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Triathlon Training Minneapolis

The Illustrated Guide to Zombie Hunting: An Ironman Race Strategy

If you haven’t been there yourself, surely you’ve seen it. You know… it’s late in the Ironman race… the sun has gone down… and many of the previously fit, happy, and human-looking triathletes begin to fall apart. Their facial expressions turn grim. Their complexions turn gray. And their “run” gaits – you know, the same ones that were clipping along at a cadence of 85 during that first 8:00 minute mile out of T2 – turn into a mere zombie shuffle, looking like Ozzy Osborn on good thujone bender or the undead from a horror movie, on their way to a 6 hour marathon off the bike. The pic below was taken for the U.S. Ironman Championship in NYC earlier this year.

Your ability to complete a fast (whatever “fast” means to you) open marathon is more or less irrelevant to your ability to do that after a 112 mile bike ride. This year, one of my Iron-distance athletes had an open marathon PR time of 2:20:17. Conceptually, the pacing strategy for that athlete was not significantly different to my four Iron-distance who had never run an open marathon prior to Ironman Wisconsin.

The bottom line is that you have to determine the maximum effort you can sustain and still feel relatively good for the run off the bike. The second half of that last sentence is the key. Here’s a case study from Ironman Wisconsin two weeks ago that illustrates what I’m talking about.

The athlete, Alex, had been working with me since January. We put Alex through a series of tests to determine exactly what was the maximum effort he could sustain and still feel good to run off the bike. Some of these tests were lab-based, some were time trials, and many were simply trial and error on his long ride/run bricks using heart rate data and his qualitative feedback. Here is one of his files from a weekend training ride on the actual IM WI course:

His heart rate is the red line, elevation is the yellow line and the zones have been developed through previous tests. You’ll note that no where on the graph is pace or speed data. Speed is irrelevant for this exercise. You can train by speed all you want, but if it heats up on race day then your training speed that you thought you were going to maintain on race day will be worthless. That’s why we focus on heart rate. In the ride above, Alex’s average heart rate 122 and his run felt relatively easy to him. So, we increase effort and try again.

Over the weeks to come, it was determined that Alex could comfortably sustain a heart rate on the bike of 130 – 135 bpm and still feel good on the run. For race day we kept this same target and allowed for a slight drift (i.e. rise of heart rate) on the second loop of the bike course.

His file above is from the actual race. Average heart rate was 139. Nearly perfect. When Alex got off the bike and hit the run, he felt great. Aside from deliberately walking the water stops (that a strategy post for another time), he was able to run the entire marathon. While others fell apart, he was able to go zombie hunting, passing almost 500 other racers on the run alone.

What’s the alternative? You can go by “feel” like many athletes do. Sure, it works for pros and for Luke Skywalker, but it ends up in disaster more often than not. Let’s look at what happened to one of Alex’s teammates (who I did not coach). His teammate, we’ll call him Luke, had a good day. But I would argue that if I had been his coach I could have got him to the finish line 45 minutes faster.

Here are the stats. Luke is consistently faster than Alex. At Chisago Lakes 1/2 Iron Alex was ecstatic with his 5:27, while Luke finished in a significantly faster 5:10. Then at IM WI, here’s what happened:

……………Luke ….. Alex
Swim …. 1:13 ….. 1:28
Bike …… 6:07 ….. 6:40
Run ……. 5:55 ….. 4:47
Total …… 13:32 ….. 13:19

Did Luke have a bad race? No. Not at all. A 13:22 long-course debut is fantastic. But what would have happened if he was 15 minutes slower on the bike? Could that have allowed his legs to be a full hour faster on the run? Only by having the data and knowing what to do with it will allow us to answer that question next year.

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