That’s how the day in San Juan unfolded for Frederiksen, who came in with no expectations for her first long-course race and ended up the surprise winner, beating a field that included Ironman 70.3 and Ironman world champions Cave and Carfrae: “The swim was pretty comfortable, and I had a big lead; there was no fighting or anything [she beat the second woman out of the water by 45 seconds]. And the bike was comfortable. But the run was the hard part. Because you’re running so slow, the feeling in my legs was that they got so fatigued. Normally, in an ITU race, it’s the breathing. You can’t breathe because you’re running so fast. Here it was just my legs. I felt like every single muscle fiber was dying one at a time.” Frederiksen’s half-marathon split on the hilly course? At 1:25, it was the second fastest among the pro women.
As remarkable as her performance was in San Juan, the way she trained for the race—or actually didn’t train, at least the way one might assume for a 70.3—was even more impressive. It was, she says, largely the same sort of training for short course, with a bit more focus on longer sessions on a time-trial bike. That’s the great thing about being an ITU athlete moving up in distance, explains Norden. “You have the skills; you just need to add a bit more endurance.”
But don’t just think that your short-course training is going to get you through a 70.3 at the front of the field. Norden’s, Frederiksen’s and Gomez’s versions of training are vastly different from what the typical age grouper or local pro might do for an Olympic-distance or even a 70.3 race. “These athletes are coming in with a high degree of fitness,” Filliol says. “They’re able to train 30 hours a week.” While that may be the typical volume of long-course pros, the difference is how they allocate their time. With the need to make the first pack on the bike, ITU athletes devote about a third of their weekly hours to swimming and another huge chunk of time to drills and other sessions that promote speed and mechanical efficiency on the bike and run.
Long-course pros and the rest of us mere mortals, by contrast, get fitter and faster by piling on more volume. That achieves what Trolle calls “fatigue resistance.” “For a long time, the gains we’ve been seeing in long-course racing have come from fatigue resistance,” he says. “It’s not about getting faster; it’s about slowing down less. And that’s been the basic premise behind long-course training—going longer, doing a lot of long, slow distance. The whole idea has been trying to reduce fatigue. You don’t go out particularly fast by any short-course racing standard, but you manage to hold that pace consistently throughout the entire race.”
That training philosophy may have reached its final limit, as top athletes in Kona nowadays aren’t going much faster than they did in the 1980s or 1990s. “I think we’ve gotten to a critical point where we don’t see much more improvement coming out of that logic,” Trolle says. “We’re getting to the point where long-course athletes aren’t slowing down much between the start and finish of the swim, bike and run. Their fatigue resistance is really high. With the ITU athletes coming in, I think the difference is they have more speed and they’re more mechanically efficient. In order to run as quickly as they do, they have to run with good form. And because their natural speed is so high, they start from a higher point. That’s why they’re able to succeed at such a very high level.”
But while racing a 70.3 may not be a problem for ITU athletes, moving to the Ironman can be, because of their inexperience with nutrition and lack of fatigue resistance when running a marathon off a 112-mile bike. “How robust is an athlete’s stomach in processing calories?” asks Filliol. “That’s something that some athletes struggle with and is not such a critical issue in short racing that may require some training and adjustments.” In training his short-course athletes for Ironman races, Filliol also focuses on lots of riding at Ironman and half-Ironman race paces. “For most ITU athletes, that’s where they’ll want to put the most time,” he says. “They’ll want to be conditioned on the bike, so they can use their run. Spending time on a time-trial bike might seem simple, but just getting used to riding in a time-trial position is important.”
Another consideration, says Hellemans, is whether an individual has the mind-set to suffer over a long day. “ITU athletes are fit and fast enough, but do they have the mental capacity to be patient and to suffer in a way which is very different from the short and intense discomfort experienced during the shorter-distance events?”
For those reasons, short-course superstars like Gomez and Norden, who are competitive enough to vie for medals at the next Olympics, regard the Ironman as a one-way street, one they won’t go down until their ITU careers are over. “You can always go back,” says Gomez, shrugging. “Look at Macca; he did it. But to go back and be competitive to win races in ITU, I think that’s very difficult, and I’m not sure that I could do it.”
Norden, who plans to continue racing some World Triathlon Series races this year and then return full time to short-course racing next year, adds, “One of my hesitations from staying away from the ITU too long is that it’s ever-developing. The bar is being raised by new kids on the block.”
While Norden, like Gomez, plans to wait until 2017 to make her Kona debut, Docherty is moving on, having already won silver and bronze at the Olympics, and at 36 years of age is anxious to see what he can do this year at both Vegas and Kona. Since his weekly schedule already includes a two- to three-hour run and a four- to five-hour ride, he plans to continue training for both races basically like a short-course athlete. “It’s worked well for me,” he says. “I hope my years of conditioning and years of training get me through.” After all, why change what works? The Olympians have provided plenty of evidence that short-course athletes rule—at least for the early season 70.3s and Ironmans. But let’s wait to see what happens at Vegas and Kona.