Get your Ironman marathon pacing right to stave off muscle damage and fatigue

Ironman Triathlon Running - Pacing

Getting your Ironman run pacing strategy right is key to finishing strong

If you’ve ever done an Ironman or any long-distance triathlon, you’ll know how hard the marathon run feels.

Even if you’ve only watched one, you’ll still have some idea. You’ll have seen plenty of athletes broken and walking, or shuffling at best.

Even our own columnist, pro athlete Phil Graves, found it a slog. After finishing 4th at Ironman Lanzarote in 2013 he said: “I ran the first half of the marathon in about 1:28 – a pace that felt steady – and then, as you do in an Ironman, slowed down from there. Over the next 90 minutes I went to some very dark places that I don’t want to revisit in a while, but I got across that line.”

The truth is, no matter how hard you train, it’ll always be tough and most triathletes training for an Ironman-distance race are aware that good pacing could make or break their race, especially in the final discipline. However, some new research has shed new light on the importance of adopting a conservative pacing strategy when you’re racing long.

Published in the journal PLoS One, the research focused on athletes who competed in the world’s most challenging ultra-marathon, the Tor des Geants in Italy. This gruelling event involves running 200 miles over mountains, with 24,000 metres of positive and negative elevation change. The researchers compared these athletes with another group who’d completed a shorter Alpine ultra-marathon – comparatively short at 103 miles in length!

They found that runners in the longer race had lower levels of muscle damage and inflammation, despite the fact that they ran almost twice the distance as those who did the shorter event.

The researchers made the following conclusion: “Such extreme exercise seems to induce a relative muscle preservation process, due likely to a protective anticipatory pacing strategy during the first half.” This implies that the athletes in the longer event paced it more carefully from the start. And that even with extreme distances of 100 miles and 200 miles, small differences in exercise intensity significantly influence muscle fatigue levels.

When you consider how much time is lost when your Ironman run turns into an Ironman walk, it may be worth applying some of the lessons from this study. Muscle damage is a major performance limiter that could be the difference between success and failure on your big day, and judging it poorly could mean the race you’ve spent months preparing for goes down the pan. It’s not like having low energy, when downing some Coke might improve things. Once you have sore legs, they seldom feel better, only worse. Until you finish that is.