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By Coach Steve

"Help! I've got to get my Ironman time under ** hours!" How many times have I heard that from athletes seeking a magic formula to get an illusive Hawaii qualifier slot, or just a PR? I respond with a question: "How many Ironman distance races have you done, and what happened? Did it go smoothly, or did race day fall-apart?"

If the response is that they've done "one or two" and the athlete has a list of things that went wrong, I know they haven't mastered the distance yet. If the athlete has done two or more without major problems and times in a range of only a few minutes, I know they need to go back and work on speed at shorter distances to improve their speed potential.

An inexperienced athlete can continue to improve his time because he hasn't "figured-out" the distance yet. By this I mean the athlete hasn't attained the necessary level of endurance, perfected Ironman pacing, or satisfied race day nutritional needs...perhaps all three.

The athlete whose time hasn't kept improving plateaued. He's raced more than one Ironman and it's gone relatively smoothly: the athlete has reached his full potential at the distance based on his intrinsic speed. The Ironman reality for this athlete is that he must go back to shorter distances, improving times there before he has hope of pursuing his next Ironman PR.

For Ironman athletes going back to improve performance at shorter distances can be unwelcome as many have a distinct comfort level for endurance training, but not intensity. I know an athlete who's done several Ironman races; his best finishes are all within a few minutes. He doesn't compete in short races and he hates doing any type of speedwork. For him, interval sets in the pool are like a trip to the dentist. He's stuck in a low-intensity rut.

We really can't improve our speed while doing distance training at the low intensities needed for optimal Ironman preparation. An athlete's speed potential for 140.6 miles of swimming, biking, and running is proportional to their best times at shorter distances (~ 4.6x Olympic distance best). In other words, a 3-hour Olympic distance competitor won't be finishing an Ironman in 10-hours.

The Allens and Debooms of our sport were elite caliber at Olympic distance before they moved up to Ironman distance. The same progression holds for World Class marathoners who set their PRs at 5k, 10k, etc before they moved up to marathons. Speed at shorter distances has to come first, then applied to Ironman distance pacing.

There's hope for those of you that need to go back and work on speed at shorter distances in order to improve your Ironman best. It can be done as part of a full season-off from Ironman racing, or as part of an early season shorter races building up to a late-season Ironman.

A coach can plan a season focused on gaining speed early, then building up to a Fall Ironman. Spring through Summer should include weekly intensity with sprint to Olympic distance races every 2 to 4 weeks. Weekday speedwork for the swim, bike, and run can be spaced between snappy weekend bricks of 1.5 to 3-hours on the non-race weekends. After an early through mid-season of pursuing PRs at short to medium distances, the focus shifts to endurance, building distance starting 6 to 12 weeks out from the Ironman.

If you haven't reached your potential at Ironman distance you'll need to go back analyze the race(s), figuring-out what went right or wrong. If it was lack of distance in training, you know what to do! If it was overly enthusiastic pacing on the bike, or for the first half of the run, wear an HRM and determine some realistic (lower) limits that you'll stick to on race day. If you 'lost it' because you ran out of gas (nutritional reasons), you'll need to work this out during long training days through experimentation with race day foods and hydration products - try everything! If it was a hot day and you became sick on the run, do read about hyponatremia and experiment with salt pills. Be aware that symptoms won't show up until you've been going for 6-7 hours or more so you'll need some very long training days to get the same effect in training.

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