Is Sanders Stuck?

In posts on his blog, Lionel Sanders has complained that legal drafting is occurring on the bike portion of triathlons amongst the pro men. Does Lionel have a point or is he just complaining that his go-to race strategy is not serving him in international level competition as it does at regional level races? Does Lionel have a point that the playing field is unfair, or is he wasting his time, his energy, complaining that he is missing an advantage when he should be instead training out defined weaknesses and devising new race strategies?

You can read Lionel’s arguments re: legal drafting (i.e. triathletes remain outside the 10m draft zone thus not illegally drafting, but still gaining an advantage as Lionel believes 20m is required to eliminate drafting completely) here and here on his blog:

I believe Lionel is wasting his time. Here’s why:

Ever watch an international level track & field meet? Ever noticed in track events that there is often a runner who takes the lead right from the starters pistols shot, sometimes even running a few meters ahead of the main pack? Ever noticed that this runner does not complete the race, instead drops out a lap or two before the final lap? This is called a pace runner or a rabbit.  They are hired – paid to set a specific pace in those initial laps – to push the field of runners with the aim that a record is set.

This happens in track, it also happens in road racing. Its legal, and when the race organizers do not hire a rabbit, an athlete representing a country often takes on the role of rabbit for their team pacing their teammates in the hopes of helping one of them, thus their country win. [Drafting on the run offers the equivalent amount of drafting advantage (i.e. 2%) as aero rims, an aero helmet, or a skinsuit in time trial cycling.]

In cycling, sprinters such as Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, and Andre Griepel rely on a lead out train of riders from their team who they draft off (again, legally) and use it as a slingshot to send them to the finish line in hopes of besting all the other sprinters.

The value of a lead out train, pacers, a rabbit is more obvious in cycling then in running, but the effects are similar. In cycling the drafting effect is critical especially when the speed of sprinters is exceeding 50 or 60kph. A draft at that speed is an aerodynamic must-have advantage if the sprint strategy is to pay off at the finish line.

In running, there is a physical draft effect but its benefit is insignificant in comparison to another aspect of pacing strategies: mental drafting. Mental drafting is the result of not having to think about pace, about effort, about anything. Mental drafting allows an athlete to conserve energy, saving their mental faculties for when the race becomes truly challenging. An athlete who has spare mental reserves (i.e. drive, determination, focus due to less mental fatigue) will be in a position to leverage these reserves in the final stages of the race.

In cycling and in triathlons the focus is almost exclusively the physical aspect of drafting, with the mental dimension underappreciated, thus undertrained. To draft mentally, you do need to be in a draft zone (i.e. within proximity to another athlete), but that proximity does not necessarily mean drafting physically. Ever run side by side with another runner and had time fly? Ever ride with a friend, only to look at your bike computer and have to double check to ensure that the speed you saw wasn’t a mistake? That is the benefit of mental drafting.

[Interesting to note that pro triathlete Kirsten Marchant in her blog post  “Moving Forward” where she discusses 70.3 Miami, remarks that: “About 55km in, a fellow Ontario pro, Miranda Tomensen passed me and I knew that the best way to stay focused was to sit behind her (at 12m). I did this all the way back to T2….”.  Seems that Marchant is aware of mental drafting and uses it to her advantage. Also, interesting is that she makes specific reference to being 12m behind Tomensen. Why would that be?]

Go back and watch the track running events from Rio, you will see that in many cases the eventual winner is rarely leading the pack at the start.  Mo Farah, winner of both the 5,000m and 10,000m sat at the back of the pack, rested both physically and mentally, taking the lead only when required to win.

Sanders argues that the 10m draft zone is insufficient, that’s not the point.  The point is that the lead pack of men are not cheating (as is relevant to this post), they are benefiting from mental drafting, legally cooperating to blow every slow swimmer/fast biker-runner up. Sanders is not part of the lead convoy of triathletes out on the bike course because he comes out of the swim minutes back, so he is not able to benefit from the mental drafting that the leaders share. His ‘solution’ to this unfairness is to try and level the playing field by increasing the physical draft zone to a ridiculous size. Seriously?

How bout this… improve your swim technique to the point that you come out with the leaders, ride with them, so you can give a lesson in how running of the bike is supposed to be done. How bout that?

