I was recently reviewing 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.”
Vande 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.
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: lsanderstri.com.
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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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 Slowtwitch.com 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
Champions bounce: a traumatic brain injury, numerous broken bones, facial lacerations, and surgery after surgery do not hold down champions.
On the final day of the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, Jamis-Hagens Berman rider Ian Crane crashed head first into, and through the back window of the Cannondale team car.
When the recovery process from the initial injuries were starting to mend, and clearance was given to remove the neck brace, it was then that neurologists noticed a cyst growing at an alarming rate in his brain.
Back to surgery, back to square one. Ian’s return to the pro peloton isn’t guaranteed; no matter, champions bounce. Wherever and whenever Ian Crane does arise, it will be with the attitude of a champion. Ian’s attitude is evident in the manner he approaches his rehabilitation, how he reflects on the accident… without blame, without self pity, instead with gratefulness to be alive, and an renewed appreciation for his love of cycling.
Champions do not fear falling, failure, or losing, because the lessons learnt at the bottom, and in the climb up from the bottom cannot be gained any other way. If to learn of your true love, your passion, your purpose is to be found in this process, then isn’t the value gained worth far more than anything lost?
Link to a Wired magazine article on General George Patton participating in the pentathlon.
Champions may lose, but they don’t become losers. Champions may be temporarily disappointed with a sub-par performance, but they don’t remain disappointed. They decide to learn, taking the lessons to start over with a stronger desire to succeed… and sometimes, they decide to start over moving in an entirely new direction.
After finishing dead last… Ryan Hall found his true calling
An excerpt from “Dead Freakin’ Last…“, a Runner’s World article.
Ryan Hall (b. October 14, 1982- ) is a two-time U.S. Olympic marathoner and the American record holder in the half marathon.
Hall’s 2:04:58 at the 2011 Boston Marathon is the fastest marathon ever run by an American; the time doesn’t count as the American marathon because Boston’s point-to-point, net-elevation-loss course makes it ineligible for record purposes.
After graduating from Stanford in 2005, Hall began his professional career as a 5,000-meter runner, and represented the United States in the event at the 2005 world championships. He soon after concentrated on road racing, starting with the national 20K title in the fall of 2006. Hall’s big road breakthrough came at the Houston Half Marathon in January 2007. He won in 59:43, an American record. Hall remains the only American to have broken an hour for the half marathon.
Hall made his marathon debut at the 2007 London Marathon, where he placed seventh in 2:08:24. The time is the American record for a debut marathon.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Thomas A. Edison
TEDxPSU talk by US Olympic rower Natalie Dell O’Brien titled: Why Losing Matters
Champions understand that successes do not arise only from chosen definitions of success, they accept wins – just like their loses – from whichever direction they come. An Olympic bronze medal may have not been the success dreamt of, nor the motivation used to focus, but champions are open to counting all their victories as successes, even when not anticipated.
The Olympic bronze wasn’t the victory hoped for, but being the first team for your country ever to medal in the event was perhaps the real reward, perhaps the best reward possible?
In some sports standing 6’5″ would be an advantage, not in track & field sprint events, and not before Usain Bolt. In the past, track and field coaches sought shorter athletes for sprint events: Tyson Gay is 5’11”, Justin Gatlin 6’1′, Donovan Bailey 6’1″, and Andre De Grasse is 5’9″. The belief was that taller athletes wouldn’t be able to match the acceleration of a shorter athlete, rendering whatever top end speed and endurance they could achieve useless as the belief was that the race would be over before these factors could come into play.
Not so. Usain Bolt has proved this belief to be wrong, all wrong. Usain Bolt is indeed slower out of the blocks, but it doesn’t take him long before he accelerates to top speed, and past his competition. In this video, Bolt reviews his approach to competing in the 100m event:
Amazing isn’t it how a disadvantage changes to an advantage: all it takes is one to prove the old manner of thinking wrong. You would think that with all of our scientific advances, our modern research in biology, physiology, biomechanics, and engineering we would not still be closed minded to alternative approaches to solving problems. Clearly, old habits, old beliefs, the old way dies hard.
