Words by Alexandra Thomas
In October 2017, I signed up for the Army as a nurse and I realised that I needed to be able to run 1.5 miles without being reduced to a wheezing mess! Unfortunately, my application was declined but this, in turn, gave me a massive incentive to achieve another big goal, to complete an Ironman triathlon, and so, this is how my Ironman journey began...
Ironman 140.3 involves a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run which I will be tackling on 9th September in Tenby. Safe to say, I’m more than comfortable running 1.5 miles now!
During the past 7 months, I have learnt many lessons about endurance sports training, mental attitude and my body. I will be sharing some of the most valuable lessons I have learnt as a first time Ironman athlete to help you to achieve your endurance sports goals.
Build up Slowly
The initial stages of training will be tough as your body hasn’t yet adapted to the intensity and duration of the activities you are now subjecting it to.
At this point, it is very important that you do not rush into the training like a bull at a gate! Take your time to increase the amount of training you are doing gradually as well as the intensity. You will feel fatigued and sore so make sure you recover properly and eat enough of the right food to help your body support the amount of physical effort being undertaken.
By gradually building up the level of exercise you are doing, you will strengthen your muscles, tendons and ligaments as well as increase bone density to allow your body to withstand the impact of your challenge, in my case, a triathlon. By strengthening your body over time you reduce the risk of injury as well as allowing your body to adapt so that you feel less fatigued.
Listen to Your Body
One of the most difficult but also one of the most important things I have found while training is to listen to my body.
If you feel pain while training or fatigue then it is very important to either reduce your effort level or stop the session completely. The body is one big computer with nerves and receptors working relentlessly to detect injury and inflammation in the body; if you feel pain, this is your body telling you something is wrong and it’s time to stop.
Don’t forget that one missed session will not hinder your progress, but training through pain will cause more damage and could potentially affect you for a longer period of time by causing a more substantial injury. It would be a shame to let all your hard work get undone by being stubborn - listen to your body!
Don’t worry about what other people are doing
In this day and age, social media even affects our training. It is very easy to get home after a training session and look through Strava only to discover Ironman Jane has completed twice the distance that you have and stolen your QoM while she was at it.
What you fail to recall at this point is that she has already completed two Ironman events previously and is aiming for a sub 12 hour race time, whereas you have far less experience and just want to complete the event without passing out before you cross the finish line!
You both have very different goals even though you are both preparing for the same event and it is important to remember that this will affect the type of training you will be doing in comparison to others. Preparation for events such as Ironman is personal to each individual depending on their goal, time constraints and level of fitness.
Dealing with Injury
Having an injury can be one of the most morale-sapping things to happen to you as an athlete and it is important to take the most suitable course of action immediately to allow for the best recovery possible.
To stay motivated, find out what exercises you can do while injured to maintain a base level of fitness and to help with recovery, then set yourself short, medium and long-term goals. Goal setting will help you to stay motivated and keep your mindset positive but bear in mind the goals will differ depending on the severity of your injury and whatever you do, don’t rush the recovery process; you’re likely to cause more damage which could have a lasting impact on your bodily function and sports performance.
Surround yourself with positive people, supportive friends and family who can help to take your mind off your lack of training and now seemingly masses of free time. Make the most of this break and spend it with those who you care most about and doing things you enjoy - every cloud has a silver lining!
Keep it Social
One of the most effective ways to make progress is to train with other people so that you can challenge, encourage and support each other while pushing your bodies to the limit while being battered by our reliable British weather.
In a sport where the training can take long hours requiring lots of dedication, and where you are often alone while doing so, it is important to reconnect with your fellow training buddies who understand the amount of graft you are putting in. They will provide many laughs, heaps of support, and if you’re lucky, a wind block to draft behind when you get tired!
Believe in Yourself
A huge contributing factor to success in endurance sport is mental attitude and believing that you have the ability to complete the task at hand. Improving your self-belief will increase your chance of success because it will help to improve self-image, eliminate negative feelings, as well as improve motivation to train and these factors all contribute to improving performance. Here are a few ways to boost self-belief and confidence:
- Surround yourself with positive people who instil a feeling of confidence within you by being supportive and encouraging.
