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I'm just an average age-grouper / weekend warrior blogging about Ironman Triathlon Training and this complex puzzle of juggling life, having fun and reporting on my various feats of strength and endurance adventures!

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There are plenty of ways to work on improving your fitness in the off-season so that your performance improves next race season. One option is to focus on a single sport, for some period of time. During that single-sport focus period, the frequency, intensity and duration of the other two sports needs to be reduced.

Let’s look at guidelines and suggestions for each sport if you plan to try a single-sport focus.

Swim focus

If you are currently swimming one to three days per week, increase your swimming frequency to three days per week, minimum. Those already swimming three days per week can increase to four days per week. When designing your weekly training, plan to have all intensity go into swimming.

Running and cycling are each cut to one or two days per week and intensity is all aerobic with a focus on good form.

Since the intensity is going into swimming, use that newfound speed and enter some Masters swim meets. Knowing that you don’t have to bike and run after a swim allows you to discover how fast you can really swim. No distance is too short or too long. The shortest distance typically offered at a meet is 50 yards and the longest is 1650 yards (roughly one mile).

If swim meets don’t sound appealing, then change the way you do longer sets. For example, if you can currently hold a 1:30 pace per 100 for a set of 10 x 100s on a 1:40 send-off; change the send-off and aim to swim faster. Make your new send-off 1:50 and the goal is to swim 1:20 to 1:22 per 100—every single time. When you can’t hold the faster pace, the set is over.

The first time you do the sample set, you might only complete 4 x 100s before your pace gets too slow. That’s okay. End the set and come back to it in a week or two and try for 5 x 100s at the fast new pace. Once you can complete 10 x 100s holding 1:20 to 1:22 per 100 on a 1:50 send-off, reduce the send-off time to 1:45 and repeat the process.

This ratcheting process helps you improve average pace for longer sets.

Bike focus

For triathletes who typically train alone during race season, join a group ride in the off-season. Learn group riding skills that include drafting and paceline work. Ask around to find a friendly group that pushes the pace during parts of the ride and then regroups.

This no-wait, no-drop format gives you the opportunity to try to stay on the wheels of the fastest riders. You may find that the goal of staying on a fast wheel will have you producing power numbers you’ve never seen before. If you do get dropped, the regrouping point gives you another chance to challenge yourself.

Experienced triathletes can keep this fast group ride in the mix throughout several weeks of the off-season. This makes high-intensity efforts more fun and less structured. To get the most out of these group rides, make sure you have fresh legs. This means reducing run frequency, duration and intensity.

Swimming doesn’t have as much of an effect on cycling as running does; but, I still advise to decrease swimming during your bike-focus time as well because swimming affects overall body fatigue.

In addition to the group ride, add a second workout mid-week to improve cycling power. Counter-intuitive for triathletes is a shorter workout that includes all-out sprint efforts that are some 10 to 30 seconds long with very generous recovery (four to five minutes.) I call these Miracle Intervals.

Another option for triathletes is to try the sport of cyclocross. The races are short, intense and include obstacles and running.

Run focus

A great way to improve run speed is to train for fall or winter running races. The three distances I favor are 5K, 10K and half-marathon.

To really optimize running requires a decrease in cycling volume and intensity. Use your pool time for the purpose of recovery from running, so swimming volume and frequency is reduced as well.

Adding additional running days can be beneficial; but, should be done with caution by slowly increasing weekly running volume.

Because many triathletes are forced to run early morning or after work when it is dark, the off-season is a good time to use a treadmill for quality workouts. One workout series I like is what I call a treadmill-track workout. The first workout in the series is below.

After a good warm-up do:

1-3 repetitions that are 3:30 long at a pace that is 8 percent faster than your current 10K pace. Recovery interval is 3:30 jogging.
1-3 repetitions that are 2:30 long at a pace that is 8 percent faster than your current 10K pace. Recovery interval is 2:30 jogging.
1-3 repetitions that are 1:30 long at a pace that is 8 percent faster than your current 10K pace. Recovery interval is 1:30 jogging.
1-3 repetitions that are 45 seconds long at a pace that is 8 percent faster than your current 10K pace. Recovery interval is also 45 seconds of jogging.

