Ironman Training vs Racing: How do they Compare?

One of the things I always wondered about racing Ironman was exactly how fast you had to be in training in order to race a 10, 11, or 12 hour Ironman. Moving in with Hector was an eye-opening experience because I was able to see how his training and race paces aligned in person. I was blown away by how hard he trained and how fast he was, and I realized that if I wanted to get anywhere close to his times in races, then I would have to become significantly faster in training.

To that end, I wanted to share some of what I did in training, and how that compared to my races. I’ve actually figured out some neat correlations that allow me to predict race paces based on certain training sessions. Of course these are specific to me, so no guarantees that anyone else will see the same correlation!

Also note before we get started – I know not everyone is interested in this stuff or wants to compare, so this isn’t meant to make anyone feel bad about their own training. I’m sharing my training info because I was curious when I started.

View Photo: http://www.zoomphoto.ca/viewphoto/19894-110-27165553/1/
Multisport Canada Gravenhurst Olympic Triathlon, 2016

I’m primarily comparing my races from my second Ironman in Muskoka on August 30, 2015, and my fourth Ironman in Louisville on October 9, 2016. My third Ironman in Texas involved an inexplicably bad swim, a bike crash and a thunderstorm (and complete mental breakdown). It’s not really a representative race.

Swim

Over the course of four Ironman races, I went from being able to simply complete the 3.8km swim, to feeling very comfortable covering 4k in training on a regular basis. The biggest change I noticed as I got faster was that I could do much longer swim sets in less time! Before Muskoka (#2), 3.5km swim sets used to take me almost an hour and a half; by the time I was prepping for Louisville (#4), I was ripping off the same sets in under 1:10. It may not seem like much, but 20 minutes per swim 3-4 times a week is a big difference.

One of my favourite swim sets is multiples of 10x100m with 10s rest. Simple and easy to execute, so I can get into a rhythm rather than figuring out what’s next. It’s also a great predictor of my Ironman swim time: whatever pace I can hold for the set is typically what I can average over 3.8km when I’m tapered and wearing a wetsuit.

View Photo: http://www.zoomphoto.ca/viewphoto/19896-110-27356254/1/
Multisport Canada K-Town Tri

Two examples:

  • Ironman Muskoka 2015: 1:55 for 10×100 in training, and averaged 1:53/100m (total time 1:11:51) in the race.
  • Ironman Louisville 2016: 1:43 for 10×100 in training, and averaged 1:45/100m (total time 1:07:44) in the race.

Bike

Well, bike speed is a little trickier for me to compare because of the issues I had in Louisville. But through racing a number of half and full Ironmans with the same bike setup, I’ve found some interesting comparisons.

First of all, I don’t worry too much about aerodynamics when training, so my race gear gives me a speed boost. I ride my triathlon bike with aluminum training wheels, stock tires and a normal helmet in training. In a race, the addition of my aero helmet and 3Sixty5 FAT60 and carbon disc, plus a more detail-oriented focus on aerodynamics (removing extra bottle cages, etc.) and extra energy from taper typically gives me an extra 2-3km/hr in a long distance race.

Here are some examples (these are based on anecdotal training numbers):

  • Ironman Muskoka 2015: typically averaged around 26-27km/hr during practice rides on the Muskoka course, rode 29.1km/hr (6:12) in the race.
  • Ironman Louisville 2016: typically averaged around 29-30km/hr during comparable local training rides, rode 30.4km/hr (5:56) on a bad day in the race.

And for those of you who train with power and want to compare, my FTP grew as follows:

  • 165W (2.8W/kg) when I started working with Paolina in November 2014
  • 191W (3.3W/kg) before Ironman Muskoka in August 2015
  • 220W (3.9W/kg) before Ironman Louisville in October 2016

Note on power (and this is important): power numbers are just numbers and they are different for everyone! You can have a lower FTP and ride faster, or a higher FTP and ride slower – it’s not about watts, it’s about what you do with them. That includes weight, course elevation, fatigue, aerodynamics, bike handling skills and mental tenacity, among many things. So take it with a grain of salt before comparing your FTP to other people’s!

Photo credit: Scott McMann
I’m using the 3Sixty5 FAT60 wheelset here – typically I race with a rear disc. Photo credit: Scott McMann

Run

Running is where I saw the biggest gains – in fact I’ve realized that I am a more talented runner than triathlete during the progression of my training over the last three years. The big change in my training between 2015 and 2016 was where I did my long runs: in 2015 I was teaching spin class on Saturdays, so I did my long run on Friday night and long bike on Sunday. In 2016 I had stopped teaching spin so I was able to do my long ride Saturday and long run on tired legs Sunday. That change no doubt affects the comparison of my training paces between the two years.

I should also note that I do my long runs really hard – so it’s like an all-out race every week. It’s a unique style of run training and certainly not recommended for everyone, but it really works well for me. Talk to a coach before following in my footsteps! I also negative split every. single. run.

Again, I’ll use the two examples of Muskoka and Louisville:

  • Ironman Muskoka 2015: typical long run pace was around 5:20-5:30/km, maxing out with 30k at 5:26/km on relatively fresh legs. 5x1k interval pace was about 4:15. Marathon pace was 5:57/km (4:11).
  • Ironman Louisville 2016: typical long run pace was around 5:00-5:10/km, maxing out with 30k at 4:57/km on tired legs. 5x1k interval pace was about 3:45. Marathon pace was 5:30/km (3:52).
Ironman Louisville run
20km into the run at Ironman Louisville.

To Summarize…

Altogether, it took 1:45/100m in the pool, FTP of 3.9W/kg and long run at under 5:00/km and come up with an 11:08 finish at Ironman Louisville. I sure didn’t expect that I would be able to get this fast when I came up with the goal of qualifying for Kona two years ago – and at that point I figured I would need a 10:30 to qualify. (Turns out I was right – 10:30 would have gotten me to Kona in my AG at Ironman Louisville this year).

How do your training and race paces compare? Do you have any favourite “predictor” workouts?

 

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  1 comment for “Ironman Training vs Racing: How do they Compare?

  1. October 25, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    This is really interesting, and when I think about my own training vs. racing, I found my paces matched up for the swim and the bike pretty closely. The big outlier was the run, but that’s because I had unanticipated GI issues that made it impossible for me to run consistently for a good 7-8 miles. Fun times. Everything else was pretty much right on, though.

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