From Sub-10 to Sub-9:30 In One Ironman

Texas Age Group Winner, M35-39, Patrick McCrannI recently won the men’s 35-39 age group, placing 28th overall, at Texas with finishing time of 9:27. This was a 25-minute personal best and a breakthrough performance for me, and I want to share how I did it.

Not because everyone can go sub-9:30 in an Ironman, but because how I set the stage for my breakthrough should help you do the same.

Be Consistent

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this was my 17th Ironman® race. I started in 2001 with a 10:40 at Florida and since then have been all over the map with a general trend to the low 10-hour mark starting in 2007.

I have pretty much raced two Ironman® events a year since then, with a two year break in 2009 for my wife to race, followed by a broken hip in 2010. I healed well and have managed to continue my progression. In my last five races, including Texas, I have qualified for Kona.

Over this timeframe I have tried many different approaches for training. High volume, low volume? Been there.  Taper or no taper? Done that.  But the most important thing in retrospect was that I just kept at it. The longer you play this game, the more likely you are to win it….and that’s just what happened at Ironman® Texas.

Better Race Selection

After reviewing my performance last year with my coaching partner, Rich Strauss, it became clear that I preferred Ironman® races that were hilly and cool — Lake Placid and Ironman® Coeur d’Alene come to mind.

But at 6’2″ tall and 185 lbs, my body type lends itself to racing a flatter course. My fear of the heat led me to pick races that I figured I could do well at given the climate. But the math of what I could do on a flat course given my bike and run fitness was too compelling.

I have always underperformed in Kona’s heat & humidity, but realized that if I am to improve I’ll actually need to experiment by racing in similar conditions outside of just that one day.

With those two elements in mind, I decided on Texas as the perfect early season combination. And with a 4:56 bike split that included 3 minutes to fix a flat tire and a 3:15 run, clearly a flatter course is a good choice for me.

Improved Body Composition

My kick off to this season wasn’t about training, it was about body composition. After Kona 2011, I returned home to eat enough Halloween candy to feed a small village. In three short weeks I had ballooned ten pounds, and so I was determined to get back on track as my main focus for improvement in 2012 was to come from racing at more optimal weight.

Even though I was training in the OutSeason, my eating habits were poor and the weight wasn’t coming off. Starting at Christmas, I began to focus on my calories. By February I had dropped 15 pounds and was seeing the results in my workouts and races. This included a 1:19 half marathon; a four minute personal best for me.

Making this commitment was tough, but it set me up to confidently make my call about racing Texas because I knew I was ready.

A Tighter OutSeason® to Race Window

I took a total of three weeks off of training, totally zero training, after Kona 2011. My first workout was a bike test at the start of the November OutSeason® training cycle. More than a few folks asked me if I needed more rest, but I felt ready given I had gone cold turkey after Kona.

After all, I only race three to four times a year and my work schedule allows me to sleep in most days and train when the kids are in school. This quick turnaround meant I was able to build off of the fitness I had created last year. There was no massive gap or retraction of fitness….it was just enough rest for me.

Traditionally in the wintertime I put up season best numbers for the bike and the run. With plenty of recovery time and hard intervals on the calendar, it’s easy to create some solid fitness. This generally fades over time as I transition to doing the longer rides and sessions that an Ironman® requires.

I didn’t have the luxury of doing sixteen or twenty weeks of training into Texas. At first I was concerned, but in retrospect I think the proximity of the OutSeason® to my race let me carry my peak bike and run fitness right into my race cycle. This practically eliminated any drop or fade in power, instead of watching it drop off with a prolonged period of building volume and creating fatigue. Of course, it’s worth noting that we had a very light winter and I was able to get in one camp on the Texas course as well.

An Improved Nutrition Plan

In addition to my calorie counting focus, I have been working with The Core Diet team. They not only made some daily menu guides for me to follow for my training, but they gave me a specific Race Fueling Plan. Both were specific to me, and very helpful.

The biggest change here was the sheer amount of food and fluids I would take in when exercising. Almost every workout, even a 30-minute run, had fueling goals. There was never a wasted chance to practice race fueling.  Improvements in body composition were targeted outside of the exercise window. This was very effective until my two peak training weeks when I was unable to stick with the guidelines 100%.

I also worked with the Core Diet team to tweak my race fueling plan. I went from taking in 250 calories per hour on the bike to taking in 750…and no, that’s not a typo. My Texas plan called for three bottles of Perform an hour (3 x 170 calories) and a PowerBar (240 calories) in the first hour, for example. It was hard to get down, but I totally avoided any race day bonk and literally felt amazing. This continued with more food on the run, again almost double what I used to eat.

