Whether it’s his legendary heart-on-sleeve attitude to racing, brutally candid vlogs or unbridled enthusiasm for a sport that rescued him from a wayward adolescence, 32-year-old Lionel Sanders is, in triathlon terms, box office.
There’s also no little talent. A cycling behemoth with a preposterously low heart rate, the Canadian posted an Ironman record 7:44:29 in Arizona in 2016 and thrashed himself to second place in the Ironman World Championship a year later. Even during a pandemic,
where racing has been replaced by beating all-comers on Zwift, the authenticity and intensity that has captured a global following isn’t wavering, as Tim Heming found out…
220: Let’s start with the ultimate goal, the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Your second place in 2017 was sandwiched between disappointment on the Big Island. Are you looking forward to an eventual return?
LS: I’ve been horrible the past two editions. The heat is the biggest problem for me in that race. I just went for a 65min run [in Tucson] and didn’t take any fluid. It’s 81 degrees [27°C] and I lost 6lbs [2.7kg]. Sweating is my big problem and difficult to keep up with.
220: Does this mean you can never win it?
LS: I wouldn’t be an athlete if I thought problems were insurmountable – although swimming in the front pack might be. The big difference was that I had a coach in 2017. Doing my own thing doesn’t work.
At Kona in 2017, I drank 11 750ml bottles on the bike and then seven on the run and was still severely dehydrated. In 2019, I drank five bottles on the bike and had no plan whatsoever for the run. I knew I was screwed at the final aid station on the bike when I was unable to grab water. I was dying for a drink and knew the most painful three-plus hours you can imagine were about to follow. And so it proved.
220: … and you got to share much of that Ironman marathon slog with debutant Alistair Brownlee?
LS: We got to commiserate with each other. He had a miserable day, too. I asked him, ‘Are you having fun?’ He replied, ‘No’, and I told him I absolutely f**king hate this sport. There was no need to speak more. We were both embarrassed.
The comical part is that I pushed myself as hard in 2019 as I did in 2017, only to go one hour slower. Some guys who are having a bad race drop out, but you should feel the depth of suffering. I was 17lbs dehydrated and it took me an hour to walk 200m from the finish line. I’ve never felt such deep biological pain.
It’s this way for a lot of people in Kona, but it’s just lack of knowledge and preparation, just ignorance really. Yet Jan [Frodeno] doesn’t look anything like this. Jan has every piece of the puzzle – and it’s reproducible at this stage, too.
220: Would you say that [three-time Ironman world champion] Frodeno is your biggest rival, then?
LS: In my mind it’s only Jan Frodeno. He’s the only one that motivates me. I also don’t see him racing until he’s 50 years old, so the way I see it is I’ll get one more shot at racing him in Kona. I’ll go there in my absolute best shape – mind, body, everything – that I can.
220: How much longer do you see yourself racing for?
LS: I love triathlon, so could be like [three-time Kona champ] Craig Alexander. Craig’s 47, yet still podiums in Asia-Pacific races. It’s good for his business, it keeps him in shape, it keeps him young. Eventually I want to be a coach, and I’d love to have a Faris Al Sultan-Patrick Lange type relationship, being the coach who trains with the Ironman world champion. To have an elite squad would be a dream, but I’m not going to do a half-arsed job, so won’t coach until I can give it the time and effort.
220: If coaching is critical, why did you go solo after 2017?
LS: It makes you appreciate things more when you screw up. I’ve learnt you shouldn’t coach yourself. If I could go back, I’d keep my coach [David Tilbury-Davis] and not go off at 15 different tangents. I had a lot of great opportunities in 2018: I got to go up against Jan in Oceanside, I blew that; I went up against Cody Beals, in Mont Tremblant, I blew that. Kona was a horrible race and I don’t think it had to be that way. I was just making so many stupid decisions.
It’s not complicated. Just do the basics well, get a good bike fit, train properly, give yourself adequate recovery and that’s about it. Often-times we’re looking for shortcuts: ‘Why do I suck?’ It’s insecurity. After I raced Jan at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside and got beat in all three disciplines, I decided: new bike, new frame size, new position, new pedals, new everything. If I’d had a coach saying, ‘Hang on a second, let’s analyse that race, the numbers weren’t that far off,’ I wouldn’t have torn apart my bike position… and gone vegan for around
220: Why did you split with David in the first place, then?
LS: We got mad at each other, quite frankly. David was upset with me because I didn’t give him public credit for being my coach in 2017. I was like, ‘I pay you, if I want to give you credit, I’ll give you credit. If I don’t, I still pay you.’ He got offended by that and we went our separate ways before realising we were both being kind of babies about it. This is the beauty of triathlon and how it transcends sport. I like to take all the credit for myself. It was a lesson for me. I have to acknowledge the help – it takes an army – and I realised that after 2018.
220: As you say, you also made a plant-based switch. Why wasn’t it successful?
LS: Because I knew nothing about it! I suddenly made a 180-degree dietary change. I’d eaten meat my whole life, drank milk – around four litres of chocolate milk a day at one point – and suddenly I just cut it all out. I lost about 10lbs in two months. I had a dexa scan at the Gatorade Institute and was at around 4% body fat. They said I was in dangerous weight-loss territory.
