Friday, November 18, 2011

Ten Last-Minute Ironman Tips

This pic has nothing to do with IM.  But doesn't it make you feel better about it anyway?
Ironman Cozumel is ten days from now, so each day between now and then I'll be circulating a concrete Ironman prep or racing tip to my teammates on Team Z.  Since some of these might be of broader interest for anyone staring down a daunting endurance event, I'll also post them here in realtime.  They're primarily directed toward first-time Ironman racers, but many of them are things that even burned-out, cynical old vets would do well to remember.

    1. Butterflies. It's great to have butterflies!  If you're not nervous heading into a race, it shows that you're not focused on it or your head isn't in the right place.  The best pros will tell you that they're nervous heading into every race they do.  Embrace it!  It shows that you're invested, excited, and ready to go, and your best performance is only possible when you're a little on edge.  How many things in life make us feel this way?  Not enough. So enjoy it while it lasts -- it'll be over before you know it, and you only get a first time once.  
    2. Pre-Race Sleeplessness.  Don't worry about your sleep the night of the race.  Many, many athletes -- even some of the best -- are simply too highly wound to get a full night's sleep the night of the race.  You may find yourself tossing sleeplessly at 11:00 pm, getting increasingly stressed out about your breakfast wake-up drawing ever closer, and worried that your lack of sleep could undermine months of hard work.  And, of course, the more you worry about it, the harder sleep becomes.  The last thing you want to worry about on race morning is whether your lack of sleep has set you back before the gun even goes off.  Here's the good news: the amount and quality of your sleep the night of the race isn't critical.  Some pros hardly sleep at all.  Instead, what matters most is your sleep two nights before the race.  So, if your race is Sunday morning, make sure that you hit the sack early on Friday, and don't be the first one awake on Saturday morning.  Once Saturday night rolls around, get what sleep you can, but don't fret it -- your work is done, and you'll be good to go even if you just wind up watching a movie or reading a book.  Don't take it from me: The source of this one is Paula Newby-Fraser, 8-time winner of Ironman Hawaii, and the triathlete that many would name as the greatest of all time
    3. We Aren't Calorie Camels.  When we taper for a race, the volume of exercise decreases substantially... but our appetites don't.  It's easy to justify overeating, or filling up on pizza, ice cream, and pasta (i.e., foods with a lot of calories but little nutritional value), on the theory that we're preparing for the big race.  But the simple fact is that we can't store infinite calories like a camel for a week or two before an event, and what we eat a week out has no bearing on our race day performance.  The fact remains that, at most, we have 1500-2000 calories of glycogen available to us when we're "topped off," and anything beyond that gets stored as fat.  We can easily top-off our tanks simply by shifting our normal caloric intake -- that is, our basic calorie needs assuming no heavy training -- a little in favor of carbs for a couple of days before the race.  Thus, instead of eating mainly salads and lean meats, we can start focusing more on things like pasta and sweet potatoes.  But we don't need three plates of pasta or five pounds of potatoes.  There's nothing wrong with cutting loose on the dietary front for a little bit -- just wait until after you cross the finish line to do it.  When you get to the line light and lean, your body will thank you for it.
    4. Throwing Up Isn't a Disaster. The statistics are that something like 70% of Ironman athletes experience G.I. distress at some point during the race. That's simply because it's very hard to get everything right: Drink and eat too little, and you could run out of gas. Drink and eat too much, and you can get a little bloated and unsettled. The result is that a substantial number of people wind up heaving or throwing up on the side of the road at some point during the day. I've certainly been there myself. Today's tip is simply that, although it might be alarming to get physically ill during the race, it is not the end of the world if it happens. In fact, if you find yourself getting sick to your stomach, throwing up might be the best thing you could do -- you'll probably feel much better in very short order. Getting sick isn't a sign that you're falling apart physically or that there's anything wrong with your fitness, and it doesn't mean your race is in jeopardy. Instead, it simply means that your system is disagreeing with your nutritional game plan at the moment, and suggesting you try a different approach. So just think of it as hitting your system reset button, and start to rebuild: drink a little bit afterward, and when your stomach settles, eat a bit, and go from there. For the next little while, discard the race plan and just eat and drink according to what your system tells you it wants, no matter how strange its messages might be. It's perfectly possible to have a great race despite being in bad shape for a few minutes, so don't get rattled if you go through it. It just makes for an even more epic race report!
    5. Rev It Up with V8 Juice.  Over the course of a long Ironman, one of the challenges is to keep race nutrition palatable; there's only so long one can drink flavored sugar water (Gatorade) between hits from flavored sugar packets (gels) before your system says, "enough!"  And, in hotter races, you'll probably find that you're craving something savory to counterbalance all of the sweetness, at least temporarily.  There is, fortunately, a wonderful thing that accomplishes just these goals: a small can or bottle of V8 juice.  Here are the ingredients: water and and tomato paste, and juices of celery, beets, parsley, lettuce, watercress, spinach, plus salt and seasoning. You get great things like Vitamin A, C, E, B6, potassium, calcium, magnesium, all without any fat, protein, or anything that might upset your stomach.  You also get a 420 mg of sodium per 8-ounce serving.  Best of all, when it gets warm, it tastes perhaps even better than it does cold -- think tomato soup.  There aren't many calories in it  (50 per serving), but you may find that, once or twice during an Ironman, drinking a bottle of it will reset your palate and suddenly make all of that race nutrition appealing again.  In Cozumel 2009, this stuff basically saved my life.  So, consider getting a bottle or two (it's available everywhere, including Cozumel), and sticking it in your bike and run special needs bags.  You might not need it, but then again, you may find find that it's exactly what you're in the mood for.  Of course, needless to say, don't drink it for the very first time on race day -- there aren't any strange ingredients, but you should at least try a couple of bottles in the days before the race, something that will help to top off your electrolytes in any event.
