Our course profile for Ironman Lanzarote in Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain, provided by Russ Cox.
In my first years in triathlon I didn't run that much because I didn't need too. Running was my gateway into triathlon and while I didn't have a huge history in sport, I was good at it. I was a front-of-pack runner, all I needed was the swim and the bike to put me there. It was a natural and easy choice to prioritize those other sports and rely on my run being good enough. It worked well for a while until I eventually realized that running was no longer as much of a strength; cycling and -- to a lesser extent -- swimming had caught up.
It was going to take more than a “good enough” run to race faster now.
I want to race faster.
I think for the majority of us that neatly summarizes our major goals for the next season. From back to front of pack athletes, we want to improve; to race better than we have done before. That usually means faster. This simple idea grows into a plan encompassing months of our lives and committing ourselves to hours of training. The danger when chasing bigger goals is we simply try to do bigger training without consideration for timing or our own capacity to handle more. I will confess, I've done it, and -- okay -- sometimes I've got away with it in the short term, but when we're looking at an entire season there needs to be greater management of training load.
I know this guy. About 10 years back he realized that he wasn't in the best of shape. In fact, looking in the mirror he could see a gradual decline into poor health and larger trouser sizes. At that point, fortunately, he had a moment’s revelation and just enough motivation to carry out a plan that changed his life: diet and exercise gave him the health and the waist measurement he desired. It wasn't enough. Fitness became an addiction and triathlon is a place where fitness addicts end up. It's a vicious circle that starts with a sprint tri and ends with an ironman, except it doesn't end; once the ironman is done, the question -- obsession -- becomes Kona. This guy gave up a good job, left friends and family behind, and traveled halfway around the world in pursuit of that obsession.
After months of work race week creeps up on you and you realize there are only seven more days before it's all over. Nerves hit. You know there is nothing more you can do, this is as good as you get, but you fear that there is something that might happen in those remaining few days to derail your goal. Panic builds. Each day that brings you closer to the race also brings increasing doubts and fears.
This is perfectly normal and with experience you learn many ways to better manage the stress. Here are some things that work for me.
It is reasonable to say that my recent sporting performances have not lived up to past standards. While I could give many reasons for this, at its heart is the quality of my preparation: I am not training sufficiently to achieve peak performances. It reflects changes happening in my life that mean, at this time, my own triathlon performance is not a priority. Inevitably there are periods in life when sport takes a back seat and we focus our attention elsewhere, but when triathlon is also your business it raises the question: How important is a coach's personal performance to his athletes?
In the six years since I started ironman I cannot think of a single breakthrough training day. There have been many memorable sessions -- some for the scenery, others for the company, some where I went further than I had before and others where I worked harder -- but no individual session stands out for leading to a breakthrough in my performance. I'm not starting another article on consistency -- it is important -- but just being consistent wasn't enough.
So when I look at six years of (mostly) consistent training, what made the difference? What took me from being another focused age-grouper to being a faster, focused age-grouper?
It looked miserable outside, overcast and grey, large spots of rain splashed against the window; indoors was warm and comfortable, watching TV seemed far more appealing than going for a run. But I had committed to a schedule I couldn't break -- the challenge of running for 30 consecutive days. So I dug out a long sleeve top and threw on a vest for warmth before forcing myself to step out into the rain and close the front door behind me. Thirty damp minutes later I was back, glad I hadn't stayed on the couch. The conditions weren't perfect, but neither were they that bad -- I'd actually enjoyed my run.
A four hour flight took me from miserable grey clouds and drizzle to warmth and sunshine. The first training camp of the new season came with high expectations -- a big week to wake me from my winter slumber and kick start the year ahead. If nothing else I would enjoy the simple pleasures of replacing thermal layers with shorts and t-shirts and the sun tanning my anemic skin.
On arrival in Lanzarote I sniffed, then sneezed; before I'd put foot to pedal the signs of a cold appeared. It was the season's make-or-break camp and I was ill. There was too much at stake, I'd been here before and trained through far worse; I could carry on as planned.
There is a fine line between experience and over-confidence -- one I crossed traveling to my early season training camp in Lanzarote last month. I've traveled to a lot of training camps and races, I know the routine, I could pack, check-in and board in my sleep, waking on arrival at my destination; two hours is more than enough time to prepare. That is unless -- in a damning indictment of my winter maintenance -- my bike decides to break.
As running was my gateway into triathlon, I struggled with both swimming and cycling. The former limited by technique and stiff ankles, the latter was simply hard. Cycling hurt and not in a good way. There was a faint masochistic pleasure in running hard, but it was lacking on the bike. My first few races followed a template of losing time in the water and time on the bike and then chasing on the run. While I could hunt down a lot of places in the final leg, cycling held me back. It took a number of years to truly address this limitation and raise my bike performance to match my run.
As I planned the coming season I couldn't resist -- from my first race in May through the last in September, I've lined up four ironmans and a 70.3 for the year ahead. After a lighter season -- admittedly consisting of two ironmans and Long Course Worlds -- I needed to race again. I'm not convinced this is a route to my best performances, but that's not my only motivation; I enjoy racing and I enjoy racing long.