- Use positive self-talk to motivate yourself by telling yourself, “I can…"
- Control negative emotions, for example, anxiety, by using relaxation techniques such as listening to music and meditation so that you eliminate negative trains of thought.
- Visualise yourself achieving your goal. In your mind’s eye see yourself crossing that finish line or beating your opponent; remember how this makes you feel when you actually take part in your event and try to replicate it.
Stretch it Out
Flexibility is one of the components of fitness and for optimum performance you need to maintain a good level of flexibility in the muscles. If you neglect muscular flexibility while training the muscles will become stiff and tight which will reduce their range of movement and this can cause improper muscle action which leads to a reduction in performance and potentially an injury.
To recover properly after a training session you must have a stretching regime that involves stretching out all of the major muscles in the body and if you have soreness in one specific area, spend extra time stretching these muscles. After a training session this improves blood circulation which aids with the removal of lactic acid and delivery of oxygenated blood to the muscles which helps with healing of micro tears in the fibres caused by exercise; this reduces the feeling of delayed onset muscle soreness (D.O.M.S) which allows you to train with greater effort the next day.
Get to the Gym
As tempting as it is to spend all of your time solely focusing on actually doing your chosen sports activity, you must make time for strength and conditioning training because it will be a vital way of maintaining and improving your physical performance. Weight training needs to accompany aerobic activity for a variety of reasons, here are some key benefits:
- Improves Strength: weight training strengthens muscles which are directly used in your sport and by building them this will allow you to exert greater force and therefore making you a more powerful athlete.
- Reduces Risk of Injury: another benefit of strength training is that the chance of becoming injured decreases due to connective tissues such as tendons and ligaments become strengthened. This is beneficial because as you train and your muscles become larger, there is more mass to support and more force exerted onto the ligaments and tendons and this increases the risk of them straining or tearing.
- Improves and Maintains Bone Density: the stress put on your bones due to the pulling action of muscles and tendons causes the bones to adapt and become denser to reduce the risk of stress fractures which is a common overuse injury in impact sports such as running.
Fitting it all in
An average week for an Ironman in training can include anything between 12-18 hours of swimming, cycling and running. Initially, this seems like an impossible amount of time to dedicate to a sport as well as being able to juggle a job, family and social life at the same time!
The key to managing your time properly is to create a weekly timetable and stick to it. For example, schedule a session for the morning before you go to work or during your lunch break; by planning ahead you are more likely to actually do it. Also, plan in social activities as well as training, if you plan ahead you are far more likely to feel inclined to do them, this will help you to organise your week so the amount of “dead", unused time in your days is decreased.
Remember, “quality not quantity" can be applied to your weekly training regime by incorporating higher intensity sessions which take less time to complete but provide the same, if not more benefit than junk mileage at a lower intensity. This will help you to condense your training down to fit it in during the week while still benefiting as much as possible from the time you spend training.
To get the most out of your training during every session, you must allow your body time to recover properly. After every session, you should consume carbohydrates as well as proteins.
Carbohydrates will replenish glycogen stores, a stored form of glucose found in muscles and used during periods of intense physical activity; by replacing the stored form of carbohydrate, this allows for better performance during the next session because you will have more energy stores which your body can use for training.
Consuming protein post workout will help with the process of protein synthesis within the body to repair muscular tears which occur during training when they are put under stress. This allows the muscles to grow and become stronger which will help you to improve in your chosen sport.
Taking time out from sport allows your body to adapt and change after the stress it has been put under, for example, the cardiovascular system becomes more efficient by the heart becoming stronger and being able to pump more blood per beat, increasing stroke volume, which means more blood can be delivered to the muscles in a given time, and more capillaries grow to allow more blood flow to the working muscles. This helps to create a body which is more suited to your chosen sport and will reduce your feeling of fatigue so you can perform to a higher standard.
The most important lesson of all is to have fun and enjoy what you are doing, so good luck with your sports goals, look after your body and mind but don’t forget to “smile every mile"!