When David McNamee left the British Triathlon programme at the end of 2014 realising that slipstreaming the Brownlee brothers for a place at the Rio Olympics was beyond him, few raised an eyebrow. The Scot had always been a solid all-rounder at ITU level, with half-a-dozen top-10 finishes in the World Triathlon Series and a seventh-place on home soil in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
But while he was without weakness, neither did he possess a standout discipline that would push him to the forefront of selection and become a major Games contender. Almost four years on, and McNamee has proven himself as history’s greatest British male Ironman racer.
Tim Don may have set the Ironman-branded world record last year, but McNamee has never been beaten by a compatriot over the distance, and after Ironman World Championship finishes of 11th and 13th, he broke through last year to finish third. In bettering Spencer Smith’s fifth place from 1998, McNamee also stopped the clock at 8:07.11 – the seventh fastest time ever on the Big Island.
In 2018 he went faster, clocking 8:01:09, which itself was the third-fastest Hawaii time in history.
So how has he made the move from Olympic-distance racing to Ironman with such success? And what guidance does he have for age-group iron athletes of every level? Here the Scot guides you to a storming 226km in 2019 with his ultimate Ironman advice.
HIT THE OPEN WATER
Want to tackle a 3.8km Ironman swim? Then practise in open water at every opportunity. Most Ironman triathletes will be swimming for a minimum of 60mins without stopping: you simply can’t replicate that in the pool. Every time you reach the wall, you can have a rest and gain impetus from the push-off. Without being truly dedicated to open-water sessions, triathletes often struggle over the 3.8km distance, not through lack of fitness, but because their back and arm muscles are simply not conditioned to the constant turnover.
TRAIN IN NEOPRENE
Whether you’re training in open water or predominantly limited to pool swimming, I believe most triathletes should be practising in their wetsuits at least once a week. You might feel silly because you stand out – and pool swims may have to be limited in duration because of overheating – but, due to the increased buoyancy provided by the added neoprene thickness, your body position in the water completely changes when you wear neoprene, and you need to adapt and be comfortable with this. Just check that your pool allows wetsuits.
SIGHT FOR SUCCESS
Don’t just rely on following the feet in front of you come race day. All triathletes need to be able to sight and sighting only improves with practice. Many age-groupers swim extra distances unnecessarily because of poor navigation skills, but whether you choose to sight before or after you take a breath, remember the higher you lift your head, the lower your hips will drop. I sight more at the start of the race to clock where the lead swimmers are. Then a rule of thumb is every 20-30 strokes, but sight more frequently if you need to build confidence.
BIG GEAR, LOW CADENCE
Improving your strength on the bike is key to a strong Ironman cycle leg, and this is where competitors can struggle. I do a lot of my training pushing a bigger gear at a lower cadence. I typically race at a cadence of 90rpm (rotations per minute), so an example session would be an interval set of 4 x 10min at 70.3 race pace with a cadence of 60 to 70rpm. The rest period between efforts would be 5mins with the cadence pushed to 100 to get the legs spinning.
TRAIN FOR TRI-BARS
Train more in the aero position. It’s great to see age-groupers out on their time-trial bikes, but many spend too much time on the hoods without becoming accustomed to the position they need to use on race day. You need to train this so your back and neck muscles strengthen to hold your head, and you become adjusted to pedalling with a more closed-off hip angle. It’s particularly important to stay aero during race-pace intervals.
You don’t have to spend a fortune, but it’s crucial to have a well-fitted tri-suit to help with aerodynamics. When I went into the velodrome to test the most recent version of my Huub Anemoi tri-suit, I saved an extra six watts. That might not sound a lot, but over 180km of riding it can equate to a 5min saving.
FEEL THE POWER
They may not be cheap but, if you’re serious about your Ironman racing, one of the best tech investments you can make is a power meter. I’d never used one through my ITU draft-legal racing career and simply didn’t realise how beneficial it could be. Even if you choose to race on feel, using a power meter in training will allow you to measure your progress and understand what effort you should be able to sustain come race day. If you can combine power with heart-rate, then you have the best of both worlds.
DON’T SKIP THE LONG RUN
One of the key sessions for Ironman is the long run, and one of my favourites is this 30km set.
Warm-up 3km easy
Main session 3 x 7km at 5-10secs faster than desired Ironman pace, which for me is around 3:40mins per kilometre pace. Jog 2km between each effort.
Cool-down 2km easy.
The pace shouldn’t feel scorchingly fast, but it’s all about building an aerobic base and conditioning the body to give it the best chance of turning the legs over quickly enough during the latter part of the Ironman marathon.
PREP FOR TIRED LEGS
Doing an Ironman-specific brick session is also a great idea. Ideally after your long bike of the week, or at least after a hard bike session. Aim to run 10-15km after the bike at Ironman goal pace. It’s also a chance to test your race nutrition and become accustomed to the feeling of your race pace on tired legs.
PACING IS KEY ON RACE DAY
Pacing is critical to Ironman success and limiting your suffering. Over the first 5km, just slip into an easy rhythm and take stock of your nutrition strategy. Have you over/under fuelled on the bike? What are your plans for the upcoming aid stations? Once you shake off the initial stiffness from the bike, it should feel easy at this point, so don’t get too excited, too early. It takes confidence to hold back, but if you pace properly, you’ll pass a lot more people over the final 5-10km than you will in the first 5-10km. And passing people late in the race is great for motivation.
ACTIVATE THE MUSCLES
I still do run drills twice a week, but many stepping up to long-distance racing forget muscle activation work. One of my favourites is a walking high knee lift. The key here is to make sure that you engage your glutes not your lower back – a way to ensure that your glutes are firing is by simply lifting your arms above your head. Even if you can improve your run technique by just 1% it makes a big difference over 42.2km.
Muscle activation exercises: how they work and why they are important
INVEST IN YOUR A-RACE
Building my season towards one big race – i.e. Kona – could add pressure, knowing that I’ve made a conscious choice for it to define my year. But there’s another way to look at it. Focusing on a key ‘A’-race allows you more time to prepare and invest in your training, ready for that one big day. It’s like paying into a savings account. When it comes to making that withdrawal on race day, it should come with added interest.
NERVES ARE GOOD
The pre-race nerves before an Ironman are almost unavoidable. In fact, if you didn’t have them, it’d probably be time to call it quits. Seeing any nervousness as a positive to get the adrenaline pumping is the way I look at it. All the work in training has already been done, so although bad luck might happen - after all, it is a long day - being worried about it isn’t going to change anything.
ACCEPT THE IRON CHALLENGE
One of the best mantras for Ironman racing is that of acceptance. Accept that any race involving a 3.8km swim, 180km bike and a 42.2km marathon run is going to be a long day and that you will go through bad patches both mentally and physically. But you also need to understand and believe that you’ll recover from any lows and make it to the finish line of one of the world’s true endurance challenges.