Sometimes there is no substitute for experience. However, diligent preparation can often mitigate a lack of practical know-how and that, believe it or not, is the case with Ironman. Many tips are obvious: have a nutrition plan, know your pacing strategy and so on. Beyond the basics, however, are the tips and recommendations you would probably remain oblivious to unless they came from another, more experienced racer.
With the right advice for both training and racing your first Ironman experience will be easier than you might think, though let’s not kid ourselves: Ironman is never going to be easy in the basic sense of the word.
1. Hitting the Bottle
During bike training, you should practise grabbing a bottle on the go. It seems simple enough until you find yourself approaching the aid station at nearly 22mph and you have to take your hand off the bars to grab the bottle. If you’re lucky, it works; if you’re not, you’re on the ground or causing mayhem.
Learn to cradle the bottle and absorb it into your hand so you don’t go through the station knocking down every bottle and creating an obstacle course for racers behind you. This is especially important if you are racing your first Ironman in the US, where you will be riding on the right-hand side of the road. Sure, you could stop and grab it, but not only does that waste time, it can also be dangerous.
2. "I wish I'd known...
...what to pack in my special-needs bag, having a plan if you get a flat or if it rains, and
how much time to allow on race morning for parking, bathrooms and bike check.”
Dennis Meeker, top age-group athlete and Team Timex member. He has been racing triathlon since 1995, winning the first ever Zoot Sports 5430 Ironman-distance race in 2001
3. From swim to bike
Your training should also include seldom-used but highly effective swim-to-bike brick workout.
Most triathletes make regular use of the bike-to-run brick, and so they should, but in order to fine-tune your nutritional plan for the bike, you need to do this session.
It is one thing to have a nice breakfast and later ride for five hours. It is quite another to be in the pool with no calories for an hour and then start your ride. Triathletes expend much more energy and many more calories than they think during the swim. Knowing how to replace those calories early on will be a big help.
4. Warm up, cool down
Moving on to race-day tips, a key aspect of the pre-race ritual is the warm-up. For Ironman, this can be tricky. You are going to be out there for a long time and you want to conserve as much energy as you can. The key is to have the body primed and ready without wasting energy. Since you won’t have access to your bike, your warm-up is limited to running, stretching, arm swings and getting in the water.
I like to start with a light 10-minute jog followed by some light stretching. After that I do a series of arm swings to prime my upper body for the swim. This takes me about 20 minutes in total. Next, about 15 minutes before the start of the race, I get in the water, if possible. I start swimming easy, do some short sprint accelerations and then relax in the water until the gun goes off. If I don’t have the luxury of being in the water that early, I do more arm swings and then when I do get in the water I go straight into the sprints.
5. "I wish I'd known...
...to start the bike more easily. I would have liked to have known how my body would feel halfway through the marathon – your muscles seem to give up and the only way you seem to be running is by swinging your arms to make your legs move. Start off after the swim with a large round of calories as you will have been swimming for an hour and that takes a lot out of you.”
Philip Graves, 21-year-old rising Ironman star and 2009 Ironman UK winner.
6. Cold comfort
While racing, there are a number of things you can do to help yourself, besides good technique and nutrition. First, take a cold bottle from an aid station and put it up the back of your singlet
or in the centre-rear pocket of your top.
I went as far as to have a custom-centre pocket sewn on to my race-day top. It may not be aerodynamic, but the cold helps limit inflammation and can help prevent your back from tightening up. This principle also applies on the run, where you can use cold sponges or ice on your quadriceps. Just grab a cup of ice and dump it down your shorts onto your legs.
7. Sustain yourself
Nutrition plays a big part on race day. Once you’ve got your plan in place, don’t change it. Michael Hagen, a coach with Carmichael Training Systems and a top age-group athlete, says he sees too many athletes changing their plan just before they race.
“It seems a lot of people change their nutrition plan based on hearing what other people are doing, falling for the marketing pitch of some new product at an expo, and other aspects of pre-race excitement/paranoia,” says Hagen. Just as you would not use new wheels on race day, don’t change your nutrition plan.
8. "I wish I'd known...
... What to wear and the need for a long-sleeved wetsuit in cold water are things I wish I’d known. It gets chilly when the sun goes down; be prepared for all weather. Knowing your course so you can practise
on the right terrain is important, too.”
