Balancing Good Health with Ironman Performance Goals

Health before fitness will always be my philosophy. I am under no illusion that doing events like an Ironman, much less racing an Ironman, are necessarily healthy. Long steady state endurance efforts at >75% max heart rate are stressful and, if done chronically without proper recovery, can be downright unhealthy. Even still…I don’t think I will ever be able to shake the dream of qualifying for Kona. This dichotomy between health and Ironman performance goals has been on my mind a lot lately. So I posed a question to the coaches on my favorite podcast, Endurance Planet, about just that.

My question: Long duration tempo efforts are going to be necessary to build the strength needed to maintain mechanics/performance in late stages of a race. Therefore, is it even possible to have both aggressive health goals AND long course triathlon performance goals? Would health need to become secondary to fitness at some point during a training cycle?

Their short answer: Health should always come first and fitness is second. An athlete needs to be in good enough health so that they CAN allow themselves to go into a TEMPORARY health deficit to improve fitness.

I definitely recommend listening to the full discussion (and episode!) on podcast ATC 212.

There were two things that really stuck with me from the podcast discussion:

  1. The stress of training to race an Ironman by itself is an unhealthy endeavor. Adding in family, any type of poor diet, a full-time job, etc. makes an Ironman performance goal even more unhealthy.
  2. A Kona qualification can be achieved at any age. Be patient, get everything in place (e.g., health, family, and job), and pick the most opportune moments to really focus on building fitness. During these blocks it is OK to let health deteriorate a bit.

Based on the podcast discussion, I’ve been rethinking my current training and health strategy and I’ve developed the following framework for myself.

Endurance Training Pyramid

Essentially, the base of the pyramid is the core foundational principles of good health. The next layer focuses on building the groundwork of an endurance athlete. The upper two layers focuses on building fitness. The pyramid shading represents the “healthiness” of each layer.

I still have a ton of room for growth in many of the areas in the first and second layers so I’m not ready to progress to the point of building fitness at the expense of health. Therefore, I need to dial back my performance expectations and be patient with my training. Patience is going to be my secret weapon.

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