    6. Meditate on Your Inspirations.  Ask anyone who's been around Ironman for a significant period of time, or who has raced a number of them, and he'll tell you that almost every athlete in every Ironman goes through a very bleak period at some point during the day.  These events are unique in their ability to run you through the whole gamut of human emotion: anticipation, hope, despair, exuberance, depression, love, frustration, and gratitude.  This means it is very likely that, at some point, you'll be suffering mentally and physically, with the finish line hours away, and you'll wonder what possessed you to do such a crazy event.  This phase will pass; indeed, you may be surprised to find that, 15 minutes later, you're tearing up with joy and pride in what you're accomplishing.  In the meantime, the trick is to realize that your brain is messing with you.  To prepare yourself for this, in the week leading up to the event, set some time aside to reflect on the specific, and very personal, reasons why you've dedicated months or years in order to race Ironman.  We all have them; no one does something like this unless there's a drive behind it.  Perhaps you, or someone close to you, experienced a personal tragedy that compelled you to live life to its fullest.  Maybe, at some point in your life, someone told you that you'd never amount to anything.  Maybe you told yourself such a thing, and you're proving yourself wrong.   Maybe you're racing for a deeply personal cause, or because you realize how fortunate we are to have the chance to do something so remarkable.  Maybe, to paraphrase Pre, you don't want to sacrifice the gift.  Whatever your reason, spend some time in the days leading up to the race actively reminding yourself why you're there.  And then, when the tough moments in the race come, recall those reasons vividly and intensely.  Picture the reasons, hear them, and feel them.  You may find suddenly that you're ten miles down the road and flying.
    7. Before you walk, try speeding up.  It sounds crazy, but it can help.  12 hours into an Ironman, muscular fatigue can reduce many people's run to little more than a plod.  If you normally run to 9:30/mi in Z2, you could easily find yourself running 11:30/mi, a pace you haven't practiced, and for which your muscles haven't become efficient.  It may well include too much vertical bounce, which recruits quads tired from the bike, and not enough horizontal thrust, which recruits relatively fresh flutes and hamstrings.  Therefore, it could be the case that you're not too tired to run, but that you're just too tired to run in that unpracticed, inefficient manner.  So before you're forced to walk, try accelerating for a minute -- break from the plod, and dive yourself horizontally with a quick cadence.  It could be that you have more in your tank than you thought.
    8. "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."  -Theodore Roosevelt.  Sometimes our best performances come just after things look their most bleak.  I set a 40-minute Ironman run PR in Wales, on the hilliest run course I've ever encountered, after a bike ride that broke me so badly that I literally got off the bike for two minutes at mile 90 to try to rally enough to make it up the climb I was facing.  Last weekend, in Arizona, Kendra ran a seemingly impossible 3:21 and qualified for Kona, but only after (i) hitting her hand so hard in the swim that it appeared to be broken, and (ii) losing 20 minutes on the bike due to two flat tires.  Finally, in Rev3 South Carolina, pro Meredith Kessler finished third after breaking her seat on the bike and riding out of the saddle for the last 18 miles.  There are countless other examples out there of this phenomenon.  In each instance, it would have been very easy to throw in the towel mentally, and no one would have questioned that decision.  But doing so would have been an incredible tragedy because all three races will be looked back upon as tremendous personal victories; indeed, the triumph over adversity is a big part of what's meaningful in this sport and lifestyle.  So follow Teddy Roosevelt's advice: do what you can, with what you have, where you are.  Take it a step at a time, and let the future take care of itself.  Your best day may lie just ahead. 
    9. "Everybody's got plans... until they get hit."  -Mike Tyson.  It's great to have a race plan; it brings assurance and gives you something to execute.  Just remember that Ironman is, in some sense, an adventure with an incomplete map, and each one brings a different twist.  This is, I think, a good thing: a big part of what makes these races fun is that you learn something new about yourself each time.  So don't be alarmed if you find that your race plan -- whether it be pace, nutrition, or something else -- isn't going quite the way you expected.  On one level, it means you have to do some thinking, but on another, you can view the setback as a liberation, and as permission to live the adventure a little bit.  You might figure some things out that ultimately make you a stronger athlete.  Maybe you suddenly start craving something wacky like Oreos on the run -- something that you'd normally never consider eating.  Maybe you try one, and find that you feel a lot better afterward.  You've just learned that your body is smarter than any plan, and that's the real tip of the day: Listen to yourself, and listen closely.  Don't ignore the experience you've accrued, and by all means, go with the plan until you have reason not to.  But the plan is not a set of commandments, so don't be afraid to roll with the punches and listen to yourself.
    10. Have fun!  It's not a cliche, but instead is a large part of the secret of going fast. Here's an article by Ken Mierke from a couple of years ago that explains why. (Reprinted with permission.)


