Six-time Kona king Mark Allen has been working with TRI247 on the ‘Road to St George’ during recent weeks, interviewing the big names ahead of that May 7 showpiece. But which is the best road? Here he looks at the different preparations being employed by the superstars hoping to be crowned IRONMAN World Champion.
With the delayed 2021 IRONMAN World Championship coming up on May 7 in St. George, Utah the whole world is watching how the top pros are getting ready.
Most have incorporated some training camps at altitude in hilly places in anticipation of the monster course in St. George. Laura Philipp did a stint in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Gustav Iden and Kristian Blummenfelt have been in Sierra Nevada in Spain. A huge number are making their way to Cedar City, Utah to log their final weeks of prep. They all clearly agree that to race well on a hilly bike-and-run course, you need to train on hills.
The place where they divergent however, is when it comes to racing prior to St. George.
Some, like Iden, are not doing any races. Sam Long did back-to-back events (CLASH Miami and Challenge Puerto Varas). Daniela Ryf spread her prep races out (IRONMAN 70.3 Dubai and IRONMAN 70.3 Oceanside). Then there’s Joe Skipper who upped the ante and the distance by toeing the line at IRONMAN South Africa, which was just a short five weeks before that huge showdown in Utah.
There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on the right recipe for racing before May 7. Do I have an opinion on which of these is the best? Of course I do!
Coming in cold
First, the Gustav strategy, and let me draw from my personal experience on this. I never raced in the final window leading into Kona. My last race prior to that was usually in late July or early August, which would leave me a solid eight weeks or so to dial in my Ironman training. And that strategy worked really well. But there was a difference.
I went without racing in those final weeks leading up to Hawaii, but that was at the END of the season and not at the very beginning. I usually had 6-8 races in the books at that point. Gustav is going into St. George with his most recent race being IRONMAN Florida last season (November 2021). That is a long stretch without racing.
Which brings up the question, what does racing do to help you prep for a future race? One thing is that it puts a steady high intensity load on your muscles which is very difficult to replicate in training. The race effort bumps up fitness by raising your VO2 max. It builds overall muscular strength and makes cell walls more resistant to breaking down when being pounded (think marathon). Racing also affords you the chance to see how your nutrition is going to work at high heart rates.
So, for the average athlete, I would not say this strategy is a good one. However, Gustav is not your average athlete. Some of the training he’s doing in preparation for St. George gets all those things done and more. Here’s a sample…
Skipper goes long
What about Skipper’s idea of doing an Ironman to get ready for an Ironman. Again, I would not say this is the wisest of strategies. Doing an Ironman and giving it your best puts a huge, huge demand on your body. And to think about doing one, recovering and then going against the world’s best and the most stacked field since Kona in 2019 is really nuts.
However, that is only nuts if Joe went into South Africa in top shape and gave his top performance effort. He finished in 4th and was disappointed. But that doesn’t mean he’s out of the game. If his fitness was on an upswing, by not having a fast performance, he will recover extremely quickly and gain all the benefits of the race.
I usually think of recovery from an Ironman in terms of how I felt after Kona. That took weeks and weeks. But then I had an eye-opening Ironman in 1994 when I did Ironman Germany (before it was Challenge Roth).
I, like Joe, couldn’t find my run legs. That was my weapon just like Joe, and they were not there. But because I ran a relatively slow marathon, my recovery was super fast. In fact, three days later I was running back home in Boulder and my legs were almost completely recovered and fresh. Note to self: if you don’t or can’t go to the well in the marathon, recovery is just like it would be after a long training day. So this just might work for Skipper.
A double whammy?
What about Sam Long’s back-to-back strategy? Usually, I would not recommend this either unless the races were closer to Olympic distance. That said, sometimes a 1-2 punch like that can give the body a huge positive gain in fitness as long as you recover from it. You could think of it like going to a training camp where you do something that – if you did it over and over would kill you – but because it is finite, you do it, recover and then feel this huge bump in fitness.
I think that is what Sam is going to be gaining from this. Puerto Varas was seven weeks out from St. George, which would afford plenty of time to recover and then put the final touches on his Ironman training. Note: he was contemplating doing the Ironman 70.3 in Oceanside, which would have been three races in four weeks. That would have been crazy. Fortunately, he came to his senses and pulled out!
Can Ryf and Haug make it work?
The last strategy, and the one I would likely have done if I was going for a World Championship in St. George, was to do a couple of races that are spread out and with enough time to do a final solid block of training leading into St. George.
Two very big names are using this strategy. Ryf, as we already referenced, has raced Dubai and Oceanside (March 5 and April 2). Anne Haug, meanwhile, also has a similar plan.
Doing several races with time to recover transforms St. George from being the kickoff for the season to being an “A” race – that is more like you would do at the first main peak of the season a month or two later.
When I prepped for the Nice International Triathlon, which for many years was around the second weekend in June, I would start with a race in Australia in early May. That was usually a long-distance event. Then two weeks out from Nice, I’d do an Olympic-distance triathlon in Paris around the first weekend of June. Then two weeks later, Nice. That strategy got me 10 wins in Nice.
But back to St. George. Will it help Daniela or Anne to top the podium on May 7? Will Sam’s double propel him to the top to victory? How about Gustav going in cold?
In just a few short weeks, we will all know the answers!