All in, I consumed about 250% of the calories I would have otherwise taken in over an Ironman® day. It sounds crazy but I trained to do it and no bonking over the course of the day simply doesn’t lie.  I am completely converted.

Solid Execution

My experience racing means I have rolled the Ironman® dice many times and know what does and doesn’t work. I have made almost every possible mistake on race day, and as a result I can handle my body and most issues with confidence.

I know how to pace the swim and the bike appropriately for me. I know how to start the run and how to handle the mental challenge of finishing. I know what to do when it’s really hot, or when the wind picks up. I know what it means when my fingers start tingling or when I stop sweating and I know how to fix it.

On this particular day, my execution skills helped me to overcome:

  • My slowest Ironman® swim in memory — I thought my race was over!
  • A flat front tire — I was calm and made the switch in under 3 minutes.
  • A tight lower back on the bike — I had packed some Tylenol just in case and rationed out as l was eating (do not try this at home, it is strongly suggested that you avoid using NSAIDs during a race).
  • A very hot run — I increased fluid and salt intake accordingly and focused on reducing my core body temperature immediately.
  • Historically slow aid stations — I usually slow down on the run not by running slower, but by taking longer and longer at aid stations. On race day I had my A game and consistently kept my waking portions to about 20 seconds per mile.

A Ton of Luck

It goes without saying that a ton of things have to go right for a good race to come together. I can say all I want about my skills and experience, but at the end of the day there were some seriously good things that happened to me that were out of my control. I was simply positioned to do well when everything aligned, and they did.

What Does This Mean For You?

Hopefully aside from learning a few things, you also take away that getting better / faster on race day isn’t always about a genetic gift or how many hours you have to train.

  • While I trained six months for Texas, this first four months were limited to eight to ten hours a week max.
  • I made myself faster not by adding significantly more strength, but by improving my body composition.
  • I made the most of a chance to train on the course so I was 100% familiar with the terrain and the conditions.
  • I focused on improving my race nutrition to avoid the last-stage run bonk that seemed to be inevitable.

As you brainstorm your next big race, make sure everything is on the table. You never know what might make the biggest change in your performance. Good luck!

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AUTHOR

Coach P

All stories by: Coach P
54 comments
  • Francie Van Wirkus
    REPLY

    Patrick, congratulations on a nice effort. I am most impressed with the 3 minute tire change 🙂 You didn’t pull a Norman Stadler and throw things and kick. You must have just calmly changed it and rolled on.

    The nutrition plan is very interesting. thank you for sharing your lessons learned and your new plan. It’s great that you nailed it! Good luck training smart for Kona.

  • Francie Van Wirkus
    REPLY

    Patrick, congratulations on a nice effort. I am most impressed with the 3 minute tire change 🙂 You didn’t pull a Norman Stadler and throw things and kick. You must have just calmly changed it and rolled on.

    The nutrition plan is very interesting. thank you for sharing your lessons learned and your new plan. It’s great that you nailed it! Good luck training smart for Kona.

  • Bryan VanMeveren
    REPLY

    Great race and very helpful report, Patrick. I’m intrigued by the high caloric intake during the race. I’m a big guy like you at 6’3″ 180lbs. and always wondered if EN’s 250 cal/per hr protocol were enough. Have you made Rich a believer? See you in Kona!

  • Bryan VanMeveren
    REPLY

    Great race and very helpful report, Patrick. I’m intrigued by the high caloric intake during the race. I’m a big guy like you at 6’3″ 180lbs. and always wondered if EN’s 250 cal/per hr protocol were enough. Have you made Rich a believer? See you in Kona!

  • Kevin Sullivan
    REPLY

    Can you provide more specifics on your nutrution plan for race day? I had a huge bonk on my last IM in AZ. I never felt better on the first half of the marathon, or worse on the second half, and I think my nutrition was the biggest problem.

  • Kevin Sullivan
    REPLY

    Can you provide more specifics on your nutrution plan for race day? I had a huge bonk on my last IM in AZ. I never felt better on the first half of the marathon, or worse on the second half, and I think my nutrition was the biggest problem.

  • Tim
    REPLY

    Great writeup Patrick, and congrats on the race. Any plans on doing an article on your outseason nutrion plan that allowed you to drop some weight? I am similar height 6’1″ but hover around 200lbs, and I know that my times would improve if I was able to drop another 15lbs or so.

