Are You Really Racing An Ironman?

An Ironman is a competition. There are finishing times and positions; you place against others. There may be awards at the front or slots for World Championship events. Everyone on the start line wants to perform to the best of their ability. But before you start planning your race consider this question: are you really racing?

Drawn into the idea of competition, head to head racing, pushing each other along it’s easy to miss the importance of managing effort. How well can we make the fine judgements in pacing to gain every extra second from the course and conditions? Step beyond your fitness and the odds are you’ll pay later; a few seconds gained here could be minutes lost later. Worse is basing your strategy on those around you, going with stronger athletes so as not to lose a place. Ironman pacing has to be controlled. The simpler the plan the easier that is.

Caps are simple. The beauty of “I will not work above effort X” is you know as long as you stay below X you’re fine. You’ll get through the event; you’ll finish strongly. Above X and the outcome is unknown. Caps may not be optimal, but they’re pragmatic. Play close to the line and you have to accept the risk. You’re gambling. Is it worth it?

I’ve spent a few years familiarising myself with pacing errors. My first Ironman featured a spectacular mistake when I headed out on three hour marathon pace. I felt good and going under 9:15 first time would be amazing. Somehow I held together enough to drag myself to a 3:26 run. I finished in a respectable time with a clear understanding that going fast early leads to a slower race overall. Next time round I didn’t gamble I held a steady pace, finished strongly and set a new PB in the process.

My recent detonation on a training run started with a plan for a steady run. It turned into a head to head 5K race: hard, but under control. A mile from home I imploded. From 5K pace to Ironman plod in 500m. Put that 20km into a marathon and it’s a slow journey home. If I make pacing errors in training how can I expect to get it right in racing? Under the pressure to perform my rules have to be simple.

So you should just plod round and be happy to finish?

No! Aim to perform your best, but build this on the basis of a realistic assessment of your capabilities and a simple plan. Be aware that looking for ways to gain time and places adds complexity and risk. Can you follow the plan under pressure, low on food? How certain are you you can pace the race well? The capacity to carry your effort through to the finish is a big decider in Ironman racing. If you can run the final 10km hard you can make up the time and places you’re chasing.

Slowing as the race goes on? Effort levels soaring? Worry about these looking to gain some extra seconds throughout the course. These are clear signs of errors in the plan: pacing beyond your ability or not eating enough. Until you know the pace that you can sustain to the line you can’t judge where improvements can be made. Experiments need a control; without a well executed Ironman it’s hard to tell how a new strategy will perform.

Following Austria I had a series of experiments to establish my own well executed race. It took four or five attempts to get close. I learnt to hold back early on the bike and run saving myself to finish harder. Pushing to gain a place rarely worked. Surging beyond my capacity would inevitably draw me into a battle over who would be in front. A pointless waste of energy distracting me from the plan. I had to know how to race the clock before I could race the competition.

I’ve tweaked my plans since, tried pushing the bike or run, but find myself returning to a fundamental position. To reach my goals I need to build the fitness and skills. I can’t rely on a good day, on being able to over perform; I need a bad day to be good enough. I’ll return to Austria with a simple plan: race close to my capabilities, conserve and be ready to really race that final 10K. If I’ve built the fitness and keep within myself I’ll reach my targets. Clever tactics won’t make the difference.

Discussions of pushing part of the race, looking to gain places or sticking with a strong group always concern me. You won’t know the competition or the conditions till the day, but you know your fitness. Race plans should be built around the things you can control not the desire to grab every place you can. Be prepared to let people go or hold back despite the temptation to gain a few seconds. Get the fundamentals right before you start taking risks.

It is a race. You are racing. But it’s a long day. Plans need to be simple because you have to follow them after eight hours of exertion. They need to be built around your abilities. Control your pace and in the final 10K you’ll really race.

Ironman Training Library

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