This article is about the training strategy that took ironguides athlete Leonardo Moreira to an age group win at Ironman Brazil 2011. It explains the strategies we used to win the M40-44 age group and finish in 9hr 03, a 19-minute PB for Leonardo.
When a coach is working with an improving Ironman athlete who over the years managed to go from 10hr 56 to an age group (M40-44) win with 9hr 22 at the age of 40, both coach and athlete are faced with a new challenge.
With splits broken down as a 1hr swim, 5hr 10 bike and 3hr 08 run (plus two quick transitions), the question is how do we improve this—especially considering the circumstances of the athlete;
– A family man with two young kids
– who owns a very demanding business (restaurants, open 365 days of the year)
– plus the fact that the above result was achieved at 40 years old, an age that marks a turning point toward a significant drop in production of hormones linked to performance (testosterone and growth hormone).
The above scenario was exactly the situation of one of my high performance athletes. After winning Ironman Brazil in 2009, Leonardo Moreira’s goal was to qualify for Hawaii in 2011 at Ironman Brazil. >ere are the strategies we used to win the M40-44 age group and finish in 9hr 03, a 19-minute PB for Leonardo.
Swimming for the age group triathlete is often underrated. Since you only spend 10 percent of your Ironman time in the water, many athletes believe they are better off by investing their efforts in cycling or running.
However, your swim time has an impact on the overall strategy for the race. When you are a fast swimmer, you can get away from the main pack in those first hundred meters after the start, and likely have your own space to swim at your rhythm and stroke, instead of fighting for space, something that happens in most races for 70-80-minute swimmers.
Another advantage of being in a front pack is that you’re able to swim in a group of experienced swimmers who are likely swimming in a straight line or who can read the currents better. Meanwhile a pack of beginners is zigzagging all over the place and does not have enough open water experience to deal with strong currents, winds or choppiness.
Back in 2009, Leonardo had a swim split of just over 1 hour. Our goal for 2011 was to improve this mark by 3 to 4 minutes, which doesn’t sounds like much, but it is enough to put you with a different level of athletes. Our mission was accomplished with a 56-minute split.
To achieve that, we started a swim-focused plan in 2009. The plan was for 10 months since swimming takes much longer to improve than the bike or the run. Also, as Leonardo didn’t have a swimming background, it was important to assign sets that weren’t too long so he wouldn’t lose form as he progressed into the set, and speed was always present. With this combination of frequent and fast workouts, he learned to swim fast with good form.
The biggest challenge for the age group triathlete is usually availability of time and venue for bike training. Many athletes are based in big cities that require them to drive to a safe place to ride—this makes the indoor trainer a very useful tool, since it is a very efficient and saves time. The trainer is also an excellent option for high intensity repeats; you are likely to ride at a higher effort on the trainer than on the road since you can focus on intensity alone, instead of worrying about your safety (cars, dogs, potholes, etc) as you do while riding outside. Another big benefit is that you are able to do big gear sets that are great for strength, without the inertia that the road gives you—it is almost like doing leg presses on the bike.
The other strategy Leonardo had to apply to go from a 5hr 10 to a 5hr 01 split was doing race simulations on his long rides. For example, we incorporated a strength set on the last third of his long rides to simulate the strong headwinds that are always present during the last 40km on the bike course at Ironman Brazil.
We also opted for a lower volume, higher intensity approach towards most of his bike training. However, this was only possible since he had already done multiple Ironmans—for this type of athlete the distance itself is no longer a challenge. In that case, you are able to do that distance at a higher intensity without draining too much energy from your legs.
And the last tweak in the strategy was that he would take chances on the bike, risk it all, and trust in the training and the experience that his legs would still be there for a solid marathon.
Just like the bike, there comes a point when a run gets very, very hard to improve. Leonardo ran a 3hr 08 Ironman marathon in 2009. Avoiding injuries is one of the biggest challenges in improving the running; every single session on the training plan has to be tailored to that athlete. No more junk miles like the young athletes can handle. At the same time there is a minimum of volume and a weekly long run, sometimes broken in repeats or a structure that allows for a better technique and faster pace.
The 3-minute improvement, he ran 3hr 05 in 2011, came mostly from his increased fitness on the bike and in the swim, which meant he headed out for the marathon with fresher legs and a lower heart rate.
Hormonal Balance – Diet and Sleep
At some stage the athlete reaches the limit of the training volume he can handle, both physically but also in terms of time without conflicting with personal/professional commitment and logistics. Once you get to that point, details in your routine such as sleep and diet can have a greater impact on your performance (and health)!
With The Method we always plan the workout’s structure in a way that keeps testosterone and growth hormone levels within a healthy range. As explained in our articles before, endurance training releases cortisol and decreases testosterone and growth hormone levels, so it is crucial to mitigate those effects with specific strength training done at certain times of the week.
Diet can also play a role in hormonal balance. Insulin is the antagonist of growth hormone—learning how to avoid triggering insulin into your system at times of the day when growth hormone levels are supposed to be at their peak is crucial. Another healthy guideline is to follow a diet with a very high nutrient-per-calorie ratio, instead of the old school idea that “a calorie is a calorie”. As a working age grouper you want to fuel your system with more than energy alone—you also want the nutrients to stay healthy.
Once your athlete does 9hr 03 at the age of 42 the same questions pops up: How to improve?
As an athlete gets fitter and ages, the details become more crucial to improvements and that’s where our focus is for the next few years: tweaking those workouts to simulate race day, focusing on a healthy diet and structuring training thinking about hormonal balance. If you look at the 45+ age group, most top athletes have a decent swim, are monsters on the bike but running is their weak link, mostly due to injuries, so this becomes our focus and is something to start thinking about right now.
Enjoy your training!
Vinnie Santana, ironguides Head Coach