Don’t believe in the benefits of mental drafting? Watch any stage cycling event (e.g. the Tour de France) where a group of as few as 3 or 4 riders attacks, breaks away, and sustains a gap that cannot be closed by the peloton, a peloton made up of the worlds best cyclists even while having 150km+ in the stage to do so.

Point #1 – If a rabbit is used to help athletes attempt a World Record in running, then the value in a convoy of cyclists must be exponential. The issue then is not why do packs form… the issue is why isn’t every pro training their swim in order to be up in the lead pack? The days when you could ‘survive’ the swim in a long course triathlon and still be competitive are gone.

How do you quantify mental drafting?  How do you quantify the energy saved by an athlete not having to think about pace, an athlete not having to invest considerable effort into reading their exertion level? How do you calculate and convert into wattage the boost in confidence, the sense of empowerment of being in the lead out train, in a breakaway group? You cannot.

Not everything that is measured matters, and not everything that matters can be measured.

The statement above is undoubtedly heresy to most amateur and pro athletes as well as their coaches these days as training and competing paradigms are centered around spreadsheets and online training platforms, and loads and loads of numbers. Problem is that denying reality does nothing to improve you as an athlete.

Sanders’ power meter data does not validate his argument because selecting one data set because it supports an hypothesis while denying all other relevant data is bias. Its like going to a Gatorade – parent co. Pepsi – sponsored hydration lab to find out if consumption of sports drinks is necessary? Is there any doubt what a professor working in a university lab sponsored by a line of products significant to Pepsi’s sales hence stock price, will conclude? No doubt. The effects of mental drafting may not appear on a power meter but that doesn’t mean the effect does not occur, is not real, or that its impact is insignificant on performance.

Competition at the international level is anything but uni-dimensional (i.e. raw power and nothing else), instead they are multi-dimensional efforts requiring athletes to utilize every skill and strategy across all faculties – mental, emotional, and physical – to prevail.

Furthermore, complaining that a race strategy works at the regional level but doesn’t at the international level doesn’t correlate to everyone at the international level cheating; it does suggest though that the athlete relying on one single strategy, is stuck.

When all you have is a hammer, all your problems start to look like nails.

Conversely, when all you see is nails, all you have in your shed is a hammer.

If world class athletes such as 2x Ironman World Champion Daniela Ryf and 4x Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington do not depend on power while racing, instead rely on developed skills of self awareness to guide their efforts then that should be an indicator that it ain’t enough to be able to grind out watts.

Point #2 – The value of “mental drafting” cannot be calculated; despite the fact it doesn’t appear on power meters doesn’t render it void, nor does it turn everyone into a cheat.

Point #3 – Maybe its time to build a new tool? Every problem cannot be solved with a hammer.  Sometimes a saw, a screwdriver, a chisel… is more efficient.

Sanders has knowingly or unknowingly mentioned mental drafting in his blog when referring to how he overtakes athletes on the bike: he blows past (e.g. Mt Tremblant blog). Why? Sanders knows that when passing slowly there is the chance that the other athlete could ‘latch’ on to the pace. Marchant took advantage of this phenomenon at 70.3 Miami, helping her make it into T2 far faster than if she pulled herself along alone; or if not faster than at least less mentally spent.

What is latching? Its mental drafting: the athlete who latches onto another, gains the ability to conserve mental energy by not having to focus on pace & pacing, thereby translates this energy into physical energy to be able to hold a pace that they could not on their own.

Its not illegal to translate one form of energy into another.  So why is Sanders complaining about it when he takes specific steps to thwart it being used as a weapon against him? Is it because his race strategy leaves no room for cooperation, is it because his strategy has no response to this form of legal “mental drafting”, is it because he cannot thwart the advantage of group think when used legally?  It is definitely not the problem of the pro field of men, its Sanders’.

Point #4 – Charles Darwin stated that survival of the fittest comes down to those who are able to adapt. Its not watts that will win, its creativity in strategy. What Sanders’ is crying about is that the sport of triathlon is evolving; problem is that as powerful as dinosaurs were it didn’t prevent them from going extinct. Winning at the highest level of competition is about adaptation, not mano a mano measures of physicality. Physical capacity is a given at the World level, Michael Phelps even says that, but its mental and emotional flexibility, nimbleness, creativity, self awareness and flow which are the tools of consistent World Champions.

