by Alex Thompson
Nobody should ever start an ironman without a plan, but come race day most athletes turn the plan into a suggestion and end up deviating -- towards disaster at worst and sub-optimal at best. These deviations happen pretty early on in the race and almost always involve going too hard. Why is that?
There might be many reasons: distrust of our own ability to plan, an easily excitable personality, misplaced competitiveness. What more, if your peer group often goes too hard on the bike and walks the last five miles of the run it may be easier to accept pacing mistakes and it might even be considered normal. Some people may even take the defeatist attitude of not realizing it would be possible for to run the whole run and that walking is inevitable so they might as well hammer while they can.
So how should we plan and how do we stick to it?
- Training should focus on time spent at steady efforts, which for the majority of athletes is close to ironman pace. In turn, as a result of spending a lot of time at steady, you should always have a good idea of your ironman pace. Do a search here on Endurance Corner if you're looking for more on steady state training.
- I feel that the best way to plan for an ironman race is a metric ironman training session (2.4k swim / 112k bike / 26k run). This isn't exactly a new idea that I just developed. For the athlete who habitably walks the run after a strong bike, I have the answer: try to complete this session at your average heart rate for the first fifty miles of the bike from your last IM. Odds are, you won't be able to sustain the session.
The race simulation or metric ironman is there not only for race specific fitness but also as a check on nutrition and pacing. Try different amount of fluid and calories, 250-280 calories per hour is a good starting point -- the most you can tolerate without getting bloated is best. Also as Alan Couzens has explained in numerous articles, it is much better to go easier on the bike and harder on the run.
As an example, I will ride my next race with a cap of 150bpm on the bike, a cap of 155bpm on the first half of the run, with the attempt to run the last half at 160bpm. In my metric ironman workouts, I have averaged 150bpm for over three hours, and held 160bpm for 15 miles (the first portion I was deliberately finding my run legs). If this plan proves too ambitious, I will not slow up, I will just hold my pace -- compared to most of the field that is a pretty well-paced race. What will I tell myself at mile 18? If I can run the last five kilometers in under 20 minutes then you took it too easy. I’ll keep you guys posted with how it goes.
- If you pace the bike well you will be able to make it through the run without walking. For many blown competitors, walking is around 17-minute miles, whereas a shuffle can be close to 10-minute miles. If you shuffle the last ten miles rather than walk you’d save over an hour. If you compare the efforts from that shuffle to the wattage you'd need to go one hour quicker on the bike, you'll probably agree that making sure you have enough energy for a shuffle is mandatory.
What about strategy? What about staying with faster riders? What about trying mind games like Macca? What about making people suffer on the bike?
For most of the field, the day will more likely resemble a conga line and a decision between riding in a draft legal pack and going it alone is rare. If the slight draft benefit is that much of a benefit to you, you should be able to sit in at the right heart rate. Legal drafting and pacing off others is meant to make your race easier, don't sabotage your day by riding above your limits just because you want to turn in a fast bike split. You'll be better off riding smart at an appropriate pace for your abilities and then moving past those blown racers on the run.
Alex has been a triathlete since 2005 and has competed several ironman and ultra distances races. He is currently working towards making the transition from age group athlete into the pro ranks. He has been working closely with Alan Couzens for the last two years to achieve his goal. You can follow Alex's progress through his blog, TriOnTrack and on Twitter @XIronmanAlexX.