Post-Texas Paradigm Shift

I’ve now had plenty of time to reflect on Ironman Texas. I’ll be honest with you. In the first few days after the race, I was in complete shock. In what I had intended on being the best race of my life, I performed the worst. I had a decent swim and a good first three hours on the bike. But in the final hour on the bike I pushed a wattage that I would normally push on my “easy” days. And then I ran a marathon at slower than I normally do my “active recovery” runs. To train so hard for something and then perform so far from what was expected, was a difficult pill to swallow.

What made it even more difficult was that I was in the best shape of my life going into the race. In the months leading into the race, I had exceeded all of my best pool times, all of my best bike wattages, and did many workouts on the run that were comparable to the best workouts I’ve done since starting to train for triathlon. I was having an experience very similar to the experience I had after St. George 70.3 in 2014 where I was beaten by 10 minutes i.e. “how the heck am I going to make up that much time?” But, as they say, time heals all wounds. Eventually I started to get my wits about me and I began applying the same process I’ve used to make all of my improvements: critical analysis.

The first thing that should be noted is what I said above, that “I had a decent swim and a good first three hours on the bike.” That totals about four hours of racing. That just so happens to be about how long it takes me to complete a half-Ironman. Thus, it seems possible that something began to play a factor in this race, that doesn’t play nearly as much of a factor in a 70.3. By about five hours of racing in Texas, I was beginning to feel woozy and dizzy, something I have never experienced in a 70.3.

Was it the swim? I didn’t have a swim at Ironman Florida. But I’ve swam 4 kilometers many times in practice and then done hard bikes and runs after, that looked nothing like the final four hours in Texas. It’s possible that the swim took a little out of me, but not enough to account for such a massive performance deficit on the run.

Was it the bike wattage or pacing? I’ve pushed the power output I pushed in Texas on many occasions in practice, for the duration I pushed it in Texas, and then ran significantly better off of it. At Ironman Florida, I pushed 13w more than I pushed in Texas and then ran a 2:44 marathon off of it, with the first half of the marathon in 1:17. I’ve also pushed the power WAY more sporadically in 70.3s and ran significantly better off of it. The effort on the bike could have played a role, but if it had, it was difficult to ascertain why my run performance in Florida was so much different.

Was it my nutrition? On the bike, I consumed approximately 400 calories per hour. According to many scientists, that is pretty close to the maximum amount of carbohydrate that the gut can absorb per hour during exercise. So if nutrition was the reason, there wasn’t much I could do about it. Though, I have experienced “bonking” on several occasions, and the way I felt in Texas was nothing like any “bonk” I had experienced before.

The only major difference between Ironman Florida and Ironman Texas was the heat. According to my Garmin, the average temperature on the bike in Florida was 13C (or 55.4F) with a maximum temperature of 20C (68F). According to my Garmin, the average temperature on the bike in Texas was 24C (75F), with a maximum of 30C (86F). But that doesn’t tell the whole story. I looked up the historical weather data for Panama City Beach on November 1st 2014, and the average humidity level that day was 50. The average humidity in The Woodlands on May 16th 2015 was 82.

Based on this data I started to think that the major reason for my performance was that I was not properly acclimatized to the conditions. The conditions were rather extreme, but my training room is always warm and humid. Not HOT and humid, but WARM and humid. It was difficult to believe that the way I felt on the marathon in Texas was purely a byproduct of having not acclimated to the heat.

My final suspicion was that the performance had something to do with an electrolyte imbalance. This was a topic that I had absolutely no knowledge of. I had no idea what sort of effect an electrolyte imbalance would have on my performance, but off a google search of some scholarly articles it seemed like this could have played a major role.

So, this past Wednesday, I went to the Gatorade Performance Centre in Guelph and had a sweat test done. Long story short, I cycled in a “heat chamber” for 90 minutes at my Ironman race wattage and then ran 60 minutes on the treadmill, also in the heat chamber, at my intended Ironman run pace. The average temperature in the heat chamber was about 28C (82F) and the average humidity was around 70. In other words, very similar conditions to both Ironman Texas and to Kona.