    Thanks,

    Tim

  • Tim
    REPLY

    Great writeup Patrick, and congrats on the race. Any plans on doing an article on your outseason nutrion plan that allowed you to drop some weight? I am similar height 6’1″ but hover around 200lbs, and I know that my times would improve if I was able to drop another 15lbs or so.

    Thanks,

    Tim

  • Melissa Olivas
    REPLY

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. Your information is very helpful, especially for those of us heading toward our first Ironman adventure. Congratulations on your race and best of luck in Kona!

  • Melissa Olivas
    REPLY

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. Your information is very helpful, especially for those of us heading toward our first Ironman adventure. Congratulations on your race and best of luck in Kona!

  • Andrew Boyd
    REPLY

    Congratulations Patrick on your fantastic performance in Texas! As I consider doing my 3rd Ironman, this article provides me excellent perspective in particular about the topics of race selection & consistency.

    Best of luck in Kona!

  • Andrew Boyd
    REPLY

    Congratulations Patrick on your fantastic performance in Texas! As I consider doing my 3rd Ironman, this article provides me excellent perspective in particular about the topics of race selection & consistency.

    Best of luck in Kona!

    • patrick
      REPLY

      You are 100% right…my bad. Unlike NSAIDs, Tylenol is processed by the liver, not the kidneys. It’s the NSAIDs that can cause real trouble if abused on race day. Thanks Kit!

    • patrick
      REPLY

      You are 100% right…my bad. Unlike NSAIDs, Tylenol is processed by the liver, not the kidneys. It’s the NSAIDs that can cause real trouble if abused on race day. Thanks Kit!

  • Javier Albares
    REPLY

    Congratulations and Thanks for your insights, they really helped me last year at IM Lake Placid, although I just had landed from Madrid a couple of days prior to the race.

    Your peaces of advice on execution of the race, specially to start slow the marathon were really useful.

    Good luck in Kona!

  • Javier Albares
    REPLY

    Congratulations and Thanks for your insights, they really helped me last year at IM Lake Placid, although I just had landed from Madrid a couple of days prior to the race.

    Your peaces of advice on execution of the race, specially to start slow the marathon were really useful.

    Good luck in Kona!

  • Bart Stevens
    REPLY

    Congratulations, Patrick and thank you for your commitment to improving the sport and our performance within in. It was a pleasure to meet you at the IMTX Rally. To claim 3:15 run potential and then deliver a 3:15 marathon in Houston conditions is completely mind-blowing. Truly inspirational stuff.

  • Bart Stevens
    REPLY

    Congratulations, Patrick and thank you for your commitment to improving the sport and our performance within in. It was a pleasure to meet you at the IMTX Rally. To claim 3:15 run potential and then deliver a 3:15 marathon in Houston conditions is completely mind-blowing. Truly inspirational stuff.

    • Chris
      REPLY

      Hey Coach, congrats on the great performance! I was wondering if you deviated from the EN run protocol to bust out that 3:15? Specifically, did you stick to the short stroll at the aid stations?

      For me, as my easy pace has creeped below 8 min miles, I find it progressively harder to recover that time.

      Really fantastic race though. I’m a believer in the EN magic. It’s made my training buddies very familiar with the back of my jersey!

      • patrick
        REPLY

        Chris, absolutely had to walk at each aid station…probably not 30 steps, but yes to walking. The big delta for me in IMTX was running by a set HR number instead of pace, which meant faster early miles and slower later on….but a steady effort for my body and stable nutrition capacity. Hope that helps!!

        • Chris
          REPLY

          Thanks for the quick reply, Coach! I have really enjoyed ditching the HRM for the run, but I might need to reevaluate my strategy. Tha is again, and great race!

    • Chris
      REPLY

      Hey Coach, congrats on the great performance! I was wondering if you deviated from the EN run protocol to bust out that 3:15? Specifically, did you stick to the short stroll at the aid stations?

      For me, as my easy pace has creeped below 8 min miles, I find it progressively harder to recover that time.

      Really fantastic race though. I’m a believer in the EN magic. It’s made my training buddies very familiar with the back of my jersey!

      • patrick
        REPLY

        Chris, absolutely had to walk at each aid station…probably not 30 steps, but yes to walking. The big delta for me in IMTX was running by a set HR number instead of pace, which meant faster early miles and slower later on….but a steady effort for my body and stable nutrition capacity. Hope that helps!!