      © 2005 by Ken Mierke

      "Somewhere behind the athlete you've become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked for her." - U.S Olympic soccer star Mia Hamm

      I once coached an athlete through qualifying for the Navy SEALS. He was a serious triathlete, a regional champion, but his real goal was always the SEALS. After years of training for this goal, we sat down for a strategy session right before he left to take his big test. As we were leaving, I said to him, "Have fun." He was furious with me. He had worked so hard to prepare for this test, and he thought that my telling him to have fun meant I thought that he wasn't taking it seriously. Serious and fun are not opposites ? in fact, they can and should go together. Learning to bring these together on race day will lead to peak performance.

      Every athlete has had workouts and races during which producing and sustaining high heart rates was so challenging and exciting that the pain and effort almost went unnoticed. Other times, eight two-minute hill repeats can seem intolerable. Often, the difference between these two experiences is the mindset, or psychological mode, in which an athlete begins a workout or race. Few athletes understand what a powerful force this can be in training and racing. Even fewer realize that psychological mode is something that can and should be manipulated.

      Every athlete has an optimal level of psychological arousal for peak performance. If psychological arousal is too low, the athlete will be under-motivated and won't perform maximally. If arousal is too high, the athlete will suffer from anxiety, which can impair race performance. Instead of forcing yourself to gear down psychologically to avoid becoming too anxious before a race or workout, you can learn to activate a different part of your psyche that thrives on higher arousal, to maximize performance.

      Achievement mode

      Racing and very hard workouts tend to activate what we refer to as achievement mode. While in the achievement mode, athletes want to succeed: to climb faster, pass their rivals, win the race, set a new
      personal best. Unfortunately, this is not the ideal mode for racing or for hard workouts. When in the achievement mode, athletes find high arousal produces anxiety and low arousal produces feelings of peace. Of course, racing and hard workouts are extremely high arousal situations, both physically and psychologically. Maintaining high physical and emotional intensity while in this mode triggers frustration and increased perceptions of both exertion and pain, even while the athlete is performing well.