Mark Linesman, the scientist who was conducting the test, said to me “I bet you’re sweating at around 2 liters per hour. You’d have to be based on how much power you’re pushing.” At this time I had a huge fan blowing in my face. I didn’t feel hot at all. There was barely any moisture on my skin, and almost no sweat on the floor. I thought to myself, “yeah right. This is dumb. I’ve got this huge fan blowing in my face cooling me down. This is nothing like it was in Texas. I’m not even sweating. I’m going to get nothing out of this test.”

I don’t know if I’ve ever properly used the term “paradigm shift” in a sentence, but once I finished the test, I’m pretty sure I had a paradigm shift. After 2.5 hours of exercise, I had lost 3.9kg. I wanted this test to be as close to Texas as possible, so I used the EXACT same fueling and hydration strategy I used there. That’s not 3.9kg of sweat. The quantity of sweat would have been more as I consumed about 1.5L of water and Gatorade in that time. I was in a deficit of 3.9kg. That is 8.58 pounds. That is 5.3% of my body weight. And that was only after 2.5 hours of exercise!! At that point in the workout I was already having mental impairment and my perceived exertion was ramping up quickly.

It then dawned on me: I was severely dehydrated in Texas. It all started to make sense. During drug testing after the race, after 2 hours of sitting there pounding back water, coke and Gatorade, I was only able to pee 60mL. The minimum amount required is 90mL. Thus, I had to do a bunch of paperwork and then wait there even longer before I could produce the remaining 30mL. It took me a good 2.5 hours after the race to produce 90mL of pee, and I was trying to push it out with all my might. After that, I don’t remember peeing until late that evening.

It turns out, that under conditions very similar to Texas, at the power output I pushed on the bike, my sweat rate was at least 2L/hour. Keep in mind, it was sunny in Texas, which raises your skin temperature even more, a factor that was not accounted for in the laboratory. I also likely would have sweat in the water while swimming as the water temperature was 81 degrees. For argument’s sake, let’s say my sweat rate in the water was half of my sweat rate on the bike. That means by the end of the bike I had sweat about 9.36L. I consumed 6 bottles of fluid on the bike. Two of them were my own, each containing about 700mL. The other four were from aid stations, each about 700mL as well. It should be noted that when pouring a bottle into the cockpit hydration system, a great deal is spilt, so these numbers are likely even lower. Regardless, that’s about 4.2L consumed by the end of the bike. Meaning, coming off the bike, I was already in a deficit of about 5.16L. My weight that morning was about 165lbs. That means I had already lost about 6.8% of my body mass before starting the marathon.

There are countless studies on the negative effect of dehydration on performance. Here is an excerpt from Asker Jeukendrup and Michael Gleeson’s book Sport Nutrition that I thought was interesting as 7% dehydration was the most extreme of the conditions used in the study:

“A study investigated the capacity of eight subjects to perform treadmill walking (at 25% .VO2max with a target time of 140 minutes) in very hot, dry conditions (49° C [120° F], 20% relative humidity) when they were euhydrated and when they were dehydrated by a 3%, 5%, or 7% loss of body mass (Sawka, Young, Francescone, et al. 1985). All eight subjects were able to complete 140 minutes walking when euhydrated and 3% dehydrated. Seven subjects completed the walk when 5% dehydrated, but when dehydrated by 7%, six subjects stopped walking after an average of only 64 minutes. Thus, even for relatively low-intensity exercise, dehydration clearly increases the incidence of exhaustion from heat strain. Sawka et al. (1992) had subjects walk to exhaustion at 47% .VO2max in the same environmental conditions as their previous study. Subjects were euhydrated and dehydrated to a loss of 8% of each individual’s total-body water. Dehydration reduced exercise endurance time from 121 minutes to 55 minutes.”

