Ironman triathlon training

Triathlon Training: How to Adapt to Race-Day Conditions at Ironman

By Lindsay Hyman, CTS Pro Coach

Training technology has made it incredibly easy for triathletes to monitor their progress in training and maintain the necessary power and pace numbers to accomplish their goals on race day. But in extreme conditions of triple digit heat, icy water, gusting winds or pouring rain, I see a lot of athletes forget the role that Mother Nature plays in that day’s performance—and their ability to cross the finish line in a given time.

At a recent summertime Ironman, the main topic of the day among the athletes I coached was adaptability. The conditions were extremely hot and there were no shady lanes or trails to offer relief.

A typical conversation with an athlete leading up to that race went something like this: “During my last big training block I was averaging these running splits, so I’m planning to go a couple seconds faster today,” says athlete.

“Well,” I’d say, “Don’t forget that it’s going to be 15 degrees hotter out here than you’re used to and there’s no humidity like you’re accustomed to. It’s going to feel a lot harder to maintain your average splits than you’re used to. You’re going to have to modify your hydration and electrolyte intake upwards, and pay closer attention to how you feel than staring at your bike’s power meter to determine if you’re working hard enough.”

Usually, that reminder was enough. After all, they didn’t get to an Ironman by not training intelligently. But, the conversation reminded me of the many times over the years that I’ve seen Ironman competitors come undone because they ignored their surroundings and refused to adapt their race plan to the conditions. They blindly pushed themselves to reach a certain speed or pace because that’s what they planned and trained to do. And when it becomes too hard to hold it, many of those people refused to readjust their goals to suit that day, pushed themselves even harder, and eventually blew up and dropping out of the race entirely.

Here’s what those people forgot—and what you won’t: They forgot that everyone, even the pros, were suffering as well. The ones who finish strongest aren’t necessarily the ones who met or shattered their pre-planned goals. They’re the ones who best adapted to the race’s conditions by changing their clothing, hydration/nutrition and pacing strategies accordingly. They were also the ones who were more in tune with what their body was telling them was a “race pace” that day than the digits on their power meter or GPS watch.

Below I’ve spelled out a few guidelines that will help you make the best of less-than-ideal conditions on race day.

How To Adapt To Ironman Triathlon Race-Day Conditions

If It’s Hot At The Ironman

Overall: The swim will be fine, the bike should be okay as well, but it’s the run where you’ll feel the heat. Don’t freak out if you’re riding 1-2 mph slower than you think you should on the bike. And on the run, rely less on your GPS and more on perception for your pacing.

Hydration: Increase your planned hourly fluid intake by adding a water bottle filled with an electrolyte mix (this will get you to 3 bottles per hour, maybe). Stay away from adding another carbohydrate-enriched drink, though. Even with the heat, you may not be able to digest more than 200-300 calories an hour. Separating hydration from nutrition (fluid/electrolytes in your bottles, calories from food) helps you increase fluid intake to compensate for hot weather, without overloading the gut with more calories than it can process.

Nutrition: In addition to carbs from gels, drinks, and chewables, salty foods and beverages can be an important asset during hot-weather races. The sodium is one benefit, for sure, but so is the shift away from sweet-tasting foods and drinks. A salty snack or drink, especially one with a harder/rougher texture, can be settling for the stomach. I know of several athletes who will drink a can of tomato juice during long sweltering races because of its high sodium content. And any time you can get a cool or cold drink, take it!

If It’s Cold At The Ironman

Overall: In many ways, it’s easier to race in colder weather than hot weather, BUT that’s assuming you don’t let yourself get too cold during the race. Bundle up with a full wetsuit, including a hoodie, gloves and booties if the water’s going to be in the 50s. Make a point of drying off to the best of your ability in T1. Change into knickers or full leg warmers for the ride, and a long-sleeved jersey and full gloves help as well. Before the run, consider changing into dry clothes. You can use Aquaphor on your arms and legs to protect you from chilly winds and help retain some heat in your extremities. Run with a pair of gloves with a gauntlet that covers your wrists. The easiest way to adjust your body temp on the run is through gloves—take them off before you remove a running jacket or running capris. If you’re cold, put them back on before pulling on a jacket.

Hydration: People often forget to take in fluids when it’s cold out. During an Ironman, you can’t afford this mistake. Stick to your hydration strategy no matter how cold you are!

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Nutrition: Stick to your pre-race strategy, but if you can, don’t shy away from drinking/eating warm fluids and foods if offered to you. They’ll help you warm up.

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If It’s Windy At The Ironman

Overall: With most Ironman courses using out-and-back courses, a howling headwind is akin to the race directors deciding to put a 40-50 mile climb on the course that morning. Recognize this and treat the wind as a climb that you’ll deal with one pedal and step at a time.

Hydration: Like a climb going into the wind is much harder. If you’ve based your hydration strategy on time, not distance, you’re fine. Stick to it.

Nutrition: Like hydration, eat according to time spent, not distance covered.


Lindsay Hyman is a Pro Level coach with Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. and a certified USAT and USAC Level II Coach.  In additional to competing at Ironman distance triathlons, she coaches athletes from first timers to World Champions in sprint to iron-distance events. 


Learn more about working with a CTS Triathlon Coach here.

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