Efficiently optimizing your physical and mental abilities are keys to maximize and bolster your Ironman performance
Photos by Javier Lobregat
With roughly two weeks left before the biggest race in the last two years (or probably more), most of the work has been done. What’s left is a little bit of icing on the cake to maximize all the miles that were put in.
I’m here to give you a few tips on how you can maximize performance for the big dance. Remember that these are by no means any substitute for lack of training. Rather, think of it as a way to peak for race day.
1. Get some zzzs
For one, sleep helps repair and restore damaged muscles. It does this by regenerating damaged cells, obviously, but there is so much more to it. When you get adequate sleep, anabolic (muscle building) hormones are released.
For example, our pituitary glands produce growth hormones (yes, the same substance bodybuilders take artificially) to help our body get stronger and fitter. This is the opposite of the catabolic (muscle degenerating) stress that our body has to endure as we train. Without adequate sleep, we are always left in a catabolic state, which is definitely not desirable.
Speaking of stress, when we exercise, we trigger what’s called the “fight or flight response.” Doing this continuously puts a lot of pressure on our bodies. If done consistently, it damages our body as it doesn’t know how to “take a break” and slow down anymore. This becomes evident in our physiological markers such as heart rate variability, resting heart rate, and inability to sleep (even if you’re dead tired). In short, a lack of sleep can potentially lead to even more sleep loss as stressors are put on overdrive.
Lastly, sleep is also known to help the brain in multiple ways. During sleep, synapses in the brain (the neurological pathways that form memories, etc.) regenerate and repair themselves much like how our muscles do. This leads to better brain health overall.
How do we, athletes, benefit from it? The answer is simple: improved mood. By getting enough sleep, we offset the irritability and stress associated with training and mileage building. This means we’re mentally primed for long and hard efforts. It also improves things like our reaction time and motivation.
2. Dial back on carbs
This means we need to reduce the number of calories we take in to avoid unwanted weight gain. If we’re already eating right (e.g. less processed food, sugars, saturated and hydrogenated fat, etc.), all we have to do is taper our carb intake gradually as well.
As long as you’re recovering well, I generally advise people to cut back on the amount of carbs they take in until two to three days before race day. Some can even go so far as to adopt a low-carb diet on race week. This allows the body to act like a sponge once you carb-load two to three days before the event.
The less saturated the body is, the more it can potentially take in. Just remember, if you haven’t tried this out previously, it might be better to take the more conservative approach and just reduce carbs rather than go low carb. Try it out in smaller races to make sure you’re comfortable with it.
After a week or two of reduced carb intake, it’s time to finally fill up the fuel tank with some good old carbohydrates. I recommend doing this between Thursday to Friday for a Sunday race like Ironman Philippines. This gives your body enough time to digest and absorb nutrients. It also helps reduce the bulk in the digestive tract on race day, lessening the need to relieve yourself on the race course.
There are a lot of formulas out there to help estimate how many grams of carbs you would need to consume (i.e. five to 12 grams per kilo of bodyweight). However, if you don’t want to count calories, there’s an easier albeit less accurate way of doing it. Just increase the number of carbohydrate portions on your plate or lean towards foods that are naturally high in carbs.
For example, instead of eating steak with a side of mashed potatoes, make the mashed potatoes your main course and add in some protein and vegetables. I know this doesn’t seem that appetizing so I find it easier to just eat things like pasta, noodles, and even thick-crust pizza (with minimal processed meat) on my carb-loading days.
An often underrated aspect of training is the mental side of things. Yes, workouts toughen you up physically and mentally, but adding a little work on your brain power becomes more significant for grueling events like the Ironman.
In place of your regular training hours on race week, allocate a few minutes of meditation and quiet time to help prime your mindset for the big race. I advise doing guided meditation if you’re a beginner and gradually progress as you get more proficient in it.
After around 15 to 30 minutes of meditation, you can run through your race and Ironman performance in your head. Start from the beginning as you wake up in the morning and prepare your gear for the race. Think of what you need, how you will do things, and even the problems you might encounter. Instead of dwelling on curveballs that might head your way, use this time to think of solutions and how you will confidently tackle the problem.
Mostly, however, think of positive thoughts; think of how difficult the course is and how challenging it is but more importantly, emphasize how you will conquer it and smash whatever expectations you or other people might have.
Think of it this way: Accept and acknowledge the problems, difficulties, and challenges you may encounter but imagine yourself rising above it and crossing that finish line strong.
Have some training questions, feedback or suggestions for future articles? Drop a note in the comments section below or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. You can also get in touch with Don directly here.