Leadman & Ironman: Part 2 – The Training

In the second part of my series on the Leadman Epic 250 race format – 5km swim / 223km bike / 22km run – we’ll talk about preparing for the race. There won’t be too many surprises if you read Part 1; the same caveats that apply to pacing obviously apply to training as well. If you’re the kind of person who’s satisfied with simply being able to “finish” 3.8km (2.4mi) in an Ironman, the jump to 5km is significant. I strongly disagree with under-training the swim for Ironman, since I think it puts you in a hole before the race even starts; but with Leadman, you’re going to put yourself in an even bigger hole. The swim is 30% longer. Don’t think of it as just being 1.2km longer. Think of it in terms of percentages, because I think people tend to undervalue distances in swimming. “It’s only an extra 1200m…” For a 60min Ironman swimmer, that’s at least an extra 20min in the water, without fuel and without fluids. That’s significant. 
Likewise, on the bike, if you are up on the hoods with 30km to go in an Ironman, that’s going to be magnified in a race like Leadman, where you have another 43km (26.7mi) to go AFTER you finish the 180km of an Ironman. If you under-prepare on the bike (or have been working around a bad bike fit), that’s going to make for a very long day. 
On the bright side, you really can cut back – way back – on run training as compared with an Ironman. And since, unlike a half-ironman, it’s a much longer race overall, you don’t need the same speed you might want for a half, so you can back off there as well. This, of course, is if the Leadman is a primary focus. I’m adding a “part four” to the series, which will cover using the 125 and 250 as preparation events for Ironman, and we’ll talk a bit about how to work that as a way to truly simulate race day nutrition and pacing but with an event that has a much shorter recovery period (the subject of part three).
The Swim
At least for now, the one thing that is relatively unimportant in Leadman races is start speed. Unlike in an Ironman, with 2000-3000 athletes at the start, the Leadman races are much smaller affairs. So there’s much less of a need – at least for those swimmers for whom it was relevant – to focus on start speed. I realize that for some folks, this isn’t really a change for Ironman, but for folks on the cusp of getting caught in – versus escaping – the washing machine, you can relax a bit about that. Other than that, there’s no much magic. Swim the distance. That can mean either open water or in the pool, but you should be comfortable swimming 5km. As in 5km pretty much straight. Not like a 5km total workout. But a main set of 5km. I don’t personally think it’s absolutely necessary to swim the whole thing straight in training, though there are those folks that do, but I think it’s important that you have main sets that simulate that distance. 50×100 (or 55×100 for you yard swimmers) on ~10sec rest per 100 is a great simulation. If you shortchange this sort of swim when you’re prepping for an Ironman, you’re going to have a really long day at Leadman. 
I’ve stood on my soapbox about the importance of swim training for long course racing numerous times. It’s not just about speed in the water. Even if you never get any faster (which is unlikely), it’s still tremendously important to log the mileage. The fitter you are, the less the swim takes out of you, and the faster you will bike and run. Swim fitness doesn’t just make you a better swimmer, it makes you a better triathlete. The easiest way to improve your biking and running doesn’t involve any biking or running; it’s by swimming. I gave Life Time Fitness a lot of credit for really lengthening the swim out to a more respectable distance. Other bike heavy events – like the TriStar 111 distance – make the swim even more insignificant than it already is. And even Abu Dhabi with it’s 3/200/20 format doesn’t really boost the swim nearly as much as the ride. But with Leadman, the swim actually gets the biggest *relative* boost as compared with an Ironman – the bike is a mere 24% longer than an Ironman.  For the Leadman race in Vegas, this is an especially good thing. During the winter, the one thing everyone should be doing MORE of is swimming. For the Bend race, at that point in the season, your swim fitness should be pretty well established, so it’s really more about not slacking off when the weather is nice enough that you’d rather do something other than staring at a black line. But if that’s the attitude you take, your definitely going to be unhappy during the back half of that swim.
The Bike
223km (138.6mi) is far. It’s really far. It was especially far in Vegas, with the hills, heat, and wind. I don’t expect it will feel quite so far in Bend, where the course actually has a net descent. But still, it’s a long way to go. For folks that have done Abu Dhabi, it’s that much longer than Abu Dhabi is relative to an Ironman. So if Abu Dhabi felt far, this will feel even further. All of this is meant to scare you – not really but yes really – into not shortchanging your biking. By this I mean two things. The first is what you do on the road. If you are the guy that does big group rides, sitting up on your pursuits, chatting with your friends, etc., that’s gonna be a problem. I think that’s a big problem for Ironman, where you have a lot of folks who seemed to have trained “the distance” but who didn’t actually train for that distance hating life for the last couple of hours. Mileage matters. Again, this isn’t meant to be a “how to train for ultra distance racing” guide. I have no interest in writing such a guide, or in being some sort of coach via these articles. So if that’s what you were hoping for, I’m sorry to disappoint. The point is really that the mistakes that you make in training for an Ironman are going to be magnified with an extra 25% longer bike ride. If you are going to do ultra distance events, you need to be logging long, solo, consistent miles in the aerobars. You just do. Bike fitness is an overwhelmingly important part of success in long races. And there’s no way around that. You need to build fitness, not just log “chamois time.”
But beyond the actual “get the work done” part of training, the other thing that you need to pay attention to in a big way is bike fit. If you are “comfortable” in a bad position (you much prefer to ride on the brake hoods than in the aerobars), this is going to be a long ride. If you find that your saddle is “okay” on long rides, this is going to be a long day. I don’t think I can ever overstate the importance of bike fit, but I especially can’t overstate it for the Leadman. The main reason is the obvious one – when the vast majority of the race is spent on your bike, it’s important to have a good bike fit. But the other part is a bit more subtle. In the same way that you can settle into a nice rhythm on the swim because of the small field size, that also means that there’s none of the Ironman Florida style pelotons to whisk you along as you soft pedal. And, even on hard courses like Ironman Canada or Couer d’Alene, you still can expect to have some company. Leadman is far. And it’s small. And that’s great. But it also means that you will be alone in your misery of bad positioning for a very long time that will seem even longer because you’ll have no one to complain to.
On the bright side, if you prepare properly for Leadman and execute on race day properly and your position feels good? Well, you know – truly know – that you’ve got it dialed. I’ve had the same exact position for about four years now. When I was happy hunkering down in my aerobars for the last 10km on the Leadman in Vegas last year, I remembered why I carry my bike position measurements with me in my wallet (seriously). If you’ve been looking for a reason to get a bike fit, Leadman is it. Use the money you save with the discount code to get a good – nay, great – bike fit. It’s one of the best investments you can make in this sport. And it will make it much easier to actually do the training you need to do in order to have a good race.
The Run
Well, if there’s one thing that shouldn’t scare you, it’s the run. Because of the distance of the race, it’s more like an Ironman, only a bit faster (unless it’s Vegas, where you are just running uphill and doing so a lot slower). But in general, I’d say that pacing it more like an Ironman is a good thing. Your system will be tired. Don’t expect to rip off a screaming run. 223km of challenging biking and 5km of swimming will take a lot out of you, even if they don’t take as much out of your running legs as running a marathon does. But in terms of training – though not in terms of pacing – it’s really more like prepping for an Ironman, only you actually need to do much less. In other words, you can train the same way you train for Ironman – focus on the long run and on steady runs at goal pace – but you can do less. A lot less. 
The difference between 22km and 42.2km is huge. And this is really what makes this race distance unique. It’s an ultra, but it doesn’t trash your muscles in the same way. It’s hard on your system, which we’ll talk about in the piece on recovery, but it’s not nearly as hard on your legs. And, accordingly, you don’t need to prepare your running legs for the same sort of onslaught. You don’t really need to run fast – it’s a very long race – but you also don’t need to run far – it’s not a long run. So, on balance, the run should be the sort of thing where you reap the rewards of proper swim training and proper bike training and proper execution. If you do that, expect to run well and to be thankful that you don’t need to venture into that pain cave that the last 6-10 miles of an Ironman marathon represent. So, here it is, for possibly the first time ever, I’m encouraging you all to train less!