Unfortunately, the race didn’t end there. I then had to run a marathon. We found in the sweat test that my sweat rate on the run and bike are very similar i.e. about 2L/hr. I was hydrating at an even more reduced rate on the run. In other words, I was becoming progressively more dehydrated at an even faster rate. It would not be difficult to imagine that by the end of the run I had lost 10% of my body mass. Here is an excerpt from a study by RJ Maughan published in The Journal of Clinical Nutrition called The Effect of Mild Dehydration on Wellness and on Exercise Performance:

“If the loss of water reaches 10–15% of body mass, about 20–30% of total body water, death is the likely outcome.”

I remember on the run actually beginning to fear the moment of passing out. I remember wondering what it would feel like to wake up and discover I was lying on the side of the road. It has been my life dream to push myself “through the door.” This race was definitely the closest I have ever come to pushing myself to my absolute physiological and biological limits. It was actually a bit scary. For a while after the race I feared doing another Ironman.

But it all makes a lot more sense now. I was ignorant of one of my biological limitations: The fact that my body is mainly composed of water. The fact that my body utilizes that fluid to cool itself and carry out cellular functions. And that that fluid needs to be replaced as it is lost. It might sound really dumb, but I honestly didn’t fully realize that just because I can’t see the sweat, that I’m not sweating. I have been exercising for years, in severely dehydrated states. It just took the most painful experience of my life to finally realize it. It has now come to my attention that I have become greatly desensitized to the effects of dehydration.

It’s hard to pin point the moral of the story here. I think the big one is that going into this race I really felt like I was starting to understand a great deal about exercise and triathlon. This experience and this new knowledge showed me that I am still very ignorant. It’s actually kind of fun because it has opened up a whole new realm of learning, experimentation and data analysis.

If you’ve made it this far. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to hydrate!

23 thoughts on “Post-Texas Paradigm Shift

  1. Great post and it’s a good thing you found this out (albeit the hard way) before Kona. Look forward to seeing you fire on all cylinders with a proper hydration plan!

  2. Triathlon is fun. Learning is fun. Self-discovery is fun.
    But learning about yourself in triathlon is awesomeness!
    Thanks for providing another example.

    • I couldn’t agree more. One of the beauties of triathlon is that it is just so complex. So many things to think about and prepare for. It never gets old!

  3. Your honesty and willingness to share what you’ve learned is great. You’re obviously a very talented athlete but your humbleness and giving attitude are admirable. Keep up the great work and looking forward to seeing what the new paradigm brings.

    • Rick nailed it in his statement above. It is because of those character traits that so many people are rooting for you and wishing you the very best. You got this champ!

  4. Hey Lionel, thanks for sharing. I had a similar experience just over a week ago at Ironman 70.3 Raleigh. Temperatures were between 24-32C, sunny, high humidity. I had a rear flat 10min into the bike and fought hard to get back with the leaders ignoring my hydration requirements. Needless to say the tail end of my bike and run suffered. I was fairly depressed for a few days following but the best cure I found was signing up for another race in the near future. It reassuring to hear I’m not alone and we have found a solution to our shortcomings. All the best in your training and races ahead.

    • It’s an interesting question that I’ve had to ask myself. I have been ignorant of proper hydration since I got into triathlon. Even in 2010 (my first year) I can totally remember weighing in after a four hour ride and being 10-12lbs less. In other words, I have been practising dehydrated for years. I think my “thirst” response has been almost shut off…or at least it is not as loud as it once was. In this last week, now that I’m more aware of proper hydration, I have been feeling my thirst response ramp up progressively more and more. For instance, last friday I did a four hour ride and forced myself to consume 8.2L of fluid. I weighed exactly the same getting off the bike as I did getting on. That was a bit uncomfortable, and difficult to achieve. But then two days ago (four days later) I did a 2:30 ride, at higher wattage, in hotter conditions, and consumed 2L/hr no problem, didn’t even have to think about it, mainly because I was “thirsty” the whole time. It’s interesting, you can train your body to get used to a lot of things.

