Coach Troy Tip: Run Your PR Ironman Marathon

HomecoachesCoach Troy Tip: Run Your PR Ironman Marathon

How To Run a Sub 3-hour (or YOUR PR) Ironman Marathon What is your personal Mt. Everest? What big goal do you have on your ‘bucket list’ that has been looming just slightly out of your reach for many years? For me, it was running a sub 3-hour Ironman marathon. During a tri career spanning over 20 years and 15 Ironman races, I’d run several sub 3:05’s, even a 3:01, but could never crack the elusive 3-hour barrier. Then, on a windy cold day in November 2010 at Ironman Arizona and at the age of 41, I finally did it – 2:59:55! This article will give you some insights into how it was done and what you might be able to do in training and on race day to set your personal best. Last year, I decided it was time to start chapter two of my athletic career as a masters athlete and began training with more focus in preparation for the 2010 season. My year ground to an abrupt and painful halt with my collarbone- and rib-breaking crash at the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike race in mid-August. After surgery and a projected eight-week recovery period, I thought my year was over, but decided to salvage it and try to finish Ironman Arizona in November (I had to scratch from Ironman Wisconsin, my originally planned reunion with the Ironman distance). I toed the line with good base fitness, but not-so-good pre race preparation fitness due to the injury and recovery period, which allowed for only brisk walking post surgery. My expectations were low, but my motivation and excitement was high as this was a fun Ironman, with a distant aspiration of being competitive. I was just happy really to have the gift of being able to race again. Getting injured and being laid up gives you a dose of harsh reality that flesh and bones break down. I wondered if I had the mojo to finish strong. Cutting to the chase, I felt really good on Ironman day. I raced very conservatively on the swim and bike legs, respectful and a little scared of the distance and concerned with my lack of training. I crossed the finish line surprised and happy with my 9:06 and change finish, but was even more excited with my run split, 2:59:55. I finally cracked the secret code at 41 years of age, long after I’d given up on going sub-3! THE SECRET CODE So why was I able to set my Ironman PR run after so many years dedicated to trying? And how can you do the same thing? Here are some thoughts and ideas for you to consider, in no particular order: 1. Build base with frequency: This simple concept is often overused, but holds true. Steady state ‘aerobic’ paced training should comprise the bulk of your training program. Run often but not necessarily far each workout. Frequency is the key. If you can run 5 to 6 days per week, do it. The Kenyans run 15 to 20 workouts per week to accumulate huge training volumes. You can’t do that, you’ll get injured, but you can run 5 to 8 shorter workouts per week at an aerobic pace (i.e. not as

