Set up your perfect half or full Ironman performance with Bevan McKinnon | EP#14
How do you prepare for your optimal half or full distance triathlon?
Elite coach and double world champion in his age-group in 2016, Bevan McKinnon, who won the Ironman 70.3 world championships in Mooloolaba and the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, let's you in on the secrets to his and his athletes' success.
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Structuring a training plan for a half or full distance goal race.
- How to set yourself up for success in the days leading up to the race.
- How to perfect your race execution.
- The most common mistakes triathletes do in their training for and racing in half and full distance triathlons.
Listener question sent over Twitter: Frankie P says – I bought my first road bike last week and I don’t know if it is set up correctly or how to set it up better?
- I would highly recommend that you go to the store where you bought the bike and have them help you set it up. Usually, you can get a quick and dirty bike fit for free which can be good enough for you. It won’t be a perfect fit but it will be one that is decent for you and you won’t be injured and too far off your optimal position.
- If you have the money, you can spend a couple of hundred dollars to get the perfect fit for you but it is not necessarily something that you need to do now considering that you are still new to triathlon.
- If you want to set it up yourself, the first thing that you would want to do is setup your cleats so that the balls of your feet are on top of your pedals. Then set your saddle height so that when your pedals is at the 6 o’clock position, your knee bend should be roughly 25 to 30 degrees. Adjust the fore and aft position of the saddle so that if you drop a plumb line from your knee, it will fall on top of the pedal axle. And it gets complicated as you can hear...
Background on Bevan McKinnon
- He is based in New Zealand
- He did his first triathlon at age 13
- Bevan is a career athlete who did lots of different sports, but focused on triathlon from age 20.
Are there any essential factors, whatever age group you are in or goals you may have, in planning and preparing for a 70.3 or full Ironman?
- First of all, be consistent in your training. Training consistency is where growth of fitness actually occurs. It is not in any single session or one workout. It is about getting out and treating your training almost like you are on a course of medication. You don’t want to take more than the prescribed amount but you want to make sure you take it every single day. Success in endurance sports is developed, we don’t have any overnight successes. It is all about consistency, playing the long game and being able to develop some sort of routine that gets you up out of bed and doing some form of swim, bike and run on a daily basis.
- For a lot of athletes, whether professionals or first timers, the first thing that you should concentrate on is establishing the frequency of training before you consider going out for exceptionally long periods of time. In all three sports, if you start off with one or two sessions a week in each sport, before you lengthen those sessions it should become three or four sessions a week in each sport. By increasing the frequency of training, we also build up the durability within ourselves that will cope with us extending the duration that we start to train for.
- When we do start to extend the duration of our training, we definitely want to build the chronic training load slowly especially in the impact or weight bearing sports. I think it is very important we are very cautious with running. For new athletes who may be taking up triathlon for the first time, especially if they come with no running background, I would have them walking before they run. Then running with walking interspersed within it. Once they prove that they can remain injury free, I then progress them into continuous running.
- It does not matter if you are new or a seasoned pro, you have to develop a way to listen to the signals your body is giving you. A lot of new athletes struggle with this because if they don’t come from a history of sports then understanding what fatigue is is difficult to develop an acute awareness of.
- There is a lot of fitness technology that can be utilized now like heart rate monitors, software platforms like Training Peaks, and even measuring heart rate in the morning using heart rate variability apps. All of these technologies tells us when we should not train because most people underestimate the value of recovery. It is in the periods when we recover that we actually grow and become fitter.
- When we work out, we just get tired and in the periods between the workouts we actually adapt and become fitter.
- When we are new to the sport especially, and this is something that pros understand better, is how easy you can train especially if you are considering an ultra distance event like a 70.3 or an Ironman. The intensity that we can train at that still actually produces some level of fitness is underestimated a lot, even with new athletes even working around 60 to 75 percent of our threshold abilities.
- Finding out a way to be able to establish what your threshold capabilities are is important as well because then it allows you to establish the different levels of training intensity that you actually want to exercise at. I am a great believer across the board in polarizing your training. Once you have established your thresholds, understand how much work you want to do in easy to moderate intensities and how much work you want to do at high end intensities and this is universal for new and professional athletes.
- Lastly, really consider your nutrition. Your nutrition is not only a window into how quickly you recover and also fuel your workouts, but I am a very big believer for these long distance races that improving your body’s ability to burn fat is vitally important and your day to day nutrition plays a massive part in establishing how effective your metabolic efficiency is. These are the basic tenets that I address whenever I work with first timers all the way to professional athletes.
How do you go about in structuring the plan for an event like a 70.3 or an Ironman for different levels of athletes? How does it differ between beginners and people who are on the elite end of the age-group spectrum?
- It does not differ a lot. What you need to first establish is the athlete’s history or their experience and then probably define their potential durability to training. Understanding the physiology and the physical make-up, and the capacities that they actually have define what kind of load you can actually apply to them.
- Progressing that work really depends on their experience and what you find they are capable of tolerating. I use a lot of things like Training Peaks and I use a lot of fitness technologies that help establish how hard a workout was on an individual because whether you are a new or professional athlete, when a coach asks you how hard a workout was, we always get about the same response like “It was pretty solid”, “It was a strong effort” or “It was tempo”. These phrases don’t actually mean a lot to us. What we are actually trying to define more definitively is how stressful that workout was and by using something like Training Peaks and metrics like training stress score, acute training load, and chronic training load.
