Most of us who’ve done an Ironman will recognize the thought process.
You swim how far? You bike 112 miles!? Then you run a marathon? Over how many days? One after another? That’s crazy, I could never do that…
But then we stop and think “What a challenge…imagine what it would be like to finish one of those…Maybe I could do it…I’ve just entered…oh crap…I’m training for an Ironman”
Which is invariably followed a couple of months later with “I’m on the start line of an Ironman and I’m shitting myself…Am I ever going to get off this bike…my ass is killing me…Ten miles to go in the marathon…my legs hurt…everything hurts…I’m never doing this again…this was the stupidest idea ever…I never though I could want so much to just stop moving…I’d give anything to be horizontal and stationary…”
Eventually you get to “I can’t believe I’ve finished..this is the best feeling ever…I’m never doing that again…” Which is often followed at some stage over the following hours or days…”I wonder can I go faster….”
So we join you at this point in your journey. Most athletes who come to us want to go quicker than they ever have before. So how do we take an athlete from where they are now and make them faster?
It starts with figuring out how they got to the level they are at now. What training have they done to achieve that result and is what we prescribe different enough that it will deliver significantly better results? We ask about their life outside triathlon as much or more than their sporting background as this will affect their ability to train at the level required to go from being an eleven hour person to being a nine plus hour athlete. Often the biggest difference between these athletes is the way they live, the discipline they exhibit in their lives around socialising, diet and of course training. As far as Ironman is concerned an athletes physical ability is less important than their ability to train enough and train correctly.
Can you live an Ironman lifestyle?
“When it comes to Ironman having a life that allows you to train a lot and the desire and discipline to do the work is worth more than having lots of “God given” talent or a big engine if they are coupled with a 60 plus hour work week or lack of drive”
After looking at an athletes life and their previous training the question we ask most often is where is the extra time going to come from to train to go faster (there are also instances where an athlete is training enough hours but has the training mix or sessions wrong but this is less common) Most often it is as simple as train more, go faster.
We make sure that their significant other (if there is one) is on board. Arriving home to find your suitcase on the doorstep three months into an Ironman program isn’t the best way to become a better athlete. It’s very important that both the athlete and their significant other understand what’s involved. It’s very easy to get someone excited about a huge target or a race that’s a year off in the future where you will set out to do something that you’ve never done before. It’s decidedly different to get someone excited about you being gone missing every weekend for five hours on a Saturday and three on a Sunday not to mention the other 5-8 sessions that you will do during the rest of the week.
Set a realistic timescale
The next step is to set a realistic timescale. If the athlete is someone who’s done an Ironman or even a couple of them but is looking to go faster, maybe someone with an 11 or 10.5 hour Ironman who is looking to go sub 10 then we try to gauge how long it will take to make the time gains they are looking for. This might mean planning for six months but often it’s more like twelve. This is so that they can get them fit enough to start to train and live like a sub 10 athlete does.
You usually can’t just continue to do what has gotten you an 11 hour Ironman then change everything 10-12 weeks before your race and introduce the training load that a 9 1/2 hour athlete can handle. You’ll most likely burn out, fall apart or break. None of which will get you a significantly faster time.
To be able to take the step from being a 12 or 11 hour athlete to being a sub 10 or 9+ hour person often takes at least six months of prep just so that you can handle the required training load before you even start your Ironman specific training program. It also often requires fairly significant lifestyle changes which is what we will deal with next.
“Poking holes” in an Ironman life
Once we’ve established that the athlete can fit in the training without their life falling apart around them the next step is to start to build the routine. Ais calls this part of the process “poking holes” in their lives to see what sticks. This process usually lasts three to four weeks.
We lay out a very easy plan over the first few weeks to establish the “structure” that we will build upon. The most common feedback we get during this period is that it’s too easy and athletes want to load up more and more. The impatient ones (If I’m honest I would usually be top of this list, Ais is often restraining me for the first few weeks as my enthusiasm gets the better of me) will often sneak in extra sessions or do the ones prescribed a little harder and longer than what’s on the plan.
This is a fairly normal and common reaction. In the first few weeks an athlete is fresh and rested and hasn’t had any significant training load yet. They are excited about the prospect of a big new project and often expect a coach to try to kill them in the first month. We do the opposite.