Kathy Alfino, top age-group female, winner of her age group at Ironman Coeur d’Alene this year. She has been involved in triathlon for 28 years and this year raced in her eighth Ironman World Championship.
9. Calorie count
Nutrition errors can have an enormous impact on your Ironman experience. Ben Bigglestone of Vo2 Max Coaching in Portland, Oregon, in the US, says that many triathletes – and not only Ironman novices – make a simple mistake that leads to an upset stomach. He says triathletes are often “consuming too many calories on the bike and suffering gastrointestinal problems on the run”.
The reason for this, he says, is that triathletes are “not considering sports drinks as calories and, instead, are getting them confused with water, thereby raising the relative concentration of carbohydrate in the stomach”. The stomach can only handle so many carbohydrates at once.
If you flood the gut with carbohydrates from a gel and some sports drink, you will probably pay for it later. So a basic rule is that any time you are taking a bar, gel or any form of solid or semi-solid food, you should wash it down with water.
10. "I wish I'd known...
... to have a race nutrition and fluids plan for both hot and cold race scenarios, but, most importantly, trial testing gut tolerances in training beforehand. My mistake during my first Ironman was not knowing caffeine is also a diuretic. All my gels were caffeinated (thinking they were better than non-caffeine ones), which resulted in four toilet stops in the first 15K of the marathon.”
Scott Neyedli, winner of Ironman UK in 2007 and course record holder
11. Feed your brain
There is a nutritional secret weapon that every triathlete should have as part of his or her nutrition plan for an Ironman: glucose tablets. They don’t cost much, are easy on the stomach and can make a huge difference to your performance on a long race, as they are a simple and easy way to keep your mind sharp. Bobby McGee,
a coach in Boulder, Colorado, who has worked with several world-class runners and triathletes, recommended these tablets to me.
The brain runs on glucose, so the tablets help with mental acuity and sharpness. They won’t necessarily give your legs energy, but they will help you stay focused and mentally alert, the benefits of which are not to be underestimated. I’ve had races where, in the latter stages of the marathon, I could not remember if I had taken a gel, bar or sports drink just 15 minutes earlier. These tablets are small, easy to stuff into a pocket and come in several flavours. Plus, the texture is a nice change from gels and bars.
12. "I wish I'd known...
... I wish someone had told me to put on extra layers of sunscreen, and that I should give time in transitions for the volunteers to apply it. Slap it on where you can and don’t be afraid to get sunscreen on your race uniform. After my first Ironman I had ‘BikeSource’ sunburnt into my sides from the writing in the mesh on my race suit and a sunburn on my back and butt from where the suit rode up during the day.”
Kelly Lear-Kaul, Age group winner at Ironman World Championships in 2007
13. The simple stretch
Many athletes get off the bike with sore or stiff backs. Simple stretches on the bike can alleviate some
of this discomfort. Stand up with your pedals at the three and nine o’clock position, straighten out your front leg and arch your back, then tuck your core in, as if you are pulling in your belly button. This movement, known as the cat stretch in yoga, will help loosen your lower back. You should also stretch your hamstrings during the ride. Put your pedals in the same position and straighten your leg, but this time simply lean forward to stretch the hamstring of the front leg.
Loose hamstrings mean a loose back, and that translates to better running. These stretches should be done during a slight downhill or flat section so you don’t lose too much speed. I recommend doing the stretches two to three times during the race, and more if you are racing a flat course that doesn’t allow for much out-of-the-saddle riding.
14. "I wish I'd known...
... Not to eat so much on the bike. I think I was fearing the bonk so, I overate solid foods. I might have gone two minutes faster overall had I not been forced to stop twice in the portable toilet.”
Michael Lovato, professional triathlete. He has finished in ninth place three times at the Ironman World Championships.
15. Listen to your body
Lastly, many athletes train and race with a heart-rate monitor, which is a good idea. However, after 10 hours of effort, many athletes experience what is known as cardiac drift. This is when the heart rate rises despite the same pace or effort. In training I would say stick with your heart rate, but in a race you often have to rely on your perceived effort. While training, you should use a heart-rate monitor but also be aware
of your effort level and learn to listen to your body. You don’t want to rely solely on your heart rate to gauge your effort.
These simple tips are easy to implement and can make a world of difference on race day. Work them into your training and race-day planning to have the best possible Ironman experience. Remember, you don’t have to always learn things the hard way.