What happens when an athlete is passed, and unable to latch onto the pace? Often you can see them crumble, collapsing at the core, their body language communicating… defeat. This is an incredibly powerful strategy and to write about it is not gaining you any support Lionel, you are only serving to strengthen your competitors, opening up and offering to them your Achilles heel.

Canadian triathlete Simon Whitfield won Olympic gold at the inaugural Olympic triathlon in 2000, and won Olympic silver in 2008 in Beijing. In preparation for the 2012 Olympics, Simon Whitfield believed that he had to evolve his racing strategy in order to remain competitive, in order to be able to stand atop of the podium.  To do so, Simon took a strategy from running: use a rabbit.

Partnering with fellow Canadian triathlete Kyle Jones, the strategy was that Kyle would serve as Simon’s rabbit. This strategy was to offer the following benefits to Simon:

  1. If Simon came out of the swim behind the lead pack of men, Simon would be able to (legally) draft off Kyle on the bike, Kyle being Simon’s lead out man would pull him up to the leaders.  Simon would expend less energy to catch the leaders with Kyle’s help, then if he was on his own. This strategy would offer him the chance to still have legs on the run.
  2. If Simon came out with the leaders of the swim, then Kyle’s duties would be to attack on the bike causing the lead men to have to expend energy to reel him in after each attack, allowing Simon to chill out, expend less energy than his competitors, resting in preparation for the run (while watching Kyle make everyone else play cat and mouse).
  3. If Simon and Kyle were both in an attack position at the end of the bike, then together they would be a formidable force in the run. Kyle would be in position to rabbit for Simon, giving Simon the mental rest to focus for attacks from competitors, for a final sprint.

Point #5 – To complain about drafting is to complain against the strategy that Simon Whitfield devised as a strategy to win Olympic gold. A strategy now making its way into long course competitions.

Point #6 – To complain about drafting is to complain that the sport of triathlon evolving: where athletes cooperate creating individual advantages for themselves, without that cooperation being premeditated.

Point #7 – Of course there is power in unity, why wouldn’t the lead swimmers in a triathlon unite to force stronger cyclists and runners to have to expend energy to take the lead? Its called smart racing as it is a smart strategy to force the hand of a competitor if able to do so, and it communicates loudly who is in control of the race.

Triathlon may be an individual sport, but that does not mean there isn’t teamwork or that teamwork is impossible or illegal during the race. Consider that in the sport of cycling there are powerful teams, with huge sponsors backing them, yet riders in a breakaway are more often than not from different teams yet they work together in order to try and win the stage. Is that cheating? Is that violating any loyalty to your team, teammates, team manager, or sponsors? Not at all. Its called race strategy.

If nothing else, the team sponsor of the rider in the breakaway gets millions of dollars of TV time advertising their brand, and that’s when the athlete doesn’t even win the stage.

What about this…. how long will it be for a Whitfield-Jones strategy arrives in Kona? A multi-athlete sponsored team already exists (Bahrain Endurance)… so how long before those athletes are organized no different than a World Tour cycling team at the Tour de France, where domestiques protect and guide a team leader positioning them to take the win? At the Tour de France, one cyclist stands a top the podium in Paris, but its a team that carries them to it. No different, winning in Kona can remain an individual success, but nothing stops a team of lieutenants from legally pacing and drafting a team captain in the swim, bike, and run portions.

Then what? Either Sanders will become good enough of a swimmer to be on such a team to serve as a lieutenant, or become a contender for the podium serving as captain (which again requires top level swimming ability), or…. or what? There are no solo riders in the Tour.

What about Kienle and Frodeno working together during the 2016 Ironman World Champs on the run portion? Did we witness an unspoken German alliance out on the run course? What if they were working to push the pace together? Are Kienle and Frodeno guilty of anything? Absolutely not. That is unless you are bent on making creativity in race strategy a crime.

Point #8 – There is a difference between teamwork and teaming up in an individual sport, and cheating. If an athlete is out of their league as a result of having only one strategy – go solo – it doesn’t mean everyone else cheats because they unite in an effort to push each other to their potential, or to leave others in the dust.