Be sure to leave enough time to cool down at an easy pace.

There are endless ways to stay active and motivated in the off-season. Having a single-sport focus is one way. No matter what you choose to do, know that consistency trumps all. That means stay moving and active – don’t let the couch swallow you up.

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Recovery. The given time for the body and mind to rest, rebuild and earn performance gains. Without it, the possibility of injury, overtraining and burnout may increase, leading to poor performances.

In other words, prioritizing recovery is a good thing to do within your daily training plan.

There are many tools and techniques available to athletes that aid in recovery, but not many address both the mind and the body simultaneously. Studies highly support the importance of not only resting the body for recovery purposes, but giving the mind a chance to reboot as well.

Yoga offers techniques that incorporate body postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), and mental focus practices (i.e. meditation, visualization) that can be used to enhance your recovery time and get you ready to attack the next training session.

Below are four postures and techniques that help stimulate the parasympathetic (rest and rebuild) system, aid in releasing muscular tension and increase mindfulness or mind/body awareness.

First is a pranayama that focuses on effectively using the diaphragm for the breath. Following are three asanas that target areas of the body that are repeatedly stressed during swim, bike, and run training sessions.

Pairing these postures with the diaphragmatic breath deepens the relaxation effect. Since you have already stressed these areas during training, there is no need to work it further during the recovery process.

These poses require no muscle engagement and offer multiple modifications to best suit your needs and your comfort levels. You want to be able to hold each posture without the need to move or adjust.

It is recommended to begin holding each posture between three and seven minutes to allow for the greatest benefit.

The Breath: Easy Pose – Sukhasana

10255-enhance-your-recovery-these-four-yoga-poses-fig1

Purpose and Benefits

Engages the diaphragm, elicits full lung capacity, and clears out stale air in the lungs; stimulates the parasympathetic system.

Targeted Areas

Spine, diaphragm

How To

Begin by emptying the lungs full of air, then inhale through the nose allowing the chest to rise first, then the belly. Exhale out through the nose by drawing the diaphragm in and up allowing the belly to press in towards the spine, then the chest follows. Repeat this sequence encouraging the diaphragm to control the breath. If it becomes uncomfortable at any time, take a few normal breaths, and then come back to the sequence.

Modifications

Sit on top of folded blankets, towels, or a bolster; sit with the feet hugging the sides of the bolster or lie in corpse pose (Savasana), place the hands on the chest and belly to monitor the breath, lengthen the exhale.

Reclining Supported Hero Pose – Supta Salamba Virasana

10255-enhance-your-recovery-these-four-yoga-poses-fig2

Purpose and Benefits

Releases tension in targeted muscles and joints.

Targeted Areas

Chest, abdomen, front of the hip, front of the thigh.

Modifications

Lie on folded blankets or a bolster, sit on top of blocks or folded towels, rolled-up towels underneath the ankle joint, lengthen the exhale.

Child’s pose – Balasana

10255-enhance-your-recovery-these-four-yoga-poses-fig3

Purpose and Benefits

Improves range of motion for targeted joints, stimulates the parasympathetic system.

Targeted Areas

Low back, hips, ankles.

Modifications

Lie on a bolster, place rolled-up towels underneath the ankle joint, place a folded towel or a blanket behind the knee joint.

Reclining Spinal Twist – Jathara Parivartanasana

10255-enhance-your-recovery-these-four-yoga-poses-fig4

Purpose and Benefits

Releases tension in targeted muscles, enhances blood circulation around abdominal organs aiding in digestive health.

Targeted Areas

Core, chest, outer hip.

Modifications

Place the top leg on top of stacked blankets, towels, or a bolster.

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When it comes to longer distance racing, the potential for a significant hydration fail is high.

So, it’s well worth thinking strategically about what fluid and electrolytes you’re taking in, in order to minimize the chances of the wheels coming off.

Hydration fails in longer races tend to take one of three common forms:

Dehydration
Overhydration / hyponatremia
GI issues / sickness

Dehydration

Dehydration is not quite as common as most people think. It occurs if you fail to replace an adequate amount of water in relation to what you’re losing in your sweat. But, the degree to which you have to be dehydrated for performance to suffer is debatable, with no bullet proof consensus, mainly because it’s a very individual thing.

