By Chris Carmichael
Take a look at the transition area at any Ironman race and you’ll see some of the latest and greatest technology available and used by amateur athletes around: carbon-fiber bikes designed in wind tunnels, tear drop aero helmets, specially cut wet suits and lab-tested sports drinks and nutrition. Everything’s designed to make you go fast, but you have to be careful not too overlook comfort.
Competing in an Ironman triathlon is not a comfortable way to spend the day. If it were comfortable, it wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling. Discomfort is part of pushing yourself. Getting out of your comfort zone is an essential part of stepping up to a challenge as big as Ironman. No matter what you do, you’re going to be uncomfortable on race day. But that doesn’t mean you should make it worse by making poor decisions. Little things that make you more comfortable on the race course can be the difference between a PR and a sub-par performance. In some cases, focusing on comfort can keep you in the race altogether.
How much you focus on comfort depends on your goals for the race. If you’re aiming to finish in under 10 hours, you’ll need to accept a higher level of discomfort. But if your primary goal is to finish and you’re likely to cross the line in the 12-16 hour range, then I advise athletes to remember that ‘comfort begets speed’. That doesn’t mean that lollygagging along at a comfortable pace is going to lead to fast splits. It means that irritations slow you down. Pain slows you down. They can even make you stop. When you focus on comfort, you’re removing barriers to speed.
In a race that lasts longer than 10 hours, the choices you make about your gear are very different from what you can use for a 2:30-3:00 hour Olympic distance race, or even a 6-hour half-IM. Shoes that don’t bug you during a 50-mile ride may become painful at mile 80 on a hot day. The small chamois pad in tri shorts could drive you nuts 18 miles into the marathon.
There are a lot of gear and nutrition decisions to make going into an IM. Below, I’ve outlined some of the key ones that can make your Ironman race a bit more comfortable.
Aero helmet vs. vented bike helmet
Aero helmets will slice through the air, but they can also trap heat. On paper, wearing an aero helmet is advantageous over the course of a 112-mile bike ride vs. a more common vented helmet. It will make a difference. And some new aero helmets are getting better in terms of ventilation. But athletes who will be out on the bike course for 6+ hours have to consider the aerodynamic benefit of the helmet in conjunction with the speed you’re going (the benefits decline rapidly when you’re going slower) and the expected weather conditions (heat, humidity, wind). If it’s going to be hot and humid and you’re going to be out there for 6+ hours (18.7mph or slower), then the benefit of staying cooler with a vented helmet will most likely outweigh the benefit you’d get from an aero helmet. If temps are relatively moderate but it’s going to be windy, then the balance may tip more in favor of the aero helmet.
No socks vs. socks
I know many triathletes ride and run without socks to save them some time in transitions. I get that for shorter triathlons, but for an iron-distance race, taking an extra minute to fully dry your feet and put on a clean pair of socks lessens the likelihood of blisters, especially for the run. If you’re going to forego socks for the bike leg, consider tri-specific shoes, as the interior of the shoe typically features fewer seams and softer materials than traditional cycling shoes. If you develop blisters, you’re going to slow down—enough to negate any time saved in transitions. Think of a good pair of wicking socks as insurance for your feet that will pay off in the middle of the marathon. I also recommend applying Aquaphor to the cuff of your running shoes and the inside of the toe box to minimize chafing.
Tri-shorts vs. bike shorts & running shorts
Tri-shorts look like bike shorts except they have a skinnier chamois pad in the crotch than a pair of cycling shorts. The tri-shorts’ smaller pad makes them easier to run in and negates the need to switch out of them in T2. Again, they might work well in shorter races, but for many athletes they don’t work so well in an Ironman. The smaller chamois may not provide enough cushioning for a 112-mile ride, and the seams/edges around the chamois may lead to chafing during a full marathon. Gear that compromises comfort will, over several hours, drive you crazy. At Ironman you have a changing tent, so consider changing completely if you’ve had chafing issues in past races and similar conditions. It may add 30-60 seconds to your transition time, but I think it’s worth it because you’ll be more comfortable – and hence faster – in those clothes for the next 3-6 hours (run) or 5-7 hours (bike).
CO2 cartridges vs. a frame pump
This isn’t a comfort thing so much as a matter of preserving piece of mind and being prepared. In short, carry both. CO2 cartridges will be a faster option for inflating your spare tube or tubular tire, but if you mess it up and run out of CO2, you could be at the side of the road for a long time. I like CO2 cartridges for the speed and convenience, but I don’t rely on them entirely. A mini pump doesn’t weigh very much and you can attach it right to the bike. You might use it so infrequently that you forget it’s there, but when you’ve used up your CO2 before fully inflating a tire or you’ve endured multiple flat tires, you’ll be very glad you added a few ounces to the weight of your bike.
You can avoid most flat tire drama and stress by attaching a mini frame pump to your bike and carrying one CO2 cartridge and nozzle that will fully inflate your tire. At a minimum, carry one spare tube or one spare tubular tire (depending on what you’re running), and one CO2 cartridge/nozzle capable of fully inflating your tire. Make sure to have additional tubes/tires/CO2 cartridges in your special needs bag. I’m also a fan of carrying patches, just in case. They often fit into the handle of a mini pump, and they provide a last-resort option. With 1-2 flats you can still stay roughly on your goal pace. By the time that the patches become a viable option, you’re probably well off goal pace and now it is just time to do what is necessary to get to T2 and stay in the race.
The tricky thing with all-day endurance races is that they are too long for you to just push through the pain. In short events we sometimes have to tell athletes to suck it up and put performance before comfort. The classic example is the pro cyclist’s time trial position. It’s fast, but it’s pushed to the limit of what the athlete can tolerate for the length of the race. In long events, making concessions for the sake of comfort isn’t sacrificing performance, but rather giving an athlete the opportunity to go faster for longer.