IM: From Completer to Competitor

author : MCurle
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Moving up from a goal of finishing the race to wanting to perform well

You have done well, you have completed your first Long Distance Triathlon, and you have set out and completed your goal of completing the most grueling single day sporting challenge on the planet.

It may seem an obvious question; but what next?

It probably one of the following 3 answers….



  • Never again, I’ve ticked that one off.

  • It was good but I can definitely beat my time next year.

  • I‘m quite good at this; I reckon if I really train properly I can qualify for the (insert home nation) AG team.


These are commonly the answers I hear from clients and first time IM finishers.

So how can you as a triathlete go from ‘simply’ finishing an IM to competing in one, knocking time off your personal best and making an impact in your age group?

First things first, decide on how much time you can commit to your training, you are going to have to be even more focused than previously. Discuss this with your family, your boss and if you have one your coach (if do not have one, get one).

Second thing to do is to have a search for a race that will suit your strengths. Sea v Lake v River swim, all have their pros and cons. A flat or hilly bike course, be realistic with yourself, you know by now whether the hills will work to your advantage or not. Will a hot race suit you on the run or do you suffer in extreme heat?

Last time out you may just made sure you survived the swim, but now is the time to put work in and make sure you can knock some time off. A quicker swim is the result of hours of technical work in the pool over the winter months. I work with Ray Gibbs of www.swimcanarywharf.com, he is also my swim coach, and in my first year under his wing I took my 1900m time from 44 to 33 minutes. His mantra is "you can be a fit as you like but if you can't catch the water you aren’t going anywhere fast." The top swimmers in your AG will be swimming 8-12km per week during the off-season; some will be speed-endurance sessions but for the most it will be drills and technical work.

For your first IM you would have made sure you did enough cycling to cover the 180km, you will have likely built up to this distance and even cycled the entire distance a few times before race day. Some of the more prepared ones of you will have even added some brick sessions. All exactly as I would prescribe if I were coaching you….

But now you want to improve on that. Unless you have an endless budget you are going to use the same bike. Get yourself to the local bike fitter and explain you want to be set up to be as quick as possible, they may advise some clip-on aero-bars, change of saddle, or a new headset. Those of you with the budget, you may look for something more specific (a new bike) to ensure a quicker bike split. Chris Brooks at www.methodtriathlon.com suggests that a correct ‘aero’ bike fit can save 6-8 minutes on an IM bike course, even if there is no improvement in the fitness of the rider.

However, equipment and budget aside, the most important factor on the bike is you the rider, to become faster you need to increase your power/weight ratio. This is only achievable by putting in quality sessions on the bike during the off-season. SO it may be time to invest in some new toys to aid your training, a power meter for the bike makes training very black and white. Power gives you an absolute number to work from; it is by definition the amount of force you are producing. Whilst HR (which is often used during cycle training) can be influenced by a number of outside factors including, tiredness, fatigue, temperature, emotion, altitude and caffeine intake.

Once you have the equipment you can set the benchmark by completing an FTP-test (Functional Threshold Power - Test). When this number has been established you can base most of your Turbo sessions on it. Watts per kilogram is also an important figure to be aware of. The larger this ratio is the faster you will be.

Male pro IM athletes will have a body fat percentage in single digits, whilst the pro Females will be at approx 12%, a pro male will average 300-340 watts over 180km (course dependant) and female average watts will be 260-300. The guys and girls at the top end of the AGs will not be far from those figures. It might also be time to concentrate on Nutrition and make any changes necessary.

You may find a couple of KGs drop off as training volume and intensity increase, but to get to your optimal body fat percentage and therefore weight, it is best to have your body composition measured and then have some personal nutrition guidelines to adhere to.

In essence you want to periodize your nutrition in the way you would your training schedule. Fuelling your longer more intense workouts (<2hours) with increased Carbohydrate intake in the proceeding day or so, and shorter sessions (>2 hours) by eating a healthy balanced diet. It is a tricky balance between supplying enough energy to fuel your training and being able to loose any excess body fat, I would advise some professional guidance, it could be the most impactful change you make to your training.

When it comes to the run it will also be time to increase your speed. The dreaded interval sessions are the key, pushing yourself to the limit and repeat, repeat, repeat. The specifics of these sessions depend on time of the season and the race you are doing but in my experience this can be the hardest discipline to make gains. Running as quick as you can with as low HR as possible is fundamentally what you are trying to achieve. Discovering your lactate threshold is a vital measure, if you can work at just below this HR for an increasing amount of time then in theory you should become a quicker runner.

The skills to perform fast transitions need to be practiced over and over again, so you literally don’t have to think about it on race day. As does your race day nutrition, use your training sessions to nail your nutrition strategy.

Lastly, I am a massive advocate of triathletes doing Strength & Conditioning, especially during the off-season. This should include some flexibility and stability work. All of which can aid performance and hold off injury when the high mileage is piled on. Like with Nutrition it is important to be assessed by a professional and have a personal program designed for you, as we all have different strengths and weaknesses.

Good luck, go get that AG vest!!

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date: September 1, 2017

MCurle