Although there’s clearly a potential risk of dehydration in longer—and especially hotter—races and particularly if you have a very high sweat rate, only a few athletes actually tend to suffer from a really high degree of uncorrected fluid loss because access to drinks is usually very good on the modern race course.

Though it varies from course to course, in IRONMAN 70.3 and IRONMAN distance events, drinks tend to be available every 10 miles or so on the bike and every one or two miles on the run.

Combine that with the fact that carrying one, two or even three bottles on the bike is pretty easy and it’s clear why most athletes don’t ever get near the point where they completely run out of fluid and become excessively dehydrated.

This is primarily because thirst (the main symptom of impending dehydration) is a very powerful motivator to drink, so you naturally reach for a bottle or cup when it starts to become very noticeable.

Essentially, when it comes to avoiding severe dehydration (though not necessarily maximizing overall performance), just drinking to avoid excessive thirst is likely to be adequate to prevent this from happening in most cases.

One exception to this rule can be when athletes with extremely high sweat rates and/or very salty sweat are doing races in hot/humid conditions. Here sweat rates can massively outstrip the ability to take in and absorb fluid through the gut.

Another exception are novice athletes who may not be as good at listening to their bodies and spotting the early signs of thirst when engaging in a strenuous activity, so that they become a bit too dehydrated before they realize they need to do something about it.

These athletes tend to benefit from a more proactive approach to hydrating early in the bike leg of long races in order to manage the loss of fluids and electrolytes that occurs over the full duration of a race.

This might involve drinking to a plan early on in the race and even drinking somewhat ahead of thirst (and consuming significant amounts of sodium if you sweat a lot). This tactic ideally needs to be based on some thorough testing in training to avoid going too far the other way and falling foul of over-hydration though.

More is definitely not always better when it comes to drinking in races.

Overhydration

Overhydration has been studied very extensively in the last 10 to 15 years because a number of athletes have died from it (or more accurately from hyponatremia which is the end result of drastically over consuming fluids low in sodium before or during a sweaty activity).

One study conducted at IRONMAN Frankfurt found that around 10 percent of finishers exhibited blood sodium levels classifying them as hyponatremic—a condition that is likely driven largely by the diluting effect of over-consuming water and other drinks low in sodium and possibly made worse in some cases by high sweat sodium losses.

Whilst no athletes died from the condition during the study, and only a few needed to be admitted to hospital, the fact that a significant proportion of the field were suffering these performance-harming symptoms tends to suggest that over-drinking is quite a widespread issue at longer triathlon events.

Unsurprisingly, avoiding overhydration basically involves not drinking too much!

However doing this may not be quite as simple as it sounds when you’re also trying to maximize your performance. That’s because preserving your hydration status does help to reduce cardiovascular strain when you’re pushing yourself hard over multiple hours. There’s a balance that needs to be struck.

As with avoiding dehydration, drinking water solely to the dictates of thirst has been widely touted as the best way to avoid hyponatremia. The theory being that because thirst ought to be an accurate reflection of the body’s need for water, responding to it should keep everything in balance.

But, as is the case for avoiding dehydration, practical experience shows that for a lot of athletes doing this may not be effective in longer distance races if they have very high sweat rates and/or they’re losing a lot of sodium in their sweat. Large sodium losses can blunt your thirst mechanism and result in fluid intake that fails to maintain blood volume and can compromise performance.

An interesting recent study of half IRONMAN athletes during a race in Spain demonstrated that those who took in salt capsules and then drank to thirst actually drank more water during the race. They maintained their blood volume better and performed around 26 minutes faster on average than a control group of athletes who took a placebo supplement that contained no salt.

This, along with a huge amount of anecdotal evidence from athletes who supplement with sodium during long races with positive results, strongly suggest that a degree of sodium supplementation is a very important part of the picture when sweat losses are high over longer races.

At Precision Hydration we’ve developed a free online Sweat Test to help athletes determine whether their sodium losses are likely to be low, moderate, high or very high and to give some advice on where to start experimenting with personalizing their sodium and fluid intake during a race.

