In The Lab vs Out In The Real World

I was recently 2015rio-road-race02reviewing the Rio 2016 Olympic Men’s Cycling Road Race, with the intent of studying the various strategies and riding styles. It just so happened that I came upon this tidbit of information…

Former pro cyclist and World Tour team Cervelo-Garmin rider Christian Vande Velde was a commentator for NBC’s broadcast of the Rio Road Race. At 56.8km to go in the race, these were his words:

“Chris Froome was in 2nd place earlier, [where] you don’t get as much draft especially off a small rider like  Jonathan Castroviejo.  So its better to let yourself go back, so now Chris Froome is back in 6th or 7th place… now that’s a better draft.  See now Vincenzo Nibali does the same thing… you don’t want to be sitting there with all that wind in your face.”

2015rio-road-race03Vande Velde says that drafting wheel to wheel behind another rider is not enough, especially if that rider is smaller than you. To maximize the draft, to minimize the effort, to hold an easy position, pro cyclists wants to be at the back of a pace line, at the end of a row of 6 to 7 riders.

On the other hand, pro triathlete Lionel Sanders argues that 10m of dead and empty space between riders is still insufficient, that there is a draft effect, and that a proper draft zone needs to be enlarged to 20m to eliminate drafting entirely.

Vande Velde states that pro cyclists want to be shielded, fully, not partially by one single rider, and definitely not by a rider who is smaller than them.

Sanders says that there is a significant draft even when there is 10m between riders, even when those riders are cutting small cross sections with aero frames, aero helmets, and riding aero, making minimal turbulence.

To put 10m into perspective, I measured my road bike end to end: it measures 66″ or 1.67meters. A gap of 10m is equivalent to the space that 6 road bikes, wheel to wheel take up.

How is it that for pro cyclists a few centimeters in stature, a few kilograms in size, and a few centimeters in distance is enough to diminish the draft effect that its value becomes debatable, but to a pro triathlete 20m – as in meters – is needed to diminish the draft. That’s a factor of 100x between what pro cyclists and pro triathletes consider significant drafting.

Something does not add up. Let’s consider another scenario…

In cycling races, when the riders are preparing for the final 500m sprint to the finish line, a lead out train (i.e. a pace line) will form to get the team sprinter up to max speed, with the intent of firing them like a rock out of a slingshot past competitors to the finish line. Watch any race where Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Andre Griepel, and Peter Sagan are racing and you will see how in the final kilometer these sprinters are paced and then fired off towards the finish line. A determining factor in this stage of the race is often the extent a sprinter is able to catch a draft off another rider. To lose a draft – i.e. to loss the wheel of another rider by as little as a few centimeters for even a second – can make the difference between having the speed to finish first or second or completely out of contention.

Again, to pro cyclists centimeters matter, not meters.

Sanders may have a point, but lets consider the setting when an empty gap of 10m between riders may offer a statistically significant draft effect: conditions would have to be perfect. The wind would have to be blowing exactly head on, without any variation in its direction, the road would need to line up perfectly with the wind, without any changes, no inclines, no declines, no turns. The riders would have to be perfectly lined up, one behind the other, without any deviations in their lines, for periods long enough to impart a real value in the draft. There would have to be no trees, bushes, houses, nothing that would alter the direction of the wind, the road and riders would have to be completely exposed. When exactly does this happen? When it does, for how long? Long enough to give an athlete the advantage to win an entire iron distance triathlon? That’s a stretch by any imagination.

If triathlons were raced under laboratory conditions, then maybe Sanders has a point. Maybe.

In The Laboratory vs Out in the Real World

Why would a pro triathlete and a pro cyclist differ so greatly on the topic of drafting. Here’s my take using clinical trials of new drugs as an analogy…

In a lab, an experimental drug can work ‘perfectly’, delivering the desired end result. Just because a drug works in a lab does not mean it works in ‘real’ life, does not mean its ready to be sold to the public. Experimental drugs have to go through numerous sets of clinical trials to prove that they in fact work, over time, consistently, in different scenarios, with different people. A lab experiment proves only that the drug is ready for testing beyond the bubble of a lab, out in the real world. How many drugs make it past clinical trials? Not many, usually because bad stuff happens, like people die as a result of taking the drug (despite it working ‘perfectly’ in the lab).  When a drug does pass trials, almost all come with long lists of side effects ranging from nausea and anal leakage, to cancer, to the risk of dying. That’s life in the real world; it ain’t all neat and tidy like a lab where conditions (and results) can be faked.

Triathlon seems to want to prove that it exists in a bubble, that the real world doesn’t apply, that the laws of physics apply differently to it than the standalone sports of swimming, cycling and running. Instead of leveraging decades of history, of experimentation, of tried and tested training and racing results, of real world experience which exists in each of the sports, triathletes are in the lab starting from scratch. Why waste training and racing to relearn what is already known?

