As human beings we’re all flawed, we all have battles and challenges we need to overcome. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of triathlon can be a quest for perfection both during training and racing. Perfection is impossible to achieve; it should never be a goal.
Leading into a major race, such as Cairns this weekend, thoughts of attaining perfection are only going to have an adverse effect on your race day performance. What we should be aiming for is progress, not perfection. As long as we have positive forward progress in training, we should feel comfortable that we are ready.
For age group triathletes, there is far too much outside of training which requires our attention and focus. Whether it be family, work or other life commitments, sometimes our training will be compromised. This is OK and completely normal. I certainly find I race best when I have a balance in life and when I’m not singularly focused on an event. Once the race is over I am still a husband, father, son, brother, friend, and coach. In fact, I am all of those before I am triathlete. That doesn’t mean I don’t give it my absolute best in training and racing, but I have long realized a quest for perfection is a quest that is doomed.
Many triathletes, being the successful people they are, often struggle with this concept. I can guarantee that they will never race to their potential as a result. So, as you look back and reflect on the training leading into a major race, don’t look for perfection but rather progress.
I have previously alluded to vomiting problems experienced during long course racing.
The issue has been detrimental to my last two IM campaigns at Cairns (2015, 2016), as well as a few 70.3 races.
It has twice cost me a Kona slot so I knew I had to be more proactive ahead of this year’s Cairns campaign and try harder to understand the cause.
Supported by Sally Garrard, from Apple to Zucchini nutrition, I have been working with a range of other health experts.
Sally suggested I meet with Rebecca Elkington, from Sprouts Dietetics on the Gold Coast, as Rebecca has worked with Melbourne’s Monash University studying this specific problem.
We also approached Mark Barrett and the team from Physiologic at Robina to undergo detailed testing.
Once we had collected my results from basal metabolic and VO2 max tests, I was required to perform a three-hour treadmill run at 60 per cent of my VO2 max.
I had breath analysis readings recorded, blood glucose levels measured, and ingested a mixture of fluid-based carbs for the first two hours followed by water only for the final 60 minutes.
Heart rate, weight loss and hydration were constantly monitored and the results are very interesting.
- At a heart rate of 140, my stomach shuts down and won’t take in any more calories. This explains the cause of my vomiting towards the end of the bike leg and during the run when my heart rate starts to climb. My maximum heart rate is around 200 and I aim to ride the bike in IM at 135-145hr (I averaged 137hr during Cairns, 2016).
- My sweat loss and dehydration levels are off the charts. In the three-hour treadmill run, my dehydration levels were 3 per cent. “Normal” is considered 1 per cent. Despite drinking a lot during the treadmill test, I still lost almost 3kg.
- When my stomach shuts down, the pressure on my heart is enormous and so all available blood will go to the brain and heart as a protection mechanism. When this happens during an IM, I am risking small intestine failure and subsequent emergency surgery.
- We’re not sure if it is dehydration or intensity causing my stomach to shut down at a 140 heart rate. I suspect and hope it is dehydration as this can be improved through training.
- I need 1.5 litres of fluid per hour during the Ironman bike and run while all calories must be in the form of fluids because of stomach sensitivity and a need to restrict concentration levels.
- My fat oxidization is in the elite range and my Vo2 max is 62 which is reasonable for an age group athlete. So the engine is there and the mind is willing but a seriously high sweat rate and a dodgy stomach may yet determine the outcome no matter how fit or determined I am.
Rebecca told me that to get through Ironman Cairns without vomiting I am going to need to keep my heart rate at 140 or under.
Will this allow me to go fast enough to secure a Kona spot? Within this heart rate limit, I know I can swim between 55-60 minutes depending on conditions while last year I cycled 5.11 with an average heart rate of 137.
So my swim and bike will get me within striking distance but is a 140bpm heart rate going to allow me to push in the marathon?
Ideally, I would like to run at 145-155hr which I would think is normal under the strain of fatigue, heat, sweat loss and other racing stresses.
However, we now know that any higher than 140hr and my stomach won’t accept the calories so the vomiting begins.
In 2016, I vomited my way through 42km of running and recorded a time of 3.57 with a heart rate of around 145-160. In 2015 my marathon was 3.36 but the vomiting was not quite as bad however I rode 5.30 that day at exactly the same average HR of 137.
Both Cairns Ironman campaigns have seen me finish around 10 minutes’ shy of a Kona spot and were it not for the vomiting, I know I would have already reached my goal.
It’s not in my nature to give up or die wondering so my challenge is to see how fast I can be at 140bpm heart rate, on the bike and run especially.
How do I do that?
I need to get lean. In 2015, I raced at 76kg and last year I was 74kg.
