IRONMAN 101: Coach’s tips for all things IM Prep-to-Finish

Here is a great overview of a full Ironman race, from prep to finish, written by coach Pete Alfino of Mile High Multisport:

Austin Parker IMAZ
Austin Parker IMAZ

IRONMAN 101

As the Ironman craze sweeps the world, more and more first timers are signing up “to go the distance”. Some first time Ironman have previous triathlon experience while others just feel the need to be an Ironman. With a plethora of information floating around the internet, books and Ironman veterans the process of preparing for your first Ironman can become overwhelming. The obvious emphasis is on training, but what about the nuances associated with an Ironman versus your local sprint or Olympic distance race? The intent of this article is to shed some light on the very basics of Ironman training, racing and life.

The Ironman can define who you are as a person. The road to the finish line mirrors life. There will be peaks and valleys, twists and turns, sorrow and joy. As with life it is easy to make progress when the road is straight and the wind is at our back. Expect difficulty along your journey and learn to recognize when you are hitting a bump in the road. Don’t turn the bump into a mountain, relax, take a deep breath, look at the big picture and always keep the goal of crossing the finish line in your mind.

Race Selection:

Selecting the right race is important. The training commitment is significant, you will be training anywhere from 12 to 25 hours per week. Before you sign up think carefully about the other commitments in your life and make sure that you can commit to the training. Be realistic about your other commitments and what you will need to sacrifice in order to devote the time to training. If you have kids, family vacations planned, a work project coming up or live in a place that will prevent you from training until April, you will need to take this into consideration when making your selection. Also to be considered is the course and the weather conditions. Look at the time of year, the climate and the terrain of the bike and the run course. If every year you take a two week family vacation in July then choosing an Ironman in August is not ideal. Pick a race that is going to suit your strengths as well as accommodate your family and work. Select a race that will allow you the best chance of being consistent with your training. Make sure you involve the important people in your life when making this decision. The support of your family and friends will be vital to your success. If you involve them upfront, explain to them the reality of your quest and ask for their support and patience, half the battle will be won.

Expenses:

Entry fees are fast approaching $700, add to this travel costs and money spent on equipment and nutrition and you are easily looking at a $4000 investment (Possibly more depending on the race). There are dead lines for withdrawal but you will only be refunded a portion of your fee. You will not be able to transfer your entry to the following year but Ironman just introduced a program where you can transfer to another race. Most Ironman North America races fill up quickly with some filling in less than three hours. Registration opens the day after the race for the following year.

Housing/Travel Arrangements:

The bottom line is get on top of this early. At most Ironman venues housing close to the race fills up early. If you want housing close to the race site then you need to make your reservations when you sign up for the race. Like everything else in the housing market location comes with a price. Some races demand week long stays and will raise their rates for Ironman week. This is what it is and if you don’t want to pay the money then you need to look at alternative housing. Don’t waste your mental energy on something you don’t have control over. Some Ironman events will assist you in finding housing and this can be accessed through the event web page. There are several companies which will make all travel arrangements for you and have package deals available.

Clay Taulman, Lava fields of Kona
Clay Taulman, Lava fields of Kona

You will also need to decide if you will fly or drive. If you fly then you need to decide if you are carrying your bike on the plane (you will need a bike box) or shipping your bike via ground transport. The airlines will charge you around $150 – $300 to transport your bike. Tri Bike Transports (http://www.tribiketransport.com/) will transport your bike to the race venue for you for less than most airlines charge. You will need to drop your bike off at a local retail store about 10 days in advance of the race so be prepared to be without your bike. The only thing you have to do is remove your pedals from your bike. On then evening of the race simply return your bike to the designated area and your bike will be transported back to the retail shop within 7-10 days.

It is recommended you show up at the race venue no later than four days prior to the race. Pre race registration typically closes three days before the race. The closer you get to race day the longer the line. Get registered early and avoid the hassles standing in lines. Getting to race early will allow you to become familiar with the venue, pre drive the bike and run routes and get relaxed in your surroundings.

Carbo Dinner:

Most races have a carbo dinner two nights before the race. Many people make the decision to pass on the carbo dinner in favor of eating something they prefer. Let’s face it, when you are preparing food for 2000 people it isn’t going to be piping hot or as good as you get at a restaurant. It is recommended you take in the whole experience and the banquets are part of the whole package. Different venues have some very unique traditions that shouldn’t be missed. If the meal issue is big for you then eat before or after the banquets.

