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10 Basic Tips for Iron-Distance Nutrition

Keep it simple is the name of the game when it comes to Ironman Race Day Nutrition. Here’s how, in 10 easy steps.

Here’s ten ways you can plan on optimizing your Ironman day — after all, as we tell our clients, Nutrition Trumps Training. To lock in a great return on all the time and energy you invested in training, make sure you’ve mapped out and practised a nutritional strategy for race day that is simple and right for you.

1. Take in adequate amounts of energy. 400 Cal/hour on the bike is a rough goal. On the run, two gels and lots of coke per hour. Eat when you feel good, back off when you don’t.

2. Pace appropriately! Yes, appropriate pace is a “nutrition” tip!!

Why? Because your pace and how much fuel you can process are inversely related! The faster you go, the less food and drink you can process. Conversely, the slower you go, the more you can digest. This is simply a factor of diverting more blood supply to the working muscles the harder we go. Go too hard and you can end up shutting down the stomach and intestines!

The right pace is always a compromise between two things: (1) How much blood needs to go to the muscles to provide oxygen and nutrients to sustain your pace, and (2) the minimum number of Calories you need to process to get you to the finish line in the least amount of time! Your fitness, weight (more fat = more insulation = more heat stress = greater demand on blood flow), heat adaptation — all of these impact blood flow demands from the different systems in your body.

A short race such as a sprint tri can be ALL OUT with no food since we carry enough glycogen to fuel ourselves at a high intensity for the distance and we do not need to eat. But when you are racing for 2.5 hours or longer, you will need to count on taking in some food, too.

3. If you get stomach trouble, slow down! Your problems will resolve if you give your body the chance to recover. You can cruise easy for 10-15 minutes and only “lose” a couple of minutes on the day, or you can continue to carry on hard and lose hours!! Or worse, DNF!!

4. Keep it simple. Stick to one brand of electrolyte drink and one brand of sports bar or gel. Take enough supply to race venue, you don’t want to be buying different brands the day before the race

5. Eat your solids, if any, early during the bike (first couple of hours). Aim to keep the rest of your fuel intake liquid.

6. Rely on an electrolyte drink throughout the day and keep water intake to when you eat dense carbohydrate sources (gels, bars, cookies, etc.), because mixing electrolyte with food will only make the solution denser. Mix your drink according to the label!

7. Aim for minimum one large (750mL) bottle of electrolyte drink per hour on the bike, with additional water with gels and solid food. The bottle of drink will give you roughly 140Cal per hour. Add three gels and you have 440 Calories/hour, a good goal. Have some water/electro/coke at every aid station on the run. Never skip an aid station — never, not ever!

8. Practise practise practise. Make every long training session a practice run-through of your IM fuelling and pacing. By the time race day rolls around, it should be second nature what you eat and drink.

9. Plan the details of your fuelling strategy in advance. For example, you can use a Jetstream bottle and mix a concentrated mix in a bottle, then during the bike fill up the Jetstream (once it’s empty) with a marked-off amount out of the bottle of concentrate that is the right amount to ensure a proper concentration when topped up with water. Do this right before an aid station and top off the concentrate with water from that aid station. If you do this right, you can start the bike with the Jetstream full, and carry a large bottle with 3 hours worth of concentrate in it. Then pour 1/3 of the bottle into the Jetstream each time you’re on empty, top it off with water from the aid stations and you’re set. Always keep a little bottle of water on board to wash down gels and calories from food.

10. Food of choice: Find the brand of bar and gels you like, and get used to using them. Remember, gels and bars are only one option — many races have been won on Mars bars, coke and bananas. Find what works for you!

Coach Vinnie

Train with ironguides!

Personalized Online Coaching: Starting at USD190/month

Monthly Training plans (for all levels, or focused on one discipline): Only USD39/months

Event based training plans:

Sprint Distance (USD45 for 8-week plan)

Olympic Distance (USD65 for 12 week plan)

Half Ironman (R$95 for 16-week plan)

Ironman (USD145 for 20-week plan)

X-Terra (USD65 for 12-week plan)

Running Plans (10k, 21k and 42k – starting at USD40)

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How to Restart Training after Illness or Missed Workouts

Following a training program on the spot or 100 percent according to plan rarely happens, especially in triathlon where you train for three disciplines.

