I have had the privilege of competing and spectating at numerous long distance triathlons and I am always amazed at the dedication of IRONMAN athletes. With the hours of training, the balancing of their family lives and triathlon goals, the financial commitment for equipment, travel, entry fees and coaching and the“get it done” attitude which each athlete must take into the daily grind of preparing for an event, there is little doubt that IRONMAN athletes are a special group.
As a coach, I see the hard work athletes put into their run training. And yet, at every IRONMAN, I see well trained athletes walking on the run. Sometimes walking might be part of the plan such as scheduling a 10 min run with a 1 min walk through the aid stations to maintain pace and effort or for injury management. But I believe that there are many athletes walking huge chunks of the marathon because of nutritional distress and mental breakdown. Both reasons are somewhat preventable with a thorough pre race energy plan and proper race visualization.
The bike is the best part of the event to consume calories. I have always recommended about 250 to 300 calories per hour on the bike which could be 1 PowerBar Performance Bar per hour, 2 PowerGels per hour plus a lightly mixed electrolyte drink (not at full strength so that you can use it to digest the bars and gels and avoid over-concentration of sugars). This plan should be tested during your training specifically during a simulation day where you might ride for 4 to 6 hours and then run for 1 to 2 hours off of the bike. That said, do not forget that you will be racing a 3.8 km swim prior to biking. If you were to do a 3.8 km time trial in the pool, I guarantee you would come home and eat a huge breakfast and drink fluids to rehydrate yourself. So on raceday, keep that in mind and consume more calories and fluids in that first hour. I suggest 1.5 to 2 PowerBars in that first hour and 2 x 750 ml of water/electrolyte. Then get back to the nutrition plan which you executed during your training days. Supplementing with bananas is a great way to boost your potassium which you will sweat out and gives you a few extra calories that will help in the later stages of the marathon. Then in the last 15 minutes of the bike, top up your energy stores witha PowerGel for that extra boost to start the run.
If you find yourself getting down or grumpy recognize that you probably need calories in the form of sugar. The brain runs on glycogen so the mood change is likely related to bonking and a quick hit of a PowerGel and water or cola should change your attitude and get you back on track. In fact, that is why many of us don’t realize that we are bonking. Your brain fails you before your muscles shut down and so your brain cannot process the fact that you are slowing down because of a lack of calories and so the downward spiral begins.
If your energy levels are good but your stomach is not cooperating, take a breakfrom the gels and electrolyte drinks and let your stomach settle down with some water. You might have created too high of a concentration of sugars in your gut and with a bit of water to dilute it, your body can then go back to absorbing those performance saving calories.
While nutritional and mental breakdown on the marathon usually happen hand in hand,sometimes your attitude can shift your sub 4-hour marathon into a walk-a-thon pretty quickly. We can be great salespeople can’t we? We have talked ourselves into executing punishing long runs and long bikes in training but then on race day, somehow we can convince ourselves that it is ok to walk just because we see other athletes walking. “Heck, they look fit. If they are walking, then it must be ok?” Instead of giving in to that temptation – and yes, it is tempting – remind yourself of your best workouts and the reasons why you registered for the race. Remember the sacrifices you made, the juggling of family, work and training andthe support of your family today and everyday. I suggest making a list of your assets before the race. Also list your best workouts and come up with theme for your race. These should be your only thoughts during the race. A few hours of hard work is far better than 72 hours of regret.
When nutritional and mental breakdown threaten to turn your dream day into a long walk, slow your pace down and jog slow until you are feeling better. Or maybe you actually do need to run slower than normal all the way home. A slow jog is always faster than a walk so commit to your new slower pace, congratulate yourself for not walking and get the job done the best you can. Get some calories in and try and find a way to smile. Find a fellow athlete nearby that you maybe able to run with.
Your subconscious is a liar and will always tell you that you cannot run or finish the race. Squash that voice! Focus on getting to the next aid station the best that you can or focus on a landmark ahead such as a light pole. Don’t think about the next 20 miles. Live in the moment and put one foot in front of the other JOGGING since jogging slowly is always faster than walking. Do everthing you can to keep on running and cross the finish line and be proud of your ability to persevere just as you have in every workout!