In October of 1982 I arrived at the hallowed grounds called Ali’i Drive in Kona—the thin ribbon of road that has been run on by the greatest endurance athletes on the planet. I’d watched the Ironman on ABC’s Wide World of Sports eight months earlier, and like almost everyone who witnessed the first ever Ironman on the Big Island, I was touched, amazed and completely mesmerized by seemingly normal people exceeding all limitations in pursuit of the simple goal of crossing the finish line before midnight.
It only took me that one Ironman to understand that fitness is a feeling, not a look.
What I didn’t see on the less-than-HD-quality of my 15-inch TV screen were the finer details of muscles molded to perfection by thousands of miles of training, or the veins that revealed themselves in ever-increasing detail as the months of preparation melted away unnecessary body fat. But I got a firsthand look at all of that as I drove along Ali’i Drive to my hotel, a few minutes south of the pier. I’d never seen anything like it. The cream of multisport athletics was running and cycling on that road, and the bodies on display immediately made me question my preparation. I didn’t have anywhere near the chisel factor that my fellow Ironman hopefuls had. Maybe I did have a vein or two, but mine looked more like a major thoroughfare than the detailed roadmap of vessels that covered these people from head to toe. “I must not have trained hard enough or long enough,” I thought. “I’m going to get killed out there! It’ll be superhuman versus mere mortal.” There wasn’t even a whisper of hope in my court. It was a parade of perfection and I wasn’t invited.
Growing up as a competitive swimmer, I’d seen some of the greatest in that sport and gotten used to their body types as my barometer of what fit and ready to race looked like: Elongated presence of toned but not tight muscle; not a vein in sight. Being in water doesn’t push your body to lose that extra bit necessary to reveal the inner workings of your cardiovascular system lying just beneath the surface of your skin. Triathletes, at least these folks in Kona, appeared to be a totally different breed. But here’s the scoop on all that leanness and meanness: they were the first to blow; the first to go by the wayside and either grovel their way through the marathon or bail out of the race.
LESSON LEARNED: Extra-lean and ultra-fit are not exactly Ironman bed partners.
It only took me that one Ironman to understand that fitness is a feeling, not a look. It’s a test of endurance, not a contest of body composition. The lowest percentage of body fat doesn’t win. It’s about the ability to generate power, not just to look powerful. Ironman looks through you; not at you. Lean and light, cut and veiny is indeed intimidating to watch prancing up and down Ali’i Drive, but an intense endurance race requires you to have more stored up and stashed away than is ever possible with a nearly starved body. Ironman—especially a race as intense as Kona—requires deep inner strength and energy reserves.
Here’s the deal: Your body will go through a complete metamorphosis over the years if you are training for an endurance event. If you train smart you will gain lean muscle and lose body fat, and you will look different from your sedentary friends (especially if you’re a guy with shaved legs). You will also look different than the big grunts in the gym. You’ll be leaner, less massive, even somewhat meek looking. But you are designing your body for one singular purpose: repetitive motion for hours on end at a high output level.
There are disadvantages to hauling around extra non-functional matter (a nice way of saying “body fat”). Some research suggests that losing 10 pounds of body fat translates to running 20 seconds per mile faster. In cycling the benefit is almost negligible on the flats, but can come into play when racing a hilly course. But keep in mind that less is only good until you hit your ideal body weight, which is different for each person. If you dip below your ideal weight, you lose strength and speed, and you increase your recovery time. You also risk completely blowing up in your race because your don’t have the reserves necessary to cushion the massive toll a long endurance event will take on your body.
Here is a very significant example of this from my racing career. My basic body weight was around 160 pounds throughout the majority of my triathlon season. I raced well at that weight. I won events like the Nice International Triathlon (about a six-hour race at the time), Olympic-distance events and 70.3 races on both flat and hilly courses. However, when I put in my big Ironman training block in preparation for Kona, I would lose another three pounds and end up racing the biggest event of my season just slightly below the weight that brought me success the rest of the year. The difference was less than two percent, but the results were disastrous. I completely blew up in every one of my Ironman finishes before 1989. I wasn’t trying to lose weight; it just happened. I showed up looking lean and fit, but ended up walking marathon after marathon.
Finally in 1989, I adopted a different strategy for my year. I raced the first 90 percent of it three pounds heavier (about 163). I still had great results. I lost my standard three pounds during my Ironman block in the late summer and went into Hawaii weighing 160. The result? Victory number one!
HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO YOU? Here are a few concepts to follow:
• Let your training mold your body: Swimming, cycling and running daily will have a dramatic effect on your fitness. It may not have as dramatic an effect on your physique. Don’t worry: fitness is first. If you know that you are well above an “ideal” weight for your height and general makeup, work on your meal portions and general nutritional balance to bring that more in line with what you are actually doing in your training. If you are exercising an hour a day but eating for three, then there are some modifications that need to be made. If you are in serious need of body fat reduction, the early season is the only time it is safe to make that a priority. Cut back on overall calories but keep your protein intake up. This will help you lose body fat while protecting your lean muscle. Using this approach toward the end of the season will almost always result in weight loss, but you will also lose precious muscle.
• Gauge yourself by pace and output, not the bathroom mirror: This is the “feeling fit” rather than “looking fit” method. Feel how your training is affecting you and base any modifications on that feeling. Are you feeling more fit, faster, more resilient? That is the goal. A smaller size in clothing might be a secondary benefit, but it should not be the focus.
• Build self-confidence through training: If you have a big triathlon goal, design training that supports it. Create some days that are real stretches of what you feel you can do. Don’t make them a staple in training, but rather sprinkle them sparingly throughout your year. Just make it through those days and surprise yourself with what you are capable of. Use them as confidence boosters to signal to yourself that you are indeed capable of greatness on race day. A scale won’t tell you whether you are ready. A body composition measurement will mean nothing to your inner voice if the race gets tough. But those key big training days will come back to you when you to go to a place you have never had to go in the middle of a triathlon. An Ironman doesn’t care about looks or about keeping things nice and tidy. It cares about your core, your will and your acceptance of the task at hand. None of that will ever reveal itself on the surface. It hides deep inside and is cultivated when you tap into your strength, with no need to look the part.
Mark Allen is a six-time Hawaii Ironman champion. Visit Mark Allen Coaching for more info.