As an age grouper, the juggle to balance training, work, family time and all sorts of errands and duties is always the biggest challenge with the tri lifestyle.

You’ll miss training days when work unloads on you a big task, when you catch a cold or a flu virus, and of course, when nagging minor injuries becomes a major one if you ignored it.

It is one of the most frustrating moments for a triathlete, especially when you felt you are reaping benefits from all the training you had consistently logged on.

Derailment of training due to illness, injury or work and family obligations is less of an “if”, and more a “when”. To keep your sanity, you just have to learn to be ok with missing workouts.

While giving specific training advice in an article written for a diverse audience is inherently difficult, I do think there are general principles and few rules that can help guide you back on track.

Accept your current state of fitness.
Before your training was stopped by an illness, minor injury or simply by work obligation, you probably have been doing great on your fitness level.  Depending on the length of your hiatus, it is important not to be in the state of mind before the interruption.  It is common to retain the mindset of past training and racing, along with the feeling that if it worked before your body and mind can do it again.   You have to build it up again.

Don’t Push yourself Hard too Soon

The general rule is.   Take it easy at first.  Give yourself  anywhere in between a few days to a couple weeks of easier sessions as this will create some fatigue which works as an insurance that you won’t train too hard at first, then you can start adding the intensity. The combination of a fresh body and the mental guilt that you didn’t train for days, can be a dangerous one as it may lead to some very intense sessions when you first start back which may kill the chance of building some consistency again.

Listen to your body, and don’t dive into those punishing interval or hard rides too soon.  A simple cold can turn into a more complicated infection if you padded on a too tough of training stress on top of it.   There is always a way to scale back on your training, and be patient in gradually making your way back to the level of training you had before the derailment.

Don’t Try to Play Catch-up
Some athletes, when they felt they had recovered from the illness or felt they are close to the state they where before the hiatus, will try to recover the missed workouts by doing Two- a days or cramming a week’s worth of program into a few days.   This is not only detrimental, but may lead back into your illness, overtraining, or worse, an injury.

Transitioning Smart to the Hard Sessions
When you have gone for a week of easy training, and you feel that you are ready to transition to the harder stuff, this is the way to do it.  On the first week of doing the hard sessions, initially cut back on the volume of the sessions, make them short.    Then gradually increase to the full workout the next week or two depending on how you feel.

It Happens to Everyone

It is very rare, if not impossible, to have a training block leading into a major race where you will complete 100% of the workouts. Some people get sick, others injured, others have challenges with their work, family demands time, it won’t be a smooth road to your race, expect and adjust accordingly, and once you toe the start line, know that all athletes next to you, were also dealing with challenges during their prep.

Getting Back to the Program
You have eased into returning to form after the hiatus, what will happen to my training program?

If you missed less than 5 days, just go back to the same program, don’t play catch up, and just ease into the routine as discussed.
If you missed 1-2 weeks, if you are 8 weeks out from goal race, go back to the point before your hiatus, and start from there. These are race specific workouts, and it is good to gradually build in intensity and volume, rather than skipping, and be faced with harder workouts.  Again, don’t overdo and try to catch up by overcompensating on the missed workouts, you are just asked to continue the program on the day you stopped.
If you are more than 8-10 weeks out from race, just continue your program, as if you haven’t missed anything.   Just be careful to ease into the workouts by cutting back on intensity and volume on the first week, as discussed.There will be days when you feel that you are not in the same fitness as you were before, despite doing all of the above, smartly easing into it and all.   Decrease in performance capability is a collateral damage, and part of being in illness.   Just persevere and be consistent, and you will get all the fitness all back.

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Triathlon Swimming: Type like a human

The second installment in our series “Triathlon Heresies” was published in Triathete Magazine USA. “Type Like a Human” looks at triathlon swimming and how common mistakes taught in pools nation-wide are keeping you from swimming to your best potential in the open water.