The majority of athletes focus on one or two events per year so naturally most advice on planning seasons does the same. For those of us who want to race more it can be a process of trial and error; here are some of my thoughts from planning race heavy seasons.
Three donuts and three slices of watermelon.
Not the perfect recovery food, but that's what I wanted straight after my last race. An hour later I was back in the tent for a more balanced meal (the pizza and donuts were gone). Racing long consumes huge amounts of energy, afterwards I don't worry about what I eat just as long as I do -- I've earned some slack on the nutrition front. For the rest of the day all food is allowed; if I'm smart I've already stocked the fridge with my favorite treats.
In the lead up to a race my diet can border on the obsessive; eating meticulously controlled to support training and racing goals. Unfortunately many foods I enjoy are on the banned list of this regime -- donuts are out, watermelon is in. When the race is over, after weeks of denial, it's open season at the cake store. A determination to compensate for all I've missed sets in and what started as a treat can rapidly turn into a binge
It took me three years from the first time I raced an ironman to Kona qualification. Before I even began that journey there were five years of training from local 5Ks to national triathlons. That’s eight years to go from couch potato to Hawaii. It took patience and stubbornness to achieve my goals. There were no secrets or tricks to reach them; a week on week commitment to hard work was all that was needed.
Triathlon began as a distraction from my nine to five office job. In many respects they were the perfect complement -- the days spent at a desk resting my legs, evenings and weekends free to train, but like most city workers I commuted. Two or three hours each day spent standing on packed trains; great for catching up on reading, terrible for my athletic development. It took discipline to be successful in both work and sport.
I trained hard. In many ways I was a more effective athlete under these constraints; knowing if I didn't train in the limited time available it wouldn't happen. I quickly realized I never trained well in the evening -- work stress and train delays drained me of energy leaving late sessions unfocused and easy.
There was a simple solution: get it done early.
We are constantly bombarded with new products, promising improvements to performance, savings in energy and reductions in times; there are solutions to problems I didn't even know we had. I love new kit, but my budget is limited, before I get out the credit card my concern is return on investment. How much faster will those wheels really make me? Are there other ways to achieve the same results for less?
Experience has refined my race strategy. What began as a manual detailing every mile of the ironman has been honed to a focused list -- simple, memorable rules I can apply however low I feel midway through the marathon.A plan gives me confidence; a plan I can apply when I'm racing gets me through the day. Writing it has become a ritual -- I'm not ready to race until it's on paper.
Scott Molina once told me I was a slow learner. In fairness he's right, my athletic development has been steady. There hasn't been a meteoric rise to success. It took three years and many hours work to convert a respectable ironman time into a Kona qualifying time. During that period I learned about nutrition, training, recovery and racing. I studied hard, but it was a while before the lessons sank in.
Race season is finally starting. Time to test the work I've put in over winter and see some results. Has all the effort been worth it? Is training paying off?
Half the athletes I know are away in warmer climes enjoying a training camp. I'm stuck at home, enjoying the spring weather, but surrounded by distractions. I'll admit, I'm jealous. I won't escape my familiar training routes until May, but I don't see why that should stop me joining in the training camp fun.
"You've put on some weight."
Unfortunately this blunt assessment from a member of my masters squad is true. I had to agree and excuse myself on the grounds of not training so much in winter. Catching up with friends later that week there were shocked reactions to my admission. I hadn't trained?
Fitness and body composition are important to an athlete. I’d normally be panicking about now. Desperate to correct the situation I'd eat as little as possible and train every available hour. My fear of losing fitness has driven me through hard training and minimal recovery. But letting fitness go this winter has been good.
I always start the year by drawing up plans for the season ahead, setting goals and identifying races. My first draft is at best impractical and at worst impossible. The following few weeks are spent altering the plan so it's testing, but achievable. I might hope to live up to those early intentions, but over-committing myself will lead to disappointment.
I may not be the best at planning, but by understanding the errors I make it might help you avoid them yourself.
Having spent the last two winters migrating south to warmer climates, I'm not the best qualified to advise on winter training. This year I'm stuck at home and with the UK experiencing the earliest snow in 20 years it's been a rude awakening. During my travels I'd forgotten how much harder training is when days are short and cold.
The problem isn't the means to train, it's the motivation. A routine that worked well through the summer becomes a struggle. I aim to maintain consistency, but recognize that change is needed to achieve it. A few small adjustments and a little variety is enough to put me back on track. By identifying areas I struggle with I can tune my plan to make the most of the coming months.
The value of a good training diary was brought home to me recently when asked how I'd trained for my first ironman. Digging out an old paper diary I was surprised that my training differed so much from my recollection. It provided insight into what was core to ironman preparation and reshaped the year's schedule as a result.
When four-year-old training changes your outlook it emphasizes the value of analyzing the season just gone. Moving from pen and paper to spreadsheets and WKO made the process much easier; rather than deciphering my illegible scrawl, I have tables and charts to show me what did and didn't work. The principles remain the same, but with the Performance Management Chart (PMC), I have an immediate guide to the highs and lows of my year.