I asked [fellow professional triathlete] Joe Gambles, a lifelong vegetarian, and he said, ‘You made so many changes at once, you’ve no idea what caused you to perform so poorly.’ His recommendation was to start with one day a week for a month, feel good, document it, then go to two days a week. I don’t have any desire to do veganism again, but only 15% of my meals for the past 200 days have had meat in them.
220: So, as well as being reunited with your coach and a more balanced diet, what will it take to become Ironman world champion?
LS: You’re talking about the code that I’ve not cracked. If I analyse last year, even though it was horrible, the swim was the best of my life. I usually lack a certain something at the start. The gun goes, I get dropped, then swim solo threshold for 3.8km. So I thought of it as a 400m time-trial and then a tempo swim. I don’t think I swam an interval over 200 yards. I just did hard 25s, hard 50s, hard 100s, with a big rest. Come race day, I got out well and was comfortable in the pack with guys who three years ago I’d only have dreamt of swimming with.
I was where I needed to be and if I’d had the bike leg I did in 2017, I’m off the bike with Frodeno and it’s a running race. My run has been horrible just about every year, but I grew up with a running background and it’s not my runnability that’s lacking, it’s other pieces of the puzzle. If I push 320 watts, that’s 10mins faster than Frodeno, then if I run a 2:46-2:47, I’m tying. No one’s ever done that in Kona, but if you swim like me you’ll have to do something no-one’s ever done to win.
220: So, is it still possible to improve your swimming?
LS: Not by rebuilding my swim, that ship has sadly set sail for me. I was 4:50mins down but had all the major cyclists alongside me and when [Cameron] Wurf, [Sebastian] Kienle and I fire on all cylinders, we’ll catch the front of that race. Then we put guys under pressure and the dynamics change.
220: But you have started to wear the new Form goggles that provide real-time data you can view when you swim?
LS: The goggles are a candidate for technological development of the decade. I cannot swim without them anymore. I don’t remember the last time I last rode a bike without a power meter – it was probably 10 years ago. That might be a problem, I don’t know, but now I can’t swim without these goggles, either. For someone like me, who’s incredibly horrible at gauging effort, seeing your pace per 100m while swimming could be a real gamechanger.
220: Beyond your Form goggles, what other technological advances have caught your eye?
LS: For someone who trains a lot on Zwift, I think there’s a market for Zwift to release their own treadmill that goes up and down with the terrain. It would make indoor running amazing.
220: As for Zwift, you’ve built up a reputation as one of the top performers on the turbo?
LS: It’s the only thing keeping me sane. It’s fun but I’ve done so many virtual races, I cannot wait until I see the guys in real life – and we will not bike as close, I assure you. I’ve always had good watts per kg and Zwift removes everything that’s been a problem for me – the handling, riding the road, the position… if I’m not good on Zwift, it’s not looking good!
220: Your YouTube channel has almost 100k subscribers and the videos have collected millions of views. Why do you think it’s been so successful?
LS: I try to be authentic and do things I find interesting. There needs to be a personal story – something to relate to – but figuring that out isn’t easy. Talbot [Cox, videographer] takes flak because his videos aren’t artistic, but he likes to tell a story that inspires, so we work well together. I don’t care if the B roll isn’t nice, I want you to close the computer and say, ‘I’m going to ride 100 miles right now because I’m excited to train.’ And it excites me to excite someone to train!’
220: Of all your successes, do you have a favourite race?
LS: They all hold special places. In Ironman Arizona back in 2016, I was trying to get under 7:45. I’ll never forget my wife jogging out onto the course to say I’d break the record if I picked it up over the final three miles. I came back from the dead. All of a sudden my pace went up a minute per mile. That was memorable.
There was Oceanside 2015, when I caught Jan on the bike, ran 5km with him and we were knocking elbows. I don’t really remember much of Kona 2017, other than it being really thrilling. Entering the lead was a life dream, with the helicopter and media vehicles right there. I didn’t imagine [race winner] Patrick Lange in the dream, but I guess that’s how it had to go.
220: So, with no tri in the immediacy, what would you like to do now?
LS: I messaged the Badwater [135-mile ultramarathon through California’s Death Valley] race organiser and tried to get myself into it. He was like, ‘No, you’ve never run 100 miles, you’re going to die, we’re not going to let you race.’ Six hours later he cancelled the race anyway. But I’m switching to ultra-running in my 40s. The Barkley Marathons doesn’t interest me, I find that more of an adventure race. Western States, now that’s interesting. And I’d love to win Badwater – that is definitely a nice dream.
LIONEL SANDERS’ TOP INDOOR TRAINING SESSIONS
10 x 3mins at 6% incline to 2mins easy at 0%. The intervals are aerobic – not threshold – so adjust speed accordingly and work up to this quantity. If you’re feeling good, end the session with a short tempo run.
3 x 40mins in your ‘sweet spot’ with low cadence (60-70rpm). Sweet spot for me is 300-340 watts. Once again, slowly work up to this session in terms of volume, power output and cadence. At peak fitness, I’ve completed each interval at over 330 watts at 60rpm.
3 x 5km with 4mins recovery. Nothing crazy. Just trying to get comfortable at low to mid threshold output. At the beginning of the season that might be three sub-18min 5kms; at peak it might be three sub-16min 5kms. If you can comfortably execute this workout, you should be confident for the run portion of a long-distance triathlon.