Type Like a Human – By Alun Woodward

If you’re like most Age Group athletes, one of the most challenging (and frustrating) aspects of your training is how to improve your swim time. For many athletes the question that arises once they’ve acquired basic swim skills is: Why am I not getting any faster in my races? To answer this question we have to step back a little and understand that the requirements of pool swimming and open water triathlon swimming are very different.

First let’s start by understanding that “open water swimming” is not about extending the lane in your pool into an empty, 1500-meter long, flat water course with a lane rope on each side (as some swim instructors have recently suggested). Instead, open water swimming as experienced by the vast majority of Age Group swimmers is a churning, rough-and-tumble experience in which all the rules of pool swimming are broken! How long have you been able to hold a delicate, careful, well thought out stroke in a race?

That’s right – about 10 seconds! With every stroke there seems to be something to impede your progress and stall you in the water: Chop from the wind, other swimmers’ elbows, someone pulling on you or swimming overtop of you, ocean swell, murky water, air bubble froth, feet impeding your ability to catch water, and so on. It’s like swimming in a washing machine and needing to re-accelerate with every stroke! Because of this constant interference and challenge at every stroke, the truth about triathlon swimming is that to improve your abilities in the open water you need to do almost the opposite of what you did to develop swim technique in the pool!

In traditional swim training you are encouraged to emulate the top swimmers in the sport, who after a lifetime of swimming twice a day are able to “swim like a dolphin”, able to recruit a large proportion of muscle mass to slip effortlessly through the water lap after lap at top speed, high intensity and with beautiful form. The truth is that these swimmers have literally worked that lifetime to develop an extreme level of aerobic fitness and swim-specific strength and muscle recruitment that has no bearing on triathlon swimming for most triathletes – including the very best of our pro’s! Asking you to learn to swim the same way with limited time, a lifetime of not swimming, modest aerobic development and low swim-specific strength is like asking a dolphin to type like a human!

A typical Age Group triathlete has trained their aerobic fitness to handle “getting through” the distance required by their race. If you’re not coming from a swim background and have a history of limited swim training, or you have learned to swim using a focus on drills and pool technique, you’ve probably learned to conserve your energies using a very careful, deliberate “thought-out” swim stroke. Your stroke appears reasonably proficient, with high elbows, a long glide and a streamlined body, but you lack the strength to power through the difficulties faced in the open water. As a result you are constantly coming to a near stop and need to re-accelerate at every stroke, which is a very energy-consuming process.

In the pool the typical “maximum glide per stroke” approach most of us have been taught (usually by pool swimmers!) works great at first. With a massive acceleration off the wall every 25 to 50m, and with nothing to interfere with our focus and concentration as we carefully apply each stroke in un-crowded conditions, we can end up making reasonable progress as long as nothing interferes.

But apply this approach to the open water and we end up leaving ourselves wide open to the decelerating forces all around us. Without the strength to power through each wave, bit of current, grabbed ankle, chop, or interfering elbow we end up at a near standstill with each stroke! Our long stroke in fact becomes a hindrance –the longer and more “glide-oriented” your stroke is, the longer you leave yourself open to obstruction in the water! Each millisecond is one more opportunity to stall! And without the aerobic engine to support constant re-accelerations we quickly tire and settle into “survival” mode.

How do we overcome this without substantially increasing our swim mileage? The answer: Learn an open water stroke!

Triathlon Swim Technique

Without a doubt the top swimmers in the world have beautiful technique, with long, smooth, powerful strokes swum with little apparent effort. As triathletes we can learn a lot that can be used for our own performance, such as developing relaxation when we swim, correct pulling technique and arm recovery. But beyond that we are best to leave some characteristics of this stroke to the swimmers – their technique is specific to racing in pools, one person to a lane and to get them only to the end of their swim, usually far shorter than most triathlon swims.

For triathlon swimming we need a technique that is both fast and efficient and also allows us to navigate the chaotic conditions of open water. We need a stroke that is not easily disrupted by other swimmers but that also enables us to conserve energy for the bike and run to follow.

