Deca-Ironman and S&C Coach Dan Reeve shares his advice and tips on preparing for superhero distances
Among us mere mortals tread superhuman individuals who are capable of incredible feats of strength and endurance. Ultradistance runners, Ironmen and elite cyclists embody characteristics usually reserved for comic book superheroes. You could be forgiven for thinking they were a different breed entirely.
One such man is Dan Reeve, a Strength & Conditioning Coach, whose impressive CV boasts 19 marathons, 5 L’Etape Du Tours and an Ironman. He’s also one of the few people on the planet to have completed a Deca-Ironman – a 24-mile swim, 1,120-mile cycle and 262-mile run. His secrets though aren’t a red cape or adamantium bones; they’re something much more ordinary and they’re available to everyone.
“Hard work is necessary; it’s a given,” says Dan. “What’s important is hard work in the right areas. The key to success rests on proper preparation, a strong body and good recovery. Strong mental focus and good nutrition complete the package.”
Before taking on an ultra distance event it is a good idea to perform the distance, or as close to it, before competing. Doing so helps you to prepare your body and mind to work for long periods and ensures that there are no surprises on race day. “When I trained for the Deca-Ironman,” says Dan, “I couldn’t do those sorts of distances as preparation. But I could prepare for the amount of time I was working, so I trained for between four and eight hours daily to get my body used to working for long periods.
“The best piece of advice I can give is to do the least amount of work possible to get you in the condition needed for your event, says Dan. “Don’t put lots of work in for the sake of it. Justify every rep and every stride. If you can’t then it shouldn’t be in your programme.” Assuming that you have a good level of fitness to begin with, Dan suggests training four to five two-hour sessions a week.
Once your fitness levels increase you can add an hour to two sessions and build from there. If you are able to commit more time, split training into longer morning and evening sessions to get your body used to the levels of work required.
“How each individual manages their preparation is down to them and their lifestyle,” Dan adds. “You have to consider your stresses and the time constraints. Lengthy training and juggling work and family life places you under a lot of stress. “Develop an intimate understanding of your body and how you feel and react to training. This will help you to tell the difference between injuries, laziness, over training and tiredness.”
Don’t skip leg day
Strength work is one of the most important aspects of the endurance athlete’s training programme, but is sometimes approached haphazardly or neglected entirely, often to their detriment. “People usually fail with ultra endurance events because of injury. Strength training can prevent that,” says Dan. “It stops you from breaking down when you perform repetitive movements for long periods.” Most amateur athletes are anterior dominant – meaning that their quads and hip flexors control their movement.
To fix the problem, Dan recommends performing exercises that strengthen the posterior chain – the lower back, glutes and hamstrings. “The Romanian deadlift is a good posterior chain exercise. It makes sure that the lower back, glutes and hamstrings are firing in the right order. That is key. You don’t need to lift heavy weights. Just ensure that you have good form – if you aren’t sure what good form is, ask a trainer to show you.”
The deadlift should form part of a well structured strength routine that also includes a squat and a lunge variation. If you have time or are training for a swim then include some upper-body compound lifts, balancing push with pull. Perform three sets of eight to twelve reps once or twice a week and you will start to see the benefits.
“Long distance events are very catabolic, so they break down muscle. You have to make sure that you are putting enough calories into your body to restore glycogen levels.” This means adequate carbohydrate – around 2 to 7 grams per kilograms of body weight.
A simple way to make sure you are getting enough food is to check bodyweight. If it’s staying roughly the same and performance is not being affected, you are eating enough. “Quite often with distance runners and athletes, they end up being skinny-fat – which is the result of over-consuming carbohydrates. That’s ok because you will burn some of it, but if you are looking to compete at a good level your power to weight ratio is very important.
“Directly pre training or pre event I wouldn’t recommend taking in too many carbs if you’ve had adequate carbs the night before; they increase serotonin release from the brain which leaves some people feeling flat. I recommend a coffee with coconut oil to improve mental
sharpness. You can top up carbs during training or the race.”
Train the brain
Ultra distance events are taxing on the mind as well as the body. Long periods alone can lead to self-doubt and a whole host of other anxieties that hinder performance. Fortunately the mind can be trained to help you overcome mental barriers.
“When training for the Deca Ironman, I was concerned about my swim,” says Dan. “I was going to be alone in extreme quiet for 14 hours. A sports psychologist suggested that I tried a technique to disconnect my mind. During my training and the race I’d repeat times tables. It helped to settle my rhythm and put me in a meditative state.”
The alternative to disconnecting, unsurprisingly, is to connect with your body. Methods such as the Alexander Technique, during which you repetitively assess your body from head to toe, help you to stay in tune with how you are feeling. “Top athletes will switch between methods and know when to use each. Amateur runners will find that one works better for them than the other. Experiment with the techniques if you find your mind wandering during training. It may well be the difference between finishing and not finishing a race.”
Get some rest
The risk of not recovering well is inherent in all endurance sports. If you’re not recovering you are on a slippery slope to adrenal fatigue, injury and illness. “When I trained for the Ironman I did yoga twice a week. This was partly for the flexibility and mobility but also to switch off mentally and physically. I’d often get there early and sleep on the mat to help me relax. I’d then do the class and leave feeling the best I had felt all week. Resting is as important as training.”
Words: Tom Holmes