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How to train for an Ironman

Kaustubh Radkar has participated in 28 Ironmans, the most by an Indian. He shares his secrets on how to train for this tough race

Ironmans are the toughest of all triathlons.
Ironmans are the toughest of all triathlons. (Istockphoto)

In March last year, Kaustubh Radkar finished his 25th Ironman in Taupo, New Zealand. He remembers his journey back home to Pune being an eerie experience. It was one of the last flights to arrive in India, before covid-19 brought the world to a standstill. In the next few weeks, it was clear that there weren’t going to be any competitions in the near future. 

As things started looking up this year, Radkar, 39, had the opportunity to travel to Switzerland on work, and realised that he could race at Ironman Hamburg at the end of August. Since he had some more time, he also decided to sign up for Ironman Tallinn and Ironman Frankfurt before Hamburg. 

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Kaustubh Radkar has been participating in Ironmans since 2008.
Kaustubh Radkar has been participating in Ironmans since 2008.

By the end of August, he had knocked off all three Ironmans in a span of 22 days, taking his tally of races to 28, the most by an Indian. 

A seasoned competitor since 2008, Radkar had long been toying with the idea of racing at three Ironmans in the same month. So there were no second thoughts when the opportunity arose. “I’ve done two Ironmans each year since 2014 and in 2017, I finished four. I’ve always enjoyed racing, but there was never a competition element to it. It’s all about how I can handle my body to get to the finish line on race day. Finishing three was the perfect test for my physical and mental fitness,” he says.  

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The lockdown disrupted his training and that of his wards, who he trains as founder and head coach of of RadStrong , a customised training program for aspiring runners and triathletes. On the personal front, he had enough gym equipment at home to maintain a routine through the pandemic lockdowns. But he soon realised that many people he knew were struggling mentally to cope with the pandemic. He started leading online strength sessions and cycling workouts on a stationary indoor trainer to keep up their fitness levels, which in turn helped add minutes to his own routine.

“I did a lot of back-to-back, low intensity training, at times for 4-5 hours each day. The idea was to build the mental strength to keep pushing,” he says, adding, “Strength training is another aspect that is of prime importance but is often overlooked by most endurance runners and Ironman athletes. I had a solid routine going for me at home.”

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Kaustubh Radkar cycling at an Ironman.
Kaustubh Radkar cycling at an Ironman.

Once the lockdown was eased last year, Radkar started road running, logging a weekly mileage of 45-55km. The cycling was pushed to 100-120km each week. Radkar was a national level swimmer in his younger days, so when the pool was accessible, he would swim thrice a week, focussing on drills and techniques instead of distance swims. At other times, he would practice land drills to maintain strength. 

“Swimming is my strength among the three disciplines. But the pools were closed for a long time, so the technique needed sharpening. I used therabands to work on strengthening specific muscles when I couldn’t swim,” he says.

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How to train for an Ironman.
How to train for an Ironman. (Istockphoto)

What aided Radkar in devising a training schedule was his degree in exercise science and the certifications related to running and triathlons that he’s picked up over the few years. At RadStrong, he has designed his own web-based application through which he plans workouts in a scientific manner for his trainees. This understanding of data and performance has also benefited his own racing.

“My prime philosophy is that less is often enough and I design my workouts accordingly,” he says. The experience of having competed in different situations has also made him realise the significance of mental strength in endurance races. “One’s focus and attitude can have an impact on the race. The physical aspects of Ironman training are immense and most athletes take care of them. What they ignore is the mental side of it,” he says.

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Radkar’s complemented his workouts with a balanced diet of around 2,800 calories of home-cooked food every day. The evening before the race, he’d checked on the bike, organise his gear and tuck into a hot meal packed with carbs and proteins, and sleep early.  “Since I was competing after so long, I had to deal with race jitters this time around. But it all felt normal once the gun went off and I started the swim,” he says.

Muscle memory played a huge role during the first race. Though he hadn’t biked a distance of over 120km close to race day, he experienced no cramping due to muscle fatigue. It was no different on the swim sections. 

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“I didn’t have the yardage needed for a strong swim. What was interesting was that my swim time on all three races was 52 minutes, despite the varying degrees of effort. And to do it without much training on the first one was a good boost for my confidence,” he says.

In between the races, Radkar pushed his food intake to 3,000 calories and focussed on rest. He could pull off two 3km runs on consecutive days before Ironman Frankfurt, and spent a lot of time stretching and eating hearty meals. It was a similar routine before Hamburg, long walks and stretches, and a short run a day before the race. Only this time around, there was also the comfort of wholesome Indian food at his friends’ homes. 

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It was a fitting end to his diligence over the last year when he clocked the fastest of the three times in Hamburg. “The plan is to enjoy Ganapati festival with good food, friends and family. Next week onwards, it’s back to training,” he says.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.

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