Coach Carrie’s Half Ironman Q&A

By Carrie Barrett – September 1, 2014

I f you've been following along with my Half Ironman training plan over the last few issues, you've no doubt built the aerobic endurance to a successful 70.3 mile trip to the finish line. This distance is unique in that it requires a combination of both strategic pacing and careful energy balance so that you don't push too hard in the early hours of a long day. Of course, the tendency when we race is to go out fast. It's a race after all, right? Well, yes, the Half Ironman is most certainly a race, but one that requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness and control. As I tell my athletes during pre-race meetings, don't burn your matches too soon. (There she goes again talking in metaphors…)

Think of your race day as a book of matches. Every time you make a surge or get out of your comfort zone, you burn a match. Unfortunately, there are only so many matches you can burn before your matchbook is empty and the fire goes out. That's when you see self-defeated people walking when they should be running. They burned their matches too soon. Most race-day woes don't stem from lack of fitness. If you've been following the multi-week plan, you'll have plenty of endurance to get through the day. Most issues, unfortunately, stem from lack of proper fueling and proper pacing, and that is the key to mastering the Half Ironman distance.

So, how do you go about mastering your day? Well, I gathered and answered some common questions from athletes about this distance that address logistics, nutrition, and pacing. Yes, I even address the embarrassing issues too. If you have additional questions, feel free to write me at:

How much do I eat during the race, and how?

This one is tough to tackle because caloric needs are so individual and based on height, weight, gender, sweat ratios, race intensity, and the amount of calories you burn per hour. As a general rule and basic starting point, I encourage athletes to keep track of calories burned on long bike rides and long runs. For example, if you ride for three hours and burn a total of 1,200 calories, you burn, on average, about 400 calories per hour. Start by taking back about 50 percent to 75 percent of that amount per hour (200-300 calories), mostly in carbohydrate* form that instantly replenishes your glycogen stores, the body's primary fuel source during high intense activities. Begin on the low end and experiment from there. Are you still hungry? Is your performance suffering? Do you feel a bonk coming on? Are you starting to get “hangry” and disoriented? If you're asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” you probably need more calories. 

The form of nutrition you use is also highly individual from new-fangled concoctions to old school gummy bears. Some prefer to use solid nutrition like bars, sport beans, gels, and even PBJ sandwiches. Others prefer powders that can be mixed with water. Brands like Carbo-Pro, HEED, Infinit, Skratch, and others provide calories in an easily digestible form. Trial and error is very important here as everyone's tummy and digestive tract behave differently. Ultimately, you want to find something that works well with you and provides you with sustainable energy throughout your ride. 

Another great nutrition tip is to set an alarm on your watch that beeps every 15-20 minutes during the race to remind you to eat and drink. Our stomachs work on a slow drip system, which means they can only digest a little at a time, especially during vigorous activity. Don't try to eat everything at once. An audible alarm will help remind you that it's time to eat.Yes, it sounds Pavlovian, but it works.  It's highly important to practice your nutrition plan as much as possible during training. Nothing derails race day like a nutrition plan and a stomach gone sour.

* There is also a trend of fat-efficient athletes who supplement their nutrition using mostly fat as fuel. This requires several months of training and adaptation. I don't necessarily advise it for beginner triathletes or those new to the Half-Ironman distance.

How much do I drink?

Are we talking about pre-race wine, or race-day nutrition?! (Just kidding! Sort of…) Austin-based registered dietitian and ultra-endurance athlete Meredith Terranova recommends a minimum of 20–30 ounces of water per hour, especially if you are training and racing in warmer climates. However, she adds, always allow thirst to be the overriding factor. If you are feeling good and drinking regularly (minimum of 16 ounces per hour), it may not be necessary to push for a particular limit of fluid. Sometimes people get so caught up in hitting a certain number that they end up overdrinking. This can sometimes lead to electrolyte imbalance and GI distress. Bottom line? Practice and know the signs of dehydration.

Another training “best practice” is to do a sweat test before every long bike or run. Weigh yourself before a workout, keep track of how much water is drunk during that workout, and then weigh again immediately afterward. If your weight stays constant (no loss, no gain), you nailed your hydration. If you were one pound down, you were approximately 16 ounces of water short (16 ounces equals one pound). Once you start losing a few pounds of water weight, performance diminishes greatly and serious dehydration becomes a risk.  Therefore, know your sweat ratio in a variety of weather conditions and practice taking in the amount of hydration needed to keep your body moving.

Is strength training really that important?

Is the Pope Catholic? Absolutely. I know it seems like you don't have time in between all of the swimming, biking, and running, but functional strength training is so vital to building power and avoiding injury. I use the terms “strength training” and “functional movement” loosely, but essentially, any cross-training activity that moves your muscles in different planes of motion will benefit you in the long run. Yoga is great for flexibility and restoration. Pilates helps build your core. Weight lifting and CrossFit build strong glutes, quads, and other muscles used in triathlon. Think about the common injuries that plague triathletes: hips, knees, pirifomis, IT band—all of these can be strengthened with regular strength training. As little as one hour per week could save you months of being on the injury reserve list. Become a strong three-dimensional triathlete and build your dream race on a strong foundation.

