What I know about a sub-10hr Ironman

There are a few Seac Studio members who have earmarked a sub-10hr Ironman next year as a primary goal. I love this goal as it requires planning, consistency and hard work – things that I can control. It does not require speed, a high Vo2, natural ability or talent – things I don’t have.

Before I explain the road map to a sub-10hr Ironman I think it is worthwhile understanding my experience with this goal.

In the weeks before my first Ironman in Forster 1997 my buddy Brad Hawkins and I did a training ride north to see if we could indeed make the 180km bike distance. I don’t remember too much about this ride,

but I do remember that we wore full race kit. In 1997 this was yet to be nicknamed ‘budgy smugglers’ and the tightest lycra ¾ top I could find. Aside from our attire, the ride did not go well and about 7 hours into the ride we decided to abandon and catch the train home …at Cowan …in our speedo and lycra midrift …covered in chain grease and gu (several punctures and derailleur issues). The train trip back to Central was just a little strange, especially when Brad fell asleep on my shoulder ...in his budgy smgglers.

A few weeks later having never ridden the distance or run a marathon, I swam, rode and ran my way around Forster with the biggest smile on my face. My buddies followed me around the course in Ben Gemmel’s EH Holden (yes, it was a classic car back then too) guzzling beer and laughing at my stupidity. The photo’s they took captured my obvious enjoyment of that day. No wetsuit, aluminium road bike (I’d upgraded from steel a few months earlier), no comprehension of nutritional requirements and a terry-towel hat I crossed the line in 10:14hrs. I had qualified for Hawaii (a race I didn't know about until that day?) and my love affair with sub-10 had begun.

Photo note: the LAPD dude next to me is Ironman Legend and good buddy Andrew Foster, who is now up to IMOZ number 21

I have always partied more than I had trained so it took me two years to get to my next Ironman. I was fitter and stronger, my swimming was getting better, I was cycling with the fastest group in the park and I had just run the C2S in 50:12min. I had the latest wetsuit and purchased the best bike and the fastest wheels available.

The 1999 IM NZ was a tough day, but I was on fire. My fastest swim and bike to date. I got to the run and was so excited I ran the first half marathon in 95mins. I passed uber-cyclist Cam Howe 12k into the run and gave him the customary pat on the bum. At kilometre 25 I began to walk and at around 30k got a double pat on the bum from Cam. I finished in 10:21.

After a year of partying I wanted that sub-10hr and began training even harder. Swim squad with Graham Sellers at 5.15am thrice weekly was the standard, so I did it. I rode with the fastest squad in Centennial Park sponsored by now defunct property consultancy Emerald Logic. Our bike squad was coached by Paul Shaw who gave us spreadsheets each week detailing our sets and performance. The squad included national level cyclists and rowers and professional triathletes Belinda and Juzzy Granger. Everyone in the squad had done a low 9hr Ironman or better. We rode hard and long.

I was told I had to be able to run a sub 3hr marathon so I went to Melbourne in 2000 and ran 2:58hr – tick. Everything was going to plan.

So in 2001 I headed back to Forster to smash 10hrs! Half way around the bike course my hip started to get a little painful. The pain was the result of an over-training injury I had been managing for months. By the time the ride finished the pain was into my hamstring. Half way around the run the knee was also giving out. Walking backwards was the only option. Needless to say …so I won’t say it.

My mortgage software business was kicking-off fast and I was interstate every other week, which meant many business dinners and the inevitable nightclub till 4am – pre GFC. I kept training, but it was inconsistent. In 2003 I managed my only Noosa Tri podium …in the Clydesdale division. In 2004 I cracked 100kg. It was time to talk to my good mate and past president of the BRATS Luke Littler. I told him the only way I knew how to lose weight was to do an ironman. And I would only do an Ironman if …you guessed it, I went sub-10hrs.

So in 2005 I built simple consistency and started running longer. Under Luke’s tutelage I ran longer and longer. To avoid injury removed all the speed work. I rode with the easy Brats group and then kept on riding. I didn’t do much swimming but was surf skiing regularly.

The first Ironman at Port Macquarie was big. I had lost about 15kg and was keen to race well, but sub-10hrs was not on the agenda. I had entered the CEO Challenge for executives of large businesses (still pre-GFC :). Because it was a US Challenge I had to send my financials to a US accounting firm to be eligible. It was a lot of fun and a lot of wine drunk with real live big-time CEO's of Ford and US Milk Co. before and after the race. My 10:02 on the day blew my sox off, won the division and qualified me for a second time for the World Champs. Incidentally the time was an AG qualification as well.

For the winter I just did more of the same with one exception – I added weight training. From school basketball I had a bit of a dodgy pelvis which has ramifications into my lower back and down my leg. The weight training showed instant benefits and I have never looked back. I haven't seen a physio now since 2005. I guess the Seac Studio concept had begun in the murky depths of my imagination.

