Understanding Ironman Performance


Today, I’ll share some ideas about an area where I have direct personal experience.  What it takes for regular people to go from ordinary to extraordinary.  Like you, I enjoy reading the blogs of top coaches and world champions.  However, your body might have more in common with my journey than what we might read in the magazines.

On Tuesday, I shared some thoughts on good vs great on the main Endurance Corner site.  One of the neat things about life is we never really know what is going to happen until we give it a shot.  For a guy that never thought of himself as an athlete, triathlon was a fantastic find.  Keep searching until you find your thing!

January is the month where we can come up with really silly ideas.  Two errors that I’m seeing a lot:

#1 – the desire for an “intensity block” // nearly always with an athlete that’s been sick, or injured, or both (!) in the last eight weeks.  It must be an occupational hazard that triathletes dream up crazy stuff when they are flat on their backs.  I’ve been there, myself.

#2 – requests for validation for training at higher heart rates // “because I’m rested.”

To those requests I’ll remind you that you can only sharpen the base that you’ve created (via @alan_couzens) and heart rate is a proxy for stress (via me).

If you want to improve then you need to be thinking strategically about what’s required to achieve your objective.  Mindlessly blasting yourself because you’re scared that you’ve detrained a little is a complete waste of time.


Let’s review the physical requirements for athletic success:

  • The ability to apply force in a sport specific manner
  • The capacity to sustain the application of force
  • The skill to perform the activity quickly

In Joe Friel’s performance triangle, he calls these force, endurance and speed.  Remember that force needs to be specific; and speed is quickness, not velocity.  

To those three I would add – durability – the capacity to sustain load over time.  To enhance our durability, in the winter, we can:

  • Avoid material weight gain
  • Improve whole-body strength
  • Limit losses of lean body mass – it might not matter in 2011 but it sure will in 2031
  • Adopt a high frequency, moderate intensity, run program

You’re going to be tempted to recover your late season fitness.  However, if you chill out and focus on the basics then you are guaranteed to get back there.  The only thing that can screw you up is illness, injury or burnout.  If you can simply stay-in-the-game you’ll return to last season’s performance.  It’s normal, but irrational, to expect that it’s all gone unless you take drastic winter action.

By rushing, you’ll be right back to your “decent” fitness far too early and limit your ability to breakthrough to a new level.  

Do you have any (!?) idea about what’s required to achieve your goal performance?  Most of us know more about what (we think) it takes to win Ironman Hawaii than to achieve our own goals.

I’ve known for a long time that I needed to be able to output 275 watts for four hours (swim/bike/run) to get under 4 hours for a 70.3 race.  That was a key consideration for what drove my training in 2009/2010.  

Do you know what it takes?  Are you putting the pieces in place for what it takes?

Ask the questions because spending the winter seeking to bump your FTP by 7% might be a complete waste of time.  You’d probably be better off with a few really big swim weeks; or getting strong; or improving your run technique; or just about anything else that’s liked to the fundamentals of IM performance.

Work in a way designed to improve the specific result you want to achieve.  I do a lot of general preparation because it is the best way for me to absorb load and prepare myself for the sessions required for success.  It’s also really safe – I get tired, I bounce back, I repeat the process.


On Tuesday, I did my first benchmarking test of the year.  The results are above, and typical for when I’m de-trained.  The test is simple, start at a low power level (125w in my case); use 5 min steps; and make step height small enough so you get to “see” each intensity zone (15-25w for most of us).  Note your average power and max HR for each step.  Also note your breath and effort markers as intensity increases.

In-season, I’ll get an extra 25w for each step of the test.  For example, I’ll have a max HR of 120 bpm at 200w (rather than 175w, last Tuesday).  

Each time I test, it’s a little depressing because I have lost so much performance.  If I wasn’t used to this process then it would be tempting to put in a layer of highly intense training to recover my “lost” top end.  Frankly, this is where your ego, and your powermeter, screw you up!  If you are chasing last season’s numbers then your consistency will suffer (especially if you’re a big unit).  If you have been sick or injured in the last eight weeks then you are haunted by the performance of last season and over-doing-it.  I guarantee it.

It’s clear to me from perceived effort that all my zones have dropped 30-40 watts… …and I had a week long training camp in Tucson to start off January, as well as riding across Florida in December.  

I’d probably be down 50 watts if I’d stayed in Boulder the whole time.  FWIW, I dropped 50 watts across the board when my daughter was born in 2008.  Interestingly, they all came back over the following 18 months and I had the fastest bike splits of my life in 2010.


In 2011, my main goal is Ironman Arizona.  An average power of 240w will get me a great result.  I know that I’ve had good results with power outputs in the low 220s.  That knowledge places the test in a different light.  “Raising my roof” merely makes me tired.  For Arizona, what’s going to make me fast is the seven bullet points above – specifically the capacity to roll 200-260w of output for nine hours.

Ironman is about the depth of our fundamentals combined with the total load that we can handle.

Our best competition knows what needs to be done.

Do you?