Ironman is my sport. I live and breathe getting out there and going slow every day, for as long as I can. I seriously dislike maximal efforts; I enjoy controlled, repeatable training. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to better myself – quite the opposite, I want to be the best long-course triathlete I can be. Luckily, I can do that without spewing on the side of the road.
I’m all about momentum training. If I can get a roll on my sessions, I just keep ticking them off and the best way for me to get this consistent training done is by removing almost all intensity. Sure, I still do some hard training, but as a percentage of a week goes, this would make up less than 2%. But is this the norm?
I have read a few stories lately of people saying Ironman athletes tend to break down and drop out of the sport. Is this due to Ironman itself, or do these athletes bring their training mentality from the sprint and Olympic and just adopt it to ironman? Or is it that athletes bring training techniques from stand-alone swim, bike and run races and apply these to ironman?
I’ve trained with a lot of different people over the years from my life in Brisbane, to the Gold Coast, and now in Port Macquarie. People like to test not only themselves but each other in training on a weekly basis. I’ve run with guys looking to break 3-hour marathons running 36k long slow runs at 4:15 pace – that’s race pace! I’ve been on rides and got home with a 39km/h average thinking wtf just happened?
Has it got to do with how we measure improvements in our training? Is it FTP? How about run pace over 1k, 5k or 10k? Maybe in swimming it’s a 400m TT, or even a 1k TT? These are all pretty common benchmarks we set ourselves to see improvement over and what many of us use to guide training.
The problem with having these benchmarks is we can find ourselves becoming hyper-focused on improving the benchmark without understanding how it fits into improving performance over our ultimate goal in triathlon. Do these benchmarks matter as much when you are racing ironman compared to a sprint distance race?
My experience is that while it's beneficial to each individual discipline as you improve those benchmarks, unless you have worked hard to train the energy system required for long-course triathlon, they basically mean nothing come race day.
Beware the perfect prep.
How many times have you asked someone in the days leading up to their race how their training has been going and they say it's been perfect? Hitting all the benchmarks, improving on the bike and on track for a “sub xx:xx” time. How many times does this athlete then walk the whole marathon (or at least the second half) and go nowhere near their goal? Let me guess, they say it’s a problem with their nutrition, right? It's probably not.
I always like to ask athletes how they come up with their training paces. Why are they running their long run at 4:30min/km when they have never broken 3:30 for an ironman marathon in the past? How much time are these athletes spending riding really easy, i.e. below their ironman power on a long ride?
If your training leading up to an ironman is seeing massive improvements in top-end run speed and significant FTP improvements, then you’re training the completely wrong energy system for ironman. It’s highly likely that either you will break down from too much intensity, or you aren’t doing enough volume to develop the low-end aerobic system that you need to execute the entire distance on race day to your ability. (The other explanation is you simply weren’t fit starting the build to race day: 12-16 weeks is not a long time to execute your best ironman.)
I have heard time and time again of athletes who don’t feel they have a perfect prep having a better-than-expected race day. Is it because these athletes were forced to drop the intensity due to illness or injury? Could the break have allowed their body to recover from the excessive intensity they had with the volume of training they were doing?
Go for specificity in training.
Normally in an ironman build, at some stage I find myself doing a half marathon. It isn’t something I build into my program but more a case of me being fit and an event comes up that I decide I want a good hit-out to clear the pipes. I don’t taper for it per se; I'll simply back my long ride off a bit the day before.
In a normal run race build when I’m fairly fit, I can push out a half marathon in around 80min, but this has absolutely no bearing on my ironman run pacing in the same way a 60min TT on the bike has no bearing on my ironman bike pacing. During an ironman build, I don’t care about developing stand-alone half marathon run speed in the same way I don’t care about developing mine nor my athletes' FTP. My main focus during these specific 12-16 week training blocks is to improve efficiency and economy at the intensity you will be racing at. For most of us doing Ironman and 70.3 this will be in Zone 2. The most effective way to improve this is to spend the majority of your time training in Zone 1.
When you are sitting down and working out what it is you want to achieve in triathlon, or any sport for that matter, its important to consider what it will take to get there. Back when I was younger, I played a lot of golf at a level when I managed to get down to a handicap of 1 for a period of time. When you think of high-level and professional golf, the big draw card they show on the TV ads is a player smashing the ball off the tee, crunching a 300m drive up the fairway. The reality of playing golf at a high level is developing the short game: spending hours holing putts from inside 3 feet, hitting hundreds of short chip shots from a few meters off the green or from a greenside bunker, and very rarely practicing hitting that big tee shot. This is the equivalent of the long slow run and long ride.
This sort of training isn’t sexy, it sometimes isn’t fun and is why it can be regarded as a grind. But developing your Zone 1 training is what I like to refer to as "making your slow faster." This is where the greatest improvements can be seen in long-course triathlon.
I have competed in a number of ironman races over a period of 5 years with a total of 2 FTP tests in that period. I have never worked on FTP and can guarantee it has never improved over the years by more than 20 watts. It was 270w back then and it would be in that same range for my last race done 12 months ago. Over that time however, I have managed to improve my Ironman bike leg from 5:48 down to 4:48. This was helped by a couple of factors: improving efficiency and economy in my easy pace (Zone 1 and 2) and by improving the bike setup to allow for more time in the aero position. A sub-5 hour ironman bike split is not achieved by training at 40km/h + in a bunch on the freeway; it’s made by getting out there and developing that low-end base aerobic system.
All my ironman times fit within a 50min range, I’ve had a couple of shockers where I have walked a good chunk of the last 15km, but somehow still managed to keep my run splits in a range between 3:04 and 3:27 – the 3:27 being an unfit effort at my first Kona race. I’ve never run more than 28km in a single run during a build, and never faster than 4:45 pace for my average (which might include some efforts). If you’re concerned about not getting enough kudos on Strava for the 150k ride that you averaged 27km/h or your long slow run well below race pace, then you likely won’t last long in the sport because you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
Finding that intrinsic motivation to execute a session that is specific for you and fits into your training program that allows you to back up the next day and get the next session done as prescribed is what will help you become the best athlete you can be.That is what will allow you to continue in the sport for a long time without burning out and battling constantly with injury. That is what will allow you to build on your previous results and achieve the long term goals you have set down for what you want to achieve in triathlon, and specifically ironman.
If you want to fix your training so you’re able to be more consistent, less injured and able to compete at a higher level please feel free to touch base. I’m more than willing to simply have a chat and help guide you to be a better, more consistent athlete.
Brett Weick is a multiple Ironman athlete, Kona qualifier, and triathlon coach based out of the Gold Coast, QLD, Australia. MX Endurance is proud to work with Brett and share in his passion to see people succeed and enjoy the sport they are investing their time and energy in.