Another point worth mentioning here is that quite a lot of athletes have a tendency to increase their fluid intake in the days before a race in order to try to prevent dehydration. Whilst a small increase in intake can be a good idea, excessive drinking can set you up to fail by diluting the body’s electrolyte levels before you even start sweating, making performance-damaging hyponatremia more likely on the day. For more advice on how to start hydrated, read this.

GI Issues/Sickness

Another hydration fail that happens a lot in longer distance triathlon racing is ending up feeling bloated and nauseous or even being sick.

Gastrointestinal (GI) issues are more of a risk during races (especially when it’s hot or you’re working very hard) partly because blood flow to your gut is compromised at the exact same time you’re likely to be throwing a lot of food and fluid at it to stay fueled and hydrated.

The gut’s ability to process and absorb calories and liquids is hampered by the low blood flow to it and everything can “back up,” making you feel horribly bloated and sick.

GI issues also often occur when athletes get the ratio of fluids to carbohydrates in drinks wrong. This can be a big problem for anyone using more traditional sports drinks that fall into the isotonic or hypertonic categories (meaning they are of similar or slightly higher concentration to your blood stream respectively). Think Gatorade, Lucozade Sport or other similar powdered energy drinks that mix up to a 6 to 7-percent carbohydrate solution.

Isotonic or hypertonic drinks are very good at delivering large amounts of energy into your system very quickly. This makes them suitable for situations when energy requirements are higher relative to fluid requirements (short, fast events in cool conditions for example) but it also means that they can start to bung up your stomach during longer and hotter events where your fluid and electrolyte needs are much higher in relative terms.

For this reason I’d strongly recommended sticking with hypotonic drinks (i.e. those that are of a significantly lower concentration than your blood). Leave your fluids for hydration and get the lion’s share of your energy from solid or semi-solid foods instead. Most people’s guts tend to respond better to this than to combining all of your fluid, electrolyte and fuel needs into a single milkshake-like solution.

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The IRONMAN World Championship is one of the few racing venues where all athletes are weighed at registration. An unlucky few repeat that process when they hit the medical tent later in their racing day.

No athlete plans their race by thinking “OK, body marking, check. Tires, check. Pre-race pee, good swim and then crash my bike so I end up with medical.” Right?

I think it’s fair to say that none of the folks who actually end up partaking of the services offered by the medical team expected to end up there when their race day began.

Racing triathlon is not an exact science. There’s a good deal you can do, however, to lessen your chances of an unplanned visit to medical just as you can plan your transitions thoroughly to require the least amount of time.

Like Crocodile Dundee says to Sue Charlton when describing how the Pitjantjatjara Aborigines can walk at night through the forest without hitting anything, “They think their way through.”

If, well before the gun goes off signaling the start of your race, like the Pitjantjatjara you ”think your way through” the event, you’ll have a safer, more enjoyable day.

I’ve heard it said that your race planning should be broken up into at least three major areas of consideration:

Race day conditions
Mechanical issues
Your current overall level of race readiness

One Sunday morning after a recent IRONMAN World Championship, I talked with one of the med tent docs about how things went from his perspective in the big tent next door to the King Kamehameha Hotel, aka IRONMAN Race Headquarters.

His initial impression was that the harshness of that year’s race-day conditions led to both an increased number of “customers” and a setback in their arrival. In other words, as the day progressed and the famed ho’o Mumuku winds picked up, it began to take the athletes who needed medical help longer to reach the medical tent, which likely made their condition even worse by the time they arrived.

The ferocity of the famed Hawaiian winds bearing that name, which roughly translated means “the winds that blow both ways,” are just one of life’s little pleasures on the rugged Kona coastline. These winds are how you can have a headwind both ways on an out-and-back course.

A direct crosswind outbound really makes the bikers lean into it, and a quartering head wind inbound can make it so they even have to pedal going downhill on occasion.

On this particular year, these winds were especially evident in the northern part of the island not far from Hawi, the halfway bike turnaround, which were later described by uber-coach Joe Friel “as bad as I‘ve ever seen it.” And he’s seen a lot.

