on a funny looking helmet.
I have read blogs about people experimenting with their new aero helmets. Some have tried to be as objective as possible by riding the same course in similar conditions. Most of these people find benefit. BUT, centuries of experiments have clearly concluded that when you put an expectation or hope into the mind of the “scientist” (aka athlete in this case) and the “scientist” is in control of the experiment, you will almost always get a placebo affect. In the cases of these amateur experiments, there is undoubtedly going to be some degree of placebo effect.
The conclusion I have come to is that certain people will find benefit, while others will not.
Will You Find Benefit in Wearing an Aero Helmet?
A huge factor in determining if an aero helmet will decrease your time is your abilities, riding position, technique, and race distance. Wind tunnel studies are very clear in showing that those with an optimal aero bike fit and good position (riding technique) will find benefit in using an aero helmet. Studies also show this benefit doesn’t become apparent unless you are averaging over 22mph. The benefits at 22mph aren’t big, however the benefits grow exponentially as your average rises above 22mph. So, if you are a strong rider that averages greater than 22mph, ride in an aggressive time trial position and have a superb, custom bike fit done by an aero trained specialist (see my blog about bike fits), and are doing a longer race such as a 70.3 or 140.6 triathlon, you will likely find benefit. If you don’t fit this mold, save your pride.
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