Those Few Pivotal Minutes: Qualifying for an IRONMAN World Championship
The 2016 IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships have come and gone and excitement is already building to make it to either the Big Island or Chattanooga in 2017. For athletes right on the cusp of qualifying, it’s important to remember that every athlete is different: training habits, ability to handle training load, budget and even the hours available to train can vary widely. In order to shave those precious minutes off your PR, you need to think within that framework.
An athlete who only needs to gain 10 to 20 minutes to reach the podium or qualify for a World Championship is already doing many things right and there isn’t going to be one large thing that will make an immediate difference. Rather than adding more workouts, ask yourself—what can you do better? The initial course of action would be to examine all aspects of your training: current race performance, equipment, race selection and most importantly, your recovery. Then optimize race travel plans and the necessary acclimatization. There are many components to getting faster. A number of small gains in multiple areas will add up.
Training Versus Racing
Is your racing living up to the potential exhibited in your training? Begin by analyzing a recent race and compare it to a similar workout in your training. As I have mentioned in a previous column, one can’t expect to run a 7-minute mile pace off the bike if the athlete’s fastest run is 7:30. Be thorough and objectively critical of each discipline. Did the swim go as planned and was the pace on target compared to your pool pace times or your open water swim practices? Was the swim-to-bike transition similar to the top athletes in your age group? Did you have the right gearing or wheels on the bike? Was the run to your potential?
Execution of a Race Plan
That is assuming there is a race plan. Believe it or not, many experienced athletes show up at a race without a clear idea of what kind of power to maintain on the bike or pace to hit for the run. Having a coach can help eliminate costly mistakes as well as give direction on how to handle every section of the race. Have a clear plan in mind for the day.
I often talk at events and will describe step by step how to swim well in open water. Most important is to begin the day with an adequate warm up so the body is in sync with the mind. To give yourself the best possible shot at being close to the leaders, seed yourself aggressively on the start line so you can take advantage of other swimmers’ draft. Remain focused on staying on fast feet rather than drifting off in that crucial middle section. Tools such as counting strokes or breath control can help you stay engaged and focused on your pace.
Break down each leg of the triathlon in a similar fashion so there is a solid plan for the task at hand. Don’t neglect the traffic flow of the transition area and what is required on your person for each portion. Take those extra few minutes before the start of the race to see where the entry and exit points are for each leg. Keep your bag choices to a minimum as well as a purposeful but not rushed changeover to shave time. If you calculate the amount of time it takes you to get through T2 and see that it’s several minutes slower than those of the people on the podium, then those are free minutes just waiting to be salvaged.
Even though athletes spend hours at a race expo searching for that magic piece of equipment, there is no one piece of triathlon gear that is going to give an athlete 15 minutes in a race. However, the individual savings provided by a great fitting yet flexible wetsuit, a properly set up triathlon bike (complete with a power meter that you use regularly in training), good race wheels, an aero helmet and a tight aero kit can add up to valuable savings. Spend some time researching which items will fit your budget and add them to your arsenal.
This is a topic that should be taken seriously if you are looking to qualify. Instead of doing that 70.3 race that you do every year because it’s easy to get to or convenient, choose a race that plays to your strengths and negates your weaknesses. For instance, if you are a strong swimmer, confident on the bike and you can handle a variety of race conditions well, then a hilly course with variable weather like IRONMAN Canada is ideal. A flatter bike course--such as IRONMAN Florida or IRONMAN 70.3 Austin generally favors those who are as strong on the run as they are on the bike. Use your strengths to put yourself at an advantage before you even start.
On top of that, as I wrote about previously, tailor training workouts to the terrain the race takes place on. Be ready. Examine past results and see the time required to be on the podium and compare to your abilities. Unfamiliar with the bike course? Search race forums or find competitors or coaches who have the knowledge you need to make the right choice.
Ask yourself, what can you do better? Do you need to increase overall speed, spend more time in the aero position or handle the bike through the corners better? Do you need to run at a more consistent pace? Do you have problems with nutrition late in the run? After you’ve examined your training protocols, focus on planning workouts that improve upon your weaknesses. Make sure you are ready for a flat, hilly or highly technical route. Rather than just adding more workouts of longer duration to get faster, one needs to increase threshold power and pace. In order to increase power, workouts need to be 105 to 120 percent of FTP or pace. Keep these high intensity efforts short, anywhere from one to five minutes with equal rest. This is best done under the supervision of a coach to ensure proper timing within the year and race build up.
After all the work has been put in, an athlete should set themselves up for their best race by optimizing their travel schedule and acclimatization if possible. Anecdotally, one additional day at your destination event prior to race day for every time zone crossed is a good rule to follow. I see many athletes arrive on a Wednesday after traveling halfway around the world to race an IRONMAN on a Sunday. Everything about that person’s life has been disrupted—eating times, sleep and even training sessions. Giving yourself time to adapt to the new time will make race day that much more successful.
Last and not least is recovery. Just adding workouts with higher load can often leave an athlete tired and run down. Research has shown that the ideal sleep for adequate recovery is a minimum of eight hours per night. If you are surviving on five hours per night, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. Plan your weeks and days to allow the muscles and mind to rebuild; remember the mantra is overload and recover, then super compensate. There is no compensation without rest.
There are many areas in an athlete’s life that can be improved or streamlined for small time savings. Examine all of them and make changes for a larger sum.
Thanks to LifeSport Senior Coach Dan Smith for his contribution to this article.