Seconds Count, Even in Ironman Racing

Triathlete on the bike of an Ironman race
January 8, 2017

Simon Butterworth



Finding Free Speed

It's very easy in any Triathlon to dismiss a few seconds lost, or gained, as inconsequential to the end result.  However, if you are in the race to PR or perhaps podium, and many people have one or both of these goals at sometime in their career, think again.   I am not talking here about gaining on your competition, or yourself by performing better I'm thinking of free speed.  Things you can do to shave a few seconds here and there that don't cost any energy expenditure, just attention to details and practice.

It's hard to imagine that after 8+ to 17 hours of racing in an IronMan you could be seconds away from your competition but it happens.   Consider the IronWar of 1989.  The differences between Mark Allen and Dave Scott were as follows.

Swim Scott +1.4 sec, Bike Allen +0.9 sec, Run, Allen +59 sec, Overall Allen +58.1 sec that was after 8: 10 min of competition.  FYI their run splits that year are still the two top times for the race (and back then the T2 transition was included in the run split).   There was no time for a few lost seconds in transition or in the portable toilet that day.

My own more modest experience tells the same story, don't waste any unnecessary time.   In 2011 I lost a Kona slot by 1 sec (yes one second).  That was lack of attention to who was closing fast in the final 200 yards to the finish (stay focused).  In 2012 I got a Kona slot with an 18 sec margin.  This was due to lack of focus of a friend Patrick Bourdillon.   For a few precious seconds on the bike he failed to back out of the draft zone (apparently the most common reason for getting a drafting penalty).  Fortunately Patrick did not give up and qualified later in the season.   In 2009 I qualified at Buffalo Springs by about 20 sec.

In Kona I have twice been less than 10 sec ahead of Scott Balfour, this year for a second and third place AG finish.

So how do you save a few seconds, the details, and practice.  Don't leave anything to chance that you can control.  Obviously you can influence your swim, bike and run pace thru good training but assuming you have done that what else.

The Gear

Most important make sure your equipment is in top condition race morning.  What you do certainly depends on the importance of the race.  Any A race for which you have already invested a lot of time and money should get the royal treatment, don't go cheep at the last minute, you have probably spent a lot of money already.  Here are some things to consider.

Swim Gear Not much can go wrong here but make sure the zipper in your wet suit or skin suit is healthy.   Don't use those old goggles that leak and fog.  If they did not leak of fog when new get another of the same make/model or take the time to find one that works for you leading up to race day.  If the water is expected to be extra cold get a neoprene swim cap.  Make sure the goggle doesn't fog in cold water.

Use New or Almost New tires 

Don't use tires with noticeable tread ware.  As the tread gets worn there is less rubber to absorb small sharp objects without going thru into the tube.  A new tire is much less likely to puncture than an old one with even a few hundred miles on it.  Carry a new spare tube or tire (if using tubulars).  Don't use a tire with any deep cuts that can catch something and obviously puncture more easily.  Practice repairing a flat or replacing the tubular.  Carry a razor blade to cut off a tubular.

New or Clean Chain

I just found a very interesting web site that tells me I have been right to focus on chain condition https:/  All chains come with a factory lube, cleaning the chain and re-lubing with a light oil results in a savings of 3 watts for some chains.  So racing with a dirty chain would probably cost you even more watts, that's real free speed.

Other Bike GearBrake and derailleur cables, they don't need to be new but they should not be old or have any fraying.  Pedals and any other bearing that can be lubed by you should have been re-lubed recently.   The Friction-Facts show that you can save even a few watts with well-maintained pedals.  Cleats: make sure they are clean when you leave the bike to go swim and you can clip in and out without difficulty.

Almost New Running Shoes

They should not be just out of the box but before an A race it is time to get a replacement for shoes you have been running in for more than a couple of 100 miles.  This becomes more important as the distance of the run increases. Running 26 miles on shoes that have lost some of the cushioning and support can cost you seconds and sometimes many minutes as your muscles fatigue more quickly.

New or Almost New Tri Suit (one piece or separate)    

I keep my best gear for A races so that I am not buying new stuff all the time.  Make sure what you wear on the bike fists snug.  Anything that can catch the wind is lost speed or more power output.  Test your gear in the conditions you expect on race day.  I did not quite do that this year testing a new pair of shorts in the dry Colorado weather.  In Kona with the huge increase in humidity and consequent sweating I got some ugly chafe from the edge of the chamois.  It might also have been caused by another second saving skill, peeing on the bike.

Race Day Planning

On of my coaches suggested to me several years ago that I write a detailed race report before the race started, a couple of weeks before.  Much of that is to help visualize the entire race but it should also include the details of the pre-race preparation, starting with getting up and breakfast right up to the gun, and the Transitions.  The details of the pre race and transitions should have been thought out and practiced months in advance while you were in the middle of your training.

My planning includes, when I get up, what I eat/drink (breakfast if you have some should be at least 3 hours before the gun) and when and when to leave for the race venue.  Once there I have a detailed plan of what and when including last min preparation of my bike and laying out the transition area, where (figured out the day before) and when to start my land warm up, get into a wet suit and get into the water in time for an in water swim warm up (if allowed).  I'll even look for a nice place to relax if there is some time before the race.  There usually is some time because I always get to the race when the gates open.  Rushing everything make no sense just to get a few more minutes in the sack.  Better to be able to prepare things in the most relaxed way possible reducing stress even when the unexpected happens, like a flat tire (that should not happen if you have taken the tire advice above but stuff happens including a leaky tire valve, I've seen it happen more than once.

