Yes. I said it, Ironman Triathlons are easy. I’ve always said on race day, from the time you wake up in the morning to the time you go to bed, you will have done something extraordinary and you’ll remember for the rest of your life. It’s one day. Anyone can push themselves through one day of shit that will last a lifetime.
The training however is not easy. For months, maybe even years, you will have signed up for a race, on a particular day, and you have to be ready for it. I don’t even think the physical aspect of training is that difficult. If I told you to run for one minute today, could you? Sure you could. Then, tomorrow we can increase it by 10 seconds. You could do that too. If we continued adding 10 seconds a day, you would be able run for two hours straight in a little under two years. It’s the basic principle of progressive overload. Will it take two years to progressively overload to complete an Ironman? It depends on where your fitness currently is, but most likely it’ll be quicker than that.
The mental aspect of your training is what’s going to separate you from finishing or not finishing on race day. A million things can happen even before the start line. Did you arrive the day before and feel too rushed? Been there. Did you leave one tiny bike part while packing your bike and have to scramble to a bike shop to get a new one? Done that. Did you start cramping and need to quickly figure out what you can do to fix it? Yup, that’s happen to me too. If you have trained at least adequately, the body will be more than ready on race day. The mind is going to be the greatest predictor of finish time.
This training of the mind doesn’t happen on race day either. It occurs during the months or years while you are training for this race. It comes during those early morning sessions when you would rather be in bed. Those bike rides when you get two flats on and have to walk miles to a gas station for a patch. It also happens during those long runs on those days you just don’t have it in you. Those are all examples of some of your best training days. It’s those days that will be more beneficial in the long run than any days where you set a PR in training. Overcoming obstacles leads to success during adversity. You’ll have plenty of hardship to deal with as you swim, bike and run 140.6 miles
Your mind is the most powerful tool in your bag if you train it to be. It takes training just as the body does. Staying positive, using mental imagery, and other sports psychology tools are vital when trying to exercise for essentially an entire day. Thing is, it’s do able. Don’t let the little things get you down, but instead find ways to overcome them. Push through those sessions, it’ll make you stronger in the end. Problems are just opportunities to find new answers. Don’t ever let mediocrity be acceptable.
It’s pretty simple, but we often get this wrong. Skill work is designed to be light and instill perfect movement patterns. Strength work is to increase load and get stronger. MetCons, or metabolic conditioning, are intended to move quickly, get the heart rate high, and kick some ass. Unfortunately, all too often in the world of CrossFit, we get that wrong. Daily, we prescribe MetCons during our WOD that typically last for 5-20 minutes. This short period of time is a vital part of your workout. However, we get hung up on doing a certain prescribed load or movement that does not allow for us to be intense during our MetCon.
Let’s look at our three main goals of MetCons:
None of the above happens when intensity is not achieved. When you are gassed, trying to complete a movement you need more practice in, or lifting a load too heavy to cycle for a number of reps, you are massively missing out and doing your workout a disservice. In every workout we should be both practicing and training. MetCons have no place for practice. You should be sufficient in the movement and/or load during your conditioning portion of the workout. A good rule of thumb is load being about 50-60% of your 1 RM. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule. But, for the most part, it’s a pretty good rule to live by.
Let’s look at an example:
Fran (21-15-9 reps for time of thrusters/pull-ups) is a 4-7 minute workout for most mortals. If you are going RX and it takes you 15 minutes, you are not getting the most out of your workout. I have never done Fran slower than 5 minutes. That’s because it took me a couple of years to RX Fran. Instead of taking 15 minutes to finish, I scaled the load to a barbell. Each time I repeated the workout, I went heavier until I reached the RX load of 95. I knew my intensity with the workout wasn’t going to be there until my 1 rep max was around 185. The same would go if you can’t string together a solid set of pull-ups. Scale the pull-ups until you can hit sets of at least 3.
In addition, the lasting benefits of intense MetCons are endless. The most important for many of us is burning fat. It’s a fact that high intensity interval training burning tons of fat for up to 24 hours after a workout. But, if we aren’t being intense with out MetCons, you are getting any of that benefits. This is not to say you should also go super light or pick out movements that are easy – no way! You should still be challenging yourself through load and movement, but just sticking to exercises that allow for intensity to be achieved.
In short, your metabolic conditioning should be an intense period of time, not a time to try to lift heavy or practice a new movement. A good rule of thumb is going to be 50-60% 1 rep max for loaded exercises and being about to do at least 3 reps unbroken of a gymnastics movement. This general suggestion will ensure that intensity can be achieved throughout the workout. Once the WOD is completed, then you can feel free to put in the extra work at movements to get better at them!
How do I tell people what they should eat?
Well, first off I always recommend them logging a couple days of food. From there, we can make recommendations on food intake, calories, and macro nutrients.
But, regardless of where those are set, there is a key to making healthy eating a lifestyle change – balance.
Balance gives us the ability to still indulge in the things we love. Whether it is dessert, lasagna, cheeseburgers, or alcohol, we all have that something that doesn’t align with our healthy lifestyle.
That’s why I recommend the 80/20 approach. I don’t know who was the first to come up with this, but it definitely wasn’t me. The 80/20 life that I recommend says that 80% of your diet should be real, good food. I go by the rule that if it roamed on the earth or grew in the earth, it’s probably pretty good; meats, nuts, seeds, fruit, and veggies. It’s just real food.
That other 20% can be whatever you want. These are your indulgences – cake, ice cream, other sugary treats, and alcohol. Some take the 80/20 on a daily approach and eat great all day long then get their splurge at night. Others can eat great all week long and use the weekends as their time to partake in not so healthy choices. You choose what’s best for you.
Your health is your responsibility. No one else can be accountable for what you put into your body. I am not here to tell you to never eat (insert bad food option) or drink (insert sugary or alcoholic drink) again. In fact, I am telling you the opposite. You should partake in those things you love, but make it in moderation and make sure the vast majority of the time it's good stuff. This is not a short term solution, but something I want you to take for life.
Sean Spire is the Head Coach of ASL. He was a competitive swimmer who discovered CrossFit and Ironman Triathlons. He has his BS in Exercise Science from Florida State University.