Case in point… how long has the meme been in force that swimming in triathlon is different than the swimming that occurs as a standalone sport?  For this to be true, this would mean that the physics of movement, the laws of motion, the density of water, the forces of buoyancy and drag change. The laws of physics do not change, that is why they are called laws. So why not consider the training performed by top swimmers? Nope. Instead, a pro triathlete or a triathlon coach decided to dumb-down the sport by starting the meme that triathletes need to ‘save their legs’ for the bike and run, and triathletes obeyed en masse repeating the mantra “save the legs, do not kick in the swim”. In the lab it may make sense, it may even be proven in a lab to be true, but in the real world, “save the legs” makes no sense whatsoever. With races held out in the real world, not labs, guess what research truly matters… real world experimentation, not lab results.

The kick is integral to balancing body position, to maintaining and changing posture to achieve the highest level of efficiency: the ‘pull’ of the swim stroke leverages the power of the kick to maximize propulsion.  You know what happens when you don’t kick… you weaken the pull of the stroke, you eliminate the torque generated by the hip drive, you make swimming incredibly inefficient, maximizing the amount of work needed to swim.  Don’t kick, ‘save your legs’ but destroy your cardio-respiratory system and burn through two, three, or four times as much energy? Penny wise and dollar foolish. Meanwhile, triathletes are surprised how gassed, spent, exhausted they are after every swim, returning to coaches who prescribe more pull sets, adamant enough pulling wasn’t done, and that kicking and kick sets are a waste of time.

Now the sport has a pro triathlete who wants to dumb-down the sport even further, where racing has to occur under idealized conditions so that their idealized laboratory training will deliver them to the podium. If triathlon keeps dumbing itself down to whatever nonsense dribbles out of a pro or coach, then eventually the sport will be one no one wants anything to do with anymore. Triathlon will no longer be perceived as the challenge it once was, it will no longer stand as a metaphor for overcoming obstacles in life. Keep dumbing-down the sport, and sooner or later, iron men and women won’t be crossing the finish line, it’ll be iron babies.

It is not different, because its in a triathlon.

Here is a short list of the dumbing-down in iron distance triathlon over the years…

  • Swimming has been dumbed-down to paddle and pull buoy sets without a kick set in sight because of the ‘save the legs’ meme, resulting in widespread dependency on wetsuits. Instead of learning proper technique, athletes are taught to drag themselves thru water, to fight water, turning the swim portion of triathlons into MMA battle royales where athletes switch between fighting water and pummeling one another.
  • Cycling has been reduced to generating numbers on a power meter, as if the majority even understand how the number is obtained, what it means or how to improve it other than to hammer harder on the pedals. Cycling has become a contest of FTP maximums, not actual riding ability. Bike handling skills have been replaced with the belief that there is only one aspect of cycling that matters: being aero, where aero arises from spending money on aero stuff, not actual training to develop the flexibility to be aero.
  • Running, well there is little running in triathlon as the majority swim-bike & walk. Loads of shuffling, trudging, even crawling, because training has been dumbed-down to nothing other than HIIT workouts, to the point athletes are too injured to run and are so under-trained that few have the capacity to make it to the run portion of a triathlon, let alone run.

When training gets dumbed-down, racing also gets dumbed-down. Pro triathlete Cody Beals states that there’s been a progression of dumbing races down these days, so that they are easier and easier. What’s next… races that are only with the current, only with tailwinds, and all downhill? We are already on our way! Any race which has a challenging course is being cancelled or rerouted to be made easier. That’s progress? That’s not evolution, its de-evolution.

What made triathlon great was the complexity of mastering all three sports.  It was the fact that you could not master the sport in a year. It was the fact that it took training across three distinct disciplines which served as the basis of John Collins’ original question… who is the ultimate athlete?

Sanders is a pro triathlete who admittedly does not train outdoors. He trains almost exclusively indoors in fixed conditions, in a fixed position and state; Sanders trains in the equivalent of a lab. He has been riding for no more than a few years, so his experience in cycling is limited to say the least. He admits to having next to no bike handling skills. He trains solo, without worthy training partners or competitors to challenge him. His total outdoor mileage cannot be far off his total racing mileage.  In summary, Sanders’ appreciation for ‘real world’ conditions is immaterial; his cycling experience is predominantly theoretical, and no more than that of the average German child who rides to and from school. And the sport of triathlon is going to listen to him expound on anything that has to do with cycling?

The result of this type of training: Sanders’ ability to translate training into racing is predictable. Under ideal (i.e. lab comparable) conditions as at Ironman Arizona 2016 he can deliver a world record performance. Under non-ideal conditions (e.g. Ironman WC 2016) Sanders has difficulty, instead blames the real world for preventing him from achieving the results his lab predicted.