On this particular year’s race day, the breezes slowed the second half of the bike for many, putting athletes far behind their race plans. In fact, those who’d had a slow start to the day after encountering swells in Kailua Bay were the ones most affected.

These were also the racers who could afford it the least, the older triathletes who generally spend more time on the course and could ill afford Mother Nature making an event more difficult than it already is.

Things calmed down some by mid-morning race day but there were still many DNFs, particularly in the over 70 age group—including all the athletes in the 80+ age group, male and female alike.

They credited the heinous winds for their slow progress. None of them made the bike cut off that year. Compare that to 2013 where four of the four 80-year-old elder statesmen finished, due to almost eerily calm conditions.

Many of the age group course records were set in 2013 due to these conditions.

When recalling the goings on in the med tent despite the particular rough conditions, this doc felt “there was nothing we couldn’t handle,” describing the expected dehydration, exhaustion, minor bike crashes, etc.

It was also a testament to the harshness of the day that there were, somewhat unusually, 14 athletes receiving med tent care late into the night instead of the more common two or three.

My best advice: Do your best to stay hydrated. But how? The pendulum has swung from “drink-drink-drink,” all the way back to “drink to thirst only,” and now, in my opinion, is settling somewhere in the middle.

Suffice it to say that like most things in triathlon, if not in life itself, one size doesn’t fit all. We surveyed the athletes in Kona as they walked into bike check in 2016. Of those we surveyed, 14 percent said they would drink to thirst, 70 percent had a predesigned plan, which left about 16 percent believing they would do a mixture of plan and drinking to thirst.

Noted Sports Nutritionist Asker Jeukendrup is quoted as noting that “any serious athlete who’s worked very hard leading up to an event and wants to perform should go into that event with a plan.”

In general terms, drinking to thirst may be more appropriate for the slower athlete or an event where the conditions are less challenging. Use the early parts of a race for fluid and carbohydrate absorption, when later in the event, even though you may be thirsty, the gut may not absorb as much.

Don’t drink excessively and use common sense with a long range goal of slight weight loss, say between 2 to 4 lbs, depending on your start weight by the finish line. You definitely want to avoid weight gain, a clear sign of over drinking. Remember that hydration starts before the race.

We know that cardiac issues have claimed their share of victims over the years. Statistics tell us that the most frequent sufferers are first time triathletes, and middle aged or older participants.

Some would suggest that a pre-race cardiological clearance is always in good taste. As a physician, I’d have to say I agree with them on that point.

Race within your own personal limitations, don’t allow the monotony of 112 miles on the bike get your guard down, and you’ll never know the sensations of lying on a cot watching the volunteer nurse trying to decide in which vein to start big bore IV.

With perfect pre-race preparation, the next tent you see will be the one filled with food, smiles and finisher medals—not doctors.

Got Big Island fever? We’ve got the cure. Check out our pre-race predictions, course tips, race-week interviews and post-race analysis from the 2017 IRONMAN World Championship right here.

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Racing in the IRONMAN World Championship is more than just a bucketlist item to check off—it’s a life-changing event that puts you in the company of a select few of the world’s best endurance athletes.

If you made it to the starting line, chances are you’ve raced enough to understand the demands that an IRONMAN will put upon your body, and you’ve been training consistently enough to be ready to take on this challenge.

However, there are a number of things about the IRONMAN World Championship course that can surprise a first-timer. Additionally, there are a few things that many athletes wish they had remembered to do at their first world championship that either would have made the day go by more smoothly, or would have allowed them to soak in the moment just a little more.

Here are five tips for IRONMAN Hawaii first timers that will help Kona newbies make the most of their day on Saturday.

1. Have a Positive (and Flexible) Goal

Many first-timers say that their only goal for the day is “to just finish,” and that’s all fine and good—but even if your particular goal for race day is not time-based, try to dial something in a bit more so you have the right mindset on race day. You want to feel the need to work toward something, but not so confined in your goal that if things don’t go perfectly as planned you’ll consider the day a complete waste.

Most Kona athletes made it to the starting line by putting very detailed time and fitness goals in place, and then training toward them diligently. If you feel fit enough to put a time goal in place for Kona, then go for it, but make sure this time is reflective of your abilities for the unique demands of the world championship course.

