It’s not that many years ago that we all raced sprint, Olympic and maybe one half Ironman at the end of the season. Ironman was the distance we marveled at. It was something that we all aspired to but very few ever did. More and more, Ironman is what brings people into triathlon and even if they start at the shorter distances it’s often where they see themselves getting to eventually. It’s aspirational, it’s a badge of honor in both in and out of triathlon. What other sport or race do you know of bar the Olympics that people get a tattoo of the logo after they’ve done it? Ironman is changing our sport and no more so than how we think of and race the shorter distances.
Pauline Curley’s tattoo from the Beijing Olympics. I stood on a cold and wet half marathon startline a couple of years ago. I was a couple of rows back from the front not fancying my chances against a lot of “proper” runners. Just before the start the diminutive but muscular Pauline Curley squeezed by heading towards the front. As she passed wearing her customary knicker shorts I noticed her Olympic tattoo and realised I was way too close to the front. #intimidationfactor
Anyway I digress, let’s get back to the point. As I moved from racing short course triathlon into racing Ironman, how I trained changed massively but how I raced the shorter stuff also changed. Olympic and even half Ironman or 70.3 races became training days. What was once a cause for fear, trepidation and massive pre-race nerves is now only a regular day out. One that is often spoken about almost dismissively or boastfully
“I’m doing a 70.3 next month but it’s only a training race, in fact I won’t even taper for it” While I’m all for using shorter races as long training days for the big event I think that it can cause a dangerous lack of respect for an event and can mean that a lot of the potential gains are lost.
Here are my 6 top tips for “training through” a race
- Treat it like your “A” race in terms of preparation: Every race should be treated as the most important thing you are doing, even if it only a small, short or training race. Most of us only race Ironman once a year so we should be using our shorter races as an opportunity to practice pacing, nutrition, race strategy, mental strength and try out and test race kit we intend on using in Ironman. That way we eliminate as many potential problems as possible in less important events.
- Have a plan for pacing: Racing tired, which is often what happens when we are “training through” will usually result in a less than stellar performance on race day. This can sometimes lead to confidence problems if you don’t prepare for it. When I went in to races with a training through strategy and haven’t had a pacing plan I would still have gone into a race with hopes and expectations (usually based on previous performances) and if I don’t reach them because of a lack of taper or tiredness it can crush confidence afterwards and have a negative effect instead of the potential good that should be taken from the race. What I have found is that if I have a specific pacing plan which makes the race beneficial as a training session and also allows me hit certain performances markers but puts a restriction on, say, run speed then a good result is now within my control. For example if I’m using a Half Ironman race as training I might decide to swim and bike really hard but run at my Ironman target pace or effort. My recovery should be quicker as racing the run portion of a 70.3 is where I’m likely to do the most damage to the legs and force a longer recovery. I also find it easier to accept not being at 100% if I have still been able to hit specific targets Ais has set for me. Achieving certain personal goals outside of a placing or an overall time can be reward enough that I take a lot of personal satisfaction from the day.
- Be prepared mechanically: It never ceases to amaze me how people spend thousands of euro/pounds/dollars on a bike but fail to maintain it. A big part of the speed of a bike is how well it’s maintained. Bottom brackets, hubs, chains that need servicing, incorrect tyre choice and more all slow you down. Having your bike clean, serviced and race ready for every race not just your “A” race makes you a better athlete.
- Be ready to deal with catastrophe: A couple of years ago one of our sponsored athletes and a very good friend of mine, Alan Ryan, was racing in the Hell of The West triathlon. He’s a multiple Kona athlete and has been on the podium over there twice so we were expecting him to go well. But all the fast people came and went onto the run, then the second wave came through but still no sign of Alan. Not until almost everyone else was already on the run. He came running down the road in his bare feet, bloody and sore looking pushing his punctured bike. He still had his usual grin on and as he ran through he shouted that if nothing else it was a good long run day in preparation for his upcoming Ironman and that anyway it was his own fault for not having his spares on the bike (see no.3 above Alan) Most people would have had enough of an excuse to stop with just the puncture never mind having the mental strength to run over 10k on rough west of Ireland roads barefoot. Not giving in when things go wrong is one of the most important aspects of Ironman because something ALWAYS goes wrong when you’re out there racing for between 9-16 hours. Alan could have written off a less important race because of problems and pulled out, instead it turned into an epic training session, one that must stand to him when things get hard in the big races and one that earned some pretty cool bragging rights.
- Be the professional not the amateur: We might race as age-groupers but we can still decide to be the professional, not the amateur. Clean gear, clean bike, with a proper professional fitting and set up correctly all contribute to being a “lucky” athlete. I’ve met plenty of athletes who are just always “unlucky” things just always go wrong for them in racing and training. Punctures, mechanicals, not able to finish a session because the weather turned nasty, all excuses that an unlucky athlete is likely to have, but I think we make a lot of out own luck. Being prepared to race and train with the right clothing, the right equipment and also being prepared to deal with the problems we encounter in a race are one of the most common traits of the really good athletes. Practicing being as professional in every small unimportant race as we need to be for our “A” race will make us better at being professional when it really counts, it just becomes second nature.
- Not sacrificing training for short races: I don’t tend to recommend sprint races while in serious Ironman training mode unless they’re preceded by and followed up with a 1-2 hour bike ride. If a 1 hour race costs you a day away from family and costs you a big weekend training day then it’s probably not really a great idea. If however an athlete rides 50k to and from the race it’s now Ironman worthy training and this is really what you would call “training through” Allowing that you may not have your best race performance if you do this make sure you’re mentally prepared to enjoy the experience regardless of the race outcome (see no.2)
I have written a report examining how 5 of the most successful Irish Ironman triathletes have qualified for Kona an incredible 29 times. You can access it free here.
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