Going Long: Tackling 70.3 And Ironman

The challenge: Take a short-course specialist and adapt his training for back-to-back long-course world championship races.

Photo: Nils Nilsen

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The challenge: Take a short-course specialist and adapt his training for back-to-back long-course world championship races, first in Vegas, then in Kona. Age-group triathlete Kim McDonald tells you how to successfully make the leap to long-distance triathlon. Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Triathlete magazine.

Racing short-course triathlons is what I’ve done mostly and what I do best. I’ve won two sprint national championships and an ITU sprint world championship in recent years. But long-course triathlon is an entirely different beast, one that I had never quite figured out. Last year, after qualifying for the Ironman World Championship 70.3 and Ironman Hawaii at Ironman 70.3 California in Oceanside, I had to put together a real-life training program that would make me competitive in the two races, yet fit into a 40-hour-per-week work schedule and busy family life. By the end I’d not only be a better triathlete, but could share some lessons with other triathletes who, like me, are fast at short-course triathlons, but are either rookies or consistently underperform at the longer distances. Herein, some insights and tips gleaned from my own experience:

Identify your weaknesses and revise your training to improve them early in the season.

Ask yourself whether you’re doing too much training in the disciplines you’re good at, which is a natural inclination. I tend to favor swimming and running, as both fit well into my 9-to-5 work schedule and don’t cut into family time like all-day rides. And I look forward each week to the social aspects of my open-water swims and group runs. But when I looked back at my race results, it was clear my lack of cycling was seriously limiting my performance in long-course triathlons. I had done Ironman Arizona twice and Kona three times in the previous four years,  and my performances in those races were far from stellar. While my iron-distance swims have ranged from 56 minutes to an hour and my run times are better than average, my bike times have been embarrassingly slow. Five- to six-hour rides on Saturdays had helped me bring my Kona bike splits down from the six- to the high-five-hour time range, but I’d get off the bike in every Ironman feeling physically trashed, stiff and completely out of contention. I realized that to succeed at two back-to-back long-course world championships without my usual “crash and burn” bike legs would require me to come up with a totally different approach to bike training. I also knew that to be reasonably competitive in my age group, I had to train myself to run faster half-marathons and marathons off the bike.

I started by bringing my bike to work in my car and rode at lunch as many days of the week as I could. My typical Saturday and Sunday rides, plus the additional rides back and forth to my daughter’s weekend soccer games (a 45-minute drive away) doubled my average weekly saddle time from seven to about 14 hours. (My total weekly training hours stayed in the typical “working man’s” range—usually 20-plus hours a week for my base and build periods, and 12 to 13 hours for my recovery weeks.)

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Make strength training a priority.

I also realized that doing well at longer distances requires much more physical strength than I had naturally or was able to build from my years of short-course racing. For age-groupers as well as pros, strength is one way you can get faster with age in any triathlon distance, particularly in long-course racing. And the early part of the season is the best time to make major gains in strength. I asked Siri Lindley not long after she had coached Mirinda Carfrae to her 2010 win in Kona what she considered the key for success in moving up to the Ironman distance. Her reply was one word: strength. It’s true.

My weight workouts weren’t adequately addressing my weaknesses, specifically my lack of leg and core strength—two things critically important for preventing fatigue on the longer bike and run legs of an Ironman. I discovered as the summer progressed that holding planks for two minutes or more were particularly helpful in helping me maintain my aero position for long periods on the bike. One-legged squats effectively strengthened the supporting muscles around my quads, glutes and hamstrings that increased my power on the bike. And regularly pushing a big gear in the aero position at a slow cadence up hills and into strong winds enabled me to hold my average speed on long rides with much less fatigue.

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Train your brain, too.

Another major shortcoming I identified from my race results was my inability to stay mentally focused for five or more hours at a time. To build my mental focus, I backed up my usual five- to six-hour group ride on Saturdays with a four- to five-hour solo ride in the aerobars on Sundays, which I’d follow up with a one- to two-hour moderate-paced solo run. Spending that much time training entirely by yourself does wonders for your mental focus, believe me.

