The Ironman run is a journey to your physical and mental limits, but with the right preparation, you can enjoy the trip.
You’ve seen the pictures. Athletes valiantly crawling over the finish line. Winners punching the air for six miles straight. Lonely miles through heat-ravaged landscapes. Marriage proposals on the finish line… The Ironman run is a marathon like no other. Whichever of these images inspired you, whether you’re racing Ironman for the first time this year, aiming for the World Championship in Hawaii or just dreaming about your next challenge, here’s all you need to know to love that long, long run.
Standing in T2 during the longest race of your life, it’s likely that the overriding emotion you’ll feel is relief that two-thirds of it is over. But the truth is that it’s on the run that you truly earn the right to be called an Ironman.
“I thought once I got onto the run it would be hard but I’d be fine,” says Ironman Austria finisher Claire Doherty, an experienced runner. “I wasn’t fine, because although I’d prepared, I didn’t have a plan B or C.”
She’s not alone, according to Ironman UK run course director Steve Mack. “When athletes start the run they’re buoyant because they can see the end,” he says. But as the next 26.2 miles unfold, Mack and his team witness the highs and lows – “cramp, fatigue and a lot of emotion”.
There’s plenty you can do to prepare for the unique challenge of the Ironman marathon, which is why first-timers like Doherty go back and try again (and, in her case, take two hours off their finishing time). But as the distance is about the only thing an Ironman run has in common with
a ‘normal’ marathon, you do have to approach it differently.
Slower = faster
Your Ironman pace will be slower than your marathon pace. Learning what that pace should be, and how to stick to it, is crucial. “The biggest learning curve was finding my pace,” says Kona finisher Marie Kirton. “You want to go out fast, so going slower can be difficult. Later on, once you have your Ironman pace nailed, you can introduce speed work.”
“You need to do more race-pace efforts in Ironman training,” says physio and Ironman athlete Tim Pigott. “It’s all about doing lots of long, slow runs to teach the body what you’re going to do.”
Be all about the bike
There’s more to keeping up your ideal race pace than just plenty of run practice, though. Putting in the hours on your bike won’t just help you reach the marathon with fresher legs – it’ll build crucial aerobic fitness too.
“What we know about training volume is that, assuming you can handle it, more is better,” says coach and sports scientist Garth Fox. “That’s one of the things that separates us from elite triathletes – they can handle big volumes. Although it’s great to run more, you’ll get injured, so the bike (where, by and large, people can handle much bigger volumes) becomes even more important. Why do we care about this volume? Because Ironman is an exercise in fat burning. When you see pros doing a fast bike and then running a sub-3:00 marathon, they’re still burning 50 per cent fat.”
You shouldn’t be trying to emulate the pros’ bike times, but you should be aiming to emulate their fat burning ability, as that’s the key to endurance. So, as with your running pace, your bike effort needs to stay low. Fox says most age-groupers should train in Zone 2 (on a five-point scale) most of the time, with the odd tempo effort in Zone 3 or Zone 4.
Turn down the volume
All that bike training will give you the aerobic base you need, so don’t ruin things by overdoing the running. “A guy who’s done six months of progressive training, slightly undercooked it and not got injured will be better than a guy who pushed it, got injured and was out for a month,” says Fox. “You shouldn’t do a long run every week. Do one every 10 days, and it shouldn’t be more than two hours long – the injury rate goes up exponentially after 90 minutes.”
Brick sessions (bike-to-run workouts) can be useful for building fitness, but again the volume should be kept low. “A lot of people say not to do bricks because of the injury risk,” says Pigott. “But I’d say to go for a short run (15-30 minutes) after every long bike. It teaches you the sensation of getting off the bike and helps you judge your efforts.”
Maintain the machine
You may have gathered that to become an Ironman, you need a bit of a masochistic streak. But good athletes don’t flog themselves for the sake of it. Pain prevents you performing at your best, particularly if it signifies the onset of an injury.
“The most common problems I see as a physio are things like ITBS (iliotibial band syndrome, AKA runner’s knee),” says Pigott. “That happens if people have a weak core and glutes, and they’re not controlling their hips properly.” That same chain reaction of instability can lead to problems with foot control. Watch a marathon and you’ll notice ankles slumping inwards and hips dropping as the race goes on; in an Ironman this can be even more pronounced.
