Ironman Run - Another Man's Opinion

By Ali Dennis

Training correctly for the New Zealand Ironman run segment could make all the difference in competing or completing the entire race well.

Most Ironman competitors will agree that the race starts on the bike and is won on the run. The cycle leg can have a big impact on the run segment and your overall time. So what approach is best when training and competing in Ironman? While pondering this question I decided to go to the bench and draw on the wealth of experience I am fortunate to have around me. While it’s been almost 20 years since my last Ironman I’m still constantly immersed in the culture as I deal with triathletes daily through my business as a swim and run coach. One of those triathletes is Ironman competitor and coach Kevin Nicholson.

Kevin is a member of my triathlon swim squad as are some of his athletes. Kevin coaches through his business in partnership with Vicky Jones. Vicky is coached by Kevin and is his most successful athlete to date. She set the Hawaii Ironman world champs 35-39 age group record in 2006 in a winning time of 10.00 hours.

During our discussion Kevin had a lot to offer on the topic of Ironman running having also personally competed in 11 races himself (with a personal best of 9.48) both at NZ and Hawaii Ironman events. In the end what was a discussion ended up being aninterview of sorts from one coach to another. So here is another man’s opinion for a change.

When discussing the run segment for Ironman Kevin had this to say:
John Hellemans (well known NZ triathlete and high performance coach) said to me a few years ago that to bike well you need to be swim fit, and to run well you need to be both swim and bike fit. Made sense to me, so what I took from that is to run well in an Ironman you need to be specifically fit for the event as a whole, not only for the run, but also for the swim and bike. I think this is often misunderstood by a lot of Ironman triathletes as they only look at the event as three single disciplines without considering the accumulative effect of each discipline both in training and the race itself.

I think it’s actually more important for the bike as most people will spend about 50% on the bike during the actual race itself. If you look at the specific fitness components required for an Ironman you need endurance first (to get you to the end, regardless of what pace you are able to maintain), and for more experienced athletes or those already with a good endurance base muscular and strength endurance. These are the key fitness aspects we focus on for Ironman athletes for both the bike and run.

Personally, I believe that the Ironman run actually starts on the bike as this will have the biggest impact on your running ability when you get off to start the run, regardless of what running background you may have. I know of a few sub- 3-hour marathon runners who can’t run under 4 hours in the Ironman. An example of this is a Wellington runner/triathlete who can run sub-16 minutes for 5km and about 2 hours 45 minutes for a marathon. Faster than what I or Vicki could ever hope to run, yet we’re capable of running sub-3hr30 in the Ironman. From memory he’s finished three Ironman races and hasn’t been able to run under 4 hours in the run discipline. Why’s this you have to ask? He obviously has good leg speed, a strong aerobic engine, and having seen him run his technique is pretty good. Whilst there are a number of factors such as pacing and nutrition to consider, I think the biggest single factor would be specific bike fitness (endurance and muscular and strength endurance), and strength endurance for the run which is so important.

The first few Ironman races I did, I was always disappointed with my run times, running between 3hr35-3hr40 each time, so every winter I would do more running and train specifically as a runner whilst the bike was stored away until spring time. The outcome though was always the same result with similar run times each year. It’s a sign of being crazy I know, doing the same things but expecting a different result.  

It wasn’t until I started focusing on the bike over winter building up an endurance base with some good old Wellington hills for strength endurance that I started to make some consistent improvements to my run times in the Ironman. In regards to run training, when a bit of base has been established I like to include hill work into the programme to build muscular endurance.

This could be done in a number of ways, for example:
• Starting off with some gentle undulations and as the body adapts to long steady hills during the long run.

• Hill reps - at various intensities from a steadymod hard effort to a hard effort. The duration of these intervals could be between 60 seconds to 4 minutes depending on what training phase you are in. I prefer a hill that isn’t too steep to allow for good technique.

• During the base phase I like to also include brick sessions that include a bike ride of between 90 minutes to 2hr30 followed by a run in the hills for 40-60 minutes.

As endurance is the key for Ironman racing it’s important to gradually build the run endurance. Each individual will be different but generally the long run will be up to 2hr30-3hrs. Generally, I don’t like to prescribe anything longer as I feel the benefits are minimal and the risk to over training and injury increases. With some athletes who are more prone to injuries I will often get them to do a split run on one day. For example, they may run 2 hours in the morning then 30-60 minutes in the evening. Still getting the volume in but because of the recovery time in between the two sessions there’s less risk to getting an injury. I think this is becoming more common now.

For those with a solid endurance base we can build their long run up a lot quicker, up to the 2hr30 mark and once this has been established begin some moderate intensity intervals during the long run. This becomes more important closer to the race. An example of this is say, a 2hr30 run that includes a 30min easy-steady warm-up then 3x20 minutes at a steady-mod hard effort with 10 minutes easy-steady between, finished off with 30min easy. This may build up to 2x45min at a steady-mod hard effort with 15-20 minutes easy between a few weeks out from race day.