Lab rat training creates fair-weather athletes: athletes capable of performing only when real world conditions match those of their laboratories.

On the other hand, consistent peak performers, year after year champions are capable of performing no matter what is thrown at them. Michael Phelps’ goggles filled with water in the finals of the 200m FLY in Beijing 2008. No matter, he wins Olympic gold and sets a WR.  Silken Laumann while warming up at Worlds, weeks before Barcelona was hit by another boat, which ripped her calf muscle clear off the bone. Multiple surgeries, hospitalization, rehab, no problem, 10 weeks later she stands on the podium with an Olympic bronze medal. Chrissie Wellington in 2011 found herself 21mins+ behind Mirinda Carfrae coming out of T2 at Ironman WCs. No worries, she runs to win, remaining undefeated at iron distance triathlons.

What do you want you to be? A lab-rat/fair-weather athlete or a consistent peak performer?

If triathletes train like lab rats, then what is real training?

Simple, take the training of a typical pro cyclist: they start riding young, riding to and from school on a handed down or beater bike, accumulating a mileage log resembling that of a long haul truck odometer before starting any ‘serious’ training, before upgrading to anything anyone would consider top equipment, before any FTP or VO2 max efforts.  It is with such a base that pro cyclists progress to training in every climate, every terrain, in every set of weather conditions conceivable. They train at altitude, in the mountains, on snow covered peaks, in freezing temperatures, challenging their energy systems, pushing their energy systems to the limits while delivering peak output, while executing specific race strategies. Pro cyclists train together learning how to pace, draft, work as a team, to read one another & the peloton, learning when and how to attack, how to handle their bikes in the rain, the sleet, the snow, desert heat, and rainforest humidity. Pro cyclists learn to ride with tailwinds, and against headwinds and crosswinds that would send an average rider off the road, they train echelons, holding and rotating positions developing uncanny efficiency regardless what the environment throws at them. Pro cyclists learn the tactics of how to ride when spectators are in your face, cheering, booing, running alongside, getting in the way. Pro cyclists develop such a wide range of skills that they are equally capable of racing individual and team time trials [TT], and many also compete in mountain bike and/or cyclocross events to further develop their skill set.

I can only imagine a pro cyclist being asked what they think of a 20m draft zone… I bet we couldn’t get a straight answer because they would be rolling on the floor laughing that a pro triathlete needs 20m to prove themselves as a cyclist.  To athletes for whom centimeters matter, asking if 20 meters matters is like asking if they are going to ride the Tour de France with training wheels on their bike, or on a tricycle.

To triathletes… its time to get outside, time to train like an athlete, not like a lab rat. Get out of the laboratory, off the labtop, put down the spreadsheets, walk away from the online training websites, skip the hamster wheels of trainers and treadmills… get outside and have some fun, start to play, learn how to move, learn how to train, get out into the real world.

2 thoughts on “In The Lab vs Out In The Real World

  1. MGrodski Post author

    As triathlon gets dumbed down and its challenging competitions eliminated and replaced with easier versions, the sport of cycling goes in the opposite direction:


    Road cycling races were never exempt from the odd patch of cobbles but now road races are adding unpaved roads, farming roads, and longer stretches of cobbles. No different than in the training, the sport of triathlon could learn a lot from the standalone sports. Could you imagine what would happen if an iron distance triathlon included a patch of gravel! First, yikes because few triathletes have the handling skills to manage a pothole let alone a patch of dirt, and secondly, if the pros are complaining about drafting I cannot imagine what they would have to say about a patch of dirt that would take them out of being aero. In cycling a bit of dirt makes the course more interesting, fun, challenging. meanwhile triathletes would complain that it makes the course too hard, unfair,…not “reflective” of the true nature of the sport. Really? If triathlon is made up of the sport of cycling, and cycling includes cobbles and dirt, then how do you arrive at that conclusion?

    This mindset points to triathlon heading in the wrong direction… its time for triathletes to regain a wee bit of perspective before driving the bus right off the road.


    Road cycling continues to evolve with riders not complaining that a particular type of race is unfair because it doesn’t suit their personal strengths, instead Joe Dombrowski believes that there should be another type of hour record… an uphill hour record. Wow! How creative. Now the challenge… find the hills and roads that offer a pro cyclist a suitable amount of elevation.

  2. MGrodski Post author

    From Huffington Post:
    “A drug touted as a miracle cure for alcoholism and prescribed for this purpose in France, may work no better than counselling, Dutch researchers said Wednesday. Without proof of its efficacy, prescribing high doses of the drug known as baclofen may be irresponsible, they warned.”

    Another “in the lab” its amazing, but out in reality… its an entirely different story.

    Link to article:

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