Training > Long distance

Ironman race day plan: 35 tips for success

You’ve logged the countless hours of swim, bike and run training in preparation for your Ironman race. But how do you put all the pieces together to complete the 226km course? Fear not, here’s your ultimate Ironman race-day guide

The Lakesman. Ironman UK. The Outlaw. Roth, Tenby, Nice, Barcelona… whatever your Iron-distance race may be, you’re going to have a haze of logistical concerns and race-day doubts surrounding the event, even if it’s not your first one. “There’s no denying that an Ironman is unlike like any other triathlon or endurance challenge,” says Andy Blow, a man with top-10 Ironman finishes to his name. “It’s a huge undertaking and the sheer length of the event will place massive demands on your mind and body during the 226km duration. It doesn’t matter how fit you are when you get to the start line, if you don’t prepare, pace, eat and drink right, you’re likely to be heading for a nasty experience in the latter stages.”

How to train for your first Ironman

How to race your first Ironman

Triathlon Race Day Checklist

The one thing that connects almost every successful Ironman race performance – from the event’s birth 40 years ago to the present day – is a clear and concise race-week plan, which encapsulates the build-up, the race and the immediate aftermath. With that in mind, here are 35 proven tips from leading coaches, athletes and psychologists to plot your path to Ironman success…

1. Hone your taper

Everyone has their preferred approach to tapering for an Ironman. Some like to keep their training volume high all the way up to the race, others prefer to decrease the volume and rest more. Either way, race week poses its own set of challenges that can complicate your taper, whether its travelling, accommodation or acclimatising. So it’s important to have a tapering plan that’s flexible and adaptable. Nick Beer

2. Pick your kit

What clothing feels most comfortable for racing? What’s easiest to put on in transition? And what garments cause the least irritation? These are three key questions you need to answer when deciding what to wear on race day. Ironman racing takes up a good portion of the day, so you need to know that what you’re wearing won’t cause any problems. Wear your intended race kit during race-paced training sessions to help ensure there won’t be any issues when it comes to the event. Nick Beer

3. Loosen up

The months of hard work are over, the big miles have been ticked off and the final week is all about priming your body to be at its best on race day. So focus a little more on stretching, mobility and foam rolling to accelerate your recovery from training and travelling, and help you feel more energised. Additionally, it may eliminate any remaining fatigue that might still be lingering from the previous weeks’ workouts. Nick Beer

4. Keep toilet stops convenient

When you have to go, you have to go! Over the many hours of an Ironman race most athletes are going to have to relieve themselves at some point. So wear something that’s not only comfortable but which also makes pitstops simple and swift affairs. Once again, finding out in training what clothing works for you prior to the gun going off is a no-brainer. There isn’t much use in having a fantastic-looking race outfit if it isn’t practical. Spencer Smith

5.  Check your kit

Whether you have to rack your bike on the morning of the race or a day ahead, the night before you have to prepare your transition area or bag drop is a great opportunity to have all your race equipment organised and ready to go. Waking up early to forage through your drawers or suitcases to find your race kit only adds stress to any pre-race anxiety you might have. A simple but effective idea is to make a checklist of everything you’ll need for race day and going through it, checking off each item as you go to ensure nothing is forgotten. Nick Beer

6. Rehearse your travel

It’s easy to overlook the journey to the race venue. It can be difficult and expensive to stay next to the event HQ, but the challenge of getting to it increases the further away you venture. Negotiating public transport or encountering closed roads on race morning are just two of the hurdles you may run into. Rehearsing the journey a few days before your race to see how long it’ll take will ease the stress on race morning. Nick Beer

7. Mix up your race fuel menu

While a few athletes with iron-guts can do a whole Ironman on a single type of fuel (for example only energy gels or highly concentrated sports drinks), most people benefit from having a bit of variety. Solids, such as energy bars, along with water and/or hypotonic sports drinks on the bike tend to result in less GI distress than lots of sugary drinks and gels. Save the more liquid stuff for the run when eating is more difficult. Consider stashing some savoury foods in your special needs bag if you’re moving more slowly (aiming to simply complete the event, rather than compete for a top position), provided they work for you in training. Andy Blow