Although Usain Bolt may now be recognized as having a physical advantage in his stature, he does possess what would initially be considered a disadvantage: a significant scoliosis (a twisting of his spine). Bolt has had consultations with numerous medical orthopaedic specialists; however, the ongoing solution is daily training of his core. Bolt performs an hour+ of stretching and strengthening exercises to be able to endure training for his sprinting events.
Champions do not see dead ends, they see challenges, obstacles, maybe a road block, but they never see any of them as impassable or impossible. Usain Bolt has defied the status quo beliefs as to what makes an Olympic level sprinter… thats what champions do. In this video, Usain Bolt reflects on the effort to train to pursue his potential…
A highly underrated skill – especially in the mental dimension of performance – is knowing what you bring to the table, and equally knowing where you lack in knowledge, wisdom, insight, experience, and where you need guidance. Champions remain humble because they know that it is what they don’t know, what they do not perceive which limits them, their limits are in their weaknesses not their strengths.
In this video, Coach Glen Mills details the skills – the science of training and competing – which Usain Bolt was lacking…
You can pick out champion by how they makes those around them feel…
Usain Bolt stands out amongst his competition in one way we have all come to love… he knows how to engage the crowd, he knows how to use their energy, he has learnt how to channel the hunger for a World Record, for a world class effort, for a peak performance to drive him to record after record, and gold medal after gold medal. How? He enjoys himself every moment.
If everyone is cheering for him, and few are cheering for his competitors then does he not have the most unique advantage on his side? The energy, the goodwill, the cheers of ten of thousands pushing him, willing him, driving him faster than he has ever gone?
Former Irish athlete and 5,000m world champion Eamonn Coghlan travels to Kenya’s highlands to uncover a little-known story – the role of Irish missionaries in securing Kenya’s dominance in world athletics. He meets Brother Colm O’Connell, a modest priest who played a major role in fostering Kenyan distance running and who is now considered one of the world’s top athletics coaches. Watching him train the 800m world-record holder David Rudisha, Eamonn observes at first-hand his unlikely but lasting legacy. Part travelogue, part tribute, the documentary also features an interview with Eamonn’s childhood hero, the great Olympic athlete Kip Keino.
Most impressive is how Brother O’Connell coaches the World Record holder, Olympic gold medalist, and World Champion David Rudisha to return to training with the most junior athletes. Shouldn’t the reigning 800m champion train only with the highest level athletes, only with those who will push him to his limits? Shouldn’t an Olympian train only in the finest of facilities, in a high performance center surrounding by the latest technology, physiological testing capabilities?
Brother O’Connell knows what makes a champion a true champion, a consistent champion… the willingness to return to the basics, joy in the simplicity of sport, a humility of openness to starting from scratch over and over in an effort to refine technique even further. That David Rudisha returns to his roots demonstrates that true champions know just as well that this is the key to success.
Joshua Waitzkin (born December 4, 1976) is an American chess player, martial arts competitor, and author. As a child, he was recognized as a prodigy, and won the U.S. Junior Chess championship in 1993 and 1994. He is the only person to have won the National Primary, Elementary, Junior High School, High School, U.S. Cadet, and U.S. Junior Closed chess championships in his career. The movie Searching for Bobby Fischer is based on his early life.
For Michael Phelps whose goal was that swimming would be as big as the big four (i.e. hockey, baseball, basketball, football), his goal would be pointless if his achievements were beyond the imagination of those who watched him win eight gold medals in Beijing. For swimming to gain in popularity, the next generation of athletes must feel inspired that opportunity exists for them too, and that pursuing it is worthy.
This post has been written out of respect for Michael Phelps’ goal and aims to further encourage those he inspired. This post was written to demonstrate that this champion trained his way to his achievements, not as often suggested that his success is the result of luck, winning the genetic lottery, ‘born/natural talent’ or for any other reason that detracts from his relentless pursuit of a dream, his unwavering commitment, tireless dedication, perseverance, and tenacity. These are all attributes available to anyone hungry enough to dedicate themselves to a dream, willing to invest in the training, to those who commit fully to discovering their potential.
If a size 14 foot, if a wing span wider than one’s height, if a specific torso:leg length ratio is critical to success, then we should be able to do two things: (a) predict who will win every event based solely on such measures, and (b) assess age group athletes with the goal of sorting them so as to direct them to the sport which suits their frame. The result should be a steady stream of superior sport specific athletes and predictable champions (i.e. the concept of the movie Gattaca).
