At ironguides we emphasize developing motor patterns in training, instead of the traditional focus on endurance development. We approach training this way to ensure specificity and reduce the risk of injury. The endurance element of training is still developed on the side - it’s just no longer the sole focus.
When I say motor pattern development I am talking about the brain’s control of movement. Every movement we make is controlled by the brain (motor). It must assign a portion (pattern) of our muscle fibres to perform the action we want, for example a pedal revolution in cycling.
At different speeds and over different types of terrain we use a different pattern of muscle fibres to perform the movement. In training we must focus on developing the patterns we will use on race day if we want to perform at the best of our abilities.
This process can seem very simple. For example, an elite track runner wanting to run a 4-minute mile has to prepare to run 4x400m in 60 seconds each. The athlete will do many, many repetitions at this speed to develop the necessary motor patterns. Then come race day this motor pattern is so engrained that the athlete can just do it.
This process, though, becomes a little more complicated as the duration of our event increases, especially in events lasting more than 45 minutes. With Ironman events taking between 8 and 17 hours to complete it is something we really need to think about.
What happens when we increase event duration?
As our event takes longer to complete we need to factor in neuromuscular (brain muscle link) fatigue. This is fatigue that stems from repeating the same action, over and over and over. To give an example, if we ride our bikes during the race at a cadence of 80 revolutions per minute (rpm) then over time our brain is going to tire because it will have repeatedly instructed a set of muscle fibres to perform this action.
As the brain fatigues it becomes sloppy and the messages sent to the muscles become less accurate. We start getting mixed signals and as a result see a breakdown in technique, slowing down in speed, etc. This is not the so-called wall. It’s not something we need to fight through - we simply need to reset the pathway.
A great example of this is the wall in marathon running, which is a phenomenon that seems to hit all runners at after about 18 to 22 miles of running in this event of 26.2 miles (or 42.2 kilometres). It has long been hypothesized that the wall is simply the moment when energy stores run out and the dead-legged feeling is the lack of energy as the body moves to fat-burning for fuel.
It is, however, very unlikely that this is the cause as athletes racing Ironman get this feeling at exactly the same time despite having already raced the 3.8km swim and the 180.1km bike prior to beginning the 42.2-km run leg. I would say that it is much more a relation to motor pattern fatigue
There would appear to be a limit in the number of steps at a set running stride rate where the pathway seriously deteriorates. This neuromuscular breakdown is not permanent and in fact can be reset pretty quickly, but to do so we need to stop or seriously change the demands on our brain for a period of time.
AID STATIONS - Perfect for a neuromuscular reset
In racing, aid stations may be our saving grace for more than just the opportunity to refuel. They give us a reason to stop or slow down for a short period of time. This, it appears, is enough time for a rest in neuromuscular patterns to occur. Many professional Ironman racers will walk through aid stations. This is simply because they have learned that after walking, taking on fuel is easier and they also feel better when they resume running. It seems to ward off fatigue.
Many athletes we work with see it as a sign of weakness to walk in the marathon but after some practice in training they realize that, instead, it is a secret weapon to improved performance. Having not tested this, we do not know the optimum time needed for an effective reset but somewhere in the 30-second range seems to work very well.
A great example of this neuromuscular reset process was shown by Torbjorn Sindballe in the 2007 Hawaii Ironman. Sindballe was in 3rd place at Hawaii in 2007 and fading towards the end of the run. He stopped at a porta potty when feeling bad and being caught by Tim DeBoom for 3rd place. However when he resumed running after this short break he felt amazing again and moved away from DeBoom to take a career highlight 3rd place.
Sindballe didn’t eat any magic food at this time, had no sudden energy boost. It was simply a neuromuscular reset that allowed him to run as his training had prepared him for.
Course Specificity and Neuromuscular Reset Strategy
Different courses present different challenges for the athlete. We typically assume a flat course is going to be the fastest and easiest (if there is such a thing as easy in Ironman) but this always the furthest from the truth.
Athletes go to renowned fast courses such as Ironman Austria and Challenge Roth expecting a flat and fast bike, and are shocked by the hills. However, hills are a saving grace for many on the bike as they create a natural shift in cadence and the way we ride. They force a neuromuscular reset on the athlete and as a result we tend to maintain better speed/ performance over the whole course.
On flat courses such as Ironman Florida there are no hills. You head out of T1, find your rhythm and are faced with 180kms of little change. It is in these events that we need to plan for neuromuscular resets along the way and it’s best to do so regularly. Don’t wait until your legs blow and then start the reset process!
Below are some common practices that have lead to improved performance in Ironman events
During the swim neuromuscular fatigue can also set in and it’s good to have a range of stroke abilities so you can change it up to reset. You can also use the course for this, by swimming with longer, slower and more powerful strokes going with the current and a shorter choppy stroke when you’re swimming into the current.
As I mentioned above, on hilly courses we are presented with an automatic reset due to the terrain so we do not need to plan so much for the bike. On flat courses, though, I recommend you do a reset every 30 minutes by putting your bike in the biggest gear and pushing a low cadence of less than 60 rpm for a period of 2 to 3 minutes before returning to our recommended 75 to 80 race cadence.
On the run, when we are facing already high levels of fatigue, the neuromuscular reset becomes even more important. A great strategy that we use is 9 minutes of running, followed by a 1-minute walk. This has helped a lot of athletes run up to one hour faster in Ironman compared with previous attempts to run all the way.
A lot of performance athletes will walk aid stations to produce this reset, maybe only walking 10 to 20 seconds which, done regularly, is extremely effective.