Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In the Wake of Conflicting Reports: Training for the Ironman Run

This is how bad I look like when I'm
feeling GOOD in the Ironman run.
As a self-coached triathlete, I am never more confused and frustrated than when I read two opposing training articles by so-called "experts" both claiming to have the definitive method of accomplishing the same goal.

Case in point: how to run your fastest Ironman marathon. The two articles are the following:
Before I look at these two articles that appear in direct conflict with one another, I will say this: YES, I understand that everyone is different and responds to different types of training, and YES, I understand that Coach Troy's article is mostly tips on what HE did that worked for HIM, as opposed to a blanket statement "this is what you should do" to PR in the marathon. And YES, it is entirely possible that they're both right.

However, when trying to put together a training cycle that would hopefully include an Ironman (and Ironman marathon) PR, these are the types of articles I read and give more weight to, i.e., articles by respected coaches and athletes. And in this particular case, I'm left with more questions than answers and a lot more confusion. Despite having coached myself as a runner and triathlete for 20 years - mostly because of lack of funds to afford a coach and bad experiences with actual paid coaches - I have not uncovered or constructed the perfect training plan to maximize what I believe is my potential (on and off the bike).

I have spent the last two years training mostly by tips from Joe Friel and my own personal experience. The things that seem to work for running off the bike (from these tips and from experience) is to have superior bike fitness and to be conservative on the bike leg. That makes perfect sense, and the problems with the above two articles is not necessarily a disagreement on this tenet of triathlon.

But while Fitzgerald rams home the importance of superior bike fitness:
"Riding too hard can affect subsequent run performance, but fitness trumps pacing. The less fit you are, the less your run will benefit from holding back on the bike. You could go 95, 90 or 85 percent on the bike and be shot for the marathon in any case. And the fitter you are, the less pacing matters. Craig Alexander would not run a 2:35 marathon in Hawaii instead of a 2:45 if he rode the bike leg in 4:55 instead of 4:37."
 Jacobson merely mentions the importance of taking it easy in the bike leg on race day:
"In triathlon, you need to have good riding legs in order to run well. This means committing to building your muscular and aerobic endurance in training with several long rides, as well as your strength and power with interval work. On race day, the bike will either make or break your overall race result. Riding just 2-5% too hard on the bike, a difference of just a few minutes on your bike split can mean the difference between running well in the marathon or walking the last 10K to the finish line."
A little disagreement, but the importance of bike fitness and the bike leg is duly noted.

Now come the big disagreements - in how these two authors suggest we train for and execute the Ironman run. Fitzgerald's recommendations seem to be based on analysis of statistics and coaching experience (I hope), and Coach Troy's appear to be mostly based on his own personal experience and background. For clarity, I've put together a seasonally-colored table of their points of agreement (green) and disagreement (red) - and the gray areas (gray.. duh!).

Perform only three independent runs per week. The most important of these is the weekend long run.Build base with frequency: run often but not necessarily far each workout. Frequency is the key. If you can run 5-6 days per week, do it.
Complete at least four runs of 18 miles or more, and feel free to go as long as 26.2 miles in training to cement a solid reserve of running endurance. Don't run too long - for me, a 2-hour run was my longest on my way to my Ironman marathon PR. I did a couple 1:45-hour runs too, but that was it.
Do frequent transition runs: short runs frequently off the bike in training is more beneficial than doing occasional longer runs off the bike - it’s the transition from cycling to running that you are trying to train.Do bricks (bike-run) 1-2 times a week, if not more (typical: 1.5 hour bike followed by a 30-40 minute run)
Resist the temptation to do any more running during the rest of the week than is required to support your progress in long runs, as it will only increase your risk of injury and burnout and take away from your cycling. During build weeks (5-10 weeks from race day), do one or two double runs each week, make these short 30-40 minute aerobic paced runs with one in the morning and one in the evening. But don't over run: there are points of diminishing returns (especially for masters athletes).
No mention of racing. Race often - there's no better way to build race fitness than to actually race. Race early in the season and then give yourself plenty of time to focus on your Ironman prep.
Don't waste energy on speed work. I am not suggesting that you avoid fast running altogether, but I am suggesting that you strictly limit it. Add some speed, but not too much - enough quality to boost V02max and economy, but not too much to cause down time and injury.
Many Ironman marathons are ruined by nutritional issues, and 9 times out of 10 it's consuming too much rather than too little - the body can absorb a lot more fluid and carbohydrate during cycling than running, so competitors take in as much nutrition as their bodies can handle on the bike, then hop off and start running only to be hit with nausea, bloating and worse. Nutrition comes first: I've had severe cramping problems, so I've corrected those by super dosing with electrolyte supplements. I sat up a ton on the bike in AZ, took my time to eat and drink and was cramp free all day.
The Ironman marathon is run at a relatively low intensity - about 60 percent of VO2max. Pace on the run: I really didn't know what I had in store for me on race day, so I went out on the run conservatively. Once I felt good, I worked to establish a rhythm on the run, focusing on my foot strike cadence and breathing rhythm.
Elite triathletes actually ride the Ironman bike leg at something closer to 98 percent of their maximum capacity (meaning they would ride only five to 10 minutes faster in a pure 112-mile time trial). I rode very conservatively for the first loop with a low heart rate and my cadence in my 'sweet spot' of around 85 rpms.

So, what am I supposed to do now?

I have decided to consult my first, best expert - my rocket-scientist (i.e., aerospace engineer) husband Jim - who has lived through 20 years of marathon, Ironman, and pre-event melt-downs (and successes) and probably has more insight on what works and what doesn't just from listening to me talk, watching me train and race both smart and stupid, and analyzing the results. His goals for me (yes, he does have them in order to maintain sanity in the household) have usually involved keeping me injury-free (after five stress fractures, two bike crashes and numerous other falls and fall-outs) and helping me figure out out what is going on with my nutrition (my Ironman bugaboo).

Here are Jim's recommendations and reasons why I am likely to follow them:
  • "It seems that running more often is what makes you have a better run." This always sounded like a no-brainer until I read the Fitzgerald article. When I backed off on my running frequency (the thing I am arguably best at), I stopped having fast run legs in triathlon. This was especially noticeable in my half-Ironman races where I ran 1:26 in 2008 and have barely broken 1:35 since. It can't possibly only be aging (which was what I had been attributing it to).
  • "If you want to be fast, you should add speedwork." Again, a no-brainer, but this is an additional burden (both mentally and physically) in Ironman training because of the increased speed sessions and hard days on the bike. Getting mentally "up" for hard sessions every day seems like it would lead to burnout, but my plan is to look at possibly doing bike and run hard sessions all in one day. However, both authors above agree that running speed work doesn't have to be nearly as extensive as my marathon training used to be in order to work.
  • "Get massages." This may be the one thing that keeps my quads from losing their spring after all the hard bike miles. I tend to skimp on stuff like this because of cost, but when I get deep-tissue massages more often, I have much better muscle recovery and less physical breakdown and soreness.
Now that I have my running plan, the next assessment will be my approach to solving my nutrition issues in Ironman. But before that, I will be visiting my friend Jody Herzog, the self-proclaimed shoe geek at Fleet Feet Sports, to tackle the following question: "Is the New Balance 890 really going to be my new favorite running shoe? And if not, what will it be?"

Happy Holidays!

1 comment:

  1. This is a very good thought provoking post and now you got me thinking how best I can train for the IM run. Seems like rocket-scientist may be onto something!!! Happy training and I want to hear what the super fab Jody has to say!