Why You Should Complete a Full Ironman (Episode 25-39)
On doing, despite knowing whether you’ll succeed, and pushing your limits and what’s possible
In April 2019, I visited a friend in Dubai. We met for dinner after not having seen each other for a long time. I was stunned. She looked amazing, fit, strong and radiant. I had never seen her like this before. I asked her what happened to her, and she told me that she was training for her first Ironman. For those who, like me at the time, are not familiar with the concept of an Ironman race, allow me to quickly explain. It’s a triathlon race, where you first swim 3,8 km in open water, then immediately from the water transition and jump on the bike to ride 180 km, fast. From the bike then, you continue to top it off with a full marathon. Crazy! When she told me, I hadn’t heard about Ironman races, nor had I particularly enjoyed cardio workouts myself. I did them for my martial arts trainings on and off, but it wasn’t an explicit part of my workout routine back then. That was all about to change.
Being duly impressed with her ambitious goal of completing these different race disciplines, all in one day, uninterrupted, left me in awe of the capabilities of the human body. At that time, I couldn’t see myself doing it. As a form of support, I told her I’d fly to Klagenfurt in Austria where she’d participate in the race, to cheer her on at race day, that year July. That meeting in April left me inspired, and curious about endurance sports. Visiting the race that July was amazing. My friend achieved an incredible time and put out an amazing effort. As did the other athletes there. It was a feat of mental and physical perseverance and determination, and possibly years of training that came to fruition there in the race. To this day, I still remember vividly the sight of a lady running. She had completed the swim, the bike ride, and was now working on the last part of the race, the marathon. I could see she was suffering. She was in pain. You could almost feel it, standing at the side of the track. But she kept going, was determined. That sight truly inspired me. It was then that I decided I too will complete a full-length Ironman.
This post is about embarking on a journey into the unknown. It’s about doing things, despite knowing whether you’ll succeed. It’s about pushing your limits, and discovering what’s outside of our current limitations, and how these limits are much more pliant than we know. Lastly, of course, it’s also about how to train for an endurance race like an Ironman.
The human body and mind
To me, the human body and mind are the most marvelous things I know. Or actually, barely know. I keep being surprised at its infinite power and abilities, and truly believe we don’t really have a clue about this yet. The story of David Goggins as shared in his book ‘Can’t Hurt Me’ is a great testimony to this, and to the interplay between the power of a determined mind, and how the body follows. His story is of transformation from a depressed, overweight young man with no future to a US Armed Forces icon and one of the world's top endurance athletes. Goggins is the only man in history to complete elite training as a Navy SEAL, Army Ranger, and Air Force Tactical Air Controller. He has completed over 60 ultra-marathons, triathlons, and ultra-triathlons. He once held the Guinness World Record for pull-ups completing 4,030 in 17 hours. According to Goggins, ‘physical and mental suffering are a journey of self-discovery, no other experience makes [you] feel more clear, focused and alive’ (Goggins, 2019). It is this that I started discovering since I’ve been doing my endurance training. Very interesting how the mind just channels into laser focus over time and how the body can get into a cadence and almost trance state during peak physical performance which at times feels as if it could go on forever. By committing to doing this Ironman and starting the training, I’ve discovered a lot of new things about myself. I leant that when the body is exhausted, and my mind is numb, I can still go on for much longer than I had ever imagined before. As David Goggins wrote in his book, most of us give up when we’re actually only at 40 percent of our maximum effort and capacity (Goggins, 2020). I’m not sure about this exact percentage, but speaking from my own experience, I’ve learnt that I can go much further than I initially ever believed possible. The physical and mental experiences of extended endurance training have shown this to me. As David suggests, ‘the only way to move beyond your 40 percent is to callous your mind, day after day. Which means you’ll have to chase pain like it’s your damn job!’ (Goggins, 2020). In a way, the continued training is doing exactly this for the (aspiring) triathlete.
Where to start?
