Human Limits

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Jens Voigt & Ideas About a “Fairer” Triathlon

Last week the 43 year old cyclist Jens Voigt set a world record for the 1 hour ride. Voigt covered 51.115 kilometers and then retired. Voigt has had a long career near the top of professional cycling and avoided the doping scandals that have plagued cycling over the last several decades.


What Does Voigt Have to do With Triathlons?

The short answer is not much. Normally a performance like this is a lead into a discussion about aging, the history of world records, the role of technology in sports (he used an aero bike), or some other element of sports physiology. However, Voigt’s record got me thinking about what would happen if each element of a triathlon was designed to take about the same amount of time. Both the Olympic distance Tri (1.5k swim, 40k ride, and 10k run) and the Ironman distance Tri (2.4 mile swim, 112 ride, and 26.2 mile run) have bike segments that take about 50% or more of the total time for elite competitors. The swim segment also takes less time than the run for elites.


Three 1 Hour Segments?

So, what would happen if there was a triathlon designed around world records for the hour? The current world record for the hour run is just over 21km by Haile Gebrselassie. The best record I could find for the hour swim is 6135 yds (about 5610 meters) set by Robert Margalis in a 25 yard pool in 2007. The swimming record, while impressive, is likely soft in comparison to the cycling and running records that were set by truly world class athletes in their respective disciplines.


Based on these records (and some other back of the envelope calculations) perhaps something with a running distance about 3.8 times the swim distance would equalize those two triathlon elements. A biking distance perhaps 2.5 times the running distance would also seem reasonable. So how about a swim just over 5k, a 50k ride, and 20k run? These ratios are a start. To do this well one would need a detailed statistical analysis of a larger number of elite performances, but my guess is that such an analysis would lead to ratios and distances similar to the ones I have suggested.


Take it Indoors?

Why not also take it indoors and come up with something like the triathlon version of the Crash-B Sprints for rowing.   These races are conducted indoors on rowing ergometers and a number of winners and record holders have impressive records on the water.


For the Triathlon the format might be an hour swim in a short course pool and distance run in an hour on a calibrated treadmill.   The trick would be how to deal with the bike element indoors. I would use some measure related to average watts of power output per kg of body weight over the hour. I have seen varying reports of what Voigt did, but it appears that he averaged about 400 watts per minute. This works out to a bit more than 5 watts per kg.


Using the ratios I mentioned above, point scales and records could be established for each discipline. Perhaps a top score for each event would be worth 1,000 points. Such a scale could also be age and sex adjusted so performances could be easily compared for each competitor.   Perhaps things could be more strategic by letting each athlete pick their own preferred order of events with a standard 5 minute transition period between events. Would most people do the swim second to give their legs a break?


Just a Thought Exercise?

So far this is just a thought exercise or perhaps the beginning of a barroom argument for endurance athletes.   However, I would be interested in hearing other thoughts about how this might be done and if anyone is interested in sponsoring such a competition it would be easy to formalize the ideas outlined in this post. Finally, I volunteer to be the first commissioner of the “Three Hour Test”.


9 Responses to “Jens Voigt & Ideas About a “Fairer” Triathlon”

  1. September 22nd, 2014 at 5:10 am

    Jim Ley says:

    The problem is that it shouldn’t be equal time, but equal effort, because otherwise you’re biasing against the sports where more effort is required to save more time or go further. Although a pure in door static approach would help with this, but because of the aerodynamic features, a lot more extra power is required to add 0.5% to the bike than the run.

    So I think straight times are not the correct approach.

  2. September 22nd, 2014 at 7:20 am

    Peter Hein says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. To me, it seems like there’s an obvious next step: why not fix the duration of swim, bike, and run at 1h and measure the distance covered? You could weigh this according to mean power requirements or mean VO2…

    This could be done only indoors or in a simlar setting, where participants easily reach the next starting point independently of how much they have covered in the preceding discipline.

  3. September 22nd, 2014 at 9:52 am

    Bert says:

    Well I can see where you are coming from, but look at sports that are calculation heavy instead of emphasizing head to head competition. They are often not the most popular ones, because it is simply much more rewarding to see who crosses the finish line first, or scores the point, instead of merely having the results show up on a screen, disconnected from the activity.

  4. September 22nd, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Greg Bryson says:

    Great idea. The equalizer would be a points table – like multiple events in athletics. While dec-heptathlon tables are relatively weighted to power-speed they serve as a good model for the apples and oranges issue raised here. CrashB and PeakCenter races show there’s already an interest in an indoor event. I don’t know who’d watch the indoor event – perhaps hamsters – but it would liven up a long winter of indoor training for those of us in the north.

  5. September 22nd, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Alejandro says:

    Pretty much the same proposal was made in “Chance”, a statistics magazine 20 years ago, and is sometimes called an “equilateral triathlon”:

    Resizing triathlons for fairness.
    Chance, Winter 1994, pp. 20-25
    Howard Wainer and Richard D. De Veaux

  6. September 22nd, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    C says:

    This exists in Vermont. Look up Kingdom Triathlon.

  7. September 23rd, 2014 at 7:16 am

    Phil Koop says:

    Is “fairer” supposed to mean that given a fixed advantage in any one sport, one should be indifferent to the sport in which the advantage lies? (i.e. if one is at the 90th percentile in two sports but the 95th in one, it doesn’t matter which your best sport is?)

    If so, equalizing the expected duration of each activity will not make triathlons fairer in that sense. The reason is that all though swimming, biking and running all have the same asymptotic limit (cube power law), the lower order terms are far more dominant in running. The world’s elite runners run just fast enough for drafting to make a measurable difference.

  8. September 24th, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Matt Connery says:

    I had a masters swim coach who was a very good open water swimmer, but not so strong on the bike and run. In a traditional triathlon he wouldn’t place so high. So, when he heard about a local “equalizer” race, he thought this was his chance to place much higher than usual. But to his surprise and dismay, this race attracted REALLY strong swimmers, and he placed about the same as usual! But it still sounds like fun.

  9. September 25th, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Mitch Berkson says:

    Watts per minute? Shouldn’t that just be watts?

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