Sims’ ideas go way beyond the building blocks of sports drinks. She examined his ingestion of the basic components of sports nutrition—carbs, water, electrolytes—but found one of the biggest breakthroughs in a typically overlooked aspect. He was ingesting a lot of sodium chloride—table salt, also used in some beverages—in the days leading up to a race. The sodium and the chloride molecules separate in the gut, and Sims says excess quantities of chloride can interfere with intestinal cells and cause “leaky gut syndrome,” the abdominal discomfort every triathlete has experienced. She switched him to drinks with sodium citrate, a different salt compound. Citrate is used in aerobic metabolism, so it quickly gets used. She also added magnesium and potassium to his pre-race diet to “top off his body stores of trace elements and minerals that he needed” before racing. Next, Sims diluted the carbohydrate concentration of the sports drink he took during races and increased his sodium intake to maximize his rate of fluid absorption while ignoring the quantity of calories he needs per hour. She believes “hydration is different from food,” so she instructed him to replace those lost calories by eating solid foods during the race such as a bar, salted potatoes, low-fat brownie or chews. Finally, they brought down the total calories he consumed during the race. “Those things so far have been the absolute solution,” Dixon said, to the nutritional component of Henning’s cramping problem.
While Sims addressed his diet, Dixon was busy flipping Henning’s training on its head. Many people typecast his coaching style as “quantity over quality,” but Dixon takes exception to that categorization. Instead, he would classify himself as a problem-solving coach, utilizing vastly different strategies to prepare his athletes based on their personal successes and failures. Despite using distinct methods for different people, he comes back to one foundational philosophy for every person: Keep the athlete fresh throughout the season rather than burdened with fatigue. According to Dixon, Henning was a classic case of an athlete who was overly fatigued throughout the season and on race day. Racing on tired legs, he surmises, contributed to the cramping problem.
Dixon believes that Henning, like many Ironman athletes, became “a little obsessed with accumulating miles. Long runs and big, long bike rides.” Fear-based training, as Dixon likes to call it. Henning was training for the distance rather than training to be fast. Despite the Dane’s newfound affinity for long workouts, he told Dixon that he “responds very quickly to intensity.” After failing with a more traditional training strategy leading into Ironman Hawaii in 2011, Dixon instituted a fundamental change in Henning’s preparation for Abu Dhabi in 2012. He upended the periodized Ironman build. Instead of starting with aerobic base miles, then adding race-specific intensity and distance workouts a few months out and resting in the final weeks, Henning’s longest aerobic miles came long before the race without any race intensity. He rested 3–4 weeks out instead of immediately leading into the race. Dixon then gave him “a taste of intensity” in the three weeks before the event while keeping his total training low enough to avoid “building a reservoir of fatigue.” Instead of resting before the race, he built into it and regained the edge that propelled him to Ironman dominance earlier in his career.
Henning’s confidence has at least partially returned since reaching its nadir at Ironman Hawaii in 2011, where he solemnly admitted over post-race beers, “You know I’m not happy with my race.” But he isn’t ready to proclaim himself a Kona contender just yet. “In 2009 I was very confident about Kona. I thought I had it all planned out. Then, after racing twice without any success I’m still a bit more respectful to the race and the guys that have done well,” he said, sounding a lot like Chris McCormack before his 2007 breakthrough on the Big Island. Whether Henning reaches that level still remains to be seen, but his performance at the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon proved the “old Rasmus” is back.
A Taste of Intensity
Dixon describes Henning’s key bike and run workouts leading into Abu Dhabi.
Rather than riding five hours steady state, I would instead have him go and ride four hours. After a warm-up, he does 60 minutes broken into three 20-minute segments: 20 minutes under Ironman intensity; 20 minutes at Ironman intensity; 20 minutes above Ironman intensity. For a guy at Rasmus’ level, that’s actually a pretty high effort. Then he’ll go 45 minutes, broken into three 15-minute segments with the same progression of effort.
On the treadmill I’ll have him do 2–3 rounds of 8×2 minutes at close to threshold effort up a grade with about 30 seconds’ rest so he’s up there more like at half-Ironman pace. Right after those, it’s straight into a flat 10-minute piece at Ironman pace followed by a 5-minute easy running break before doing it again. This session ends up being about 75 minutes, and it’s more strength- and intensity-focused than most long runs.