Ironman training is so time consuming that few athletes have the ability to endure the proper training, on top of their typical work and family commitments without losing some sense of mental and physical balance. So many of the athletes that I talk to get so caught up in their daily swim, bike, and run routines that they begin to operate with complete tunnel vision, when it comes to incorporating other activities into their Ironman training. There are a few unorthodox workouts that, even during the race season, hold merit, are efficient, and are actually quite race specific. One such workout, which is one of my favorites for IM athletes, is hiking.
Now, when I say hiking, I am not referring to a leisurely walk in the woods. I am talking about a solid march, with a focused cadence and some significant climbing. Hiking in this manner is an aerobic activity, which tends to be very peripherally limited. For example, my typical endurance/aerobic run training heart rate (HR) is somewhere between 133 and 143 bpm, but I have rarely been able to maintain an average HR above 100 bpm, on a 12+ hour hike. Long day hikes of 5 to 15 hours allow an athlete to spend large amounts of time on their feet and to practice their race-fueling plan over a long period of time. This is an excellent opportunity to develop both durability (the peripheral system’s ability to take a beating) and the gut (the body’s ability to consume, absorb, and process fuel). Both of these qualities, when developed properly, go a long way towards Ironman success. However, the Ironman athlete should be aware of the potentially negative factors that can be associated with very long day hikes. For one, there is always the potential for acute injury, typically in the form of a twisted ankle, or the like. But, of greater consideration is the fact that these hikes typically require an extended period of recovery. As a result, these hikes really need to be timed properly within an athlete’s schedule, as not to undermine performance at key races. Typically, one or two 10-14 hour hikes, or three to four 5-7 hour hikes, each season, is enough to get a great durability boost (key IM limiter), without being too race unspecific to impact race day readiness (sharpness). Maintaining at least two weeks between a shorter hike and a key race, or five weeks between a longer hike and a key race, will likely allow for adequate recovery from these efforts. Because hiking is a very strength-focused aerobic activity, scheduling these for the base phase of training is ideal, as they will help to both, develop a robust aerobic system and strengthen soft-tissue. To account for a hike’s training volume, we will usually credit the athlete’s cycling and running volumes, EACH with 35% of the hike’s total volume. The remaining 30% is lost (not counted toward the season periodization plan) to a lack of both, aerobic system stimulation and sport mechanic specificity.
It is pretty easy to measure how peripherally limited an activity is by analyzing the decoupling between HR and perceived effort. That is, although you may feel as though you are working very hard, the stress on your aerobic system is very low. This is exactly why a good, focused day-hike is so specific to Ironman racing, or other longer events. If you could observe 95 percent of the athletes racing an Ironman, you would see their HRs significantly drop during the last half of the marathon. The peripheral limitations of Ironman tend to rear their ugly heads during this stage of the race, as “very well-trained” athletes are left to walking on the course, with HRs that are only slightly higher than they would be, were the athlete shopping for new pants at the mall. Even with these relatively low HRs, the athlete is unable to move any faster, because the legs (peripheral system) simply hurt too much (high perceived exertion). In general, the athlete who is able to keep their HR the most stimulated, throughout the day, will typically have the best result, relative to their abilities. One of the best metrics that a coach can use to evaluate an overall Ironman performance is an athelte’s run HR file. Heart rate, during the marathon of an Ironman wraps most of the key factors of the entire day into a single metric. From the run’s HR file, not only is the athlete’s run pacing evaluated, we also get a pretty good sense of how appropriately the bike was paced, the athlete’s general durability, whether or not the race fueling protocol was appropriate, and the athlete’s ability to keep their head driving tha machine forward. A significant drop off in HR can be expected if ANY one of these variables is not executed properly.
I must remind you that prior to setting out on a long day hike, it is very important to ensure that you are properly provisioned. This should not be taken lightly, and it is highly recommended that you speak to an experienced hiker, who is familiar with the route that you will be traveling. You will not want to set out on this adventure until you are very familiar with the type of terrain that you will be hiking, how to manage a situation where you, or one of your party is injured, and how/when to use the gear that the rigors of the hike will require you to carry. When done safely, a long day hike will turn out to be a great experience, playing on the key IM limiter (durability), with tremendous benefits to your IM racing. Go take a hike!
Jesse Kropelnicki is an elite/pro level triathlon coach who founded QT2 Systems, LLC; a leading provider of personal triathlon and run coaching/nutrition. Besides his primary focus of coaching, Jesse is a veteran age group triathlete, and member of the QT2 Elite Triathlon Team. He is the triathlon coach of professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Dede Griesbauer, Ethan Brown, and Tim Snow among others; and nutrition/cardio advisor for professional UFC fighter Kenny Florian. His interests lie in coaching professional triathletes using quantitative training and nutrition protocols. You can track his other coaching comments/ideas via his blog at www.kropelnicki.com.