A Coach’s Take: Lance’s Half-Ironman Fizzle
I happened to have ringside seats for the much-anticipated Half-Ironman in Galveston, Texas, a few weeks ago when Lance Armstrong raced his first triathlon on U.S. soil since the 1990s. Lance, who had recently done well in Panama, held his own in the swim and dominated the bike portion of the race, surging into a commanding first-place position. But his day ended with a disappointing seventh after he was forced to walk part of the half-marathon.
So what went wrong? How does an athlete like Armstrong implode in a race like this? I believe Lance could bring fantastic exposure to the sport of triathlon, but not when video clips of him hanging his head at the finish line hit ESPN, as they did after Galveston. So, in the spirit of not discouraging potential or fellow triathletes (after all, if Lance bonks, why wouldn't you?) here are my observations based on the day’s conditions. I didn't speak with Lance after the race, nor do I know what his cooling, hydration and nutrition strategies were, but some of the approaches described might have made for a more successful race, and possibly won the day.
1) Windy Bike Course Strategy
Galveston was a windy race. Anytime you’re cycling into a headwind, or with fierce crosswinds, you have more incentive to stay tucked in an aerodynamic position on the bike. But this inevitably makes it harder to hydrate and fuel properly. As a seasoned cyclist, Lance may be used to hammering through a bike course on the short end of the fueling and hydration stick, but he may be not so accustomed to having to run hard afterwards. On a windy course like this, I’d have recommended choosing a front mounted aerodynamic water bottle, which requires very little handling and easy straw access for drinking, combined with fast-opening gels kept in a wind-sheltered location, such as up the side of the shorts legs.
2) Hot Weather Cooling
The run course was exposed to the sun, and warm by 9:30am, when the pro male triathletes were hitting the run course. In conditions like this, it’s essential for a hard-charging athlete like Lance to keep the core cool, and this can be accomplished by: drinking icy cold water or quickly grabbing ice to chew at aid stations; holding a frozen palm cooling device or small frozen water bottle flask; or even using cooling gear like a xylitol-infused hat or arm cooling sleeves. While these may seem like geeky, propeller-head choices, they can pay dividends, especially for athletes who may not be used to running hard after a long bike leg in hot weather.
3) Hot Weather Nutrition
If sodium and electrolyte intake is high during the bike, or even in the days leading up to the race, then sodium excretion by the kidneys will also be high. Since electrolyte intake drives electrolyte excretion, if you begin using electrolytes or a high-salt diet to prepare for the race, you need to keep the salts coming in until you cross the finish line. Otherwise, cramping, loss of neuromuscular efficiency, and dilution of the body fluids occurs. The only two viable solutions are to either not use electrolytes at all, or to use electrolytes consistently during the entire event. In addition, most energy gels are made of maltodextrin and fructose, which are concentrated carbohydrate solutions that have a greater heat production upon oxidation compared to sucrose or glucose (found in sources such as fruit or soda). So when running in hot conditions, a glucose or sucrose based liquid solution can be superior to grabbing the maltodextrin and fructose containing course gels, and this would probably have been a good choice for Lance.
Special thanks to photographer Andrew Loehman for being in the right place at the right time.