Pre Race Meeting:

There are two or three times designated for race officials to cover course changes and for the head referee to go over rules. If there are any changes to the course or last minute updates you will receive the information at this meeting. Attend one of the meetings and get all the information first hand.

Goals:

Two time Ironman finisher Doug Beeman gives the following advice “setting time goals for your first Ironman is not recommended. There are so many variables outside of your control that go into making the day a success. If you insist on setting a time goal, make it secondary, tertiary or better yet further down on your list.” I had an athlete call this a “whisper time” one time. Have a time in your head but don’t be so hung up on numbers that you lose site of the big picture which is finishing. After you have done two Ironmans you can begin focusing on time goals. In the end, you should judge your result not by a clock but by the effort you put forth in training and on race day. In 2003 at Ironman Wisconsin I had my slowest Ironman time but my highest overall finish. The weather was in the high 90’s, the air was still and the humidity high. It was a miserable day to race. If I had focused on the clock I would have been disappointed all day long. Seriously, twenty years from now who will care if you went nine or 16 hours?

Nutrition:

When you think of nutrition expand your view to one of before, during and after your exercise. The time to start working on your nutrition is now. Why wait until a month before your race to see what does and doesn’t work? Determine what works for you early in your annual training plan. Proper nutrition during your training is just as important as proper nutrition on race day. If you neglect your nutrition plan during your training you are preventing your body from recovering from the stresses of training. This can lead to injury, lack of motivation and eventually a decrease in your level of fitness.

As you get closer to race day, nutrition is not something you want to be trying to figure out. Never try anything new on race day. Do your research and find out what products and flavors will be carried on the course. If you plan to use what is offered by the race directors then use the same products and flavors in training. If your body doesn’t respond to these products then put a plan in place in which you can carry product which does work for you. The use of special needs bags and fuel belts should allow you to carry most of the product you will need for race day. Contact me via my web page www.milehighmultisport.com and I will share with your some sample race day nutrition strategies. The special needs bags are at the half way point on the bike and the half way point on the run. If you use the aide stations and special needs bags appropriately you shouldn’t half to carry more than two bottles and a front aero bar holder.

Different people have different strategies about when and how much to eat. The key to gauging success is how your body responds during and after you exercise. The goal is to have steady energy all day long. You never want to get too high and never go too far into your reserves. I gauge this by the output I’m able to deliver during training. How strong did I feel at the end of my workout versus the beginning? How did my legs feel post workout? How were my legs the following day? It is essential that you go into every training session with a full tank of fuel. You don’t begin a long journey from home on an empty tank of gas so why begin a long day of training on empty? On your long rides and long runs practice what you will eat for breakfast on race day. I’m always amazed at the amount of people walking around race week asking what they should eat for race morning. If you have practiced this throughout your training then this shouldn’t be an issue. Eat before you workout and get your body used to exercise and food consumption. This may mean eating an energy bar on the way to masters swim I the morning or having a hearty breakfast before beginning a long ride or run. We all know that we burn fuel while we sleep so it is necessary to replenish what has been lost over night. A bagel with peanut butter and a cup of coffee is not going to fill up the reserve tank. On race morning you will need to eat 2-3 hours before the race start to allow time for your food to digest. Eat before you workout and get your body used to exercise and food consumption. If you swim at 5:30 in the morning then eat an energy bar on the way to the pool. If you bike long on the weekends get used to eating two hours before you begin your workout. The point is to prepare your body for the actual event as best as you can.

Training:

The Ironman is about the journey to the start line not the race itself. You are embarking on a monumental adventure, one that should not be taken lightly. The training will be time consuming and will demand consistency and persistence. Prepare to train between 12 and 25 hours a week. I always try to identify one or two training partners for each discipline that I know are about my athletic ability (or slightly above) and invite them to be my training partner for the year. You will find the companionship makes the journey more enjoyable and the bonds you form will last a life time. There will be plenty of times you question why you are doing this and you will need to find your internal desire and will. Before you begin, ask yourself why this is important to you and where does the Ironman fit within your life goals. How important is it for you to finish this race?
You need to be prepared to put in the time necessary to accomplish your goal (see my “what it takes article” on my web pagewww.milehighmultisport.com in the articles section. Remember, your only goal in your first Ironman is to finish the race.

