Some 22 years after his last triathlon win, Armstrong took the top spot at Ironman 70.3 Florida. A conversation with the comeback king.
Triathlete editor-in-chief Julia Polloreno today caught up with Lance Armstrong, who won his first 70.3 race—his fourth attempt at the distance since returning to the sport—in Florida on Sunday. Armstrong turned in a 2-hour bike and 1:15 half-marathon to blitz the rest of the pro men’s field. Here he talks about the changes to his race nutrition that made all the difference in Florida, his strategy for setting up a strong run, how he’s been able to slash recovery time, and more. Armstrong is in Kona prepping for his next race, Honu 70.3 on June 2.
Julia Polloreno: You went into Florida as the favorite—how did it feel to win your first 70.3 after so many years away from the sport?
Lance Armstrong: First of all, I didn’t feel like I was the favorite—you guys said that.
JP: Well, we were right!
LA: [laughing] I wasn’t trying necessarily to win the race. I was just trying to keep working on the nutrition part of it—trying to get it to a better place than it had been the first three go-rounds, which were quasi-disastrous. Perhaps there have been too many races lately, and there’s another one in two weeks and then France three weeks after that, but I don’t have experience and time on my side so I’ve got to use these races to learn as much as I can. It’s hard to simulate that in training. So that’s all I wanted to do—dial in the nutrition part, and it seems like, based on my feelings, that I got close.
JP: Did you do something dramatically different or was it some details you fine-tuned that made a big difference?
LA: Well, I think there are two things: the amount of calories you consume, and the type—so either a sports drink, a gel or a piece of solid food. All of those things we considered, and I guess the takeaway for me was to consume a lot less calories than I had been consuming. I was ingesting a massive amount of calories in the other races, just assuming I could handle that, and my gut was turning off completely. And then it’s doing a much better job of hydrating the days and hours before the start of the race. In the other races I took in mostly sports drink water and gels, and [in Florida] I went with sports drink with salt tabs dissolved in the drink, and Honey Stinger Waffles—solid food [on the bike]. On the run I just took Coke and water at the aid stations. I started with two gels and didn’t feel like I needed the energy so just stayed with water and Coke. I wore a regular hat—not a visor—and was taking cups of ice and putting it in my hat and then putting my hat back on, just keeping the ice constantly on my head so that it would melt and drip down, keeping me pretty cool.
JP: Now that you’re four races in and have a win under your belt, what have you learned about managing your effort on the bike to have a good run? You cranked out a 1:15 in Florida—how do you manage your effort on the bike so you can run like that?
LA: At least it seems—and it’s not a knock on other people’s tactics—but for me, my run is not going to be affected by my effort on the bike. It’s probably a better strategy for me in the future to utilize my strengths. Even if I rode an easy bike, I’m not going to get off and run 1:11. But I suspect I can ride harder than I rode Sunday and still run 1:14, 1:16, somewhere in there. I believe that if I can constantly ride close to two hours and run 1:15, maybe you’re not always going to win every race, but you’re gonna be close.
JP: Are you intentionally picking races that are in hot and humid locations to prep yourself for Kona?
LA: [laughing] No! But it has been that way. Panama was my own pick but certainly all the races have been hot and humid. Actually, they’ve been a lot hotter and more humid than Kona will ever be. Kona is nothing compared to Panama or Galveston. Haines City [Florida] was actually very comfortable—I didn’t start to feel heat until the last part of the bike and then on the run.
JP: Racing three half-ironmans within a span of six weeks and then doing an Ironman three weeks after that may, by your average triathlete’s standards, seem like quite a bit of racing. Are you just used to that kind of volume from pro cycling? Does it not feel like a lot of racing to you?
LA: I wouldn’t say it’s the best plan, but like I mentioned, I don’t really have a choice, especially when I’m still learning and trying to get up to speed on the technical aspects of these races. I can’t simulate them in training. I don’t have time on my side—I’m 41 years old. It’s not like I’m 30 and am saying to myself, ‘I’m going to do this for 10 years,’ and can take a year to figure it out. I literally have months to figure it out and that’s not a lot of time. When I added St. Croix, I thought in the back of my head I should probably scratch Florida because it’s too much racing. But when St. Croix was yet another nutritional disaster, I thought I had to go do it because I felt recovered from St. Croix and felt nutritionally I’ve gotta keep trying different things to see if it works. Fortunately I think I’m on to something that’s gonna work for me. I will back off the racing after Ironman France.
JP: With all that you’ve got going on, are you just finding pockets of time to train? How do you balance training for such high level racing with an already very full life?
LA: Well, I know I get a little bit of grief from different factions and parts of the sport for having kind of an entourage or a posse but it’s the only way I can seem to manage it with five kids, a foundation and all these other business obligations that I’m trying to fulfill. If I didn’t have a good core group of people around me then I wouldn’t be able to do it. But at the same time, I don’t feel like I need to defend that—I’ve worked hard for the lifestyle I have and the system that’s in place, so it’s not as if my mom is the Queen of England. I came from nothing and worked hard to have what I have and I’m not going to make any excuses for that.
JP: How are you feeling about tackling the full-Iron distance next month in France? Do you have any specific goals, or is it going to be a big experiment for you?
LA: It’s going to be a complete experiment. I’m very curious-slash-slightly nervous. But I don’t know, I look at my performance—I guess I was running 5:47s on Sunday—and I don’t think I could have doubled that, but I do think I could have held that for 20 miles, which is encouraging for me. My long runs are getting longer—the fatigue and soreness post-long run is not nearly what it used to be. That’s also encouraging. My recovery from the 70.3s has gone down from Panama to Galveston to St. Croix to here. After Panama I was literally out of training for two weeks. Galveston was a week and St. Croix was two or three days. Tomorrow or the day after I’ll be back hitting it hard again in preparation for Nice, which I have to be doing. My longest run has been 18 miles. I need to get into the 22-, 23-mile range. All the while I have to juggle that with racing Honu. And then, after Honu I basically go from Kona to France, which is a heck of a haul.
JP: You said you’re recovering a lot more quickly from races as you progress through the racing season. What’s made the biggest difference in being able to bounce back more quickly?
LA: After Panama I was like…you know those people who after they’ve run a marathon they’re walking down steps backwards and it’s like someone took a bat to their quads? More frequent runs and longer runs have made the soreness much, much less than it was. The other thing is, I’ve layered in more speed work on the track. I tend to recover from those a lot more quickly too.
JP: So, now you’re in Kona and just going to have some downtime with the family and do some training before Honu…
LA: Yeah, this is without a doubt my favorite place in the world to spend time, whether it’s on or off a bike, in or out of the water. And I’m excited to race again—I was very encouraged by Sunday, but I’m not going to rest on that. I’m going to go out and retry what we did in Florida and see if it continues to work all the while knowing that Nice is twice as long and not as intense so nutrition is going to be a whole other experiment there. Hopefully I don’t mess it up too bad.
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