Breakdown of an Ironman Race

Confidence is vital. You have to trust in your plans and commit to them fully; half-hearted efforts will get half-hearted results. Unfortunately doubts creep in, it doesn’t take much before we second guess our training. I’m not immune, but I’m good at pretending. I even fool myself.

I wasn’t always this way. Experience eliminates doubts about finishing – I’ll drag my body to the end one way or another – it doesn’t stop me worrying about performing. I never know how a race will go, but I don’t doubt; I plan. Breaking down the race into simple stages then understanding what I’ll do, why I’ll do it and how I’ve trained for it. Appreciating the race as a simple, well practiced process.

You may be at the start of the season, but I’m going to write about the end. Knowing what training needs to achieve makes it much easier to do the work, you see how each session helps towards your goals. Sometimes you go long, sometimes hard, sometimes eating a lot and sometimes eating a little; each component of training should be contributing something towards that final goal.

Your race day is going to go something like this:

Race Morning

You’re up early. The first task is always eating; you eat plenty, a 1000 calorie breakfast. You’ve practiced this in training, you know it works and won’t cause upset. Breakfast is washed down with strong, black coffee; it’ll help clear the stomach. Eating done you’re full of glycogen, the taper has loaded the muscles and breakfast has topped it off.

You get to transition early, check your bike and set everything up; you’re done with time to spare. There’s nothing more to do now so you relax; spending most of the time in queuing for the toilet. An hour before the start you take a gel – might as well get used to them now – then repeat half hour later once your wetsuit is on.

The Swim

You looked at the course, considered your goals and have a plan. You know exactly where you’ll position yourself and get there early to guarantee the spot. It was chosen for a reason whether to get you in with faster swimmers or avoid the melee; it’s the starting point to a great race.

The cannon fires and you swim; you don’t start your watch, you won’t check it till the shore. You pace carefully going out hard, but not setting a 50m sprint PB. The effort gets you on good feet and you settle into your pacing strategy resisting the temptation to push harder. You practiced this pace in training during long swim sets, you know exactly how it feels. You don’t cruise, but you conserve.

The Bike

You start conservatively, building to race pace then holding to the end. Fresh out of transition it feels too easy, but you practiced this pace in training with long rides at race intensity; it’s right. In a few hours those athletes shooting past will come back and you’ll leave them for dust. What matters now is you eat.

There was 2000 calories of glycogen in your body at the start of the day; swimming stripped that down to 1600 cals. Training has made you efficient; every hour you ride takes 400 cals of glycogen the rest comes from fat. If you don’t eat you’ll be empty in 4 hours. Without glycogen you’ll go no faster than pure fat allows. Race pace needs fuelling; eating spares glycogen.

You planned and practiced eating as much as pacing; you know what you can eat at race pace. For the next few hours you eat as much as you can, consuming 350 cals of carbs each hour. Rather than burning through your stores at 400 cals per hour you only use 50 cals; the rest comes from your food.

The Run

The marathon. Six and a half hours after you started the race. Of course pacing is planned, you’ve practiced it in training and know what you can sustain. You watch the mile markers and check pace, too fast is as bad – perhaps worse – than too slow. Everything is controlled.

You ate well; the bike cost you 400 cals of stored glycogen leaving 1200 cals in the tank. Fatigue is at play and running is hard using 600 cals of glycogen per hour. Two hours won’t get you across the finish line. Again you have to eat; again you’ve practiced it in training. You can handle 300 cals of carbs an hour, four hours is enough.

It’s twenty miles, time to make a decision. This is your chance to push, to grab some final places. You’ve fed well and have 400 cals left in the tank: you’ll make it to the finish line. A final gel then forget food and up the pace. It hurts more, but gets you to the finish line sooner.

The Finish

You cross the line. Glycogen stores are finally gone. Throughout you knew what intensity you could handle and paced accordingly. You’d practiced in training, learnt the feel and used that as a guide. At times you held back conserving energy for later in the day. It paid off. You finished strongly, pushing the final miles hard; taking places in the process.

That’s a rough and ready breakdown, but it encapsulates a race at its simplest. Pacing and nutrition are the important elements at play in Ironman. When you train you raise fitness, but you also need to learn how that pace feels and how you can best fuel it. Then when it’s time to perform you won’t doubt, you’ll know the pace you can manage and the food you need.

Ironman Training Library

From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.