It’s no secret that Ironman isn’t the most exciting of sports. Having grown up a swimmer, I’ll liken it to a 1650 race in the pool. That is 66 lengths of the pool. That’s a lot of back and forth. Or if you are my father, perhaps your idea of ‘boring’ is a 400 IM (where you swim a 100 butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle). He filmed a 400 IM race of mine at state meet one year, and when I excitedly watched the video, I saw myself dive in, swim a length of butterfly, flip then… … … oh wait we’re back, and I’m finishing my final length of freestyle. I asked my dad “What the hell dad? Where was my race?!” to which he replied, “Oh, well it got a little boring there in the middle.” It was less than 5 minutes! How on earth he has endured spectating some of my Ironman races is beyond me; oh right, we can thank bocce ball and mid-race naps for this.
Whether you are a seasoned triathlete, multiple Ironman finisher, or just getting into multisport, one thing you’ll find is that it isn’t the most stimulating of activities. Sure, we get to change disciplines and in our training we essentially get to alternate between swimming, cycling and running; which is refreshing. But the acts themselves, they are vastly endurance based and require substantial time commitments regularly to see performance gains. As we draw close to the end of the year with of course Kona looming on everyone’s minds, I figured I’d hone in specifically on Ironman training boredom…a few things to consider, and when approaching a big race, a few things to avoid.
Every time I really dig my teeth into an Ironman prep (call it the 4-8 weeks prior to the race), there are a few key workouts that I like to knock out. Realize that some of these change over time, but I figured I would explain just a few of them that I’ve done over the years. While Derick (my husband and coach) and I often reference “what has worked in the past”, we are also flexible because things change (among many things, our bodies change) so what worked 2 years ago may not work today. But the one recurring theme I see during Ironman preparation is that a few solid, long, boring workouts are a staple and they are very helpful in training not only the body for a very long day ahead but the mind for the challenges that the repetition and long miles will bring on race day. Additionally, what I think makes these all the more challenging is that they are not “easy”. While they are often done at a steady endurance level of exertion, I am constantly staying engaged and aware of the effort; so the tendency to “zone out” is often curbed by needing to stay strong throughout, much like what race day will require.
Swim – My go to swim workout is an open water swim of at least 1 hour, straight, without interruption. This may be in Lake Austin with Derick paddling ahead of me (30 minutes out/30 minutes back with the goal of going a bit faster home) or in Pure Austin Quarry which has a 750-meter loop marked with buoys (consisting of 5-6 loops). I will aim to do this once a week for about 4-5 weeks going into a race. I find that my hip flexors get sore the first few times but this often goes away as the weeks progress. Additionally, I’ll find my shoulders, neck and/or back get sore some days but all of these small aches and pains remind me what to expect on race day. (If you don’t have access to open water, you could do something like 30x100s in the pool on short rest, perhaps flipping before the walls on a few to simulate open water starts, or a 3k or 4k straight pool swim).
Bike – This one has varied over the years. I used to hop on the trainer and do a 4 hour ride with 4×45 minutes at close to or just above Ironman goal power with 5 minutes recovery. Lately, I have opted for heading outdoors as I find it is good for me to deal with the external conditions (namely winds) as that is what I struggle with in Hawaii. A standard prep ride going into an Ironman is to do my 100-120 mile long ride but finish it on a looped section. My two options are an 8 or a 9 mile loop. I’ll do anywhere from 1-3 hard loops at the end of the ride, depending upon the day. While this is not really so ‘boring’, it mentally challenges you when you’re very tired (and in Texas heat often depleted) and forces you to really dig deep when you’re ready to just cruise home. It’s made even more fun if you have someone to chase. Derick did this with me a few weeks back, and he gave me a small head start on our 9 mile loop. Of course it’s the most fun when you manage to hold him off. J
Run – While running is something I love to do (almost as much as swimming), no doubt training to run 26 miles off the bike ‘well’ requires some serious work. This year we have upped the quality runs to 5×2 miles, and each week shortening yet progressing the pace on these to 6x2k and 8×1 mile. While not necessarily boring, these workouts are mentally challenging since the goal is to make the last interval the strongest. One good standard mentally tough run would be the fast finish long runs. These often consist of a long run in range of 19-24 miles but with the goal of running anywhere from 2-4 miles ‘fast’ at the end. You have to stay engaged throughout the entire run, checking pace to assure you’re “within range” then prepare to drop it at the end. Ironically, I often find that the bulk of the run feels tougher than the end; almost as if my body is more efficient at the faster pace. These runs are great for both physical and mental strength.
A few things ‘extras’ I would recommend as you dial in the big weeks and begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel (ie: rest around the corner!). I don’t recommend perusing blogs, tweets, and media about how much everyone else is doing. This is a fantastic way to doubt yourself, question your own preparation, and it gets you absolutely nowhere. I’ve seen people write of doing 400 mile bike weeks, 38 hour training weeks, and 30k+ swim weeks. They write of how absolutely exhausted and trashed they are. This could get in my head, but then I realize that if I got near these numbers, I would not make it to the start line in one piece. Trust your training, communicate openly with your coach, and commit to your own personal goals based on your own body. Asking questions is good; being a meerkat is not. Curiosity killed the meerkat, and it will kill your Ironman if you let it.
I do recommend focusing on specific workouts that will boost your confidence. By this, I mean dial in what you know you need to do to be successful on race day and commit to it. Do not put unreasonable goals and expectations on every workout. Remember, racing an Ironman entails being able to sustain a consistent pace for a long day; to be mentally, emotionally, and physically strong; not to be overly heroic at any one point (unless it’s the end). While I managed to do 5×1 mile at 5:30 pace a few years ago, I have realized that to run 26 miles at 6:35 pace, it’s smarter to do longer intervals at a slightly slower pace. I had to let go of “seeing that speed” and embrace relaxing into a workout and accomplishing a workout that is challenging, yet attainable; and more specific to the goal.
Have fun in your preparation! Swim with friends, do your easy rides socially, and hop into a small race here or there. Remember that while there will be some long and lonely days, there should always be an element of fun; and it is with consistency in training, belief in yourself and your program, staying healthy and enjoying yourself that you’ll get the most out of your race.