Monday, August 13, 2012

Should one race two Ironmans in a year?

It's that crazy time of year once more: Ironman signup season, and especially for people on a team, it's easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm (or peer pressure, depending on one's point of view).  It's like a perverse sort of adult Christmas morning, hitting refresh on one's web browser in the desperate hope to have the privilege of paying $700-$1,200 in order to compete in an Ironman a year out.

Lately a couple of newer athletes have asked whether it's feasible to compete in more than one Ironman in a year -- Ironman Lake Placid in July and then Florida in November, or perhaps CDA/Arizona.  It's tough to know how to answer this question.  I've done it twice, IMUSA/Cozumel in 2009, and then Wales/Cozumel in 2011, and I have distinctly mixed feelings on it.

As an initial matter, I firmly believe that most athletes these days jump too quickly to Ironman from short distance races.  It's almost like people view Ironman as the only race worth doing, or at least as the clear "ASAP" goal, even if the goal is only to finish under 17 hours.  I don't understand why.  If the goal is to do your best at Ironman, as opposed to merely finish it, the optimal approach almost certainly is to spend at least a couple of years training very hard and competing at shorter distances first.  It's much easier to add endurance to speed than to add speed to endurance.  Almost every top-level Ironman triathlete was first a world class short-course triathlete, and the same holds for marathoners, who often were tearing up the 5,000m or 10,000m distances before going longer.  People who move quickly to competing in Ironmans often find that they don't get much faster in the course of training for those events.

On a personal note, I don't think that there's anything inherently more impressive about Ironman races than Olympics or half-IMs.  Going all-out in shorter races is painful as hell, and people who do it successfully must be hard as nails.  It's also possible to have considerably more of a life outside of the sport.  I think there's a great argument for simply focusing on short-course races for a long time.

All of which is to say, before deciding whether to sign up for two Ironmans in a year, I think it's worth asking seriously whether it's in your best interest to sign up for even one.  Assuming you're firmly committed to racing at least one Ironman, my view is that racing a second one doesn't require too much more, at least physically.  If one were to race IMUSA in July, it's easy to take two or three weeks off, and then to ramp up the training again in mid August, and to push through November or whenever the second race might be.  There's the risk of overuse injury, of course, but I don't think this is dramatically higher simply because one does a second Ironman a few months after the first.

But this isn't to say that I think doing a second one is a good idea.  Rather, the point is that the chief sources of difficulty in adding the second Ironman are mental, emotional, and social, rather than physical.  When you're signing up for races a year out, a two-Ironman season sounds exciting and romantic.  But consider the reality of how triathlon training is often structured.  Ironman athletes often are told spend the winter training for a marathon, and then to roll the running fitness over into triathlon once the weather warms up enough to make cycling outdoors enjoyable.  In practice, someone might start training in December for a March marathon.  After the marathon's done, you're staring directly at triathlon season, and the ramp up to the first Ironman quickly begins.  After the July race, you takes a couple of weeks off, and then you train intensely again through the second Ironman in November.

Add up all of the training and racing commitments, and you find yourself training hard from December of the first year straight through November of the second year.  I'm about as motivated as athletes come, but I'll tell you that this is not trivial.  Even if you're not injury-prone, training at that level requires regular sacrifices of your social or family life, and it is virtually impossible to keep motivation from flagging.  It's quite likely that, after you race a marathon and the first Ironman and is staring at the second, you won't be jazzed about 120-mile bike rides and 20-mile runs.  The second Ironman can easily come to seem more like an arduous obligation, rather than a fun goal.  And, because you've already finished one Ironman, it's all too easy to take the training for granted since the fear factor no longer looms as large.  As a result, the second race often doesn't go very well.

In sum, in my experience, there's nothing more likely to kill your enjoyment of endurance sports than to train for an Ironman for which you're not enthusiastic, and that enthusiasm very difficult to predict a year or more out.  If you do make it through the second Ironman successfully, it's very likely that you'll be extremely burned-out afterward.  The most natural thing will be to take a few months off, only to find the next spring that all of the benefit from the work you put in the year before has disappeared.  It can be extremely frustrating.

To be sure, there are some people who can train for Ironman after Ironman without batting an eyelash.  They simply love the lifestyle and there's nothing they'd rather be doing.  I think, however, that such people are a small minority, and it's very dangerous to ascribe those characteristics to yourself before you've been around the sport for awhile.  Most people simply need to recharge their batteries, to reconnect with family and friends, to read books, to travel without a bicycle, and generally to do other things.  I don't mean to judge either type of person -- different strokes for different folks.  It's just that you should be honest with yourself about which camp you're in, and it's very difficult to know that you'll be motivated to train for two Ironmans before you've even trained for the first one.

If you do decide to commit to a two-Ironman year, my view is that it might be a mistake to train for a marathon during the winter before.  Instead, you might be better off training for a hard 5k or 10k.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is mental: if you're going to be training for two Ironmans in a row, the chief difficulty is going to be motivational, so don't tap that well any earlier than you need to.  Three-hour runs during the dead of winter can be extremely draining, and it might be better to spend the winter on short, fast training that isn't as much of a burden on your life.  The second reason is physical: if you're is training for two Ironmans, then you're probably not going to get much faster in that time.  You'll get get better at going longer at a steady effort, but training for Ironman is not the way to get fast.  In fact, it may actually make you slower.  The general philosophy of periodization is that your training should get more race-like as the goal race approaches, and for Ironman, that means very long runs and rides.  The flip side of the equation is that, the further you are from the goal race, the more you should be focusing on other limiters.   Spending the winter really working on top-end cycling and running speed can pay huge dividends once it comes time to go longer.

On the subject of winter marathons, a couple of years ago the guys at Endurance Nation put out a couple of videos explaining why, in their view, people training for Ironman should consider not running a winter marathon.  This view is controversial, but I personally agree with it.  Here's the first:


And here's a follow-up:


Admittedly, although these videos reflect my personal views, I haven't always practiced what I'm now preaching.  Last year I trained very hard for a winter marathon, and in fact I wound up running two, at Shamrock and Eugene.  I then went on to race Ironmans Wales and Cozumel.  The reason I ran the marathons, though, was that I had a specific goal of qualifying for Boston, and that goal was entirely unrelated to my desire to do well at Ironman.  Indeed, when I got back on the bike in May, after my second marathon, I was utterly useless for a couple of months.  It was not pretty.  It's also true that I finished Ironman Cozumel utterly demoralized and injured; I took fully two months off of training, and really wanted nothing to do with endurance sports for quite awhile.  It's not an outcome I'd recommend pursuing.

In all, I'd suggest making enjoyment of the sport the highest priority.  Life's too short to do anything else, and certainly you should be careful not to get swept up in others' enthusiasm.  Make the choice for the right reasons, and be honest with yourself about why you're doing it, what you're sacrificing to make it happen, and what you're trying to get out of it.