Body + Belly + Brain = The Formula For a Sub 13 Hour Ironman

Posted on October 23, 2013. Filed under: Austria, bike, brain training, cycle, ironman, Ironman Austria, ironman nutrition, ironman regensburg, Klagenfurt, nutrition, run, swim, triathlon |

Before we get into it, let’s sidetrack for a moment – where do you stand on the nature versus nurture debate for elite athletes?

Sports Gene Front Cover Final_EpsteinDo you believe Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory that you get great by practising? Or do you subscribe to Epstein’s sports gene that says you have to be born with the right bits and pieces?

Personally, when I was a competitive swimmer I was blessed with strong, broad shoulders and huge lungs but I spent every single one of my 10,000 hours trying to find the extra milliseconds to make up for only being 5’11” when the average elite swimmer is 6’3″.  Gladwell’s theory may work for playing draughts or learning the banjo but when it comes to higher, faster, stronger then, for me, it’s a simplified side-show.

So, what’s the point of this diversion?  Simply to illustrate that we’ve only got what we’ve got but practice, knowledge and determination can take us an awfully long way.  My last blog nailed my nuts to the mast – I will do an Ironman in Austria in a time that starts with a 12.  But between now and then I need to get faster, lighter and stronger.  That’s what this blog is about.

I have thought about this long and hard and I have boiled it down to three things that need to improve – each one relying on the other.  There is no shortcut on the road to Klagenfurt.


If I don’t improve the body I will be de-railed before I start.  The body and the brain can conspire and leave me short of my target.  In 2011 I trained to “just get around”, and I did get around.  Just.  I trained to last the distance but that was it – so what is going to be different?


I need to plan and have a point to every training session to make it count – is it for speed, strength, endurance, technique? Have I got the weekly balance right?  It’s gonna hurt, there are going to be days that I can’t face the planned session, but Ironmen are forged in sweat and darkness in the winter months and I need to HTFU and get on with it.


I have to face it, I am injury prone.  I have a weak ass.  I have already started on strength and conditioning work to keep the big muscles in the back and glutes strong and avoid the injuries that stem from this weakness.  I will continue working on non-sport specific conditioning training right through to race day to ensure that the body remains strong.


Whatever great excuse comes up I need to hit the key sessions as long as I am fit to do them.  I can’t catch up a dropped session, whatever my brain tells me!


Yup, I know I should.  It’s important.  I will.



WANTED: For killing more Aberdonians than pneumonia

What I know about “sports nutrition” I learned when I was a swimmer in the 80s.  Basically, when I was swimming 14 hours a week, plus playing rugby, waterskiing and doing general kid stuff I just had to eat massive volumes so as not to die of starvation.  Not much thought went into the quality.  After a two hour morning training session (which we would fashionably call a fasted session these days) I would have a Mars Bar (ideally supersize), a carton of orange juice, a pastry and a buttery.

For those unfamiliar with the buttery or Aberdeen Roll, it is often the last supper of Aberdonians – not because they request it on Death Row, but rather because it is the final straw that blocks their arteries.  It is a very salty pastry made of lard and served with butter.  And jam.

Despite fuelling like a wheelie bin I still had a six pack and looked a picture of sporting health.  Roll on 25 years and my fuelling habits have not developed massively.  But as my activity levels have dropped and the years are taking their toll on my metabolism – I am, a fat Ironman.  So, with both eyes firmly on a sub 13 Ironman I turned to a sports nutritionist.  The building blocks of the sub-13 hour plan are:


Over the last month I have re-learned how to eat healthily and I am pleased to say that I am seeing the results – weight is dropping off, I have bundles of energy and I don’t appear to be losing any power.  And it has been relatively simple – more protein, veg, and healthy fats; no sugar, refined carbs or starchy carbs.  Oh, and I get to eat 5 times a day.  I have never felt fuller or healthier.  I am still missing pizza.  And chips


As I get closer to race weight I will start to reintroduce starchy carbs but by then my body will have changed how it metabolises fat so racing will be more efficient. Given that a badly executed nutrition plan (also known as a damned near fatal dose of the trots) was the start of IM Regensburg falling off the rails the race day plan will be tested, retested and retested again at race pace intensity.  Ain’t no trots gonna get me this time!


