Sunday, January 8, 2012

Doing The Double

For many iron-distance triathletes, the transition from finisher to competitor is often years in the making. Training, recovery, tapering, racing. Lather, rinse, repeat. But every once in awhile something challenges the way we view our sport in terms of recovery and performance. Outside of the box kind of stuff -- like racing two Ironman races only 1 week apart for example.

In November 2011, professional triathlete Sara Gross ( and did just this. (Keep in mind that Sara gave birth to her daughter Rosalee last year. So, not only did Sara train to regain the fitness required to compete at an elite level, she did so with all the challenges of being a new Mom!) On November 20, 2011, Sara competed at Ironman Arizona. One week later she raced Ironman Cozumel.

The following is an interview I had with Sara about her successful execution of the Ironman Double:

1. How did you feel after IMAZ? In other words, do you feel as crappy as the rest of mortals after an IM race?

How I was going to feel during the week between races was actually one of my main concerns going in. After Ironman Canada this year, I felt terrible for more than a week, so I worried this would happen again. Before deciding to do the double, I talked to Chris McDonald (and wife Marilyn) to pick his brain and get the low-down on doing the double. (Chris was very successful at it and actually won the second race, Ironman Wisconsin 2008, ed.) He told me that recovering from the first race is all about what you do (or don't do) during the first 72 hours after the race. This includes getting hydrated, massage, using compression, recovery food, and the little bit of exercise that you do to keep things firing. To answer your question, I felt great after IMAZ. A lot better than after most IM races, and I contribute that to being more diligent with my recovery. I was also in a very positive frame of mind, which always helps.

Sara blasting out a 3:07 at Ironman Arizona 2011

2. Why did you decide to do another IM only 7 days after IMAZ? Have you ever done this before?

I have never done back-to-back Ironman races before but I did race two long-course distances (4k-120k-30k) 8 days apart in 2005. I finished 2nd at the first race in Gerardmer, France and won the second race in Sweden 8 days later. So, I had a good feeling about racing back to back. I am not sure exactly what made me decide to do both this time. I was signed up for both races and was having trouble deciding which race to do. Arizona is always very competitive and I really love racing against a tough field. That always motivates me, though it isn't a wise choice if you are after Kona points! Once the idea of doing both popped into my head I just couldn't shake it. I was worried that Clint (my husband and coach) wouldn't go for it, but he got completely behind me. I guess the short answer is; because I wanted to. It really is as simple as that. I thought I was fit enough to pull it off and it was a challenge that excited me.

3. In terms of recovery after an IM, what did you do differently, if anything, to prepare for IMCoz?

The differences in what I did after IMAZ compared to what I normally do after an IM were subtle. It was more a mindset that kept me focused after the race. I did everything a little bit more quickly and efficiently. I ate the post-race pizza immediately even though I wasn't hungry. I went to the massage tent right away instead of hanging around and chatting with my friends. It was mostly little things like that. I had my Zoot compression socks ready to put on in the car on the way home. I ate lots of protein. I went to bed and actually slept for 8 or 9 hours. I stretched the next day. I had multiple massages. I walked around and didn't allow my muscles to seize up.

Post-race pizza-eating recovery

4. Racing 2 IMs only a week apart goes against the widely held notion of training, tapering, racing and recovering. Do you think you were fully recovered for IM Cozumel?

Lol! Well, you only have to look at my bike time to see that I was not fully recovered! I was however, recovered enough to finish in 6th place, so I consider it to be a success. So many things can go wrong in an event that takes all day that a little fatigue was not a great concern for me on race day. You know, this little experiment has really challenged the way I see myself and our sport. My performance at IM Cozumel was pretty much exactly what I would expect it to be if I were to do a full Ironman in the middle of a big training block (ie, with no taper). Its amazing how it panned out in such a predictable way. And, the fact that I wasn't fully recovered sort of makes me want to try it again. The whole challenge of racing back-to-back Ironmans is about how well you can recover in 7 days. I think I could do better. I could use my compression clothing from Zoot more effectively or try to get my hands on some of those compression boots that people are using. My daughter really kept me on my toes in the week between the races, so I would recruit more people to help out with that. There are a few bits and pieces that I would change.

On the bike in Cozumel.

5. Did you do any "training" in the week between the two races?

Based on advice from Chris, I kept moving in the days after the race and also listened to my body. The morning after IMAZ I rode my bike for 30mins. On Tuesday I did an 800m swim and a short water run and on Wednesday I did a 1200m swim and was able to do some short surges of 15m or so. I also did a fair bit of walking (with my daughter in the stroller). If I did this again, it might be entirely different, but this was the right amount for me that week. My legs and energy levels started to come around on Thursday and from there on I proceeded with my normal taper week. I ended up taking Friday off and did the "biggest" day of the week on Saturday with a 20min swim, 1h bike and 20min run. My total volume for the week between the races was 4h30mins.

6. How much food did you eat after IMAZ? Did you eat even more (the day after and the days following) after IM Coz?

Lol!! Yes, Julie, if you do 2 Ironmans in a row, you can eat as many bananas and sweet potatoes as you like!! Seriously, one of the things I was thankful for was that I had a good appetite the night after IMAZ. I often feel too sick to eat after an IM. Clint took me to Chipotle after the race for a giant burrito. During the week after Ironman, I normally eat whatever I want. And I did that this time as well, but I also made sure I was eating enough protein for my muscles to recover. I thought that I would be painfully hungry for weeks after the second race, but shockingly, I just had a "normal" post-race appetite after Cozumel. Actually this applies to how I felt after IMCoz in general. It really felt like I had just done 1 race. I had been warned that I may feel a lot of systemic fatigue in the weeks after the second race, but its been weeks now and I feel great! I am very happy about that.

7. How on earth did you run a 3:07, and then a 3:18 in an IM only 7 days apart? WOW!

Ok. You always have to see things like this in relation to how fit you are and what you are capable of. So, in Arizona I ran 3.07 and had a couple of minutes of walking break in there. In Cozumel, I had a low patch that lasted 4-5hours smack in the middle of the race, so I was running slowly at the beginning and built into it until I was running at a more suitable pace. The same would apply to the difference in my bike times when compared with my ability, the conditions etc.

Gutting it out on the run at Ironman Cozumel 2011

8. Did the new Hawaii qualification system effect your decision to race back-to-back? Will we see more of these double IM races in the future?

To be honest, the points system was a factor, but not the main reason I decided to try the double. If I had done only Cozumel, I would have likely had a faster day, got decent points from that race and made more prize money. For me, it was mostly about the challenge of it. I love Ironman and just really liked the idea of the double. I don't know if we will see more o fit in the future as many people worry (and rightly so!) that they would not recover in time for the second race. Though I did feel that by playing my cards right it was easier than I thought it would be. I was excited about it and had fun executing it. The race in Cozumel just felt like a celebration to me. It was the right thing to do.

9. Anything else you would like to say?

First of all, thanks for the questions Julie! At the risk of sounding a little cheesy, doing back-to-back Ironman races has had a subtle effect on my worldview. It has reinforced the idea that we really can do anything we set our minds to. Once I got my mind linked to the idea of doing the double, it was easy to just follow the path and get the job done. It stretched me as a person and as an athlete. It has had a positive effect on how I feel about my future and on the attitude I bring to my coaching as well. All in all, it was a great experience.

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