Lionel Sanders: What does he have to do to Win Kona

Kona 2017 saw a breakthrough performance on the big island for Lionel Sanders. A great swim by his standards followed by his trademark killer bike leg set him up for a second place finish on the day. While Sanders’ run was good enough for the 4th fastest split, he was unable to fully land his knockout bike/run combo to take the win and appeared to suffer late in the race with the conditions. Does this result show the triathlon world that Lionel Sanders can go on to win one day in Kona? Yes, but multiple things need to fall in line to make it happen. In this post we look over some of his data as well as some of the data available on his competition to see where he may win or lose the race.

Possibly the biggest factor standing in the way of Sanders winning in Kona is dealing effectively with the heat and humidity. Now while that’s the same for everyone, it has a much greater impact on Sanders compared to some of his main rivals. For starters, Sanders carries considerably more mass than his competitors. While BMI is not the best measurement in day-to-day life, it becomes very relevant here when comparing Sanders to Kona winners. This year, Sanders raced Kona at a BMI of 24.5 while Patrick Lange race at 20.5. Looking at past winners, Jan Frodeno is around 20.7, Sebi Kienle 22.5, Freddie Van Lierde 21.9 and Craig Alexander 21. We have to go all the way back to Chris McCormack to find someone even close to Sanders’ BMI and even he was still .9 lower. Basically Sanders has a big engine but a small radiator compared to his competition. This means unless Sanders can find a way to effectively cool, he will have to slow down more relative to his top intensity compared to his competition.

Another environmental factor, which may contribute negative to his chance, is the wind. The wind is usually the best friend of the uber biker allowing them to gain even more time over the fast runner. For Sanders is could just take the edge off what is his biggest weapon. For starters, Sanders generally rides around 10-20w higher than other athletes for similar speeds, this shows that he is less aerodynamic than the competition. As the force required to overcome air resistance increases polynomially as speed increases, any aerodynamic weaknesses get amplified. As Ironman is an energy limited race, Sanders can only increase his power output so much before he’s going to drastically pay for his efforts. Another area where the wind negatively affects chances is on the decent from Hawi. Here on the fast cross wind decent, uber bikers do some real damage opening up some significant gaps. This year, Wurf and Kienle opened up around a 45sec lead on Sanders. To overcome this, Sanders had to put in a 15min/345w effort to bridge back across, using up critical energy stores that could have been used later on in the race.

While on the subject of energy, Sanders isn’t the most economic mover on land. As mentioned above he’s already expending extra energy than is required on the bike, add into the equation a not so pretty running technique into the equation and Sanders is starting to find things working against him. The bike issues are relatively simple to work on, look into aerodynamic gains over his current set up. It’s the running where things become an issue. Studies have shown, it’s not always that effective to make major changes to an athlete’s gait. While gait changes may not be a viable option, working on reducing the degradation away from one’s normal form is where considerable gains can be made in reducing energy costs across the marathon. In watching Kona, while his form never looked textbook good, he was clearly moving considerably better in the front end of the run compared to the back end. Comparing splits from other Ironman races Sanders has competed in, and listening to interviews, it would appear that something similar is happening in most of them. Poor efficiency on the run also produces more heat that must be rejected from the body, something that is already compromised for Sanders.

What I see as a huge advantage for Sanders may seem a controversial one to most, even Sanders himself may see it as a disadvantage. The advantage being that he is not a front pack swimmer, I’ll go deeper into details on this topic another time. Put simply, the pack destroys an athletes chance to have a good race more often than it makes. It forces a change in the way athletes’ race and by the time the likes of Sanders and Kienle catch the front pack, 90% of the pack are already eliminated from a chance of the win. Sebi Kienle is the perfect example of this in action; he has been the most consistent male pro over the past 5 years, having only finished outside of the top 4 once. The one time he finished outside of the top 4 was the one time he made the front swim pack.

Only time will truly tell whether or not Lionel Sanders is able to take the win in Kona. He is a big personality that’s not afraid to call it as it is and a crowd favorite. I really hope that he can overcome these factors negatively affecting his performance and take the World Title.


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