Thursday, July 24, 2008


Hi Tim, would you mind sharing your thoughts on pace training for the Ironman marathon. The final run is by no means fast paced, but more about survival/who slows the least. The top pros run around 2.48 (4 min/km) on tired legs, but that pace is far too slow, to improve fitness, for their training pace, except for the long race specific workouts. Targeting the HR would probably present the same problem. I´m a firm believer in good biomechanics, which means avoiding running on tired legs, too much. What was your approach, back in the good ol' days of training three disciplines? Claus Bech, Denmark

These are some quick thoughts that may help..they're a little bit disjointed. There's really nothing secret or unique about what the pros do. I think we were all doing the same thing. The biggest difference between the 2:45 guys and the 2:55 guys, I think, may be how rested they are.

I could answer your question with one very simple and very effective sentence. Simply get as fit as possible on the bike and the run. It really does come down to this 'Zen' like statement. You can't do better than your best. But that's not the answer you want..
There are several key components to running well at Ironman.
First- you need to pick a realistic goal (usually close to an older race best) but an optimistic one. Say you have run 4:00 in an Ironman, I would tell you try for 3:50 (8:46 pace). Taking that goal you then want to work towards the goal of running a fresh MAF test at approximately 30"-45" faster than goal pace for the Ironman. On race day you of course won't be fresh but you will be tapered and will have aid stations. Not implying that you can 'control' your pace by sheer will in a MAF test, but frequent testing will tell you if your goal is realistic. On race day you need to use a mix of pace (time) and HR.. or even just pace. I would tell anyone to train for that optimistic goal then on race day give it a go and click of your goal pace as long as possible.
Next, get fit on the bike. If you put the world record holder for the open marathon in an Ironman, he wouldn't run well.. probably wouldn't finish. This is because he isn't fit on the bike. When I see a guy like Macca run a 2:40 at Kona that says to me that he is an incredible cyclist (not to mention a phenomenal swimmer)! So in order to exploit good run fitness you have got to come off the bike relatively fresh.
The brick. HUGE component to running well at Ironman and also in picking a realistic goal on race day. Bricks are race simulation days, but don't fall in to the trap of performing bricks that are too long. My longest brick I ever did was 6:00 total as: 100 miles on the bike and a 9 mile run. Dave Scott may tell a more experienced athlete to include several bricks of ~80 miles followed by ~13 miles of running with some work done at goal IM pace and even 1/2 IM pace. I can only say that it depends on the athlete and how big their over-all volume is each week. If you're training ~30 hours a week then I would recommend erring on the lower side. A lower volume athlete may benefit from a bigger day. If you can't recover from it.. don't do it. If you're going to miss 3-4 days of training afterwards.. don't do it. One key point to bricks that I believe in is that you need the run to be very race specific. I don't see too much benefit to running off the bike at more than 30" per mile slower than goal pace unless it is a very short (~20:00) transition run to simply get used to running of wasted legs. If you can't hold goal pace then there's a problem and you may be just trying to 'pad' your training log. Save the longer, slower runs for your long run.
Which brings me to the long run. The conundrum in this lies in the fact that you are running fresh rather than after 2.4 miles of swimming and 112 biking. This is where the HR monitor is really a key training tool. Do your long runs at MAF (or ~20 beats below LT) and simply get as aerobically fit as possible. On race day- it will come together if you race your best, execute great race nutrition protocol, and keep your mind from wilting. If you aren't able to run at least half of your long run at goal IM pace then either you are too tired or your goal pace is too fast. For an experienced and fit athlete you should be able to run the last half at goal pace. My long runs were always 3:00. I felt, and still do, that your long run should approach your goal race time. A 3:50 goal means you should be running long runs near 3:50 total time! You often hear elite athletes talk about not running over 2:00 (Frank Shorter) or Ironman guys like Mark Allen say not to run over 2:30. Well, put that in to context in regards to their race times. Frank Shorter ran 2:08, Mark ran 2:40. In a percentage sense- they were running near their respective race times. There is, without doubt, risk in running over 3:30. Risk of injury from breakdown of muscle and loss of support from muscles, ligaments and tendons from fatigue.. but this is Ironman not checkers. Risk is good. Be smart though. There's a fine line between the hero and the idiot.
Rest. Beating yourself down with huge training is good to a point, but if you don't absorb the miles then they will hurt you rather than help you. Setting scheduled rest breaks every 2 weeks or 3 weeks is critical.
If you simply get as fit as possible on the bike. Then get as fit as possible on the run. Nail 3-4 solid brick sessions in the last 8 weeks followed by disciplined rest. Taper effectively. On race day it will come together. The last 8 miles of an Ironman are run 50% with your legs and 50% with your brain. The urge to slow down is overwhelming but you can make the decision to slow down or not. It really is possible to continue holding a pace with simple thought.