For someone like me who now can’t run over 2hrs30 without killing my legs (even at a very slow pace), I’ve found that I get more benefits by focusing on quality sessions over 2 hours, as opposed to going out and running 3 hours at a plod.

I also recommend some running off road as it’s easier on the legs and recovery. In Wellington we have plenty of off road tracks with lots of good hills, so no excuses really. Although, as we get closer to the race I also think it’s important to do some longer run sessions on the road or footpath to condition your legs for race day. The run course in Taupo is pretty hard over the footpath along the waterfront and the heavy chipped roads at the southern end of the course.

Here are a few of the numbered responses Kevin gave me relating to common problems experienced during Ironman run training and racing:

The common training problem especially for first time Ironman athletes is trying to figure out their training pace or intensities. I think too often people try to run too fast during all their run sessions. This of course has a compounding and accumulative effect on their overall fatigue that eventually catches up and causes that big dark hole called over training that we try to avoid. What I do with Vicki now is give her specific km splits that she is to run to. Not so much to make her go faster but to actually slow her down so she doesn’t hammer herself completely. Initially, she found this very difficult to do but got better as she became more aware on how to control her pace and run steady off the bike as she would do in an Ironman. Quite often in a training session you can get off the bike, realise you have some legs today, and think this is an opportunity to give the run a good whipping. If you do this consistently it could quite easily become a habit and it’s very likely that this will happen during the Ironman race itself because this is what you have trained your body to do.

During the race, the most common mistake is probably the pacing at the start of the bike, especially in a place like Taupo with the excitement of the large crowds, a rested body, and a slight downhill towards Reporoa to the 45km turnaround. If you push harder than what you have done in training or you haven’t shown your body what you want it to be doing on race day, then it is very likely that you’ll be grovelling back to Taupo on the last return leg. Not a great way to be starting the run.

The other common mistake for some is going out too fast on the run. I made that rookie mistake in Canada when I got off the bike and went through the first 10km in just under 45 minutes thinking this was way too easy, only to find myself doing the Ironman shuffle and a fair bit of walking from about the halfway point. Lesson learnt – be patient and pace yourself. They say that the faster you run the first 5km, the slower your last 10km. I encourage my athletes to take a split time at the 1km mark of the run to check if they are within their target times.

If not, they need to slow down now rather than pay the price later on and shuffle to the end. Another common saying in Ironman is that it’s not how fast you can go but how little you can slow down. Great advice.

When talking tactics Kevin had this to say:
My advice would be to have a plan or a strategy and stick to it. For the run section this could include:

• Your realistic goal pace you intend to run from the beginning to the end. This may include walking some parts of the run course as part of your plan

• Your nutrition strategy

• Those positive words of encouragement you will tell yourself when things get tough

• Actions to all those ‘what if’ factors. Example what if I start too fast, drop my nutrition or miss an aid station, get bloated or feel nauseous, get blisters, get passed by so many people, feeling that I want to give up, etc

In terms of tactics, try not to do anything you haven’t done in training and most importantly pace yourself right from the start according to your ability. You may feel great or be high on the adrenaline but at about the 20-30km mark we can guarantee that things will be quite different. That’s what makes this race so hard.

...and finally Kevin had this advice to offer experienced Ironman competitors that struggle to perform well on the run:

I would suggest that they review their whole training programme and not the run just in isolation as it maybe that the bike is the major contributor that’s impacting on their ability to run. Other questions to consider would be the state of mind and body going into the race (looking for signs of being over trained), nutrition, pacing strategy, sufficient race specific training and so on.

Last year in Hawaii Vicki ran 3hr45 after a strong bike so we knew we had to make some changes to her run programme this year but needed to keep in mind that it was also important to maintain her strength on the bike. At the start of her 2007 Ironman Canada campaign I had her do an 8-week running block that included a 10km race (she did a PB). We did specific longer run sessions so that when she began her triathlon specific training we were able to continue building some moderate intensity sessions into her long runs consistently without over training her. She was also doing some specific intervals that targeted her anaerobic threshold and lots of hill work. Throughout her training Vicki noticed significant improvements in her running with the pace she was able to maintain in her longer runs. In Canada she not only had the second fastest ride overall but reduced her run time to 3hr30 (would have been sub 3hr30 if she didn’t stop to go to the toilet. She calls it the $1500 crap as she went from 5th to 6th pro woman).

I’d like to thank Kevin for sharing his experience as a coach and athlete. Here in NZ we’re so fortunate to be surrounded by a wealth of experience and knowledge in endurance sports. You don’t have to look far to find someone who can help you in some way.

Originally published in New Zealand Multisport and Triathlete Issue 61.
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