Making training sustainable
We feel that there’s no point in starting at a level that you can’t sustain long term. Initially all we are looking for is to see where you can fit in the training and can you handle a basic load. Can you realistically do three swims, three bikes and three runs every week? If not then there isn’t much point in trying to do that just for the first month only to discover your life is falling apart around you. Remember the suitcase on the doorstep scenario we mentioned earlier?
The clever athletes either stick rigidly to the plan from the start or realise quickly that going off reservation isn’t working and they get back on track. These athletes usually see the most rapid improvements. They are able to train consistently and increase the training load because they do so slowly allowing the body adapt to the constantly changing and building training stresses.
Straying off the plan a little doesn’t immediately cause a problem. It’s not until the training starts to get harder and an athlete who is more tired than they should be because they did too much in the first few weeks starts to struggle with the increased load and intensity.
This routine building is the boring bit and it’s often the hard part. Starting slowly enough so that you can continue to build week on week and not blow up can be very hard for an athlete who is impatiently looking for improvement.
One of the things that we see a lot of successful athletes having in common is having a life that is so structured and routine that from the outside it looks obsessive and boring to someone looking on. But it’s this very routine that contributes to their success.
Training at the same times and with the same groups week in and week out mean that while the training session itself will change as you progress through the season you don’t have to spend lots of time figuring out how to fit the session in. Once the initial routine is in place it’s the same every week. This also helps from a family point of view. For me it means that Ais knows when I’m training, working or “off” everything and we can plan accordingly.
Having a life outside of triathlon
When I’m talking to athletes who are very successful one of the things that I hear again and again is that they are in bed early fairly religiously. This doesn’t mean the never go out or have a late night, rather that they plan the night out in exactly the same way as they do a training session. If Monday is their day off then often Sunday is often the night they go out socialising, go to the movies or out for a meal. Saturday night is rarely the late night if they’ve a big day training planned for Sunday.
I was chatting to elite triathlete and runner Mark Doyle while we were out running recently. (Mark was on his ultra easy run so I was able to keep up with him) We were talking about going out, and fitting in a social life around training. I thought a comment he made really summed up one of the common threads we see with a lot of top level athletes. He said that he didn’t see not going out as a sacrifice. Instead he saw going out to the pub as being the sacrifice.
He added that if he was to go out and have three or four drinks he reckoned it would cost him two to three days of training. He didn’t mean he wouldn’t be able to train but rather that the quality of his training would be affected for two to three days afterwards. He saw the lost training as the sacrifice, not the lost night out. For him this makes it a very easy choice to make.
A lot of people balk at the thoughts of having to “give up” an element of their social life or drinking but I think it comes down to how important your training and race goals are. Is a Saturday night out more important than your racing goals? There’s nothing wrong with that choice if it is, it just isn’t a choice that we see a lot of successful athletes making.
Early mornings. Early nights
One of the most often commented on aspects of Ironman training is the early mornings. People pride themselves on getting the work done early while most of the rest of the world is still asleep. Early morning swim sessions, long rides and early morning mid week runs are all staples of my Ironman training. I love being up and training early but I hate the getting up out of bed part of it. Particularly until I’ve gotten the routines in place. It’s great to talk about how disciplined we are getting up early to swim, bike and run but for me it’s impossible to do if I don’t also get to bed early.
This is the bit some people really don’t really like. The discipline of an early morning doesn’t start when the alarm goes off at 5 or 6am. It starts the night before. When you’re getting kit and food prepared for the following day but it also means getting to bed early. Again I try to look at these aspects of being an athlete as investments rather than sacrifices.
An area of “low hanging fruit” that often leads to an easy performance gain is nutrition. And unlike a lot of what you’ve probably read elsewhere I don’t believe that supplements and recovery products are the way to gain that advantage. I’m more a believer in keeping things simple and natural.
Just eat real food
Like a lot of the “discoveries” I made as an athlete and coach there isn’t any nutritional magic bullet. BCAA’s or whey powder or Beet shots wont turn you into a Kona athlete. Having a healthy well balanced diet will have more of an effect on your performance and recovery than all of the sports nutrition supplements added together.
If you look at the majority of Kona qualifiers almost without fail they have one thing in common. They are lean and most often lightly muscular. Their body fat measures in single digits. There’s lots of studies on the affect of body weight on running and cycling and even without going into them in detail if you just look at the top runners and cyclists they are skinny to the point of emaciation.
Now I’m not saying that you should always aim to loose weight to go faster but if you’ve a body fat level of 18% then just losing a couple of kg’s will have a bigger effect on your performance than spending €10,000 on a new bike.