pounding on the joints). 2. Practice good form: With minimalist shoes all the rage, more runners are focused on forefoot striking and better run posture. I’ve made a conscious effort over the past year to do this as well, shifting my weight a little forward and not pounding the heel as much as I did in the past. 3. Run on the Treadmill: Since last winter, I’ve done one or two runs per week on the treadmill. I set it at 7 to 8 mph at 3% grade and run 40-50 minutes. I feel that frequent treadmill work saves my aging joints and connective tissues from injury. It’s forgiving and feels good to get off the pavement. 4. Don’t run too long: We all know that you should do a long run. How long is ideal? That’s hard to say, but for me, a 2 hour run was my longest on my way to my Ironman marathon PR. I did a couple 1:45 hour runs too, but that was it. I run at roughly a 7 to 7:20 / mile pace on these runs, with some tempo once in awhile. 5. Do your Bricks: One or two times a week, if not more, do a brick from the bike to the run. My typical training day would include a 30 mile bike (1.5 hours) followed by a 30 to 40 minute run (4 to 6 miles). 6. Do short double runs: During your build up weeks (about 5-10 from race day), do one or two double runs each week. Going back to the idea of frequency, make these short 30 to 40 minute aerobic paced runs with one in the morning and one again in the evening. This same concept can be used too during your pre-season base building period, but I do not recommend it when you’re racing often. 7. Race often: I attribute my good run at Ironman Arizona to my steady race schedule earlier in the season before I crashed in Leadville. I had six really hard races in the bank and there’s no better way to build race fitness than to actually race. Race early in the season and then give yourself plenty of time to focus on your Ironman prep… you’ll need it both physically and mentally. 8. Be patient: Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is base aerobic fitness. It’s a year round process. Run year round. This time of year (Nov./Dec./Jan.), do mostly aerobic base (zone 2) running for success next summer. The best runners make running an almost daily habit and accumulate fitness over time. 9. Listen to your body: As a masters athlete with years and years of wear and tear on my knees, hips and my body overall, I am cognizant that each and every workout could be the one that gets me injured. If I feel a tweak or a little ache that’s unusual, I’m quick to stop and cut the workout short and re-evaluate my training plan for the rest of the week. I have a weekly training plan, but I modify it daily, as needed depending on how I feel in the first 10 minutes of the workout. I’d rather feel a little undertrained and be injury free than push the envelope and get hurt and be put out of commission. 10. Don’t over run: You read about the pros running 80 to 100 mile weeks and start to think that more mileage is better. Not true for the triathlete. There are points of diminishing returns (especially for masters athletes) and eventually, all you’re doing is tearing yourself down without any improvement. My ‘typical’ week of training year round includes 20 to 30 miles, with daily runs of around 40 to 50 minutes in duration (or 5 to 6 miles) at a comfortable aerobic pace. I did two weeks with volumes in the 40 to 50 mile range mid-summer, and those really tore me down. I was glad to get through those “high volume” weeks without getting hurt. 11. Add some speed, but not too much: During the summer, on weeks that I didn’t race, I would do one or two days of fast running, at around my 5K pace. Workouts typically included a 20 to 30 minute warm up of steady running then a 1.5 to 2 mile tempo effort with perhaps a little kick at the end when I felt really good. It was enough quality to boost my V02 Max and economy, but not too much to break me down and get me hurt. I find that many athletes run a little too hard, too often. Their aerobic pace is actually closer to tempo pace, and everyday becomes a hard effort with little recovery in between. Heel spurs, IT Band issues and runner’s knee are just a few injuries that come about from training too much in the gray zone. Also, don’t do interval training year-round. What’s the point in being in race shape in January for triathlon season starting in May? Choose your battles wisely and peak at the right time of year. 12. Taper early: My experience this year has lead me to believe that I went into my Ironman races back in the 1990’s a little too tired. This year, I was very well rested due to my rehabilitation from my injuries. My last 3 to 4 weeks leading into the Ironman included mostly shorter workouts, including long runs of up to only 1 hour in duration and more treadmill work (45 minute runs at 3% grade). I toed the line on race day with some nice bounce in my legs. Rule of thumb: if you feel that it takes two weeks to taper for a big race, give yourself three weeks instead. You won’t be sorry. 