Kelly Williamson is a multiple half iron-distance champion and scored her first Ironman win in 2014 in her home state. So why is this successful long course professional triathlete suggesting that going long possibly isn’t the best approach? Well, not straight away anyway.

 

Text by Kelly Williamson | Lead image by Challenge Philippines|Getty Images

 

You’re having a casual conversation when the topic of ‘triathlon’ comes up. You mention that you’re a triathlete, and the first response is “Oh, so you do the one in Hawaii?!” To which you respond “no, that is the Ironman World Championships, I haven’t done that one. I actually haven’t done an Ironman.”

[Response]: “Oh, so you don’t do the FULL triathlon huh.” Ring a bell?

I’ve encountered some version of this discussion numerous times. Of course in the past five years, I have spoken to the fact that I have indeed done Ironman; however for the first 10 years of my life as a triathlete, I was part of the conversation above. Yes, for TEN years, I competed in triathlon (eight of these as a professional) without tackling an Ironman. Going long actually had no appeal to me at all for quite some time; I thought the whole concept and the massive distance was completely insane. This may sound unreal, as it seems these days, it has become “all about Ironman.” While it is a huge undertaking and a massive accomplishment which one has every right to be proud of, I am here to tell you… There is more to the sport, and you need not feel pressured to sign up for an Ironman or an iron-distance, until you truly find you’re drawn and motivated to go long.

My foray into the sport began with a local sprint triathlon in Indianapolis, right out of college. That was fun, so I figured I would do another one. My first summer (2000), I did four triathlons. The next summer, I ventured up to Canada for the old school Muskoka “Long Distance” race, which I believe was a 2km swim, 55km bike and 15km run – how I wish this distance was more common! It was the perfect mix of not short, but not too long.

Some moderate successes at these early events led me to the USAT National Champs (Olympic Distance) in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho late in 2001. There was such adventure in these short races, and the training was so nominal; but I was able to see new places and enjoy healthy competition, yet maintain a training regimen which was completely sane (ie: probably an average of one hour a day of exercise). The ensuing years led to some ITU racing (draft-legal), vastly Olympic Distance events; some sprints, an attempt at a half iron-distance in 2004 (I got my ass handed to me; my loving father even mocked me in T2), many five kilometer races, some half marathons, a few broken bones, some more halves, and a move from Colorado to Austin Texas.

I found myself intrigued by the solidarity of the non-drafting events (despite my weakness being the bike, which is only exacerbated the longer you go; I’ve always been stubborn). By 2008, I surprised even myself when I decided to tackle a marathon. Once I did that, I attempted another one in 2009, and finally decided it was time to see what this Ironman thing was all about. I knew that if and when I took this on, that I wanted to be physically prepared for what it would entail, and that I could actually wrap my brain around these crazy distances; and likewise, get excited about it.

Now don’t get me wrong; Ironman has a lot of satisfaction to offer, and there is a huge sense of accomplishment to be gained once completed. But, what I have found from 15 years in the sport is, there’s also a hell of a lot to be gained by NOT going long as well.  Such as…

 

(c) Korupt Vision

(c) Korupt Vision

Speed and Power Gains: It’s inevitable; when you train for an event as long as iron-distance, you must do a lot more volume, the body is more fatigued, and the focus is vastly on long sustainable ‘endurance’ rather than speed and power. I won’t say it ‘makes you slower’, but you have to carry a much bigger training load overall, your body will carry more fatigue, and there is far less focus on high end efforts. I don’t know about you, but I find it a lot of fun to go short and hard every so often! In the thralls of iron-distance training, this isn’t too common. Your long sustainable will get better, but your faster end speed and higher power? It will likely suffer a bit.