“If you’re doing a pure marathon, you might get away with a bit of weakness,” says Pigott. “But coming off the bike, your core has been working hard for six or seven hours and it suddenly has to stabilise you in a different way. That’s when technique starts to go.” This doesn’t just heighten the chance of injury – it’s a barrier to performance. “The best guys are rock-solid,” says Fox. “Because of that, they’re able to keep the pace for a lower oxygen cost.”
Let form follow function
The answer is to work on your conditioning. Depending on how much time you’re able to devote to it, this can range from basic injury prevention to dedicated strength training. Pigott recommends starting with general mobility work, using foam rollers, tennis balls and bands for assisted stretching (find tips at mobilitywod.com). Just 10 to 15 minutes a day will make a difference. The next stage is to add in drills, plyometrics and core exercises at the start of run sessions. Finally – if you have time – add gym work.
“Work on your compound moves – so squats, deadlifts, lunges, pull-ups, big movements like that,” says Pigott. “It’s not about bodybuilding, it’s about putting the body under higher strength-training load so you can cope with the stresses of triathlon training.” If you’re keen to work on your conditioning, find a coach who knows about tri and running to train you in the right technique and help you draw up a training programme.
While cycling helps build your fitness for the run, it’s not always so useful in helping you avoid running injuries. Tight hip flexors that can affect your stride length, hamstrings taking the strain in an aero position and core muscles that aren’t strong enough to cope with the combination of cycling and running all mean you need to take extra care with your conditioning.
A professional bike fit can help take some of the strain off your body. Pigott, who’s a Retul bike fitter as well as a physio, emphasises that there’s a difference between your fastest bike position and the best position to ride an Ironman in. “For a short triathlon you can get away with a more aggressive, aero position,” he says. “But for Ironman, go for a more relaxed position so you aren’t loading your hamstrings.”
Don’t forget that illness is as big a risk as injury. The eccentric muscle contractions that help your body absorb the shock of running cause muscle damage and inflammation. “All this trauma you’re creating and the enzymes that get released to repair the tissue damage have a big impact on your immune function,” says Fox. “One of the ways to get around that is to get carbs on board pretty quickly.”
Nutrition is one of the most common stumbling blocks during the run, though. A good place to start in training is simply knowing how much you’re taking on. “When I tell people to eat 70-80g of carbs per hour, they ask me how they’ll know how much that is,” says Fox. “Going out without knowing how many grams you’ve taken on board is mad – just add up the numbers on the packets.”
Newbies tend to eat too little and run out of fuel, or too much and end up on the loo. “Identify anything that may be an irritant to you,” says Pigott, who had gastrointestinal (GI) problems at his first Ironman. “For me, that involved cutting out gluten and wheat.”
Part of the solution to fuelling your body around the last section of the race is to teach it to use more of the energy source it has in abundance: fat. Fox says the work he’s done with professional triathletes has shown that they’re just much better at using fat for a fuel. “We’ve just done some tests with [Ironman winner] Michael Weiss and found that he’s burning 50 per cent fat while running just under four minutes per kilometre,” he says. “When he’s fully fuelled, he can do that for eight hours.”
Long, slow training will improve your ability to use fat, but you should also try to emulate the way pros are able to take on more carbs during races so you’re less reliant on your fat stores. “The more carbs you can handle, the better,” says Fox. “Tests using 30g to 120g of carbs per hour found that the fastest times came from people using 78g.”
Going out and attempting 100g per hour (four energy gels) isn’t wise, as you’re likely to suffer GI problems, but your gut is trainable. “Two types of ride or runs are useful in the race-specific phase of your training,” says Fox. “One where you’re training your body to burn fat, so going out depleted; the other where you’re pushing the amount of carbs you can take. If you usually have 60g per hour, try 70g.”
Master your mind
As well as fuelling your muscles, carbs can help you stay mentally on top of the race. “Everybody goes through a low patch in an Ironman – the best and the worst,” says Fox. This is partly due to glycogen depletion, which affects people in different ways. But science hasn’t fully explained why endurance athletes reach such crushing lows.
Whatever the cause, you’ll have to dig your way out to reach the finish line. No one knows this better than four-time world champion Chrissie Wellington. “Most races, I’ve thought about quitting,” she says. “Especially in the marathon. It’s mental strength that pulls you through. Some people have an innate ability to dig deeper and draw on mental reserves, but mental training is as much a part of training as physical training.”
For Claire Doherty, enlisting the help of ‘brain ninja’ Kim Ingleby helped her knock hours off her Ironman finish time. Doherty echoes Wellington’s sentiments: “You can be as fit as you like, but if you’re not mentally on it, your fitness is no good. When you’re tired, it’s easy to give in, but if you’ve prepared yourself, it really makes a difference.”
