It’s got to be one of the hardest things to do. To learn how to race an event that’s at least twice as long as any you have ever done before and even if you have done it before you often only get to do it once or maybe twice a year if you’re lucky. I have been fortunate enough to work with a number of excellent coaches since I started racing Ironman and what I’ve learned in that time is that the best of them not only gave me a program to do but they also taught me how to train and more importantly how to race Ironman. Sometimes they’d tell me something, sometimes they’d show me. My favourite lessons were the ones that taught me a skill that I could use on race day. Peter Kern my first Ironman coach regularly got into the open water with me and showed me how to draft both on his feet and on his hip, he taught me to swim in close proximity with another swimmer and not freak out. Another time he ran my long intervals with me telling me to speed up or slow down based on my breathing, telling me to be aware of it at the correct effort. He was big on training and racing on percieved effort. He was the first coach I worked with and through specific sessions and one on one coaching he taught me my first lessons in racing Ironman.

Aisling has of course been my best source of race wisdom, she like Peter is what I call an instinctive coach. She adapts sessions and workouts depending on how an athlete looks as they arrive for a run, or how they execute the first interval in a set, judging how tired or not they are or how able they are to complete a hard session by their demeanour, conversation and posture.

In my first attempt at “racing” an Ironman both Ais and Peter told me how to race on the day. I was instructed to hold back for the first 50k of the bike, Ais said to pretend to my legs that I was only warming up for the first 50k (and as a result to pretend to my brain that I was only doing a 130k ride) I was not under any circumstance to race before the 50k mark. You might think that this would have killed my chances at a fast bike split but I did as instructed (well I might have given in to temptation and started to push on at around the 45k mark but don’t tell Ais) Instead of being slow as a result of the very easy start I went on to ride the 3rd fastest bike split in the age group on the day.

The instructions for the run were similar, pretend to my legs and head that I was only jogging to the start of a 32k run instead of a marathon, they had both said that I was not to start running hard until the 10k mark. I really struggled with this as I felt so good getting off the bike. I managed to last to about the 6km mark before picking it up just the tiniest bit, then a bit more at 8k and at 10k I pushed on harder. I just kept on feeling better and better. I went on to take close to an hour of my previous fastest Ironman marathon and I’m 100% certain it was as a result of starting slower.

It is so counter intuitive but starting stupidly slowly has given me all of my fastest Ironman races. There will be a time when you start racing but that usually comes in the last hour or two, not the first 30k on the bike.

But you might say that starting a little faster can’t really hurt that much? There’s a session we have come up with to teach pacing for Ironman and based on the results we have seen athletes from it I reckon that even starting too fast for just 40-60 minutes would cost on average 20-30 minutes on the bike and a similar amount on the run.

Related: Coaching

Designing training sessions that not only have the desired physical training effect but also teach an aspect of race craft I think is crucial for Ironman racing. We spend somewhere between 4-12 months preparing for the most important sporting day of our year and usually arrive fit and strong but often without any clue as to how to race on the day.

We often don’t know the basics like;

  • How fast should I start?
  • What if I’m aiming for an overall time but I lose 10 minutes in the swim, should I try to make it up in the first hour on the bike?
  • What if an athlete that I know is slower than me goes past me early on the bike, should I chase him or her?
  • What if I puncture? Should I push as soon as I fix it to get back on target?
  • Should I start the marathon a little faster than my target pace to get as much done as possible before I start to hurt and fall apart?

If you don’t know the answer to these questions and more then your training hasn’t taught you enough. It has quite possibly gotten you into the best shape of the year if not your entire life but if you aren’t able to reach 100% of that fitness potential on race day then the chances are you will be one of the many people telling the story of the race that you had a pb during the swim and bike and was flying on the run until nutrition/cramps/heat/humidity/salt loss or some other external factor put an end to your performance. In my experience in most cases it’s only one of three things that cause blowing up, slowing down, cramping or having an Ironman go badly.

It’s usually either poor pacing, poor preparation or poor nutrition all of which are completely within our control.

If it’s way hotter on race day than we are used to racing or training in then most of us have to dial back the effort. I discovered this in dramatic fashion 10 miles into the run during my first Kona. As I came back into town with 10 miles done I was feeling pretty good. I came into “hot corner” where all of the supporters gather at the start of the short climb up to the Queen K. Unlike a lot of the athletes around me I didn’t slow down on it. I looked around at the ones who had even slowed to a walk and I pushed on harder, showboating for Ais, my folks and the crowds cheering us on all the way up the hill. At the top I turned left onto the famous Queen K and in a matter of seconds I felt all of the energy drain away and I could hardly put one foot in front of the other. I was overheating so badly and couldn’t cool down. I slowed to a walk to try to recover and one by one the athletes who I had passed as they walked or shuffled up the hill ran by me. They had managed their pacing and their effort to match the race conditions. All I had done was go too hard for a couple of hundred meters, ignoring my bodies warning signs and it cost me probably 30-40 minutes in the last 16 miles alone.

