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Get Race Ready with Sarah Crowley’s Ironman Simulation Session

We take a close look at the key workout the Kona runner-up does before any major Ironman. (Be warned: This session is as badass as she is.)


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Train 360 is our latest training column, designed to give you a deeper look at the many different aspects that go into a professional athlete executing a key workout. A key workout is considered a session that will yield significant fitness gains and is often positioned in a training program so that the athlete can hit it feeling relatively fresh and able to give it their all. As well as the key workout (which is listed in full below), there are many other factors to consider, including: “primer” sessions in the days leading in, activation and mobility exercises beforehand, fueling and nutrition (both before, during, and after the workout), mental preparation, and all of the gear and equipment involved. We’ve got it all outlined below from Australian Sarah Crowley as she gives us the insider info on a beastly bike-run brick session that she does in the lead up to any major Ironman race. 

If you’d also like to check out the previous features in the Train 360 series, we looked at the long run of Kona runner-up Ben Hoffman, the FTP bike session of  three-time Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae as well as Mel McQuaid’s “Aerobic Sandwich” bike session, Collin Chartier’s aerobic strength swim set and Haley Chura’s epic 100 x 100 pool swim

The Purpose

“My training group uses this workout regularly in the build to a major Ironman,” Crowley said. “It ensures the legs are hardened and the mind is capable of dealing with the grueling monotony of the event.” Be warned, though, that is not for the faint of heart. It’s a bike-run brick that the Ironman champion typically does 11 or 12 days out from her goal race. “There are other combinations of this workout that we’ll sometimes do, sometimes longer versions, but this is the regular option,” she said.

Crowley said the objective of the three-hour build ride is to wear down the legs for the run—and then when it comes time to run, the goal for her is to sustain a manageable heart rate of around 155-160 bpm (beats per minute) to help simulate race stress and fatigue (this is her Ironman race pace effort). She will do the run on the track, aiming for 21 x 800m, running at just under Ironman pace, with a 200m “float” recovery between each rep. She said: “I will run the 800s on 2:45 when I’m really fit, but perhaps on three minutes if I’m 10-12 days out from a goal race. The 200 float recovery is typically about a minute, so I’m leaving on four minutes.”

The Workout

Bike: 3-hr build ride as: 90 min. cruise; 30 min. medium effort; 30 min. moderate effort; 30 min. “mad” effort

Run: 21 x 800 on 2:45-3:00 @ just under Ironman race pace – 200 recovery between efforts

Sarah Crowley hits the track for her 21 x 800. Photo: Dale Travers

The Day Before

Crowley said she will usually go into this workout following a solid seven days of training to ensure her legs are fatigued to help simulate race stress—”it makes this workout the icing on the cake,” she said.

Gear

“I ride my Canyon Speedmax CFR time trial bike and ensure it’s equipped with all of my usual race nutrition (Precision Hydration fluids, gels, and salts) to practice my fueling strategy for race day,” Crowley said. “I’ll often wear my 2XU race kit, too, to ensure it’s fitting well and feeling good. On the track, I use my Hoka Rocket X run shoes as this simulates the shoes I will wear come race day.”

Crowley said she also uses: SRAM components; Zipp wheels (858/454 combo); Continental GP 5000 tires; ISM Adamo Road saddle; Oakley helmet and sunnies; Wahoo Elemnt Bolt bike computer, Rival watch and Tickr heart-rate strap; Suplest bike shoes and Solestar insoles; Hoka run apparel; 2XU compression gear for recovery.

Fuel

“I fuel this session just the same way I would fuel a race, with one Precision Hydration gel every 40 minutes on the bike,” Crowley said. “I alternate between Precision Hydration carb drink every 20 minutes with plain water every other 20 minutes (250ml/8.5 fl oz). I also take on 500ml (17 fl oz) of Precision Hydration 1000 (an electrolyte drink) every hour. Of course, I realize my fuel will vary to the next person’s, however, my tip for any athlete is to develop a trial and error process for determining what fuel you need for race day and what sits well in your stomach. Sessions like this one are key to developing a strong plan.”

She said she always ensures her meal before this session and the evening before are the same as race day to ensure it works for her it is sufficient to fuel it. Dinner the night before typically consists of a burger and fries with Precision Hydration electrolyte drink, while breakfast before the workout is toast with honey and a banana, plus coffee.

RELATED: Triathlete’s Complete Guide to Nutrition and Fueling

Mental Focus Points

Crowley said it’s the business end of the track workout where she really has to lean into mental focus points. “When I hit the last six efforts on the run, I hold my focus by using the mantra of ‘steady, just one more.'”

How to Expedite Recovery

Once she’s wrapped up this workout, Crowley said she will often head home for a nap before later heading to the pool for a “solid swim” of around 4.5K. She said this helps her “swim it out.” The following day is always a rest day, “where massage and compression recovery are highly recommended,” she added.

RELATED: What’s Your Go-To Recovery Method?

Coaching Points & Tips

Crowley advised doing this session for the first time well in advance of your goal race, not 10-12 days out as she’s outlined for herself above. She recognized that this is a big session for someone to jump into, so she recommended first tackling it in the off-season and starting with a shorter bike and fewer reps on the track, suggesting 12 x 800 as a good starting point. “Plan your turnaround time on the run to make it manageable,” she said. “Sometimes the stress of the run can feel overwhelming if you start missing the time. If you do, simply adjust it before your heart rate skyrockets.”

As you get accustomed to the workout, though—and as your race nears—she said to ensure you treat it as a full race simulation. “You should use this session to practice everything from nutrition and hydration to pacing and gear. Everything should be dialed in using these sessions.”

She added: “Take it seriously, but stay calm and relaxed. By the time you get close to a race you want this session to make you feel invincible, not mentally broken.”

RELATED: Triathlete’s Complete Guide on How to Train for an Ironman