Ironman triathlons sell out fast, so training and planning well in advance are key to success

The long lead-time that Ironman races’ popularity forces on you gives you time to have a brilliant race when you do go long next season, particularly if this is the first time you’re taking the plunge and racing for 10 hours or more in one day. Use the time you have to plan carefully and get off to the best possible start.

If you were about to plunge into a 2011 Ironman race quite late in the day then the first opportunity you have is to investigate your other long-race options.

Think about your motivation for doing this race. If it was because your mates are all doing it, then see if you can start some momentum for next year’s long-race trip – and this time you have a say in where it is. Consider what’s important to you: location, atmosphere, a fast and fl at course or a challenge-of-a-lifetime mountainous route. Do you want hordes of people cheering you on, or would you prefer a more low-key affair? Is the organising company behind the race important to you? Are you looking for a 3.8km/180km/42km standard long triathlon, or would you rather work to your strengths – for example, with a bike-heavy event like Abu Dhabi International Triathlon? Draw up a shortlist of races that meet your criteria, talk to your friends and family about what they’d like to do, and narrow it down from there.

While you’re choosing your race, which will determine your training schedule, assess your triathlon ability honestly at this moment in time. If you’ve never done a long-distance triathlon then consider your endurance experience in any of the three disciplines. If, for example, you’re an experienced marathon runner or you’re well used to riding sportives, you’ve got a head start.

If you’ve never done a triathlon at all, then look at short practice events as soon as you can this year to fi nd out where your weak areas are. A year is a long time, so providing you’re healthy and ready to train, you can get ready for a long-distance triathlon from whatever your base level is but you need to work out your priorities quickly if, for example, you’ve yet to learn how to swim…

It’s hard to comprehend how difficult – or indeed how achievable – a long-distance triathlon can be until you’ve actually seen one. If you can, go and support one this summer, starting when the swim begins at dawn and staying until some of the last competitors come in. Talk to the people who’ve raced that day and fi nd out how they found it and what they wish they’d known a year ago. You can learn from their experience and make sure this is the right time for you to tackle a long-distance triathlon event.

Once you’ve got the race booked, it’s easy to forget about it for six months, but you’d be wasting valuable preparation time. You have a great opportunity to start working on your endurance and race experience now and lay the foundations for your real race training, which will start early next year. Six-times Ironman world champion Mark Allen recommends planning your training by working backwards from your race day in 12- to 20-week blocks.

“It takes a while for your body to undergo physiological changes,” says Allen. “If you focus on an event for longer than 20 weeks, however, it’s too hard to vary the training enough so that your body will stay fresh.” Assuming your key long-distance race is next summer, you can plan a second ‘peak’ for your training this coming autumn to work towards.

You could have great fun sitting down with your training diary and planning every workout you’ll do between now and your big race, but the reality is that life will get in the way of your plans at some point during the next 12 months, and you’ll become disillusioned that you haven’t stayed on track.

Just plan phases in your training, and plan them backwards: the final two to four weeks before your race will be your taper phase, when you wind down your volume to recover for the race; the preceding four to six weeks will be your speed-work phase, when you build in faster sessions; and the four to eight weeks before that will be your aerobic base training phase, when you concentrate more on building your endurance through long, slower training sessions in each discipline.

Don’t be a slave to your training – you still have plenty of time at this stage and, as you become more experienced, you’ll learn how to rearrange training so that it’s still as effective around other commitments.

“One of the biggest mistakes athletes make is to stick too rigidly to a training plan,” says Allen. “Life is not set up to follow the ideal training programme. Often it becomes essential for a person’s performance to actually cut workouts when life obligations become overwhelming. Training should reduce the overall stress on the person, but if they are cutting out precious sleep just to fit in a run before work and only getting five hours of sleep every night, then it really doesn’t matter how much they train, as their body will be worn down and their performance will suffer.”

While you shouldn’t be so tied to your training plan that you’re skipping meals to get a workout in, if you are missing half your sessions or going weeks without training, it’s time to reconsider either your goal or your other commitments. Consistency is essential for success, particularly in long-distance racing, as Ironman Lanzarote winner Catriona Morrison knows. “The secret to my consistent performances is consistency itself,” she says. “People don’t see being consistent as a goal. They think if they train well for two or three weeks here and there they’re going to get a good performance out of it. In fact, the trick is to maintain a reasonable degree of fitness the entire year round, and then be able to fine-tune for races.”

You don’t have to start worrying about your specifi c Ironman training yet, but if you’re new to triathlon or have only done short races, you can use this summer to get into a routine and structure your week around the kind of sessions you’ll need to do next year. Mark Allen recommends one long endurance workout in each discipline every week; one fast-paced workout in each discipline, which gets faster as your race approaches; and two strength training workouts (see below). For now these don’t have to be particularly long or hard, it’s more important to build your routine so you’re used to the regular training.

Start conditioning your body now for the rigours of Ironman training and you’ll fi nd your form and endurance improve and your susceptibility to injury goes down. Strength training is no substitute for specifi c tri training but it is a powerful supplement to it, with Ironman legends Dave Scott and Mark Allen both voicing their support for hitting the weights room. “Workouts that I think are important for any triathlete are two strength-training sessions each week, and these should last no longer than about 45 minutes each,” says Allen. “This should be an overall body-strength programme that works all the main muscle groups. This will enable you to have the muscle integrity to handle speed work.”

This article was first published in Triathlon Plus magazine – click here to subscribe.

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