Most of us mortal triathletes look to the pros for a clue to how they get so fast. Lionel Sanders recently broke the Ironman series world record (Jan Frodeno has the fastest time over the full distance but that was set at Challenge Roth not an Ironman event) Sanders is renowned for his unorthodox training methods which includes doing almost all of his biking indoors on his Wattbike.
Lionel and the Computrainer
In a recent interview he was telling Bob Babbitt that he’d just moved house and had his new training room all customised. He also joked about not telling the people who bought his old house about the use (abuse) his old training room got. in fact he has gone as far as setting up his new training room to be able to replicate extreme conditions that may be encountered in races like Kona. He has sealed the walls, upgraded the heating and added a humidifier. I think he can now get the temperature up over 100 Fahrenheit with very high humidity.
Anyway when we look at how much of an axe Lionel is on the bike and how successful he’s been it’s natural to try to learn how he has turned himself into one of the strongest Ironman and 70.3 athletes racing today. We then look at all of his indoor training and of course we add 2+2 and get 4. Lots of indoor riding is what he’s doing differently so that must be how he gets different results. I hope he’s got a good sponsorship deal with Computrainer because he’s just about the best add for their product I’ve ever seen.
He talks about using the Computrainer in this post
Lionel & the Camelbak
The danger with looking to the pros and emulating them is that sometimes they don’t know what they are doing any better than us amateurs. There was another interview I listened to with Sanders where he was asked about racing in Kona and wearing a Camelback on the bike. Of course because Lionel is known for doing things a little differently we all assume that he’s discovered something about racing with one that the rest of us don’t know and that it must be better or faster. It turns out he just thought it would be a good idea.
He talks about it in detail in this blog here.
It wasn’t and he went on to say that it was a mistake and he’d never do it again. If we were simply looking from the outside at what he did in Kona we could be forgiven for assuming that because someone as successful as Lionel was doing it, it must be faster. The problem is that we, like Lionel with his Camelbak assumption would be completely wrong.
Andy Potts and Gatorskins
Another pro interview that I thought was very interesting and also very pertinent in this piece was a Triathlete interview with the world class, fast and very experienced pro Andy Potts. Andy told two stories. The first was about racing with ultra reliable but also very slow Continental Gatorskins. Potts reasoned that the time lost was well balanced against the risk of flatting. What he hadn’t worked out what the actual difference would be in time riding slow Gatorskins with heavy butyl rubber tubes versus racing with faster tyres and latex tubes. When he did the research he estimated the difference was about 7 minutes over the course of an Ironman bike.
The other important thing to remember is that the pros usually have neutral support with them so if he had flatted then a full wheel change might only cost him 60-90 seconds. Andy is also one of the fastest swimmers so is almost always in the front group of races like Kona so will pretty much always have the support with him and the front pack.
In reality he could probably afford to puncture four times and still have a faster bike split than when he was riding training tyres.
Potts and crank length
His second story was about the fact that he had different length cranks on his training and racing bikes. There was a forum thread devoted to figuring out what Andy knew that the rest of us didn’t. Was he trying to increase cadence in training? If so why? Was he trying to increase leverage on race day? There was obviously some new research he’d discovered that made it a good ide but no one could agree on what it was.
The answer? That was just the way his bikes came set up and he didn’t notice the different length cranks. So anyone who had gone and copied him to try to get the Andy Potts advantage was barking up the wrong tree.
Copying what the pros do without knowing why they do it or knowing if it will work for or suit us is at best risky and at worst a recipe for disaster.
We see the Pro’s racing in Kona on the biggest stage. They have the best bikes and look like Greek Gods, all tanned and muscular and fast and all the things we all train for and aspire to be. What we don’t see is that outside of that racing environment a lot of them are just like us age groupers only faster, much faster.
They live in much the same way we do, sure lots of them have training groups or partners but they don’t have the sort of support structure that soccer players or pro cyclists have. They don’t have team doctors and masseurs, nutritionists or mechanics at their disposal.
They break down and pack their own bikes when traveling to races and rebuild them on the other end. And lots of them aren’t mechanically minded, trust me I’ve seen pro bikes in worse shape than those of some of the age groupers at races I’ve been at.
The pro’s with the exception of their freakishly big engine are just like the rest of us in a lot of ways. They try things in races that sometimes don’t work or, that with hindsight were just plain daft. They cook their own food, make do with foam rollers and see their local GP when they are sick. In short they are human (albeit freakishly fast ones) and can make the same mistakes that the rest of us do.
So while we are all trying to get faster by training harder we also look to the best and fastest in the sport, the Pro’s for inspiration or the next short cut to speed. Unfortunately even their name makes us believe they know everything about going fast “Professional triathlete”
The most professional of “normal” professions, doctors or professors or lawyers or accountants don’t get a title like “Professional” before their job description. You aren’t a professional lawyer or doctor. So when we see the best Pro triathletes in the world doing something new we often automatically think “that’s a great idea I’ll try that” even if it actually turns out not to be.
Like the example of Lionel Sanders and his first experience in Kona where he raced with a CamelBak on the bike so he had access to his own drinks. This seemed like a really good idea as he knew he would go through a lot of fluids in the Hawaiian heat. What he hadn’t taken into account was that wearing a CamelBak would cause him to heat up massively and he baked for the entire bike course and then suffered on the marathon as a result. He dropped the CamelBak for his next race after his Kona experience and fared much better.
Because we only see that isolated race and what he did on that occasion we might be forgiven for assuming that Lionel knew what he was doing with the CamelBak and try to copy him in our next hot race thinking that if one of the best Pro’s in the world does it then it’s good enough for us.
What we need to remember is that these guys are only human. And just like us they often only race Ironman a couple of times a year. Even for the best in the world Ironman is a very hard sport to learn regardless of how fast they are. In fact just because they are fast doesn’t mean that they have the first clue about bike set up or maintenance or “how” to race Ironman. Lots of the fastest ITU racers who were expected to be the next big thing in Ironman just never mastered the discipline.
They will try things and make mistakes just like we do but because we hold them in such high regard we often try to copy and emulate them without really knowing if it’s a good idea for us. And in the case of Lionel using a CamelBak we didn’t even know until that interview a whole year later that it didn’t work for him.