A final note: the above is the basics. I would also include a tempo emphasis from 6-12 weeks out from Ironman and tons of hill work through out the entire 20 weeks prior to race day. The Ironman run is about strength so holding a pace that is roughly 12-20 beats below LT during long sections of your long runs or doing a specific medium long run at near your 1/2 Ironman race pace is great for building the muscle endurance required to hold it together late in the race.
A long brick may work for a lower mileage athlete (Claus- you don't want to run on tired legs so this may be good for you)- try doing a 80-100k ride with fractions at 1/2 IM race effort then brick to a 20-30k run with nearly all of it at goal pace.


Zack Armstrong said...

Wow! That is a great explanation around how to approach training for Ironman, specifically pertaining to the run portion. Thank you for all of your expertise. I have been reading your blog for some time now and I really enjoy it. Good luck with all of your future endeavors!

beth said...

awesome post, lucho. one of my favorites!
i especially like the strength component over the whole 20 weeks. building strength is definitely my next overall focus (although i don't know yet what my race plan is)- bottom line, i need to build strength-bring on the hill and run...while spending time building overall aerobic fitness of course :)

Lucho said...

Thanks for the good word Zack.. Hmmm. You have the last names of two great cyclists. Jurgen and Lance.

Beth- you reminded me of two things I left out- weight training and downhill running. Weight training goes a very long way in preventing the breakdown that occurs late in the race. You essentially destroy your muscles on the bike then have to carry your body weight for 26 miles. Core strength is essential, basic leg strength with a strong focus on the muscles in the 'back'.. they're the prime movers in running- hamstrings, calves, glutes..
Downhill running is another essential that is often overlooked. Eccentric contractions are very hard on a muscle (like lunges). If the course has hills then for every uphill there is a downhill. Downhill running is something that can be developed to the point where you become very durable and fast due to increased strength and economy. To run fast downhill you have to be efficient so doing a focused session where you maybe do 100m repeats down a gentle slop will be excellent. Or when you do hill repeats- rest at the top for the recovery- then do the descent quick then turn right around at the bottom and do the next repeat immediately. Just like "variable gearing" on the bike this will force your muscles to use all aspects of their firing capabilities (slow and fast twitch fibers). Another factor is that the bike really destroys your quads- then any impact on downhill on the run will be compounded because your muscles are already fatigued... there should certainly be a focus here. All the times I've run well at Ironman I felt I was strongest on the downhills. Everyone slows down on the uphills, but few really run fast on the downs!

Claus Bech said...

Hi Lucho, thank you for the very elaborate and intereting response. I can recognize a lot of it from back when I was training seriously for the IM myself. I had a 3.03 IM marathon and a 2.32 regular marathon within 6 months, if I remember correctly. And I think it all could be boiled down to good running form, superior bike fitness, careful bike riding and sufficient rest, especially regarding the running. The proces of exploring our limits is still the main goal for me and I find it equally exciting to learn about other, highly commited, athletes journey. I really enjoy reading and learning from your blog, so please keep sharing, I know for sure you've got a lot of readers from Denmark, Claus Bech