8. Create a what-if plan...

Prepare for all eventualities by creating a ‘What-if’ plan. Note down all your concerns and worries about the race, and work out what you can do to avoid or deal with each one of them. It seems defeatist to plan for all the things that could go wrong but it’s a great mental strategy as it’ll help you be fully prepared for every eventuality and feel more in control of the situation should one of those issues arise. Dr Jospehine Perry

9. Don’t overdo the pasta party

In the past, way too much emphasis was placed on the evening meal the night before the race – as if a  pasta party was a critical part of the build-up. Yes, of course, you need a good feed the night before you take on a 226km race, but you don’t need to overthink or overdo it. Eat familiar foods that have worked for you at previous big events. It’s arguably worth slightly increasing the carbohydrate content of your ‘last supper’ compared to a regular meal and also reducing the amount of fibre it contains. But play it safe and be sensible so that you don’t end up feeling stuffed or bloated on the morning of your race. Andy Blow

10. Prepare to rise at stupid o’clock

Most Ironman races have a very early start so the hour you set your alarm to wake you up will be obscene. Getting up at such a time can be quite a shock if you’re not used to it. During race week, you may want to get your body and mind accustomed to it by going to bed and waking up earlier than usual. Doing so can help to clear any morning grogginess and keep any negative thoughts it might lead to at bay. Nick Beer

11. Establish a morning routine

Time flies on the morning of your race. Before you know it, the gun has gone off and the race has begun. So it’s a good idea to have a routine in place to get you out of bed and to the start line as effortlessly as possible. Knowing what breakfast to eat, what clothes to wear and how the race venue is laid out are great ways to make those final few hours go more smoothly. And ensure you get to the race venue with plenty of time to spare. Nick Beer

12. Stay familiar with breakfast

The immediate pre-race feed is all about sticking to tried and tested, low-fibre and carbohydrate-based fuel. Get up early enough to give you at least 1.5-2hrs to digest it. Err on the side of liquid calories (meal replacement shakes or sports drinks) if you have a nervous stomach. A gel or 300ml of isotonic sports drink in the 20mins before the gun fires can help offset the high-calorie burn of the first few minutes of the race. Andy Blow

13. Open your mental tool kit

Having a bunch of well-practised tricks up your sleeve to help you get through any pain, exhaustion or temper tantrums is a great help. Some athletes repeat a mantra (a short phrase that reminds them of their goal or motivation to race), others distract themselves by spotting great supporter signs, making up poems in their heads or counting their steps. Dr Jospehine Perry

14. Ready the essentials

You spend a long time out in the open air when you race an Ironman. Athletes’ bodies are constantly exposed to the elements and will constantly be sweating, which can lead to a catalogue of skin conditions, including blisters, chaffing, irritations, burns and many more. It’s therefore wise to be prepared with the appropriate creams, sprays and ointments so you can apply them before, during and after the race to help make the day a bearable, if not incredible, experience. Nick Beer

15. Map out transition

Known unofficially as triathlon’s ‘fourth discipline’, transitions can be a help or a hindrance depending on how well you get through them. It’s easy to go wrong and lose vital seconds as the size and scale of an Ironman transition area can be overwhelming. Mentally mapping out the swim, bike and run exits, knowing precisely where your bike is racked and where your kit bags are placed will enable you to efficiently navigate your way through. Nick Beer

16. Get your body race ready

Once all the race-morning admin has been completed, it’s time to get your body ready to compete. A swim warm-up is ideal to acclimatise yourself to the water, but this can be challenging given the location and discretion of the race organiser. Before you put your wetsuit on, a gentle 5-10min jog with some swim and run mobility drills will help raise your heart rate and gently prepare your body for racing. Nick Beer

17. Chunk up your race

Sport psychologists call the process of mentally breaking up a big task into more manageable pieces as ‘chunking’. If you chunk up the swim, bike and run into smaller sections, each one will feel more manageable and the race, as a whole, less daunting. It’s tactically helpful, too, as it means you can pick specific but effective tactics, goals and mindsets for different parts of the race. Dr Jospehine Perry

