Words by Alana Levin, Thomas Endurance Coaching
For many triathletes, the Ironman distance is the ultimate goal. The allure of the distance, and the sheer physical endurance needed to undertake such an event, capture the imagination of so many athletes. For those athletes that find themselves drawn to full iron-distance races, it comes as no surprise the preparation that these events require. They’re all-encompassing from both a mental and physical perspective. To ensure proper preparation the work must begin early in the season and requires 100% commitment from both the athlete and their support network. There are tried and true approaches and critical benchmarks that must be met to arrive at the start line confident and ready to race.
Before embarking on the training required for an Ironman it’s important to take some time to ensure you’re prepared for what will ultimately be a long road filled with highs and lows in the build-up to race day. Arguably one of the most important parts of preparation is the mental component. It’s critical to wrap your head around what it’s going to take to see this journey through. It’s a full-time commitment and will essentially become a second full-time job. Take the time to think through what it’s going to take to balance training, work, life, and other responsibilities with your personal goals. Get into the mindset before training begins of quality over quantity, and be sure to stay focused on limiting any “junk” that may derail your goals. Think critically about what it is you hope to get out of the experience of training and racing an Ironman. What are your external (goal time, transitions, strong run) and internal goals (committing to training, balancing workload, staying healthy)? Make sure that your expectations align with what’s realistic. Set yourself up for success by aligning your mental and emotional state with your physical abilities before the season begins.
Most Ironman training can be organized into traditional periodization phases consisting of a Base Period, followed by a Build Phase, Peak, and Taper. The length of these specific phases can and should vary based on individual fitness, background, limiters, and available time.
Base Period – At minimum athletes should begin with a 12-week Base Period where the focus is on endurance and foundational aerobic strength. For many, this will mean spending the majority of their training time in Zone 2, and incorporating the classic long slow distance (LSD) rides on the bike. This is the time when athletes undergo training that ensures their bodies are ready for the demands of race-specific preparation. The importance of this phase for Ironman events can’t be overstated.
Build Period – This 8-12 week period is when the most intense and demanding training takes place. The workouts most closely match what you’ll experience on race day, and include strength-building sessions, sub-threshold work, muscular endurance, and race pace sessions. This is the time when race day nutrition and hydration strategies should be dialed in as well. Use key workouts and brick sessions to train the GI system in concert with the aerobic and muscular systems. Keep intensity in check during this time period. The 80/20 rule is a good guide for most athletes. Only 2 out of every 10 sessions should be performed at high intensity. As race specificity increases the duration of the high-intensity intervals and session duration is lengthened.
Key Distances – In the Build Period, the goal is to integrate 4-6 of these long race-specific sessions prior to taper.
- Swim – Continuous 60-minute open water swim in race gear.
- Bike – 6-hour long ride. These rides can be pushed to 8 hours, as they are a great way to get the body used to being out for long periods of time without the stress of running.
- Run – 3-hour long run.
- Brick Workouts – Up to 6-hour rides followed by 1-hour runs. Also, work on your transition out of the water and onto the bike to ensure T1 is comfortable.
Peak Phase – This period lasting 2-weeks and performed 3-4 weeks prior to race day is when all of the previous training comes to a crescendo. The intensity for key workouts should be at sub-threshold and threshold. Manipulating the duration of the intervals, percentage of FTP, and recovery intervals should be fine-tuned during this period as well. Race pace efforts become longer and closer to the actual race distance. Spending time working on transitions is also critical during this time. This is when all of your fitness is fine-tuned before race day.
Taper – Taper is a highly individualized time period for athletes. Typically a fairly dramatic reduction in volume is implemented while maintaining race-specific intensities to stay “sharp”. The goal is to keep fitness high while allowing the body to shed fatigue. This is a tenuous balance and has to be managed carefully. Allow for upwards of 2 weeks for a proper taper to be able to achieve the correct balance of fitness and fatigue.
An athlete’s responsibility for the week of their Ironman is to stay sharp and fresh. Along with fine-tuning things like transition, it’s helpful to visualize the skills needed on race day. Journaling is a great way to commit these skills to memory and work through any lingering questions. Race week is not the time to try anything new. Don’t introduce any new workouts, diet approaches, or experiment with new skills. This is the time to hold onto the fitness you’ve built, not try to build more. Simply rest your body and mind and stay as present as possible. Here are a few tried and true tips for success.
- Take in 16oz. of water (drink throughout the hour) the night before at approx. 6, 7, and 8 pm so that you wake up hydrated.
- Eat a dinner that you’re comfortable with the night before. Don’t try anything new or try to overload on macronutrients. Reflect on what you ate during peak training and replicate what worked then.
- Breakfast should be 2-4 hours before the start of the race and be low in fiber. Again, stick with what works on race morning.
- Sip water, or preferred electrolyte drink, leading up to the start of the race.
- Bike fuelling should be a mix of both hydration (water and electrolytes) as well as calories. This approach should have been well sorted during training, so simply replicate what worked during key bike sessions.
- Continue fuelling strategy on the run. Again, use what worked during training. Consistent access to hydration and calories is still important on the run. Don’t lose sight of fuelling in the final hours of the race.
The weeks post-Ironman are often overlooked but are equally as important as the preparation and build-up. This is an important time for reflection and decompression. After the race performance has sunk in take the time to reflect on whether expectations and goals were met. The answers to these questions will help form goals and expectations for races to come. Many athletes cling too tightly to their fitness after a big event out of fear of “losing” what they’ve worked so hard to build. Don’t be afraid to switch things up and allow for some downtime and flexibility in the 3-4 weeks post-Ironman. Go for a hike, ride your mountain bike, go to a yoga class, or an easy walk. Peak training and focus can’t be maintained year-round, so for the longevity of your mental and physical well-being, this time post-race is critical. Give yourself space and flexibility to enjoy what you’ve accomplished.
Ironman races are special in the world of endurance sports and will always present a certain allure to triathletes who are looking to push their minds and body. Part of what makes these races so special is the level of commitment it takes to arrive at the start line fit, healthy and prepared. It’s a massive undertaking and should be approached properly from both a mental and physical perspective. Properly periodized and executed training will ensure the body is ready to tackle the distance. As an athlete make sure to constantly check in on personal goals and expectations to keep the training in line. Any person who has the level of commitment and focus required to be an Ironman is a special breed of athlete.
Alana Levin is a triathlon coach for TEC and has over 20 years of experience as a multi-sport coach and athlete. She’s a USA Triathlon certified coach and race director, along with a National Academy of Sports Medicine trainer. Her breadth of knowledge in the discipline of triathlon has enabled her to help athletes all over the globe reach their goals in everything from sprint to Ironman distance races. TEC provides expert level coaching to athletes of all ability levels and specializes in both a scientific and metrics-based approach to endurance sports. They guide athletes in all disciplines of both running and cycling. For more information on Alana and other coaches’ personal coaching and training plan options visit http://www.thomasendurancecoaching.com/. Follow TEC at @endurance_coach.