May 13, 2013

Is triathlon getting cold feet?

What a hot topic water temperature is right now.
Of course in Ireland open water temperature is never hot, its not even warm, and it is a feature of the typical Irish person to have a body type more suited to prolonged immersion in these water conditions than not.
There's quite a discussion going on over on in the T/D/M forum about early season triathlon and the combination of water conditions, weather and ITU rules resulting in the swim leg of triathlon being curtailled or cancelled.
But that discussion is nothing compared to the recent back and forth in relation to the changes that have been drawn down for Ironman under the SwimSmart pilot plans.
(I'm only going to touch on this topic as it is a different barrel of fish)
Now we need to remember that Ironman is a corporation defining its own rules, for it's own races. These rules do not form a part of the ITU rules governing the swim.

Modified Swim Starts at Select Races

  • IRONMAN will pilot several alternative race starts at select events to further enhance athlete experience and reduce swim anxiety. Three events in 2013 will feature new swim start formats – IRONMAN Coeur d’Alene, IRONMAN Lake Placid and IRONMAN Mont-Tremblant – while two other 2013 events, IRONMAN Lake Tahoe and IRONMAN Florida, will feature modifications in how athletes start their races. 

Pre-Race Swim Warm-Up

  • North American IRONMAN events will include a pre-race, in-water warm-up whenever possible. 

Swim Temperature

  • Water temperature below 52 degrees Fahrenheit or above 88 degrees Fahrenheit will result in cancellation or shortening of the swim portion of the race  

Swim Course Additions

  • Numbered course buoys to assist in positioning of water assets/personnel and provide more accurate communication for locating and rescuing distressed swimmers.
  • Anchored resting rafts to be strategically placed along the swim course (please note that athletes will NOT be disqualified by resting on these floats).
  • Increased professional swim course personnel to enhance the overall athlete experience.
  • Additional rescue boat and personal watercrafts (PWC, kayaks, paddleboards, etc.).
Safety has to be the number 1 motivation in making these sort of rule changes. The cynics would have you believe the move by Ironman is to make the events more attractive to non-swimmers or those who are weaker swimmers. So is money the key motivation here rather than safety?
At National levels the affiliation with ITU (International Triathlon Union) provides us with out rules and regulations. And there is a mine of information, which each and every one of us confirms we have read AND understand when we sign into a race. Read it, 139 pages of essential education for any triathlete.
Regarding water safety, the ITU rules are quite clear on what call Race Directors and Triathlon Officials should make on the morning of a race in the event of inclement weather.
"Water temperature must be taken one (1) hour prior to the start of the event on  race day. it must be taken at the middle of the course and in two other areas on the swim course, at a depth of 60cm. The lowest measured temperature will be considered as the official water temperature."
They don't leave much to chance and quite clearly lay out the guidelines on the decision making process.
ITU water temps
ITU water temperature chart
Our own Triathlon Ireland governing body also add a stipulation based on wind factors.
TI wind factor
Thinking about our training environment surely by virtue of training in colder waters we should be more accustomed to the cold water and the regulations could be relaxed a little for our more temperate zones?
This leads to comparison with our neighbours the British Triathlon Federation (also ITU affiliated), what do they do when the water is cold?
BTF Swim regsBTF Swim regs contd
So very similar to ITU with a little bit of clarity on the length (which is linked to duration) permissible in the event of a swim shortening. They also leave a little gate open by saying below 11°C it is recommended that open water swimming does not take place. They don't state it shouldn't take place, it could but is not recommended and then there is a little caveat about considering air temperatures.
Very much left open to interpretation and probable abuse by Race Directors and competitors alike.
That then led me to think about our Scandanavian counterparts. They of the frozen plunge pools and saunas. If anyone is better suited or conditioned to swimming in cold open water, it has got to be those living and training close to theArtic Circle.
What do they do?
Surprise, surprise, the rules are the same ITU rules (except in Norwegian).
Norway Swim rules
So while the rules are very definitive and quite clearly the governing bodies are singing from the same song sheet, what does this mean for early season racing?
My Norwegian is a tad rusty but their first sanctioned OW race appears to be a sprint race on 15th June.
Even in the UK most of the calendar at this time of year (May) is either duathlons, pool based swims or sprint distance triathlon. A very definite weighting on the duathlon and pool based side of things.
The problem is hypothermia.
In 'The Chilling Truth about Cold Water', it is explained that:
"Cold water carries heat away from the body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature and as a result, the body core immediately begins to lose heat to the outside environment."
"Within 20 to 30 minutes depending on water temperature, body core temperature drops to below 35C... this cooling, if not checked, leads to disorientation, unconsciousness and eventually death."
The critical bit for triathletes is:
"...the steady decline in core temperature will continue until after the person is removed from the water."
This is the massive safety risk in triathlon. Not the risk of freezing to death in the water, or sudden heart attacks triggered by the cold. Its the disorientation, loss of dexterity and the risk of continued lowering of core body temperatures whilst on the bike leg of a triathlon that is the main problem.

Like all solutions, if you remove the cause of the problem in the first place, there is no problem.

So while the Ironman decisions are defined as improvements in water safety, the main goal is to make their events more attractive to punters.

The ITU rules are to save lives.

So no matter how ready we think we are for the open water, or how frustrated we get when swims are shortened or cancelled, it is Safety First each and every time.

Maybe the solution would be to rethink our calendar for triathlon in Ireland?


Tri an Mhí CXIII – Irish middle distance National Championships | Amphkingwest said...

[…] written previously about the rules under which decisions are made on race conditions, emphasis on the swim in […]

amphkingwest said...

Comment from Wayne Owide (via LinkedIn)•

Has anyone seen the new rule book changes for British Triathlon? You can see them here .

It appears that 15c is the lowest water temperatures allowed in UK races now. Furthermore, water temp is taken as a combination of air and water temps and if the air temperature is low then the swim will be cancelled.

That would mean an end to all early season races in the UK. This and last week end Dorney was host to Super Sprints and swims (up to 10k). They tweeted that water temps were 15c and that wet suits were consequently optional!!!!

I swam Sunday in Thorpe lake and it was 13c - really nice actually. Dorney is colder than Thorpe and I know someone who swam the 10k and measured the real temperature, it was 12c.

Either they took the temp in a shallow pool of water, guaranteed to warm up, or they were telling porkies, which is what all race organisers would do in that situation or their races would become swiftly very unpopular. Either that or there would be quite a few non-BT affiliated early season races.

Interesting, I can't quite see what BT thinks it is going to gain by making the limit so high.