Ever since I started running again a few years ago I’ve focused on two main races per year. All of my training has been built around those races, and other races were themselves part of that training. For the past few years the focus has been Barkley in the spring to cap off my ultrarunning season, and an Ironman in the fall to cap off my triathlon season.
This year had the same general plan, but there were a couple of differences. First, my Barkley finish left me in a bit of a victory hangover: the unquenchable fire I had felt pursuing that goal was finally satiated. How much of a thrill could a strong showing at Kona really add? Second, qualifying for Kona had been the goal itself for triathlon. Should I treat it as a victory lap like I did for the Boston Marathon, or put forth a serious effort? It took me a bit to sort through these questions, and it took me long enough that the questions were somewhat answered for me, but eventually I did manage to regain focus and put in a solid few months of training.
A Slow Start
Normally after one of my big races I do have a bit of a recovery period. After 2016 Ironman Maryland this time period aligned with the birth of our twins, so the the recovery was actually forced whether I wanted it or not. My problem there was that I tried to come back from it too quickly, with 2016 JFK 50 and 2016 Hellgate 100K++ both within 6 weeks of that birth, resulting in some injuries that required even more recovery time.
This time, the recovery period was extended more by choice. I was coming off my Barkley finish, my personal equivalent of winning the Super Bowl. At the time, Kona didn’t seem like a goal that could really motivate me to continue training at that level. There was also the simple truth that after Barkley I needed more recovery than normal. I was in a rough spot, mentally and emotionally more than physically.
So I celebrated, and enjoyed it (and am still glad that I did). Part of that celebration meant an extended period of time of eating absolutely anything that came to mind.
Eventually, though, I was itching to get back to training and racing, maybe just not quite yet at the same level. I avoided my mistake from the fall and had a fairly short race to start the season, the 2017 Columbia Triathlon. Despite a DQ from a self-reported course error, the race went well and gave me the thrill and motivation to get back to training. After a few weeks of travel for work I started to slowly gear back up by the end of May.
Another thing that really helped more quickly get back up to speed, and do it injury free, was the partnership I developed with Terrel Hale at Georgetown Sports Massage. I was admittedly skeptical at first, but it really helped me recover more rapidly so I could effectively add more training load, as well as quickly get back into an optimal position on the bike.
Back in a Rhythm
One of the most important parts of training for endurance sports is consistency, and consistency comes much easier with a well-established routine. With the bulk of my work travel over, as well as my post-Barkley revelry, I could settle back into my routine. As with 2017 Barkley Marathons Training, this meant nearly all my weekday mileage was through my commute.
For running days, I took a slightly more direct and more asphalt-laden path than I took during the winter, typically taking the paved Rock Creek Trail and then cutting straight down Connecticut Avenue to my office in DC for around 14.5 miles. For the other half of the day’s commute, I would have an easy 2.5 mile run between the nearest metro and my house.
Bike commutes were typically built in as recovery days. I have a pretty nice ~19 mile route I take, but red lights, rough roads, and traffic make it difficult to maintain the speed needed for a good workout. After a few decades of decay they’re finally fixing Beach Drive in DC, the road that cuts through Rock Creek National Park that I spend most of my time on, but by the time they’re done with that I probably won’t be using it anymore. I can still get to/from work on my bike as fast as I can on the metro, though, with the added bonus of not having to worry about things catching on fire or paying $15 a day in fares.
Typically I worked from home once a week, which would allow me to get in a solid mid-week bike workout. Of course one of the biggest things for Ironman training is the long bike ride, which I would try to do as early as possible on Saturday mornings. To make the family more a part of the longer ones and have them be something they could look forward to, we usually picked out a destination and they would drive there and meet me at the end of my ride. Fortunately the DC area offers quite a few good options for that. We’ve done Gettysburg, Harper’s Ferry, Mt. Vernon, Sugarloaf, and plenty of smaller local destinations and events like peach festivals and creameries.
Oh swimming, my favorite. Swimming is already the discipline that I’m worst at, and the one I find least enjoyable (nothing like staring at a black line for an hour trying not to suffocate to get your day started right!), but to make matters worse it’s also by far the least convenient. I can’t swim to work and I can’t do it in my basement either. It’s the one thing during the week where I have to set aside an extra part of my day and go somewhere to get it done.