Having a why and a clear goal
We need to have bold and ambitious goals to drive us and help push us through the hardship of our trainings and social sacrifice. Gerrit shared with me during his interview, that his big goal is to become world champion long distance triathlon at Kona, in Hawaii when he’s 80 (Ten Brinke, 2022). This means that all his achievements, including his recent win of the world championship at 72, are steppingstones towards this goal. This is a highly ambitious goal, but also clear, and actionable. Each training day, it inspires Gerrit to get out there again. ‘[C]ommitment to a high goal, the confidence that it can be achieved, and the patience to view the goal as a long-term project. Lumped together, these make up a big chunk of what may be called mental toughness’ (Friel, 2016). For me, my goal is showing myself that I can do it; complete a full-distance Ironman in under 11 hours. Shit, it makes me nervous writing this down here. At the same time, it inspires to work harder. For more on goalsetting, also read my earlier post on setting goals and achieving the improbable, and my talk about this with Olympian Devon Harris.
Consistency and moderation
As with every big and bold goal in our lives, consistency is crucial for our efforts towards achievement. As I’ve learnt, moderation is too. It works much better to train consistent but with moderation, than excessive and erratic. ‘What does consistent mean? “Relentless, regular, and resolute” is the best catch phrase for success at the highest level in sport. This comes down to doing the least amount of training that still achieves your goal—the least, not the most, training. Doing more than is necessary is just another way of saying “overtraining”’ (Friel, 2016). ‘[Y]our optimal training program is the one that you will be able to comfortably repeat across many seasons’ (Friel and Byrn, 2009).
Mindset and sport-life balance
Stopping is not part of his system, Gerrit told me when I asked him about how he dealt in his mind with the pain in his upper legs during the second half of the run (Ten Brinke, 2022). ‘Especially if you’re at the second half of the marathon, I would never stop’, Gerrit said during our talk. At that point, you’ve come so far already after the 3,8 km swim, and the 180 km bike ride. From there it’s pushing through. That’s what that lady was doing while running in Klagenfurt in 2019, when I was standing at the side of the track watching her. We must commit to our goal and not give up. A clear why is crucial for this. She certainly had the mindset for it.
‘Your mindset is far more important than specific workouts and intervals’ (Dixon, 2017). Dixon states that a lot of underperformance and disappointment is from an unhelpful mindset. This stems from the context of our lives. Are we setting realistic goals with regard to our training in relation to our work, life, relationships and other obligations? When looking at professional athletes, it’s easy to mistake the professional approach to training as suitable for an armature which much less time available. However, ‘for a busy amateur limited both by athletic ability and by other commitments, a training plan that imitates a pro athlete’s preparation develops bad habits rather than performance. If an athlete is never able to effectively execute the requirements of the training plan, it creates a platform for failure, opens the door for many other follow-up mistakes, and ultimately invites overload and exhaustion’ (Dixon, 2017). Instead, as an amateur triathlete, we need a training program that is realistic and fits with our other obligations and goals. The beforementioned consistency and moderation hereby are crucial. In order to do so successfully, one needs to simplify as many aspects of life as possible, so that both training and regular work and life can coexist next to each other.
Approach to training
According to Matt Dixon, as set out in ‘Fast Track Triathlete’, endurance training should adhere to the following central principles:
It must enable and maintain the element of consistency;
It must be specific to the needs of the individual athlete (and the discipline);
It must allow for continued, smart, short-term progress throughout the course of the season and long-term progress season after season;
It must be built on a firm understanding that true performance, through both short and long-term progression, requires patience;
The athlete must be fundamentally healthy.
Also Joe Friel, Matt Fitzgerald and David Warden speak of similar concepts. Consistency, specific trainings which fit the athlete’s unique physiology and fitness, and patience are critical for success in this regard. During my talk with Gerrit ten Brinke, he also emphasized the importance of timing. Being ready and fit at the right moment, at race day, and not peaking earlier, nor later. For this, ‘[y]ou should have a plan, how to approach [the race] so you’re in shape when the race is there’ (Ten Brinke, 2022).
Relaxing during effort
If there has been one big insight I gained from all disciplines of training, it has been the importance of relaxation during effort. It sounds paradoxical but relaxing during high performance effort is crucially important. I’ve experienced this while running at very high intensity, but also on the bike and while swimming. In the water relaxing enables us to glide longer, accomplishing more distance with less effort. Especially with the swim in the context of the Ironman, it’s crucial to preserve our energy for the race ahead. Staying relaxed is also important when you panic while in the water. Only then will you be able to control yourself without losing precious energy. Gerrit mentioned he is always very relaxed on the bike (Ten Brinke, 2022). He speaks about how the bike ride is really very comfortable. And although this sounds promising, I suspect I have to get more kilometers in before I will share this opinion fully; 180 km is a long ride. Finally, for the running in essence you have to relax into your pace and cadence.
