How Lucy Charles-Barclay has trained for Ironman Kona
© James Mitchell/Red Bull Content Pool
After successive second place finishes, the British triathlete tells all on the months of intense training leading up to the Ironman World Championship race in Hawaii.
Ironman Kona is, famously, one of the hardest races in the world. Ironmans are brutal enough – a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride followed by running 26.2 miles to the finish – but the annual World Championship event in Hawaii is even tougher due to the oppressive heat, unpredictable winds and undulating, mountainous terrain.
Despite that, there’s something about Kona that keeps athletes returning year after year. Chrissie Wellington, who triumphed four times at Kona between 2008 and 2011, said of the race: “I’ve thought a hundred times at Kona, ‘You could quit. Quit.’ But I know I'd never forgive myself."
With the previous years’ races to study and learn from, she is coming into the 2019 championships fighting. She’s one of the strongest, if not strongest, swimmers in the race, and has worked hard on her run with the aim of going sub-3 hours this year.
Here, with first place in her sights, she reveals exactly what it’s taken to get to the start line of Kona 2019.
Training for Kona started the day after her wedding
Following her Kona race last October, Charles-Barclay took the biggest break from the sport she’s ever taken as she was getting married to her fiancé and coach Reece Barclay. “The day after the wedding last December we went for an 18-mile run, and that was it – from then the training block for the 2019 season began, and it’s been pretty crazy since."
She's turned her run into more of "a weapon"
“Me and Reece looked at a lot of things from the 2018 Kona race, and the key thing was that we thought we could really work on my run,” says Charles-Barclay. So over the winter that’s what they focused on – building up Charles-Barclay’s run volume. “My swim can’t really get much faster, so there’s no point in focusing on that, and my bike is gradually progressing – I’m actually one of the best bikers in the sport – but my run is where I could still gain a lot of time. I’ve probably done my most ever amount of consistent long runs leading into Kona this year. I've turned my run into more of a weapon."
And it’s paid off. “I’d never run under three hours on my run in Kona before, but this year in two of my long-distance races I went under three hours, so my target’s definitely to hit under three hours.”
To prepare for the humidity of Kona I set up a ‘pain cave’ with an air-conditioning unit on full heat and all the radiators on while I used the turbo trainer. We even had a kettle boiling as well.
She's completed a long run every single week
The key addition to her running schedule that Charles-Barclay believes made a difference was adding consistency. “We made sure that every week the volume is consistently the same and there aren't some weeks when it drops off. The shortest long run I do is 25km – I started from that and built up. It would be a long and steady pace at the start of the block, then the fitter I got towards a race, I’d add in intervals as well – a 5km to 8km interval at a faster pace three times during the run.” Add to this a weekly track session (which was the one session Charles-Barclay always dreaded – “I always feel a little nervous on the morning of the session, as I really want to nail it”) and the result has been some of her fastest Ironman runs yet.
Finishing second at the World Champs twice motivated her
There is little as motivating as coming second in a race, and Lucy knows this all too well, having finished runner-up to Switzerland’s Ryf in both 2017 and 2018. “Coming that close to getting the top spot is motivating, as you know you are so close. But it’s also motivating knowing that I’m still quite young in this sport – I’m 26 and most people peak in their thirties, so I know that there’s still a lot of progression that can be made. If I work hard enough I’m nowhere near my limits yet, and I want to find out where they are.”
She's aiming to put Ryf on the back foot as much as possible
In the past two Kona races, that’s exactly what Charles-Barclay has done, going out hard in the swim and bike. And she’s not looking to change that tactic in 2019. “I know that she’s in a more ‘fun’ position as she’s actually chasing, and you have that person out front to catch, whereas I don’t know what’s going on behind me, I’m just trying to push as hard as I want to push. But I don’t tend to worry about anyone else, as it’s such a long day and I need to focus on what I’m doing, fuelling, keeping myself cool and doing everything I need to do."
Nutrition has been more of a focus this year
Fuelling has come under the microscope in 2019 with Charles-Barclay making changes to her diet since the last World Championships: “I’ve been using Fresh Fitness Food for all my meals, which has saved me so much time – they are pre-prepared meals that match how many calories I burn. It takes the thinking out of it.” She also examined fuelling during the race: “We looked at when I take on Red Bull and caffeine. Before, I just used to take it when I was feeling a little low, now we can pinpoint exactly when I need to take it on throughout the race, aiming to do it just as I hit a low point. Hopefully that will make a difference."
