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Ironman Learnings

Ironman Zürich 29 July 2018

It is that time of year many people take some time to reflect. For me one of THE highlights was finishing the Zürich Ironman this summer. The feeling when I crossed the line was priceless. If you would have told me that I would accomplish a full triathlon 2,5 year ago I would have laughed at you. But as the Ironman slogan says: Anything is possible!

What happened in the mean time? I learned so much about effective training, breathing and the impact on recovery, nutrition and mindset that I went from completing an Olympic distance triathlon in 2016 via a marathon and half distance triathlon and now being an Ironman in 2018.

And all of this thanks to the same training schedule based on my personal heart rate zones and limited distances. For my Ironman (for those not familiar with triathlon terminology, a full triathlon (Ironman) consists of 3,85km swim, 180km bicycle ride and 42km run) my maximum training distances were 2km swim, 70km bike, 13km run. And I started training 3,5 months before the event.

Now that I have had some time to enjoy the achievement, I also realized I learned a couple of things I would like to share with you as they can positively impact your work, social, family and sports life. It helps to build stronger teams and increase energy and happiness levels of people which has a positive effect on their performance at work.

My 7 Ironman learnings

1) Quality beats Quantity

2) Anything is possible

3) Training is King but Recovery Rules

4) Focus on what you can influence

5) Effort is King but Mindset Rules

6) Prepare for the worst

7) Proper breathing is Priceless

1) Quality Beats Quantity

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not the number of hours you put in which determines the result. True, like with everything you do in life, you need to put in effort to learn and master something or get things done. But it is much more important you do it intelligently with the right focus, attention and intensity. To prepare for the Ironman I trained on average 8 hours per week for 3,5 months. Traditional training schedules run from 6-9 months, 20+ hours per week. But since my training is based on my personal optimal heart rates, the maximum distances per training are 2 km swim, 70km bike and 13km running. The additional advantage of intense but shorter training apart from having time for other important things, is improved recovery and reduced risk of injuries.

2) Anything is possible!

This is the official Ironman tagline. Another way to put it is that we humans are capable of so much more than we think. As a little boy I watched the European championships triathlon on TV and thought the athletes came from a different planet. My parents knew a guy who gave up during the race and said he only started training 6 months before the event and that it was impossible to complete it with such limited training time. Three years ago, I thought it was impossible for me to run a marathon and I was not able to swim free stroke. Today I’m an Ironman. Dare to dream, set your goals, make a plan, execute and go for it! Whether it is a goal in sports, life, or work if you determine your big enough WHY and find out wat the best way is to achieve it you are capable of so much more you ever dreamt of. And learn for people that have done it before. Wy reinvent the wheel? Just do it!

3) Training is King but Recovery Rules (1+1=3)

As said before you need to put in the effort to accomplish your goals. But what little people know is that in sports your recovery after training determines your progress not your training itself. If you train very hard but don’t provide enough rest for your body and mind, your ‘engine’ keeps running too hard and your body will not be able to replenish and increase your energy levels and renew damaged (muscle) cells. Training effectively on your personal heart rate enables shorter training, which in turn enables improved time and quality to recover. Better recovery means you start better rested at your next training, increasing progress from that training. This way 1+1 is not 2 but 3. But that’s also true in work, you need to ensure your body is at rest while sitting behind your desk otherwise you turn into constant fight or flight mode, limiting your focus and concentration span.

4) Focus on what you can influence

It was 37 degrees Celsius on race day. The water temperature was 0.1 degree too high to wear a wet suit and when I jumped on my bike, my chain would not move to the outer blade. Many athletes were complaining about the heath and lost valuable energy with negative thoughts. Many had to quit. But we still can’t influence the weather. What we can influence is how we respond to unfavorable circumstances. In case of extreme temperatures, you ensure to increase your intake of water and minerals, wear a hat to protect against the sun and put some ice underneath since you lose the majority of body heat via your head. And you adjust your expected finish time. I was not able to fix my bike, so I adjusted my goal to finish in the best possible way provided the circumstances and enjoy as much as possible. So always focus on what you can influence.

5) Effort is King but Mindset Rules

You need to put in the training hours, preferably in an effective and efficient way. But as the extreme runner Scott Jurek said: “Endurance training and racing is 90% mental. That other 10%? Well, that’s mental too”, your mindset will determine your results. It all starts with defining your goals, write them up, share them and determine your plan. Keep an open mind, focus on your goals and be able to adjust your plan if the circumstances require a different approach. Be creative. Create a big enough WHY and visualize the end result whilst keeping focus on the here and now. Knowing where you are going while keeping a positive attitude definitely increases your chances to succeed. With everything in life.

6) Prepare for the worst

If I could change one thing in my preparation, I would put more effort in swimming technique lessons (quality) not more hours (quantity). I assumed the swim to be with a wetsuit which provides additional buoyancy which makes the swim a lot easier. The water temperature in lake Zürich is normally below the wetsuit limit. However also in Zürich the summer kicked in early and warmed up the water to 0.1C above the limit, so no wetsuit. Prepare for the worst and you’ll have an easy journey when the odds turn in your favor.

7) Proper breathing is Priceless

Proper breathing after training assures you start the recovery process immediately and therefore increasing recovery time and quality. When you are stressed your breath-frequency increases even if we just sit. If this situation lasts too long your body switches to burning sugar. It also leads to a shortage of CO2 in your blood, which leads to contraction of the veins, which leads to increased blood pressure and heart rate, decreased oxygen in certain areas of your body, your brain being one of them. Your internal system is working too hard for the physical performance which is close to none when you are sitting. If this situation lasts too long it can lead to burn-out. But if you focus on breathing properly for a couple of minutes, it works like a switch. It switches of your stress mode as it ensures you tap into fat as your primary energy source, lowers your heart rate and blood pressure and increases your heart rate variability, energy and concentration levels. All lead to happier people and better results.

I hope this helpful. Anything you want to add you learned this year? Would love to hear about it, leave a comment below.

Most importantly, whatever you do, enjoy!

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