Ironman is such an interesting animal... I have a ton of thoughts about every aspect of it and have been composing this post in my head for like a week and just now attempting to get it written out... Bear with me hopefully I'll be able to coherently share my thoughts!
I 'watch' a lot of posts on social media about how athletes view ironman training and I find this very interesting... For some the volume and frequency of Ironman training sounds doable at first but then they get into it and it's completely overwhelming and they start to crack. Some want to believe that you can race a good ironman on minimal training... I am not a member of that club. While I do believe that some athletes can pull off a decent race on minimal training, those are usually athletes who are genetic freaks or have an extensive background where at some point in their lives they were putting in big volume and they still have that base fitness available.
Ironman is an all day endurance event, and to do one well, you need endurance and strength that is going to last you all day. Rocket science, right?!? ;) That doesn't mean though that you have to spend all day every day for 6 months training... Can set up a decent schedule that works around normal work hours and 16-20 hours/week can get you to your best day.
I have a success story to share and thought some might be interested in the nuts and bolts of what it takes for a 'normal' athlete to end up with a stellar Ironman race. I'll write this from my perspective as coach...
Casey called me last fall after Ironman Wisconsin. It had been his fourth Ironman (10:36) and while he had a decent run there (3:26), he had to bike well below his ability (5:45) to get himself to T2 with enough energy to pull that off. (Previously he'd biked too hard and then paid the price on the marathon...) His swim was standard for many triathletes right in the 1:15 range. He felt like there was a lot more in him but he just hadn't figured out how to put it all together and have a strong day across the board. He expressed a desire to take a shot at Kona. Of course this goal is shared by many and my first thought is always just Ok we'll see... Because those athletes who are qualifying for Kona have a couple things in common- their work ethic, the way their lives are set up, the way they prioritize training and recovery... It's easy to say you've got your life set up to help you accomplish these things but when it comes down to it, few athletes actually do. So no guarantees from me on that but I had in the back of my mind an idea of how things were going to need to go for Casey in the next 6 months if Kona was even going to be a remote possibility... I explained a bit about my training philosophy and he thought it sounded good so we agreed to start working together in November prepping him for Ironman Texas, then Wisconsin again later in the year.
So what I want to share with you isn't really all the ins and outs of Casey's training (though I'm happy to share some of that!), but more the other things that he did right that made our partnership exceptionally effective.
~Casey's life was set up in such a way so he had ample time to train. He does have a wife and a real job that takes normal 8-5 type hours, but his wife was fully supportive of his goals/training, he didn't have a ton of travel (ok no travel to speak of at all). Casey understood how to set an alarm and get up when it rang, and he rarely missed a morning training session. Many days he also had another session in the evening and often that involved his bike trainer. Because he lives in Kansas, he spent a LOT of time on that bike trainer- rarely having the opportunity to regularly ride outdoors until late spring.
~Casey's motivation level was very high. From my perspective, this comes from an athlete who believes in his ability to achieve his goals. Maybe his wife heard some bitching or moaning from him, but I sure never did. Even when he was spending like 4 hours in a row on his trainer- no complaint. Now to be fair, if an athlete really does hate the training then I think his/her coach needs to know that, but at the same time, if an athlete really does hate the training, he/she probably would be better off choosing a goal other than Ironman. Ironman requires long training days and sometimes those can be quite boring. But get over it! "Wax on" as another one of my athletes would say. Yes! Most successful Ironman athletes embrace the process of 'wax on'.
~Casey's ability to communicate was very good. He logged into Training Peaks every.single.day. Yep. Every day. He uploaded his garmin files for every single session. Yep. Every one. On the day he did the session! And he wrote very detailed notes about how he was feeing including very important info like whether or not the goals of the session felt challenging or not to meet. He listed out the splits he swam in the pool, the power for each lap of key bike sessions (yes not only did he know how to set his alarm clock, he also knew how to hit 'lap' on his garmin! Want to be a coach's pet? Learn where this button is!), and his pace vs HR on his runs. This showed me a couple things: Training was very high on his priority list. He paid attention to himself while he was training. He understood that for me to be most effective with him, I needed all this info. And it worked! Casey is one of the 'easiest' athletes I work with mostly because I never have to guess at how to progress him from week to week. I always knew exactly how he was feeling, what wattage he could sustain vs what wattage caused him to fall off a cliff, what goal pace was for different run sessions... It was obvious when he needed rest vs when we could keep rolling with the bigger training... All this should be STANDARD info every coach should have on every athlete but you'd be surprised how many athletes don't upload files, or upload their garmin with no notes, or worse yet, just type "done". Uh, thanks. How'd it feel??
~As far as the training went, we just built him up week to week... starting with lots of aerobic training on the bike/run. Once I was satisfied that his aerobic efficiency was good (HR shows very little drift across a longer session) then we moved onto stronger/harder interval type sessions... then as race day got closer we started dialing in race effort watts on the bike (long sessions repeating those watts) and running off the bike at IM goal pace... I could see his HR at that pace was very much within his aerobic range which gave me confidence that his goals were realistic. I bumped up his swim volume quite a bit (if you know me this is no surprise!) and gave him some long targeted sets of repeat 100's all the way up to repeat 1000's, all of which he nailed. He also did a weekly strength session which was at first a pretty hard weight lifting type session then we moved on to a more standard functional strength type session instead. He was very diligent about those FST sessions and I think that went a long way toward keeping him injury free and on the road. When it came to taper time we backed him off some but not all the way... I think too much backing off and you end up flat on race day so he didn't completely shut himself down until just a few days prior to the race.
~Casey understands how to fuel himself effectively. He experimented a bit with different products or whatever through the training cycle to see what he liked best, but it never happened that he had a major BONK or that he skipped recovery fuel which caused him to feel like ass the next day. I helped him outline how much fuel he might want to take in during each long/key session but I didn't have to harp on this with him like I do some of my female athletes who think maybe it's ok to bonk and sacrifice 2 days of quality training as long as they lose that last pound.
~Casey is very even-keeled and managed to keep his head on straight through the taper, travel, and race process. He didn't allow himself to get riled up or pissed about anything. It's wetsuit legal? We didn't expect that!?! But ok, go practice in the wetsuit then. (See how easy that can be?) At least from afar, there were no big CRISIS situations that caused him to mentally or emotionally spin out of control... He carried an air of confidence with him right to the start line. He had written out a very detailed plan for his day and when his alarm went off that morning, he just went about following it.
Anyway, given that everything in the 6 months leading up to the race went (nearly) perfectly, I was exceptionally excited and of course a bit anxious for him. I expected that he was going to do great but you know anything can happen in an Ironman. I woke up at 4AM to check his swim split (1:04 flat nice PR there great start to the day!) then sort of managed to go back to sleep... Kept checking in on him throughout the day and every time the news was good... He was nailing it! Of course it got hard toward the end (it always does!) but he kept himself together since he was on his way to such a big fat PR (9:48!).
I should note- Casey is by no means the only athlete I coach who operates this way... I have others who communicate just as well and operate similarly! :) I just thought that highlighting one success story like this might give some athletes some insight into what it takes to compete at this level. Casey is just one stellar example of what is required...