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

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

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

Skills assessment   In The Triathlete’s Training Bible (www.amazon.co.uk) I describe how important it is to performance for the triathlete to have efficient swim, bike and run skills.

Most triathletes could improve their performance more by working on their skills, especially for swimming and running, rather than on what is typically  called ‘fitness’.  

I make video recordings of the athlete’s movement patterns for each sport and then we discuss them looking for areas of improvement. This can be an eye-opening experience for the athlete who may never have seen such visual feedback on technique.  

Some make gross movement errors; for others we’re simply refining what is already pretty good technique. Swim and run coaches can provide this service for you. For the bike the starting place for skill enhancement is a bike fit…

Bike fit  

When it comes to riding a bike fast the starting place is having a bike that is not only the right size, but is also adjusted to fit the athlete’s unique body proportions and physiological demands (as discovered by the physical assessment).  

The bike fit is done for each of my athletes every winter, even if they’ve still got the same bike from the previous year and it was properly fitted prior to that season. Things change. The athlete gets stronger or weaker, more or less flexible, leaner or fatter…  

There may also be a change in the A-priority race distance for the coming season. The bike set-up for an Ironman is significantly different than for an Olympic-distance race. Bike shops often provide this service.   

Equipment assessment  

I always check my athletes’ equipment to make sure it isn’t slowing them down or contributing to a potential injury. This could be a poorly fitting wetsuit or worn-out running shoes. 

I require each of them to have a heart rate monitor, power meter for their bike and a speed-distance device for running as I know that accurate data can improve training – if they know how to use them. Such gear is not particularly cheap – but then neither is the sport of triathlon.  

In short, starting the triathlon season with such a thorough evaluation will do wonders for your performances next season.

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Joe Friel is the co-author of ‘Going Long: Training for Ironman-Distance Triathlons’. For more information on training visit his blog at joefrielsblog.com.