Steve McKenna’s Ironman WA 7:50:48 Coaching Reflections

Image – @koruptvision

Swim Training Changes

Steve is an anaerobic machine in that he can tolerate and sustain high levels of lactate better than anyone else I’ve coached. You can get away with that in shorter races and very much use it to your advantage but eventually in ironman the glycogen tax man comes to collect his debt.  

Ironically, given many people do the opposite and throw in more swim squad training to try and improve their swim I had to actually get Steve doing less swim squad.

I’ve long been hesitant around too much swim squad for triathletes. As an example of a typical scenario; there could be 6 athletes in a lane working off a 1:20/100 cycle but that could mean totally different energy systems being employed amongst those athletes depending on their swim ability so the outcome achieved in a session could be very wide ranging and for some of those swimmers often the opposite of what the session goal might be. Steve’s anaerobic capacity meant he could rip through 100s,200s and even 400 sets in amazing times but the drop off after 500m was very significant.  When we checked lactate at race paces it was way too high and was almost certainly hurting his bike and run.

We had to pull back from swim squad and more sure he was actually doing the bulk of his swim training more aerobically. This sounds like an easy fix but it’s not. Endless amounts of 6 to 7km swim sets at a relatively easy pace takes serious mental strength. Credit to Steve for sticking with it. The aerobic milage worked wonders and we saw a massive change in how efficient Steve could swim goal Ironman race pace which I think was reflected in his vastly improved bike and run output.

Pushing Steve to be more pro /selfish:

Steve is not your typical pro athlete who can implement the necessary selfishness to really excel without a lot of guilt. I encouraged Steve to get out of Adelaide for some key weeks so he couldn’t say yes to every social engagement and to helping the local crew that he coaches. It worked wonders with Steve getting through way more training with better recovery scores than we had ever seen.

We topped that up with a brief stint at altitude before heading to Busselton. I got quite a few messages from people saying it was dumb cos you need 4 weeks at altitude bla bla bla. For sure 3-4 weeks can be better than 10 days provided you’re absorbing the training load but in my strong opinion.. much of the research is mis-interpreted or doesn’t match reality having witnessed plenty of athletes win races after 10 days at altitude. In my mind it’s clear 3-4 weeks is where you see a plateau in the benefits not the point when you suddenly see the benefits. There is no magic time limit where suddenly altitude has worked. As soon your oxygen saturation levels are low enough the process behind your body producing more red cells is engaged. More can be better. Some is still good. There is a good argument that for Ironman athletes where volume across 3 sports is so integral to success but also means a lot less recovery time than single sport athletes enjoy, that too long at altitude can mean too many compromised sessions. All in all, I really like a 10 day protocol as the training stress is really winding back.

Ironman 70.3 Melbourne?

I really pushed Steve not to do Melbourne 70.3. Not because I didn’t want him to do it, I just didn’t want him to compromise his Ironman training by diluting what he needed to do for Busso with Melbourne entering his thoughts. Once we had seen that the Busso block was going incredibly well and I knew he still had time to register for Melbourne, I told him that I thought racing Melbourne was a good idea and he was of course fully on board. Racers wanna race. He won the event and thankfully I don’t think it was an emotionally draining race for him nor were his legs too beaten up so we avoided him needing much time off after the race. My two biggest concerns with the lead up race were averted, he got a great win and I don’ think it took away from his Ironman WA performance, in fact, likely contributed to it. That’s not to say I’m a massive fan of lead up races. It depends on a lot of factors and often they’re a big gamble that can go either way.

Cycling gains

Image- @koruptvision

Steve’s cycling continues to improve. There was an 10% overall improvement in power from 2021 to 2022. As much as it would have been hard, I was really pleased Steve stuck to the plan of letting Max go if he attacked early and focused on doing “what gives Steve the fastest race for Steve”. In the final 90 minutes of this years ride his power improvement over 2021 jumped to close to 18%.
Next steps for Steve is improving his skills on the bike so he can excel on technical course not just the flat grinding courses and aero testing. His watts per kg is right up there with what is needed to be in the top 5 at championships level Ironman events but that doesn’t cut the mustard like it use to. It’s watts vs CDA that really matters and if you’re not optimising every aspect of your position and equipment through testing like most of the top Euros and some Americans are doing, you are likely putting out a lot more watts than is needed to stay in the race. There is a lot of guess work at the moment with Steve’s equipment choices and while his position is now light years better than what it use to be I’m still confident we can find 10-15 watts of free speed with wind tunnel or velodrome test time.

Sliced Ironman Marathon PB

A massive 10 minute improvement in Steve’s Ironman marathon. For sure Steve’s run has gotten stronger  but I think the largest contributing factor to the improvement is how much more resilient Steve is on the bike. Steve is fortunate too in that he can tolerate fructose no problem at all meaning he’s able to take in far more carbs per hour with his glucose/fructose mix than those that can only tolerate glucose.

We haven’t solved the marathon riddle completely though.. Steve is still having to fight through the ‘glass in quads’ sensation in the final 1/4 of the marathon and if we can solve that I think we can get another 4-5 minutes of his run time in the coming year. We will implement some different strategies in his next Ironman prep including downhill repeats, progress the strength work and carefully insert some very high milage run weeks. It’s not secret that if the run milage is too high consistently it’s very difficult to improve cycling so it’s a delicate dance but very high volume run weeks inserted not too frequently can really bring up the ability for the run legs to make less susceptible to the micro tear pain.

To wrap it up

When asked about 5-6 years ago who I thought were going to be the next big things in non-drafting triathlons I instantly replied Steve and Max primarily because while they had relatively common high levels of talent it was matched with a very uncommon work ethic and love of suffering. It’s exciting to watch both these guys doing great things and obviously particularly satisfying to be a part of Steve’s development.

I don’t see Steve’s improvements slowing down. Mainly because finally Steve is on board with really pulling back on coaching, study and the many other things he does to just focusing for a few years on racing and his family to maximise his peak years. 

If Steve says no to your requests for his time, you can blame me but I can assure you that I know Steve well enough that it’s only temporary and he’ll be back to being a man of the people and giving back to others in anyway he can down the track.