So far so logical but unfortunately, as humans, we don’t live as logically as we think we do.  Our emotions (oh yes, tough guys , you too) unconsciously hijack us from time to time.  And worse than that, despite all our best intentions, we are de-railed by old, unhelpful habits.

Are you reading that and shaking your head?  Are you convinced you are the boss of your brain?  Maybe you are; or maybe your brain is having a giggle at your expense.  Here, as the lovely Jennifer Aniston would say, is the science bit:

  • most of our habits are developed before we are 7 years old – a lot of these are unhelpful, for example, you get sweeties as a reward for doing something well.  The list of these is endless!
  • our habits are powerfully hard-wired into our brain and we are not normally conscious of them
  • our brains most primal function is to keep us out of danger and to steer us towards reward.  If you think about that for a second this is an anathema to ironman training – where we break down our body to get stronger, we flirt with injury and we deprive ourselves to hit targets.
  • when things go wrong, our brain is likely to release chemicals that actually reduce our ability to cope with it.  As an example, a puncture could leave me all fingers and thumbs and unable to change it.  Panicked at the delay I could push too hard to catch up and by the run I could be bent over puking.  However, if I am conscious of my brain’s tomfoolery, I can calmly take control and recover.

But the good news is that this is brain science not rocket science!  The brain, like the glute or the tricep, is absolutely trainable.  The old habits will still be hard wired in there but you can re-wire over the top of them.

These sounds tough, but it’s not really.  The key is to learn to watch your thoughts, to be mindful.

You may already be scoffing at this heeby-jeeby nonsense.  I certainly did when I first came across it.  In fact those that know me have probably spluttered their Stella onto their iPads, but bear with me.  I have practised mindfulness (secretly – which is interesting to notice in itself!) for 6 months – in that time I have learned – to eat better, to train harder, to avoid injury, to notice when my emotions hijack, and to identify the habits that need rewired.  You can’t change who you are but you can promote some of your decisions from your sub-conscious, notice what your brain is doing and make more conscious decisions.

I  liken mindfulness to the old cartoons – you notice the devil and the angel on each shoulder.  Normally they are muted and invisible.  They silently steer you through life without you even noticing their tussle at the wheel.   But if you are mindful you listen to their arguments and then make a conscious decision based on what you hear.  I make a choice to overrule 40 years of habits.

The concept of brain training is going to be a bit marmite – but the science stacks up and it is working for me. I’m going to leave it there but if you want a bit more in future posts, let me know in the comments below!


Sub 13 hour Ironman 2014 = Body + Belly + Brain.

Each relies on the other. You can’t race without training the body, you can’t train with fuelling the belly, and unless your brain is working at it’s best the body and the belly can’t be at their best either.

It’s a departure from my usual formula – HTFU.  In the last 3 months I have not dropped any training sessions and my nutrition is bang on plan.

This is working for me. What works for you?


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4 Responses to “Body + Belly + Brain = The Formula For a Sub 13 Hour Ironman”

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What worked for me, take all of the weight you have lost in the last few months (hopefully without losing any strength or power) and stick it in a rucksack. Then sling it on your back and try running a 10k, that ended up being a great incentive to getting down to target weight. In the end I would have been running a marathon/ attacking hills with the best part of a stone and a half in a backpack. It was tough enough without it.
You should make this a book!


Completely agree. Have taken top riding a mountain bike with a 2.5 year old on the back. That does something interesting to the heart and lungs!


Come on…ye canna beat a Rowie DC!

Still enjoying the blogs & agree with Duncan…its time for a book bud.


It was time for the Rowie to be exposed to the outside world!


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