So you want to do an ironman
Well firstly, let me applaud you in making the most significant step – the decision. Sure, some people (those who generally haven’t/can’t/won’t attempt an ironman) will be like ‘so it’s like a marathon, right?’. Yes. Just like a marathon. A marathon that’ll take somewhere about 6 hours for a half, and at least 12 hours for a full.
So let me applaud you again on making a significant and life-changing decision to attempt an ironman.
This narrative won’t be a step-by-step approach to going the distance, but it will give you a perspective of the considerations you should make to embark on the journey. It is provided on the basis that:
- Not only do you want to finish, you want to do so knowing that you went as hard as you can without going too hard and over-cooking
- Coached services may not be available to you
- Your race event may be something never attempted before/unfamiliar to you
- You have a natural suspicion to the hype around long distance triathlon, and want to make an informed decision about what and how is most appropriate for your training
- Want to get an idea of what your likely finish time is so that you can plan appropriately
It goes without saying that training for an endurance event like this is going to be considerable. You will need a reasonable base level of fitness (i.e. can cycle for an hour, run for an hour and at least swim), be medically OK, and have had the obligatory conversation with your significant other. This includes the ‘wtf are you mad, I’m going to divorce you’ conversation when you ask for permission/beg forgiveness with the new TT bike/aero wheels purchase.
On the basis that you’ve had the conversations, gained the support from your family, told all your friends, sourced bulk suppliers for clothing, supplies, electrolytes, nutrition etc. and committed (in your head) to an event, it’s time to get on with things. You will need:
- Swim suit & goggles
- A triathlon specific wetsuit
- A road or triathlon specific bike
- Cycling clothing, spares and knowledge on how to perform basic maintenance
- Running clothing & shoes
If you don’t have these items, go back to the important conversations stage and start asking for permission/begging for forgiveness.
Training considerations and planning
For at least the next 6 months, you’re going to be training. Every day, for at least an hour every day. Even a rest day will be a training day, most likely taken up with massage, physio, stretching, weights etc. The key factor that you need to critically assess, is how you can optimise your training based on the limited time available without over-fatiguing or getting injured. During your training, you are likely to feel:
- Constantly tired
- Constantly hungry
- At least one part of your body feeling tight-nearly-a-niggle-needing-medical-attention
This is important to understand – your standard benchmarks for performance improvement may no longer apply. This means you will question the quality of the training, and highly likely to substitute volume for quality, lose faith, or, both. If you are aware of this upfront, if it happens, you’ll be in a position to consciously recognise and deal with it. The key to performance improvement is more largely influenced by consistency than intensity or volume. Have faith in your plan and record your training data. As such, it is vital that you enter into a training strategy that provides information that can keep you motivated; the mental game can be the most challenging aspect of the entire process.
When you organise your training plan, it is wise to establish a routine. Initially, this should be as simple as determining what discipline, when, and on what day. This could look like:
To assist in planning your training regime, take a look here for more detailed advice:
Important factors to consider:
- The weekend is when the majority of training will take place.
- A long bike ride should followed by a run to get used to the sensation of jelly-legs, and gives an indication of correct bike fit/run speed off the bike
- A long run should follow the long bike ride the day after to simulate tired legs (i.e. the latter stages of the run leg)
Like stated earlier, our focus is to train smart rather than to train long. Some disciplines are naturally easier to monitor pace and performance than others, and improvements are made from technique rather than raw power. Items in bold, I recommend the following items as critical training tools:
- Paddles – useful for creating proper body rotation/more efficient swimming stroke/endurance
- Fins – useful for creating proper body alignment/reducing effort
- Finis Tempo Trainer Pro – provides audible, adjustable, pacing during swimming
- Distance/HR/Pacing monitor
- HR monitor – determines effort zones, enables target based training to cycling LTHR & VO2max
- Cadence monitor – helps determine sweet-spot
- Power meter – helps determine sweet-spot
- Smart wind trainer and software/apps (I use Wahoo Kickr & Trainer Road) – enables target based training to VO2max, LTHR and FTP.
- Distance/HR/Pacing monitor – determines effort zones, enables target based training to running LTHR & VO2max
- Lactate threshold monitor
- Simulation software
- BestBikeSplit.com – enables ‘pre-riding’ the race course – particularly useful if you can’t simulate the terrain characteristics, or aiming to complete the bike leg in a specific time.
In addition, consider the following as part of your training:
- Massage/Medical/Physio support
- Data collecting
- Trainers/Coach/Mentors/Other athlete support
For the duration of my training, I adopted a carbohydrate-heavy (preferably raw) vegan diet. This enabled me to drop weight while retaining lean muscle mass, recover more quickly, feel less bloated, ensure I was maintaining vitamin and mineral intake to stave off illness. In addition I found that I naturally reduced my alcohol consumption and increased my intake of consumption of soft drinks and salted chips. Mostly, these were to provide immediate sugar and sodium for particularly high intensity/cramp inducing training sessions.
