CTB 27: Going extreme - Training for Xtri

The popularity and number of extreme triathlons is growing fast. Norseman, CeltMan, Swissman, Evergreen, Double Brutal Wales, Enduroman Arch to Arc, and so on. There is also a new Xtri World Tour, which includes Norseman, Celtman, Swissman, CanadaMan/Woman, Alaskaman and Janosek Slovak xtri. Each race has a rigid selection process or a lottery to enter, the waiting lists are long and number of participants is limited (for example, both Norseman and Swissman accept only 250 athletes). Given this high demand, we can expect further growth of extreme races.

So what makes a triathlon an extreme one  – an Xtri?  It can be its elevation profile, terrain or weather conditions. Even one of these factors can double the duration of an average «city» Ironman and triple the suffer score. Especially the elevation adds to the finish time: my estimate is that each 1000m of elevation can add between 30 and 60min to your overall time. Steep inclines mean more gravity, more fatigue and lead to significant slowing down of race pace: you can run up a 4-5% hill at 10-11km/h, but you definitely have to walk 15-20% hill at sometimes as slow as 2.5-3 km/hr, which is and feels like crawling, especially if it is on a technically challenging mountain trail.

One of the most popular and sought after extreme triathlons is SWISSMAN, which I finished on Jun 24th and which truly deserves its extreme label. It takes you over three major mountain passes (two of them are “hors catégory”) with total elevation of +3500m (11483 ft) and crosses south-north weather divide in the Alps to finish marathon at 2061m (6762 ft) altitude with a total elevation of +1800m (5905 ft) on the run. This race takes you from almost tropical southern, Italian-speaking part of Switzerland to highest Swiss mountains, covered with snow and glaciers, and weather-wise you can truly experience all 4 seasons during one day.

In addition, most Xtris are self-supported races and each athlete is required to have a supporter, or a whole crew, who will feed her and drive behind her with spare bike parts and several changes of clothes, food and drink. On the last 10-20km of the run, which typically take you away from civilization and roads, the supporter is required to run/walk with the athlete to the finish. So the whole thing is not only physical, but also a logistical challenge.

So, how one can train for an extreme triathlon? Here are 5 most important skills – or What Counts Factors for Going Extreme:

1) Fatigue resistance: It takes a very strong athlete to complete an iron-distance Xtri: physically strong, emotionally resilient and mentally focused. All this can be trained. The main method is hard interval training with a very high number of short and intensive reps to be completed under a pressure of a fixed time. Example sessions:

Swim: 50x100m with paddles & pullbouy on 1:45

Bike:  1hr of 3min max power hill repeats with 1min rest

Run:   50x200m on 1min

The idea it to keep the pace and not to slow down: the winner in all extreme and ultra-endurance races is the one who slows down the least. Fatigue resistance is also trained in multiple short sessions per day, where we train without being fully recovered (but recovered enough to avoid injury) and in all variations of bricks: bike-swim-bike, bike-run, swim-run-bike or even bike-office work-bike.

What is key it to become aware of your inner voice and internal dialog during hard sessions and being able to train it too to become your internal motivation coach – and maybe a drill sergeant sometimes!

2) Power endurance: Racing in mountains requires a consistently high power output to create enough propulsion to go uphill fast (or just go uphill) – against increased gravity and resistance. That is why all endurance training for an extreme event absolutely has to have a power component to it in order to develop specific muscle strength. Here are some examples of how to do it: 

Swim: up to 60-70% of the swim training is done with paddles to develop swim strength and get out of water fresh.

Bike:  We push big gear when we ride on flat roads and on up to 5% hills. At least once per week we do hill repeats and we also do max power turbo train sessions once or twice a week: short but very effective training to develop power.

Run: At least once per week we do hill repeats – many reps of 15 to 90sec of uphill sprints with high but not max intensity. We also try to do our long runs in hilly area – or run on treadmill to simulate race profile.

3) Weather resistance: This is rather an individual skill, since people have different sensitivity to hot/cold weather conditions. Although Norseman is always won by Norwegians, who are well adapted to cold and wet weather, everyone can become better adapted with specific training and nutrition.  Training in bad weather conditions and learning how to dress strategically, is something everyone can do – but it takes overcoming a lot of mental resistance. However, when you do train in what your qualify as “bad weather”, you will most probably notice that is not that bad at the end and there is a lot in your head that prevents you from going out when it is rainy, cold or windy. ("Get out of your head, or you are dead!"). That is why weather resistance is also a mental skill – your mental strength can take you through the most horrible weather. Nutrition plays an important part too: fat adapted athletes with well develop fat metabolism and consuming higher % of good fats in their diets seem to handle cold weather better. They kind of go in “winter mode” and switch to lipid energy production which keeps them warm, like a bear in his winter sleep.

4) Nutrition and Fat adaptation: As mentioned, fat adapted athletes have an advantage in ultra long races and this advantage can be a critical one. After 10+ hours of racing in harsh conditions, your stomach will not be able any more to digest the 60-80grs of carbs per hour that you are trying to get in. It will need a break, during which you might bonk if you are not fat adapted, or it may simply shut down because all your blood and physical and cardiac capacity will go into the working muscles and maintenance of brain function. Extreme race is 100% aerobic and you need to develop a mixed metabolism to provide your body with enough energy: you will need to be able to oxidize both carbs and fat during the race, so that you eat less but still can perform using your fat reserves as fuel. This takes dedicated training (a lot of fasted runs and rides) and nutrition with high fat % in your race preparation, and even the race itself. (Please see, CTB 26 on "Cream diet"). Also, knowing what, when and how much to eat is absolutely critical in an extreme or ultra race. It has to be meticulously planned and trained – and even more important – you have to have enough focus and concentration to be able to execute your nutrition strategy during the race.

5) Supporter collaboration: You cannot finish an extreme triathlon without a supporter! First, it is a mandatory requirement from race organizers – you fully rely on your supporter to provide you with food and drink and several changes of clothing. It is your Sherpa and your mule for the day:  hesets up and dismantles your transition zones, carries your stuff, pushes you over the last hill and helps you if there is a technical problem. But more important, your supporter is your mental and emotional bond, your positive charge and your motivator when going gets really tough. These selfless heroes might actually have a harder job that you – so be thankful forever! Racing an extreme event is an unforgettable experience, which is best when it is shared with other humans.