The Ironman Marathon

Following a recent interview for TriathlonPlus magazine on my thoughts for how to train for and race the marathon section of an ironman I want to discuss in more depth some of the principles I advise my athletes to adhere to.

Principle 1 – It is not the same as running a standalone marathon.

Seems obvious, but too many people try and emulate the training programs of pure runners.  Training for an Ironman marathon requires a different approach to a standalone marathon.  There are the obvious additions of a swim and bike preceding the run because a triathlon is not 3 different sports joined together, it needs to be treated as a single sport with different components; therefore the run is not prepared for in the same way as a pure marathon.

  • Pacing practice is key for an IM marathon as it is naturally slower than a standalone marathon and thus requires you to teach the body the IM ‘race pace’ in training.
  • Lots of IM-Race pace in your long runs will ensure your body knows what to do on race day.
  • Race execution is far more important than fitness.  All the fitness in the world can’t help you if you don’t know how to race, going off to fast at the start will lead to a greater fade at the end.
  • Practice short walk breaks in your long runs so that you incorporate walking as a strategy not as failure.  These walk breaks will coincide with aid stations so that you can walk for 30 seconds and enable you to get your nutrition in, assess your current status and allow the heart rate to drop slightly.  The walk is not a bimble though, from above the waist you would look like you were running albeit slowly.  Keep your cadence the same as running so there is not a significant difference in muscle action, which can make it difficult to get back into a running stride again.
  • Technique is incredibly important to maximize your efficiency and reduce the energy demands on the run.  By working on technique and core exercises you will be able to maintain a smooth and efficient running style when you are entering the fun in a fatigued state.  Any deficiencies in your running style will be exaggerated by the fatigue from the preceding hours of racing, resulting in increased effort and decreased speed, neither of which you want.
  • Having 3 or 4 technique points that you can focus on in the race will also ensure you maintain a smooth and efficient run and help focus your mind on the job in hand.  Useful technique points are; ‘running tall’, ‘relaxed hands’, ‘drive with the glutes’, ‘light on your toes’, and ‘short stride high cadence’.  But experiment to see what areas you need to focus on.
  • The run volume in training does not need to be as high as a standalone marathon.  Many elite ironman distance triathletes will keep their long runs to a maximum of 2hrs.  Beyond this duration the injury risk increases significantly.

Principle 2 – Nutrition and Hydration

Many races are ruined by nutritional issues such as G.I. distress, nausea, vomiting.  More often than not this is due to consuming too much rather than too little.  Athletes often overestimate the amount of nutrition they need and the amount they can actually absorb during the race and fail to match race intensity in training to learn what works or what doesn’t work for them.

  • You should aim to keep your calories and hydration separate, using gels to provide nutrition at planned intervals but then water as per thirst.
  • It is easier to absorb fluid and nutrition during the cycle portion of the event than during the run, but you don’t want to get off the bike with a full stomach jostling.  Therefore you need to be careful not to overdo your nutrition intake in the last hour of the bike leg.
  • Practice in training!  Find out if the gels/drinks etc provided by the race aid stations work for you.  If not you need to carry your own, don’t wait for race day to find out that a certain brand doesn’t sit well with you.

Principle 3 – it’s all about the bike

Quite simply, the stronger you are on the bike, the less the cycle will take out of you and impact on the run.  Riding 112 miles needs to be ‘easy’ for you to have the necessary energy left for the marathon, otherwise all the running fitness in the world can’t help you.

  • Aim to complete x3 100+ mile rides in the last 10 weeks before your taper.
  • Your long ride needs to have large sections at your race pace so you know you can take on the necessary nutrition at this intensity.
  • Run off every long bike, even if it is only 15-30mins so that you get used to the feelings in your legs and can gauge if you have got the pace correct and not over-cooking the bike.  Short runs like this are far more beneficial than occasional longer bricks which may increase your injury risk.