I worked out some time ago that the most important discipline of a full-length Ironman is the cycling leg, mainly because it’s the one you spend the most time on, and so also the one you can save the most time on. For that reason, I’ve been feeling a bit annoyed with myself that I’ve left my preparation for the bike leg so late in the day.
There are good reasons for this. Running was by far my weakest discipline – in fact, until just over a year ago I’d never run more than six miles in one go. So I spent a lot of 2015 building up my running strength and technique. Likewise with swimming: though I’d swum a fair bit in the past, I’d never swum outdoors, so I spent as much time as I could in the lake at Milton Country Park near Cambridge trying to acclimatise to the very different conditions from a chlorinated swimming pool.
I was going to buy a new bike – a triathlon bike, no less – and was going to get lots of practice in on sprints and hills to build speed and endurance. Then, as last autumn came, I was going to pimp my Schwinn road bike – the one I bought second hand in South Africa for £400 in 2012 – all in good time for Ironman. In the end, I didn’t do any of them.
Then, at the end of January 2016, with just three months to go, I realised I’d way undercooked my bike prep. I booked my trusty orange steed, ‘Schwinnona’, for a Retul bike fit with James Walsgrove at Norfolk triathlon store Tri Harder, and wished I’d done it a year earlier. Through their cycling arm Ride Harder, James ran some sophisticated diagnostics on everything from the way my feet connected to the pedals to the angle of my arms on the handlebars, and everything in between.
Here’s the ‘before’ pic:
He moved the saddle up in height by three inches and marvelled at how I’d been able to get any power through the pedals at all (I didn’t emphasise the point that I’d ridden this way for all 1,140 miles of a Land’s End to John O’Groats ride four years earlier).
And here’s the after pic:
It may look similar, but in the ‘after’ shot you can see my head is sitting much more comfortably between my shoulders, and that my ‘straight’ leg is much straighter, without my toes pointing upwards like they are in the ‘before’ shot. Altogether better for power and endurance, making a big difference over 112 miles.
In a slightly less sophisticated way, James also told me I had the shortest hamstrings of anyone he’d ever had in for a bike fit (and he’d done scores of them!). I wasn’t surprised, it’s been said before (when I was 36 in fact, being told “you have the hamstrings of a 65 year old man!”)
The four hours I spent with James passed quickly and were worth every penny, not just in the adjustments he made to my bike and riding position, but to hear his own story about how he got involved in triathlon and Ironman. Every now and again I get taken back to 2012 when I was watching Ironman South Africa and was so captivated by the competitors. At the bike fit, I had seen James as a finely honed and experienced triathlete, while I was the guy with the short hamstrings and the dodgy seat post!
But as he spoke he told me about his first Ironman five or so years ago, and everything he’d learned since then. And I could see myself in him, five years earlier: not knowing what was to come, wondering if I can do it, all the things (with just five weeks to go) I wish I’d known when I could still have done something about them. He’s come on massively since then of course, but he started in a not dissimilar place from where I am now.
James has crammed all of his experiences into an eBook that explains how the second time he did Ironman he cut four hours off his time, and it makes great reading. Everything from turbo training to weeing in your tri suit, for anyone taking on a triathlon I’d strongly recommend it. It’s only £2.99 and you can buy a copy here.
James was patient and supportive, and very typical of the sort of person I’ve come across at every juncture of preparing for this Ironman challenge. In fact, I’ll be joining him and his fellow cyclists for a 100km bike ride around Norfolk this Sunday, which I’m really looking forward to.
Which brings me to Andrew Scraggs, who was kindly volunteered (thanks to swimming coach Tanya Bartram) to respond to my call for help with nutrition in my last blog.
Andrew is a personal fitness trainer and nutritionalist, and was just the right person for me to talk to. Giving up an hour of his busy time for a chat on the phone after work, Andrew helped me understand about the importance of getting a good balance between carbohydrate and protein during the event itself, and to focus more carefully on calorie control as I’ve been trying to lose weight at the same time as training to build more muscle. It’s been really difficult to get right, and if nothing else (as with James) Andrew has made me feel better about there being no right or wrong answer – just trying to understand what works best for me.
Andrew has introduced me to the wonderful MyFitnessPal app, which I now use to count all my calories and which has made me the bain of my wife Val’s life! I know I shouldn’t be scanning packets of food as we sit at the table together eating it (an all too rare occurrence at the moment), but the damn measurability of the thing is so fabulous! More than anything else, it’s made me try to increase the amount of protein while I’m training, which can only be a good thing.
So there we have it. I may now have had a bike fit, but I’m not yet bike-fit myself and there is no longer time to achieve it. I’m going to do my best to get more miles on the road and turn up the resistance on the spin bikes at the gym. But perhaps inevitably, with time running out I’m being forced to make compromises. I never thought I’d say this, but running is probably now the discipline I’m most confident about.
Maybe it’s not so bad to finish on your strong suit after all … ?