Point #9 – Craig Alexander was ganged upon by his long time adversary McCormack at Ironman WC 2010 with the intent of weakening him before the marathon. This race strategy was no different than Simon Whitfield’s for London 2012, except that McCormack had a hit list with one name on it: Alexander. So Crowie’s endorsement of the draft issue fails to make it valid. In fact, its a threatened athlete that has to round up a posse to try and take down a competitor. Alexander should stand tall that it took Macca and the entire pro field of men to prevent him from winning. In my opinion, on that day in 2010, Alexander didn’t lose, he was crowned World Champion by his peers, far more significant than by some announcer at some finish line. When you cross a finish line first… maybe you were good, maybe everyone else had an off day, no one really knows. But, when everyone gangs up to try and hold you back… there is no denying you are good, no matter when you cross the finish line.

In a recent interview with former pro cyclist and husband of 2016 Rio Olympic gold medalist in triathlon and multi-ITU Champ Gwen Jorgensen, Patrick Lemieux responded as follows to a few questions:

In response to whether or not he believes ITU athletes would be competitive as pro cyclists, Lemieux responded that they would be all fantastic cyclists.  Not only do they have the physical level of ability, but they are equally mentally prepared, calling them “savvy.”

In response to whether or not he believes there has been evolution in the sport of triathlon, Lemieux replied that 2014-2016 ushered in a new era where if you were not in the lead pack of swimmers, your chances of a podium became next to nothing.

Point #10 – Gwen Jorgensen was an All American swimmer and runner, cycling was her weakness.  Did she complain? Nope. She trained. Now her husband believes that she would be competitive at the Cat 1-2 level of cycling because she focused on becoming better.  Ahead of Rio, ahead of a bike course which scared her, Gwen pushed further into her fears (instead of complaining that the bike course was technical and unfair):

Lionel if you want to raise your game, rise to your potential, here is some unsolicited coaching:

  1. Stop looking backwards, start looking forwards.  Triathlon is not going back to the way it was when you started in 2010.  If you are training and racing staring in the rear view mirror, then you are preparing to win yesterdays races, not tomorrows.  As a result, you will constantly be on the defensive as you will be unprepared for the tactics and strategies of your current competitors, and utterly blindsided by new competitors.
  2. Start planning for tomorrow, start planning for what happens when top ITU athletes of today start migrating into long course racing, bringing along with them not only their speed but their strategies… a long list of strategies completely foreign to any athlete who has not competed short course (like yourself). If you are not studying short course racing, you are going to be blindsided by these competitors. Jan Frodeno is just the beginning… just wait for Gomez, the Brownlee brothers, Mola, Murray or whoever joins in. Just wait, the guys who can swim fast, then ride fast, then run fast are coming. Iron distance races haven’t seen anything yet.
  3. Start plotting your evolution. This requires giving up your status quo…
    • Do It Yourself (DIY) solo training got you to where you are and that’s great, but it ain’t gonna take you where you want to be. Gwen Jorgensen got out and trained with top cyclists to become a top cyclist, and trained with top coaches specific to disciplines in which she was weak.
    • Do It Yourself (DIY) racing got you to where you are and that’s great, but it ain’t gonna take you where you want to go. You will need to open your mind to new strategies which will require you to start studying all triathlon events. I would encourage you to start also study the tactics used in the standalone sports of swimming, cycling, and running. Who knows who the next top competitor will be in triathlon, and what background they will have. Why not have an edge that they don’t expect you to have?
    • Surviving the swim and attempting to recover on the bike – like all strategies – works until it doesn’t.  This year may mark the end of success with this strategy (maybe I’m wrong, but with top ITU pros coming up to long course, I don’t think so). Its time to become a swimmer at a level equivalent to that of the men who are leading the swim, who are winning the events you want to win… like Frodeno.
    • Swimming undisturbed is possible when no one sees you as a threat, what happens if you run into a Harry Wiltshire intent on swimming on top of you? Becoming an OK swimmer isn’t enough, you need to be competitive with the best, and that includes having the capacity to handle swimmers trying to swim on top of you.
    • You have no choice.  You revealed your hand by complaining about legal drafting, you revealed you have no other cards to play… to remain relevant, you have to evolve.
  4. While racing, if you are expending any and I mean any amount of energy grumbling and mumbling to yourself about how unfair triathlon is, consider:
    • Whether you are building your love of the sport, or are you sowing the first seeds of hate, envy, and jealousy… seeds which when full grown lead you only into darkness. Do not turn the light which brought you out of the darkness, off. Figure out how to get that light to burn brighter in you… that is the path.
    • The energy you are wasting thinking about your competitors, is energy that would be far better spent focused on your own race. You are giving away your training, allowing your thoughts to sabotage and steal your training, your energy, your joy and pleasure of being alive and being a pro athlete from you. You are giving away podium positions, for what? Anger? Enjoy the process, because when you do turn the tables on your competitors, consider how you will want them to respond to your success? With anger, or happy for you, happy it was you who won? No one wants to celebrate alone.
  5. Training and racing are not uni-dimensional, physical only, efforts.  Sport at the highest level is a multi-dimensional competition: only the top physically, mentally and emotionally win consistently. If all you are doing is training physically, then prepare only to win regional races, not against an international field. If you want to win consistently at the international level, you need to train multi-dimensionally. Widen your net so you may cast a wider net.
  6. Want to reward your sponsors Lionel? Then become a fast swimmer, because the fastest swimmers have the chance at the longest TV coverage by being out in front. Technically you could offer your sponsors a full hour of TV coverage (whether you win or not in Kona) because if you came out of the swim in the lead, you would be on camera from that moment until the end of the race based on your cycling and running abilities.  Think about that Lionel… whats an hour of TV worth to a sponsor whose logo is plastered on an athlete in the lead pack of the Ironman World Champs in Hawaii? Then on triathlon websites the world around. Then on a box of Shreddies. Hmm…. it may actually pay better to train out a weakness, instead of continuing to pound on a strength. Marginal returns or maximum returns? What do you want? What do your sponsors want?

