Photo by: Bakke-Svensson/Ironman
An Ironman triathlon is an emotional experience. The physical and mental challenge presented by the event (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run) slowly removes the layers of complexity within you until there is nothing left but raw emotion. Watch the faces of triathletes as they cross the line after an Ironman and you'll understand.
It's an awesome – in the true sense of the word – experience, whether you're competing or spectating, but Ironman racing is not simply about physical ability. Being fit, very fit, is, of course, essential, but so is a deep understanding of the needs and limits of your body. If you're thinking of going long and signing up for an Ironman triathlon, follow this expert advice to get to the start – and finish – line in great shape and good spirits.
"It's vital that you know your strengths and weaknesses in the three disciplines," says Richard Jones, Tri Life Coach (www.thetrilife.co.uk) and former professional triathlete. Before you sign up for a race, research the race-course profile and the typical temperature and humidity conditions to be expected. "Choose a race that will play to your strengths and minimise your weaknesses."
Starter For 10
If you choose a race in a hot and or humid climate, aim to arrive well before the race to acclimatise to the environment you'll be racing in. Studies suggest that you should do a minimum of 10 sessions in a hot and humid environment to acclimatise. If arriving early isn't possible, choose a race closer to home that offers conditions as close as possible to those you've trained in.
A little time spent analysing your position on the bike could translate to huge time savings during the race. "The aim is to find the optimum combination of comfort, aerodynamics and the ability to produce sustainable power," says coach Joe Beer, author of Triathlon: How to Swim, Ride and Run for Racing, Fitness or Fun. This optimum position will vary depending on the bike-course profile – so you must do some research on the course.
Built For Comfort
If the course is flat, the benefits of being aerodynamic are significant – your optimum position with tri bars is a horizontal torso with a rounded back, with your elbows in line with you knees. If the course is hilly and includes technical sections the emphasis leans toward a position that allows you to generate the most amount of power and handle technical descents with greater ease. In general most power is generated from a more upright position, and it is easier to handle the bike than when using the tri bars. However, on any type of bike course, while the balance between aerodynamics and the ability to produce power is important, the most important factor is comfort. Remember, after the bike you have to run a marathon.
An ad hoc approach to training might work for sprint triathlons but could be your undoing when you're training for an Ironman. "Be ruthlessly efficient at planning your week," says Alex Frost, an Ironman UK finisher in 2007. There are a many ways to fit training into a busy schedule: one of the most obvious ways is cycling to work. "This is a great way to put in some miles and save time," says Ben Thompson of the cycling team BMC UK. It is also worth incorporating specific power-building sessions into a 30-60 minute commute, but these sessions must be structured within your weekly/monthly training plan. You could try, for example, four to eight intervals at a high intensity, of two to four minutes, to begin with. Maintain a cadence of between 90 and 100 rpm. Rest for one to two minutes between each interval. Do this once or twice a week, and as you improve you should increase your time at high intensity and decrease your recovery. But be certain that your commute allows for this kind of session. Don't take chances.
Be creative about weekends away, too. Opt to cycle rather than drive when visiting friends. You can fit in long rides while maintaining your social life.
With three disciplines to train for, the idea of adding core stability work to your training regime may fill you with dread, but strength and conditioning play a key part in Ironman training. Your running in particular will benefit from improved core stability. The exercises should be specific to your individual needs, which, to an extent, are determined by your running style (heel, mid- or fore-foot strike). "Core stability exercises tailored to your running style can reduce the risk of injury, improve running efficiency and, ultimately running, performance," says Mark Saunders of Physio 4 life (www.physio4life.co.uk). Ensuring you have the correct footwear to support your running style is also crucial.
