Ken McWilliams – Takes 4 Hours Off His Ironman Time
I first met Ken McWilliams late in 2002. He had been training for triathlons for a year with a desire to participate in Ironman on a knee that had been surgically reconstructed. In his own words, Ken approached training by “running as fast and as far as I could each time I went out” and based all his training on pace and distance. “Everything was done at race pace.”
Consequently, he required frequent visits to his doctor as his knee kept swelling, and his doctor told him he would never do Ironman. Ken eventually signed on with me as his coach because he was frustrated and wanted to see if there was a different way to approach this sport. He had heard that I used a different method in training for Ironman based on time and effortlessness. He was interested because his traditional training was only bringing him more pain, and so he committed to following my counter intuitive guidance.
I told Ken, as I tell all my athletes, your first step in this sport is to chill out, leave your ego behind, strap on a heart rate monitor, and go out and train in your comfort zone. Ken like many others found this type of training “painfully slow!” He said that in the beginning it was hard for him to slow down, but he stuck with it. He started running in the 8 to 9min/km range and would joke that grandmothers routinely passed him on the pathways.
In fact, in my effortless program athletes perform a recovery week every third week as they build their volume. I affectionately call this the “stupidly slow week”! To determine Ken’s effortless training zone I used three basic methods fully explained in my book Effortless Exercise. We also tested his lactate threshold and using all this information we determined that Ken’s optimal training heart rate was about 145bpm and we set his upper limit to his effortless training zone at 150bpm with the advice to go over only if he felt great and only very occasionally.
In his first few years he started training comfortably, keeping his heart rate in the 140s and building his volume and his consistency week to week. After two years of training progressively he built his weekly volume from 5 to 10 hours a week and went on to complete his first Ironman later in 2004 in a time of 14:56. But what was more important to me as his coach was that his knee was feeling much better, so good, in fact, that he never talked about it. Exercising effortlessly had helped to make him healthier even through his Ironman training! This type of flow state training is health promoting; going easy has many wellness benefits beyond performance.
Ken’s basic annual plan was to build his training base by progressively increasing his time all the while keeping his heart rate in his zone. In the last 8 weeks before his yearly key race he devoted one workout a week in each sport to going faster - at a pace he called his “race pace.” Other than that, all of his workouts were performed aerobically in his specific effortless training zone.
In 2005 he completed his second Ironman in 13:15. In 2006 he decide to add some marathon training to the mix and qualified for Boston on his first attempt, going on to run Boston later that year. You see, his old 8 to 9min/km pace had improved so much that he was now able to run 5:30min/km at his aerobic heart rate of 145bpm, which left him excited to try his hand at a faster marathon.
By 2007 his goal was to qualify for Kona. So that year he trained by adding more time, building his weekly training to over 15 hours a week, with some weeks exceeding 20 hours, all while keeping it effortless in his aerobic zone and staying focused on his training base. The year 2007 brought an 11:42 finish - close but not there yet, so he gave it one more year.
In 2008, after 6 years of consistency, training almost exclusively aerobically, Ken completed his last Ironman in a time of 10:43, a full 4 hours and 13 minutes faster than his first race. He credits this entire improvement from consistent effortless training.
Ken laughs when we talk about weights: he tried them a couple of times and after being sore and injuring his wrist he pitched that idea! So what does Ken tell people when they ask him how he trains? “Your heart monitor is your speedometer, it will tell you when you can speed up and it holds you back when you are having a bad day. Follow it and it will help guide you to the finish line.”
He will also tell you to make sure to warm-up and cool-down fully. To this day he still walks for 20 minutes at the start and end of every single run. That’s dedication to the process, and his knee has recovered because of his adherence to this protocol. He also swears by the recovery weeks: “Your body needs recovery. These are the ‘stupidly painful’ slow weeks, but they are needed. If you are coming off the couch, start real easy, adjust your zone downwards, and enjoy the process. You’ll be amazed at what your body can do, and over time it will transform so much that you’ll be marveled at how you have changed.
” So there’s the training formula in a nutshell - be consistent, build up your weekly training time, and keep it in your comfort zone by using your heart monitor as a tool. Not only will your times get better year after year, but you’ll also get much healthier and that’s a process worth buying into!