For triathletes coming from Olympic-distance triathlons, targeting an Ironman is hard. Not only because you will have to make a marathon after around 10 hours of continued efforts. But also because, often, triathletes do not spend so much time in their training program on the running part. Last summer, among the finishers with whom I have run the last meters of the Embrunman, I found a lot a people coming from the Ultra-trail, and not much from the Olympic distance triathlon … and this is not by accident. I will try in the coming part to give some keys explaining this statement.
A training program should be built on what it can bring over the entire race. If we have a look to the swimming part, we can see that the time that elapses between the arrival of the first guys going out of the water and the latest does not exceed 30 to 45 minutes. Now, if we look to the gap between the duration of the marathon of the best guy (2h45 !) and of the worst ones, we see it is higher than 3 hours … First conclusion: saving some time during the swimming part is interesting but the main gaps are done during the marathon. Another point is that, for main people, the swimming performance is only linked with their technique, not really how much they are trained … So if you spend a lot of time in the swimming pool and you progress on your technique, that’s good but if you just do lengths with a poor technique, there is for me no added value. Indeed, when preparing an Ironman, your body is already trained and it is only improvement of the technique that can bring some benefit. It is true that the pool is the favorite place where triathletes meet. During winter it is a good time to work on the technique with a teacher. But for me winter time was behind, so I went two or three times to the swimming pool to make the four-km distance to check how long it takes me and that’s all! During the last two weeks before the race, I made two trainings in running water (sea and lake then) during one hour and half each one, to feel again what’s happen in your body and also to get re-used to the level of time I will need to swim. Except for this check, all my training time was dedicated to cycling and running only.
For a race happening on August 15th, it is around April 15th that I slowly started the preparation. This has consisted in resuming cycling with a 90-km ride in undulating landscape each week in addition of two one-hour runs. This accounts for the fact I was already trained to run twice a week for several weeks. After three weeks, I increased during two weeks the running part to a level of four rides a week in order to get a strong physical base (and I kept the cycling ride). This is important in order to make the heart slowly growing, day after day, so that it can contain a lot of blood. This can be obtained only with slow and long runs in endurance without increasing much the cardiac rhythm. Once this has been done, this is five weeks you are training. You have now a body shaped to increase the intensity of the trainings.
In the coming weeks, I focused more of the cycling part targeting a level of two cycling rides and three runs per week. This program was therefore compliant with two full rest days. For the cycling ride, the idea is to make one ride in intensity (around 60-km long but this can be also 100 km) and one of at least 120-km long in endurance on an undulating landscape if possible. It is crucial to be used to cycle with the head into the wind. Clearly, very often, trathletes like meeting with club people during the long cycling ride. And they have the feeling to cycle tightened right down. But you should ask you the question: how long did you lead the group with the head into the wind, as you will be during the entire 188 km of an Ironman ? If you really need to talk with your friends, do it rather when running but never during the long cycling rides if you target an Ironman …
Concerning the running part, a 2-hour (sometime 2h30) endurance ride (with a water reserve) is done in addition to the two other one-hour running rides done in undulating landscape to develop the muscles of the legs. The 2-hour ride is important to get used running with low glycogen stocks as it is likely you will be when running the Ironman marathon. It will be also useful in order to get used in eating during running. Indeed, in an Ironman, you start the running part for a five-hour marathon sometimes and clearly you will have to feed with real food (cereal bars, bread, …) since sugar gels are only efficient during a 30-min duration. They gels are useless after a while because the body is no longer able to digest pure sugar and this is the start of the problems with cramps.
When doing a 15h-long Ironman, your body needs all sorts of feeding : mainly glucides but also in small quantity, lipids (the fat), proteins and vitamins that you will find in meat (or egg). It is therefore key to introduce the food during the long running ride. You start first with cereal bars and then more and more complex food like energy-bread (bio) which is a bread cooked with nuts, walnuts, almond, and grape (you may do it yourself). Beef dried meat (braesola, grison meat, …) is also very useful for mineral salts (against cramps) and low fat (just enough for the body). This is what you should eat before the cycling (at least a banana) and when starting the marathon. It will take four hours to your body to digest this kind of food and that’s perfect to get the energy in the last part of the cycling and of the marathon. A the speed people just targeting to be finishers run during the Ironman marathon, they are not in lack of oxygen. This makes blood remain available to the digest so eating should not be a problem, but you must have validated this point earlier during the training. At the time I run the marathon in 3h10, it was of course excluded to eat solid food during running because a large part of the blood get into the muscles. In an Ironman (or Ultra-trail), this is completely different.
