As I explained in a previous post, training should become increasingly like the race the closer you get to race day. The problem with that rule is apparent when training for an Ironman triathlon. You simply can’t do workouts that are really like that distance of race too often. It’s too demanding on both the body and the mind. But you do need to simulate at least a healthy chunk of the race sometime before race day. This won’t do as much to prepare your body as it will your mind. The issues for such a workout are how long, how often and when.
In the Build periods (4-12 weeks before race) I like to have Iron triathletes do two workouts that I call “Big Days.” For athletes training in four-week blocks (three weeks of quality training and one week of rest and test) the first is done on a weekend nine weeks before race day. If you are training in three-week blocks (two weeks on and one off) then do the first Big Day workout ten weekends before race day. In both cases that is the weekend right before the Build 1 rest week. The second Big Day workout is done four weekends before race day for both four- and three-week-block athletes. That will also places this workout on the last weekend before a rest week. It’s important that this workout come right before a rest break since it is so demanding.
It’s a simple workout. You get out of bed at the same time you plan to do it on race day. Assuming a 7:00 a.m. race start that should be no later than 4:30 a.m. Have breakfast just as you will do on race day. Eat the same foods and the same amounts as you have planned. At 7:00 a.m. start the swim portion of the workout. This is a one-hour session in which you swim at race effort. This may be broken into 500-yard/meter segments or done non-stop. If on race day you will wear a wetsuit also wear it for this swim. If you plan to start fast on race day to get good positioning then do the same today. Do everything as closely as you can to your plans for race day.
After the swim take a 90-minute break. Eat a very light meal and stay off of your legs as much as possible.
After the break start a five-hour bike ride. This should be done at the heart rate, power or effort at which you will race the Ironman. Use the same bike equipment you will use on race day. This includes clothing, shoes, helmet, wheels and anything else you will race with. Drink when thirsty throughout the ride. Take in calories as planned for the race. Pay close attention to how you feel. Stay in the moment as much as possible. Your mind will wander quite a bit. That’s to be expected. But when you become aware of this happening refocus your attention on how you are feeling and your pacing control. Frequently run a mental checklist: Am I thirsty? Do I need calories? How’s my stomach? How’s my breathing? Am I pacing properly? Are my legs strong? You might even consider taping these questions to your handlebars to help you stay focused on what’s important.
After the five-hour ride take another 90-minute break. During this time get off of your legs and eat a light, mostly liquid meal.
Then start a two-hour run. Wear the same type of clothes and the same shoes as planned for the race. Don’t do the run in the shirt, shorts or socks you rode in as they will be soiled and might give you a rash or infection. Wear the same running shoes as on race day along with anything else you have planned such as a hat and sunglasses. For this run it’s a good idea to wear a holster belt with fluids and/or the fuel you will use. Or consider planning your route so that you frequently come back past a location where you have fluids and fuel stored.
You will be a bit stiff as you start the run so allow your body to gradually find its rhythm and tempo. Don’t force the pace right away. You will also do this on race day as you exit T2. Once you have your legs working smoothly get up to race pace, heart rate or effort just as you will do in the race. As with the bike, stay focused on how you are feeling and your pacing. Run the same mental checklist: Am I thirsty? Do I need calories? How’s my stomach? How’s my breathing? Am I pacing properly? Are my legs strong?
By the time you finish the run you will have spent about 14 hours of your day devoted to an Ironman-specific workout. Eight of those hours will have been at race effort. You should have learned a lot about topics such as refueling, managing thirst, pacing, equipment, mental preparedness and more. Write down what you learned and how you plan to alter your preparation and perhaps even your goals for the race.
The Big Day workout serves as a benchmark for how you are progressing physically and also gives you a sense of what Ironman race day will be like mentally. It’s a learning and growth opportunity. The next one of these workouts is done four weekends before race day. That will be your last opportunity to rehearse everything prior to the race.
The Big Day workouts is best planned for a Saturday. The reason I pick this day is twofold. First, it gives you the opportunity to move it back one day to Sunday if the weather on Saturday is not cooperative. Second, if you do the Big Day on Saturday it allows for a day off on Sunday and an extra day of rest. The day off is a reward. Take advantage of it to get lots of rest, and even to get a few other things in your life done that may have a taken a backseat to Ironman training the past few weeks. This could include your family.