How to Train For An Ironman Triathlon [2/2]

Worth the pain, see

Worth the pain, see

Following Part 1 of How to Train for An Ironman Triathlon, which gave a basic 6 month training plan, key take-home points for in sync weight training & nutrition plus specific training to ‘break the hour’ in the swim leg; I want to focus today on improving run & bike speed on the long distance course & more on race day execution.

I hope these two blogs give some guiding principles for your Ironman training program in the months ahead. Of course there is always additional ‘triathlon dogma’ that can be recommended and I encourage the reader to highlight this advice in the comments below.

Finishing strong – Increasing Ironman run speed

The secret to big changes in performance is a consistent, varied and progressive training schedule. Essentially what we are trying to do with your workouts is to focus on aspects which you are either weak in or becoming too comfortable [ Insert – Marginal gains and all that language]. When working on your ‘speed’ for the run, it is important to consider these two fundamental pieces of coaching advice and put in place a program which suits your goals & weaknesses.

1. This 26.2 miles will be at the end of the swim & bike. Obvious statement but even the pros will run about 15% slower after 112 miles on the bike [say  a 2:50 time compared to 2:25 in a stand alone marathon]. With this in mind, there should be elements of your training which teaches you how to get used to that ‘funny post-bike leg feeling’ into a smooth running stride. Speed work can focus on your performance with tried legs and schedules should include bricks – workouts with two disciplines – to stimulate race conditions and build endurance.

A common held view in long distance triathlon coaching is ‘An Ironman is a bike race with a swim warm-up and a jog to the finish line’. Athletes may not all agree to this, yet race preparation & training programs should keep in mind this statement.  Running off the bike is an issue of skill and the vast majority of the time, under-performing the run is the result of overcooking the bike or the first quarter to one third of the run.

As stated by Joe Friel, USA Triathlon and USA cycling certified Elite-level coach, on his post – How can I do a faster Ironman? –

‘There is absolutely no need to do ‘speed’ work, as in fast intervals. It will just be a waste of your time, leave you tired most of the time, and increase your chances of injury. You’re never going to run ‘fast’ in an Ironman. Even the pros don’t run fast.’

One to keep in mind.

2. The value of running on fresher legs. In complete contradiction to the first point – but it goes without saying that athletes respond to different approaches – there is the argument by coaches eg. Rich Strauss from Endurance Nation, that the value of brick workouts becomes less as the distance of your goal race increases. Personally I would agree that elements of any schedule should create opportunities to run faster on fresher legs. That is simply because of the tendency in a brick run for the long course triathlete to be a relatively slow run on tired legs.

Perhaps the answer to a faster run is a ‘surge set’ in the brick workout. Two great examples of this type of training was provided by Garth Fox – coach, triathlete and cyclist with a MSc in sport science – in Triradar using the precedent set by Michael Weiss’ workouts (Xterra World Champion, who ran a 2hr 51min marathon to win Ironman Cozumel 2013):

Surging: Workout 1

Ride 2 to 5hrs at a steady pace, and then go straight into 4 to 8x1km repeats at your best half marathon race pace (around threshold pace) with 2mins running at your target Ironman pace in between these repeats.

Surging: Workout 2

Ride steady for 1 hour, but include 4-6 x3mins hard efforts. Then go straight into a 1 hour run, to include three pace changes: from half marathon pace, to 10km pace, to 5km pace; each 2-3mins with 2mins IM pace in between surges.

Putting yourself in contention – Getting the bike right

You may be a strong cyclist but that peloton heavy bike race is complete different to the non-drafting Ironman. These are some important points to keep in mind both in your training and on race day.

1. Don’t overcook it on the bike as you come out of the swim. Use this opportunity – perhaps the first hour – to set a steady pace and refuel after the hard swim. Smashing it on the bike and then falling to pieces on the run won’t make a good race day. I speak from experience.

2. Cycling strategy should be to maintain a very stead effort across all terrain – no KOM surges up the hills or excessive coasting on the downhills. If the course is rolling you want to put in a constant effort as you go over the crest of the hill to bring the speed of your descent up – this is not the time to break yourself up the hill to break away from the drafting rider behind you.

This is not the Tour de France. Huge stretches of the bike will be pretty lonely. Don't be fouled. Get the head right for it.

This is not the Tour de France. Huge stretches of the bike will be pretty lonely. Don’t be fouled. Get the head right for it.

3. I don’t want to talk too much on bike gear as I think it is important to learn ‘how to train’ rather than hoping your expensive kit will produce a stellar race day result. We have all passed $10-13,000 dollar bikes on training rides – just because you have the kit doesn’t mean you can use it. However I will say a proper bike fit and considerable time out on the tri-bars will not only improve your aerodynamics but also build strength in your core & give greater comfort on the day.

Improving bike speed through high intensity training

When athletes begin training for an Ironman triathlon they often focus on training volume in favour of completing intense workouts. Yes, this will improve endurance, overall race times (help you actually finish) but can also lead to injuries, burnout and reduce your aerobic efficiency. As drilled into all of us down at Athlete Lab your current speed potential is based on bike paces/wattages at lactate threshold combined with your weight. Therefore to get a good idea of how an athlete may perform at an event distance you must consider both the power/weight ratios and your ‘fatigue index’ – i.e. how aerobic or anaerobic athletes are. This section on ‘speed potential’ with not only look at the benefits of training an athlete’s durability/endurance but also increasing physical stress via intensity and thus improve raw speed.

Ironman intensity workout

My FTP has risen from 3.4 to 4.15 in the last few months through this high intensity training. Noticed huge difference in 1100km ride across Malaysia 2 weeks ago.