18. Stay calm in the crowd

For many athletes, an open-water swim start is the most intimidating part of a race. Luckily many of the Ironman events now begin with a rolling start, which reduces some of the craziness you find in a crowd of competing swimmers. But saying that, you’ll still have to deal with having many thrashing athletes nearby. The key is to stay calm and keep your breathing controlled. Don’t let your already elevated heart rate get out of control. You almost need to disconnect your emotions and start the day with a robotic disposition. You can let your humanity creep back in as the race calms down and then enjoy the euphoria once you reach the finish line. Spencer Smith

19. Find some space

The key to an efficient and effective mass swim is to try and find yourself some clear water, free of ‘clutter’ (other athletes) as soon as possible. This is easier said than done but, with the long and arduous day ahead, the need to conserve energy at this early stage of the race is of paramount importance. With excitement and adrenaline running high, it’s very easy to get carried away early. Think long term. Spencer Smith

20. Sight for success

Sighting is something that you can, and should, practise many times in training. Although there’s little that will fully prepare you for the experience of a race start, the need to have practised sighting drills in the pool – or better still, in an open-water environment – is vital for building confidence. Practise, practise, practise so that, when the gun goes off on race day, you have another concern ticked off your list and you’re ready to find and keep yourself on the best route while using as little of your energy as possible. Spencer Smith

21. Expect tough times

The phrase ‘tough times don’t last but tough people do’ is ideal for Ironman. If you expect some tough times during your race, you’ll be less panicked by them and better able to ride them out. It may feel counterintuitive, but when
one of these difficult periods arises, welcome it, talk yourself through it and make peace with it. Then you look forward to the next part feeling easier. Dr Jospehine Perry

22. Keep your pace in check

I can’t stress the importance of pacing enough; it’s a vital ingredient for a successful race. It’s rare to hear of an athlete going too slow on the bike and even if you do your race can certainly be saved. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said if you go too fast. Emotions can often get the better of us, but don’t let this happen in your race. If it feels like you’re going too hard, you’re going far too hard. You can always increase the pace later on if you’ve started too conservatively, but if you’ve overextended yourself, things will get very ugly, very quickly. Remember what you’ve done in training, use the training tools at your disposal (power meter, heart rate monitor, perceived exertion) to guide you and don’t let the occasion get the better of you. Race smart and be realistic. Spencer Smith

23. Drip feed calories

Let your breathing and heart rate settle down once you’re out of the water and then start eating as early as you feel comfortable doing so on the bike. If you can start drip feeding calories in from the start of the bike, it’ll be easier to manage energy levels later on. Andy Blow

24. Balance aero and comfort

There’s sometimes a trade-off between aerodynamics and comfort. Having the most aero position doesn’t automatically translate into a faster ride. There should be a balance between aerodynamics and comfort. Once again, nothing on race day should feel new, from your clothing to your wheels, but especially your bike position. Be sure to do most of your training on the bike that you’ll be racing on so that you’ll be familiar with the sensations you get from riding it. Don’t be afraid of stretching periodically throughout the bike to prevent stiffness from setting in and also to give yourself an opportunity to refuel, which is key to having a successful race at this distance. Spencer Smith

25. Be happy

Smiling at the crowds can make your race feel easier. Recent research from Ulster University found that when runners smiled their running economy improved by 2%. Separate research from Kent University found that if
you see smiling faces, rather than frowning ones, when cycling you’re able to go faster. So smile at the crowds and, when some smile back, you’ll get double the benefit. Dr Jospehine Perry

26. Keep your fuel accessible

There are numerous ways to carry your preferred nutrition and hydration products on the bike. The precise arrangement will depend on the nature of your rig, but two universal truths must be observed: one, all items need to be easily accessible and two, make sure they’re held securely so you won’t lose them if you hit a bump. Practise opening bars and gel packets on the bike too as they can tricky to get into. Aid stations on the run mean you can avoid lugging the extra weight of fuel around on the final leg. Andy Blow