Remember that practice makes permanent so practice right. Use the products and equipment in training that you will use race day. Practice your pacing strategy during your long swims, bikes and runs. The Ironman race is about pacing and patience. When you are out riding 3-5 hours it will become very apparent to you what wattage you can push or a heart rate range. If you use perceived exertion you want to go at a pace which is about a four on a ten point scale. For my first Ironman I raced using a heart rate monitor and set zones for the bike and run. For my fastest Ironman I left the HRM at home, never hit start on my watch button and didn’t have my computer on my bike. I use perceived exertion, patience and different mantras for all three disciplines. I had no idea where I was time wise all day long. As you train remind yourself that there is nothing fast about an Ironman race.

There are no silver bullets to establishing a training regiment that guarantees success. The truth remains that there are many different training strategies in place that will accomplish your goal. If you desire to hire a coach, do your research before making a decision. For this distance, it is highly recommended you find someone who has gone the distance so they can discuss all nuances that go into this event. There have been many people who follow a plan written on the internet or in a magazine who have crossed the Ironman finish line. What ever path you decide to follow, put your faith in the plan. Consistency is the one of your keys to success. A poorly written plan followed consistently will yield better results than a well written plan not followed. Be prepared to put in the time it takes to get you physically and mentally ready to race. This will mean making sacrifices with your personal time. Let your friends and family know in advance your goal and inform them your absence from their lives doesn’t mean anything more than you are focusing on the Ironman.

Rest:

Rest and recovery is an important part of your training strategy. The body needs time to heal and repair. If you don’t rest you can over train which leads to injury. It is o.k. to take a day off. It is o.k. to miss more than one day of training. If you miss a workout so be it. Never double up on workouts or try to make up workouts (this is when you consult your coach and ask them what they would recommend you do). Incorporate stretching and massage into your daily routines to prevent injuries.

Race Village:

There will be a big expo with vendors displaying their goods and Ironman Merchandise. Bike mechanics, massage therapists and every vendor which has an arrangement with Ironman will be in attendance. If you have forgotten something this is a great place to get it. You can also pick up your Ironman merchandise. You will not be able to purchase finisher gear until the morning after the race.

As a general rule of thumb my recommendation is you spend as little time in the village as possible. The days before the race should be spent off your feet and out of the sun. Never try anything new during race week. Again, NEVER experiment with something new on race day. It is ok to talk with vendors and get new ideas for next time BUT don’t make the mistake of telling yourself that what you just read or heard is better than the product you have been working with for months.

The other reason I don’t like the race village is that people tend to congregate and tell “war stories” from years gone by. “Remember the year that the white caps were 30 feet high, the winds on the bike where in your face all day long…..” These stories don’t help give you peace of mind, are generally exaggerated and take you out of your mental focus. It is better to stay in your own world in your own thoughts.

Gary - Ironman Arizona Run
Gary – Ironman Arizona Run

Race Nuances:

The Ironman isn’t like your local sprint or Olympic distance triathlon.

Bike Drop Off:

You will be required to drop off your bike the day before the race, typically before 3 o’clock. Bring plastic garbage bags to cover your seat and chain stay if the forecast calls for rain. The morning of the race you will need to pump up your tires, fill your water bottles and place nutrition on your bike. Most races have pumps in the bike area for you to use but you may have to wait in line. My recommendation is you bring a pump you know you are used to and comfortable with. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen people panic in the transition area because the pump they borrowed just let all the air out of their tires. Keep in mind you can’t leave your pump in transition so you will need to give it to someone or put it in your dry clothes bag.

The Swim:

The course is typically set up 3-5 days prior to the race. There are designated times in which you can pre swim the course which are typically early morning. Some venues allow you to swim the course all day while others close them off after the designated time. Make it a point of getting in the water pre race day and familiarizing yourself with the venue. Make a reference of any landmarks that you can site off of and where the position of the sun will be on race morning. Where is the swim exit in relation to transition?

Make sure you are ready to get in the water twenty minutes before the swim. It takes a long time to get 2500 people across the starting mats and into the water. Races are starting to go to rolling starts. If you want to start in a certain location in the water then get down to the starting area early. Every venue and race has different starts. Some starts are from in the water and others from the beach. Find out in advance what protocol will be used on race day and plan accordingly. You don’t want your day to start out rushed so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get your bike prepared, drop off your dry clothes bag, get your wet suit on and get down to the water. When putting on your wet suit use a plastic bag (like the kind you get at a grocery bag). Place the bag on your feet and then slide your leg in, do the same for your arms. You will find that the wet suit goes on much easier.