Transition Set Up

This varies a lot when including races were there are changing tents.  Be sure to review the race web site for all the details well before race day.  It's too late if you wait until the race meeting the day before there may be something you need to buy to make the transition smooth and fast.

I have a standard set up that I have developed over a number of years depending on the transition set up.  If new to the game make sure you figure it out and test it in your B and C races.  If you realize there is something you can improve from the last race make sure to practice the solution.  Here are some of my ideas


Best placed on the Aerobars (see caveat below) upside down with the straps hanging carefully over the side and the front facing you as you stand in front of the bike.  All you should have to do is pick it up, keeping the straps out of the way, and pop it on your head.  Sun Glasses are open inside the helmet positioned for a one-motion installation on your nose and ears.  If there is any chance that the helmet will get knocked off it's perch put it on the ground (many bike racks are not very stable and bikes get knocked around as other athletes remove the bikes.  I find that in most cases I am putting the helmet on the ground.

Placement of Other Gear

I place my gear as follows on a towel from front to back, helmet and glasses, race belt and number (if required, more on this in a minute), socks (either on the ground, if shoes are clipped in or in the bike shoes.  In Olympic races and shorter all my nutrition and fluids are on the bike.  Behind all that come run gear, shoes first with socks in them (I only change socks for IM races) and the hat, fuel belt (if needed).  All my run nutrition/fuel are on the Fuel Belt for shorter races.  IM events I might have a zip lock bag that I stuff with what I will add to pockets as I run out of transition

Race Numbers on the bike

There are free seconds to be gained by careful placement of the numbers on your bike and on your race belt (often required in IM races).  If you spent good money on a well fitting low drag outfit for the race and much more for an aero bike don't just slap the number on any old way.  Number on the bike should be stuck on somehow and follow the form of the aero tubes.  I use clear packing tape and cover the entire tag.  I will trim it as much as possible to conform to the shape of the bike.  If a race number is required on your back use a race belt.  I pin the tag on the belt so that the top of the tag is underneath the belt.  I make sure it lies flat on my back.  Having a number tag flapping on your back is lost free speed and adds up to more that just a few seconds in an IM.  Same thing with the tag on the bike.


Many shoe types these days have been designed to be worn without socks.  Test that theory before race day more than once.   If you are using socks putting them on can be fast with preparation in the early morning.  Put them on and fold the top down so that the heal is just visible.  Grab the toe and top of the sock, which should be almost touching and pull the sock off.  Place the sock either inside the shoe or on the towel with the heal on the bottom.  All that is needed to put them back on is a quick pull over the foot and then grab the top to pull it over the ankle


Don‚Äôt tie them; pick one of the different lace kits that let you get set up fast.  I like the elastic types for short races and solid laces with a plastic lace lock for IM (more support for the longer distance).

IronMan Races, or Races with Changing Tents 

IM races require you to put your bike and run gear in a two bags that you drop off the day before the race.  You pick up on your way into a changing tent in the race.  This makes for a very different transition and some new options.  You could swim bike and run in the same clothing, a Speedo if you like the Farris Al-Sultan retro look or a one-piece speed suit.  This is clearly the fastest way thru transition but with a changing tent consider comfort.  I have evolved from staying in the same clothes for an entire IM to changing after the swim.   I don't like wasting time changing clothing in T2 but comfort is worth a few seconds.

Other Thoughts

Swimming a full IM with any kind of bike clothing under a wet suit is an invitation for chafe.  So in wet suit races I wear a Speedo.   The advent of the swim specific skin suit has the same issue as the wet suit.  The current legal skin suit does not give quite the same unfair advantage of the ones in use a couple of years ago but tests show there are some seconds to gain if not minutes.  Generally they don't work well for the bike and run, no pockets.  Most are also black but most that are black are made from a new material that is claimed to keep you cooler.  The lack of pockets is a showstopper for me in an IM event.  I put gels and supplement tablets (in small plastic zip lock bags found in hobby shops) in the pockets.

Getting out of a swim speed suit is not difficult.  The Wet suit is something again.  Pam is a popular aide.  Be sure to put it not only on your skin but also on the outside of the legs at least up to the knees.  Rubber does not slide well on rubber as you push the suit over your legs.

Getting into a tri top is a problem when you are wet.  Leave it in the bag with the zipper open.   Don't put it over your head, step into it first then put your arms into the holes.   Just the same as if you were putting on a one-piece suit.  You may be able put some gels in your pockets and/or supplements without having them fall out when you are changing.  The secret is putting in and taking out the Tri Top or full suit carefully.  A good idea is to put this in last into your bag and put it on first, then dump the rest of the bag in front of you on the floor, they usually have seats in the changing tents.

To summarize, after months and perhaps years of training don't forget the details leading up to and during race day.  Don't go cheep at the last minute and jeopardize that hard earned fitness.  Try to think of every contingency and have a plan to deal with it.  Work out the best way thru transitions and practice that procedure.

Perhaps the best advice is something I saw recently in one of the tri magazines. "The fastest way to the finish line is not to crash" so go fast by all means save seconds but be careful and have fun.

Coach Simon Butterworth has an experienced philosophy about coaching.  The key ingredients in a good coach/athlete relationship are regular and open communication, mutual respect, and keeping it fun for the athlete and their family.  His training programs are developed with those ideas at the forefront. He works with athletes to develop both short-term and long-term objectives that work well within the context of the other things they have going on in their life.

Coach Simon is a 2X World Ironman Champion and has 16 Ironman World Championships races to his credit. He has finihsed on the podium 7x.  He is a USAT Certified Coach, USMS Swim Coach, FIST Certified Bike Fitter and Training Peaks Certified Coach.

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