Workouts featuring FTP (maximum power you can maintain through an hour’s effort without fatiguing) intervals are similar to progressive strength training workouts where the muscles are being asked to lift a heavier and heavier load each week. These difficult workouts also stress the cardiovascular system more acutely than long endurance rides do. Scheduled in parallel with ‘long rides’ (to get the miles in the legs) these training blocks will allow you to push more power and inevitably increase your speed over the 5-6 hour Ironman bike. It also keeps things both interesting and challenging for the athlete as you try to juggle the 9-5.

A typical FTP workout includes 30 minutes of warm-up with some 30-60 second pick ups in the last 3rd of the warm-up. Then the athlete is instructed to ride for a 6-10 minute interval at a prescribed wattage level that is at or near functional threshold (or lactate threshold) power. The FTP interval is repeated once or twice on a recovery equal to half the length of the interval, followed by a 10-15 minute cool down. This is challenging workout completed in a relatively short period of time (75-90 minutes). Some coaches prescribe four bike workouts per week with 3 of the 4 of those workouts featuring FTP intervals – ideal if you can only do a big distance ride on a Saturday morning!

If you want to read more about training gains from short term interval sprints vs traditional endurance rides, this blog has a dedicated post HERE

Ironman Nutrition – Filling the tank on race day

You can’t do an Ironman on electrolytes and water, so it is incredibly important that you train with the foods you plan to race with. Knowing when and how much fuel you need to be taking on during the race is probably more important than some of those long hours in the pool!

Experiment with which food works best for you. Food choice and efficacy varies from athlete to athlete, and don’t hesitate to invest in good quality products – after all how much was that top-quality wetsuit, googles or bike?

See 'Throw me a Bar - A guide to On-Course nutrition' from the Ironman organizers

See ‘Throw me a Bar – A guide to On-Course nutrition’ from the Ironman organizers

Research shows that consuming multiple types of sugars allows for better calorie absorption and better endurance performance. So you will not only find that you get cravings for certain types of food – I am a sucker for Coca Cola – but it may also help your energy levels. Put it into practice in your next training session. Furthermore many athletes support the case for real food in addition to the processed, refined energy bars or gels. Although these foods may not be as calorie dense they can provide the vital nutrition that your body needs – vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. The stored potassium in bananas being a prime example. Of course many of today’s gels have stupid amounts of B vitamins etc, yet you may find this results in GI symptoms over long periods of time – particularly if they contain a high dose of caffeine. This is not a liquid lunch.

Most athletes do best taking in 50–75 percent of their calories from full-strength sports drink (such as Gatorade Endurance Formula or First Endurance EFS) to provide a base of all three needed ingredients: fluid, sodium and carbs. Take in the other 25–50 percent of your calories from carb-based bars, real food etc. Protein rich drinks – milkshake forumlas – are often popular deep into the run leg to act as ‘real food’ but are easy and quick to digest. Experimentation is key, particularly if you are not aware of how your body reacts to these foods 8, 10 hours into a high intensity race.

During the race, it is important to get wholesome food and liquids into you during the bike leg. Not only will the moderate intensity & positioning on the bike allow for better digestion of solid food (better blood flow to the gut) it will allow the release of calories as you break into the run. Bonking on that is awful, be warned. As a guide try to eat something every 20-30minutes, otherwise you may find a slight bonking sensation – a real whammy – in the later stages of the race. Plan to drink water when eating your solid calories and increase your total fluid and sodium as the temperature rises. Many of the Ironman race locations may be in environments that you are not used to training in. Please note.

Executing the race on the day

Rich Strauss make a great point in this article – 4 keys to Ironman Execution ;

‘All you’ve done for 9 months is build a vehicle. Ironman racing is about how you DRIVE that vehicle, it is NOT about the vehicle….It’s easy to get caught up in the buzz and energy of the day, but creating and sticking to the right plan for you is the only thing that will lead to the best possible day’

These are some key take away points as your race day approaches. If you keep them in mind in your training plan you can’t go far wrong.

Try not to shallow too much water....

Try not to shallow too much water….

1. Don’t be over confident in the swim. Ironman has been changing the setup for the swim start over the last few years to avoid racers being swamped and struggling in the water. If you haven’t been in an open water race or mass start, trust me it can get a little crazy. That is nothing to worry about, just if you are not hitting the hour mark in training probably not the best idea to stand in front of the lead age groupers….they will swim over you. Give yourself space and stick to the segment which best represents your potential time. Worse case if you feel strong, the field will spread out in the final half and you can put the gas on then.

2. A successful race = a good run. Finish strong. There is no such thing as a good bike followed by bad run, period. Get the pacing right. It doesn’t matter how fit you are, if you don’t set a steady pace you will never hit your potential as a triathlete.

2. 80-90 percent of the Ironman field doesn’t know how to race. Don’t change your plan because some rider just shot past you at mile 46. You should know what you are capable of and if you get pushed into a ‘contest’, you will only suffer later.

Don't be fooled. This is YOUR race

Don’t be fooled. This is YOUR race

3. Don’t panic. On race day everything is not going to be perfect. You may be kicked in the face on the swim. You may leave some energy gels at the transition station. You may feel fantastic at the 20 mile mark food stop on the run and then bonk 2 miles up the road. Whatever it is remember the effort, dedication and determination you put into this race for last few months. Run your race and don’t worry what other people are doing. In the end, you will feel more confident when you are out there and FINISH stronger.

Finally, remember the greatest challenge of the Ironman is getting to the start line. Enjoy your training and if you put in the time you will do fine. Have fun!

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