Swimming Efficiency

The long, smooth powerful strokes used by top swimmers relies on high power output to carry the glide through disruptions, which only depletes our limited energy stores early in the race. Even with the ability to generate this power, a long-smooth-stroke technique leaves us more vulnerable to disruption from waves, moving water and other swimmers. In open water the stroke needs to be faster, shorter and continuous to minimize the disruption of our forward progress – the opposite of long, distance-per-stroke swimming.

Training for Triathlon Swimming

To train for triathlon swimming we need to move slightly away from the typical swim training prescribed by swim coaches, mainly in the area of technique. Swim coaches tend to spend most technique training time working on increasing stroke length, reducing strokes per length, and developing power throughout the stroke. However, as triathletes we need to focus on:

  • Powerful front end of stroke to accelerate quickly with each stroke, using major muscle groups such as the pectorals propel ourselves forward
  • Improving stroke rate (strokes per minute) so that we move quickly from stroke to stroke without leaving ourselves open to external disruptions
  • Eliminating dead points in the stroke so that we don’t ourselves contribute to the factors that stall our progress

By changing the focus of our swim training we can improve our performance while also reducing energy expenditure, which leads not only to improved swim performance but also better bike and run performances. We carry less fatigue out of the water, and we have increased energy levels later in the race.

How do we develop this new technique?

To implement a new technique takes time because our brain controls how our muscles work to move us through the water. Based on our lifetime of swim experience (or lack of it!), we have set into our brains a motor pattern for swimming that we now need to change from a pool-efficient motor pattern to an open water-efficient motor pattern.

To change our motor patterns from old to new is very hard, especially in older swimmers who have a lifetime of set patterns to overcome (swimming or not swimming!).  For this reason it is very important that when we train to change our stroke we ensure that the body is not too tired – for this reason, aim to swim in the morning, or if this is not possible then make the swim session the first training session of the day. We do this because if the body is tired the brain will easily fall back into known and automatic motor patterns, which only reinforces the old technique rather than developing your new, open water technique.

Because fatigue is an important factor in your swim stroke training, your sessions should also be short and broken up into small and manageable chunks. This allows you to focus on your new technique with high concentration for short periods of time, with plenty of recovery between efforts to ensure that every effort you swim is developing good solid technique!

The total length of the session is also very important as there is only so much the brain can take at any time, so swimming 1000m (total) with good technique is better in the beginning than trying to fit in your normal 3000m set – the 3000m of effort will most likely have you swimming good technique only for the first 1000m of intervals, while in the last 2000m as you tire your technique will deteriorate and you are revert to reinforcing bad technique!

One last thing we need to consider is the frequency of your swim sessions. By getting in the pool as often as possible during this period of adjusting to your new stroke, even just for short sessions you will accelerate the learning process. Try to ensure that you are not out of the water for more than two consecutive days during the week.


  • Train fresh! Swim when you are fresh – first thing in the morning or as the first training session of the day
  • Less is more! Keep the interval length as short as necessary to hold good technique
  • Swim often! Keep your sessions short and frequent – don’t go more than two days without swimming

Technical Focus

No swim instruction is complete without a few technical pointers to illustrate what you are aiming for! However, because new swim skills are difficult to master and you can’t focus on more than one new movement at a time, it’s important that you incorporate these tips into your new stroke one by one. Get familiar with one aspect, learn it well, then incorporate the next into your training. Remember that old trick about patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time? Learning a new stroke is no different!

Hand Entry
With each stroke, enter the water fingertips first and “send” your fingers on a continuous downward trajectory towards the bottom of the pool. By getting the fingers in first and driving them down instead of forward you set yourself up to immediately start the pull phase. There is no glide phase!

If you’re a “careful placer” of your hand into the water from too much technique swimming then you are not developing energy-saving momentum in your stroke. Break yourself of this habit by forcefully PLUNGING your hand into the water with a powerful thrust! It’s important not to “slap” the water surface – think of the rest of your arm tucking in behind your hand and slipstreaming into the water behind it. You want to put a lot of force into this component of your stroke because this sets you up for a quick, strong catch. Remember – no glide!

Once your hand is in the water, imagine coins sitting on your fingertips. You must keep constant water pressure on the coins to prevent them falling off your fingertips. Use this imagery to eliminate any remaining dead glide in your stroke and ensure that you develop a continuous, constant rhythm in your stroke. Your arm is always moving into the water and immediately catching the water! A nice byproduct of this approach is that the timing of each stroke improves as your hand is immediately in position to pull. There is no glide!

