Golden Rules For Your First Ironman

Hi There -

I'm writing this from a very comfortable chair inside my editor's house in Auckland. One of the benefits of being an XTri columnist: Hurricane Bob-bring your family and we'll have a party down here.

Over the last few months I've been in contact with many athletes who are contemplating their first crack at the IM distance. Their goals are very similar-they want to finish the race. Period. If they skip the med-tent and manage a smile, great. However, what they are looking for is some advice on how to make their journey as satisfying (and pain free) as possible. If this sounds familiar, then I hope you will find this article helpful.

Call these The Golden Rules of Losing Your IronVirginity. Frankly, I think these points apply to everyone, and I need to constantly remind myself to avoid repeating my mistakes.

These are the biggest mistakes I made in training for my first Ironman. They are also temptations that I constantly need to help others, as well as myself, avoid.

Rule One: You don't have to kill yourself in training.

So you've signed yourself up for an Ironman. You know it's a grueling race, so you better toughen yourself up by signing up for two marathons, half a dozen Century rides and a three-mile rough water swim. Not recommended!

For me, endurance training is exactly like turning a Styrofoam cup inside out. So long as you take it slowly you'll be able to do it. Try to rush things and - rip - you'll tear the cup. You are the cup.

Rule Two: Build technique and endurance in your first year.

If you are making the jump up from Olympic or 1/2 IM racing, more than likely your greatest weakness is base endurance. Most first timers (myself included) have averaged less than ten hours a week in training the season before their first Ironman. Most of our previous training was done on feel, a little of this and a little of that.

Laying out a sketch of the year is essential. The core of your week is your long slow distance session in each sport. Plan to build your swim up to 4K, your ride up to five hours and your run up to two and a half hours. I like to build up very slowly. Three weeks forward, one week back, repeat. I never add more than 5-10% in terms of duration in any week. You've got a lot of time, even if you are racing early in the season.

Everybody has their own idea on distances and times, but I believe that it is better to be a little conservative on the long stuff. This will enable you to recover quickly, maintain consistency and avoid injury. The two most likely times for injury are during high-intensity training, and when you run long after a long ride. Avoid these kinds of sessions.

A classic "Ironman Weekend" is a six-hour ride on Saturday followed by a three hour run on Sunday. These sessions are typically billed as "confidence builders". From my painful experience, however, these sessions are counterproductive. Lying on my couch with the ceiling gently spinning on a Sunday night left my confidence more shattered than built. Each time I tried it, I was destroyed until at least Wednesday. Spread your key sessions for best results.

Rule Three: Focus on your key sessions and make your key sessions focused.

With your key sessions laid out, the rest of the week is easy to plan. Add your other workouts so you get three sessions of each sport. You have one goal each week-hit your key sessions fresh and injury free. Everything else is filler. If you are whipped, take a rest day. If you are a little tired, use the session for skill and technique work. If you feel good, do some endurance work, but ensure that you finish wanting more. Do whatever it takes to arrive at the start of your key sessions feeling fresh.

This leads nicely to volume. Volume is an interesting topic. We all love to talk about our monster training weeks (someday I might actually get fit enough to do one of those "average" training weeks in the IMH brochure). For your first IM, I don't believe volume matters. From what I have been able to observe in myself, and in others, the most important predictor of success is the quality of your key sessions rather than the overall volume of your sessions. So, if you are recovering well from your long sessions, don't sweat the volume.

A word on your key sessions: If you are following these guidelines, make sure your long workouts are quality. Avoid long breaks and make sure that they are true endurance sessions that build your base. Know your HR training zones for endurance and stick with them. For me, long slow distance always starts at an easy pace, but after three hours on the bike, you are working no matter what the pace.

Rule Four: Sleep is more valuable than training.

I used to drag myself out of bed at all hours because my schedule said I had to ride X minutes at Y heart rate. By far, the best thing you can do if you are exhausted is to sleep. Better to miss a short workout on Thursday, than a whole weekend with an unexpected illness.

Of course, going to bed an extra hour early every night is a better option than missing training. Weekend naps are also great for the working athlete. Keep them under an hour for best results.

Rule Five: Forget about speedwork.

Be honest with yourself. Are you expecting to run sub-four hours? Are you expecting to run the whole marathon? If the answer to either of these questions is "no", then I believe running speedwork is a complete waste of time. Some folks disagree with me on this point, but it is something that I firmly believe. A track session toasts me for 12-36 hours. If I am going to fry myself, then I want to do it in a manner that most benefits my race (i.e. a four to five hour ride).

Rule Six: Recovery is your friend.

Make sure that you drop the volume WAY down every four weeks. I've met many excellent athletes that look at me with a blank stare when I ask them about their recovery strategy. Your recovery strategy is the most important part of your plan. Recovery is when you will make all your fitness gains.

Last year, the greatest change I made to my program was developing a clear recovery strategy. Nutrition, sleep, hydration. It worked wonders for me. Free speed.

You should end every recovery week feeling fresh and dying to get back on it. If you don't feel like this after a week, then your total volume is likely too high. Note that I call it a recovery week rather than a rest week. I like to stay active in my recovery. I maintain frequency, but drop the volume and intensity way down.

Rule Seven: Check your ego at the door.

I struggle with this aspect of training (and life!). Any time you are in a group situation, there will always be someone who wants to go faster than you, or a swim coach that thinks that 10x100 fly would be a great way to kick off the session. In these situations, I swallow my pride and get dropped. It is tough, but eventually you get used to it, kind of.

Know your session goals before you start and do everything you can to stick to your goals. Group rides are the most dangerous for me. The pace slowly creeps up and before you know itů hammer time! For that reason, I either ride alone or with friends that accept my pace in advance. My training pace is non-negotiable. Perhaps that's why I train alone so much. ;-)

Rule Eight: Keep your eyes on the prize.

Remember your goals when you decided to start this journey and keep the training fun. There is no point in putting all this time into the sport unless you are having a heck of a good time. When it all becomes a bit much (and it will eventually), back off and re-assess. The right answers will come to you.

Another issue I struggle with is goal inflation. In December 1998, I was thinking that it would be nice to finish. By August 1999, I was thinking that 10:15 and a Kona slot were a very real possibility. Where did that come from?! Keep your time goals to yourself. At 7AM on race day, you'll have plen-tee-o-pressure. No need to make things tougher on yourself.


I hope this helps a couple of folks avoid some of the mistakes I made. If you are racing California, Lake Placid or Canada, then look for the XTri cap and Aloha shirt. When you spot me, be sure to say "Hi!" We can swap stories about our monster workouts.

gordo