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Ironman training: how to use the off-season to assess and prepare

The key to lronman improvement is constant monitoring of your efforts. That’s why now’s the time to get testing, says Joe Friel

The key to lronman improvement is constant monitoring of your efforts. That’s why now’s the time to get testing, says Joe Friel  

At the start of every off-season I spend a few days with each of my athletes for a thorough evaluation, before starting them on their base training periods. The purpose is to find any critical areas that need attention.   Some are always found; many are corrected quickly, while others take some time.

Either way they start the base period ready to get the most from their training, which is always rewarded with more consistent training and better racing in the ensuing months.   So here are the assessments I use with my athletes. You’ll get a great deal of benefit from doing some or all of these on your own. Improved performance starts now.  

Physical assessment

Each of my athletes is examined from head to toe by a physical therapist who has experience working with endurance athletes.

What the physio looks for is weak muscles, muscular imbalance, joints with restricted or excessive ranges of motion, leg-length discrepancies, core strength weaknesses, or anything else that may lead to injury or reduce performance.

This usually takes about an hour. After the examination, the physio provides the athlete with strength and stretching exercises that will help correct the physical limiters that were found along with recommendations for the bike fit and special equipment needs such as type of running shoe.  

Physiological testing

Next my athletes have a gas-analysis test done on a bike by an exercise physiologist, who is also experienced working with endurance athletes.

This is usually called a VO2 max test, although a lot more is discovered about the athlete’s physiology than just aerobic capacity.

In fact that’s the least important outcome of this test, as we also find out his or her aerobic and anaerobic thresholds along with valuable information on the body’s preference for using fat or carbohydrate for fuel. This latter point is especially critical for long-course athletes for whom the rate at which carbs must be taken in is critical.  

I always have this test done on the athlete’s bike since I believe that is the key to success in triathlon. But with a day or so of rest after the bike test the athlete can also do a running test. Such testing may be available to you through a health club, university physiology department, endurance coach or sports store such as a bike shop, tri or running store.  

Nutritional appraisal

Other than training and sleep, nothing affects performance as much as what you eat. Each of my athletes has a nutritional assessment done in the winter to see if there are areas for improvement. The results sometimes dovetail quite nicely with the metabolic aspect of the physiological test.

For example, the more starch the athlete eats, the more likely the test is to show the body using carbohydrate (read sugar) for fuel. The reverse is also true. Getting carbs primarily from fruits and veggies instead of starch trains the body to rely more on fat for fuel. That’s good for aerobic fitness.  

We also discover in the nutritional assessment how the athlete is doing in terms of vitamins and minerals. Find a nutritionist who specialises in endurance sport.

In general, I advise my athletes to eat mostly meats from free-range animals, ocean- or stream-caught fish, shellfish, vegetables and fruits, while using starches (cereals, pasta, bread, bagels, rice, corn and potatoes) primarily as recovery foods.

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