‘If you want to benefit from a training, you should take enough energy. Otherwise it makes no sense to train’ (Ten Brinke, 2022). Nutrition, also called the fourth discipline in triathlon races, is extremely important (Ten Brinke, 2022). You should drink enough, eat enough, and make sure you get sufficient electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium). When competing, fluids are lost through sweat, respiration, oxidation, and the output of bodily waste. ‘Even a small percentage loss of bodily fluid can be harmful to both performance and your overall health’ (Blanco, 2022). With regard to hydration, it’s important to start the race well hydrated, and aim to replenish most of the water and some electrolytes while competing. In order to know how much fluids you lose, measuring during training my means of weighing yourself prior and after your training is important. This taught me for instance, that I lose much more fluids than I would have thought. On some intense training sessions, I lost close to 3 kg of weight during my training. Obviously, I wasn’t hydrating sufficiently then. As a rule of thumb, you should consume a gram of carbohydrates for every kilogram of bodyweight per hour during the race (Ten Brinke, 2022). Especially after the swim, refueling is very important. However, this ‘is also a time when the stomach is sensitive, especially if you just finished a saltwater swim and ingested any seawater. Be aware of how your stomach feels and how you respond to nutrition after a swim’ (Blanco, 2022).
You have to plan food-intake during the race. As Gerrit explains, all your previously consumed food prior to the race will be burned quickly, so you will have to depend on what you are taking with you (Ten Brinke, 2022). For instance, taking a gel every 20 minutes while on the bike. It is also important to check what the organization is providing, and where. For example, Gerrit takes 12 gels with him on the bike. Similarly, also during the marathon you will have to maintain the same level of hydration and energy as otherwise (Ten Brinke, 2022). When you don’t feel good during the race, it’s well possible due to a lack of carbohydrates explained Gerrit. I’ve been on some bike rides without sufficient fuel, and the feeling and loss of energy and power is very significant. Maintaining sufficient nutrition, hydration and electrolytes should thus be a real and present part of any training and racing strategy. When you have to pee, then you drink enough. When you pee every hour [while racing], then you drink too much (Ten Brinke, 2022).
Race tips and transitioning
Wanting to pick his brain and tap into 33 years of triathlon experience, I asked Gerrit ten Brinke for tips on racing, and transitioning. For the swim, Gerrit recommends familiarizing yourself with the parkour, and with the coastline of the swim finish. When you’re able to focus on a particular landmark near the finish, this will help you stay on course during your swim (Ten Brinke, 2022). He also recommends finding someone else’s feet for drafting. This is allowed during the swim, but not during the bike part of the race. And as Gerrit mentions, it makes a big difference with regard to going faster and saving energy. This too you have to practice, to prevent from hitting the person in front of you. Gerrit recommends visualizing what you need to do in the transition tent when still in the water (Ten Brinke, 2022). He suggests doing this in the last 200 meters in the water, when approaching the end of the swim. There should be no hesitation. You need to know exactly what to do, in which order, and where. For this, you also need to familiarize yourself with the race venue layout. You need to know where your bike is, but also where the exit is, until when you’re only supposed to run with the bike on hand, and from where you’ll be allowed to bike (Ten Brinke, 2022). When starting on the bike, Gerrit also warns for not going too fast, too soon. You have to bike at a speed you’ll be able to hold for a long time. Biking based on a certain heartrate zone then becomes important to prevent yourself from overdoing it (Ten Brinke, 2022). As mentioned above, relaxing during the bike ride is an important part of starting fresh with the run. Then, after having completed the 180 km bike ride, you return to the parc fermé where the bikes are parked. There, you have to remember where you place your bike and leave your helmet, before you put your running shoes on (Ten Brinke, 2022). Best would be to have socks during the bike ride which can also be used during the running. Of course, in case of rain, you probably want to have dry socks ready. Again, also for the run you have to know where to go and where to enter the running track. The day before, when you bring in your bike you have time to familiarize yourself with the venue layout. Also in the morning pre-race, there is sufficient time for this according to Gerrit.