Doherty first put Ingleby’s teachings into practice in a middle-distance race. “After my first Ironman, I thought: “This is all in my head, I need to get it sorted.” I saw Kim in July and raced in September, and it was the best race I’d ever done. Mentally, I was just so on top of it.”
Stay in the moment
You’ll often hear experienced athletes talk about being “in the zone” or “in the moment”, but being in tune with your body and able to focus on the race is a skill that can help first-timers too. “I think I benefited from my naivety [at Ironman Korea],” says Wellington. “I didn’t know what to expect, so I went out with no idea how my body would respond. I stayed in the moment and didn’t think too far ahead. I’ve tried to carry that with me through the other races I’ve done because you know that 5km into the run, you won’t feel the same as you do at 20km. All you can ask of yourself is that you get the best out of your body and mind at that moment.”
At your lowest ebb, with low fuel reserves and fatigue setting in, your mind begins to go into automatic survival mode and that’s when your mental training can kick in. “Saying to yourself, ‘I’m safe, I’m OK’ calms your unconscious mind,” says Ingleby. “It should lessen the adrenaline and cortisol, leaving you in a more useful state to continue.”
Open your toolbox
The key to staying in charge of your run is having a range of tools to draw on. These are techniques you’ll need to learn in training, so that they come to you easily during the race. “What works for me may not work for you, but there are specific strategies you can learn,” says Wellington. “The first is to visualise. Before races I lie down, close my eyes and visualise myself being strong, successful and dealing with problems. When things go wrong – and they will – you’ve developed a mental strategy to deal with them.”
Although MP3 players aren’t allowed at races, you can use them to pre-program music into your head to help you round the course. “Before a race I run part of the course with my iPod on,” says Wellington. “If Queen’s We Are the Champions comes on as I go past the three-mile marker on Ali’i Drive at Kona, then when I pass the marker in the race, I hear that song in my head and it gives me a boost.”
Ingleby also teaches her clients anchoring techniques. This involves taking a physical action, like squeezing your fingers together, and ‘anchoring’ positive feelings to it so you can draw on them quickly when you’re running.
Train for the pain
Unfortunately, no amount of training – mental or physical – is going to stop you feeling low at some point in the race. But let’s face it, that’s part of the attraction. “I love pushing myself through the pain,” says Kirton. “The more you push, the bigger the reward.” What you can do, though, is learn to expect those dark times so in the back of your mind you know you’ll be OK. “Training is about learning to suffer,” says Wellington. “You don’t save that for race day. Not every session has to be gratuitous masochism, but it’s a process of testing yourself. Each week at least one session needs to push you beyond what you think you might be able to achieve.”
Start as you mean to go on
With your body and mind trained, it’s time to put those plans into action on race day. Exiting T2 may be harder than you think, though. “What surprised me about the Ironman run was how much mental power it took just to put the running shoes on,” says Kirton. “You can train your muscles but you can only partially prepare for the tricks your mind will play on the day.”
When the moment arrives, take a moment to calm down, advises Mack. “There’s no point coming off the bike and rushing off to run when you haven’t taken a little bit of time, had a drink, something to eat. Give yourself a talking to – remember what you said you were going to do, and make sure you do it.”
The rewards will make it worthwhile, as Mack witnesses on the run course in Bolton every year. “No matter what pain people are in, what mental state they’re in, once they get to those last few kilometres and they can smell the finish line, it’s quite a quick recovery they do.”
“It’s the sheer joy of running down the finishing chute with the crowd cheering, crossing the finish line absolutely exhausted, knowing you’ve given it your all,” says Kirton. “Especially when you look back and remember how much effort it was just to put your trainers on in T2. You’ve achieved something the majority of the population couldn’t even imagine doing. Ironmen (and women!) are a special breed.”