Finally, drop the drafting issues. Its not whether you are right or wrong, its about the issue stealing your potential. I do not believe you want to be remembered as the pro who became obsessed with legal drafting violations, and who as a result failed to make the podium in Kona.

Refocus on why you love the sport. Zone in on your weaknesses, train them til you have eliminated them, and you will make leaps that you wouldn’t believe were possible.

Plus… what happens if you develop or refine a strategy, like Michael Phelps with the underwater dolphin kick, which renders you the most decorated triathlete of all time?

Do you want to be called a cheat and loathed for developing a new strategy or a genius and respected as a legend in the sport?

2 thoughts on “Is Sanders Stuck?

  1. MGrodski Post author

    Well that didn’t take long…


    “According to Toronto Triathlon Festival’s website, “Team draft legal racing is popular in Europe and the TTF wants to bring it to Ontario as we are always looking for ways to enhance the athlete experience. It creates a race within a race (e.g., team members can work together, someone can play a ‘domestique’ role, teams can strategize in order to play to each other’s strengths). This team racing concept is set to make its debut at Triathlon Ontario’s Draft Legal Provincial Championships in August.”

    If its already at the sprint distance level, how long til TEAM triathlon racing takes hold in iron distances events as suggested in the blog post?

    If you have any desire to become a triathlon pro, you need to consider where the sport is going, not where it is today, and now where it used to be.

  2. MGrodski Post author

    In a recent article titled: Lionel Sanders: “I believe we have entered a new era of long course racing”, Sanders responds in a Q&A as follows…

    Commentators referred to you and Kienle “working together on the bike” to close the gap on Alistair Brownlee. Was that a pre-meditated plan? It was not a pre-meditated plan, no, but once I bridged the gap to Sebastian, I knew we’d likely have to work together if we were going to put any time into Alistair. Unfortunately, I was having a pretty flat day on the bike and we were unable to pull back time.

    Wait a tic… wasn’t Sanders crying a river regarding the race in Mooloolaba (Ironman 70.3 Sunshine Coast), how everyone was ‘working together’ on the bike and that prevented him from gaining on the lead pack of men and thus putting him out of podium positions.

    But now… Sanders admits to collaborating with Kienle to try and take down Alistair Brownlee and that is A-OK. Ever hear of double standards Sanders?

    A class champion… Alistair Brownlee. He doesnt complain, he just puts his head down and races. Its worth taking note how a champion carries themselves.


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