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Lionel Sanders heads to Kona for testing with his coach

Hoping to learn more about the effects Kona's heat and humidity have on his body during intense, race-day efforts, Lionel Sanders recently did a training camp in Kona where he did extensive testing.

Recently Lionel Sanders flew to Kona to do some testing with his new coach, David Tilbury-Davis. The goal of this training camp was to learn as much as possible on the effect of Kona’s heat and humidity on Sanders’ body in a race situation.

Lionel Sanders on the run course at the 2019 Ironman World Championship.

Read this story in French.

At this time of year, the conditions in Hawaii are more moderate than in October, but it’s still warm enough to be able to get some interesting data.

In addition to measuring the amount of fluid lost as sweat while swimming, riding and running, Tilbury-Davis also took lactate and oxygen consumption measurements during the tests. Oxygen measurements can be used to estimate the amount of carbohydrates and oxidized fat used at race intensity, which will help establish a nutrition strategy for race day.

Last year Sanders was in a very good position at the start of the marathon at the Ironman World Championship, but he succumbed to the heat and humidity and finished in 22nd place. That’s why, this year, Sanders decided to invest time and money to determine how much water and electrolytes he loses during an Ironman in order to establish a hydration strategy.

Related video: Stephen Cheung on Heat Adaptation

Why is Sanders having trouble in  Kona?

First of all, some people will say that Sanders performs better over the 70.3 distance than the Ironman distance. I disagree, however, since he has shown that he performs well over both distances, when conditions are favorable.

Indeed, the best example is his performance at the Ironman Arizona in 2016. He swam 54:35, rode 4:04:38 and ran a 2:42:31 marathon for a total time of 7:44:29 – at the time it was a new Ironman record. (Earlier that year Jan Frodeno had gone 7:35:39, but that was at Challenge Roth, not an Ironman-branded race.) This performance alone shows that Sanders can perform very well over the Ironman distance.

The problem is, therefore, not the distance, but rather the heat and humidity of Kona. If you compare Sanders’ size to that of Patrick Lange and Craig Alexander, two people who perform and performed very well in Kona, Sanders is larger and more muscular. This extra muscle mass and weight is a disadvantage in hot, humid conditions.

Also, Sanders has mentioned many times that he sweats a lot. This means that he loses more water than his competitors in the event. If he does not drink enough to replace most of the sweat produced, he may lose too much water, which has the effect of impairing his performance. A significant water loss has the effect of reducing the volume of plasma, which reduces the venous return to the heart and systolic volume (the volume of blood ejected by the heart at each beat), reducing heart rate.

Reducing heart rate reduces the amount of oxygen given to active muscles during exercise. This means that while running, for example, there is less oxygen available for the legs, but also for the stomach, which affects digestion. A slight loss of fluid is acceptable, but a loss of more than two to three per cent of body weight affects performance.

The effect of heat is to increase the effect of dehydration. Therefore, for an equal level of dehydration, performance will be affected more in hot conditions than in moderate conditions. This is why it is important to limit the effect of heat as much as possible.

Related: How can I train for the heat during winter

Here are some tips for any athlete preparing for a hot-weather race:

  • Wear clothes like a racing tank top
  • Wear white clothes
  • Wear a cap
  • Wear dark sunglasses
  • Put sunscreen
  • Use cold water sponges
  • Put ice in a cap
  • Drink frequently

In addition to limiting water loss as much as possible, and having a strategy to replace this water loss, another strategy to perform well in hot and humid conditions is to spend a lot of time in these conditions to acclimatize. There is no need to do a training camp at the race site (as Sanders did), although this is a great option. It is possible to simulate the racing conditions at home by training in a hot and humid room. Spending time in a sauna, spa or even a hot bath can help the acclimatization process.

In short, with an adequate acclimatization protocol and a good hydration strategy developed with his coach as well as the experts at Gatorade, Lionel Sanders will certainly be able to overcome Kona’s heat and humidity and perform to his potential.