Expert Q&A: Ironman insights from coach Mark Kleanthous

Mark Kleanthous has taken part in 33 Ironman races and more than 400 triathlons. He started the popular website to pass on everything he'd learnt to would-be Ironman triathletes, and he's recently distilled this information into his new book: The Complete Book of Triathlon Training (Meyer & Meyer Sport, £19.95).

He recently answered questions in an live web chat. Read the forum thread here. We've collected together the questions and answers below.

Q: What do you think is the main difference between training for an Ironman and training for a double Ironman?
seren nos

The Double Ironman triathlon is obviously twice the distance, but you can take double the time plus two hours. You do not train twice as much as for the Ironman, but your intervals or sessions need to be longer.
So, instead of two weekend cycle sessions, you just complete one longer sessions. I know several athletes who have raced a great double Ironman on only five sessions a week.

It is wise to train and compete for an Ironman to learn how your body copes with eating and drinking, and keeping going for extended periods of time. I learnt far more from competing in one double than I did in two single Ironman competitions. I would suggest you complete three to six middle-distance [half-Ironman] triathlons and three Ironman races before attempting the double.

Q: I am a novice training for first IM distance this year. I have heard that it is important to ease off on the bike intensity to save for the run, Do you have any advice on this and any specific metrics that may help. For example, if I currently do my long bike at an average HR of 130 and speed of 15.5 mph should I alter this on race day
muffin top

During training for the Ironman and during the event you should always feel you can do the distance and keep going for another 60 minutes; that way you will be pacing it right. On race day, keep your heart rate five to 10 beats lower than your training pace, even when you exit the swim. As you get into the bike you will just go quicker for the same effort. On a scale of one to 10 (one is sitting in a chair relaxing and 10 is as hard as you can go for 60 seconds) aim for six/seven out of 10 on the bike.

Q: I'm trying to find the find my optimum level of fuelling when racing.  I overate on my first IM on the bike, racing too hard meant my stomach just filled and then GI issues on the run.  The next two I underfuelled (cut back on solids, used more gels).  Do you have any guidelines you work to, or is it a case of practicing during IM-effort bike training to work out what you can tolerate?

Gi Issues are are more common now for a number of reasons. Often people become confused because there is so much information out there. We are all different, and we all react differently depending on the conditions. Some are good in the heat others better in the cold but I have listed the main reasons why things go wrong here:

The athlete simply had not practised race day breakfast before Ironman day.
Nerves slowed down race morning breakfast.
Started the race too fast.

In the week before the race, it's a good idea to avoid new foods (which can be tricky if you're abroad and eating in restaurants. You should also reduce your intake of fibre-rich foods in the final seven days before the Ironman.

On race morning, don't rush your food. Eat breakfast at least three hours before the start. Sip water before the start rather than a sports drink as you may take in too many calories. Race morning

During the race, eating too many solids without enough fluids or with a carbohydrate sports drink can cause digestive problems, as can excessive fluid or making your favourite sports drink double the strength. If you encounter problems in the race, slowing down for a short period of time can help.

Options to avoid gastric problems:

Have a liquid breakfast
Ensure (meal replacement in a can) or similar rather than solids.
Have food little and often - as a reminder, set your sports watch to bleep every 15 minutes. Avoid food immediately before a demanding climb on the bike.
The longer the race goes on switch over to more fluids than solids.
Don’t try and have gels for the whole Ironman, have them mostly in the run.
Avoid having gels with coke. The more challenging the workout (longer and hotter) the greater amount of blood will be directed from the stomach.

In my opinion, having crossed the finish line more than 70 middle-distance races or longer, gut permeability is a big problem. Taking colostrum (milk produced by the mother in the first 72 hours after birth) massively reduces gut permeability, also known as ‘leaky gut syndrome’, which occurs when exercise raises the core temperature. It can also be worse if you are not digesting your sports nutrition. If you take colostrum for at least 21 days before your Ironman it will protect the gut and considerably reduce the chances of digestive problems and runners trots during the competition. Cramps, diarrhoea and nausea not only affect performance but can also affect health. Digestive problems are without question the biggest reason for not finishing the Ironman Triathlon.

