The sleepy Ironman syndrome

The sleepy Ironman syndrome is something I basically made up, but it’s a very real occurrence and for Ironman triathletes it’s very hard to understand what the heck is going on when this happens to them.

I’m not talking about being tired from exertion, rather I’m talking about you actually feeling like you want to close your eyes and fall asleep right in the middle of your Ironman.

The reason I’m bringing this is up is because I received a very interesting email from a triathlete from Ireland.

He was entered in Ironman Lanzarote and was disappointed because he was two hours slower than he expected to be. It was his second Ironman as he had done one in the UK.

Here are a few quotes from his email.

I finished the swim in 1.22 ,but I just couldnt get going on the bike i felt flat with no power and felt my eyes wanting to close.

I finished in 14.27 which was close on 2 hrs slower than expected as training went very well (i thought) I live in south west Ireland and all my biking was done in wind and hills which is perfect for the conditions in Spain.

So here you have a triathlete who has trained very hard for his big day and yet as far as he was concerned, the race was a failure.

His first Ironman time was 13:40 and it looks like he expected to be in the 12 hour range in Lanzarote.

It makes sense that you learn a lot from your first Ironman journey and expect to improve the second time around yet his Lanzarote finish time was 14:27 and actually slower than his first attempt and this can be pretty devastating after training hard for an entire season.

It really caught my attention when he said he felt his eyes wanting to close because that’s exactly what happened to me one year in Ironman Canada and it was all very strange.

My swim time was about the same as his. I plowed my way through the water and finished the swim around 1:20.

Then I ran to get my wetsuit stripped and ran to my bike and pedaled as hard as I could for about 60k……and then just about fell asleep on my bike. No kidding, I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open. I felt like just stopping and sleeping in the grass beside the bike course.

I trained for that race religiously for ten months and then I almost fell asleep right in the middle of it when the adrenaline should be flowing at fever pitch. I just didn’t understand. It only happened that one time over the 14 Ironman races I entered.

I hit the wall many times in marathons and the Ironman before I figured things out, but only once did I actually almost fall asleep on the bike.

THE WALL

My body was signalling that I was in big trouble and was about to hit the wall with a force of historic proportions.

Of course I did hit that wall and 120k of the bike course plus the entire marathon was a death march. It was not what I had committed all that training for. This is not the result I expected.

However that was years ago and I have researched this for quite some time and a few things I found out seem to make a lot of sense and pretty much explained what happened to me and the triathlete from Ireland.

THREE MAIN REASONS FOR HITTING THE WALL

(1) A triathlete trains far to hard in the final month before the race and goes into the race tired.

(2) A triathlete goes out way to fast in the early stages of the race and his heart-rate spikes and energy that is unrecoverable is being lost by the bucketful before he even gets out of the water. Then without hesitation he sprints to his bike and powers his way through the opening stages of the 180k bike until his body can no longer function on the cardiovascular red-line he has it on and finally says enough is enough.

You are toast!

(3) A triathlete does not replenish his glycogen stores soon enough on the bike course. It’s too little too late and perhaps the wrong nutrition choice to start with.

HOW TO AVOID HITTING THE WALL

(1) Pretty much without fail there will be many triathletes going into their Ironman over-trained and not properly rested.

A taper into an Ironman should be long and gradual and one month seems about right. Cut back your training more each of those last four weeks and let your body replenish itself for the big day.

the sleepy ironman syndrome-rest before the race

This is what you should be doing for most of that last week before your Ironman.


There is very little to be gained from a 20-mile run or 100-mile bike with your race just weeks away. Big distances require recovery time no matter how fit you are. You will not increase your endurance any more than the level it’s already at by training long in the last weeks before an Ironman.

Every year you will see triathletes at every Ironman venue heading out for a long ride or run in the hot sun just days before the race. As fit as they are, that’s a big effort and your body has to recover from it no matter how slow you bike or run. Chances are, it will not have time to recover in time for the race. Do something easy(or nothing at all) in the cool of the morning during that last week before the race and then lay in the shade and rest all day. Your body will thank you for it and you will have a better Ironman result.

(2) It may take a lot of effort to rein yourself in when the gun sounds to start your Ironman, but it’s crucial to your success to stay calm and relaxed with a nice easy, level heart-rate. Swimming as fast as you can and then running to get your wet-suit off and then pounding as hard as you can on the bike it the main reason for becoming part of The Ironman Death March.

I posted an article on The Ironman Triathlon Negative-Split Strategy that might give you more insight into what I’m talking about.

(3) You can eat all the carbohydrates you want the week before the race, but there is a limit to how much glycogen will be made available no matter how many plates of pasta you eat. The key is to restore them and keep those glycogen levels topped up in the early stages of the race.

If you swim hard and bike hard and then drink your favorite replacement drink and put back six gels and think you are properly fueled you are probable going to run into problems.

Gels are assimilated into your blood stream very quickly and are a great source of energy……for a short time. They are basically a simple carbohydrate.

I had my best ever Ironman result when I ate two whole-wheat bagels with peanut butter and honey within the first 30k of the bike. I believe it’s because that particular complex carbohydrate was a great choice because it replenishes your glycogen stores for a longer period of time and I didn’t hit the wall.