I didn’t have time to do swim squads so I focused on solo technique drills. I rode to work and ran home, then the next day ran to work and rode home. On weekends I ran long on Saturday and rode long on Sunday and had the fourth weekend off. Running off the bike was always limited to race specific training.

In Hawaii 2006 every photo of me on the course I have this ‘happy as Larry’ smile on my face. I moonwalked the aid stations, skulled a beer on Ali’i Drive and had a blast. Somehow 9:52 was a simple process. In hindsight I had simply done the right training in the right order – finally.

My first sub-10hrs was at the Big Dance (on the toughest day ever, of course). It also won me the illustrious tittle of the Worlds Fittest CEO. The 9:52 remained the division record for a few years until a German dude who'd sold his internet company for a gazillion marks and then trained full-time for Hawaii smashed it.

A few more years off after Hawaii and my weight adjusted accordingly. In 2010 when I started riding with the Brats again it was a whole new crew. There was a new group of skinny, gifted athletes riding hard on the front of the group, running-off bike every day and smashing swim squads – they looked vaguely familiar?

At the start of the third (or was it fourth) comeback I rode with the slow group because I couldn’t keep up with the fast guys. As I got fitter I rode with the slow group because I knew what had to be done and in what order.

Port Mac in 2010 was a solid 9:50hrs and a Hawaii qualification. Melbourne in 2012 was my current PB of 9:24. Followed by Cairns 9:52 (bike crash) in 2013, Frankfurt 9:52 (yep!) in 2014 and back to Port in 2015 for a 9:54 and an Hawaii qualification. I have played around with the formula to see if it can be tweaked at all. I have also had to adjust the formula as I have aged. At 48 my fastest Ironman is still ahead of me :) which drives my passion to play with the formula to see what works and what doesn’t work – Busselton 2017 did not work, but it did prove part of the formula correct.

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” — Mark Twain

So, let’s cut to the chase. What exactly do I know about sub-10hr Ironman.

The first thing to know is that you have to be grateful, smile and enjoy the race to go Sub-10. Angry racing rarely works.

Secondly, no two Ironman’s are the same and even the same location year to year is hard to compare times. So Sub-10 in one location means something entirely different in another. 9:50 in Port Mac is a 9:30 in say Busso.

The hardest lesson to learn is that Ironman is not fast. Improving your Vo2 is very difficult and if you are over 35 it’s impossible, so lots of work above threshold provides little value in Ironman racing.

It took a while for me to learn that the actual 12-16 week build program is secondary to the 12-16 week base program. Most people have in mind an Ironman 30 weeks away and simply work towards building and building. However your base needs to be just as structured, if not more, than the actual build program. Most athletes are confused about what base means. In fact a good base will often see your fitness drop and times get slower! The lack of a rock solid base is what unravels most people doing their 1st-3rd Ironman.

Consistency is king in all endurance sports and Ironman is no exception. However, achieving consistency is more of an art than a science. This is where most people stumble. Working out your weekly, fortnightly, monthly, season program is tricky but a good program breeds consistency. Not getting injured or sick is similarly delicate process. A quick giggle at the training Whatsap or Facebook groups shows the chronic injured and sick. The search for consistency is what finally brought Seac Studio to life. Consistency is an article topic unto itself (watch this space).

A good understanding of the simple 80/20 threshold rule will take you a long way to a Sub-10. This rule has been proven by numerous university studies of many Olympic teams since the 1970’s but is ignored by so many triathletes. Simply put, 80% of your training should be below threshold and only 20% above.

Strength training is not important if you just want to tick off one Ironman. However if you want to enjoy the sport for 20, 30 or 40 plus years it is crucial.

Another important factor often overlooked by online programs is how long the athlete has been doing triathlon. The program for someone in the first three to five years of triathlon is very different to that of a more experienced athlete. This remains so, regardless of their fitness level - i.e. a super-fit athletic dude has to pay his training dues if he is new to the sport. While a slightly over-weight middle-aged dude who has been doing triathlons for 20 years can skip a few steps (but not many).

To go sub-10hrs you must absolutely know your pace levels. This is not something you can calculate or use a watch or power meter. Knowing your various pace levels will help you push just that little bit more but not too much. To learn you pace options you need to train in them often. Keep in mind if your program is doing its job you will have a different pace level come race day.

Finally, it is not about bikes or watches or compression socks or gels or power meters or BCAA or ketones or zero drop shoes or sunglasses. It is simply about planning and doing the work in the right order.

Final point on the topic:

A 15:something hr Ironman can be accomplished with an average of 10hrs per week for 15 weeks by 90% of the 20-60y.o. population.

A 10:something hr Ironman can be accomplished with an average of 15hrs per week for 15 weeks by 90% of the 20-60y.o. population.

However to go sub-10hrs requires an extra 2-3hrs per week. Realistically you would be looking at light weeks of 14hrs and heavy weeks of 20hrs plus. This is pure training time – strength, swim, bike, run.

I hope this helps you achieve your goals. If you have any questions please get in touch jason@seacstudio.com.au

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