Part I of this blog was all about how it felt to participate in my first Half Ironman. This blog is more around the ‘why I did what I did’- particularly with respect to running. The other disciplines were never going to pose a major challenge but being able to train consistently enough and without injury to complete 21km (which I’d never done before) AFTER a swim and a ride, was always going to be the critical point of this endeavour.
Step 1 was to analyse the individual demands of the event- pretty straight forward in a triathlon.
I’m an ok swimmer. This means I probably won’t drown. But I might.
I’ve done Pier to Pub and Portsea Swim Classic but that was now 20 years ago.
I don’t love swimming either.
In terms of the tri the swim is the shortest leg (about 10% of the total time), so you can be a pretty bad swimmer and still go ok.
With a little bit of work I figured the swim would be fine.
Probably my strength of the 3 disciplines.
I’m not a natural cyclist but it is something I’ve done consistently for the past 10-12 years.
I spend 2 days a week bike fitting and performance consulting around this so I should know what I’m talking about. Interestingly, this became one of the biggest stressors of the entire prep- it worried me that if I performed poorly on the bike, people would think me a hypocrite for preaching it without being able to practice it.
I had the gear, I had a history of cycling and an understanding of the demands and how to train for this type of event- I figured the bike would be fine.
This would be the problem.
History of significant knee injury and surgeries meant that I hadn’t run in years and I’d never been an endurance runner. I used to run competitively but only 400m- probably not great prep for a half marathon!
On the plus side, I have an absolute belief that the body is adaptable and if I applied appropriate training load to it for long enough that I’d be able to complete the run.
Running ended up being the discipline that I’ve enjoyed training the most.
I also had access to some great people to get me prepared properly for this.
The run is ALWAYS the leg most likely to create injuries in our patients and I knew that I was more prone than most given my lack of running condition and that I had come from a cycling background. Cyclists are the worst when it comes to getting injured whilst running.
Pretty much everybody who returns to running does WAY too much WAY too soon and doesn’t control training volumes and intensities or allow enough recovery between sessions. But cyclists do this to a whole other level as they have an expectation that training sessions need to be over an hour and you can train every day. An hour on the bike is nothing. An hour running- that’s a whole different story!
One of my mates who is both a good runner and a brilliant Podiatrist put it best when he said- “Tom, you’ve got a great engine from all the cycling you’ve done, but your chassis is bloody terrible. It’s like putting a V8 into a Corolla- something is going to break!”
Cyclists have great heart/lung fitness but terrible musculoskeletal fitness- so they can run forever but their legs/hips/feet just aren’t capable of withstanding the load yet. You need to slowly sneak up on distance and intensity with running.
So the run was always going to be scary and difficult to train for. But I had time. I also had a lifetime of study to assist my self management.
To simplify the process, I created Tom’s 5 Commandments (rules are made to be broken- commandments are NOT!)
- Never run on consecutive days. As in NEVER. Even if you think it’s a good idea- it’s not. I am getting older, we don’t recover as quickly when we get older and you need a minimum of 36-48hrs to recover, adapt and get stronger from each training session.
- Change the route and pace of each run. The body needs variety. Running at the same pace, on the same surface each run is a sure way to create overuse injuries.
- Vary footwear. I bought 4 pairs of running shoes; each very different to the last (New Balance, Hoka, Mizuno, Salomon), so that my body was stressed differently with each type of shoe, thereby reducing the risk of the same stress being applied to the same tissues every run.
- Perform a strength and conditioning session at least once a week. I needed to improve lower limb and pelvic/hip strength and resilience. Once a week is ok- 2 is much better.
- Improve my self management. Consistent treatment with the team at work but most importantly stretching, foam rolling and spiky balling at home at least 3 times a week and NEVER on consecutive days.
The 5 commandments really boil down to 2 key principals and are just variations on the theme.
- Allow adequate recovery time.
- The body CRAVES variation in stress- don’t do the same run, in the same shoes, at the same pace repeatedly. It means you load the same tissues, the same way with every step= recipe for disaster.
