Beyond the Four Pillars

Let’s start with a very quick recap on the Four Pillars of Ironman Racing. They were: Nutrition, Strength, Economy and Aerobic Threshold Endurance. Hopefully, you found my previous tips on these important areas helpful. If you’ve been working on the Four Pillars over the last four months then you should be in great shape right now.

So what comes next? Before I get into that, I want to discuss where people tend to go wrong at this time of the year.

Remember what made you fit in the first place. We can all get really fit from paying attention to the basics of aerobic training and smart nutrition. The danger comes when we try to go even faster by adding excessive anaerobic training. We each have a limited tolerance for high intensity work and it’s nearly always less than we think.

With a deep aerobic base, it only takes a little bit of intensity over a short period of time to get the necessary physiological changes. Three to seven weeks out from your A-priority race is the appropriate time to start your most intense efforts. Most of us will have lower priority races that will provide all the intensity we need. This means that a radical change to your training program is not required. Ironman race pace is your basic endurance training pace – so remember that you are doing race specific training year round.

You’ll get the most benefit from working one gear up from race effort. Your “speed work” is really sport-specific strength work. This is muscular endurance work done at 10-20 bpm above aerobic threshold (see my previous series for how to determine AeT).

How do you know that you are ready to start some sport-specific strength work? Have a look at Part Four of my Threshold Series for the “test workouts” that you want to be able to complete. Until you are able to complete these aerobic test sessions and feel “normal” the next day, your greatest gains will come from a continued focus on the Four Pillars.

When contemplating how best to build the specific preparation phase of your season, keep the following four points in mind.

Getting tired is the point of training. Your training program should be challenging. Following your most important workouts, it’s normal to be tired and/or sore for 12 to 36 hours. If you feel “nothing” then you can afford to bump the intensity and duration a bit. If you are experiencing persistent fatigue or muscle soreness then you are over doing it. Most of us have no trouble with this point – as highly motivated athletes, we are most often giving ourselves a little too much.

Get tired the right way. Each of us has a limited amount of recovery “points”. You want to use your recovery points the most effective way possible. This means that your fatigue should be generated in the most race specific method possible. Further, your most challenging sessions should address your greatest Ironman limiter. A 45-minute track session might be beneficial to you. However, is it the best way to use your recovery points?

Increase your recovery strategy in line with your training strategy. When you step up your training, you must step up your recovery. Injury, burn-out and illness are nearly always caused by a breakdown in recovery (flexibility, sleep or nutrition) rather than a specific training issue. The intelligent athlete uses as many recovery tricks as possible – healthy foods, naps, consistent sleep, massage, yoga and flexibility work. These items speed your recovery and enable you to tolerate more training. The faster you bounce back and the greater the stumili, the greater the training effect.

Never sacrifice aerobic work for intensity. Steady paced, aerobic endurance training is the heart of Ironman racing – it is the critical success factor for a solid bike split and being able to “run-the-run”. In the final weeks of Ironman training, many athletes drop their core endurance sessions in favor of high intensity “race specific” interval sessions. The most race specific workout you can do for Ironman is a 5-6 hour steady bike ride. Your B- and C-priority races will give you plenty of higher intensity work.

OK, what to do…

Into your standard week, start to incorporate periods of moderately-hard (mod-hard) work. Some examples:

  • Do a portion of your running in the hills. While maintaining good running form, let your heart rate build to AeT+20 bpm as you climb a moderate hill. Careful with the downhill running as it can trash your legs. Two to three weeks out from your A-priority race, start to run exclusively on the flat. Your last long run should be no closer than 10 to 12 days out.
  • To improve your running in the flats, insert periods of upper steady paced running. These are 30- to 75-minute periods of running that are done at a heart rate of AeT+10 bpm. These runs will be faster than goal IM race pace and will not generate the deep fatigue that occurs from extended periods higher than AeT+10 bpm. This means that you’ll be able to handle more aerobic volume (and, therefore, be getting tired the “right way”).
  • To build flat time trial strength, insert the following set into an endurance ride. Four to six repeats of three to five minutes duration. Maintain a cadence of 55-65 rpm and focus on turning strong circles. Keep your heart rate down, no higher than AeT+15 bpm, and push a very large gear. Make your recovery interval 25% of your work interval. If your heart rate is getting too high then slow your cadence and/or push a stronger gear.
  • If your A-priority race contains significant climbs then use the same hill protocol as for running. Build your heart rate to AeT+20 bpm, while pushing a strong gear. Do this in terrain that closely mimics the hills that you will face. The endurance required for long climbs is different than the skills needed for extended rollers.
What about the swim? Personally, when I increase my bike/run intensity, I lower the intensity in the water. In the final few weeks of Ironman preparation, my assumption is that my swim fitness is largely determined. I maintain my swim frequency and volume, but avoid getting myself tired in the water. This doesn’t mean that I am cruising the whole time. Rather, I avoid long sprints, VO2 Max work and any high lactate sustained sets. I want to get tired in the way that will most benefit my overall Ironman time. For me, that means race specific bike and run work.

So those are my thoughts on the training side. On the racing side, I enjoy inserting short local races into my schedule. Examples of these are: 1500-3000m open water swims, aquathons (swim-run races), 5-10K running races, 15-40K bike TTs and/or sprint triathlons. Once my base fitness is established, I’ll do one of these events every 10-14 days. I find that this provides me with some threshold work in an environment where I can control the intensity. If I feel great then I race at threshold pace. If I am tired then I’ll back it off to moderately hard pace. I’ll never taper for these races and skip them if I am particularly toasted.

Let’s sum it up. Focusing on the Four Pillars is a safe and effective way to get very fit. Once you have a deep base of aerobic fitness, add sport and race specific strength work. If you are tolerating your specific strength sessions and maintaining your endurance sessions, then consider using short events to give you a little bit of threshold work.

Good luck and I’ll see you at the races!