One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned for Ironman is that your training should teach you how to race, not just make you fitter. To this end a lot of our training sessions are designed to not just improve fitness but also to teach you an aspect of Ironman racing. Be it pacing, nutrition, how to deal with fatigue, self control or some other part of racing.
The problem with either “racing” or just completing Ironman is that most of us only get to do it once a year and some don’t even get to do it that often. So how do you learn how to race a distance that is probably twice as long as you go in training and that maybe you only get to do a couple of times in your life?
In our own training and in our coaching we focus on the main areas that people struggle with in racing and try to design sessions to mimic what you will encounter on race day. Of course there are parts of Ironman that you will only experience on race day and will find impossible to replicate in training without frying yourself.
So what are the most important lessons to learn for Ironman racing?
- Learning perceived effort, what the correct pace FEELS like, not just what the number on your computer says it should be.
- Self control
- Mental strength
How do we teach athletes these lessons?
- Pacing : Learning what Ironman Race Pace feels like.
We don’t rely on computers, heart rate monitors, power meters or GPS watches to learn how to pace for Ironman. Rather we try to teach people what it feels like during the swim. How different it feels in the first hour, the middle part or the last hour or the bike and the same for the run.
Back in 2011 I discovered that what the first hour of a correctly paced Ironman bike feels like is very different to what hours two, three, four or five feel like. Over a number of weeks doing very specific Ironman bike sessions I learned how to start off at a pace that I could continually build and often end up with a negative split which meant a much faster bike and also run time. I learned how to do this without any technological aid like a heart rate monitor or power meter.
I became so in tune with what the correct pace and effort felt that I raced Ironman UK that year without a watch or computer. I rode a negative split on a course that had more climbing in the second half and therefore should have been slower. Knowing what the correct pacing felt like meant I just got faster and faster as the day went on.
It’s worth noting that I also ran my fastest Ironman marathon that day on what is a hard, hilly run course. I put this down to getting first the bike and then the run pacing correct.
Learning how to pace yourself during the race while training is probably the most important lesson for Ironman.
We use a number of progressive sessions in all of our own training and also what we give to our athletes to teach this aspect of Ironman racing. I think of it as being a bit of a magic bullet because it’s such an effective session. Don’t mistake “magic” for being easy or a short cut as this is one of the hardest sessions to do, especially if you do it wrong.
There are almost as many Ironman nutritional disaster stories as there are Ironman finishers. It’s one of the most common questions we are asked in our coaching and also in our tri store Wheelworx. What should I eat, how much and how often?
It’s also one of the most common pieces of advice you will read in magazine and online articles. Practice your nutrition, make sure your stomach is ok with whatever you intend to eat on the day.
What is lacking with a lot of these articles is that they don’t stress the need to “practice” at your race pace or race intensity. What you require to fuel a long easy ride is different to what is required to pace a long Ironman paced ride or run. What your body can absorb is also affected by how hard you are working and if you are working too hard you might be burning through your fuel stores much faster than you are able to replenish them.
Sports nutrition companies try to advise people by recommending intervals at which to eat and drink. But there is a problem with this “one size fits all” approach. It doesn’t take into account your efficiency as a swimmer, cyclist or runner. This usually differs by sport. How big you are also has a bearing on how much you will need or be able to eat as does your tolerance to sugar or caffeine.
The conditions on the day, temperature, humidity and weather will have an effect on how much you can eat and how much of that food and drink your body can process and absorb. It will also dictate how much fluids, electrolytes and carbohydrate you need to replace.
Practicing and learning what nutrition strategy works for you must be done in training, not by reading a website or magazine. It’s also important to note that what worked in one season wont automatically work the following year. As your fitness changes so does your bodies efficiency and fuel requirements so it’s important to spend a number of weeks or even months practicing exactly what you are going to do on the day, with the food you plan to eat on the day to see how much you need to eat and how often.
- Self control
Self control is another important aspect of Ironman racing. Having the discipline to start slowly enough that you don’t fall apart before the end is a very difficult thing to do.
Your energy is like a savings account in the bank. You can choose when to take out the money and when to spend it but when it’s gone it’s gone. You can spend your money and go hard on the swim but that will affect how much you have left for the bike and run. I think it was Mark Allen who I called it a closed loop energy equation. You have a limited amount of energy for the day, when and where you use it is up to you.
Having the self control to go slower than you think you can go one hour into the race is a key part of not falling apart at the end. It can be very difficult to do this. You are probably in the best shape of the year, if not your life. You’re tapered and in my case often glad to have survived the swim. I’m then surrounded by athletes just as wound up and pace control is even harder than usual. Just try to allow yourself be dropped by someone who you believe should be slower than you and see how hard it is.
The best athletes I’ve come across are the ones who are disciplined enough to race their own races and not get sucked into racing in the first couple of hours.