Ideally, this schedule is specifically designed for your unique needs. Each body and fitness level is different, and each has a different amount of available time to train. During my talk with Gerrit ten Brinke, it was once more emphasized how importance a good schedule is. Ideally, tailored to the athlete’s unique requirements and condition. Therefore, inspired by this, I decided to once again work with a coach, instead of doing it myself with a pre-set training-program purchased online. Previously, I’ve worked with a running coach, and it definitely improved my performance. Therefore, coming Friday, I’ll be meeting with my new coach Frank Heldoorn (who also coached Gerrit) to do fit-tests running, on the bike, and in the pool. Based on this, he will put together a training schedule specifically for my physiology and fitness level, tailored to the 18 weeks towards race day on coming June 5. Frank has been active for over 30 years in sports arena, particularly in endurance. He has won three Ironman races, and eight Dutch triathlon competitions, and was three times an overall top-10 finisher at the Kona Ironman world championships in Hawaii. I’m looking forward to training under his guidance.
Strength training is not a standard part of the triathlete tool kit, it seems. Personally, I have been doing strength training for over 20 years, and it is a part of my workout routine. When we have more muscles, it will take longer to wear out. Therefore, during my Ironman training, I have continued 3-4 strength training sessions per week next to my cardiovascular training. For me, I really feel the benefit. I know that many triathlon athletes argue that this only leads to extra weight one needs to carry. However, I believe that being stronger will benefit performance and enhances our body’s ability to deal with impact. ‘[S]trength training makes muscles stronger, and stronger muscles can perform longer at higher intensities before they fatigue’ (Hagerman, 2015). ‘A training program of only aerobic endurance exercise will improve your strength, but it has limits. The ceiling for strength development from such training is quite low compared with what it can be if you regularly focus on muscle development. Improving your strength a bit beyond what endurance training produces will increase your power and improve your efficiency. That means greater speed and less wasted energy’ (Friel, 2016). Four possible physiological outcomes can be achieved through a strength training program as mentioned in ‘Strength Training for Triathletes’:
Muscular endurance: the ability of a muscle to withstand repeated use over a period of time;
Muscular hypertrophy: an increase in muscle mass, or size;
Muscular power: the ability to move the body quickly through the use of very fast muscular contractions;
Muscular strength: the amount of weight that the muscles can move in a single effort.
Endurance is obviously important for a triathlete. Stronger muscles enable this by allowing for more use over longer time with less effort due to increased strength. Muscle hypertrophy will most likely not be the direct aim for a triathlete, as this would result in increased weight and mass. Hypertrophy is achieved by increasing the overall volume of your workout (sets x reps). Strength training on the other hand is focused to increasing the ability of a muscle to produce force, which is done through lifting heavier weights (above 85% of 1 rep max). ‘You will more than likely boost your race results if you incorporate strength training into your triathlon training, because stronger muscles deliver increased power, speed, lean mass, and muscular endurance’ (Hagerman, 2015). ‘The most critical is power. Power plays a key role in reaching a high performance level in endurance sports. Power is the product of force and speed: force multiplied by speed equals power’ (Friel, 2016). Patrick Hagerman lists the following typical overview of reps in relation to achieving different strength training goals:
Muscular Endurance: 12–20 reps/set
Hypertrophy: 6–12 reps/set
Power or Strength: 1–6 reps/set
He identifies the following range of sets providing the most benefits as outlined in ‘Strength Training for Triathletes’:
Muscular Endurance: 2-3 sets
Hypertrophy: 3-5 sets
Power or Strength: 3-6 sets
Finally, choosing the right weight can be done as a percentage of your 1 rep max (1RM). Accordingly, researchers identified the appropriate percentage of this 1-rep max for each training goal within the following ranges of resistance:
Muscular Endurance: 50-67% 1RM
Hypertrophy: 65-85% 1RM
Power or Strength: 80-100% 1RM
Rest and recovery
Too much training, and too much muscle stress leads to injuries, illness, and overtraining. We need rest and recovery. They drive the fitness gains of our training. ‘[R]est is the most important part of any training program’ (Hagerman, 2015). Rest is defined as a period with no exercise. It’s our downtime, where we relax, without any form of workout. ‘During recovery, certain things are done to speed the body’s adaptive process. This could mean a light, easy workout’ (Friel, 2016). ‘The improvements we see don’t come about during training; they happen during the rest or recovery period in between training’ (Hagerman, 2015). This is something I really had to learn. I was fooled to believe more and harder is better. The contrary is true. As I also learnt again from Gerrit, most of the training should be at a low heart rate, and at an easy pace (Ten Brinke, 2022). This also helps prevent injuries, and slowly, with patience, build our stamina over time.