LONG RUN TIPS
- Stay in Zone 2
- Keep most of your training and almost all of your racing at level two out of five
- Change your set-up
- Go for comfort and an open hip angle over super-aero speed
- Eat on the bike
- Gradually learn to take on more carbs – up to 100g per hour
- Ride more
- Build aerobic fitness with lots of low-intensity cycling
- Keep runs short
- Max out your long runs at 2 to 2.5 hours
- Run less often
- Run every other day to lessen the impact
- Do your S&C
- Work on strength and conditioning so you stay injury free
- Be economical
- Do technique drills to maintain an oxygen-efficient run style
- Get a bike fit
- Take the strain off tight ham-strings and hip flexors on the bike
- Work it out
- In training, find out what irritates you and how much carbs you can take
- Learn to burn fat
- Train at very low intensity to get used to using fat stores
- Train your gut
- Gradually increase the amount of carbs you take on per hour while training
- Train your brain
- Plan in mental strategy training as you would physical training
- Stay in the moment
- Break the race and your training into sections – don’t think too far ahead
- Train for pain
- Brace yourself for dark times by pushing hard in training sometimes
TIM PIGOT – THE PHYSIO AND BIKE FITTER
I’ve done two Ironmans. My first and best was Ironman Austria. At the time, my standalone marathon PB was 3:24, yet I managed to run 3:28 in the Ironman. All I did was dial in the pace I had to run at in training so when I got off the bike in the race, my body only knew one pace.
In Nice it was going well, and I reached the halfway point in just over 1:30. I should have been on for a 3:15-3:20 run but I wasn’t absorbing any fluid and got dehydrated. It was a choice of either push on and collapse, or drop into a walk and get the finisher T-shirt.
Getting it right can take years. I had a client who’d jog round the run section with a huge smile on her face, even though everyone else had finished. She loved it but she was very, very slow. After five years of hard graft and dedication, she’s just qualified for the World Championship – and this is somebody with a couple of kids, working.
(Tim Pigott is a multiple marathon finisher and has raced Ironman twice, most recently in Nice this June. Visit physiohaus.co.uk and athletematters.com)
MARK KLEANTHOUS – THE REPEAT OFFENDER
The year before my double Ironman attempt I decided to do two long-distance events in seven days. I finished the first race in 10:17 and decided to pace myself in the second. I’d run many sub-2:40 marathons in the previous six months but the plan was to hold back and see how my body held up.
The leader joined the run route for his second lap with a motorbike cameraman, so I thought I’d get my 15 seconds of fame. I worked hard and caught him up. I ran with him for two laps before he turned off for the finish and I had just one lap to go. I finished in what’s still my best Ironman marathon time, 3:05:19, and secured a top 60 finish.
Ironman Sweden was by far my favourite course. As I battled myself and the other competitors, we were overlooked by Kalmar Castle. I remember the long finishing funnel under the magnificent cathedral. Everyone wanted to give us high-fives as we made our way to the finish. It still gives me goosepimples now.
(Mark Kleanthous has been a triathlete for 30 years and has raced more than 30 long-distance events worldwide. He’s now a coach (ironmate.co.uk))
MARIE KIRTON – THE KONA AGE-GROUPER
Ironman UK 2012 was the first Ironman where I raced the run instead of merely surviving it. I’d completed the course the previous year, which was a huge advantage mentally. I played cat and mouse with another girl for the final 10km and secured my goal of third place in my age group. I was also third amateur woman overall and qualified for Kona.
I have lots of different strategies to get through the low points. I repeat mantras in my head – “fast as a gazelle, light as a feather”. I tell myself that if I slow down, I’ll be out on the course for longer, which equals more pain. I smile at everything – smiling increases endorphins and happy hormones! I think of people who’ve been through much harder times and draw strength from them. Lastly, I have treats and rewards at the finish – a goodie bag filled with all the things I sacrifice leading up to the race, like champagne and chocolate!
(Marie Kirton raced her first Ironman in 2008 and last year achieved her dream of racing Kona)
I came away from my first Ironman knowing what I had to work on to make sure I had a better experience next time round. I also went to see mental strength coach Kim Ingleby.
This year, I felt much calmer. I had to really resist chasing people on the bike and that paid off. When I got onto the run I felt a bit tired, but I told myself: “You knew you were going to feel tired and that’s fine, so come on!” On the run, I thought about people who were strong runners, and a friend that I knew would never walk. I thought: “Even if you slow down that’s fine, as long as you keep moving in the same direction.” I had lots of little mental things that I was doing in my head but that I didn’t really have to think about because I’d been practising them.
Last year I did Ironman Austria in 13:27. This year I did it in 11:12. You can be as fit as you like but if you’re not mentally on it, your fitness is no good because you can’t use it. Mental toughness really does make a difference.
(Claire Doherty used mental strength training to help take over two hours off her Ironman Austria time between 2012 and 2013)
CHRISSIE WELLINGTON – THE QUEEN OF KONA
Ironman Korea, my first, was a war of attrition. It made Hawaii look like an Arctic landscape. Nothing could have prepared me for running a marathon in that heat. I went out there with no idea how my body was going to respond. I very much stayed in the moment and didn’t think too far ahead.
