Faces of purplepatch: Ironman on limited running

by: Matt Dixon

The Faces of Purplepatch

At purplepatch, our quest is personal excellence and development, whatever the level of athlete. The common thread that ties our community together is the goal for personal development and performance improvement in sport and life.

The Faces of Purplepatch athlete case study series highlights athletes that achieved personal breakthroughs and have lessons for all of us related to season planning, training and tactical approaches to help every purplepatch athlete improve.

It’s all about the  journey.

Sue Rubens, Minneapolis.  

Athlete Challenge: The IRONMAN on limited running.

Profile: When Sue joined purplepatch in the early summer 2016 she made a confession. She had never raced an IRONMAN in absence of injury. With 12 weeks to go before IRONMAN Wisconsin, a race she hoped to qualify to the Hawaii IRONMAN, she arrived to purplepatch carrying another injury limitation. This time the injury was a hamstring issue that made running near impossible, and certainly not a reality without pain. Sue joined with two goals, navigate through the IRONMAN coming up, then longer-term evolution toward healthy racing.

The Coaching: The immediate need was the set the framework of approach for Sue. We had two paths, with the first being about simple ‘intervention’ to get ready for her IRONMAN. Following this, the goal was complete athlete evolution. In reviewing her previous training methods and supporting habits, it was clear that Sue was in a cycle of injury failure, likely caused by a mix of bad luck, poor habits and a training plan that didn’t allow enough recuperation or adaptations. There were several big picture areas of focus including nutrition, fueling, strength and conditioning, training execution, season breaks and form. A lot to evolve, all to an already successful and accomplished amateur athlete. The question was what to change ‘now’, in the weeks toward her IRONMAN. It is impossible to change everything, so we had to advise carefully, and create a path that would set up for success.  We also needed to get buy in from Sue. Massive changes in approach, to a seemingly successful athlete, is not an easy process to go through. We did know that Sue was tough, with her instinct to simply train through the pain until IRONMAN, then think about the fix following.

The intervention: In the end we focused on the very basic elements, then supported with an unconventional training plan to get ready. We knew that we could leverage Sue’s rich background in the sport, and could likely achieve athlete buy-in with some of the very simple interventions.  We were lucky that Sue was able to ride and swim without limitation, so could utilize that cross pollination effect of these two disciplines. We also understood her legs were strong and resilient from the years of running already completed. We decided to solely focus on swim and bike, with the only running training being completed in a mix of aqua-jogging and elliptical training.  Rather than discuss this in terms of ‘removing running’, we wanted the focus on building the strength and resilience in swimming and riding. This was the opportunity, to get swim-bike strong, while not experiencing the muscular damage of running training.

In support of the training, we only made two other basic, but important, evolutions. The first focused on post-training fueling, the other was that we designated at least two training days each week which had a primary focus of rejuvenation, not training stress. Labeling these days with purpose and goals allowed a specific goal, and helped the ambitious athlete to ‘follow orders’.

The results: With next to no running for a couple of months into the event, Sue arrived to IRONMAN Wisconsin feeling very fresh, stronger on the swim and bike, but with questions about how her run performance would be.  Wouldn’t you have the same fears if you hadn’t run for several weeks? In setting up her race, we asked Sue to approach race day as though her preparation and training had been perfect. No changes to the pacing of focus.  We also ashed her to give herself permission to fail. NO expectations are not the same as LOW expectations, and there is an undeniable ‘unknowable’ of how her body would react to running 26.2 miles following next to no running.  The key was to not judge herself prior to, or during, the actual event. A complete commitment to the process, and only judging the performance once the race was complete. Mini-tasks were established through the race, and Sue was to focus on execution, not on the result.

On race day proper Sue executed with a flawless execution and mindset.  She understood that we couldn’t say that her body would be fine, no one knew, but she also understand she was tough and fit. By the end of the race, Sue was standing on the podium and booking flights to the Hawaii IRONMAN, with qualification secured. A wonderful story of race performance via unconventional training approach that leveraged what the athlete could bring to the table, instead of focusing on what they couldn’t do.

For the next phase of Sue’s performance evolution she needs to evolve her habits and daily training approach. This will be tough since it involves Sue revising many pieces of her approach that had been successful previously, but in the end were detrimental. We believe strength training will need to bubble up in importance, training success will no longer be based on miles and hours.  

We know that Sue can do it.  

Enjoy the journey.

Matt Dixon