Bike, Combined Sports, Run, Swim

Ironman pacing for the beginner

Ironman Wales 2012 Start PanoramaI am about to do my first full Ironman and I thought that some of you might be interested to know how I have come up with an Ironman pacing strategy. I have learnt a lot about pacing from doing a variety of long distance events from cycle sportives to triathlons to ultra marathons and the right pacing strategy can really make your day whatever your level. I also pay for one to one coaching and my coach, Neil Scholes of Kinetic Revolution and Performance Edge, has also been instrumental in getting me into the right frame of mind to avoid disappointment on the day.

For your first Ironman you may have fantasized about qualifying for the world champs at Kona, but let’s be realistic, that is highly unlikely to happen. To achieve such a feat you will have to treat your training plan with military precision and dedicate a year or two of your life, at least, to making it a reality. As a first timer you really need to forget about all of the other athletes out there. At your core you have one goal: To complete the Ironman within 17 hours and hear Mike Reilly declare “you are an Ironman” as you cross the finish line. I would also add that you need to have a bit of fun along the way. If you aren’t having fun and this is your hobby then perhaps you need to take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror and think about why you are doing this.

Primary goal: To complete the Ironman within 17 hours and hear Mike Reilly declare “you are an Ironman” as you cross the finish line.

With your primary goal set you will no doubt have some further expectations on what you can achieve during the swim, bike and run. I would suggest avoiding setting a time expectation as this can easily be thrown out simply by the course being long or short, or the weather being too hot, too cold, or too windy. For the swim I have one goal and that is to finish without unduly tiring myself out, so that I am in a great shape for the rest of the race. Did you know that pushing too hard on the swim may not show so much on the bike, but can significantly harm your running pace at the end? Nobody wins an Ironman in the swim.

Swim tip: Wear earplugs. Most people don’t get seasick in the swim, they just think they do. Most of the time it is the cold water sloshing up and down your ear canal making you dizzy and then sick. Fixed easily and cheaply with earplugs.

You will spend around half of your time in an Ironman on your bike, so hopefully you have spent at least half of your training time on your bike? Pace the bike right and you will have a great run at the end of the ironman, but get it wrong and the marathon will turn into a painful 5-6 hour run/walk/crawl nightmare. This means that you need to start the bike easy and let other folks whoosh off. This is hard to do, but there is plenty of time to catch them later.

If you train with power then your Ironman pace on the bike should be around 65-75% of your FTP (Functional Threshold Power) which you should be able to maintain fairly easily all of the way around. Avoid powering up hills i.e. large spikes in your power output and just ride your own race. The chances are that you will see those folks powering past you now in the run later.

If you train with heart rate then the book “Going Long” by Joe Friel has a great table on bike pacing in it (pg 318 in the 2nd Edition). It also has a load of other good information as well and is worth a read. As a rough guide you should be in zone 2 (aerobic endurance) for the most of it and keeping the exercise as aerobic as possible.

Bike tip: Focus on nutrition and hydration throughout the bike. You need to finish it as well fuelled/hydrated as you can and that means consuming 300-350 calories an hour of something you know that you can digest. You are aiming to start the run as fresh as possible.

Once you get off of the bike you should feel tired but capable of still running a marathon. Here is where pacing the swim and bike right will pay dividends. Many people will have gone too hard and will be feeling awful, it’s just that quite a few of them may now be in front of you. Don’t worry about that as you have 26.2 miles to catch as many of them up as you can and once they start walking you will steamroller on past them.

Start the run as you would any marathon, easily. Focus on your form and cadence, but don’t worry about your speed as you settle into it. Keep the legs ticking over and keep moving forward. If you start to slow then pop a gel in, and remember to grab a mouthful of liquid at each aid station. Swish it around your mouth and swallow. Slow slightly while you do it, then pick the pace back up again. You will still be going fairly slowly, but your rate of perceived exertion will be high due to the swim and bike that you have done beforehand. Just keep moving forward. Focus on the next person in front of you and slowly reel them in. When you overtake then move onto the next one. Steep hill? Feel free to walk, I do, and when you get near the end you will understand why. Now you’ve got to mile 20, and surprise, the wheels haven’t fallen off. You are still creeping forward, you are still overtaking people. You only have 10km, 6 miles, to go. If you feel up to it, now you can start to pick up the pace. This is the point where I start to high five marshals, you should have been high fiving spectators all the way ;). Focus on the next marshal, run to them, high five, move to the next one. Pick those heels up, push those elbows back. Keep moving forward. It hurts, but who cares, you are about to finish an Ironman.

Finally you will see the finish, and as you cross the line: “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”

Now look at your watch. I bet you did better than you were expecting, and it was all down to good pacing. If you get it wrong and a man dressed as a harlequin overtakes you in the last twelve miles, then that’s me, so please do come back here and make a donation to my chosen charity. The link is on the right of the page 🙂

On Sunday the 14th September I will be putting my reputation on the line in Ironman Wales, do come back to Bike Run Swim to check out the race report.

Please note that there are other factors to finishing your first Ironman well. Amongst them is your food and drink, doing the right training, keeping your bike fettled, a smattering of good luck etc. But once those are all lined up then the pacing is going to make the biggest difference to your finishing time and enjoyment on the day. Come back and let me know how you got on. What worked for you and what didn’t?


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