  5. You are amazing. Thanks for sharing. Same thing happened to me in Florida Ironman. Chicken broth was my savior.

    • Thanks Grace. The chicken broth brings up an interesting side of the issue. That electrolytes are equally as important as water consumption. It is totally possible that you consume enough water, but your body will not retain it without proper amounts of sodium. If it did, it would further dilute blood sodium concentration, just adding insult to injury. So from another standpoint, it is possible to be overhydrated, if you consume lots of fluid, without adequate electrolytes. In a perfect world, you would consume a fluid that is as close as possible to your sweat.

  6. Very interesting stuff Lionel. I am a new Triathlete and appreciate your openness and learn from every post in your blog. I felt this same way in my first 70.3 Barrelman last fall. After training so hard dehydration caused me to walk most of the run and was very disappointed. Keep learning the science because there is no doubt you have the ability!

    • None. I attribute all of the overheating to dehydration. Your body is very good at thermoregulation, but the basis of that thermoregulation system is sweat. As you dehydrate, the system becomes less and less efficient, and then the core begins to overheat as blood volume becomes lower and lower.

  7. i am surprised that you did not mention salt consumption, it is a big part of the equation

    • Yes, it is equally as important as consuming water. That is why I referred to it towards the end as “fluids.” The osmolality of the fluid is very important to maximize gastric emptying and efficiency of intestinal uptake. In the interest of space, I had to leave out a lot of details…but I think the main points were made clear.

  8. Once again, awesome for sharing. I was told by very competent triathletes “don’t expect to perform to your potential in your first 2 or 3 Ironman’s – there’s so much to learn about yourself on that day”, and I believe very few are exempt from this rule. You will nail this likely next round, but either way, win / lose, doesn’t matter – we all win when you let us live vicariously through your races – dude you’re amazing.

    Can’t wait for the next blog (and once again, I gain performance all the time by things I have read in your great reports, and will return to racing better than ever soon – thank you)

  9. Lionel, I love how you approach this sport. It is clear you have an incredible passion for it. Very few people would go through the analysis you did to figure out what happened. I have been reading your blog for a while now and it is very clear why you have been so successful so quickly. You put in the time and effort in all aspects of racing and are always driving towards the goal of being the best athlete you can possibly be. It is incredibly inspiring.

  10. Really interesting read Lionel. As an offshoot of this, if you haven’t already, you may wish to do some research into the subject of acclimatization generally, not just hydration/nutrition (although they are somewhat connected). I was involved in the early days of the desert ultramarathon scene and as a northern European it was vital to try and acclimatize, as best I could, to the extreme environments I travelled to race in. No doubt the research will have moved on from what I learned back then but I was told that if done effectively I could acclimatize in 7-10 days. It involved me having to elevate my core temperature by 1 degree C while training. For you the transition from training in summertime Ontario to then having to race in Texas/Kona etc. may not be as much of a shock to the system as it was for me, but I think it’s worth you exploring. While acclimatization is not as key as getting your hydration/nutrition strategy right, it may provide an opportunity for you to gain a fraction of a percent improvement, which at your level can be significant. Your contacts at Guelph may be able to provide some useful information on this subject. Good luck.

  11. Lionel, your recaps are interesting, entertaining, revealing and certainly educational. I was racing Muskoka 70.3 in your “breakthrough win” and I had the pleasure of being in the field at IMWC 70.3, when you showed you truly belonged with the best of our sport. This post in particular was “redeeming” for me as I experienced my first and only DNF on that race course in 2014. Given i didn’t take the time to truly figure out what happened, I can’t assert it was dehydration, but given the winter of 2013/14 and the heat and humidity of texas in May – I am guessing I fell victim to my lack of focus on my hydration. Sweat rate is reasonably easy to get a handle on and I will turn some focus to this before i race IM Tremblant in August because it clearly matters – nutrition/hydration is the fourth element of our sport.

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