Should I change into running shorts for the run?

Too bad there aren't phone booths in transition, or we'd all be like Superman. Changing attire is certainly a matter of preference, but for the most part, most athletes do the entire race in their triathlon-specific shorts and jersey. Triathlon apparel is designed to be worn for all three sports. If you're going for a specific time or podium finish, every second counts and you don't want to waste precious time changing outfits. If, however, you'd be more comfortable changing into some running shorts, go for it. Find out first if your race will have separate men's and women's changing tents. You can be DQ'ed for getting naked in transition. (Dang it!)

Do I need a tri bike?

Definitely not, although once you see those shiny time trial machines in transition, you'll be tempted to get one. I've done several triathlons and even one Ironman on my road bike. If this is your first Half Ironman and you've been training on a road bike, by all means use the bike you've been riding. The biggest difference between a road bike and a triathlon bike is the aerodynamic angle at which you are seated. It's like the difference between a big comfy Cadillac and a sporty Corvette. Both will get you to the finish, but one focuses on comfort and the other focuses on speed (and sometimes a mid-life crisis). They feel completely different and, when it comes to long-course racing, comfort is king. Plus, it takes time getting used to being down in the aerobars and not having as much control over your bike as you're used to; especially on a crowded bike course. Use whatever bike you have for now and, if you fall in love with the sport, then you can go shopping for your next racing machine.

How do I know what intensity to race?

In a Half Ironman distance, you don't want to race too hard, especially if this is your first one.  As a general rule, if you feel like you're going too hard, you probably are.  A coach will help determine your heart rate or power training/racing zones, but if you're going by perceived effort, perform regular self check-ins. Constantly ask yourself, “Is this a pace or an effort level I can sustain for the next several hours?” If the answer is, “no,” then you are working too hard. Slow down and calm your breathing. If you can hear yourself panting or breathing too hard, it's time to back it down unless you're in the final sprint to the finish, in which case, leave it all out there. 

What's a good race-day strategy to finish strong?

In addition to the matchbook metaphor, also think of your race day in terms of boiling water. Start your race on simmer and gradually turn up the heat as the day goes on. Finish on a boil. Unfortunately, too many people start way too fast and end up cooking themselves too soon. Don't boil your water too soon. Keep your energy and effort levels as steady as possible throughout the day. This also allows for better nutrition and hydration absorption.

Do I need to go the entire distance in training?

This is a matter of personal and coaching preference, but I think it's important to go the cycling distance in practice to know what it feels like to sit in the saddle for several hours. It also helps to fine-tune your nutrition plan. Practicing the long miles on the bike can also highlight muscular weaknesses and bike fine-tuning that needs to be addressed in training. Does your lower back hurt? What about your knees? When you get off the bike to run, does your IT band hurt? These are all important things to note during the long training rides. Remember, building a strong core and foundation is just as important as slogging through the miles. It's never going to feel awesome at first, but the more you practice, the more confident you become.

As for running, I do like to build beginner athletes to the 13.1-14 mile distance at the peak, but it's not all together necessary. For first-timers, it's mostly a “peace of mind” and “trusting the plan” issue. If you did it in training, you can do it on race day, right?

How do I find out about race-day logistics like transition set up, wave starts, cut-off times, and bike check-in?

Every race is different and most of those specific answers will be addressed on the event website and pertinent correspondence from the event organizers. Some Half Ironman races do enforce strict cut-off times (example: Swim: 1 hour and 10 minutes after the final wave start, Bike: 5 hours and 30 minutes after the final wave start, Run: 8 hours and 30 minutes after final wave start). This is not the case for all races, however.

Know those event specifics about your race and plan your pacing and race strategy accordingly. Several races also have mandatory pre-race meetings where specific course and event logistics are discussed in great detail.

Final Tips:

Because the Half Ironman is typically a five- to eight-hour day, bring sunscreen and apply in transition. Many races have volunteers who will even do that for you. Also, make sure you apply plenty of body glide or vaseline for those sensitive places that are prone to chafing. I still have wetsuit hickey scars and permanent tattoos on my bra line from hours of rubbing and chafing. Again I ask, why do we do this?

Practice changing a flat tire. This is a huge mistake that both rookies and veterans make way too often. No one wants a flat tire, that's for sure, but it's part of the risk and reward of this sport. Knowing how to change a flat in five to ten minutes can save you 30 minutes or more of waiting for a support vehicle to show up. You're spending thousands of dollars on this one race day. Don't waste it by not knowing this one simple skill.

Have fun and enjoy the day, no matter what it brings! I assure you, it rarely goes as perfectly as you plan, but it can and will be one of the greatest accomplishments of you life.

Now ask yourself, “Why do we do this again?”

Because we love it.


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