1) Consistent Training
There is no great secret to a successful ironman, it comes down to consistent training. If you are starting in a place where you have a strong base built across all three disciplines then you are in an ideal place to build 3 months out from your race day. It is these 3 months that are key and so it is crucial to aim to have consistent training during this time.
2) Staying Injury Free
Staying injury free goes hand in hand with consistent training. Now of course there are some of us out there who are more prone to injury and some who are less so however there are some key things that everyone can do to limit the risk of injury.
- Regular massage whether this be with a deep tissue massage therapist or self massage using a foam roller or ideally a bit of both.
- Don’t let niggles develop into something more chronic (see a chartered physiotherapist if needed for professional advice).
- Don’t cram sessions together and don’t play catch up (allow for recovery time).
- Listen to your body (training for ironman will mean you do a lot of training sessions tired which in a way is good as it teaches you to keep form even when fatigued like what will happen on race day but know your limits especially when training for your first ironman when the distances/sessions are all new to the body and so its like constant overload.
- Fuel the body (Make sure you have enough calories pre, during and post training and incorporate some protein into to your post training sessions).
- I think it is key to do at least one strength and conditioning session a week to develop/maintain a strong core and reduce risk of overuse injury, focus on any weak/injury prone areas.
3) Nailing your Key Sessions
In the 3 months out from race day your training should become very focused and structured, follow an outline plan and have a key session in each discipline every week, these sessions will lengthen in distance through the months but you should be aiming to keep the intensity the same (your individual ironman pace). Then let the rest of your training be structured
around these sessions. Prepare yourself for these sessions mentally and physically and nail them, do this consistently in the build phase and you will be in a good place to perform at your chosen race. The 3 month build should not be about doing long slow sessions but should be focused around your ironman intensity so that you are prepared to race at this intensity. Know what your iron man pace/HR is and train to this. If you plan to run 8minute miles then don’t do you key IM sessions at 7.30 pace. That is not to say that you don’t train above IM intensity, it is necessary to train at half IM/Olympic pace to raise your threshold but for your key IM sessions stick to your goal pace, then it will be second nature on race day.
4) Practice, Practice, Practice
In a way an ironman race is easier to control and predict the outcome than shorter course racing like sprints/Olympics where small things can largely upset the outcome in a race but an ironman is a long race, of course there will be times where something comes in your way but it’s a long day so you can get back on track. As long as you’ve practiced over and over again the race pace intensity, nutrition, bike tribar position, bricks you will be able to trust in yourself and your body that the bad patch will pass or that a slow transition isn’t the end of the world, just put it behind you and focus on what you’re doing. It’s all been practiced so just do what your body has learnt and prepared to do, it should be ingrained!
Again an ironman is a long day so you won’t get away without a well-practiced nutrition plan, you need to figure out how much calories your body needs to perform at whether your planning for a 9 or 12 hour ironman. The general rule of thumb is 1g of carbs per kilo of body weight per hour. This is the easy part, the more complicated part is how you will get these calories in and working out what nutrition plan works for you and what your body will manage to digest during a race without causing GI distress. If it’s not your first ironman this is easier as you have experience about what did or didn’t work for you.
If not then you have to practice it in training especially on your key sessions as it’s one thing digesting food/gels when biking easy but another thing when training at your ironman pace. Keep notes as to what you ate/drank during your training and how you felt so that you can get a clear picture of what works for you. Also on race day be flexible, have your nutrition plan but don’t ignore what your body is telling you, eg, if feeling bloated on the bike, ease of a little stick with water for a while and aim to get back on track with your nutrition plan as soon as you feel able. Don’t ignore these stomach warnings and keep forcing fuel down as its likely to end coming back up but also don’t forget that you have to fuel for what is ahead so if it means backing of the pace on the bike for a while this is better than getting 5k into the run and bonking. Also on the marathon be flexible, if you planned to take a gel every 30mins but your stomach is cramping every time you try perhaps switch to the carbohydrate drink. Research long before the race what nutrition they will be providing and try practicing with this first as it will be easier to take what they provide.
Also nutrition is not only about what happens on race day, nutrition should be a vital cornerstone of all of your training, whether it be fuelling your winter training or the key sessions. Leave time in your training for a healthy diet and don’t be fuelling with low quality foods on the go. Do this and you won’t get everything you can out of your body in your training and you are at high risk of getting sick or injured which leads back to my first point of inconsistent training. If you are training for your first ironman your calorie need will increase. Don’t fight this.
6) Self Belief
Self belief starts from the moment you decide to do an ironman or any race. You have taken that exciting decision to challenge yourself so belief in yourself and your preparation.
- Don’t listen to others, eg, if someone is trying to tell you should be doing a 22mile run when you’re planning 18miles as your longest don’t freak out, believe in your plan and stick to it.
- Prepare for hurting in your key sessions, you need to be able to push through these to not only teach the body what to do on race day but to teach the mind for what lays ahead and how to keep focused when you’d prefer to back off. Knowing you’ve done this in training gives unbelievable confidence that you can overcome the low parts of race day which are inevitable
- Have some key words/phrases that you use in training and then when racing to keep you focused on what you’re doing, a successful ironman athlete is one who can hold good form when tired so to prepare for this think about your technique and how to find your form again when fatiguing during sessions, eg, strong pull, cadence, body position, relaxed shoulders.
7) Course Specific Training
Train specifically in your 3 month build for the race course. All ironman’s are different. If it’s a flat bike course train to spend long periods of time on your tri bars, if its hilly, incorporate hills in your bike sessions, is it a lake or open water swim, is it a two loop or 4 loop course and try incorporate loops into your longer runs (aim to hold your pace on the loops or even to build them as you go along). Is it going to be hot, for us Irish athletes this is a hard thing to prepare for, if possible do a warm weather training camp, wear extra layers on key sessions, drink more during key sessions to get your body adapted to this.
There are many different opinions out there re tapering for an ironman, mostly from what I can see is that people seem to do a 3-4 week taper. However the coaches and pro’s out there are not advising this. In fact you should taper longer for an Olympic race than for an ironman. You must remember that in an ironman you are not looking to get your fast twitch fibers firing for race day, you are a long course athlete and a 3 week taper will have led to a loss in fitness. 10 days is what I have done for all my ironman’s and I truly believe it works. In this time you will drop your volume enough to recover from your last hard sessions which will have been 10-14 days out and you will freshen up enough to feel good on race day. Remember that most people tend to feel a bit rubbish during their taper and for me it is not really 2-3 days before the race that I tend to feel good. Don’t panic, believe in your plan.
9) Limit your racing
If IM is your goal you need to limit your racing, the most important thing for you is quality training. Do some races to keep the motivation up and also the gauge where your fitness is at but train through these, easing of 1-2 days beforehand is enough to see where you’re at without effecting the training that week. Also if you’re not too fresh going in, you won’t able to truly hammer yourself leaving yourself in bit’s the following week and needing several days to recover before getting back on track. I would recommend doing a half ironman in the lead up to the race, generally about 3-7 weeks out.
10) Enjoy and love what you’re doing
You’re doing this for the amazing challenge that it is, so enjoy the training and racing. It’s all an adventure and every race is different so enjoy and love what you do!
Irish female Ironman Record Holder in a time of 9:15:43 (Austria 2011). Superseeded by Eimear Mullan in 2013, when Eimear went 9:05:46 in Klagenfurt.