4 Keys to Ironman Execution


The Box

All day long you are going to race inside a box defined by what you can control. Ask yourself "What do I need to do right NOW to create the conditions for success at The Line? Is what I'm doing right now counter to this goal? From what we've seen first hand on the Ironman courses, we believe you should ask yourself "Am I participating in some short-term tactical gratification?" If yes, STOP!!

On the swim, the Box is the space your body occupies in the water: focus on your form and the rest will come. On the bike, the box is probably about one aid station long. On the run, the box begins as 2-3 aid stations long but often diminishes to "from here to the next lampost/manhole cover/mail box." Regardless:

  • Keep the box as big as you can for as long as you can.
  • Keep in the box only the things you can control. Let go of the rest.
  • Exercise this decision-making process inside your box: Observe the situation, Orient yourself to a possible course of action, Decide on a course of action, Act (OODA Loop).

The One Thing

If you swallowed the Kool-Aid we're serving you here, you will show up at the Line, in your Box, ready to get 'er done and simply not slow down. But we're not done yet. There is still some psychological stuff you need to address. During the course of your race day, expect your body to have a conversation with your mind:

"Look, Mind, you've had me out here slogging away for 132 miles. This is really starting to get old and very painful. You need to give me a good reason to keep going forward. If you don't have one, I'm gonna slow down and you can't stop me!"

Before the race ask yourself "Why am I doing Ironman?" Your goal here is to determine what is the One Thing that put you in this race. To finish in the daylight with a smile on your face? To run a 4:10? To honor your family or a loved one?

Whatever your One Thing is, be absolutely clear and rehearse your mind/body debate beforehand. Be warned: your body can be a helluva good negotiator at mile 18, especially if your mind hasn't prepared its rebuttal arguments beforehand.

What have we not talked about so far? The things you are likely most torqued about: heart rate, pace, speed, watts, how to eat, what to drink, etc. We believe that if you can keep yourself focused on the Four Keys above, the rest of the day is relatively simple and you don't need to worry about these relatively small details. In other words, all the whizbang guidance in the world can't help you if don't have your mind right about the Four Keys above.

But because you're a Type A Triathlete and you want the details, here they are:

  • The Swim: Swim only as fast as your ability to maintain form. When you feel your form go, slow down. Counting strokes is an excellent technique for bringing your mind out of the race and into the Box of maintaining your form.
  • The Bike: JRA (Just Ride Along) for about 45-60 miles. Then shift from JRA to Easy (5:45+ should split) to Steady (sub 5:45 should split). Gauge how well you're doing by how well you're NOT doing what everyone else is doing.
  • The Run: Jog for 4-6 miles, with a jogging, do-no-harm pace and heart rate cap. Jogging is defined as a pace you could sustain for hours if we kept feeding you. After 4-6 miles, shift from jogging to "running," running comfortably, getting what you need, and preparing yourself for the Line, where things become very uncomfortable. At the Line, just suck it up and get 'er done.

That's it, that's as complicated as racing Ironman needs to be and we can't say it any more simply. We've basically given you a Vegas betting strategy, having managed and observed many rolls of the dice through our experience as Ironman coaches leading a team of 400 long course athletes. If you can keep a macro-level focus, the little things will fall into place and you will have a good day. But as you stray towards the Ricky Racer side of the execution scale, you begin to rattle the dice.

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