Reflections on Cairns Ironman
Training conversations involving triathletes, especially those focusing on long course events, can obsessively dwell on weekly training volume. I have not escaped such chat in the past as I’ve tried to squeeze in too much for my body and lifestyle to handle. When I push the training limits I am prone to becoming overly fatigued and extremely tired to the point where I can’t train until I have completely rested for at least a few days.
This is mainly due to the three Ironman events in three days I raced in 2008. The health of my eldest son William, who requires ongoing full-time care, also plays a part. The toll from completing three Ironman in three days and the stress of William’s health problems means I am forever balancing a case of permanent fatigue. Training, racing and coaching is a great way to cope with stress but it is a very delicate balance.
I know I respond to high intensity training well but not to large volume. It has taken me a number of years to understand I simply can’t train as much as others. For my Ironman Cairns campaign I decided I would keep a record of my training, as I always do, but not count weekly volume hours until after race day.
My weekly training volume in 2014 was quite low, around 5-7hrs per week. Last year I did not race a triathlon but did enough work to maintain a reasonable level of run and bike fitness. I did race quite a number of running events for fun including the 500km road relay in November and 75km on the Queen K with my good friend and fellow Tri Nation online coach Craig Percival when he raced the World Ultraman champs in Kona. I also ticked off the Smiddy Challenge ride from Brisbane to Townsville. Swimming training was a rare occurrence until December and I was certainly carrying too much weight. Whilst I was in okay shape I was far from race ready.
On January 5, and 23 weeks out from race day, I began my preparation for IM Cairns. I needed this longer preparation, rather than a shorter more higher volume approach of 12-14 weeks, considering how long it had been since I had trained consistently. I needed to do a few races of any distance to get ready for racing again and also to find that routine of swim, bike and run. My first race back was Auckland 70.3 but a hamstring problem stopped me from completing the race. After getting on top of the injury I raced QTS Caloundra, Mooloolaba, Tweed Enduro and Luke Harrop plus a few cross-country races on a Saturday afternoon. These Saturday afternoon hit-outs are great for building strength and I really enjoy them having started my endurance career as a cross-country runner back in 1989.
My weekly average volume for 23 weeks was 11.8 hours. My longest ride was 165km and I did one other 150km but most weeks it was around 4-4.5hrs getting in 2-3 rides per week, an average two to three swims per week, one gym session per week, and three to four runs per week with my long runs up to two and half hours in duration but with specific intervals. My basic principle was easy on the easy and hard on the hard. So when I went hard I really worked hard but the easy ones were pretty slow. I had a bout of vomiting for a few days a month out of IM Cairns and there were a few weeks where I missed some key sessions because of William and work commitments having started in a new role as General Manager for Healthstream in Qld along with my coaching commitments for Tri Nation. I also had a few days where the fatigue levels crept in and couldn’t train but overall I had a consistent preparation. I coach people who rarely miss a session but this is just not possible for me.
I was happy with what I was able to achieve in the 23 weeks leading into Cairns. I felt good heading into the race and I was really excited to start on race morning. All I wanted was an incident free day, which in my previous four IM events had not happened because of punctures, a trip in an ambulance and a bout of vomiting. I was not focused on time but just the opportunity to test myself and cross the line knowing I had gone as hard as I could on the day.
A 59minute swim in choppy conditions set the day up well. The bike certainly threw up challenges in the forms of wind, rain and rolling hills in the middle section of the course. My plan on the bike was to ride within my target heart range. That was hard at times due to the conditions but I rode a very even race of 2.44hr for the first 90km and 2.46hr for the second 90km for a 5.30hr bike split. There was a very strong headwind on the way back into Cairns from Port Douglas that slowed everyone down. I felt quite good on this stretch and found myself passing a lot of people in the last 50-60km, which is always a welcome feeling.
On the run I felt pretty good from the start. Again, I had a heart range I wanted to stick within and the plan was to use course nutrition of gels and Endura. At about 10km I hit a bad patch for 3-4km and decided to switch to coke and water, really focusing on running from aid station to aid station. This worked a treat and I was able to run out a strong marathon of 3.36hr. Certainly the last 15km was tough but at the same time I loved it. I finished with a 10.10hr, 8th place in the men’s 45-49 age group, knowing I could not have gone any faster on the day.
I would have placed top 10 in every other male age group, which I was really happy about. While it was not a goal, I was only 10 minutes off a Kona spot in my age group so it gives me some validation that with further consistent training and racing I should be able to achieve that in the future.
One of the best things to come out of the whole campaign is how fresh I felt mentally. Any IM campaign is tough on the mind but with a low weekly volume I felt great, other than the usual tiredness and sore spots an IM delivers. This low volume approach of 12-16hrs per week depending on the athlete for IM is a theory I have been practicing for most of the athletes I coach over the last few years. Off the back of this we have seen an increasing number of success stories including personal best times, Kona qualifiers and athletes getting to the start line fresh, healthy and not burnt out. More importantly they are able to maintain a healthy balance in the rest of their lives.
As you start your next IM campaign have a think about what it is you want. I have seen too many athletes push too hard for a short period of time only to be mentally and physically burnt out. Their work suffers, their relationships suffer, their health suffers and they become what I call IM sick. It is impossible to have a conversation unless it relates to IM, they lose a sense of objectivity about the rest of their life but more importantly they lose their enjoyment for the sport and what it was about when they first started.
Let’s always celebrate the PB’s, the Kona qualifiers and the first timers. But let’s really celebrate how lucky we are to do it and the experiences and friendships this wonderful sport gives us.