Having in mind the preparation will become lighter during the last two weeks before the race, it is important to focus during the program to get used to cycle during 188 km. Six weeks before the race, I increased the distance to 200 km (sometimes more, up to 260 km), alone, in order to have the distance in the legs and to validate the way of feeding during cycling. During the time between four weeks and two weeks before the race, I further increase the cycling to three rides a week consisting of two 100-km ride and one 200-km ride.
During the last two weeks before the race, it is important to recuperate of this long and hard training program by lightening the training. First, running is reduced to one ride a week because this is a sport that tires the body and may break some muscular fibers. Two weeks before the race, the ride is 2-hour long and one week before the race it is of 1h30. Cycling damages less the body so we can keep three cycling rides a week but limiting the distance to 100-km, finishing the training program with a 50-km ride over undulated landscape three days before the race (just to feel reassured !).
During the last week, I complete the training with walk and after the last cycling ride, three days before the race, I do not any physical exercise and fully dedicate my time to prepare the plan for the race. When I will eat and what sort of food? What do I need to buy to complete the supply provided by the organization and what I will eat the morning of the race.
That’s it. I hope this provides you with an idea of what is the training program I use to prepare an Ironman. Now we may address the point of what is needed to do in addition to get prepared for the Embrunman. This is the topic of the coming part.
Embrunman specific training program
The main specificity of the Embrunman Ironman lies in its cycle part that makes a total difference in height of 5000m with the Izoard mountain pass as high as 2660m with parts having steep slopes of 12% and not only in the Izoard pass ! Also, the marathon round is far to be flat …
To prepare the Embrunman cycle round, I advice to make the recognition of the full path. I did it during the first part of the program, in late May, as early as the pass are free of snow and open for driving. It is very important in order to have in mind the difficult parts and so, not waiting the day of the race to have the surprise when entering in these slope parts! You have to be prepared to them mentally and physically. Doing such a recognition also allows you to prove yourself you can do it ! It is worth noting that you may do this recognition one year before the race, at the time you go for holidays for instance. Pay attention to make the full path, since there are parts where the slope is steep and several-km long showing that Izoard pass is not the sole difficulty.
You will also have to be used to cycle the head into the wind since in summer, the wind increases during the afternoon (sometimes high), coming from Embrun to Briançon allong the Durance valley. If you trained in a flat country, you will have to get used to the steep slopes (more than 10% over long distances) but the last weeks before the race may be still in time, considering you have a strong training program behind you. So it is better to come in the Embrun / Briançon countryside two weeks before the race. This ensures you the time to complete the training program over the slopes of the Galibier pass, of the Granon pass, and also of the Izoard pass, while giving time the last week to recuperate. If you can arrive even earlier it may be useful to increase you red-blood cell rate (it needs three weeks for that and cycle over 2000 m) and having more oxygen for the muscles during the race.
Concerning the running part, you will have to adapt your long ride by including steep slopes. You may train to mix running and walking according to the slope. This should not be so hard to do when being trained but this is quite useful in order to manage rythm changes in marathon.
Last, one notable specificity of the Embrunman, making it the most difficult in the world, even for the best racers, lies in its duration. Indeed the Izoard pass adds two hours compared to other Ironman, that is the reason why it is the most difficult. This mountain Ironman is therefore the longest to achieve and you will have to be prepared to such a longer time. It is a solid running training program (and also the ability to feed) that can allow you to achieve such a long race duration (more than 15 hours). Now it is your time to play ! Tell you that if you have done a serious training program, you will have nothing to blame you having in mind everybody have its own body limits and you are bound to them. But sometime, miracle! the full race happens like in a dream, exactly as you have planned, and you surprise yourself to pass the finish line at night with a crazy crowd shouting to help you ! That is what happened to me in August 2012 and that I wish to all racers.