IRONMAN Arizona Coaching and Course Recommendations
I wrote this article for Training Peaks and IRONMAN.com before the race!
IRONMAN Arizona is known for being a fast course with a stacked professional and age-group field. The late November race is the fourth IRONMAN of the new qualifying year for the IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona. The times here are fast, with specific pacing demands on the bike and the run. Below are tried-and-true tips for the intermediate to advanced athlete looking to set a PR, or even qualify for Kona.
The swim is a single 2.4-mile loop in Tempe Town Lake with water temperatures usually in the low 60’s (Fahrenheit). On race day the air temperature can dip into the 50’s, a cold start to the day. Arrive at the swim start early. There is only one entry point into the lake, so it can get backed up. Once you’re in the water, find your spot and be prepared to either tread water for a few minutes, or find a kayak or paddle board that you can hold on to. The field will spread out nicely as the course opens up a couple hundred meters into the swim.
IRONMAN Arizona has a unique exit from the water: a set of stairs on which you will either be helped or pulled up out of the water by volunteers. Make sure you get your hand up so they can grab you, and watch your feet and shins as you get pulled up onto the stairs. Once you’re up on the stairs, you’ll finish the last few steps on your own where you’ll find the wetsuit strippers. From there, it’s a short run to the changing tents, then onto the bike and out onto Rio Salado. You might want some arm warmers to start the ride, depending on the ambient temperature.
Flat, windy and busy are the best words to describe the three-loop bike course. Pacing on the bike is the absolute key to racing well at IRONMAN Arizona; use a power meter or heart rate monitor to pace yourself appropriately. To determine your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) or Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR), follow these guidelines set forth by Joe Friel (author of The Triathlete’s Training Bible) here. Once you have determined your FTP and/or LTHR, use this article by Friel to determine your best pace.
In 2012, age grouper Ian Hersey (M50-54) hammered out a Kona-qualifying 10:04 time with the second fastest bike split in his age group (5:04). Looking at his cycling metrics for the day demonstrates how age group athletes should pace this course. You can see his power output in the table below.
The last metric to look at is the Training Stress Score (TSS) for the full ride. If your heart rate or power zones are set correctly on your Garmin, you can select TSS to be displayed during your ride (here’s how). In order to pace yourself correctly, TSS is a great way to account for all of the key variables. Keeping your total TSS between 260-285 on the bike is ideal to set you up for a good run. For the IRONMAN Arizona course, we need to divide that total number by three to account for the three loops, giving us an approximate TSS of 85-95 per lap.
Heading into T2, riders need to make sure they take an opportunity to stand on the pedals and stretch out their legs to prepare for the run. With the flat nature of the course, a great deal of time will be spent in the tucked position. Make sure to stretch out the hip flexors, calves and hamstrings heading into T2.
The IRONMAN Arizona run course has changed this year from a three-loop run to a two-loop run. The first mile of the run will have some moderately challenging rollers to contend with from the Mill Avenue bridge until just short of the Scottsdale Road bridge. From there it’s relatively flat until the backside of the run course. Once the runners make the left hand turn onto Curry, they have a decent climb that lasts around a half mile. From there, it’s about a half-mile downhill back to the lakefront and the flat run course.
With the new run course, we do not have any real race data to examine in TrainingPeaks. The best piece of advice I can give you for the new run course is to be patient and tick off the miles on the relatively flat course. One way to remain patient is to mentally “chunk” the course into manageable portions.
For athletes looking to set a new PR or qualify for Kona, we’ve “chunked” the course into quarters based on terrain on the map below. The quarters approach takes terrain changes into account first, then location on the course. In the first segment, be prepared for the rolling terrain from T2 to Scottsdale Rd, then a rather desolate portion of the course out to McClintock and back to T2. Segment #2 is mostly flat and will have a fair number of spectators present, as well as being within eyesight of transition—try to keep your pacing steady despite the excitement of the crowds. Segment #3 is where most athletes will struggle mentally. That last out-and-back finger will not have as many spectators, which rolls immediately into the toughest terrain challenge on the course—running up the hill on Curry. Stay strong here! The last segment is flat with some slight downhill portions that will aid the runners as they come to the end of loop #1 and again into the finish.
The key to a good race at IRONMAN Arizona is pacing through the entire race. If you stay patient and execute a well thought out race plan on the bike and the run, you’ll get stellar results.