IMAZ Lessons Part 3

I know it’s old news, but I wanted to finish my series on the Lessons of IMAZ. Better late than never… After Kona I had a chat with Dave Scott. He had a suspicion that I am a very quad dominant rider and runner. I described to him the “cliff” that I had been falling of on the bike in recent Ironman races. Something like: “ I am riding along feeling great, then suddenly it’s like I can’t produce any power whatsoever. It’s tough to believe it is rooted in nutrition as once my feet hit the run course I feel better. And it’s also tough to believe it is rooted in over-biking, as I usually ride at equal or lesser percentages of FTP than my competitors.” He got me thinking about the idea that the name of the game in Ironman is efficiency. Those who spread the work load more evenly across the muscles will be able to sustain greater power and faster run paces, for longer.

Earlier in 2016 I moved to a much less aggressive position on the front end of my bike. The goal being to make the TT position more comfortable. I didn’t realize it at the time but this new position resulted in a significant shift in muscle recruitment to my quads. Initially, I did notice that my quads were burning significantly more in workouts than ever before, but after a few weeks this went away, so I didn’t think much of it. I stuck with the position all year and posted the fastest bike split in: Panama 70.3, Oceanside 70.3, Texas 70.3, St. George 70.3, Mont Tremblant 70.3 and Racine 70.3. In Kona, I was riding well, but then fell off the aforementioned “cliff” at around 120km.

I certainly don’t attribute this “cliff” in Kona entirely to position and muscle recruitment. As mentioned in my previous posts, I didn’t have the legs to go the distance. But, I do remember a time when I was able to hold good power for an entire Ironman, with very little to no lull, and then run decently well off of it. When? Ironman Florida in 2014. For those who don’t remember, the swim in that race was cancelled due to rip currents. Of course, that will skew the data a bit, but that alone is not enough to account for the entire effect. In that race, I held 313w for the entire bike. Through 90 miles the average power was 318w, so it was a pretty evenly paced bike. Off the bike, I ran a 2:43 marathon, including a port-a-john stop. Up until Ironman Arizona 2016, that Florida performance remained my best bike-run over the distance. The discouraging part was that that was my first professional Ironman! In the last two years I feel that I have improved markedly in all aspects of training, nutrition and racing. One thing that I did do differently in Florida, was that I rode a VERY aggressive position.

Kona 2016 was such an embarrassing experience, I figured I really didn’t have anything to lose by making significant changes to my position. I decided to drop my front end as far as it would go by removing all the spacers on my handle bars and between the frame and stem. As far as it would go was not good enough. Doing some video analysis while riding, I noticed I still didn’t look as aggressive as many of my competitors (Jan Frodeno and Sebastien Kienle for example). I decided to purchase a -20 degree stem to get the front end down even further. The stem was so aggressive that my bike shop Cycle Culture had to machine out the dust cap in order for it to fit properly. Doing video analysis after this, I looked a lot more like my competitors.

From an aerodynamic perspective I was pretty certain the position would be faster, but what I was most interested in is what the position would do to my muscle recruitment. After my first ride in the new position, my glutes were excruciatingly sore for three days. Here are my comments from TrainingPeaks the day after this first ride:

“Sore as hell, in the back side (glutes, hams and even lower back) I think due to position change”

Over the next couple of weeks I adapted significantly to the new position. Without a doubt, my glutes were firing more forcefully and earlier on in the pedal stroke. What I think dropping the front end did was force me to recruit my glutes more. At such a closed hip angle, the quads are pretty much useless. In order to turn the pedals over you have to first recruit the glutes, and then as the hip angle opens, the quads can begin to fire. In a less aggressive position it is possible to fire the quads a lot earlier in the pedal stroke, which over time can allow you to develop a significant imbalance. I definitely don’t think my glutes weren’t firing, but I am certain that my glutes were not working nearly as hard as they could have been working in the less aggressive position.

Another thing I noticed over the next couple of weeks was that my run legs felt a lot more fresh coming off the bike. I think running well off the bike is rooted in efficiency while on the bike, so if the biking load is being spread more evenly across the muscles, it would make sense that the run legs would feel better.

This was all fine and dandy, but the true test was going to be at Ironman Arizona. In Arizona, I averaged 318w for the first 3 hours and 30 minutes (321w NP). My power did drop for the final 35 minutes, but a great deal of this was a conscious decision as I knew the race would be won on the run, and at this point I was in second place only two minutes down from the leader. For the final 35 minutes I averaged 290w (294w NP) and my total average for the bike was 315w (317w NP). This was a new best power output over the distance, surpassing my old record from Ironman Florida 2014 by 2w. But, this time round there was a swim!

Out onto the run, my legs felt very good. I would say it is the best they have ever felt coming off a 4+ hour bike. I went through the first half of the marathon in 1:18:30 or so and it felt relatively easy and controlled. Of course, the final 10 miles were significantly more painful, but I attribute a great deal of this to still not having the endurance to cover the entire distance.

So, what is the take home message here? First, efficiency is the name of the game in Ironman. Second, the glutes are potentially the strongest muscle in your body, so make sure you are using them to the best of their ability. Third, position on the bike can have a significant effect on how you recruit your muscles, so keep this in mind as you hone what position works best for you.

Update: For those interested, the drop to the front end between Kona and IMAZ was just under 70mm. 25mm removed from under arm pads, 12.5mm removed from under stem, ~30mm drop gained from going from -6 degree to -20 degree stem at 120mm.