Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy
Ba da da da da da da, feelin’ groovy
The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) Paul Simon / Simon & Garfunkel
Sometimes it’s hard not to worry about the numbers, but the problem with training numbers is that they rarely give us good news. Our average speed is never as fast as that day last year when we smashed everyone, our run pace is never quite a good as that race when we set a new pb and our swim splits….well you know where I’m going with this. Training is just training, and for Ironman we spend so much of our time tired that we rarely go as fast as we would like in training. As Ais like to remind me that “you’re never as fast as that day you were fast” Luckily enough the aim is to be fast on race day, not every other day.
We might have a target of a six hour bike split in our race in six months. That doesn’t mean that we should go out and try to ride our entire long bike at 30kph today to see if we can hold our target race pace. Training is a process and if it’s done correctly we will end up in a very different place to where we start. So if seeing a 24kph average for your 4 hour ride in January drives you crazy and makes you go too hard for that session then turn off the damn computer. If you could do 30kph for your long bike ride in January it wouldn’t be your target pace for race day, you’d be hoping for 35kph and a 5:15 bike split instead.
Training is a process. For me when I first start out on my Ironman program Ais first has me introduce the training frequency. What I mean is by this is that for the first month I will just try to fit in the number of sessions we think we would like me to be doing. If thats 9 per week then for the first month I see if I can fit in 9 sessions. At this stage we only introduce the stress of fitting the extra sessions into our lives and changing our routines to accommodate them. At this stage I’m not trying to do 5 hour rides or 3 hour runs. Over the course of the first month I will get fitter just down to training more often, even though all the sessions are relatively short and easy.
In the second month Ais will increase my volume and this will force the next fitness adaptation, we dont add in the extra stress of anything hard or fast yet. I’m still just getting fit to train and while I’m doing all of this volume I’m moving slowly, I’m not yet fit or strong enough to do a hard 5 hour ride. Just getting through 5 hours on the bike is enough trianing load. I’m also tired a lot as the body adapts to the increased training stress.
Bythe third month Ais introduces harder sessions but these are typically strength based designed to build strength endurance, they aren’t “fast” workouts. I am now doing big volume and Ais has made it harder by adding a load of strength work like big gear work on the bike, paddle work in the pool or hills on the run. Again I tend to be tired all of the time because just as the body adapted to the previous training load Ais has loaded it with another one. At this point I am getting stronger and better able to handle the work, that’s the training adaptation that has occured. I still don’t yet feel fast, in fact I often feel slower, even though I’ve been training for at least 3 months. Mentally it can be very hard at this stage to stick with and trust the program as I don’t yet really feel the benefit of the training in the way I’m hoping for, the speed. But if I think about the fact that I am now strong enough to do a 5 hour bike ride followed bu a 2.5 hour run the next day and not be fried then I am improving, I am getting stronger and fitter.
It’s usually only once Ais starts to add in race paced and harder work that things click for me. I all of a sudden start to feel and move faster. My average speeds go up and I’m able to hold them much longer in workouts. At this stage in the fourth month I am now ready for the hard training and it’s really only at this stage that I start to see what might be possible come race day. I start to see glimpses of the strength and speed that I will need to race for 9-10 hours. Even at this point I am still training tired more than fresh, feeling slower than I would like and still worried about ever being fit enough to race again.
Anyway that was a really long and convoluted way to get to the point, you can’t go as fast today in your training as you hope to on race day, otherwise you’d be racing today (maybe you are, if so best of luck! and get off the computer and get down to transition) Going too fast in training (particularly early on in training) is one of the most common mistakes we see athletes make when training for Ironman. You can’t force aerobic and strength adaptations to happen faster by riding hard and fast all the time, exactly the opposite will happen. You will only train your top end speed but without a solid base of aerobic fitness and strength endurance beneath it you will blow up. Don’t believe me? Go out and do your next long ride at what you think your target Ironman race speed is and see how long you can hold it for. And dont forget that you also have to run a marathon off it so if you’re fried by the bike speed then you might have a problem.
Aerobic fitness is trained at low heart rates and easy long efforts and it takes months of gradually building workouts to see the benefits. I find strength work takes me about 6-8 weeks to start to feel the benefits but I can train for strength all year round and I keep getting stronger. Speed work has an effect very quickly often producing results in only a couple of weeks but the downside of progressing onto the speedwork phase too quickly at the expense of your base and strength work is that you are sharpening up and peaking a very small level of fitness.
There’s also the issue that if we introduce speed work or lots of high intensity training too early in an Ironman program it can set our training speed expectations higher than they should be. When we recently had an athlete not finish a long session after the first two hours went well but he was too tired to do the full prescribed ride. The issue wasn’t lack of fitness but an inapropriate amount of speed in the early part of the ride, he fried himself by going too fast and felt he couldn’t finish the workout. So instead of getting a big aerobic and strength benefit of a long bike ride instead he only had a negligible benefit from a session that was stressing the wrong area of his fitness and he had the added stress that he felt he had failed at the session so his confidence took a knock.
For me the key to Ironman training was to do a lot of my training alone as I train too slowly for most of the lads I race with, it’s the only way I can manage the training and work load without killing myself. I had to slow down a lot for the first few months just to be able to absorb the load. Just doing the work day in and day out will produce the results, you just have to trust in the program.
I think this philosophy was summed up really well in this article by pro triathlete Emma Bilham. Emma is coached by Brett Sutton who claims to be the most successful triathlon coach in the history of the sport (he hasn’t got a patch on Ais in my opinion) In the piece she says
“Without really realising it I was measuring, judging and usually kicking myself through every single session. Just run for goodness’ sake. Swim. Bike. Run. Repeat. Stop wondering how fast, how long, where, when, against whom. Just do it, no matter how you feel. Do people skip a day’s work at the office if they’re a bit tired? Of course not. Being an athlete is a job too. You chop wood; you bring the paycheck home. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy chopping wood. Unless you’re injured, you get through the workload come rain or shine”
Along the way I’ve been lucky to learn from some of the best Irish Ironman athletes we’ve ever had and you can read my most valuable lessons here