When going into an Ironman or long distance race there is often many questions from athletes regarding pacing, strategy, tactics, nutrition, and making adjustments on the fly. Whats nice as a coach is that we have all this data in front of us to create the most effective plan for each athlete. But what does that look like? I can tell you that before any athlete goes into their Ironman I often give them three goals for the bike. These goals are pacing, nutrition, and aerodynamics. By focusing on these three cues, athletes tend to perform up to their abilities during the bike split of their race.
For this blog I’m only going to focus on power. The power meter has transformed the cycling community and prices have dropped to allow most triathletes/cyclists the ability to own one.
Training Stress Score
So, what is the proper pacing? Is it 70% of an athletes functional threshold power (FTP)? Is it 80% of an athletes functional threshold power? The answer to that is yes, but maybe not for you. It isn’t so much about the exact effort level, but rather how much stress is put on your body while racing at those levels. Instead of thinking I need to race “x” race at “x” amount of effort, we should be looking to see how much stress can my body handle on race day and still be effective to have a strong run. This is where Training Stress Score (TSS) comes into play. Yes, TSS, that pesky training tool that is always being utilized in your training has now made its way into racing.
The question then becomes, how much TSS can I handle during an Ironman bike split and still run strong? This image can be found on TrainingPeaks and was formulated by Rick Ashburn. It is by no means my intellectual property but I believe it does a tremendous job of showing a strong bike versus an over bike.
If we remember that TSS is a value derived by intensity and duration, you can start to see that the faster riders (in the 4:30-5:00 mark) can ride at a higher % of FTP because they aren’t on the course for as long. The slower riders need to ride at a lower % of FTP due to the duration of being on the course. This is the first number coaches should look at when starting to formulate a pacing strategy for Ironman. The ideal TSS value you should be aiming for is somewhere between 250-280 during the bike portion on race day. Anything below and you left a bit of time on the table, anything above and you’re going to be fried for the run.
Variability Index (V.I)
If you’re an athlete that likes to look at your data then you’ll often see a “V.I” field in your power analysis. This field shows how evenly paced your ride was. What it takes into account is your normalized power (the actual stress you put on your body) vs the average power (the actual average of your power). Normalized power does a good job of weighting different power zones due to not all watts being treated equally by your body. Normalized power is what creates your TSS due to the measuring of actual stress on the body. Average power is whats going to create your average speed for the day and the two powers can differ drastically.
The way you have the fastest possible time for your effort on race day is by trying to equal these two power values out. You are essentially trying to get the most amount of speed (average power) for the effort you are putting out (normalized power). If for example you go out and ride the course at 200 normalized power (what your body actually thinks it did) vs having an average power of 180 watts (the actual power your bike thinks it did), you gave away 20 watts of effort and will have a V.I of 1.11 (NP/AP = V.I).
For best execution of an Ironman bike split you want a V.I of 1.05 or less. The way you create this is by having a steady pace all day and not surging up climbs and coasting down descents. It is much faster to ride a steady pace all day and continually keep the legs moving within the dedicated power range.
Race as you Train
While all of the numbers are great and can lead to the optimal Ironman strategy, they are only as good as your training has been. I can program in an athletes optimal strategy based on a 260 TSS and 1.0-1.05 V.I. , but if this athlete has never done a long ride up to those standards and their body isn’t ready for race day… then this plan won’t work. This is where the art of coaching comes in to look at all past training data and see how athletes respond to long rides and what their bodies can handle. Yes they may have a huge FTP, but do they have the muscular endurance to utilize the proper % of FTP for 5 hours? Ultimately, the athlete and coach must decide on the best plan of action based on actual performances they’ve seen. You aren’t going to transform into a super hero on race day and all of a sudden hold 20 watts higher for 112 miles and feel fresh. You must simulate this in training and see what you can handle.
Let me be clear, if you’re going to give up time by sitting up on the bike and not worrying about power, please do so for nutrition! Nutrition is the most important part of the day. Many athletes neglect nutrition on race day because they always want to maintain a steady power and forget to eat/drink. Without food and liquids, your body will begin to give out and not allow for your ideal performance regardless of pacing.
When discussing how many calories or oz of fluid you need, that will differ amongst athletes. To generally speak for this blog, I will say that the typical athlete will need somewhere between 250-300 kcal/hour and 24 oz/hour during the bike portion. Some athletes may not be able to handle 300 kcal/hour and take in 200 instead while others will take in 350-400. This is all developed during your training to see what your stomach can handle for long durations.
Factors that will come into play in nutrition are the different branches of carbohydrates (long chain vs short chain), how hot it is on the day, how humid it is on the day, your sweat rates, etc. If you are neglecting these issues in training then you are neglecting your performance. As an athlete you should begin a nutrition log for training. This training log should have
Distance of training:
Calories taken in:
Oz of fluid:
Keeping this log will go a LONG WAYS in helping you dial in race day nutrition.
One of the best tools for your Ironman bike split is the bike itself. If you have an aerodynamic bike with aero bars, utilize it! When going into www.bestbikesplit.com and analyzing different factors to a bike split, the largest factors are athlete FTP and athlete CDA. Aerodynamic drag coefficiency (CDA) is essentially how much air hits you while you’re cycling in different wind conditions. The more wind that hits you, the more drag you create. The more drag you create, the slower you go. When sitting up on the horns or riding in an upright position you will often have a CDA of .3 or higher. When riding in aerodynamic positions you can have a CDA of .21 - .28 depending on position. Essentially, if you go from sitting up to a good position on a bike that you can maintain, you will shave an hour off your Ironman bike split just from position alone. While there are plenty of individuals who are much more detailed in CDA than I, I can at least tell you that if you aren’t able to race in an aerodynamic position, you’re giving away serious time.
With CDA comes equipment usage just like the bike. There are many things that come into play such as cable housing, aerobars, helmet, skinsuit, tires, wheels, water bottles, etc. If you think these things don’t matter then you are only kidding yourself and your expected race finish time. This topic though will be saved for a later blog.
There are three things that you can control while out on training rides or during the race of your Ironman. These things are pacing, nutrition, aerodynamics. While there may be factors that pop up during the race which influence these factors, you should still have an awareness of each and how they impact the overall day. If you neglect these factors you are neglecting your race. Being educated and knowing how to utilize these factors is only going to lead to a better overall race performance and overall feeling towards your entire Ironman process.
To hear more, Jeremy Brown of Mind Right Multisport and I will host a google hangout to discuss these issues on Wednesday at 10 A.M Eastern.
For questions or comments please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org