But how do you go about losing weight in a healthy sustainable way?
This is one of those things that people often don’t like to hear. There is no magic bullet. There is no “quick and easy” solution. I heard pro triathlete and Kona podium finisher Andreas Raelert being interviewed recently and when he was asked how he was always so lean and light his answer was to my mind very typical German and to the point. He said to “Just eat less”
He actually sounded a little baffled by the question as if he was thinking that what other answer could there be? If you’re too heavy you put less food in.
When I was on a training camp with Irish cycling legend Sean Kelly a couple of years ago I asked him for his thoughts on nutritional supplements and recovery products and his answer was simple and unequivocal. Sean said that the only time to resort to “recovery” products was if an athlete was training so hard that they simply couldn’t eat enough real food and were losing weight uncontrollably or that they were past the point that the weight loss was healthy. He then added that he thought that amateur athletes rarely if ever reach this point and were better off just eating “real food”
For the most part our nutrition philosophy if you want to call it that is simple and can be summed up in about a dozen points.
- We don’t eat processed food.
- We don’t eat sugar.
- We don’t eat grains (no bread, pasta, cereals)
- We don’t drink alcohol.
- We don’t use sports supplements
- We don’t drink soft drinks
- We eat real food. It should look as it did when it was picked off the tree, pulled from the ground or cut off the side of an animal.
- We eat lots of healthy fats.
- For the most part we eat a low carb diet
- We drink water when training
- We eat real food on the bike, for example fresh or dried fruit and nuts.
- We usually only use energy drinks, gels or bars when we are practicing or developing our race day nutrition strategy to ensure we know how much we will need on race day and to ensure we are able to stomach it.
Flexible work hours
This is a very common thread amongst elite amateurs and kona qualifiers. It’s not necessarily required to get faster but it helps a lot. A lot of the fastest amateurs and Kona athletes often have a job that allows them start late enough and finish early (or on time) so that they can train both morning and evening. Quite often they will also often have an extra long day during the week. This is usually because they can move work hours around to suit their training.
To get faster than you have ever been before usually requires that you do something different to what you’ve done previously. This may be training more each week or changing the type of training you do. It may also mean that you need to have the patience to realise that to make significant improvements at an aerobic sport takes time. Trying to short cut the process by incorporating a lot of training intensity rather than enough easy, aerobic (AET) training doesn’t work.
Training hard often means training easier
This is probably the single biggest mistake we see people making. The belief that every session needs to be hard otherwise it’s not worth doing or a waste of time is incorrect. There needs to be a balance of what often feels too easy aerobic threshold work combined with strength work and lastly there needs to be Lactate threshold and Vo2 max sessions.
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There needs to be what’s called training polarity. Easy should be easy, hard should be hard.
AET: Aerobic threshold
Surely if I want to get faster then I must train harder? Yes, and no. The problem though is that a lot of athletes misunderstand the training harder part. Training “harder & smarter” is probably a better way to think about it. The first and most important part of training for Ironman is building an aerobic engine. This is basically training to be fit enough to exercise for hours on end.
The difficulty with this type of training and the aspect that most athletes struggle with is just how easy it feels. It can be very difficult to get your head around how training at such an easy effort could possibly make you faster. The way I explain it to athletes is to picture your fitness as a pyramid and how wide you build the the base of your pyramid will determine how tall it gets. The wider you go with your fitness base (aerobic engine) the bigger you will build your pyramid. The second layer of the pyramid then is also wider and more stable as are the third and fourth levels.
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If you start with a fitness base that is only three blocks wide then you can only go three blocks high. You are limiting how “high” you can build your fitness. It also means that in order to race fast you have to hit your peak perfectly on time.
If however you spend a little longer building your aerobic engine and make the base of your fitness pyramid five blocks wide then all of a sudden you have opened up the potential to building a five storey pyramid and even if you don’t time your peak perfectly and only race at 4/5ths of your potential you are still faster than if you race at your maximum speed with the first model.
It’s also worth noting that the middle layers of the pyramid are all built on strength work, over-geared work on the bike, paddles in the pool and in the hills and with tempo runs and these layers are incredibly durable and stable. So if you are an aerobically fit and strong athlete you are very likely to excel at Ironman even if you never hit that “peak” of the pyramid.
