Ironman Austria 2019 Insights
High expectations can be a limiter in performance and can lead to disappointment and frustration. Expectations do not necessarily meet your capabilities. This year’s Ironman was a valuable lesson for me to face the reality of expectations vs. capabilities.
To give you a context. I was training for Ironman Austria with the expectation to give my best performance and set a new PB and maybe but only maybe qualify for Kona. Knowing what it takes to qualify for Kona considering last year’s result, I knew it’s going to be very difficult but doable.
Looking at the results this year, I have to admit that even at my best day, I would have been not able to quality. That’s the harsh reality but that’s ok with me now.
Outcomes are fragile
Unfortunately, my race did not deliver the outcome I was hoping for and I stayed well below my expectations. Right after the race there was a feeling of disappointment and frustration. From the outside you might think I performed well. I ranked 21th in my age group out of 499 athletes with a time of 9 hours and 44 minutes. That was 22 minutes faster than in 2016. After the race I just thought I performed poorly. I can do better than this…or maybe not?
After putting my frustration aside and taking a honest, objective and critical look into my preparation and training leading into this event, I have clarity now. I have used the race as an opportunity to analyse, to learn and to draw the lessons from it so I can make the necessary changes moving forward.
Now looking at my race performance a few weeks later I can say this. The performance I delivered matched my level of preparation and readiness to perform in an Ironman.
I did not perform poorly. I just performed at the level I am at this stage of my development.
In other words. I simple was not better than this. Sounds frustrating? No, well actually not. It’s just the reality and I will explain why.
There are no failures just experiences and reactions to it
Together with my coach we analysed all aspects of my training and preparation to figure out why I performed the way I did. Let me tell you this. This is not an easy task as there are so many factors playing a role. From training volume, to intensity, recovery, stress management, work life balance, nutrition and fuelling, mental focus and readiness to things like bike mechanics, posture, equipment choices etc… Preparing for an Ironman is a very challenging task with so many variables (many of which you can’t control) in the mix.
What stick out to me straight after the race was that my bike performance declined dramatically after about 110 km. There was big drop in power and speed. For me this is clearly an indicator of either over pacing, wrong fuelling or a lack of bike fitness. As I was still sitting within my power range on the first half of the bike lap (actually slightly below target power) and had no big spikes in over pacing, I tended towards the later – a lack of bike fitness and or under fuelling.
On the following marathon a similar picture. A relative solid run until km 20 and then a big drop of pace and heart rate. Usually an indicator of under fuelling (not enough calories) or a lack of muscular endurance.
After a deeper analysis of my training over the weeks and months leading into this race we saw a tendency. First it was clear that I could perform very well on short distance races, had good speed and power. My FTP was where it should be. Once the distance increases towards 70.3 and Ironman races, I was just not able to hold power and pace.
One of the outcomes of our analysis was, that I was doing too much high intensity training and too little long and easy endurance training leading into the race. Particularly on the bike! I was building good top end speed and power with the high intensity training that I was doing but I have been clearly lacking the big aerobic capacity and muscular endurance that is required to perform well towards the last third in the race.
To go a step further: I was just not doing the adequate and appropriate training for an Ironman race. My training was geared towards short course distance.
The high intensity training also left a mark on my overall well-being. 3 weeks out of the race I felt flat, tired and my motivation was gone. Even tapering for almost 3 weeks going into the race was just not enough. I felt great in race week but there was still this fatigue looming in my body.
Due to a high load of intense training I was mainly utilizing my carbohydrate energy stores during those session. Throughout those longer endurance sessions it seems that I was not efficiently using my available energy and fat stores which are so crucial in long endurance races. The more you can tap into your fat stores for energy the better it is.
During a race there is a limit on calories that you can take, hence the more you can rely on your fat stores for energy the better you are off. You can get away with relying on carbohydrates on shorter races but not in an Ironman race. Due to the lack of easy and long endurance training sessions I wasn’t training my body efficiently to use those fat stores, hence my metabolic efficiency was not good.
A key take away lesson: Add more easy aerobic endurance sessions to become better at utilising your fat stores as a fuel source.
Long endurance training requires TIME. Like spending 5-6 hrs on the bike or doing long runs is very time consuming. Giving I work full time, I had to find a training plan that fits into my life without neglecting other areas in my life too much.
You need to know that my avg. training time per week in the last 3 months before the Ironman was ~14 hrs (including 2 strength sessions per week). This was the amount of time I could sacrifice while still managing other commitments. Sure, I could have trained more and sacrifice more weekends but at this stage in my life I was just not willing to do so.
Looking back at my performance in Klagenfurt now, I can say that I actually performed well, considering my training and preparation. Most importantly, I am healthy and have not been injured or missed a training day because of sickness. To me, this is equally important as just performing well.
I also know what I need to do in order to perform better in an Ironman. It’s time! It’s more of the easy training and less intensity. Dedicating a bigger block of easy endurance training would serve me well. More recovery after harder training days. And patience…
After Klagenfurt I took 2 weeks off training. After that I got back into easy training. No high intensity. And man, after a few weeks I can feel the improvements already. My motivation is coming back, I am fresher and more keen to get back into racing and training. I am now preparing for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in September. No pressure or expectations, simply enjoying the doing – Swim, Bike and Run. It’s a beautiful sport and I want to embrace the beauty of it again.
I decided to take a break from Ironman racing. I will focus on shorter distance races. My focus will be 70.3 and Olympic distance races. At this stage, I simple don’t want to sacrifice more time. Ironman training can wear you out. It can suck out the fun of everything and if you are not careful, it can ruin your fitness and health. It’s important for me to get back the fun of simply training. Shorter distance races give me that. It’s less time consuming and still a great challenge for body and mind.
Thanks for reading and I hope I could spare a few useful insights for you as well. And don’t forget. Triathlon is still only a sport. A hobby for most of us. It should not become an obsession. It should build you up and not break you down. If you get the right mix, it can be amazing and very rewarding.