With no glide component your whole stroke speeds up and you remove your own worst enemy – the thinking process – and the resulting robotic, “careful-placement” swim stroke learned by the majority of swimmers who follow classic swim drill training (especially those trying to swim like dolphins!). More momentum in your stroke sets you up for a more powerful pull, and ensures that the force you apply then goes towards maintaining speed and not re-accelerating in the water.


Now that you have your hand entry sorted you need to develop what happens next. After you have started “catching” the water with coins on your fingertips, pull back straight and powerful – picture your arm wrapped around a barrel as you initiate this. You can train yourself to apply plenty of power in this aspect of your stroke by incorporating plenty of “water polo” freestyle into your swimming. At ironguides, we also incorporate plenty of lengths using small paddles so that you are consistently training swim strength instead of spending your time doing drills that don’t teach you the power or rhythm needed for open water. By focusing on a powerful pull you ensure that your stroke is continuous and not disrupted by currents, waves, or other competitors – or thinking!

Stability and Body Position

To propel yourself forward you need to establish a strong body position in the water. In open water we use our hand as an “anchor” to pull our body through the water. The best way to do this is to keep your hand relaxed and to slightly open up the fingers – no water will pas through your fingers when they are slightly spread, and this will greatly increase your hand’s surface area in the water. When your hand enters the water at the front of the stroke aim to enter slightly wide of center and just in front of your head – this stabilizes your body and limits snaking of your body through the water.

As well, in conjunction with the use of paddles, especially if you are a less-skilled swimmer, make sure that you incorporate plenty of pull buoy work into your swimming. The bigger the pull buoy, the better! The pull buoy helps your body achieve a more optimal (higher, horizontal!) position in the water – again, without you having to think about it! In swimming especially “thought” is the enemy!
When you swim with a pull buoy you reduce your focus on maintaining body position, freeing yourself to focus on other aspects of your stroke, and reducing struggle and aerobic work trying to kick frantically in order to hold your body position. And, without needing to think about it, the pull buoy helps you train core stabilizers that work to hold proper body position when you swim in your wetsuit, and helps you apply other aspects of your stroke from a more optimal position. End result – you develop better technique without having to think, and without spending your limited time on low-intensity, drill work.


For effective triathlon swimming you need to develop technique that is appropriate to our sport. Triathletes do not have the strength or conditioning and in most cases the physical stature to use the technique used by swimming legends such as Ian Thorpe or Michael Phelps, or indeed ven national class swimmers. Using a technique that is momentum-driven, avoids gliding to a stall, and applied in more frequent, shorter strokes is more efficient and faster in open water, and also spares your energy stores for later in the race.

Train with ironguides!

Personalized Online Coaching: Starting at USD190/month

Monthly Training plans (for all levels, or focused on one discipline): Only USD39/months

Event based training plans:

Sprint Distance (USD45 for 8-week plan)

Olympic Distance (USD65 for 12 week plan)

Half Ironman (R$95 for 16-week plan)

Ironman (USD145 for 20-week plan)

X-Terra (USD65 for 12-week plan)

Running Plans (10k, 21k and 42k – starting at USD40)


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Iron-Distance Performance – Post Race Recovery

By Alun Woodward

We are hitting mid season now and in the northern hemisphere that means a flutter of ironman events and for most of you this is the key race of the year you will have been training for.

For a lot of you these races will be Kona qualifiers and for others it may also be one of 2 ironman events during the year. We see a lot of information on how to prepare for ironman but very little on the recovery process following ironman and how to get back to training and racing.

You just have to look around at athletes immediately after the race and in the days following to see the damage the event does to our bodies, for most it takes 3-4 days before they can walk normally again and get back to regular activities.

Our bodies are amazing at achieving extreme feats like ironman and other endurance events as the body functions on a work now pay later system. We see this in play all the time when we do an activity that is out of the ordinary for our bodies – in the 24-36 hours following the activity we get delayed onset muscle soreness, for example if you do no strength work and then start with a set of push ups you can expect to be very sore for a couple of days, if you do this regularly then you will not get the same level of soreness.