At the same time, I was more sensible about the swim and early stages of the bike and took it easy. I did absolutely everything wrong the day I almost fell asleep during the Ironman.

It may sound odd, but sometimes going slower is the key to having a faster and more enjoyable Ironman experience.

All the above mistakes tie into losing energy and hitting the wall or like what happened to me and the Irish triathlete, simply wanting to close your eyes and fall asleep with a ton of racing left to do.

This appears to be the chemical reaction that caused the sleepiness………………

Excessive fatigue seems to increase the levels of Tryptophan that results in the creation of more serotonin in the system.

It’s the serotonin that appears to lead to lethargy and sleepiness.

Keeping up your levels of glycogen by eating carbohydrates during something as physically demanding and intense as an Ironman can stop this from happening. The carbohydrates will stall the influx of Serotonin and will reduce fatigue and also help you perform better and get the Ironman result you deserve.

This is from Doctor Davis…I have no idea who he is but found him in my research and this made sense and give credit where credit is due.

Elevated levels of serotonin have been implicated in feelings of tiredness, sleepiness, and lethargy.

The best strategy for delaying both muscle and CNS fatigue, Davis says, is tried and true: eating carbohydrates. “It’s well known that carbohydrate feeding blunts the increase in free fatty acids,” he says, which of course ends up blunting the increase in serotonin, “so carbohydrates cannot only delay glycogen depletion, but they also delay central fatigue.” In addition, brain function in general is highly dependent upon blood glucose, as anyone who tries to calculate mile splits at mile 23 probably knows.

A BIT ABOUT COFFEE AND FATIGUE

I love coffee so can’t help making a comment about it.

I have run across some high level triathletes(around 9:00-10:00 Ironman times) who swear by the coffee they drink race morning.

They swear that it increases their endurance and energy level on Ironman day.

The sleepy ironman syndrome

Might be worth a try.


If you do some research on it you will find that there are many indications that caffeine plays an important role in reducing fatigue because it increases the amount of dopamine in the brain.

Just a thought…….but I wonder if anyone has ever taken coffee along on their Ironman 180k bike?

I don’t think it matters if it’s hot, warm, or cold, you would think a jolt of caffeine at intervals on the Ironman bike course might be worth trying.

I hope somebody that is reading this give it a try on a long training ride just to see what happens. If you do, please let me know with the IronStruck comment option and I will include your thoughts at the bottom of this article.

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About Ray

Ray hasn’t stopped since his first Ironman in Kona, 1984. He has since run 14 more Ironman races, authored 5 Triathlon books, and is now bringing together a passionate community of triathletes. Contact Ray at ray@ironstruck.com

5 thoughts on “The sleepy Ironman syndrome

  1. Loved your article on sleepiness.

    I’ve done five fulls and I can tell you on each one I had an insulated water bottle full of coffee – with cream and sugar! And I usually plan my long training rides AND runs so I pass by a Starbucks. I even did one ultra where my wife handed me a vanilla latte at about mile 30.

    I’ve never stopped to think too much about it, but it’s a big part of my training and recovery. I’m not sure if it’s the caffeine or the sugar or just my routine of an afternoon cup of coffee, but it really does help. I’d encourage others to try it.

    • Thanks for your comment Sabrina. I think this happens to a lot of people but they just don’t know what it is. They might think they just didn’t get enough sleep the night before and it really has nothing to do with it.

  2. I had a friend send me this article because at my last race I had the same issue but I thought it was due to a painkiller that I took. But that being said my past three iron man distance races I get extremely nauseous. I’m wondering if you can give me some insight on why this is happening I feel like I am eating more than I should and I shouldn’t be getting nauseous because of a hunger need. Have you ever heard about this before? I just need to know what to eat maybe I’m eating something wrong that is causing the nausea.

    • Hi Tara………Thank you for your question. The first think I’m wondering about is are the foods you are choosing to eat on race day the same foods you train with? It you eat food in training that does not make you nauseous, then there is no reason why it should make you feel sick on race day. Often the feeling of nausea can be psychosomatic. If you think about it enough, it will actually happen. I went through that early in my career. After getting sick in one Ironman swim from the waves etc. I dreaded that it would happen the next time. Of course it happened the next four races before I figured out that I was doing it to myself. I used an old Hawaii trick that I leaned in Kona. I took ginger powder capsules before the race and they settled my stomach right down and I never had the problem again.

      I also wonder what point in the race you are getting sick? In the swim, bike, or run? That’s an important piece of information. There is a possibility that you are taking on food to soon after the swim. I found that it was better to wait about 20 minutes until I was settled into a nice comfortable rhythm on the bike before I took on food. It takes a while for you body to adjust from being horizontal for 2.4 miles. Eating too soon can cause stomach issues.

      Also, do most of your eating in the first half of the bike. If you eat to late on the bike course you aren’t giving the food enough time to be assimilated into your system and it will do you little good in the run if you are eating in the last quarter of the bike course. More often then not this can cause stomach issues in the run. Also, I would tend to eat very little on the run course. Taking on fluids at regular intervals should be your main concern. If you took on the right mix of complex carbohydrates and fluids on the bike course at the proper time, you should require little food on the run. For example, if you have ever run just a marathon how much do you really eat? I’ve run over 30 marathons and never ate a thing in any of them……

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