Before you worry about going faster, stop slowing down….

Another weekend of Ironman racing and luckily we had the weather! If you raced Ironman UK, I hope you achieved the result you’d hoped for (probably not, we’re never happy). You may be considering taking part in 2023, if so, here’s something for you to think about.

The most basic thing to consider is that triathlon is an aerobic endurance event. There are various elements of skill and force production, but ultimately it’s an endurance event. If you took part in IMUK, Bolton, you were probably exercising at a steady pace for somewhere between 11-16 hours.

It’s not 3, it’s 1

Here’s one of the key issues with triathlon, we still break it into 3 sports and base our training goals around each of those individual sports. If you’ve completed a full Ironman distance, you’ll be familiar with this process and it generally goes something like this:

  1. “I have to swim 3.8k, so I’ll do 2.5-3k in my sessions and then get outdoors and build up to the full distance. It’s Important I complete the full distance a couple of times before the day!”
  2. “I have to cycle 112 miles. I’ll get regular rides of 50-70 and then build up. I need to get at least a couple of 100+ milers done beforehand.”
  3. “I have to run a marathon, so I guess my longest run should build to at least 18 miles, any more would be a bonus!”

Sound familiar? We’ve all been through that thought process and then constructed a plan of sorts, to hit those targets. But there is an issue with this thought process and it revolves around the fact that you’re not doing 3 events, but rather 1 continuous event.

If your Ironman training is based on something similar to above, then your longest single training session is most likely the ‘long ride’ where you may be on your bike for 6 hours and you’ll do that a handful of times. If you consider then that you may be racing for 14 hours and your longest single training session was 6 hours, is it really any surprise that you’re knackered on the marathon?

Take the 3 disciplines completely out of the equation. If you want to successfully complete an Ironman triathlon, you need to have the aerobic endurance, physical resilience and mental resilience to deal with what could potentially be a 14 hour+ day.

Now… if you’re reading this and your brain is rebelling and saying “yeah, but it’s 3 different bits though…” then you need to reset your mind. It’s a single bout of aerobic exercise, for 14 hours+. If I told you that you had to swim for 14 hours without stopping, cycle for 14 hours without stopping or run for 14 hours without stopping, then you’d probably recoil in horror. But however you want to break it down, 14 hours of aerobic exercise is 14 hours of aerobic exercise. That’s what an Ironman is for many people, a single 14 hour bout of exercise. Now, ask yourself (use your common sense), what kind of training will best prepare you for a 14 hour exercise bout?

Do you need to go faster or stop slowing down?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you should go out and train for 14 hours without stopping. The reality is, training will ‘prepare’ you, but on the day of the event, you’ll have to go deeper and further than you went in training. What’s important to consider if you’re planning to race the full Ironman distance next year, is your priority in terms of training type, volume and intensity. Most people are already fast enough to swim, cycle and run at the pace they hope to maintain on race day. The problem is, that they can’t maintain it. They get progressively slower throughout the event and then walk.

If you find yourself on the marathon having to walk sections, then ‘speed work’ is probably not your focus. You need to be capable of holding a moderate intensity for 14 hours+ before you worry about anything else. If you are struggling in the latter stages of the bike ride and walking sections of the run, you do not have the basic endurance required to complete the distance. Therefore, short and fast intervals are a waste of time.

Every year at Ironman events, hundreds of people struggle in the latter stages of the bike and walk sections of the marathon and they’re completely run out of energy. You don’t need fancy training and high intensity intervals, you need to ride enough miles to finish the Ironman bike feeling in good condition. You also need to jog/run enough miles until you get to the point where you can jog the whole Ironman marathon without stopping. It really is that simple. Triathlon is one continuous single sport and each of the disciplines impact the others.

Fads come and go, the basics never change

Aerobic endurance will always be the key foundation of any long distance endurance event. If you’re planning to race for 14 hours+, then doing high volume sessions (more hours) at a low to moderate intensity will always be your key workouts. Small amounts of high intensity work mixed into the schedule can be beneficial and once you can do the whole thing without stopping, then by all means try to go faster, but you need to jog before you can run.

Trends and fads such as FTP and HIIT are partially responsible, with people believing that they are doing ‘quality rather than quantity’ and dismissing aerobic volume as ‘junk miles’. The trend for ‘reverse periodisation’ does contribute to some extent and encourages more high intensity work and less aerobic volume. Coupled with this is of course the lack of belief that ‘easy miles’ have any benefit, because if you’re not hurting, then how much benefit can it really have?

Give any athlete 3 weekly workouts which include 2 x interval sessions and 1 x long easy workout and they’ll instantly identify the interval sessions as the ‘key workouts’ and dismiss the long easy session as less important. The reality is, the longer your event, the more key those long easy sessions become and the less important those intervals sessions become.

So high intensity intervals are useless?

Not at all, used in the right way, in the right amounts and at the right time, they’re beneficial. But the foundation which underpins a 14 hour event, will always be aerobic endurance and that’s not what you get from high intensity intervals. For many people, they’re simply not priority. It’s important to understand that they are merely supplementary. Unfortunately, the simple truth is that people see aerobic endurance as dull and high intensity interval work as more exciting and more critical. That is the current trend, driven by market.

In a sport where we’re often distracted by the smoke and mirrors, some things are very simple indeed. If you want to perform well in a 14+ hour event, then you need to be aerobically efficient and physically resilient enough to exercise for 14+ hours at a moderate intensity, without slowing down and walking. When you get to that point, you might then want to consider going faster, but that’s a whole different discussion.

We start our 2023 coaching plan this October. You can read about our services HERE

Marc Laithwaite is a level 3 qualified coach, who has been coaching endurance sports for the last 22 years. He is a former sports science lecturer of 12 years and spent 2 years with the British Cycling team as a bloods analyst. He has worked with British Triathlon Coach Education as a coach educator and spent 5 years as head coach of the NW Regional Triathlon Talent Squad. He’s also a former national age group triathlon champion, European duathlon champion and Ironman age group winner.

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