During the summer, I can go to the outdoor pool that’s a quarter mile from our house, which makes it much less worse. The downside is that that pool doesn’t open until mid-day so I can’t get it over with early. If I need an early swim or the outdoor pool is closed, you’ll find me a few miles farther away at the Olney Swim Center. I don’t know what’s up with the chemicals they use in that pool, but my hair comes out feeling like corroded steel wool.
The high level view of my season isn’t very unique: I periodize and typically do 3-4 week hard training blocks and ease off for a recovery week in between. I try to listen to my body and look at my performance to determine when more or less rest is needed. That’s an easy thing to say, but in practice it’s really hard as an “A type” endurance athlete to make myself back off from a planned workout. Sometimes I’ve found it’s easier to do if I convince myself there’s a different reason: “I should spend more time with family this week” or “I really need to get this done for work so that I can get my big planned workout in next week” or even “I just really need to catch up on sleep or it won’t do any good anyway.”
One thing I do that might be a bit more unique is that I approach nearly all my races throughout a season with the mindset that they’re just an important, high-intensity training session. I build my schedule so that one of the recovery weeks I mentioned above (maybe 10 days or so for something like 2017 Ironman Lake Placid) leads into a race. Then I might be forced to take a day or two easy after the race, but I generally use it to kickoff my next training block and roll right into it to ensure I can get enough accumulated stimulus to force adaptation. If you’re just starting out I definitely would not recommend this strategy and would be sure to get sufficient post-race recovery and avoid injury above all else.
I got a Forerunner 935 halfway through this season (Garmin is a Team EMJ sponsor) and an added feature that gave me was a view of my training load. It’s been pretty neat to watch that and see how well it coincides with that I think I’m doing.
One thing I’ve noted that is a bit sub-optimal for me is that I typically start my real training a decent amount over my race weight. I usually give myself some celebration / recovery time after big races, but then I don’t really have an off-season to deal with that since I stack my ultrarunning and triathlon seasons together. Trying to lose weight during high intensity training isn’t a great thing to do, and I don’t recommend it. I at least fortunately work a block away from Chopt, which has supported me this year as a partner along with Hammer. This one-two punch has allowed me to get in good meals and nutrition that I can adapt to my calorie and nutrition needs for any stage of training to help me stay fueled while getting lean.
Running and Biking
My running and biking workout strategy during triathlon season essentially follows the same principles as my strategy during ultrarunning season, which is itself primarily pulled from Jason Koop’s Training Essentials for Ultrarunning.
With the Ironman distance being my main goal for the season, I start off focusing on building my VO2max and speed. Workouts during this stretch contain bursts of 1-2 minute all-out intensity. The workouts during this period are a bit more frequent than later in the season, but the length of each one is shorter. Due to my season’s slow start I was only able to devote a single 3 week block to this type of training, culminating with the 2017 Columbia Triathlon.
I gradually transition to lactate threshold workouts, going for 5-20 minute intervals with about half as much recovery in between (all of my workouts at any stage are continuous motion with active recovery). This is overall probably the hardest part of the season, with the right mix of volume and intensity to really wear me down both physically and mentally and put me at the greatest risk of overtraining. I put a bit more focus on this part this year, as I feel that even at the Ironman distance I should be somewhat close to my lactate threshold. I fit in 3 lactate threshold training blocks over a 2 month stretch that included both 2017 Ironman Syracuse 70.3 and 2017 Ironman Lake Placid.
The final part of my season’s training focuses on the most race-specific element, which for me at the Ironman distance is my aerobic capacity. Volume is highest during this time period, but intensity is lowest, with my intervals generally ranging from 30-60 minutes with 5-10 minutes of recovery. Generally aerobic capacity takes longer to build than speed, but since this has always been what I’m strongest at anyway I didn’t put quite as much time towards it this year as in the past. I really only got two extended training blocks over about a month and a half leading into my taper for Kona, but I did get a few 200K+ bike rides in, stretching to a max of around 140 miles. This time period also included the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship.