If this was possible, then in 1988 a 17 year old 5’2″ swimmer, who stood against women who towered over her by 6 to 8″, who outweighed her 99 lbs frame by an equivalent amount should never have won Olympic gold, nor set World Records which withstood years of international competition. Along this line of thinking, Janet Evans should never have been allowed to become a swimmer because she wasn’t the right size.
If a size 14 foot is the equivalent of a flipper, then Ian Thorpe’s size 17 feet are whale fins in comparison. Michael Phelps with size 14 feet should have quit before he started. Why bother training to be a swimmer if foot size is indicative of ability, of potential, of success?
NO athlete, NO coach, NO parent should ever evaluate potential based on physical attributes.
“There is no gene for the human spirit“, from the movie Gattaca
Rajat Mittal, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University has studied swimmers – including Phelps – at his computational fluid dynamics lab. In his studies on stroke technique, kick strength, shape, and size, he noticed two attributes of Phelps that made him stand out in comparison to other top athletes: his flexibility, and his ability to hold his breathe.
Michael Phelps describes his flexibility as ‘double jointed’, he can point his feet like a ballerina and can retract his shoulder blades, extend his elbows and bend his wrists more than ‘normal’. If there is any attribute which could be deemed ‘talent’ then perhaps it is flexibility. The ability to place one’s body into positions that competitors cannot, provides unimagineable advantages which rarely can be overcome by force. But flexibility – like all attributes – is a skill, and as a skill, it can be trained, developed, improved, and honed to a level of excellence.
Attend the training session of a gymnastics team, a dance troupe, or at a martial art dojo and you will come to appreciate that flexibility is pivotal to these forms of physical performance. As such, flexibility is not treated as something you have or do not have, it is trained, daily, and at times for hour after hour.
It can be argued that Phelps was blessed with a level of flexibility that was greater than average, but flexibility isn’t static. If it isn’t trained, practiced, incorporated into daily workouts, then it will diminish (like anything else… if you don’t use it or practice it then you lose the ease and sharpness which comes with daily training). If top athletes stretch routinely, then flexibility cannot be deemed ‘born talent’ which simply awaits use in competition, it is indeed a skill. If any athlete wants to exceed the records establish by Phelps, then there is one thing that surely must be done… stretch more than Phelps does, explore a range of motion that Phelps has not, and do it daily.
Able to Hold A Breathe
A skill which is likely not even considered a skill, and rarely considered predictive of athletic potential is breathe control: the ability to modify, adjust, and utilize one’s breathing pattern, rate, and volume, leveraging it to amplify the range of technique and/or as a source of power.
Ask an age group or masters athlete if they have considered if there is anything to breathing beyond inhaling & exhaling and most will reply that they have not thought about it. The only occasion when breathing becomes relevant is when they are short of it at the end of an effort.
Breathing is critical to all sports. Olympic weight lifting relies on a lift to be synchronized to breathing to leverage the stability provided to the upper extremities thru the thorax when at capacity at the peak of inhalation (i.e. to initiate the lift), then using the elastic properties of the rib cage, the weight is propelled overhead. Sprinters use breathing in a manner not dissimilar from weight lifters. Distance athletes regulate breathing to titrate carbon dioxide levels maintaining a physiological state to maximize endurance, while at the same time reserving capacity to deliver instantaneous bursts of speed and strength in response to attacks and surges from competitors, or as a component of their competition strategy to test or escape the lead pack.
If the desire to achieve a dream exists, then learning how to
breathe effectively becomes a teachable and learnable skill. The docu-drama titled “Chasing Mavericks” on the life of American soul-surfer Jay Moriarity whose desire to surf the largest waves off the coast of California led him to train to hold his breathe for 4mins: the length of time a wave can hold you under if you fall off your board. His mentor – played by Gerard Butler – refuses to allow Jay to attempt riding any ‘Maverick’ wave until he gains what appears to be a simple skill on the surface. The skill turns out to be a formidable challenge to develop, but it is one which ends up saving his life.
