As was the case last year, Kona has once again been a great learning experience. First, I must say, as someone who views themselves as a strong runner, starting to walk at around 19 kilometers into the marathon is rather embarrassing. I had the fastest run split at 70.3 Worlds, and pretty close to the slowest run split among the pros, one month later at Ironman Worlds. I thought the days of walking in races were over long ago. I think it’s a real testament to how grueling an Ironman triathlon can be. But, it’s not healthy to dwell on the negative for too long; all you can do is try and learn the lessons that need to be learned, then persevere onwards. Originally I thought I would be able to expound the lessons learned this year in a single blog post, but there is just too much to discuss to fit into a single post, so I will have to do several posts on the topic. Here is the first lesson I learned this year in Kona:
Respect the distance!
The astute observer may recall that in my analysis of Kona last year, I argued that you should not do long sessions at race pace. I think some people perhaps misunderstood what I meant by that, and thought I meant that you should not do long sessions. This is definitely not what I meant to say. What I intended to communicate is that spending a lot of time at race pace does not make race pace easier. I still believe this to be the case. I think you should spend a great deal of time above race pace, and the rest of the time well below race pace, and this is what will make race pace easier.
This past year I did a lot of high end intervals. I was focusing exclusively on the 70.3 distance, so I rarely ran longer than 20 kilometers or biked longer than 2 hours; in other words, I never spent much more time in practice doing any of the disciplines, than I would spend doing the discipline in the race. That’s all fine and dandy if all you are going to do is the 70.3 distance. The problem is that I had an Ironman on the schedule. I thought perhaps I would be able to get away with a lack of mileage because I had pushed my upper limits so high, but then reality hit me. I did not respect the distance.
If all you want to do is FINISH an Ironman, then this is a viable training approach. I was able to FINISH an Ironman in 8 hours and 44 minutes; albeit it was quite painful, and I walked / shuffled for about 23 kilometers. If you want to RACE an Ironman from start to finish, you need to respect the distance and put in the time. The fact of the matter is that if your muscles are not used to firing for 6, 7, 8 or even more hours, then it will become progressively more laborious to make those muscles fire as you go beyond the limits of your endurance. I can’t remember the last time I ran at 5 minutes per kilometer. I do my leisure / active recovery jogging at around 4:30 per kilometer. At these paces my heart rate is under 100BPM. In the race in Kona, by about 19 kilometers, I was running at around 5 minutes per kilometer, and the perceived exertion was through the roof. It just so happens that that was a little over 6 hours into the race.
I have lots of experience exercising for 4 hours. Most of my training days this year were between 3 and 4 hours. I think this is why I was able to execute a decent bike without having put in adequate mileage on the bike (the bike took me 4 hours and 26 minutes). I have only done a handful of training days this year over 5 hours. My body was able to function decently well for about 6 hours. I think this shows that there is some wiggle room. I was able to RACE for about 6 hours off of training intended on getting me in the best shape possible to RACE for 4 hours. If the race had been a 4k swim to a 120k bike to a 30k run, I think I could have done a lot better, as this would have taken a little under 6 hours. Unfortunately, this was not the race distance.
I think this is why you hear of a lot of guys incorporating “over-biking” into their training routine. I think a lot of the “pain” that you experience as you reach the limits of your endurance is a byproduct of the muscles not being used to functioning continuously for that long. I am no scientist, but I would imagine the phenomenon is rooted in the strength of the firing neurons beginning to diminish. It would be very dangerous to try and run for the duration that it takes to race an Ironman. It is significantly less dangerous to ride your bike for the durations it takes to do an Ironman. I have heard of many of the top athletes doing 6 or 7 hour bike rides, where they may cover 200 kilometers or more. Many of them will precede it with a swim, let’s say of about an hour; and a few may even do a short run after, or later in the evening. The total of this type of workout would be around 7 hours on the short end, or over 8 hours on the long end. I think a large part of the motivation to do this type of workout is to give the muscles experience at firing for durations similar to what it takes to RACE an Ironman.
It should be noted, I don’t think it takes many of these workouts, and I don’t think it takes very long for the body to adapt to these workouts because as I said above, I believe the phenomenon is rooted predominantly on the neuronal level. If you have ever lifted weights then you will understand this phenomenon. It is very common for someone to nearly double in strength when they first start doing an exercise (the bench press for instance), in just a few weeks. Close to no muscle mass will have been put on in this time. What happens, is that the neurons begin to fire stronger and more efficiently under the load, allowing the individual to put up more weight quite rapidly. Of course, the gains from this process diminish quite rapidly, and as time progresses, the ability to put up more weight generally comes with an increase in muscle mass. I believe something very similar is what happens in long distance endurance training.
Another element to stress is that the pace or wattage of these sessions isn’t that important. The important thing is that you go beyond durations that you are adapted to exercising for, until you get close to exercising for the duration you plan to RACE for (keeping in mind you do have some wiggle room, as was noted above). Scratch that, the pace and wattage is of massive importance. It is important that you do not do these sessions very hard. If you do these sessions hard, then you will amass a ton of fatigue (and increase your risk of injury). If you are massively fatigued, then you will not be able to push your upper limits very high, and you will “gravitate towards the middle,” as I have discussed in previous posts.
In summary, you need to RESPECT THE DISTANCE if you plan to RACE THE DISTANCE. This does not mean you should spend a ton of time at race pace. You should almost always be either well above or well below race pace. But this does mean you need to put in some big mileage. The safest way to put in this mileage is through a combination of swimming and a lot of biking, with perhaps a little bit of running. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do a long run, as I do believe in order to execute a decent marathon, you need to do a decent length long run, following a similar logic as the weight lifting example above. But you definitely need to put in some long days if you want to reach your full potential in an event that can take 8 or more continuous hours. My logic going into Kona, that I could “wing it” because I had pushed my upper limits very high, was completely disrespectful to the sport. The reality is that I did not put in the time, and I paid the price because of it: a 23 kilometer shuffle of shame.