I often feel that your first Ironman is the best Ironman racing experience you'll have throughout your racing career. You have no lofty expectations other than to finish and since you don't yet understand or have experienced how badly you might feel during certain stages of the race, your naivete and ignorance help you get through the bad spots. First times for almost anything are usually always memorable, especially when it comes to ultra endurance sports racing.
As you dive further into the sport, you start developing expectations of yourself based on previous results, as do your friends, family and training partners. You begin to analyze every detail of your training plan, race and nutrition strategy and figuring out ways to shave a few minutes off here and a few minutes off there. Your fitness evolves quickly and you go faster as you build more aerobic base, lean down, muscle up and get dialed in on all of the latest "Go fast!" equipment. After several years of steady, purposeful training and with around five or so Ironman distance races under your belt, you "get it" and you start to see the fitness improve at a slower rate as your results begin to level out in your "home range" of a few minutes. Sure, conditions on race day will always change a result, but the athlete who consistently finishes at around 11 hours has discovered their "Home" and will always be finishing around that same time... unless they do something extraordinarily different. The same principle applies to even the top tier athletes.
There's a definition of insanity we all need to remember..."Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." If you're ready to break through your plateau and go to another level of performance, it's time to do something different, NOW!
Barring the unrealistic notion for most age groupers of quitting a high paying job, packing up the family and relocating to Boulder to train 'full time' with the sport's best, I have compiled three key ideas that might just help you experience a breakthrough to the next level. (CAUTION!: The ideas expressed here are only for experienced Ironman competitors and should not be attempted by athletes new to the sport or without an appropriate training base.)
The Breakthrough Strategy Three Pack
1. Run 7-10 Times a Week:
Frequency counts when it comes to endurance sports training. Just ask the top world class runners who run two and three times a day during certain stages of their training cycle, logging weekly mileage totals of over 120 miles. Experiment with committing 2-3 weeks in a row with running shorter workouts of 20-40 minutes, but lots of them, including a couple days a week of "double runs" (one in the morning and one in the evening.).
2. Ride 15-20 hours in a Week:
As with the running Breakthrough, the same can be applied to cycling. If you can find the time, ride 3-4 hours daily at an aerobic endurance (zone 2-3) pace for 3-4 days in a row, take a day or two to recover and then repeat. Do this same routine one to three more times consecutively and you'll see why pro riders use stage races to 'race' themselves into peak form for the Grand Tours like the TDF.
3. Taper Longer and Harder:
I know this isn't as extreme sounding as the first two Breakthrough Strategies, but it's incredibly effective nonetheless. Most triathletes go into their key Ironman race overly tired and feeling flat, especially the busy age group triathlete over the age of 35 who is starting to battle with father time. Try to extend your taper a week more than normal and cut back on weekly volume more too. It's no wonder that many athletes feel 'peaked', not on race day... but the week after the race.
Try to incorporate one or more of these three ideas into your Ironman training plan and let me know how it goes. Remember that sometimes it's important to shake things up. I have a strong feeling you'll experience a breakthrough performance!
Good luck and train smart,
Troy Jacobson is the Offical Coach of IRONMAN, the Head Tri Coach of Life Time Fitness and the creator of the Spinervals Cycling video series. A former pro triathlete in the 1990's whose "home base" was around 9 hours at the Ironman Distance, you can learn more at www.coachtroy.com