Ironman is an extreme sport and the damage goes way beyond delayed onset muscle soreness, the event places a great stress on our bodies and vital organs and is not something we recover from in 2-3 days, the general soreness and inability to walk may pass within this timeframe but the more internal damage is still just peaking at this time.

One of the symptoms a lot of athletes suffer from is swollen fingers, hands and feet. This can be alarming at first as it can also come on during the race and the swelling can be significant. If your lucky enough to escape it during the race then you will most likely experience in the hours and days following.

The temptation after the race can be to take some anti-inflammatory medication but this not the way to go as your just masking the problem and preventing the bodies natural recovery response.

Inflammation of any sort is part of our bodies recovery process and following ironman we have to allow this process to complete its course. This inflammation and recovery process takes around 10 days to complete its course and we need to make sure that any training we do does not negatively effect this recovery process.

Feeding our bodies to ensure optimal recovery is also very important at this point. For so many athletes the whole process of getting ready to race involves healthy eating and meticulous diet and the temptation following a race is to just eat anything and everything we have denied our bodies for so long. Bad nutrition causes a lot of inflammation within our bodies and at this time when your body is recovering its not the time to be adding more stress into the body. For sure its ok to have some treats in the day or 2 following your event but make sure you get back on track with your diet at this time to optimise your recovery.

So looking at a time frame of recovery and what training we can do,

DAYS 1-4

This is the time of peak soreness and inflammation, i would recommend at least 2-3 days rest within this period and any activity you do should be very low intensity and short in duration. An example of this might be biking between 40 and 60minutes. Swimming is also fine at this time but no running as any running will delay your recovery process at this point.

DAYS 4-6

At this point soreness is starting to fade but you will still be feeling very tired and lethargic, while motivation is there to train you will find you become tired very quickly following any training. You can start daily training at this point but still no running and the duration of any training should be maximum 60minutes.

DAYS 7-10

At this point in your recovery you will find your very sleepy and any efforts in training or general activity such as walking upstairs cause your legs to burn and you become easily breathless. This is a clear sign from your body to keep everything very easy with intensity as deep recovery is in its final steps, don’t fight against your body at this time. So many athletes interpret these feelings as a sign of losing fitness and start to add in some intensity at this point, doing this is just preventing you getting the fitness gains from the race and will leave you feeling tired and flat for weeks.

At this time you can think about adding in a first run and even taking your sessions up to the 90min range just making sure everything is very easy – your not training for fitness here your just keeping your body moving and more for mental stimulation than anything else.

DAYS 10-14

At this point the recovery process should be coming to an end and you will start to feel normal again. We are all different so we still have to listen to our bodies, i will ask my athletes to let me know how they are feeling 1-2 hours after training as this tells a lot more about recovery than how we feel when training at this point. If you feel normal 1-2 hours after training then you are good to get back to regular training again, if you are feeling very sleepy and lethargic its a sign your body and immune system is still in a recovery process and you need to maintain easy training for a few more days.

The next question is when can we race again? Again this is very individual but if you follow the recovery process outlined above you will get a free race around 3 weeks post ironman as your fitness will actually be peaking at this point as you get all your gains from the race!

The key takeaway point here is to take a step back after racing and listen to your body to ensure you fully recover from your race, if you do this you will not loose fitness but actually take a giant leap forward and not only will you be ready to train physically you will be mentally refreshed and motivation will be high to get back to work and race again!

Enjoy your training

Train with ironguides!

Personalized Online Coaching: Starting at USD190/month

Monthly Training plans (for all levels, or focused on one discipline): Only USD39/months

Event based training plans:

Sprint Distance (USD45 for 8-week plan)

Olympic Distance (USD65 for 12 week plan)

Half Ironman (R$95 for 16-week plan)

Ironman (USD145 for 20-week plan)

X-Terra (USD65 for 12-week plan)

Running Plans (10k, 21k and 42k – starting at USD40)


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Video: Improve your triathlon transition 1 (swim to bike)

Train with ironguides!

