A Very Scientific Experiment

04.27.2010 | 1:49 pm

A Note from Fatty: I have an article at active.com posted today, wherein I dispense Very Useful Advice to my triathalete brethren and sistren. Read it here.

You may or may not be aware, but the St. George Ironman is now a mere four days away. Which is lucky for me, because this means I still have plenty of time to start training.

I am, naturally, kidding when I say that. I take the noble sport of Ironmanning very seriously, and intend to finish sometime before midnight on Saturday (i.e., the final cutoff time) if I am not killed by the weather.

Yes, the weather is currently a major concern. And tomorrow, I will talk about why.

But today, I want to talk about the swim portion of the event and how I arrived at my current level of confidence in finishing under the cutoff time.

The Setup to the Setup

When The Runner and I first got our Aqua Sphere Wetsuits, we went to the local rec center and swam 2.5 miles. It took about 90 minutes. I talked about that here.

What I did not talk about was that while I was really tired and overheated, The Runner was beyond overheated. She was dehydrated and miserable. She made clear, in no uncertain terms, that she would never swim in a heated pool in her wetsuit again.

As a supportive and understanding person, I nodded sympathetically. But I didn’t really get what the big deal was.

The Setup

Then, a couple weeks ago, we did our last big training day — 2.4 mile swim, 70 mile bike ride, 12 mile run — and were shocked to find that our swim time was close to two hours. Very close to the cutoff time.

And that scared us.

Looking for any possible reason why we might be so much slower, I recommended we do the swim again in the pool the next week, this time in wetsuits.

The Runner — remembering how much fun she had in a warm indoor pool wearing an insulated wetsuit — countered with a different idea: how about if I wore a wetsuit, and she wore a swimsuit, and we’d see who was faster, and by how much.

Why, I thought, that’s a fantastic idea!

The Swim

So, last week, we went to the rec center, again, planning to do our 40 laps, again. As I sat on the bench by the pool, a universal truth occurred to me: there is no way to look cool wearing a wetsuit in an indoor pool.

Fortunately this does not trouble me, because I don’t look cool, ever. So the wetsuit just makes me look uncool in a different way.

We began our swim, and the difference in our speeds was in fact startling.

Ordinarily, The Runner is a faster swimmer than I am: about 7% faster, I think. When I have the wetsuit on, though, I was lapping her every seven laps. Without trying any harder. In fact, I’d say I was not putting as much effort into swimming as I usually do.

However, I was not having fun. No fun at all.

I was overheating, and fast. In fact, I’ve never felt so hot. And that heat, compounded with the close feeling of the wetsuit, started to freak me out. All I could think about was the heat, and the constricted feeling, and this crazy overwhelming need to get out of the wetsuit, pronto.

And so — about 20 laps into the supposed 40-lap swim — I reached my limit. I couldn’t take any more. I climbed out of the pool. I climbed out of the wetsuit.

I’m an endurance guy. I pride myself on being able to put up with stuff — no matter what it is — until I reach the finish line. But here I was, sitting at the edge of the pool, drinking water and wondering what had just happened.

The Swim, Part II

After sitting for a couple minutes, I climbed back into the pool — this time in just my swimsuit — and tried to restart.

And that felt weird.

I was so used to the feeling of my legs automatically floating that to now have them back to their normal “dredging the river” position felt very strange and slow and awkward.

So I went back to sitting at the pool.

After a few more minutes — when The Runner hit her 30-lap mark — I climbed back in the pool and did the last ten laps. Trying to salvage my pride.


“Now I totally get what happened to you the first time we swam in wetsuits,” I told The Runner afterward.

The Runner nodded, sympathetically.

So what does this mean? Well, I think this Experiment yields two very important results:

  1. It really is much, mush faster to swim in a wetsuit.
  2. It’s a good thing the swim portion of the Ironman is not in a warm, indoor pool.

And in fact, considering the water at the reservoir for this weekend’s Ironman is currently 58 degrees, I don’t think that overheating is going to be a problem.