Runners trots is the name given to cramping and diarrhoea that happen during running. The condition is common in runners and appears to be more common in females due to hormones and can happen without much warning.

Q: How long would you expect it to take you to replace an inner tube/mend a puncture?  And do you practice to get the time down?

I have cycled more than 160,000 miles so I've had a few flat tyres. You should mentally rehearse this so if it happens during a competition you can go into auto pilot. If it is a slow puncture, I slow down and start eating something solid so I can digest it while fixing the flat. My best time to remove a back wheel, replace a tubular, use a CO2 cartridge and replace the rear wheel is two minutes and six seconds. Warm tyres are easier to remove, as are tyres that have been stretched on the rim several times.

Q: Hi for a 'normal' person what would you say would me the minimum time between Ironman races? I appreciate this is hard to answer as everyone has different fitness levels etc, but any guidelines?

Eight weeks should be the minimum time between two IronMan distance events. It will take you at least two weeks to get back to normality then three weeks to build back your endurance used up during the first Ironman followed by a much needed three week taper. The secret is not to neglect the volume but cut out mid week high-intensity training. Let your body recover and avoid running on tired or sore legs to prevent injuries.

Q: I was on Mark's site earlier today looking at the 24-week plan. He recommends a four-week taper before events, but seemed to suggest that you just remove a couple of the "speed" sessions each week in order to taper down. Would you mind clarifying a little bit your thinking for a taper, please?

The longer the build up the longer the taper to allow your body to absorb all the training. If you reduce volume training you risk losing the endurance that you have spent months building up. The Ironman is an event where we can train faster than we can race. If you continue with speed work you risk going too hard on the race day, which may ultimately cause you to slow down.

Be more Ironman specific. Volume with intensity has a high risk of illness or injury. Being consistent in the final four weeks is much more important than fitting in a last minute race. Being injury free and healthy is also great for the mind during the final four weeks. If your Ironman is hilly or flat and you train on different terrain do not despair just train at a pace you feel you can maintain for the Ironman. It will be fine on race day with an adequate taper.

Q: I'm want to complete my first triathlon but my furthest run to date is 10K. I'm not bad at cycling and not very good at the crawl. How long should I give myself to train up for doing my first Ironman, how many shorter events should I do in the build up and how often?
David Taylor 62

I would wait until you can comfortably swim the full distance and can run at least a half marathon in training. Training and competing in the shorter distances is part of building up your knowledge of how your body, mind and digestion can cope with training and eventually the Ironman distance.

I would take at least three season to build up, ideally four. Here's how:
Season 1: Sprint triathlons in the pool and possibly open water.
Season 2: Sprint, Olympic and middle-distance triathlons. The jump from Olympic to middle-distance is not as great once you become accomplished compared to not having done a sprint and moving up to the Olympic distance.
Season 3: A middle-distance triathlon at least six weeks before the Ironman.

It can be done in less time but you simply will not have the experience to do yourself justice at your first attempt. I would compete in at least five sprints, three Olympic and one or two middle-distance triathlons before you attempt your first Ironman. Do not forget you can train 30 to 40 per cent of the distance swim to bike or bike to run in training in your Ironman build up. For example, a brick session of 1200m swim, 35 mile bike, or 35 mile bike and 7.5 mile run. And a word of warning: Ironman can be addictive!

Q: You have done so many Ironman races - do you have a favourite and why?  Where is your next Ironman and have you done any of the UK ones such as Bolton?
Diane Sandover

They are all great experiences for many different reasons. There have been some where I've been super fit and had a disappointing race (three punctures) and others where I was not as fit and felt strong to the finsih line. Some have been very cold (I'm not a fan) so I have enjoyed finishing them as I struggled through to the finish line.