I’ve never started a race thinking: “Oh my God, I’ve got to run a marathon at the end.” Instead, I think: “I’ve got to get to that buoy, then that buoy…” It might be getting to an aid station or getting to that guy or girl in front of you – just break it down and stay in the moment.
I’ve gone into sessions that [my coaches] have set me thinking: “There’s no way I’m going to be able to finish that!” But if you break it down, then before you know it you’ve finished it. Those are the sessions you remember. When it hurts in a race – and it will – you draw on those memories.
(Chrissie Wellington took up tri in her late 20s and went on to win the Ironman World Championship four times, as well as setting the women’s world record over the distance)
GARTH FOX – THE COACH AND SPORTS SCIENTIST
I did a marathon once in Stockholm and had no idea how to train. I thought: “This thing’s going to take four hours, so I’d better build up to running for five.” When I did the actual race, I had the all-important endurance, so I ran 3:30 and wondered what the big deal was. Of course, going faster is a different ballgame.
I often go back to the evolutionary template, and when we were hunter-gatherers, slowly running a marathon a day looking for food, we didn’t get sports drinks or recovery food. I’ve just heard some interesting research, suggesting that if maximal adaptation rather than maximal training is the focus, you’re better off leaving the body alone when you’ve just depleted it. No carb window, recovery food, compression wear or ice baths. One guy I train is a cyclist who does etapes, and when he’s two weeks out from an event I get him to ride in a loop close to his house until he blows up. It’s a really useful session to get used to depletion, and I think he kind of enjoys it!
(Garth Fox (garthfox.com)is a cyclist, triathlete, sport scientist and coach. He’s racing Ironman 70.3 Pays d’Aix in Aix en Provence this year)
KIM INGLEBY – THE MENTAL STRENGTH COACH
During my Ironman run I had a strategy: I walked at the food point and jogged the bits in between. Each time, I said to myself: “You’ve got to walk that section and have a drink and eat because you’ve never done an Ironman.”
At the finish it was a bit weird because I wasn’t really fast and I wasn’t dying in a heap either. I wasn’t interesting enough to warrant attention but I couldn’t get to my family yet. I remember being pleased, excited, relieved and being offered a seafood pizza. That was my lasting memory – I really don’t want a seafood pizza, thanks!
Before a client’s race, I go through with them why they want to do the Ironman and what they’re going to gain by doing it. If someone’s at a low point and thinking they can’t finish the race, then the motivation to finish isn’t enough, but the thought that by finishing, they’ll gain something else helps keep them going.
(Kim Ingleby raced Ironman UK in 2012, raising thousands of pounds for charity, and coaches triathletes in mental strength (visit energisedperformance.com))
CRAIG ALEXANDER – THE CHAMPION
My first Ironman was Ironman Australia in Port Macquarie in 2007. I finished third, and had already qualified for Kona by winning the Ironman 70.3 World Champs the previous year. What surprised me about the Ironman run was how long it was!
My fastest Ironman run was 2:38 at Ironman Melbourne last year but my best was any of the three that carried me to a world title! My worst was last year in Kona – I had a back injury leading into the race and had to walk parts of it.
You need volume [in training], but not all the time – just in well-planned doses. I review the training I’m doing daily. Tempo efforts in long sessions have given me the biggest breakthroughs in training.
Am I an especially tough athlete? I’ll leave that for other people to answer. What brings me through the dark times of an Ironman marathon is the knowledge that I know it ends. Doing your best and never quitting is what makes it all worthwhile.
(Craig Alexander stepped up from a successful career in ITU racing to win the Ironman world title three times – so far…)
STEVE MACK – THE RACE OFFICIAL
When I ran marathons, I looked at Ironman and thought there was no way I could do a marathon after swimming and cycling that far. But it turned out to be a better experience than I could ever have imagined, physically and mentally.
Doing the race definitely changed the way I do my job. When I’m setting up the course, I look at it from a runner’s point of view – I remember how tired I was and look for places where a tired person is likely to go off course.
When I’m going round the course with the athletes, I can really empathise with them – I know how it’s hurting. When their judgment is clouded due to tiredness I can give them the advice they need to carry on – which little stretches to do, when to have a little walk, what to eat. Sometimes having someone tell you to eat some crackers can be the difference between finishing the race comfortably and finishing it in agony.
(Steve Mack is the run course director at Ironman UK and put his money where his mouth is to complete the event in 2012)
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