13. Rest well 72 hours before the race: Get off your feet when you can and sleep well each night. The day before the race, try to lay around with your feet up. For Ironman Arizona, I took care of all pre-race, media and sponsor obligations before 1 PM and then spent the remainder of the day in my hotel room relaxing. It makes a huge difference on how you feel on race day. 14. The bike sets up the run: In triathlon, you need to have good riding legs in order to run well. This means committing to building your muscular and aerobic endurance in training with several long rides, as well as your strength and power with interval work. On race day, the bike will either make or break your overall race result. Riding just 2 to 5% too hard on the bike, a difference of just a few minutes on your bike split can mean the difference between running well in the marathon or walking the last 10K to the finish line. At Ironman Arizona, I rode very conservatively for the first loop with a low heart rate and my cadence in my sweet spot of around 85 rpms, being passed by dozens of riders. Lap two, I picked it up a little and passed most of those who went roaring by me on loop one. My end split of 4:56 over the 112 miles was a result of riding well within myself and hitting nearly a 22 mph average pace for each loop. I finished the bike stiff and a little tired muscularly, but with plenty of energy to run well. 15. Nutrition comes first: When I was in my 20’s and racing as an elite amateur and pro, I could go hard and long and didn’t have concern myself too much with a nutritional strategy beyond drinking a couple bottles per hour and taking in some calories. Now at 40+, nutrition is critical to success or failure on race day. I’ve had severe cramping problems, so I’ve corrected those by super dosing with electrolyte supplements, taking in 1000 or so mg per hour. It worked. I sat up a ton on the bike in Arizona, took my time to eat and drink and was cramp free all day. Yeah! 16. Pace on the run: I really didn’t know what I had in store for me on race day, so I went out on the run conservatively. I was very stiff at first and knew it would take a mile or so to get my run legs under me, which it did. Once I felt good, I worked to establish a rhythm on the run, focusing on my foot strike cadence and breathing rhythm. I hit each aid station for a cup or two of water and / or sports drink, and did a gel every third mile (or every 20 to 25 minutes). I also continued with my electrolyte dosing, targeting about 600 to 1000 mg / hr. Again, no cramps. 17. Be mentally strong: I must be a wimp when it comes to long distance running because my legs get very sore after around 2 hours. Perhaps it’s because of my limited long runs, but if I run much over two hours in training, I get injured, so I have to pay the price on race day with severe quad pain. At mile 16 of the Ironman run, my quads were on fire and every step took a concerted mental effort to stay on pace. Pain is temporary, but pride is forever. Learn to deal with the pain. 18. Be relaxed: When you go into a race with a relaxed attitude, you’ll always perform better. Athletes who have incredibly high expectations of themselves or who feel “pressured” to perform by outside influences tend to implode. The truth is that most of us, with the exception perhaps of the professionals, who make a living racing, do this sport for fun and personal satisfaction. For this race, I felt absolutely no internal or external pressure to perform well. I just let it flow and the day developed to be a very positive one. 19. Bounce: Once you lose the bounce in your step at the Ironman marathon, you’re done. I remember once passing former top pro, Chuckie Veylupek, (a rare event for me…Chuckie usually kicked my butt) on the run at a race and he said to me, “You look good Troy, keep the bounce in your step.” Good advice that you should remember too. 20. Get the race over with: Whatever issues you’re dealing with out there on the racecourse (unless you experience acute debilitating pain that requires immediate medical attention) can be addressed post race. Stay mentally in the moment and focused on the task of maintaining your pace, hydrating, eating and clicking off the miles one by one. You can worry about your other problems after you cross the finish line. 21. Soak it in and have gratitude: I know it sounds a little corny, but I was so pleased to be out there treading water in that 60-degree water before the gun went off. I was grateful for the opportunity to race and to be physically active at this level after my crash and to be participating in an Ironman again. I made a point to soak it all in and actually “smelled the roses,” as opposed to when I was in my 20’s and racing as if my life depended on it. Live and learn, right? 22. Consider Racing ‘blind’ sometimes: I didn’t use a power meter or a heart rate monitor, only my Timex watch on my wrist and a cycling computer with distance, speed and cadence on the bike. I glanced at them once in awhile to get a general idea of where I was, but had no real indication of my exact time, especially on the run. I calculate my general mile pace once in awhile and knew at the half marathon mark that I was close to a three-hour pace, but had no exact concept through GPS or other monitoring device. I liked going by gut feel and instinct and the more self aware you are of your conditioning through experience, the better. Through this experience, I discovered that breakthroughs and personal bests are possible to achieve at almost any age. Had someone told me 12 years ago after several failed attempts in my prime that at the age of 41 and after an extended layoff from racing, that I would crack three hours in the marathon, I’d say, “Yeah, RIGHT!” The key is to make training a life long habit, always building your aerobic base and to train and race smart, not just hard. I hope you take that advice to the bank and conquer your personal Mt. Everest. Good luck! <

Coach Troy Jacobson is the Official Coach of Ironman, head Triathlon Coach for Life Time Fitness and creator of the Spinervals Cycling DVD series. Originally from:

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Pete Alfino is a level II USAT certified coach and the owner of Mile High Multisport. An accomplished triathlete who has completed 4 Ironman races, he has successfully coached triathletes of all ages and abilities from sprint to Ironman races. You may contact pete at to learn more about the triathlon coaching services he provides via Mile high Multisport.