Personalized Online Coaching:  Starting at USD190/month

Monthly Training plans (for all levels, or focused on one discipline): Only USD39/months

Event based training plans:

Sprint Distance (USD45 for 8-week plan)

Olympic Distance (USD65 for 12 week plan)

Half Ironman (R$95 for 16-week plan)

Ironman (USD145 for 20-week plan)

X-Terra (USD65 for 12-week plan)

Running Plans (10k, 21k and 42k – starting at USD40)

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Iron-Distance Race Strategy

You train hard for your next Ironman and are doing all the things you’re supposed to be doing. But have you sorted out the details for your race day strategy? It’s a good idea to begin planning now so you know what you need to know and consider what you need to consider in your effort to perform to your maximum potential on race day. Consider the following:


One of our athletes recently asked what strategy he should use for his next Ironman race. He is a high-performance age grouper, who would like to improve his sub-10h to a sub 9h30. Using our training plans, he has developed the basic skills of The Method in terms of pacing and follows our specific guidelines for running, swimming and bike technique. He’s also improved his mental game, developing a self-awareness that will allow him to make better decisions when the conditions are less than ideal on race day.

However, how do you sort the details out for your race day strategy? What do you need to know and consider so you can reach your maximum potential for each event?

The first step is to set your goals. Why are you racing that Ironman? Do you simply want to finish the event or are you after a PB, a Kona slot, or a breakthrough performance? Is this your first Ironman or have you already done several? Perhaps you’re no longer in having he “just race to finish” mindset and are willing to take a risk to see where it takes you.

Ironman racing is no different: the beginner athlete should always start with a very basic and safe strategy, since “just finishing” can be a really hard challenge. In that case, approach the race as a long training day, which is not far from the truth, and stick to two basic mantras—“eat and drink” and “slow and steady wins the race”. You will definitely face a few down periods during the race, but you will get through those.

With your finish you will have set your benchmark for Ironman, learned much about the event, and might be in a position to pick different goals for the next one.

More experienced athletes are no longer interesting in only covering the distance, since they have done that already multiple times. They may be high-performance athletes seeking further improvements or that coveted Ironman World Championship slot.

If you are among this category of Ironman athletes, you know you will be taking some serious risks in chasing a performance at a new level: you may bonk or make the wrong decision and end up with the slowest time of your Ironman career. And you have to be comfortable with that possibility.

Your background in any of triathlon’s disciplines (or lack thereof) has an important impact on your training strategy. For the beginner athlete, it is a chance to train in a more structured way for the particular discipline you have more experience with, while honing your technique and strength in the other two (to avoid injuries). For the high-performance age grouper, it is your weapon on race day, allowing you to stand out from the crowd and make your move.

Recently we had a new athlete who just signed up for an Ironman without ever having doing a triathlon before. A very dedicated person, and a high achiever in other areas of life, this person didn’t have the patience to build himself into the sport. Our coach guiding him was worried he would end up injured as he would always do more than what was prescribed on his training plan.

The solution we found for his situation was to incorporate an “Ironman day” into his training plan: a long hike around the trails and waterfalls in the area he lives. The only rule: he wasn’t allowed to run. All his other weekly sessions were “recovery”— though in reality they are building the basic skills and strength into his system.

Another example is a former college swimmer who, after years in the corporate world and all the health-related negatives that come with it, decided to change his lifestyle. He took up triathlon. He had to slowly build himself into cycling and running but in the pool he quickly achieved a high training volume and could enjoy the benefits of that higher work load. His swimming background allowed him to do that. In terms of races, this former college swimmer still had the ability to swim at a decent pace, only a few minutes off his max potential while exiting the water very fresh compared with other beginning triathletes without that background.

Life circumstances and impact on your training
Due to family or professional commitments, age group athletes are faced everyday with limitations. They must balance training with their life outside the sport. On top of time-constraints for training, some athletes are based in cities that do not offer many opportunities and are challenged to work around those obstacles.

As hard as it can be to accept, be realistic about your circumstances as they have a big impact on your performance. Set yourself goals that are aligned with your lifestyle, and use a training plan that is tailored to it, considering all the details such as commuting to work, stress levels and access to treadmills/trainers.