Charles-Barclay's biggest training weeks are 30 hours across the board
Lucy’s training varies depending on what training block she’s in, but the hours have ramped up in the run-up to Kona. “An average week for me is between four and six hours in the pool, between 15 and 20 hours on the bike, and running between five and eight hours.” That’s not including three strength sessions a week, where she works on leg strength and core stability. And even her rest days involve exercise. “I don’t have a full day off as I tend to feel worse – so an off-day for me might be just a swim and a gym session.”
90 percent of the bike training is indoors
As Charles-Barclay lives in London, using a turbo trainer is a reliable way to get in your biking hours, compare sessions and see progression – plus you don’t have to worry about traffic or stopping at traffic lights. Charles-Barclay uses the training programme Zwift on her turbo, as she finds that makes riding indoors a lot more interesting. “When I’m in a serious training block I upload the training plans Reece has written and I follow them on Zwift, which makes it really easy as I don’t have to think too much.”
She trains via a mix of power and heart rate. “When I’m riding indoors it’s more to power, but I’m always comparing power to my heart rate so I can get a gauge what heart-rate zone is what power zone. When I ride outside I use power as a tool, except when climbing where I look at my heart rate. If it’s pushing up too high I know I need to rein it in and not burn the matches on the climbs."
She's cost her in-laws a lot in heating bills
In order to replicate the heat and humidity of Kona, Lucy did something rather unusual for three weeks: “I set up the ‘pain cave’ [her indoor training area at her husband’s parents’ house, featuring a gym, turbo trainer and treadmill]," she says, "with an air-conditioning unit set to heat mode and all the radiators on. Reece’s dad put heaters around my turbo trainer, we even had a kettle boiling as well. It was really hot – we got it up to about 34 degrees Celsius, with humidity about 70 percent. It was brutal."
Measuring her sweat rate was really fun
“This year leading into Kona we’ve been better at looking at my sweat rate,” says Charles-Barclay. Sweat rate is the amount of sweat you lose over an hour during exercise – it’s important to know so you can replace that fluid. “During the indoor heat prep, I weighed myself at the beginning of the ride, then I had to weigh myself every hour throughout the ride, without my kit as it was saturated in sweat. We worked out that my sweat rate was 1.2 litres per hour, so I need to make sure I’m getting that much liquid on board every hour to match what I’m losing."
The goal is to visualise key things in the race
For Charles-Barclay, visualisation is key to her mental preparation ahead of the race. “When a race is as long as an Ironman, a lot of things can happen and it’s how you deal with them that gets you through the race.” It helps with visualisation if she’s done the race before, and that’s the reason why she often goes back to races she’s done previously as she can visualise things and prepare better. “It is a mental game.”
And remember why all the hard work was put in
Going hand in hand with the visualisation is looking back on specific workouts she completed in her training to get her through the low points in the race. “The key thing I do before the race is write down my five best swim, bike and run workouts that were super-tough but I nailed them. Then, during the race I look back to one of those sessions and think, ‘That was so tough, but I got through it,’ and that helps with the race I’m in.”
It’s remembering why she did all that hard work that usually pulls her out of the dark place. “The thing I take comfort from is that if I’m hurting, I know that everyone else is going to be hurting as well, so that makes it a bit easier.”
She tries to inject fun into training
Lucy comes from a swimming background, and has been training hard since the age of eight, eventually moving into Ironman after she failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. “When I came into triathlon, it was purely for fun to begin with. I love going to things like the local Parkrun. Just the other day, Reece had me doing a fun workout – we have an endless pool, where you’re swimming into a current, and I was doing three-minute reps in the pool, then getting out and straight on to the bike, doing a minute max on the bike, then jumping straight back in the pool. It was really hard but actually quite fun, as I did the whole thing with a swim hat and goggles on."
Music has been used during particularly hard training sessions
Mainly, she says, to distract her from the pain. “I use music a lot – anything with a good beat when I’m doing intervals. I’m really into Imagine Dragons, and Eminem always seems to help on tough sessions.”
The race-day strategy is similar to last year
“Go out hard in the swim, trying to build up as much of a gap as possible – that’s definitely how I like to race,” says Charles-Barclay. “I bike hard – how I always bike – but I used to think I don’t want to get caught on the bike as perhaps my run isn’t as strong as it could be. Whereas this year I’ll be thinking there are some strong bikers in the field and if they do catch me I can stay with them and work together as that would suit me, as I have a lot more belief in my run.”