In fact, I think I’ll be pretty grateful for that insulation.


  1. Comment by Megan (Best of Fates) | 04.27.2010 | 2:10 pm

    Thought it seems obvious by their very invention, and their massive use in all serious swimming scenarios, I had never realized wetsuits gave a swimmer such an advantage!

  2. Comment by bikemike | 04.27.2010 | 2:11 pm

    i hope that you’re taking copious amounts of fish oil, you know, for the swim. i hear it helps. runners tend to benefit from cheetah hormones. cyclist are known to increase speed and endurance by mixing greg lemond saliva in with their drinks. i’m sure they all work, i read it on the internet somewhere.

  3. Comment by AJ | 04.27.2010 | 2:22 pm

    I’m very grateful that I resisted the urge and did not make Ironman St George my first IM. I can’t wait to read about the race! Good luck!

  4. Comment by briebecca | 04.27.2010 | 2:23 pm

    Have you guys done an open water swim yet?? I don’t know about you two but swimming in open water is a different ball game… I usually freak out a little after about 50 yards in and have to convince myself to keep moving my arms, take big breaths and if my life depended on it, I can go for one of those volunteers in a canoe.. you’d get disqualified of course but that seems trivial when you’re all by your lonesome in the water. So if you haven’t, try to squeeze in a practice open water swim between now and the big event.

  5. Comment by Al | 04.27.2010 | 2:28 pm

    Wetsuits give a HUGE advantage. Back in the day (early 80’s) wetsuits were permitted only if the water was below a certain temperature (which was rare). Wetsuits made weak swimmers strong and almost neutralized any advantage the true strong swimmers really had. The wetsuit industry must have a strong lobby, considered they seem to be permitted in most, if not all, conditions.

  6. Comment by Robert | 04.27.2010 | 2:30 pm

    Don’t forget to hydrate. Though it’s raining and windy and slightly cold, don’t forget to drink.

    Oh and the disclaimer at the bottom of the active.com article is priceless:

    “Elden Nelson blogs on the cycling comedy and endurance racing website fatcyclist.com. This will be his first Ironman. In fact, it will be his first triathlon.”

    :) Good luck Fatty :)

  7. Comment by Boz | 04.27.2010 | 2:33 pm

    I think the weather forecast actually said just plan old “pain”. Cold and wet usually equals just that. Kind of like ‘cross racing. But when it’s over, the stories to tell are much better.

  8. Comment by Dr. Lammler | 04.27.2010 | 2:34 pm

    Last time: “The Runner was beyond overheated…As a supportive and understanding person I nodded sympathetically. But I didn’t really get what the big deal was.”

    This time: Did you really overheat, or, was it one of those things that you, a courteous and loving husband, would say and do to make the spouse feel better?

    We understand. And we won’t reveal your secret.

    All the best for you and The Runner this weekend.

  9. Comment by NYCCarlos | 04.27.2010 | 2:55 pm

    How come we still haven’t heard what bike you’re riding for this thing?

  10. Comment by Wes | 04.27.2010 | 2:59 pm

    LOL… There are still rules concerning water temperature when it comes to wet suits. Swimming in a wet suit in water temps over 82 degrees is DANGEROUS. Also, the better the swimmer you are, the less a wet suit will help you at the end of the day.

    Have a good time in St. George this weekend. We’ll be watching for you on the live feed.

  11. Comment by KanyonKris | 04.27.2010 | 3:00 pm

    Look at all the useful pearls of wisdom you’re amassing on your Ironman quest. If there’s ever a situation where your life depends on swimming across a small lake, cycling into the next county, and running to the next town – you will know how to do it!

    I finished “Straight Man” two weeks ago. I did enjoy it. I would have talked with you about it at RAWROD, but three’s a crowd. I’m sure a time will come.

  12. Comment by Ethan | 04.27.2010 | 3:01 pm

    Consider wearing two swim caps, a plain one and the one IM gives you. It will add a little extra insulation, I’ve swam in 58 degree water and it is shocking how cold that water is.

