One of the smartest ways to achieve a personal best at your next Ironman triathlon race is to have a specific plan for race day and stick with it. You can bet your very expensive triathlon-specific bike that every pro racer has an Ironman race strategy, and so should you.
There's No Such Thing as a Sprint Ironman Swim
As you probably already know, an Ironman swim is a 2.4-mile open-water slog. Thousands of amateur athletes all want the exact same thing: The water space right in front of their next freestyle stroke.
Before you even start the swim you should have a plan that includes:
- Your position at the start of the race. If you're a strong and fearless swimmer, go for the front of the pack. If you're unsure of yourself in the water, start toward the rear. Also, as you probably know, the shortest distance from the beach to the first buoy is a straight line -- but that's also the most sought after real estate. If you're new to Ironman racing, you'd be better served to start to the right or left of the first buoy.
- Settle into your swim race pace early and stick with it for the entire swim. Before you even toe the line at an Ironman, you should know your ideal swim race pace. Let's say that you can comfortably hold and maintain two minutes for 100 yards. That should be your race pace. Unless you're a pro triathlete and you're trying to keep up with the competition, there's no reason to surge or slow during an Ironman swim.
- Pick a goal time for the swim and try to nail it. It's always a good idea to know how long it will take you to swim 2.4 miles. For example, once you know that you can cover that distance in one hour and 10 minutes in the pool, make that your goal time. And keep in mind that most Ironman swim courses aren't exactly 2.4 miles. Some are shorter and some are longer, but having a swim goal time is a great way to ensure a personal best at the end of the race.
Don't Blow Up on the Bike
Perhaps the easiest place to lose an Ironman race is on the bike. You've most likely just spent over an hour moving like a senior snail in the water, so the temptation on the bike is to hammer the pace. Luckily, technology can come to your rescue. If you have a power meter, use it during the race and know your upper limit of wattage. The best way to blow up your legs is to use too much power going down hills. It would seem (especially to many newbie triathletes) that you use more power and strength to climb up hills, but you can easily use more watts in pushing your big gear flying down the backside of hills.
If you don't have a power meter (they're very expensive after all), a heart rate monitor is the next best tool in your arsenal of race technology. By the time you're racing an Ironman, you should know your personal heart rate zones and, during an IM race, you should rarely exceed zone three to maintain your legs and stamina for the run.
It's All About Conserving Energy
If you've stuck to your swim and bike Ironman race strategy, you should have enough energy left in the tank for the marathon.
The good news: Unlike shorter races, you have enough time and real estate in an Ironman race to come back from a bonk. The bad news: You won't enjoy the bonk and you won't be fast.
The best way to avoid bonking on the run is, once again, to have a plan and stick with it. If you've done everything correctly you should be hydrated and fueled up enough from the bike portion of the IM to have the energy to run and maintain your target race pace.
What's your ideal race pace? The fastest you can go without bonking or walking. Again technology comes to the rescue. If you have a GPS watch, use it on the marathon to get your exact run pace. If you've trained at 10 minutes per mile pace, that should be your race pace. Keep in mind that an Ironman marathon is generally about 5 to 10 percent slower than a standalone marathon. That means that if you've run a standalone marathon before, adjust your pace and expectations, and plan accordingly.
If you don't have a GPS watch, do the math and figure out your pace the old-fashioned way. And remember to watch your heart rate. You should be in heart-rate zone three or occasionally four if you plan to run, not walk, across the finish line.
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