"Practising race scenarios will help give you an idea of how to pace yourself on race day," says Jones. This type of ‘pacing phase' of your training should be done four to seven weeks before your race. Although not essential, it's a good idea to complete the swim distance in training. "Swim the distance in open water in your wetsuit,” says Rob Johnson, an elite Ironman triathlete. "Aim to establish a pace you are comfortable with so you exit the swim ready for the bike." For the bike, there are psychological and physical advantages of doing the race distance at least once prior to race day. In your running training, there is no need to do the full marathon distance as the possible benefits become marginal and are outweighed by increased risks of injury and fatigue," says coach Steve Lumley (www.thetriathloncoach.com).
On Your Bike
Select a route that will take you two hours to complete riding at a base endurance pace. The distance is not important. Ride this route three times back to back. Ride the first lap at a pace slightly lower than your goal race effort (measured by either power or heart rate), ride the second lap at your goal race effort and ride the final lap slightly higher than race effort. After the bike do a 20-minute run and make a note of how you feel. "If you have doubts about your ability to run a marathon it might be worth lowering the intensity on the bike," says coach and veteran Ironman Gordo Byrn.
On The Run
Race like you have one more gear in you. That means maintaining a pace slightly slower than you think you are capable of. "You will be less likely to hit the wall or bonk," says Jones. "Race within your capabilities and be patient."
A coach can keep you motivated and prevent you from overdoing your training. Look for a coach who has success at long-distance triathlon. "Your coach will help to develop a training schedule tailored to you, with challenging but achievable goals," says Jones. If you prefer to plan your own training, build up slowly and remember to include recovery weeks.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when training for an Ironman is to place too little emphasis on recovery. "Sleep is where most of your recovery and regeneration occur," says Shona Halson, a Senior Recovery Physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport. Aim for consistently good nights' sleep, especially as your training increases.
Research carried out in a wind tunnel has shown that to maintain 25mph, wearing a vented helmet requires eight watts more power than if you are wearing an aero helmet. This may not sound like a lot, but over the 112-mile Ironman bike distance it is a significant difference, and can result in a three- to four-minute time saving. If you don't think you'll be breaking 20mph, the reduced drag created by an aero helmet will still benefit you.
The only downside of wearing an aero helmet is that you might overheat on a hot day or on a hilly course. "Take two helmets to the race," says Beer. "One aero and one vented helmet, so that when you know what the weather will be doing, you can make an educated decision about which helmet to wear."
The idea behind compression socks is that they reduce muscle vibration – which is linked to muscle fatigue – and therefore improve muscle endurance and strength. Try them out in training to see if they suit you.
Doing a half-Ironman race four to seven weeks before the Ironman gives you a chance to try out both your kit and nutrition strategy in a race environment. It will also provide data that can help you pace yourself for the bike section of an Ironman. For this information to be valid it is vital you are able to run well off the bike. You can use the average heart rate or average power to set a maximum level. On the bike section of the Ironman try to remain below this level at all times.
It takes 10 to 14 days for training adaptations to show up in your system so you should start to taper two weeks before race day, if not more. Reduce training volume but maintain intensity and frequency; increase your quality of rest; eat well; and reduce stress at work and home. Try to maintain your calorie intake – this, combined with a reduced training volume, will allow you to carbo-load.
Take time to check out the entire course and break it down into sections in your head. This will help you to stay motivated on race day. Make sure you know the locations of the fuel stations and what will be handed out at each one.
Stick to your regular race-day routine and do not eat or drink anything that you would not normally have. What to eat, both the night before and on race morning should be practised on your ‘big day' training sessions. The day before the race, do not eat too late in the evening. You want to give your body enough time to fully digest the food. This could help avoid any unpleasant loo stops during the race.
Grin And Bear It
The start of the race is usually the part people are most worried about. Try to take a step back from the nerves to soak up the atmosphere. It is a long day, so stick to your race plan and enjoy the event.
My body was numb and my head was spinning when I finished my first Ironman. Other triathletes experienced a feeling of extreme relief, with the realisation of their achievement not hitting home for days. Whatever life throws at you in the future, you can tell yourself you have finished an Ironman. There are few experiences mentally and physically tougher than that.