  13. Comment by eclecticdeb | 04.27.2010 | 3:30 pm

    Don’t even TRY to start out fast. With water that cold, I have trouble breathing and usually hyperventilate. It takes some serious concentration to keep my breathing under control.

    If possible, take advantage of getting used to the water and be glad that you’re not jumping off of a boat in the middle of San Francisco Bay. (yes I did that — twice). Ugh.

  14. Comment by Rob D. | 04.27.2010 | 3:34 pm

    If you’re looking to simulate that wetsuit feeling in the pool, at least for your legs, try using a pull buoy. It’ll keep your legs afloat and keep you from needing to kick.

    Also I would second the comment above about getting in some open water if you can. It’s a totally different ball game. You’re starting in a huge kicking punching mass of neoprene disaster waiting to happen in really cold water and sighting off of buoys as opposed to making turns at walls. It’s real important to 1. feel comfortable in the water so as to not freak out if something goes wrong and 2. get wet before the race starts if possible to get over the shock of sub 60 degree water. Even in a wetsuit that will be cold at first!

    Good luck dude!

  15. Comment by Jeff L. | 04.27.2010 | 3:42 pm

    I swam in Sand hollow at 7:00 am last Sat. and couldn’t feel my hands for the first 5 min. then it was perfect. There was no wind though and I’ve tried swimming there with wind and it was miserable. Good luck and see you there.

  16. Comment by Mandy | 04.27.2010 | 4:04 pm

    I am a dredging the bottom kind of swimmer without a wetsuit too! Open water is way better anyway. Good luck this weekend Fatty!

  17. Comment by a chris | 04.27.2010 | 4:12 pm

    The Runner is a very wise and quick-thinking scientist indeed.

    I wish luck and strength to you both for the Iron Man.

  18. Comment by You're nuts | 04.27.2010 | 5:29 pm

    Good luck to the Fat Triath-a-lete Family. I don’t understand why you’d want to ruin a perfectly good bike race with all that other stuff, but good luck and have fun anyways!

  19. Comment by Kathleen@ForgingAhead | 04.27.2010 | 5:36 pm

    Oh, sorry to hear about the freak-out. Sounds pretty darn scary. I raced in a sub-60 degree lake last weekend sans wetsuit and was miserable – you’re gonna ace the swim.

  20. Comment by Drdave | 04.27.2010 | 5:53 pm

    Best of luck this weekend. Just remember what Dory in Finding Nemo sings, “just keep swimming, keep swimming…” (Yes, my kids MADE me watch it about a zillion times)
    You’ll both do great in the swim. Then the tough part is over.

  21. Comment by oilcanracer | 04.27.2010 | 5:57 pm

    i have the answer to training in a heated pool. just fill your pockets with styrofoam…..

  22. Comment by Greg @ Greg Rides Trails | 04.27.2010 | 6:43 pm

    Dang, that’s going to be a cold swim man!

  23. Comment by R. "Stinky" Mandos | 04.27.2010 | 6:43 pm

    I usually try to load up on bratwurst and drink a lot of caffeine before a swim. I wrap the neck, arms and legs tightly with duct tape. Collecting the gas for the first mile or say really helps with buoyancy. Then i just “let it all go”. Unfortunately, I have received too many complaints about my transitions being “disruptive and highly inappropriate” and have been banned from competing by small minded and vindictive individuals. Good luck.

  24. Comment by skippy | 04.27.2010 | 11:12 pm

    Love “stinky’s comment” & styrofoam item, can be confusing deciding on which advice will work just as long as you don’t use Lemond saliva otherwise it will annoy the Livestrong Sponsors!
    Are you the control on all your Ads as here in Austria i am getting an item “Lovetimer” which has the time clicking over as it asks you to sign in, with a pulsing red heart reminds one of “valentine’s day”!
    Looking forward to seeing photo of you in the wetsuit & a helmet to avoid the thrashing feet of the other competitors who will be trying to kick you into touch so as to keep their podium positions!