While I don’t think there’s anything unique about nutrition training, I did want to have a short section just reminding folks to practice what you have planned for race day. You should be spending a lot of time on your bike, so make sure you know what works for you. And you should be doing some long swims, so finding a good breakfast or pre-swim/pre-race meal that works is also critical. Again, this is a great distance for testing things out, so make sure you make the most of that on race day by testing them in training. Not having to run a full marathon allows you to make a lot more mistakes, but you’ll always have more fun the fewer you make. Plus, if you do make some mistakes, it makes it easier to isolate them and learn from them. So practice, practice, practice…
In the next piece, I’ll cover the recovery period from the race – both in terms of what to expect and what to think about – as well as a new part based on some feedback that will talk about using the Leadman 250 as a simulation for Ironman, something that was really almost impossible to find before, and the 125 as an ideal springboard race – the last “big training day” – before an Ironman.
If I still haven’t managed to scare you off, you can register for either the Epic 250 (what I’ll be doing) or the 125 in Bend, OR on Sept. 22 for only $125.00 (that’s only $0.50/km for the 250!) using the code LEADMANRAPP here: http://www.leadmantri.com/
Hope to see you there. Feel free to fire off any questions using the form at the right or using the comments section of this post.

3 thoughts on “Leadman & Ironman: Part 2 – The Training

  1. Every time I see any great article or blog post about Leadman 125/250 at either Vegas or Bend, I am painfully reminded of how much I have dreamed to do this race distance: since its inception!!
    Thanks for the great training and racing tips, I'm living in New Zealand and hope to make the trip over in 2013! I do hope this becomes a nationwide and then global race distance, then you can create an endurance athlete niche: endurance athletes (IM and longer) that can race many races per year and NOT trash their bodies. It's incredibly hard to be an endurance athlete at Ironman when you only visit the distance a very few times a year.


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