Running a Faster Ironman Marathon–Part II: Get Faster

Read the Introduction to the "Running a Faster Ironman Marathon" series.

Let's begin by breaking the topic down into two major components: Running Potential and Running Success.

  • Running Potential: "What can I run on race day, given current fitness, training, etc?" The best predictor of Running Potential on race day is your vDOT score.

  • Running Success: "Given my running potential, what will I run on race day." The best predictor of Running Success on race day is race execution skills.

So you show up to T2 with a vDOT score and race execution skills. Which is most important? Race execution skills!

All the running potential in the world can't help you if you don't know how to execute a 26.2-mile run at the end of a 140.6-mile day. And the Ironman run course is littered with the shattered bodies and broken dreams of very fit boys and girls...who didn't know how to race.

I'll cover race execution in Part IV of this series, but I just wanted to begin this discussion about how to run faster by driving home the central point of everything I do as the coach of a team of Ironman athletes: execution, execution, execution.

Jack Daniels Running Formula and vDOT

Back in the day, before heart rate monitors, Dr. Maffetone, and 220 minus your age quackery, runners trained by pace. Jack Daniels created a training-with-pace system, described in his book Daniels' Running Formula. I highly recommend you purchase and read his book. The method is simple:

1. Perform a test or race on a known distance, flat course—5K, 10K, half marathon, etc. This test is the functional expression of my fitness. "However fit I think I might be, whatever my body is doing/can do inside, the functional expression of that fitness is my current ability to run a 5K in 21:30." This is a hard, objective, non-fuzzy data point.

2. Use his tables (or an online calculator) to extract a vDOT based on your test above. We also extract a Lactate Threshold Heart Rate number from this test and calculate heart rate training zones.

3. From this vDOT, extract training paces. These paces are integrated with heart rate training zones. The net is that our athletes train all year with pace as the primary intensity measurement, heart rate as the secondary, and the combination of the two gives them very powerful insight into their bodies.

4. Create a training plan that applies these training paces to achieve your fitness goals.

5. Retest to reassess/reset vDOT and establish new training paces, based on your improving fitness.

6. Apply these new paces to your training plan.

With the ever more affordable availability of running GPS units, what's old is now new again. For nearly three years we have applied the Jack Daniels principles to our team of over 400 long-course triathletes. That's a lot of data, and this is what we have learned:

Lesson 1: Ironman Running Potential = E-Pace

Timmy trains and trains and trains. About three to four weeks out from Ironman Wisconsin he tests, and his final vDOT is 52, yielding an E-pace of 8:16/mile. We have three years of data that says his potential Ironman marathon time is 3:36.

Timmy then executes his race, based on this demonstrated fitness (his vDOT), not hopes, dreams and "guts". What you do on race day is a function of what you actually can do, not hope/think/wish you could do. Given his running potential, Timmy's success on race day is a function of:

  1. Race execution skills, by far.
  2. Running durability, created through running frequency, consistency and volume, but...

Lesson 2: Running Volume Is Not the Best Predictor

If you want to run fast on race day, you need to make yourself a faster runner by...running fast. This is largely counter to the culture of the sport, which preaches becoming a better or stronger (whatever that means) runner by focusing on volume performed at Heart Rate Zone X.

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