The biggest difference (other than swimming with 2500+ people) is that their will be wet suit strippers available post swim. As you exit the water take your suit down half way, find a volunteer sit down and your suit will be off and handed to you in seconds. Prior to the race make sure you know where you will be entering the transition bag area and where your bag is located. The bags will be in numerical order with signs BUT there will be 2000 bags all of the same color. Volunteers will be in the area to assist you in locating your bag and may even hand your bag to you. Ultimately you should know where your bag is and where the changing tents are located.

Everyone talks about the daunting or scary prospect of doing a mass start with 2000 plus people. Despite all the negative talk that goes on regarding the swim there are two benefits to a mass start. The first is that you really don’t have to do much sighting. Unless you are leading the race follow the mass of arms and legs in front of you and you will be on course. The second benefit is the draft. If you swim in someone’s slip stream you will reduce the amount of energy you expend. Look for someone early in the race that is slowly going past you and jump on their feet. Sight a few times to see if they are going straight and let them take you home. If you put in the yardage in training and catch a draft you will come out of the water on race day feeling a lot fresher than after doing the equivalent number of yards in a pool.

The Bike:

The bike is all about pacing in an Ironman. A well executed bike split is one in which you still have legs for a marathon. Given the number of people who end up walking in an Ironman it is safe to assume that they were either under trained or didn’t pace themselves properly. In talking to many Ironman competitors the fatigue factor comes in around miles 80-90. If you lose power at this time in the race it is probably due to improper training (not putting in the miles). If you complete the bike without difficulty but fall apart on the run then it is a result of improper pacing. The Ironman bike is done in zone two. If you hear yourself breathing then you are going too hard. Resist the urge to go out fast. Strive for a feeling of being in control of your speed and nutrition the entire ride. Again, practice makes permanent so practice in training what you plan to do in the race.

There will be bike transport out on the course. Don’t expect timely response to your needs so it is best to be adequately prepared with spare tire and tube and a small tool. If by chance you need race support be prepared to wait.

A couple of weeks before the race make sure you have a major tune up on your bike. I always put new tires and tubes as well as a new chain and cassette on my bike before every Ironman. When you get to the race venue double check everything so there are no surprises on race day. At every Ironman race you will see front water bottles on the road as well as people pulled over adjusting seats, tightening aero bars and resetting wheels. You should have plenty of time during race week to go over your bike to make sure everything is in proper working order.

Kathy Alfino, Kona
Kathy Alfino, Kona

The Run:

Jonathan Nixon completed his first Ironman race in June of 2006 with an impressive 11:29 performance. He had this to say about the run “Much like the bike, resist the temptation to start too fast. It will feel great to be off the bike and onto the last leg of the race. The crowds will be thick and you will probably be on a high. As the run progresses you will begin to see the enormity of the race. Fatigue will begin to settle in and you will be in a position where the strength of your mind and will to succeed take over. At some point in the run you will hurt. Be prepared for this. Be prepared to enter into a zone and don’t get sucked into the negativity that you will see out there. A lot of people will be walking and you will see a large percentage of people in some kind of physical distress and you need to be prepared for this. The marathon is not a marathon, it is the final leg of the hardest one day endurance event that you can do, and it is supposed to hurt. Know that it will hurt and train for this. Also remember that despite all the training you don’t know how your body is going to react to the cumulative stress of the day. Stay hydrated, stay focused, stay determined and keep moving. The reward of crossing the finishing line will erase all the pain.

Transitions:

You will not have a transition area set up next to your bike. At registration you will receive a packet which contains transition bags. You will affix your race number to the bag. There will be a swim to bike bag, a special needs bike bag, bike to run bag, special needs run bag, and a dry clothes bag. Typically you drop off all bags with the exception of special needs and dry clothes bag the day before the race. This does differ by race so make sure you are familiar with the procedures for your race. Most races do not return your special needs bags so don’t put your favorite wind breaker in your bike special needs bag unless you are 100% certain you are going to stop and pick it up. The other bags must be picked up the night of the race.

There will be transition tents in which you can change clothing. At most race venues you will run to a designated area, pick up your bag and proceed to the tent to get changed. Volunteers will be in the tent and will put your wetsuit in your bag for you as well as your cap and goggles. Make sure you have your name and your phone number marked on your wet suit as they have been known to get placed in a wrong bag from time to time.

Dry clothes bag is what you want to change into after the event. You can also put your clothes you wear in the morning in this bag. Remember to include warm clothing regardless of were the race is being held.

