It’s not easy to break 10 hours in an Ironman. But with these ten tips from Kerry Sullivan from the Rock Star Triathlete Academy, you’ll learn how the fast Ironman triathletes can cross the finish line with single digit hours still showing on the clock, and how you can do it too.
1. Get Lean
Go stand at the finish line of an Ironman from the nine to ten hour mark. How many thick legs do you see? How many solid necks? Ripped or buff guys and gals? Whether muscle bulk or fat bulk, very little of it exists for the fast Ironman finishers. Muscle takes a significant amount of energy to cool and carry, and fat, while a fantastic energy source, vastly decreases movement economy. To break 10 hours in Ironman, you must be willing to lose fat, cannibalize muscle, give up your nice arms, and put up with family members telling you that you look “too skinny”. This will take a range of strategies from intermittent fasting, to unfed cardio sessions, to frequent dessert and alcohol skipping.
Subconsciously, you must be on cruise control to break 10 hours in Ironman. This means that you must be able to execute a near flawless nutrition protocol, pacing strategy, swim-to-bike and bike-to-run transition, and you must be able to do this under stressful race conditions. Most of the triathletes who break 10 hours in Ironman have raced enough to avoid making the small mistakes like overinflating the tires, forgetting the salt pills, letting pride dictate pace, eating too much, drinking too little or swimming off course. Peppering the build-up to an Ironman with a strategically planned series of sprint, Olympic and half-Ironman events creates a smart and stress-free triathlete who doesn’t commit the small Ironman racing mistakes that add up to dozens of minutes.
To break 10 hours in an Ironman, you need to know the course. A generic approach simply will not work. Several weeks prior to the Ironman you must sit down and consider the layout of the swim course. Where will you stand on the beach? When will you sight? When will you surge in pace? You must break the bike into key portions, and create a fueling, pacing and mental strategy for each. Where can you attack? Where can you legally draft? At what points will you fuel? Finally, you must know every turn and hill in the run course, because an unfamiliar course can play nasty tricks with your confidence and pacing. Getting to the 18 mile mark and having 5 key landmarks that are going to string you along to the finish gives you much better pacing than getting to the 18 mile mark and having 8 miles of pure unknown.
Early in the year, several months prior to your Ironman, you must be willing to be getting your ass kicked at club swims, track sessions, or group rides. You simply cannot maintain peak Ironman fitness year round and expect to have perfectly fresh 10 hour-and-under legs on race day. Whether you are focusing on volume early in the year and intensity as the Ironman approaches, or vice versa (both approaches can work), you must refuse to do the same training intensity and volume week in and week out, year-round. By periodizing, or clearly identifying periods of the training year during which you are going to focus on specific skills or fitness parameters, you improve in a stair-stepping fashion to a peak on Ironman race day, rather than simply flatlining at a medium pace year round.
Training consistency is crucial to be able to break 10 hours in Ironman. The fast Ironman triathletes can come back day-after-day for each training session, and miss very few key sessions during the year – and a big part of this is recovery. If constant injuries and immune system crashes are sabotaging the training plan, it can mean a loss of 20 minutes to 2 hours in Ironman fitness. Proper recovery requires implementation and frequent use of ice and ice baths, compression gear, massage therapy, foam rollers, amino acids and other nutrition recovery supplements, easy leg-flushing workouts after hard days or races, and an open mind to physical therapy and rehabilitation modalities such as ultrasound, electrostimulation, infrared, vibration, or magnets if an injury actually does occur. Proper recovery also means being able to identify when you’re not recovered, via tracking of resting heart rate, soreness, sleep and when necessary, biological parameters such as hormone ratios.