Goals are not meant to cause negative stress, in fact, if your race goals constantly bring you anxiety, then your ability to perform on the day will be at risk.

Think of your first-time in Kona as an opportunity to craft some race goals that bring you excitement about the challenge, not anxiety. Maybe your goal is to be able to negative split your swim, or simply be able to run the entire way through the Energy Lab.

Whatever your goal, make sure it is also somewhat flexible. The only thing one can count on during an IRONMAN is for something unexpected to pop up. Be prepared for this, and try and roll with the punches as much as possible. Losing 30 minutes because of increased headwinds or a mechanical doesn’t mean your entire day is over.

Be prepared for all the things you can control, the chief of them being your attitude. If you get a flat tire at mile 50 of the bike, throwing a tantrum while you fix it won’t make you lose any less time. It’s okay to be upset for a moment, but take a deep breath, do what needs to be done, and then focus on moving forward. It’s a long day out there for everyone.

2. Put Together a Pacing Plan

Everyone will tell you heading into your first IRONMAN World Championship to “stay within yourself” and “don’t go out too hard.” These are both very true, but it really doesn’t mean much if you don’t know what “staying within yourself” really means.

The first step to putting together a pacing plan is understanding how the particular demands of the IRONMAN Hawaii stack up against your own abilities. If you’ve never run faster than a four-hour marathon, well, chances are you won’t get a marathon PR in Kona—and that’s okay.

When it comes to doing a race like Kona, the ability to know just how hard to go so that you can still have enough gas in the tank to run a solid marathon is key.

One of the best ways to put together a pacing plan is by using predictive analysis tools, like those available through Best Bike Split, which uses your power data, course specifics and race-day conditions to help you create a perfect race plan. You can even print your power plan out and place it on your bike so you know which zones you should be in throughout your ride, which not only keeps you honest, but also helps you stay focused during your ride.

3. Put Together a Nutrition Plan

Nutrition (and hydration) are probably the biggest components of a successful day in Kona, and it cannot be stressed enough that nothing about your nutrition needs should be left up to chance on race day.

While most of your nutrition planning should start months before your race in the form of specificity training, sweat testing and learning which products work best for you—if you’ve made it this far by winging it, by all means take the time to write out a plan!

There are numerous nutrition and hydration philosophies out there (far too many for this article), but some key takeaways you should know for race day are:

Your sweat rate
Your hourly caloric and fluid needs during competition
Your pre-race fueling strategy (how much and when)

Write out a schedule for race day, starting with what you will eat and when once you get up. Be as detailed as possible, and make sure that you have some back-up nutrition and fluid options either on you or in your special needs bags.

Know beforehand if you can tolerate the options available on course, and by all means, don’t try something out for the first time on race day!

4. Practice Visualization Techniques

Spend some time before race day getting your mind in the right space for your race. Visualization techniques are a great way to do this.

Find a quiet place where you can be alone. Visualize every moment of the race, from the way you will feel when the gun goes off, all the way to that wonderful moment when you run down Ali’i Drive and cross the finish line.

Mentally prepare yourself for things that might go awry by visualizing yourself dealing with them in the best way possible.

It’s often beneficial to come up with a specific “race-day mantra.” This simple statement should be positive, action-based and comforting. Meditate on it before the race and then repeat it to yourself during the race to bring yourself strength and, most importantly, to help bring you back into the moment when things get rough.

Any time spent on your race-day mental focus will be well worth it once the gun goes off, so take the time to get away from your family and social commitments during the week to be alone with your thoughts and help craft them into positive statements you can pull from later on.

5. Realize Where You Are

For every first-time Kona athlete, there is at least one place on the course that you were excited to experience. Maybe it’s the start of the swim, the turnaround at Hawi or the famous final run down Ali’i Drive on your way to that finish line.

Wherever those parts on the course may be, make sure that you take the time to really experience them. Stay in the moment. Recognize your accomplishment—and own it. And, use them to reel you back into a positive state of mind when things get hard.

Got Big Island fever? We’ve got the cure. Check out our pre-race predictions, course tips, race-week interviews and post-race analysis from the 2017 IRONMAN World Championship right here.

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