Another difficulty with building an aerobic base is just how long it takes. Aerobic fitness trains relatively slowly. The plus side of this is that it will continue to build for years if an athlete is consistent with their training. This is why we see some athletes making the jump from back of the pack as beginners to being able to qualify for Kona, but it often takes several years. The flip side of this is that aerobic fitness also detrains quite slowly and can be maintained for a long time.
Strength: Muscular endurance
The second area we focus on is strength. In a cycling context this was explained to me by my very first coach as the ability to push a bigger gear for the same given effort. This in turn means you’re traveling faster.
For example if an athlete at a heart rate of 140 can currently pedal in the 53/17 gear on the bike on a flat road they may be travelling at 29kph. If by improving just their muscular strength the same athlete could move just one gear down the block and instead push the 53/16 they could increase their speed at the same heart rate to maybe 31kph.
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This increase in speed would equate to approximately a 4 minute improvement in a 40k time trial at exactly the same effort and heart rate. The improvement comes not through aerobic fitness but through improving muscular strength. A lot of athletes try to improve this in the gym lifting heavy weights and this works for some but I’ve always found that developing sports specific strength is best done while practicing the sport. For example over-geared or big gear work on the bike being the best example.
Strength work tends to have a faster training effect than AET work. I typically start to feel the benefits after 4-6 weeks where it takes me months to feel aerobically fit. The flip side is that it detrains slightly faster than aerobic fitness when you stop working on it.
Strength work was one of the “magic” bullets that always had a huge effect on my biking in particular and almost every athlete benefits massively from it when it’s done correctly.
LT: Lactate threshold
The third area we work on is the lactate threshold. This tends to feel quite unpleasant, the intervals are hard and hurt and a often people don’t like them. They typically range in duration from 1-10 minutes but are most often at the shorter end ie; 2-7 minutes.
These sessions are all about quality. Your lactate threshold is often referred to as the maximal effort you can sustain for an hour. However training this aspect of fitness will also improve the speed you can sustain over a longer period.
Pushing your Lactate threshold higher will improve your Ironman bike split but wouldn’t ride an Ironman at LT. Depending on your ability you would ride at a percentage of this number, oFrench somewhere between 70-80%. So by pushing your LT up you can ride at a higher effort, and therefore speed, for longer.
This area of training often “trains fast” meaning you get quick results but it also detrains fast so you don’t hold onto the gains for months unless you continue to train it. The difficulty is that mentally and physically LT training is very taxing so it is hard to do for a long season.
Road racing cyclists often to do a lot of LT work because it is very applicable to the type of racing they do. In Ireland however where we have a long road racing season, typically from February to September it’s pretty unusual to see the riders who were winning in February doing well after May never mind four months later in September.
One of the problems caused by this type of training is that because it often delivers fast results and “feels” like hard training. Athletes can become over reliant on it and because slow, easy training can take months to have an effect they don’t believe in it’s efficiency. This type of can lead to improving your VO2 and pushing up the Lactate threshold but because there is an insufficient aerobic and strength base all that happens is that an athlete hits their “ceiling” quicker. They plateau and never reach their real potential.
Getting the mix right
The next thing is to get the sessions done at the correct intensity. If your long bike ride on Sunday is too hard you wont be able to do the hard LT interval session that is in the program on Tuesday as you will still be fatigued.
How much training should be at AET, LT or strength focused?
For Ironman the greatest proportion of training should be working on improving AET. This can be up to 70% or more depending on the athlete. We try to incorporate as much strength work as an athlete can handle. We believe you can’t be “too strong” for Ironman. LT work by it’s nature is short and hard and is the smallest component of Ironman training.
Go hard or go easy
Irish Ironman Record holder and pro triathlete Bryan Mc Crystal has told me numerous times that his training is either long and easy or short and hard. While this is a very simplistic way to look at it, it has been very effective method of training for Bryan. It has resulted in numerous wins and Irish records despite coming to the sport relatively late in life.
Don’t sabotage your next session by doing this one too hard
Doing each type of training at the correct intensity is crucial. By doing aerobic work too hard means your recovery is slower and as a result strength work and LT sessions in the following days aren’t hard enough as you’re not fully recovered. This means that the gains from AET sessions that are done too hard are much less than they should so be and the gains from the strength and LT work are also compromised as you are unable to do them at the correct intensity because of the prolonged recovery needed from long sessions done too hard.
I hope you found this article useful and if you managed to get this far without falling asleep thanks for reading.