Swim to bike bag: This will include everything you will change into for your bike including your helmet, bike shoes, shorts, jersey, socks, wind breaker and sun glasses. Remember to apply sun screen after you are body marked. You will be on the race course from sun up to sun down so plan accordingly. You may need to re apply the sun screen after the bike and before or during the run.

Bike Special Needs: Typically located half way through the bike. You can use this bag to put in extra feed bottles, socks, Advil, Tums, salt tablets, vest, food etc. Remember, what goes in this bag will not be returned to you at the end of the race.

Bike to Run: When you exit the bike you will hand your bike to a volunteer who racks your bike for you. You can leave your shoes on the bike if you like. You will run to the bike to run transition area and pick your bag up. Know where you will come off the bike and where your bag is located. Once in the changing tent again you will take off your bike gear and change into your run gear. This bag will contain socks, shorts, shirt (unless you race in the same outfit all day long) cap, running shoes, fuel belt, gels, salt tablets, Advil, sun block etc. I like to put a damp rag in a plastic bag and wipe the salt off my face. Volunteers will put your bike gear in your bag for you.

Run Special Needs: This bag is typically located at the half way mark of the run. Place extra socks, Advil, Tums, Vaseline and band aids, a long sleeve wicking shirt and perhaps some food not offered during the race in your bag. One year at Ironman Wisconsin some over zealous volunteers at mile 4 of the run dosed me with water. My shoes and my feet were drenched. My feet and my mind were thankful for a fresh pair of socks at mile thirteen. Think ahead when packing this bag. Chances are the day will go as planned and you may not need anything. But if you are out after dark and the temperature drops you will want the shirt, the Advil is for your muscles if they are aching, socks if your feet get wet, Tums for an upset stomach Vaseline and band aides for chafing.

Race Day Mental Strategy:

It is a good idea to practice mental focus and preparation prior to the race. See yourself in the water getting ready to start the race, envision swimming long and smooth, envision an efficient, smooth cadence on the bike, see yourself running strong and crossing the line.

I strongly recommend you read a book entitled “In Pursuit of Excellence” by Orlick. The book does an excellent job in assisting you with your day to day and race day focus.

Racing all day long takes a different focus then racing from 2-4 hours. Given the magnitude of the race it is essential that you think through many different scenarios and how you will react to them. First envision a day where nothing goes wrong, your swim is smooth and without a lot of interruption, your bike is steady and your legs are fresh. Next envision possible scenarios which are out of your control but could occur on race day. A few examples are rain, wind, getting clobbered in the water, white caps, getting caught up in huge pack on the bike, dropping your feed bottle, a flat, cold temperatures etc. How will you react if any of these occur? Getting mad and angry doesn’t change any of the above situations. Envision yourself dealing with everything associated with the race calmly and rationally. Negative thoughts and negative actions take away from your mental energy. Positive thoughts and positive actions for positive outcomes.

Develop a mantra for the race such as “quiet power”, “strong and controlled”, “save it for the bike” or something along those lines. I’ve even put my children’s names on my aero bars. Simple motivational and focusing tricks can pull you out of the dark moments on race day.

Kathy Alfino, IM World Champs
Kathy Alfino, IM World Champs

Strive to be a racer in control of your emotions and actions. Allow your mind to be relaxed and free of judgment. Keep things in perspective and remember that your only goal is to have fun and take what the day gives you. The people who do this for a living are the ones with the pressure. Most amateurs race to for personal fulfillment in their lives.

Post Race:

Remember that after you finish the race you need to pick up your bike and transition bags. If you have someone else pick up your bike and bags they will need to have a special ticket which will be given to you during registration. The day after the race you can purchase race day photos as well as finishers gear. Typically this takes place in the merchandise tent but each race differs so check your race week program. Having a race Sherpa to assist you in the morning and post race is invaluable. Think about finishing the race and then having to walk your bike with transitions bags a couple miles back to your hotel.

Awards Banquet:

By all means take in the awards banquet. Although boring at times the people who get up on the podium deserves some recognition and typically you will hear some inspirational stories that occurred the day before. The race organizers typically show a highlight video and recap the previous day’s events. Everyone wears their race finishers t-shirt and race DVD’s are handed out at the end of the ceremony.

In conclusion there are a lot of little things that going into making the day a success. When faced with the task of getting prepared for an Ironman distance race we tend to focus on the training and forget the little details. As you approach the race your goal is to minimize distractions so your focus can be on the race. Enjoy the journey, stay committed to meeting your goal, strive to keep a sense of balance within your life and remember…… How You Train Makes the Difference!!

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