I've always been in awe of people who can push themselves to extreme limits. The climbers who tackle Everest, while completely out of their minds, fascinate me. The first marathon I watched in person, left me in complete awe. In high school, I remember needing at times to work my tail off to make up for my lack of athletic ability as I was not gifted with great speed or jumping ability, but I knew I could outwork people. Perhaps that is why Crossfit is so appealing to me. Each and every workout every time I go to the gym pushes me to my limits for the day.
And so when I heard that a couple of they guys from Crossfit Carmel were running their first Ironman triathlon, I wanted to learn what I could from them. I'm pretty sure I'll never tackle an Ironman, but I'm very certain I can learn from those who have. For that reason, I asked Nick Smarrelli, now an official Ironman himself, to share his experiences here. Specifically, I was interested in how he and Dave trained because it was fairly unorthodox to say the least. I also asked him to touch upon his dietary and mental approach to this mind-bending and grueling experience. It's my hope that no matter where you are with your fitness that you will be able to take lessons from Nick and Dave and apply to your fitness journey. Enjoy!
Recently, after a grueling 12 hour day, I had the opportunity to complete my first Ironman distance triathlon race with my good friend Dave Juntgen. The event has been deemed one of the most challenging endurance races in the world. It certainly goes against the old mantra: everything in moderation – challenging the athlete to complete a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run in a single day.
I should also note that I keep the rest of my life in that state beyond “moderation”. I am a part-owner of an IT firm based in St. Louis (which requires me to be commuting 50% of the time and work 7-days a week), I am a part-time trainer at CrossFit Carmel, I am married (and very much was still interested in being married after the Ironman) and am lucky to have a fairly active social life both here in Indy, but also across the country. That said, with my life on permanent overdrive, adding the element of fitness and Ironman training meant compromise.
Stubbornly, I refused and headed down a training path known as CrossFit Endurance. As an active CrossFitter prior to this Ironman, I had only had limited interaction with CrossFit Endurance (hereafter known as “CFE”). The basic premise said that an athlete can improve performance and endurance while eliminating the unnecessary volume of training generally associated with endurance training. The focus shifts to intensity and recovery integrated seamlessly with the Olympic lifts, powerlifting, gymnastics movements, and mobility of CrossFit. What does this mean in real terms?
An “Average” Triathlete’s Mileage for the Week:
Miles per week swimming: 7
Miles per week biking: 225
Miles per week running: 48
Dave and Nick’s Plan:Miles per week swimming: 2
Miles per week biking: 80
Miles per week running: 6
Keep in mind – I had days where I craved a casual long-distance jog instead of putting my recently eaten lunch at risk with grueling 400 meter repeats. However, the ultimate output meant that I was training 15 hours/week versus 30+ hours a week as prescribed by the “norm”. Dave and I spent the first few months diligently following the programming and found ourselves on Google nightly trying to find any anecdotes that helped validate this unique way of training. The scientific data was easy to find, the anecdotes were not. However, we persevered as a result of input from our two good friends who have been certified in this type of endurance training, but also because we had created a sustainable training schedule that also allowed us to live our lives outside of fitness. We challenged ourselves to push ourselves hard in our workouts, but to always prioritize recovery as the key to our real improvement.
In the course of the 8-9 months of training, we followed, about 90% of the time, the CFE and CrossFit lifestyle. Dave and I both explored nutritional options – and naively demanded our bodies to give us immediate feedback on whether the changes in our diet were making us better athletes. We attempted to eliminate gluten and 24 hours after isolating this element from our diet, started carefully at our watches wondering if we’d noticed an increase in performance. The funny thing about nutrition, and training in and of itself, is that daily incremental gains aren’t easy to notice, it does take some time. I did end up going gluten free for over 60 days and found marginal differences in performance. As a result, I did go back to eating it, but always in moderate amounts. Dave and I challenged ourselves nutritionally to find what worked best for our bodies – and found that it was different for us both.
As a tall skinny guy, I required more fat and protein than Dave – just to maintain my energy level and performance. However, what was constant was the criticality for immediate nutrition post-training, and consistent nutrition during the day. Fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, the right carbs, and a healthy dose of protein remained constant – we just tinkered with the doses (give or take a few glasses of wine and a beer too, of course).
Lastly – why? Because I can. Idleness is unacceptable when I have been given so much. A body that functions, a mind that is reasonably sharp, and the support of a great family and friend network. But – whatever effort I’ve put into training, it’s given back exponentially - I was rewarded daily with overcoming the challenge of a tough workout – to watch my body improve over the course of time – to be able to get away from a day’s work stress and be focused on a goal just 200m ahead of you. It allowed me to gain discipline, focus, and time-management mastery. And now I have a fun story to tell.
My experience with the Ironman and CrossFit have taught me efficiency. If you eat the right foods – packed with nutrients, you don’t have to eat as much to reap all the rewards. If you exercise right (for me, that’s CrossFit), you can actually spend less time at the gym, and still be healthier. Done correctly, being healthy doesn’t require a radical compromise of the days priorities – just a little change in the execution.