But how do we know when we have trained too much? That’s a difficult question, as we do have to push ourselves in order to increase our performance. Joe Friel speaks of ‘morning warnings’ in his book. These are weak indicators that something isn’t right. He suggests monitoring the following indicators every morning when waking up, to guard against overtraining and injury prevention:
Sleep: poor quality and inadequate length;
Overall feeling: very fatigued, very stressed;
Mood: usually grumpy, out of sorts;
Motivation to train: low;
Muscles, joints: sore;
Waking pulse: high;
Comparison of supine and standing heartrates: differential increased;
Heart rate variability: low.
Above listed symptoms indicate that training stress might be too high and that more rest and recovery might be required (Friel, 2016).
During our talk, I asked Gerrit about what he wished he knew earlier and learnt over time in competing in long distance triathlons. He told me about preventively taking pain relief at the end of the bike ride, to better deal with the pain during the second half of the run part (Ten Brinke, 2022). This is something people do, but don’t talk about. For him, at the age of 72, this is more important now, then it used to be when younger. This practice comes with its risks though, as it could have detrimental effects on your kidneys when not drinking enough. Therefore, especially at younger age, this should be avoided in my opinion.
During the race, you’re only depending on yourself. For instance, if something goes wrong with your bike, you’ll have to know how to fix it. Of course, this only relates to a flat tire. However, you’ll have to be able to do this when racing and know how to do it quickly. Therefore, also this needs to be practiced during training (Ten Brinke, 2022). As an example, Gerrit warned about the importance of being careful when inflating the tires using carbon dioxide cartridges. As he mentioned, when the CO2 is in the tires, the valve can freeze and damage when dislodging the pump when not careful (Ten Brinke, 2022). Obviously we need to make sure that we pack a spare tire and required tools, next to all the fuel and hydration we’re carrying on the bike.
Gerrit’s wife, Greetje Lanting, who herself has completed multiple Ironman races and participated at the Ironman world championships at Kona, Hawaii in 2012 has some great encouraging words for anyone considering taking part in a long-distance triathlon race: ‘Just do it, don’t hesitate, and start training (Lanting, 2022). For her, time is not important. It’s about enjoying the training, and enjoying the race, and making sure she finishes the race. This might well be the true way to do it.
Going through all of this training, preparation and work in order to complete one race, one will have to suffer and sacrifice. As David Goggins said, it’s through the suffering a journey of self-discovery begins. I, and I’m sure many other people with me, can attest to this. We learn about ourselves when the going gets tough. We learn that we have more inside of us then we think. And the more we train, the more we work, the more there will be out there for us to discover. This perseverance from sports and endurance trainings then spills over in life. When we can seek out the hard way, and overcome the obstacles and not give up, we learn that our limits are elastic, and influenced by will, focus, and continued effort. Without ever yet having participated in the actual race, committing to, and working towards my Ironman triathlon race has brought me so much, that even without starting, I have already won.
Image: Kailua-Kona, Hawaii (Oct. 15, 2005) - Almost 2,000 triathletes begin the 2.4-mile swim at the Ironman World Championship triathlon, held in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Four Navy participants completed the triathlon. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Journalist Deborah Carson.
To learn about endurance, overcoming our own perceived limitations, and mental toughness, I talked to world champion triathlon long-distance Gerrit ten Brinke, and his wife Greetje Lanting. We spoke about their experience with endurance races and the training required for achieving results.
Gerrit became the world champion triathlon long-distance, at the of age of 72 with a time of 12:22:54. His first triathlon was in Almere, in 1988, when I was six years old. Last year, 33 years later, he became world champion in that same city. In between, he had completed 20 full-distance triathlons and qualified twice for the Kona Ironman world championships in Hawaii. There, he competed in 2004 and 2012.
Also Gerrit’s wife, Greetje Lanting, who herself too has completed multiple Ironman races and has participated at the Ironman world championships at Kona, Hawaii in 2012, joined our conversation at the last part of the recording. I must say, both of them have been a real inspiration for me. As athletes, but also as a couple joining in their sporty endeavors together. Simply amazing!
My apologies for the abrupt end of the recording, as my battery died. Luckily, we only lost the last few minutes and my closing remarks. In case you too are interested in completing an Ironman or achieving some other big (athletic) goal, you’ll surely find this conversation interesting. I know I did. Enjoy!
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