Injuries are usually a result of an excessive training load, incorrect technique or a slow recovery, associated with hormonal balance.  If you have had problems with injuries in the past, it is important to understand that you have to find ways to get fitter without increasing the risk of getting injured again.

Some athletes develop injuries as a result of excessive running volume. If this is the case for you, you’re better off developing your endurance on the bike, a low-impact discipline. Cycling, you can train even longer than someone who has had no injury problems and does long runs as a consistent part of their weekly routine.

Another common problem is at a hormonal level. Overtraining and chronic fatigue hits you from a different angle and, unlike structural injuries, is not a result of a higher load in one specific discipline. Instead, it means you are not resting enough or your sessions are lowering your testosterone levels.

Strengths and Weaknesses
This is the most important aspect that will define your race strategy. Just as a quick example, and one that many triathletes will recognize, I work with one athlete (M45-49) who, even as a two-time Kona qualifier, is simply not suited for running. Regardless of how easy he takes it on the bike leg, even a standalone marathon is very slow compared with his swimming and biking abilities.

Breaking four hours is a great Ironman run for him. Decent ones are a little over 4 hours. Trying to run much faster than that in a race is a waste of time and energy as proved by previous attempts. We finally agreed that he would have to make the most of his bike, which is his strength (low 5hr split), by riding very hard. Then we used the run/walk protocol for the marathon. His time is not much slower than if he were to run without walk breaks after holding back on the bike. In the end, he goes quicker with the superb bike split and solid run including walk breaks.

Athletes with a running background or body type suitable to running are in the opposite situation—their bike fitness is just not good enough to ride hard and run hard. They are also challenged to find a trade-off, as riding 15 minutes faster than what they are supposed to can turn a potential 3h15 run into a slow and painful shuffle. Not to mention the change in mindset from always being the “hunter” to “Where are my running legs today?”

Your competition
The faster the athlete, the more they have to consider what other fast athletes are doing out there on the course. As an example we know that at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, the men’s competition is so tight that those who are strong bikers/runners but weak swimmers, such as Rutger Beke or Ronnie Schildknecht, have the fitness and legs to become world champions if they were able swim at the front of the pack. But those 3 to 4  minutes they are behind coming into T1 make the difference as they miss the pack and start a lonely and draining mission to catch up
to the whole group.

Another example is two-time champion Craig Alexander, who has a great strategy when the wind doesn’t blow and the pack stays together, without decent runners going off to the front.

The typical age grouper doesn’t need to think those details, especially not if you are just starting out. But as you get fitter and faster, you can begin to use your rivals on the course to make you faster. For example, the swim start is always a stressful part of any race. If you have the swimming background or fitness to reach T1 within the hour, it should be worth your while to attack the first 400 meters or so—that will allow you to swim off a group of experienced swimmers, who will be going in a straight line, steady pace. As a result you will find the transition and the bike a lot less crowded which means a cleaner and faster race.

And here’s a scenario on technical bike courses: riding 15 to 20 metres behind someone else makes it easier to anticipate the course such as sharp turns, potholes and aid stations. You simply focus on the athlete ahead, and don’t need to put in the mental energy to set the pace or stay as alert for surprises on the course (though of course you must pay attention at all times).

Race conditions
Race conditions are aspects of the race you should understand and consider not only when defining your strategy, but also on race day, particularly if they turn out to be different than you had expected.

If you have a heavier frame for example, are you going to attack the hills on the bike or should you take it easier? What will you do on the flats, especially with a headwind? Weather also plays a big role in deciding how to pace yourself: larger athletes know they need to hold back on the bike if it is a hot day—if they don’t, they will pay the price for it on the run. On the flipside, heavier athletes can ride very hard and still have a solid run if the conditions are cooler.

Those are only a few scenarios you should be familiar with as they significantly affect your performance and placing. At the high performance level, it can be the difference between earning that Kona slot and missing out. And for the beginner athlete, it can be the difference between a DNF as a result of a preventable mistake in judgement and becoming an Ironman.

Enjoy your training and racing this season!

Vinnie SantanaVinnie Santana, ironguides Head Coach

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