This year I need to be under 70kg and be as lean as I was over a decade ago when I was an AFL umpire. I was 76kg this morning.
For the first time, I’ll get a meal plan from Sally to shred the excess body fat and be as lean as possible.
This will also help with sweat rate due to a smaller body mass to cool.
I then need to be as efficient as possible in the swim, bike and run.
Basically, I am going to have to do all the one percenters across the board.
Stretching, trigger point, core, specific zone training, strength work and more importantly regular mindfulness exercises to be ready for race day.
During the event, I’ll use Produrance from Pro4mance sports nutrition to absorb all calories via 1.5 litres of fluid per hour. I’ll use a camel back system while running to ensure I also get the adequate fluids and calories.
I am accepting this as a great challenge. How fast and efficient can I become at the maximum level my body allows me to function?
If it is fast enough to gain a Kona spot then great but if not, the improved knowledge and experience will significantly assist my work as a coach.
When I started writing these articles, blog posts or reflections, I had ambitions of penning and sharing my thoughts on a more regular basis. However, I also want my writing to have some relevance and meaning, not just fill space. It’s about making sure I have something to say that people may be interested to learn. Recently, I tried a video log but felt like an idiot speaking into a camera in the middle of nowhere on a bike. I have also found my message is clearer when I write it down and it is then edited for me to review. After last year’s series of ‘Mark’s Musings’, I received some really positive feedback.
It’s probably no coincidence that I find myself becoming more reflective in another build up to Ironman Cairns. This is the third consecutive year I am doing Ironman Cairns and every time I learn something new. Whether it is as a coach or an athlete, I walk away having learnt a lot.
I have previously alluded to being a reflective person by nature. I feel things very deeply, can be quite emotional and often question myself. Am I being a good father, husband, son, brother, coach, friend? Am I making a difference to the world around me? Shouldn’t we look back on our time on this planet and be able to say we made life better within our circle of influence? We all leave this place the same way but our legacy, how we are remembered and how we positively impacted others is up to us.
I have learnt that when I start to naturally question myself and my purpose, the answer I get is very different depending on how tired I am. In previous articles, I touched on how I have been affected by fatigue and how much of it was emotionally-based from not admitting to myself that I was suffering from depression. For years I worked and trained hard, ignoring a need to accept it was ok to feel. I needed to accept that asking for help was not being mentally weak. Once I did this, my energy levels improved and I was a completely different person. My relationships improved, my coaching improved, and my purpose and clarity for life improved.
For years I was just plain tired and couldn’t think straight. I made poor decisions personally and professionally, and were it not for my amazing wife and family I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. I have learnt that when I am tired, I need to be mindful of what I think and the things I say and do. This is especially important for triathletes when training for an Ironman, or even just training for triathlon in general, as it can deplete our system if we push too hard. Hormonally, emotionally and physically we are compromised when in hard training. Being able to recognise this is the key to maintaining a healthy balance between family, work and training. Learn to know when to rest, when to take it easy in a session and when to say sorry to loved ones because you are cranky and tired from training.
I still get tired however that’s life. It could be professional demands or an unsettled child at night, but we all get tired. Remember this tiredness is going to be enhanced when we’re training for an Ironman. I have learnt from my past mistakes not to make any important decisions when I’m tired. More importantly, I know when to rest. If I am thinking like a drunk sailor then I need to take it easy for a couple of days, get some sound sleep and not make too many decisions.
When is an excuse justified and how do we know when it is okay to give in or if we should tough it out? I find the only way to know is through experience.
At the moment Mark’s eldest son William is in the hospital as the doctors try to control his seizures. William has high special needs and this is one of several hospital trips over the years but the first when we have had our own child. So for the last few days I have been looking after Finn on my own and combined with some teething issues this meant that by time it came to me going for a swim this morning the excuses of ‘I’m too tired’ and ‘there is just too much other stuff going on’ were coming all too easy. I was even at the pool already, as Finn had his own swimming lesson and looking for any reason not to take him to crèche and to call it quits and go home.
As hard as it felt at the time I ended up getting in the pool and completing my swim set. By the end two things had happened. Firstly, I swam really well and actually completed one of my goals that I had set myself and six weeks ahead of schedule. Secondly, my mood had markedly improved and I actually felt more energised than before my swim.
It’s easy to find excuses not to train and even more so when you are a Mum. The old ‘too tired’ excuse will pop up a lot and sometimes it will be justified but other times we will need to push ourselves that little bit harder to train then before. This is one session that I need to remember in the future when the too hard excuses start to come. Just get in, turn your arms over and if it doesn’t happen get out. But you never know, you might surprise yourself. And remember, if it was easy everyone would do it.