One thing that this progression strategy can make difficult is an assessment of improvement. As workouts change throughout the season, there’s not a constant measuring stick to refer back to. I’m also almost always in a state of cumulative fatigue, expecting to get somewhat worse during a training block before a recovery week enables the gains to sink in. Most of my recovery weeks are also followed by a race, so I’m really never in a position where I can effectively do something like an FTP test. The races themselves become my measuring stick.
Oh, and I almost forgot: swimming workouts. These didn’t really change during the year and I don’t really know what I’m doing here. I took quite a bit away from my experience at 2017 Team Every Man Jack Training Camp, but I’m still flailing in the dark a bit. I don’t have the time nor do I want to devote the resources to work one-on-one with a coach. And to be honest, due to the Ironman race distances swimming just generally doesn’t give as big of gains to most people (I’m maybe at the point where it would as I’m much closer to peak potential in running or biking). Someone can go from a good to a great swimmer and save 10 minutes, or go from a good to a great cyclist and save an hour.
I have one workout that I’ve come to use pretty much every trip to the pool: warmup, 5 x 100s on a set time, short recovery, 10 x 50s on a set time with paddles and ankle band, short recovery, 5 x 100s on a set time, cooldown. Sometimes I’ll get super crazy and toss on Roka Sim Shorts or drag shorts (Roka is a Team EMJ sponsor). The main thing I’ve come to realize on swimming is that I really just need to get more speed and be more efficient. I’m never getting aerobically tired in the pool; I just can’t go any faster. I feel my workouts this year have at least been a huge step up from the “just go spend time in the pool” strategy of the past, but I recognize that it still needs work.
I also added some strength workouts early in the season to try to more quickly get my bike and swim muscles back up to speed, and now closer into Kona I’m incorporating some heat acclimation. The pool has a sauna, so after each of my swim workouts I’m spending some time in there. It’s unbelievable to me that people actually go in those for enjoyment. It’s miserable. Other than heat acclimation or cutting weight I can’t imagine any good reason for using one.
I feel I’m in a pretty good place headed into Kona. No, I didn’t get an “optimal” training season in, but other than professionals that’s not really practical anyway (and certainly wouldn’t be enjoyable). Do I wish I was headed to Hawaii with a bit better swim and bike fitness, and a few pounds lighter? Of course. But in the end, we all go to the line with the training we have, not the training we wish we had. My opinions aside, the data below at least shows what I did volume wise.
I think another interesting view is the weight graph below, which actually has a pretty interesting correlation with my attitude towards training during this season. From Barkley to Columbia was an extended period of eating everything in sight, from Columbia to Syracuse was mostly apathy, and post Syracuse I started to get somewhat serious. It’s also always interesting to see the big post-race spikes from fluid retention. The “optimal” weight is simply what I’ve found works best for me: lean but not so much that power is lost, injury is risked, or unhealthy habits are developed.
The training and fitness we can obtain is limited by family, work obligations, other things in life that just happen, and by our own tolerance for it as well. We all have to draw a line in the sand and say “This is the maximum amount that I’m willing to sacrifice for training. Beyond it, the marginal returns I would get are not worth the significant decreases in quality of life.” So I’m going to spend time with family, I’m going to need to get things done for work, and I’m going to sometimes treat myself to some crazy ridiculous dessert. Personally, when something needs to give it’s usually sleep, which perhaps isn’t the best choice because that in turn negatively impacts family, work, and training, but for many of us that’s what’s built in as the easiest most natural thing to sacrifice. I generally get in the 6-7 hour range, but there are definitely weeks where I’m below 5. These things can make training as an amateur a fun optimization problem, though. It’s not just “optimize X.” It’s “optimize X given constraints a, b, and c.”
No matter what happens, I’m going to enjoy the trip. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, getting to Kona was the goal. I’ll make sure to take the time to appreciate and soak in the achievement of that goal, regardless of the actual outcome of the race. My wife will be joining me a couple of days before the race and we’ll be staying there for a week afterwards for our first (and probably last for quite some time) post-twins vacation and time to ourselves. The trip will also check off state number 49 for me, leaving Alaska as the last one I haven’t visited. Anyone know of any good races there? 😉