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Work on your nutrition in training.

Plain and simple: Improper nutrition can very easily derail your race. I’ve long known this, but never gave it the attention it deserved. If you’re having the same fueling issues race after race, it might be time to call in the professionals (nutritionist, coach, doctor).

RELATED: Simple Half-Ironman Nutrition Advice

Don’t keep a rigid training schedule.

Be flexible and arrange training around work, vacations and family. To make riding the activity I’d not only look forward to, but something my family would accept, I made it the focus of my summer vacations: a week in Flagstaff, Ariz., where I put in 20 hours of riding in mid-June with friends; a long weekend following the June Lake Triathlon in Mammoth, Calif., in July; and another long weekend with my daughter’s soccer team in August in Walnut Creek, Calif., where I managed to get in a four-hour ride in between games with triathlon legend Dean Harper. To prepare for the hills and heat of the 70.3 world championship, I also took a weekend training trip to Sin City at the end of July. My experience riding around the hilly Lake Mead National Recreation Area and running on the course led me to plan a conservative race strategy for IM 70.3 worlds—ride in a low gear on the hills to avoid torching my quads, take the time and effort to stay hydrated, then build my effort on the run to make sure I didn’t fade in the hot desert sun.

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The Races
Race day turned out to be very different than expected—relatively cool with light winds and temperatures that only reached the low 90s. I was dropped early by the lead pack in the swim and reached the shore in 31 minutes, more than three minutes slower than my usual 1.2-mile swim, making me realize the downside of cutting back on my swimming workouts. But I kept to my plan, riding conservatively on the hills and staying hydrated. The first part of my run was hampered by GI problems and three visits to Porta-Pottys in the first loop. But by the second and third loop, I was feeling great and running seven-minute miles. I ran hard and finished seventh in 5:08, the first American finisher in my age group. I figured my strong finish was a good indicator of my fitness for my “A” race—Kona.

I recovered for a week, then ramped it up again three weeks before Kona with my longest ride of the summer, a 162-mile, nine-plus-hour bike with one of my regular riding buddies. I knew that mega-workout—plus another weekend hammerfest two weeks prior when I rode five hours on Saturday, ran a half-marathon race on Sunday morning, then got back on the bike for another five-hour ride—would be not only a good physical test, but prepare me mentally for the tortuous conditions I’d be facing in Kona.

My taper for the two weeks leading up to Kona were focused on getting back some of my swim fitness, so I backed off sharply on my running and cycling, and swam nearly every day to regain the feel of the water. When the cannon finally exploded over Kailua Bay for the start of Ironman Hawaii, my swim felt like it was back to normal and I exited the water in 1:02, about where I expected given the slower swim times from the day’s ocean currents. The first part of the bike felt easy, and by the 30-mile checkpoint I had ridden my way into first place in my age group. But stomach problems from the saltwater on my way to Hawi led to GI distress on the return trip, requiring a pit stop before Kawaihae. I rode back into Kona in 5:33, insixth place with my fastest bike time ever in Hawaii. As soon as I got off the bike, the GI problems returned with a vengeance, reducing the first 20 miles of my run to a series of sprints, jogs and walks from one Porta-Potty to another.

I kept positive mentally, remembering how I felt the previous year when I strained my lower back two nights before the race and then somehow made it to the finish line. I started by telling myself I’m on pace for a 10:30 and a podium finish if my legs come back like they did in Vegas. When they didn’t, I kept going with hopes of a 10:40 finish, then 10:50 and finally, as I ran the last 6 miles as hard as I could with the hope of breaking 11 hours, finished in 11:04, 11th in my age group. Not my best performance on the Big Island, but overall I’m pretty pleased with how things turned out. My bike split in Kona proved my new approach made a difference and, I believe, will allow me to one day be competitive in this race. And I’m already getting a head start on my cycling this season. With enough work, I’m hoping I can eventually turn my weakness into a weapon.

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