Use bike, mind and nutrition to run a faster Ironman marathon, says Dr Graeme Stewart

Run nutritionThere are many elements that come together to make the perfect Ironman marathon. However when you only do one or two long races in a year, it might not be possible to experiment or test different approaches. That’s why it’s important to get some fundamentals right from the start.

The following tips are key elements of Ironman marathon training, used by professionals and leading age-group athletes, that will help you run a faster marathon on race day.

Get fast first

If you want to run a fast marathon, you need to be able to run a faster half marathon and an even faster 10k. The off-season is the best time to develop your run speed by doing interval training, with sessions such as 10x1min or 5x1km. This will help you get faster and improve your efficiency, so you can improve your endurance at a quicker pace.

Develop bike strength and fitness

If you want to run well in a triathlon you need to be very fit on the bike. Develop your aerobic fitness with focused miles incorporating over-geared strength work such as 6x5min between 45-65rpm. During the off-season you should also incorporate high intensity interval training (HIIT) such as 5x4min, which has been shown to be the most effective at improving running performance off the bike.

Build endurance

Having developed speed and strength in the off-season, the last 16 weeks is about specific preparation. Increase your longest training rides and runs gradually and incorporate long brick sessions. A four-hour bike and 90-minute run at race pace will let you know what you’ve got in store and get you mentally and physically ready for race day.

Train your nutrition

Key to a good marathon is not running out of energy. You need enough but not too much nutrition on the bike, so you need to practise using race nutrition during at least one of your long sessions each week.

The maximum most people can handle is between 60-90g of carbohydrate per hour depending on which products they choose, but most only manage between 40-70g. Your ability to absorb carbohydrate can be trained, so start with a little and increase it each week until you can take the equivalent of one energy gel (ideally 2:1 maltodextrin and fructose) every 20-30mins.

Work on pacing

Getting off the bike with rock-solid hip flexors, a sore back and depleted glycogen levels is not the best way to run a fast marathon. Keeping a steady, even pace, well below lactate threshold, will help you conserve energy. Keeping your cadence low and your pedalling relaxed will also help save energy. Practise doing longer runs after an Ironman-paced bike to ensure you have the right intensity.

Mental focus is key

Often athletes slow down because they lose the motivation to keep pushing when fatigued. You can work on this by pushing yourself hard during some specific training sessions and visualising your target race – not every day, but now and again.

Dr Graeme Stewart is the Scottish Ironman record holder and a UKCC Level 3 triathlon coach

Make it work

  • During the off-season spend time working on your top-end run and bike speed.
  • In the last 16 weeks of specific preparation, increase the duration of sessions, incorporating some long brick sessions at Ironman pace.
  • Practise and train your race nutrition at least once per week.
  • Spend time visualising the physical and mental demands you will encounter so you’ll be ready for anything.