 

Race Experience, Risk Taking, and Marginal Gains: When you are training to go long, you often do so at the expense of other events. The build-up takes longer, and you have to account for a few weeks to recover. So more iron-distance racing means in general less racing. Racing is fun, and even in the shortest of sprints, you’re always learning. So a sabbatical from iron-distance racing may mean more chances to race more frequently, hence more experience to be gained. Two crucial elements to this are learning how to take risks and increase marginal gains. Risk taking simply means occasionally throwing caution to the wind, going to hard, and figuring out how hard you go before you blow up (though people rarely do, they often just realize how much harder they are capable of going!). If you do this over the full iron-distance, you’ll likely not finish. By marginal gains I mean learning how to drop time in various things such as transition, where you place yourself in the swim, small changes on your bike; perhaps slight variations to your nutrition. There are countless ways in a triathlon to make marginal gains; but these can only be realized by racing.

 

(c) Lucy Piper

(c) Lucy Piper

Ease on the Body: While I believe that over time our bodies adapt to training load (no matter the age; I can handle now more than I could 10 years ago despite being 10 years older), a 24 mile training run is much harder on the body than a 12 mile training run. Putting in 12 hours a week on the bike verses putting in six hours will result in more overall fatigue. Even for professionals, it can take years of training to physically build up resilience to the training load; and only then is it possible to begin to see performance adaptations which begin to allow true potential at this distance to be realized. Even though we can handle it, and when progressed logically it will work just fine, training for an iron-distance is often when we find more niggles crop up. Sure, it’s part of the process; but there is nothing wrong with giving your body a break from the massive volume every so often. While we can often get away with it for a time frame, eventually small aches and pains may become more noticeable; just be aware of the load you impose on your body with each iron-distance you race, and respect the recovery process – perhaps consider a sabbatical from it every so often. I raced Ironman in 2010, 2011, and 2012; I stepped back in 2013, and by the end of that year, I was genuinely excited to get back to it in 2014; oddly enough, that ‘comeback’ Ironman was my best yet.

 

Maintenance of Lifestyle: Or rather, integrating triathlon into a manageable work/life/family balance is likely more attainable when doing shorter distance races. I have seen with those that I coach, the real ‘jump’ in time commitment comes when one goes from the half to the full iron-distance training. A person with a full time job and family can ‘reasonably’ train for a half  in about 10 hours a week. Just doing your long bike ride for the full, you are looking at 5-6 hours. It clearly can take over one’s life rather quickly. Sprint or Olympic distance training? You can get away with a 40 mile “long ride”; 2-2.5 hours on a Saturday morning and done. Sounds nice to me! Leaves time leftover to actually have a weekend!

 

Ability to Build on Past Experiences: The beauty of sport is the variety in disciplines and distances. Start off with a sprint; better yet, aim for a super sprint. Two of my favorite local races are Skeese Greets and The Rookie Tri; both are a 300 meter swim, 12 mile bike, and two mile run; and they’re AWESOME! You just go hard and before you know it, you’re done! Yet it’s still a hell of a workout, and still a race. Throw some 5k’s in there early on. Then sign up for an Olympic distance event; perhaps a half marathon. Suddenly, a half iron-distance doesn’t sound so bad. You get the picture. You’ll learn from each one, and as you go, you’ll find your confidence build because your competence will along with it. Then you’ll get the Ironman itch, and by this point, your body and mind will be more prepared.

 

Clearly, I am not at all anti-Ironman. I just believe that there is a lot to gain in countless ways by enjoying all aspects of triathlon before diving into the Mother of them all. I often tell people, the beauty of our sport is that we all have a strength and we all have a weakness; always something to improve upon. On a similar note, the great thing about our first time doing something is that it is just that; a first attempt, with a goal often of crossing the finish line. It is ok if that first attempt is not perfect; it’s just a starting point, something to improve upon. Start small and build. Your body will thank you in the long run, and it may even increase your longevity in the sport. And triathlon is a great sport! One that can last a lifetime, if approached by dipping your toes in the water rather than diving in head first.

 

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About The Author

Stef Hanson. Chief.

Chief and founder of WITSUP

Serious about what I do, but don’t take myself too seriously

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