- This gives us a much more definitive way of assessing how hard workouts were and also helps us how to prescribe future workouts so that the overload of stress is delivered in a way that we know the athlete will recover from but is also sufficient enough that it is actually still moving their fitness capabilities forward.
- For me in particular, if I was to talk about a way I approach it, let us say a more elite athlete’s preparation for a race and let us talk about my own, I tend to work in a reverse periodization model. So instead of building a large aerobic base, maybe then moving on to strength endurance and as you come closer to the race finishing with high intensity work. I do a lot of my higher intensity work and bio-mechanical work in the early part of my preparation, the volume is lower at that particular part of the year because once I include quality work into an athlete’s program we don’t want to be dealing with high volume load as well. So I do a lot of bio-mechanical work and neuromuscular work, and to improve the potentials in those areas in the early stage of the program we then transition into more threshold work. Then, I transition into the race specific work like muscular endurance and then I start to build the volume that is required whether it is a 70.3 or an Ironman. As I start to prepare an athlete for those events, that is when I do incorporate workouts that I see as equivalent to the race day expectations.
- If I was a more novice athlete, I might not go through a reverse periodization model. I might stick to a slightly more linear periodization model and stick to a more simplistic form of building base first. In any situation, there is no one-size-fits-all and so you need to establish the athlete’s experience and durability levels and what you think they are capable of tolerating then you can make the decision at the beginning of the program.
How do you make sure that you set yourself up for success on race day? How do you then transition into race day and make sure that you actually execute on race day?
- Especially with long distance triathlon, there is a tendency for a lot of triathletes to always lack confidence in their fitness level and therefore they want to train as close to race day as humanly possible. If we are talking about Ironman preparation, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that it is still an ultra-distance endurance event and the levels of fatigue that we build up when we train for an event like an Ironman are quite pronounced. The fatigue that builds up as we train for those races does need to be unloaded so that we can go into a race with not only high levels of fitness but also high levels of freshness. I think some athletes tend to lose sight of the fact that in their build up, they are actually in a constant state of fatigue and they have probably forgotten what it feels like to be fresh.
- What I tend to do is sometimes I really have to explain that to athletes because when we start to do like maybe an Ironman taper, which for some people could be three weeks before race day, we will start to reduce the volume of training. For other athletes, it might be 10 to 14 days out from a race.
- I am really big on explaining the fact that these athletes haven’t actually felt fresh for a long period of time and if we go into a race without some freshness, we will never be able to express the fitness that we actually have.
- It is very important to ensure especially in the last seven days leading into a race that not only physical stress has been reduced but a lot of the mental stresses that could contribute to leaving us still in a state of fatigue. We do our best to ensure that we have planned ahead so that those things are removed from the body as well, so we are feeling mentally and physically fresh on race day.
On race day itself, for the execution part, do you have any special tricks up your sleeve that you draw upon?
- You want to make sure that your ego is intact so that you are mentally strong but your ego is not intact to be in a race without the people. What I advise my athletes, this applies to 70.3 and Ironman, one of the key pieces of advice that I give them is imagine that they turned up to the venue the day before the race day and they have to do the event on their own with no other competitors around them and produce the maximum and best effort.
- If they can visualize what that would mean and look like, they then need to take that mental picture and repeat that process on race day. Ironman and half Ironman is not about reacting to anyone on the race, it is about internally focusing on what you are capable of doing and the energy and effort that you need to deliver to the race day across all three disciplines so that you are unaffected by the competition around you.
- Changing your pace or thought process by following someone else’s race or intensity will in 90% of cases will lead to derailing your efforts. Most athletes get their pacing wrong and they fall apart on the run. If you are following someone who is going to repeat that process and fall apart on the run, then you will fall apart on the run too.
What are the most common mistakes that athletes do in 70.3 or Ironman race?
- It is not understanding their personal physiology enough. Group training is a wonderful motivator but it is also conducted at the intensity that the best athlete in that group likes to dictate on the day and long distance Ironman training is about volume and training volume does matter. Being able to accumulate training volume only happens when we actually define what is low, moderate, and high intensity training and sticking to our personal threshold ability without getting ill or injured.
- If you do know your thresholds, then it gives you a much better understanding of how to execute your race on race day so you do know what are the intensities that you can travel at, that will allow you to get from start to finish and not mispace the race.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to triathlon? Swimsmooth.com and their interactive platform Swimsmooth Guru
- What is your favorite piece of gear or equipment? My Cervélo P5 bike and Profile wheels.
- What personal habit has helped you achieve success? It is my capacity to train on my own.
- What is your favorite race? Challenge Wanaka.
- What do you wish you had known or had done differently at some earlier point in your triathlon career? Been a competitive swimmer.
Links and resources
- Training Peaks
- The Swimsmooth website and Swimsmooth Guru
- See this article for more information on polarized training
- See this article for more information on how to use Training Peaks and its metrics
- See this article on how to design your optimal triathlon taper