Jun 9

Training Specificity (and my decision to not race Blenheim)

All of my training this year has been geared towards Ironman UK in July - particularly the longer bike rides on my time-trial bike and longer runs at target Ironman pace.

During the past two weeks I have been focussing on my swim and run speed to test my fitness to compete in the British Triathlon Super Series race at Blenheim.

I’ve done some specific speed-work in open-water with Joe Skipper practising fast starts, 5k faster-paced runs after turbo sessions and this week I got out on my road bike for the first time in two months (recently all my turbo sessions and long rides have been on the time-trial bike). 

Despite feeling fitter and stronger than ever, what I have found is that;

  • I’m about 20 seconds slower per 400m in the swim than at London last year.
  • The road bike position suddenly feels really alien - I went for a 25 mile ride with my mate Carl this week and ended up getting off the bike twice to adjust my saddle height and handlebar rotation!
  • I’m about 20 seconds per mile slower than my best run-pace last year.

But, the lure of competing in the same race as the Brownlee brothers today at Blenheim meant that up until Thursday night I was still planning to ‘give it a go’ hoping that by some miracle my new found strength would suddenly be converted to speed come race-day!

When I was lying in bed on Thursday night I started to visualise the race.

Firstly the swim. This is when the negative thoughts started to creep-in. I pictured myself attempting to start fast, getting a lactic build-up and then drifting back towards the back of the pack. I tried to rationalise that thought and convince myself that I could get out of the water mid-pack by positioning myself well on the start-line and getting a draft!

Next comes the steep 400m run up to transition from the lake. As I discovered last year, this needs to be taken at a very fast pace in order to make-up a few places and attempt to get in a good bike-pack. This is when I really started to get anxious. I have done no run speed-work at all this year due mostly to my Achilles injury and now I was going to sprint up a steep hill in bare-feet. There would be no greater test to my Achilles than this! Would it snap? How many athletes rupture their Achilles in their mid-thirties? Lots! Come on Paul - you can run 17 miles sub 7.00 minute miles, you should be capable of sprinting up a 400m slope. Maybe?

So if I made it onto the bike with an intact Achilles, I then had to face riding in a pack (hopefully) on the alien machine. Would I be able to ride as well as I did at London last year?

Finally, if I got through the bike then I would then be faced with running at a pace that I wasn’t happy with…

…next I sat-up in bed and started to hyperventilate - a full-on panic attack!

I don’t mind admitting that my lack of specific preparation for an elite sprint distance race had sent me into a state of panic. I have invested so much time and money in training for the Ironman, combined with the memory of 5 weeks off running with my Achilles injury, I wasn’t willing to risk doing the race. I made the decision there and then to not race and promptly went to sleep!

I stated last year that I wanted to do an Ironman this year as well as race in the Super Series again. An Ironman athlete whom I have considerable respect for from Manchester Triathlon Club, Dan McParland advised me that he thought it wouldn’t be possible to do both to the best of my ability. He was right.

This has taught me a very important lesson in specificity. All of my training and training paces have been geared towards the Ironman. This morning instead of racing Blenheim I did a 1 hour continuous swim in Salford Quays at Ironman intensity and it felt really comfortable.

Training at specific race paces and intensities not only prepares an athlete physically for their race, but more importantly it provides mental preparation, leading to confidence and self-belief.

To prepare mentally and physically for Blenheim during the past month I needed to do more swim speed-work, ride some chain-gangs on my road bike and do some hill sprints at sub 5 minute mile pace. I didn’t do this because my priority has been training for the Ironman.

Don’t get me wrong - I do believe that doing speed work is beneficial for all athletes, even if training for an Ironman, but personally I haven’t been able to focus on doing this (apart from speed-work on the turbo), due to time constraints and concern about re-injuring my Achilles. It’s about prioritising. For example, I know Paul Hawkins rides chain-gangs and probably does hill sprints but he is trying to podium at Ironman UK and I am just trying to get to the start-line injury-free! For me, keeping training intensity at Ironman pace (apart from power efforts on the turbo) is the best way to achieve this.

Who knows how I would have performed today, but I’m happy with my decision not to race and looking forward to the next few weeks of specific Ironman training.