Coach Bob Bowman realized that Michael’s uncontrolled energy – as a teen – could either be harnessed, or it could be what unravels Michael, destroying both athlete and dream. Bowman involved Michael’s mom, asking her to read nightly to Michael passages on relaxation, meditation, focus, and had Michael practice techniques which allowed him to learn to engage his energy when needed, sit on it through times of waiting, or allow it to dissipate when not needed. A predisposition to peace, focus, and steadiness was unnatural to Michael, as he was prone to throwing temper tantrums. It was this training that allowed Michael to learn how to minimize, and eventually eliminate his distract-ability, to gain the skill of becoming grounded, to centre himself, to fine tuning concentration to the cold fixed gaze we consistently see from him in marshaling areas prior to events at competitions. Michael’s training has led to his ability to move from an ‘off’ to ‘on’ state at will, preventing energy – be it physical, mental, or emotional energy – from being wasted, while ensuring that when called upon, it is unleashed, with the specific intent of delivering the highest quality performance in training and when competing, time and again. Michael’s focus is the outcome of the love, the gentleness, and the discipline that was shown to him, and taught by his supportive coach and family.
Excerpt from Breaking Muscle article titled: “The People You Think Are Naturally Good Are Actually Just Practicing“:
“A recent study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined 520 Spanish volleyball players between twelve to sixteen years old. Each player recorded his hours spent training per week and then took a pop quiz. The test measured his knowledge of volleyball: dimensions of the court, responsibilities of each position, characteristics of the ball, and correct reactions to different in-game scenarios.
This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and the 10,000-hour rule. Gladwell claims that great success results from a great time investment: 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. So when you look at someone perform a task effortlessly and think, “Geez, that is so difficult for me and it’s always been so easy for him.” Wrong. It really hasn’t always been easy for him. As a matter of fact, he had to screw it up before he could demonstrate the flawless execution that now makes your jaw drop.”
It takes years, not hours, not days, not weeks, not even months, but year after year of repetition, of consistent training performed with specific intent…
Michael Phelps on the starting blocks in 1997, at 11 years of age; in 2009 at FINA World Championships at the age of 24; in 2015 at the Phillips 66 Nationals at the age 30. Notice anything about his pre-race routine?
Prior to the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps trained twice a day for 5 years without a day off.
Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps had been training for over 10 years. At an average of 5 hrs a day, 7 days a week, his training adds up to over 20,000 hrs. The consistency speaks both to Phelps’ dedication, and to the genius of Coach Bob Bowman who trained Michael without excess, without over-training, peaking him perfectly competition after competition.
Champions are built, not born.
If Michael’s gold medals looked easy to onlookers, then perhaps it has something to do with a lifetime devoted to a dream… not due to ‘born talent’, not a lucky streak or break, not big feet, long arms and short legs. Honestly, if you trained for that many hours wouldn’t you want your effort recognized, not rationalized as random, or written off due to natural endowment?
Peak performance is a process, not a point in time. If it results in numerous Olympic medals or not is irrelevant. The intimate experience which is a peak performance is reserved for the athlete alone as it is only they who know exactly what had to be overcome, what had to be learnt, practiced, memorized, sacrificed, and who they had to become in order to be able to explore their potential, and to find their moments.
If you are convinced that ability is endowed by birth right, then you remove yourself from the journey of pursuing your own potential as you entomb your dreams in a Fixed Mindset. If on the other hand, you dare to dream, dare to believe that your potential is on the other side of learning a specific set of skills, which when mastered will open doors to you that lead to the ‘impossible’, then your courage to believe that which few permit will take you on an amazing journey leading to fulfillment unlike any other.
Michael’s primary goal was not Olympic gold, but increasing the interest and involvement in the sport of swimming; based on USA Swimming membership statistics he and the entire team representing the US succeeded. After both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, annual USA Swimming membership rose double digits, a rate not seen since Barcelona in 1992. A USA Swimming release to swimswam.com states: “the end of the four-year quad surrounding the 2012 Olympics also brings to a close the most successful quad for year-round athlete membership. There was a 19% increase in total number of athletes stretching from 2010-13. During the four-year span, USA Swimming gained more than 54,000 athletes.” In 2015, membership in USA Swimming has surpassed a total of 400,000 athletes & non-athletes. Congratulations Michael.