27. Use tools to prevent rookie mistakes

Getting carried away and starting way too hard is a rookie mistake that nearly everyone makes. We are, however, very fortunate in this age of technology to have tools that can prevent us from making such errors. An Ironman is such a huge undertaking that you need to keep an eye on your work rate throughout the event to ensure you make it to the finish. Tools that enable you to measure your effort (whether it’s your heart rate, power or cadence) should be used during your training, so you can learn where your limits are. Then, when it comes to the race, use those tools to ensure you stay within those limits. Spencer Smith

28. Keep tabs on your thirst, sweat and salt

Fluid intake needs to be somewhat proportional to your sweat rate, and you ought to drink more on a hot day than on a cool day as you’ll be sweating more. Use thirst as a guide for how much you need to consume but also go into the race with a decent idea of how much water you’ll need to drink each hour (based on some trial and error in training). Sodium is very important, especially if you know or think you lose a lot in your sweat, so don’t neglect it in your drinks or foods (consider salt capsules as well). Remember that drinking too much can be as bad, if not worse, than not drinking enough, so be careful not to go crazy. Andy Blow

29. Don’t discount dismounting

Every triathlete understands the importance of sticking to a game plan for the race but the body can be an unpredictable thing. Encountering an unfamiliar situation in a race can throw your plan into disarray. So having a plan that’s flexible is vital. For instance,  you’re probably not planning on stopping or getting off your bike between T1 and T2, but a situation may arise where this becomes unavoidable. Dismounting to relieve cramp or a gastrointestinal issue, although annoying, can be a better course of action than struggling on and sticking rigidly to your plan – and it could serve you well in the long term. Spencer Smith

30. Prepare to run... on the bike

The prepare for the run while you’re still on the bike  is by using a slightly smaller gear to turn your legs over slightly faster (approximately 5-10 RPM above your usual cadence). It sounds simple enough, but the key is to make sure that you’re not increasing your HR prior to dismounting. Of course, there’s plenty of time to find your legs during the final leg, but this slight increase in cadence 5-10mins prior to the transition will help ease your legs into their biggest challenge of the day – the marathon! 

31. Practise for T2

Training is the obvious place to find out what works for you, so experiment with all your kit choices in the
weeks leading up to the race. If changing into fresh clothes in T2 – and adding some light stretching – prepares you best for the marathon, then do it. There’s no right or wrong approach. Remember, you’ve sacrificed a lot of time and energy to get the most out of yourself come race day, so don’t let poor preparation be your limiting factor. Spencer Smith

32. Keep cramp at bay

Cramp is a tricky problem to deal with but, although experts rarely agree on the science behind it, sufficient sodium intake along with adequate water is often helpful in preventing it during long, hot races. Pacing is also critical, as fatigue often plays a big role in muscles locking up, so don’t get too keen too early if you’re prone to cramping. Andy Blow

33. Don’t be afraid to walk

If, during your preparation for the race, you’ve discovered that running the entire 42km of the marathon isn’t possible, don’t force it on race day. The run/walk strategy is a more reliable and effective way to get to the finish line. Run/walking gives you a chance to recover, lessens the stress on your legs, reduce your core body temperature and, perhaps more importantly, gives you a chance to actually enjoy the race atmosphere. The ratio of time (running/walking/running) used in the strategy will vary from athlete to athlete but, like all plans during a race, be flexible with it. Spencer Smith

34. Be empowered by the crowds

Very few things beat being at a big sporting event, apart from actually being a competitor in one. Training is generally quite a solitary affair, but all that changes once race day arrives. The atmosphere is palpable and, when you couple that with the feeling of camaraderie from your fellow athletes, it gives you a huge boost. My only word of warning is don’t get carried away too early – remember the day is a long one. So measure your excitement over the entire race and save the best for last… the finishing chute! Spencer Smith

35. Go with the (post-race) flow

Generally following your cravings in the immediate aftermath of an Ironman is a good way to guide your refuelling. Thirsty? Get some water (and probably some salt with it) to rehydrate properly before you grab a celebratory beer. Craving sweets or ice-cream? You’re probably low on carbs so don’t shy away from the sugary stuff. If pizza and chips sound more appealing it might be your body telling you it needs salts and fats, so go with the flow. Your body generally knows what it needs – listen to what it’s trying to tell you and you’ll know what to go for. Andy Blow


 
 

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