      As an exercise physiologist and coach, I realize the importance of structure in training, goal setting, and using numbers to control an athlete's training. I also realize that these numbers can take on a larger-than-life role in the athlete's mind and become more detrimental than beneficial. I remember one cyclist I coached who set a 45-second personal record in a 40K time trial in his first podium appearance, but was infuriated because he could not hold the heart rate he had planned to. Annual training plans, heart rate zones, periodization, and all the structured, goal-oriented, number-oriented tools, which are useful for preparing an athlete for peak performance, are intrinsically related to the achievement mode. These things have their time and place, but on race day the preparation is done and it is time to shift modes and go race.

      Hedonic mode

      The second psychological mode is the hedonic (pleasure-seeking) mode. In this mode, athletes swim, bike, and run to the point of exhaustion simply for the joy it brings. When in this mode, athletes find high arousal to produce feelings of challenge and excitement, while they find low arousal to be boring. This is the ideal state of mind for racing and high-intensity training, but it is not an attitude that comes naturally at these times. The pressure of performing well tends to shift serious athletes into the achievement mode at the times they most need the benefits of the hedonic mode. While we all enjoy racing and hard training, we also have goals. We train hard and race to make progress to ACHIEVE. Success is not measured by pleasure, but by results. Learning to shift into the hedonic mode at appropriate times, even though it will not be natural at those times, is critical to producing your best performances when you need to. The achievement mode is appropriate for workouts that demand discipline or must remain low intensity. Longer rides and runs with strictly controlled low intensity demand the discipline and patience provided by this mode. An athlete in the hedonic mode would find these workouts endlessly boring. Ever attacked a hill during a long base phase workout that was supposed to be kept aerobic? We all have. This is the hedonic mode kicking in. Specific work on pedal-stroke technique and other important workouts that demand concentration, but require minimal intensity may also benefit from this mode. The low intensity and arousal are not stimulating to the athlete engaged in the hedonic mode.

      Focus on Feelings, not on Numbers

      While heart rate, wattage, and miles per hour can be critical in training, sometimes used almost exclusively to govern workout intensity, I prefer to have athletes rely more on perceived exertion during races. Heart rate and wattage can be useful gauges, but overemphasis on the numbers tends to shift athletes out of the ideal psychological mode for racing. I like to teach my athletes to become intimately acquainted with how their body feels at the intensity level which will be required in their racing and to seek to reproduce those feelings on race day. Using heart rate, wattage, and even laboratory test results improves training efficiency. During this training the athlete needs to remain tuned in to perceived exertion, even as he trains by numbers, to learn to accurately and consistently perceive intensity on race day. Prepare by the numbers; race by feel.

      Enjoy the moment

      Did you ever watch Michael Jordan score 50 points in a basketball game and see the huge smile on his face? Was he smiling because he scored 50 points or did he score 50 points because he was smiling? British psychologist Dr. Michael Apter's research says the answer to both questions is yes. Great athletes in every sport are at their best under intense pressure. They fall into the hedonic mode instead of the achievement mode and the high arousal brings out their best. Great athletic performances are expressions of the joy of the sport. If you lose touch with that because of the will to achieve, your performance will suffer.

      Don't "Psyche Up"

      We do not like the idea of our athletes getting "psyched up" for races. This method of increasing arousal shifts them into the achievement mode and generally does not produce great performances. Athletes who have trained hard and long for an event will naturally be aroused come race day. The investment in training ensures this. Artificially increasing this is neither necessary nor beneficial.

      Race Day is "Payoff"

      I like to remind athletes that they invest an enormous amount in preparing for races. They train hard and with discipline. They avoid late-night partying. They eat a healthy diet. I like to have my athletes perceive race day as the payoff, something to be looked forward to, not as the final exam to be dreaded. This kind of attitude shifts the athlete toward the hedonic mode, which brings out their best on race day. Many great performances have resulted from an athlete thinking that he has stored many hours of hard training in his legs and race day he just "lets it out."

      Understanding how, when, and why to shift to the appropriate psychological mode for different workouts and races enables an athlete to enjoy discipline and control when appropriate and to relish the challenge, effort, and pain associated with high-intensity workouts and races when that is required.