I recently came across my original triathlon training book on my office shelf: "Dave Scott's Triathlon Training" published in 1986 (but still in print and available from Amazon).
A quick scan through it gave me a broad grin and a chuckle at all the old vintage racing pictures of him in 1980s - for those who may not heard of Dave Scott his nickname was "The Man" and he won a record 6 Ironman world championship races at Kona, the last being in 1987. Only Mark Allen "The Grip" has equalled 6 and was racing towards the end of Scott's career and in a slightly later era (to 1995).
In the 1980s all the bikes were narrow steel tubes, down tube gear shifters, conventional brakes levers (with wires from the top) and basic box section alloy wheels with normal spokes. Wetsuits were often borrowed from other sports and all the kit was either speedos or baggy/loose fitting shorts and singlets.
So compare this to equipment and technology available now and it seems we are light years ahead with super thin and flexible wetsuits, aero carbon frames, deep section wheels, low profile aero bars for a super aerodynamic position, skin tight compression clothing and super light regenerative race shoes.
So with these amazing advancements in technology we would expect to see massive improvements in times at races. Unfortunately not.
Dave Scott's fastest Kona time was in 8.10:13 in 1989 when he came second to Mark Allen who won in 8.09:14 and that was the first time any athlete had broken 8.10 at Kona, a feat that only a handful of athletes have achieved since (Mark Allen 3 times, Thomas Helreigel once, Luc Van Lierde once, Craig Alexander once, Pete Jacobs once).
In 1996 Luc Van Lierde beat Mark Allen's record with a time of 8:04:08 which stood for 15 years until Craig Alexander set 8.03:56 in 2011, which is the current record. This is only 1.1% improvement on the "Grip's" time in 22 years despite all these technological advances.
A similar pattern is apparent for women and breaking the 9 hour barrier at Kona: first by Paula Newby-Fraser in 1992 with a 8.55 then only a handful of times after with Chrissie Wellington breaking the record by less than 90 seconds with a 8.54 some 17 years later in 2009.
Unfortunately it is trickier to do a similar comparison on shorter distances because drafting became legal in Pro races more than 10 years ago.
I recognize that wind/temperature have an influence on the times at Kona, more than most other races, but considering that most of the men's sub 8.10 times were set prior to the mid 90s, these athletes must have been doing something right.
So, after the initial laugh at the pictures in Dave Scott's book I started to browse the text and consider the principles that I followed when I started racing 20 years ago. It may be a surprise to find that the fundamentals have not really changed compared to modern practice - he covers training intensities, technique, fitness, flexibility, weight training, diet etc etc and these are pretty much the same now as they were then.
So what has changed in 20+ years? Equipment wise there have been massive improvements - I started racing on a steel tube road bike with Profile clip on aero bars and down tube shifters (although I did a DIY modification of using a MTB thumb gear shifter positioned on the aero bars) and wore baggy running gear. This moved into a steeper geometry Tri specific bike with HED CX deep section carbon rims in the mid 1990s, progressing to carbon frame and disc wheel in the early 2000's.
There have been some big gains and the biggest was probably the first use of aero bars in the mid 1980s – which contributed to winning times dropping below 9hrs and then towards 8hrs. Likewise deep section wheels have improved mainly in how they deal with cross winds (I recall being scared out of my wits during a very gusty race in UK when I used a disc and the first generation of super deep front wheel called HED Deep).
So it seems there have been revolutionary changes in equipment but it seems the technology may be revolving 'full circle' as Tri specific bikes are now tending more towards comfort and rider's fit because the penny has finally dropped that these influence performance/times more than weight and super low aero position that cannot be maintained at optimum power - so perhaps all is forgiven for the unconventional Softride bike of the 90s!. This 'revolution' is also apparent with chain rings as I rode Biopace oval rings in 1980s which have been turned 180 degrees relative to the crank to get the current, trendy...........Q Rings!
Despite the marginal improvement in times for the pros over the years at Kona it would be interesting to see the change in age groupers' times because I think this is where the biggest gains have been made. The pros have always been superhuman, exceptional athletes pushing all the boundaries but the improvement of the amateur age grouper has been phenomenal over the years and I believe this is due to a few reasons:
- popularity - more people doing triathlon (so proportion of quality and competition increases);
- much better understanding of training regimes (more widespread knowledge propagated by the internet, more clubs like TriDubai etc);
- more available and accurate monitoring and assessment techniques (heart rate monitors, speed, power, cadence etc);
- better nutrition (sports drinks and gels etc rather than figs and apricots);
- widespread availability of triathlon specific products (such as steep geometry bikes);
- better understanding of sports injury prevention, treatment and cure;
- better understanding of sports psychology.
So, what can we all learn and recognize from the "Man" Dave Scott? Even though there has been a revolution in equipment, it is clear that fitness and personal ability are the biggest influences on performance. Technique, form and position are the next major factors, trailed a long way by equipment. With this in mind it is essential that you focus on improving your fitness by doing a targeted training program and ensure you are performing optimally by having your swim/bike/run and transition technique properly evaluated and corrections made. The result of this is that it is far better to spend your hard earned cash on a swim evaluation, a proper bike fitting, a gait analysis or performance testing rather than buying a new flashy or aero gadget. However, if you can do all and buy the gadgets then fantastic, but sort out your priorities first.
So is this message revolutionary? No. It's the same fundamentals that existed years ago but in my opinion our sport is evolving well to benefit all. The good news is that now is a fantastic time to be in the sport of triathlon because it has never been as popular, as accessible and as enjoyable because the resources (knowledge/measurement/equipment and diversity of races) are available to achieve your targets and improve your talent score.