I could have run up that hill a lot harder if it was at home in Ireland and it was only 15 degrees. But I wasn’t at home it wasn’t 15 degrees. It was 40 degrees and close to 100% humidity. I’ve told people that the conditions in Kona are what killed me both times I raced there and to an extent that’s true. But in reality a lot of it was poor pacing judgement. It’s almost impossible to train for the heat and humidity of Kona if you live in a climate like we do in Ireland but what I could have done was slowed down. I could have swallowed my pride and slowed so I didn’t overheat and therefore could keep running after the hill. On my second time racing there I did just that and it worked. Until that was the energy lab knocked me for six.

Learning how to race during training is the most important aspect of some of our sessions. If an athlete with the capability to race a 9:59 Ironman gets his day 100% right then the chances are that he will beat the one who might have the physical capability to go 9:40 but through pacing, nutrition and bad race decisions only reaches 85% of his potential.

Some of the most common mistakes around pacing and nutrition in Ironman are.

  1. Starting the bike way too fast. You’re in the best shape of the year and for the first time in months you’re fully rested, tapered and ready to race. I start the bike at what feels like 4/10 effort. When I tell most people this they think it’s crazy but I’ve found if I start very easy I just get faster and faster. If I start too fast I get slower and the last 50k of the bike hurts like hell not to mention the effect it has on my running legs.
  2. Having the confidence to not react to other athletes poor pacing decisions early on in the bike is very difficult but the clever athletes know that the race doesn’t start in Ironman until half way through the marathon and that burning your matches in the first two hours is suicide.
  3. Knowing that you need to adjust your pacing to allow for different conditions to what you’re used to training in sounds like common sense but you’d be surprised at the number of mistakes made in the heat of racing.
  4. Starting the run faster than your target time so that you get as much done as possible before falling apart. In my experience if I start 30 seconds slower per kilometre than my target time for the first 20-30 minutes it allows me run the whole marathon faster. I might lose 3-4 minutes in the first 5-8k. However if I have to walk just 1 kilometre because I’ve started too fast then I will lose close to 10 minutes in just that 1k. And no one walks just the last kilometre of an Ironman. Falling apart often happens with 20k to go. Do the maths. Starting slower and running all the way is faster than starting too fast and walking.
  5. Eating and drinking more on race day than you’ve practiced with in training without knowing how your body will react leading to stomach issues.
  6. Not allowing for the fact that if it’s much hotter than you’re used to your body will react differently to food, in particular lots of sugary drinks, gels and bars.
  7. Not having practiced eating and drinking at race pace. Our bodies require different amounts of food, drinks and salts at faster paces. The faster we go the more fuel we burn and often the less efficient we are. We also produce more body heat and as a result have higher sweat rates as the body works to cool itself leading to higher rates of fluid and salt losses than we might be used to in training and replacing enough fluids, salts and calories often causes stomach problems.

How we coach athletes to deal with these issues:

  1. We get them to do a very specific session that teaches Ironman race pacing. It also happens to kicks lumps out of them if they do it wrong. As a result they learn pretty fast.
  2. Again the session above has elements that teaches self control which helps sort this problem.
  3. Learning to train and race on percieved effort is a great way to not overcook it regardless of conditions, too hard always feels too hard and just right always feels just right., a bit like Goldilocks.
  4. We include nutrition training sessions in all athletes preparation. We do this over several months as peoples nutritional requirements can change with fitness gains. We often see people eating less as they get fitter as they become more efficient but sometimes if they are pushing hard, particularly on the bike, their energy costs go up and they will need more fuel.
  5. We give athletes a specific race day plan based on their training and fitness including pacing and perceived effort guidelines.

Ais is the one who taught me to race on effort rather than by the numbers. She has always claimed that they aren’t worth worrying about, they will usually only give you bad news anyway. You’re never as fast as the day you were really fast. One of the effects of Ironman training is that we are very often tired and the run trashes our legs for the next bike session or yestardays long bike ride fried your legs for todays run. But you still do the session, you just run or bike a little slower. The numbers don’t mean anything only your effort. if you’re too tired to do your bike ride at an average of 30kph you dont climb off and go home, you ride a little slower and get the work done.

Related post: Slow down you’re going too fast

If you’re interested in talking to us about coaching you can contact us here

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.

You can read a little about us how we got into Ironman and how I went from smoker to Kona here

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Rob