        • Chris
          REPLY

          Thanks for the quick reply, Coach! I have really enjoyed ditching the HRM for the run, but I might need to reevaluate my strategy. Tha is again, and great race!

  • Ron
    REPLY

    Congratulations on your “peak performance”, and thank you for sharing all this info with us detail geeks. I’m sold on your approach, but these details add another layer for me.

    What did I learn from reading your story? Success is in the details. Body composition is hard work. You had a team directing your choices and you followed them, very tough. You flatted but still PRd; that’s an attitude you build, no one gives you that.
    250% calorie intake? Wow. Who knew? Intuitively it’s a gut cramp waiting to happen. But you had the courage to try (and trained for it) and it worked, kudos.
    It took until IM #17 to nail it. This teaches us all, it’s a thinking game. Execution plus planning plus training plus luck. But you’ll get there. Youre only a loser if you quit trying.
    Consistency, a great lesson. The world is run by those who show up. Keep plugging, rain or shine, dark or light.

    Thanks again for sharing. Some of us read things like this and hang on the details, they rise up at mile 20 of our Sunday long runs as we’re wondering “why?”. Great stuff

  • Ron
    REPLY

    Congratulations on your “peak performance”, and thank you for sharing all this info with us detail geeks. I’m sold on your approach, but these details add another layer for me.

    What did I learn from reading your story? Success is in the details. Body composition is hard work. You had a team directing your choices and you followed them, very tough. You flatted but still PRd; that’s an attitude you build, no one gives you that.
    250% calorie intake? Wow. Who knew? Intuitively it’s a gut cramp waiting to happen. But you had the courage to try (and trained for it) and it worked, kudos.
    It took until IM #17 to nail it. This teaches us all, it’s a thinking game. Execution plus planning plus training plus luck. But you’ll get there. Youre only a loser if you quit trying.
    Consistency, a great lesson. The world is run by those who show up. Keep plugging, rain or shine, dark or light.

    Thanks again for sharing. Some of us read things like this and hang on the details, they rise up at mile 20 of our Sunday long runs as we’re wondering “why?”. Great stuff

  • Clyde
    REPLY

    The 750 cal per hour is obviously way over the 200-300 cal per hour recommendation I remember from 1 of the EN seminars! Do you think this is individualized toward you or are you know advocating more than 300 cal per hour for others as well?

    • patrick
      REPLY

      It is way above; I’d consider the 250 cals/hour guidance in our seminars as a starting point for your day. If you can handle more, then practice it in training and see how our body (and ride quality) change…and build from there!

  • Clyde
    REPLY

    The 750 cal per hour is obviously way over the 200-300 cal per hour recommendation I remember from 1 of the EN seminars! Do you think this is individualized toward you or are you know advocating more than 300 cal per hour for others as well?

    • patrick
      REPLY

      It is way above; I’d consider the 250 cals/hour guidance in our seminars as a starting point for your day. If you can handle more, then practice it in training and see how our body (and ride quality) change…and build from there!

  • Jerry
    REPLY

    Very nice, Patrick! Congratulations on an outstanding race.

    I would remind everyone that Patrick is an elite amatuer. As we all know, what works for one may not work for another…and this goes double for elites vs. us average folk.

    Regarding the race day nutrition that everyone seems to be in awe of (and I am too!)…please keep in mind that this was ONE race. It needs to be repeated…and if any of us try it, it should be trained for extensively. I’m sure Patrick will agree. The interesting part of the nutrition strategy is that, from a medical standpoint, the body can’t metabolize that many calories per hour, especially of that composition. That’s a medical fact…at least for nearly all of the population. Interesting…I’ll have to pull out my wife’s old medical school textbooks and do some research. If they can’t be absorbed, I suspect it’s wasted. But, as with all things, I’m sure there are exceptions to the norm.

    Here’s another point that might be interesting to debate. While I agree that consistency in training might be (or IS) a major factor in the awesome performance. I have to wonder how much of it might be attributed to less time between Ironman-type training blocks. In other words, less of the anaerobic, intense training and more aerobic, event-specific training during the duration of training for IMTX. Heresy on EN, I know!

    • patrick
      REPLY

      @Jerry, yes to the n=1 phenomenon on nutrition…it’s mine and it worked for me; I publish only to challenge others to rethink their potential situations. As for the training side of things, I don’t entirely agree. Yes, doing two Ironman races a year for the past 4-5 years (As qualifying + Kona) does mean I do more of EN’s Ironman training block than those who do only one Ironman, but it doesn’t mean that I do less EN style training. Thanks!!!