  25. Comment by Mike Roadie | 04.28.2010 | 3:51 am

    Universally true. Wetsuits are not just superior insulation, they are like giant balloons that keep you afloat and hence, much more efficient. In some circles, that would be called cheating.

  26. Comment by Trigirlpink | 04.28.2010 | 6:26 am

    Nice job scaring the athletes preparing to race at St George. After reading that article on Active.com I’d have gastric distress for the next 4 days as if I was awaiting death by lethal injection.

  27. Comment by Derek | 04.28.2010 | 6:33 am

    Good Luck this weekend. I hope it goes great!

  28. Comment by Lloyd | 04.28.2010 | 7:26 am

    The advantage of a wetsuit is incremental and inverse in proportion to the efficiency of the swimmer. Simply put, the better swimmer one is, but less advantage. Great swimmers swim about the same times with and without.

  29. Comment by Miles Archer | 04.28.2010 | 8:08 am

    Sounds like you found the worlds greatest instant weight loss method.

  30. Comment by Brad Schildt | 04.28.2010 | 9:21 am

    Have you ever heard the advice “train the way you’re going to race?” Do an open water swim (in 58 degree water) today, tomorrow, and several more times before the race. And view Wes Hobson’s triathlon start video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3S0wu4Zbfk. Good luck!

  31. Comment by Chris | 04.28.2010 | 10:26 am

    I am sure it was just a one-time thing, and given your report it sounds like it, but, pools are very bad for wetsuits.

    Good luck with the race!

  32. Comment by Chris | 04.28.2010 | 11:37 am

    Good luck to you two this weekend — race hard, suffer, and HAVE FUN! Crossing that finish line is one of the most amazing experiences — when you get there … take it all in and enjoy it. We’ll be tracking you on line! :)

  33. Comment by Clydesteve | 04.28.2010 | 12:03 pm

    “…just makes me look uncool in a different way…”

    This phrase applies to me in a general fashion in just so many situations.

  34. Comment by Clydesteve | 04.28.2010 | 12:11 pm

    Please, Elden, for the sake of the stories, DO NOT take ANY of the wise advise proffered here.

  35. Comment by Justin | 04.28.2010 | 12:41 pm

    Being too intimidated to enter an Iron-distance race, I cannot, repeat cannot wait to hear your colorful account of the events that are certain to unfold on May 1, 2010.

    Here’s to improving weather. Go get ‘em.

  36. Comment by Road Divit | 04.28.2010 | 1:18 pm

    1 secret Ironman fact that only the pro’s know -
    You will be very surprised at the amount of water the human body can hold after a long swim. Hear the slosh, my friend, hear the slosh.

    1 special tip – Helmet on as soon as you hit the transition area. Why? After a long swim, all the blood in your body will be in your shoulders leaving you quite top heavy. Bend over to put socks or shoes on and you might do a header into the bike rack. Just ask Natasha Badmann.

  37. Comment by Svillecyclist | 04.28.2010 | 1:30 pm

    Echoing Clydesteve – the phrase also applies to me on so many levels.

    Best of luck to you & the Runner at the Ironman!

  38. Comment by nibbler | 04.28.2010 | 2:46 pm

    If the water is going to be that cold, you might want to take your wedding ring off before the swim.

    Good luck this weekend!

  39. Comment by Inappropriate Psychotherapist | 04.28.2010 | 4:12 pm

    @ Lloyd: You need help, Sir. There have been great advances in the OCD/Nerd category.

  40. Comment by maths | 04.28.2010 | 5:51 pm

    If your pools are the same as ours (50M), isn’t 40 laps 1.25miles?

  41. Comment by Anonymous | 04.29.2010 | 12:14 am

    Good luck you two! Helmet cam and full report on Monday! Okay, I’m kidding. :) About the full report on Monday, but how cool would it be to have a cap cam for the swim, a helment cam for the bike and a run cam? Just sayin. I hope you both do well! Avoid brats tho since it’s not going to be hot, maybe caffiene is okay? :)


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