The training begins…
If anyone ever wants to look at my training, feel free to do so through Strava – pretty much everything was logged up there except for my swims as GPS data in the pool was terrible and told me I was swimming 4km when I was swimming 1.5km.
The general approach I took was the following:
- Swim twice a week.
- Ride 3 times a week.
- Run 3 times a week.
- I never increased overall training volumes by more than 10% each week (ie. if I trained for 10hrs on one week I would make sure I didn’t train more than 11hrs the following one). This is a way of controlling training load so you adapt to training rather than get injured or over train. I’d assert that most triathletes are overtrained and could more efficiently use their time.
- I periodised over a 4 week cycle. Eg. Week 1- 6hrs. Week 2- 6.5hrs. Week 3- 7hrs. Week 4- 5hrs (recovery week). This prevents overtraining and allows you to adapt and get stronger.
- I used an app called TrainerRoad for some structure- it was fine but next time I’d definitely use a coach (like Brendan Murray, Fabrizio Andreoni, Angus Harris). Personal coaching is always better as the coach is much more capable of assessing how you are travelling, modifying the program and tailoring it to your particular needs. It keeps you accountable as well!
- I never ran on consecutive days and I never ran off the bike. I assessed the risk and figured the risk of injury by running fatigued due to cycling beforehand, or not allowing enough rest between runs, was much greater than the risk I’d feel horrible in the Tri when I went from bike to run. If I was a serious triathlete I’d probably add some brick sessions (that’s what it is called when you run after riding) but not many as running fatigued causes poor form, reinforces poor habits and increases injury risk.
- And you simply HAVE to do STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING work to prepare your body to deal with the training stress. This is something that all of us should be doing all of the time- regardless of how experienced an athlete you are.
This was my single biggest lesson from the entire process.
Strength and conditioning is the single most important thing you can do if you want to perform any sport without injury and minimal discomfort.
If you don’t do it, you are setting yourself up for failure.
I’ve made some poor decisions in my life- you only need to look at my spouse to work that out!- but the worst decision I made in this preparation was ceasing my strength training. Six weeks from race day I made the call that I was running short on training volume for the bike and the run. So I dropped the strength training. And nothing happened. I felt great, I was going fast- all was good. And then I competed in an Olympic distance tri and in the last 400m felt a tear in my achilles. This is absolutely a function of me reducing the load through the tendon and calf and it not being able to tolerate the last few hundred metres of the event as I was extremely fatigued. I couldn’t run for the next 2 weeks before the Half Ironman and then had to run on a damaged achilles for 21km- this is not what I’d advise for a patient but do as I say, not as I do…. At the end of the day, health professionals are also hyper-motivated athletes and we make decisions emotionally that may not be in our best interest long term.
The result- a very painful 21km. And the next 8 weeks rehabbing. I am only just back to jogging 5km with the kids after 8 weeks of strengthening.
So, is a Half Ironman for everyone.
But with a big BUT.
You need to take the time to get your body ready for it.
That is what I hope people pick up from this article. The body is amazingly adaptable but you have to give it time and the right training. We see many people doing big events like this, or marathons and they are doing them WAY too early in their athletic careers. These are events people should spend years building up to so they can enjoy the training, enjoy the racing and ensure they don’t get injured or sick. If you aren’t a consistent runner or cyclist then it is a minimum 12 months to get your body into condition to do these things. We strongly advocate doing strength work along the way and do lots of smaller events for a few years first. 2-3 years of mini, sprint and olympic distance events will set you up perfectly for a tilt at a Half Ironman. Slowly and progressively build up and enjoy seeing your body adapt to the training and improving. We want to see lifetime athletes; not people who burn brightly for one event and are then so traumatised that they don’t do another one.
Take your time. Build up slowly. Love the lifestyle. Love the adaptability and phenomenal capacity of YOUR body.
Our passion is to help people be active and to make Albury a healthier city. If you EVER want to chat, need advice or would like a strength and conditioning program come and see our great team at Osteohealth. We are all active and engaged in different sports. We know what it feels like to be you!