  • Jerry
    REPLY

    Very nice, Patrick! Congratulations on an outstanding race.

    I would remind everyone that Patrick is an elite amatuer. As we all know, what works for one may not work for another…and this goes double for elites vs. us average folk.

    Regarding the race day nutrition that everyone seems to be in awe of (and I am too!)…please keep in mind that this was ONE race. It needs to be repeated…and if any of us try it, it should be trained for extensively. I’m sure Patrick will agree. The interesting part of the nutrition strategy is that, from a medical standpoint, the body can’t metabolize that many calories per hour, especially of that composition. That’s a medical fact…at least for nearly all of the population. Interesting…I’ll have to pull out my wife’s old medical school textbooks and do some research. If they can’t be absorbed, I suspect it’s wasted. But, as with all things, I’m sure there are exceptions to the norm.

    Here’s another point that might be interesting to debate. While I agree that consistency in training might be (or IS) a major factor in the awesome performance. I have to wonder how much of it might be attributed to less time between Ironman-type training blocks. In other words, less of the anaerobic, intense training and more aerobic, event-specific training during the duration of training for IMTX. Heresy on EN, I know!

    • patrick
      REPLY

      @Jerry, yes to the n=1 phenomenon on nutrition…it’s mine and it worked for me; I publish only to challenge others to rethink their potential situations. As for the training side of things, I don’t entirely agree. Yes, doing two Ironman races a year for the past 4-5 years (As qualifying + Kona) does mean I do more of EN’s Ironman training block than those who do only one Ironman, but it doesn’t mean that I do less EN style training. Thanks!!!

  • Chris Martin
    REPLY

    How many 100+ mile rides were you able to get in before the race, not including the ones on the course? Also, how were you able to acclimate to the heat in TX after doing basically no training in hot conditions?

  • Chris Martin
    REPLY

    How many 100+ mile rides were you able to get in before the race, not including the ones on the course? Also, how were you able to acclimate to the heat in TX after doing basically no training in hot conditions?

  • patrick
    REPLY

    @Chris – looking back over my training journal I was able to get in 3 rides that were over 100 miles. I did quite a few rides in the 65 to 80 mile range that were very intense. It’s important to remember that I was coming off a season where I had done Lake Placid in July and in Hawaii in October which I put right into my out season training. In other words, I was carrying a lot of residual fitness. That said, I’m not a fan of writing longer than 100 miles unless it’s required. Editing up to about 3 1/2 or 4 hours for me is easy, after that it’s exponentially mentally very hard.

    I didn’t really focus at all on acclimatizing to the heat. It’s a lot of work with the potential for very little return on race day. Instead of spending time in the sauna I made sure that I overdressed when training on the bike in the run and I practiced my race specific nutrition plan for several weeks. This meant that I carried tons of fluids on every ride drinking anywhere from 40 to 60 ounces of fluid per hour. In the cold weather of New England that made for a lot of pee stops. 🙂

    I have raised in the heat of Kona for 4 years so I had a basic understanding of how my body would handle the heat. Essentially came down to mastering minor attrition and pacing both of which I could control despite the fact that I was in a different climate.

  • patrick
    REPLY

    @Chris – looking back over my training journal I was able to get in 3 rides that were over 100 miles. I did quite a few rides in the 65 to 80 mile range that were very intense. It’s important to remember that I was coming off a season where I had done Lake Placid in July and in Hawaii in October which I put right into my out season training. In other words, I was carrying a lot of residual fitness. That said, I’m not a fan of writing longer than 100 miles unless it’s required. Editing up to about 3 1/2 or 4 hours for me is easy, after that it’s exponentially mentally very hard.

    I didn’t really focus at all on acclimatizing to the heat. It’s a lot of work with the potential for very little return on race day. Instead of spending time in the sauna I made sure that I overdressed when training on the bike in the run and I practiced my race specific nutrition plan for several weeks. This meant that I carried tons of fluids on every ride drinking anywhere from 40 to 60 ounces of fluid per hour. In the cold weather of New England that made for a lot of pee stops. 🙂

    I have raised in the heat of Kona for 4 years so I had a basic understanding of how my body would handle the heat. Essentially came down to mastering minor attrition and pacing both of which I could control despite the fact that I was in a different climate.

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