I love the New Zealand Ironman. It had a great atmosphere before and afterwards. Many races are ghost towns two days later. It featured a great swim and was demanding but beautiful country side and great crowds helped. My ambition is to do all the Ironman M-Dot races around the world. I have done Sherborne and plan to do Bolton in the near future. My next Ironman is the inaugural one in Sweden. Each and every Ironman has a small place in my heart.

Q: What are your thoughts about going on a triathlon specifc training camp for my IronMan triathlon? My wife also wants to come but only competes at sprint or olympic distance events. Which are the best ones to consider? Also, will I be able to keep up and will I learn anything during the camp? I plan to take more than 14 hours.
Paul Yates 9

A good triathlon training camp will send you a questionnaire to find out about your training requirements, ability and aspirations. This demonstrates they're interested in your welfare and will ensure you have a great experience in the hope that you go home and tell your friends what a great time you had. You should also ask to see the training schedule.

It should accommodate different abilities for swim, bike and run. Some have beginners weeks or improvers weeks or open water swim weeks. Many triathletes are not good at all three but want to improve in all three and often have a weaker discipline. Do not forget that people on a training camp may all be aiming for the same Ironman time but one will be a strong swimmer and weaker cyclist another a weak swimmer and a strong runner, etc..

I hold training training camps at Tri Topia Two of these training weeks can cater for all of your requirements for you and your wife. Some triathlon-specific camps can also allow you to just stay and train and join in with the sessions.

Q: Hope I am not too late what are your top five ironman bike tips? I have competed in tris for six years including four 70.3 races.
Vicky clarke 5

My top IronMan tips are:
Complete an open water swim or an interval swim set before before cycling straight afterwards, even if if you only bike for 30 minutes. This important session is often neglected.
Ride at the same effort as you would during your Ironman race so the muscles get used to a specific work out.
Eat and drink the same amount in training every hour as you would during the Ironman bike.
Ride on your own in training not in a fast group for your long rides. You need to learn to ride against the wind and experience how it slows you down.
Fast average speeds on flat roads are useless in training if your Ironman is hilly or you are weak on the hills. Work on your weaknesses.
Do not be afraid to stop during your ride to go to the toilet (wanting to go to the toilet can stop you drinking) and also stop to get more drinks. This is far more important than carrying on and becoming dehydrated.
Avoid too many hard intensity bikes and if you have to train on a spin bike go for a time trial effort rather than sprinting.
Train just above Ironman effort occasionally but not all the time.
If you do not have time for a long bike ride try and ride twice in the same day, AM and PM, or evening then early next morning.

If you are injury prone, run before a bike ride. This will use up energy and for some people you will become more tired sooner during the bike ride. (Many triathletes experience fatigue on a bike two hours earlier than normal even after running for only 45 minutes before a ride.) Run fresh and reduce the chances of injury and then cycle. Its a great time saving endurance session.

Avoid flavour fatigue which happens if you keep drinking the same drink throughout a ride. Have two different flavoured drinks and different types of foods.

Always train with a heavy bike and extra spares. There is nothing worse than loading up your bike on race day with all your drinks, bars, gels and spares and the bike to feel heavy and slow.

Q: How does going long help or hinder speed over shorter distances? It's the thing that I'm frustrated with. I've tried to be jack (jill) of all distances, but my heart lies in finding the distance that I can be fastest at.

This is actually easy to answer from my 29 seasons in triathlon. You go easy to steady for your long swims and bikes or just add a longer cool down at the end of a session. With time at a premium this is more time efficient. Train on time not speed or distance for the longer sessions.

If you need to improve endurance without losing speed, run twice on the same day. (One could be a brisk run the other run after a bike.) You simply will not lose speed unless you run long and slow down because you started too fast.

Race less and train with more longer sessions, which helps you in short and long events. The more endurance you have the better your all round fitness will be. Being a Jack of Swim Bike Run will not help you as a triathlete you are not a heptathlete who needs to be good at single events.

You need to be good at combining all three together. That needs more endurance and economy of effort. Train just below your threshold will give you great results. Avoid going hard in the long sessions otherwise you will lose speed. To be the best you can avoid training when you have sore muscles.