Marginal Gains (Lessons from Ironman South Africa)

Cycling teams tweak every component of their training regime. The marginal gains of 1%. Air conditioned buses, massages immediately after a race, weighing nutrition in milligrams, keeping tour fingernails clean. The eventual aggregation of these marginal gains is what they say it takes to be the best in the sport.

[There are the critics who see that as a ruse to deflect from all the doping that's going on in cycling but that's another story altogether.]

This story is for my former self. I see you out there clueless and full of beans. Here is what I learnt between my first Ironman South Africa in 2005 (age 32) and my last in 2016 (age 43). And I thought you should know.

How old is that wetsuit?
For comparative purposes:

My 2005 results:
Swim: 62 mins - T1: 3m28s - Bike: 6h15m - T2: 6m57s - Run: 4h12 - Total: 11h41
Weekly Training average (12 weeks): +/- 7h

My 2016 results:
Swim: 61 mins - T1: 3m06s - Bike: 5h18m - T2: 3m36s - Run: 3h32 - Total: 9h59
Weekly Training average (12 weeks): +/-16h

Now, let's have a look at my 2005 self. I was contracting as a lawyer in London, self-trained, with plenty of time to train, engaged to be married, no kids and no pets.

In 2016? Working as Legal Counsel for a software company in Johannesburg, self-trained, not much time to train, married, 3 kids (5, 7 & 10), two dogs and a goldfish.

Love that 2005 helmet

The 2005 version of me at IMSA

For some perspective, here's a quick example to show you what can happen in the space of a decade.
In 2005, Lance Armstrong won his seventh Tour de France.
In 2016, Lance Armstrong is still banned for life from competing in any cycling event because of doping; is stripped of all his Tour De France titles; three days ago had his ban partially uplifted so that he can now compete in sporting events (other than cycling) as long as it does not qualify him to compete in a national or international championship; and he now runs his own podcast show: The Forward Podcast.

Consider the scene set.

Now what were these marginal gains?

The Training
Start training in September 2015 for the April 2016 race. Build gradually.
Double the normal volume, more or less. No need to overthink it, just get it done.
Focus on 7 weeks only with weekly training hours: 22.15; 22.30; 10.05; 23.30; 21; 11; RACE.
Not every session is a hard session.
Big run mid-week. Big bike on the weekend.
For a few key training rides, get into your biggest gear on a 15-20k stretch and hold that gear. No changing down. No matter if there are hills. Have faith. Be brave. 
Ride with a strong cycling group 3 or 4 times. Learn how to suffer and hang on.
No other races other than Ironman to thwart injury from going too hard.
Always work on form:
- in the pool (crisp tumble turns, 2 x dolphin kicks off the wall, rotate the shoulders, feel the water);
- on the bike (TT position on the road bike and turbo, good circles, use your hamstrings); and
- on the run (light fingers, high cadence, controlled).

The Body
Take your heart rate first thing every morning to keep track of your body's stress levels. Adjust training accordingly.
Yoga to help with the aggressive bike position, keep the hips and lower back loose, to soften the muscles and to centre the mind.
Do work on the big toes. Make sure they are supple and strong.
Massage your feet after sessions. Stretch often. Foam rollers.
Deep breathing in the car. One part inhale, three parts exhale.
Go to sleep early. You can always watch TV on the turbo trainer.

The Equipment
Same wetsuit.
One trisuit.
Skinsuit under the trisuit to help keep the body core cool.
Put lots of shammy cream under the crotch before the race.
Carbon fibre bike instead of aluminium.
Drop the bike's flight deck to as low as it will go.
Narrow the elbow pads to as far as the chest permits.
Choose the normal cycling helmet to aid cooling. Wear the TT helmet and overheat at your own peril.
Rotate three pairs of running shoes for every run to manage wear and tear and avoid injury.
Open race cap to help dissipate heat from top of the head.

Try eat good healthy food only. Fruit, vegetable, nuts, seeds. Avoid everything else. Vegans are onto something. This helps the body bounce back quickly after sessions.
Always have your food prepared beforehand to avoid binging on bad choices.
No alcohol.
No Coke before 100ks on the bike.
Easy on the biscuits.

Where have I seen that wetsuit before?

The Race

Hold back on the swim. Yes, you could be in the first group and your ego will be mightily pleased, however that's not where you should be.
Always swim on a pair of feet.
No accelerations.
Do not burn any matches.
Have a mantra.

Other than your helmet and glasses, everything you need should be on the bike. It saves time.
Cycling shoes attached to your bike with elastics saves time.
Taping food on your bike saves time.

As low as it'll go.
You will never go faster on race day than you did in training. Pace accordingly.
Be brave.
For loop 2, use water from the course to keep cool.
Have a mantra.
This too shall pass.

Be calm and precise.
Spend time getting Vaseline all over your feet.
Get your shoes on as quickly as you can.
Start moving.
Don't overthink about how you feel. That'll change.

Have a mantra.
Have things to think about to stoke the fire.
Hold back for loop 1. Try stay off the Coke for as long as you can.
Stay aware of the race challenges and act accordingly. If it gets hot, don't just melt there. Do something about it. Water over head, sponges for the hot sections, run on the shaded parts of the road.
Don't drink too much. You should have practised this in training.
Make a decision for loop 2.
Loop 3 and 4 are for work.

The Mind
Know your plan. Be prepared to adapt. Don't get greedy.
At some stage everything around you crumbles and you will want to stop. Really really stop. You can never really train the mind or body for that. I find this helps:
Stay in the present. Do not worry about what happened or what is going to happen. Focus on what you can do in that moment to keep going. Focussing on the area of pain and comparing it to what you think child birth might be like usually makes the pain go away. Take one step, then the second. Unclench your fists. Ripple the fingers. Relax your jaw. And when you are moving and realise that you are not going fast enough, you need to have a stern chat with yourself. Remind yourself that your body and mind have trained for this. This feeling of discomfort is why you woke up early and pushed harder. Your body and mind can handle this. They will hold. You need to go beyond this barrier. You can go faster. That time is now. You may never come this way again.
Do not entrust your plan and actions to Fortune or Fate,
Running with my mate, Westie


  1. Was just reading this to Duncan and you had him inspired to follow your advice, until you mentioned No Alcohol

  2. I'd be lying if I said I was a saint. But in the few weeks before race day, alcohol is just empty calories and activities associated with it hinder your ability to rest or train. Tell Duncan, that alcohol never tasted as good as speedy feels.