As training developed, my body started to struggle, and regular massaging (and compression clothing) helped recovery.
As and when niggles/injuries developed having a medical team to consult quickly helped too.
Having all the data for every training session in one tool was particularly useful for determining load, fatigue and mileage. I used Training Peaks for this task.
Finally, having someone to talk to about your training, who’s going through or have been through it is very useful; particularly when you’re psychologically feeling weak.
Training Smarter with Data – fitness testing and determination of race pace
In order to determine what your training intensity should look like for each of the disciplines, it is vital to have a good understanding of your starting point. This means for each of discipline, you should undertake a measurement that can be repeated, every 4-6 weeks.
Critical Swim Speed
This is your swimming equivalent of threshold pace that can be maintained for 1 hour. More about this can be found here:
Functional Threshold Power
This is your cycling equivalent of threshold pace that can be maintained for 1 hour. More about this can be found here:
Trainer Road offers a session to determine FTP.
Running Lactate Threshold
Suffice to say, none of these tests will be easy, and you will be a mess at the end. This is OK. You will also want to do these tests about 2-3 weeks out from race day. The results from these tests will determine your race pace – approximately 85% of your respective pacing for a 70.3 and 75% for full Ironman.
A few caveats about fitness testing during training
As noted earlier, you are going to be doing something training related every single day. This means that you’re highly likely to be fatigued. Therefore, expect some (or all) of these indications to arise:
- Resting HR to increase
- Max HR suppressed
- FTP and LTHR values lower than their true value
- VO2max increases higher than measured
Come race day, you’ll be rested, pumped and ready to go. These combinations will mean your 75-85% intensity will feel significantly easy. This is OK, and exercise restraint – if you’re still feeling fresh come the last 10km of the run, this is when the race will start!
In general, your fitness will improve most effectively if you build your training regimen around your threshold paces for each respective discipline. Commonly known as over-and-under, a session will be interval based training slightly below (<5% below), on and slightly above (>5% above) threshold paces. Finally, the long cycle ride should be generally at tempo pace (the 75-85% threshold), in the aero position that you’re planning to use on race day. Later you may wish to simulate the race course and incorporate longer, more realistic, brick sessions.
Finally, there’s nothing wrong in mixing it up a little; hitting the hills with your mates, running the trails or swimming open water is completely acceptable to staying sane. Doing it often, however, is likely to negatively impact your training quality. Including ‘warm-up’ events (commonly known as B races) is a good way to do dress rehearsals and to gauge your level of ability against others. It should be noted, that these are not your goal-events, and as such shouldn’t be taken too seriously; getting injured or requiring extensive time to recover will negatively impact your A race.
BestBikeSplit.com offer the ability to simulate the bicycle leg of an event based on your physical attributes, your bike, the terrain and known weather conditions from previous events. It mixes it all up together and can estimate your likely time, power levels and allows for ‘what if’ scenarios. With experimentation, it is possible to get accurate predictions. Finally, you have the ability to download course power files to smart wind trainers/software to simulate the race day course. This service is provided free, but a paid version provides other tools which you may find useful. It comes highly recommended.
Nutrition during the race is a highly individual topic. I would, however, urge that training commences with the adoption of the appropriate race day fuels so as to train the gut to the hydration and energy requirements, and also for you to determine what works and doesn’t. For example, I found over time that solid foods didn’t work for me, and I relied on non-caffeinated gels as my primary source of fuel. Standard electrolytes (Horleys Replace, Nuun, Hammer Fizz etc) were insufficient for my needs, and moved to Tailwind/First Endurance EFS instead. This enables you to determine the optimum timing for gels and bottles of electrolytes per hour, which then in turn determines the quantity needed to be stored on the bike and for transitions.
It pays to attempt to identify and use the fuels provided on race day. If this is not possible, you should at least aim to carry all your provisions needed on the bike, for the bike leg. This will set you up for the best chance of scoring your PB for the run. Relying on pre-mixed who-knows-what on race day aid stations is accepting the risk of not finishing the race. (Remind me again, how much have you spent to get to this point of failure?)
How often have you reflected whether or not you could have gone a little bit harder, or should have gone a little slower in an event that could have affected your overall time? By training smart, you will:
- Have a clear idea how long each leg will take
- Know how much energy you’re likely to need
- What its going to feel like
- Know that you’ve put the hard yards in and that you can do this
In triathlon, they often say that the race only starts in the last half of the run. Prepare well, take your time and enjoy the day – remember to go steady, and using tools well, understanding your data and fitness means that you’ll be able to gauge your pacing on race day based on numbers and feel. This, surely, means you’re far better equipped than simply hoping you’ve done enough. It’ll mean you can enjoy it!
Now get out there and smash it, for you are [nearly] an Ironman!