Barry Phillips Meets... The Iron Men of "Norn Iron" and Talks Motivation, Self-Discipline & Optimum Performance

Posted in : Podcasts on 12 November 2018 Issues covered:

Barry Phillips Meets podcast - Iron Men episodeIn this special episode, Barry Phillips sets out to see if what he remembers about his own Ironman journey sits with what other ironmen learnt about themselves when training for and completing extreme endurance events.

Barry asks them about how they maintain their levels of motivation, how they get the best out of every training session and what they do to reward themselves for consistently high levels of input and output.

Barry concludes by sharing what he learnt from his Ironman training including the development of his own “six pack”. Six things he would do every day before he went to work to set himself up for optimum productivity.


Hello and welcome to Barry Phillips Meets. My name is Barry Phillips and this episode is a bit different.

I'm fifty-three, five years ago when I caught sight of my impending 50th birthday, I decided to mark my half-century on planet Earth in a different way. I thought about treating myself to a luxury holiday, buying a fancy car or even my first ever made to measure suit but none of that was really me. I thought that if I could do something at 50 that I couldn't have done when I was at a previous milestone age of say 30 or 40. That it would help me to feel that I was if not arresting the aging process the n certainly slowing it down. It also makes me feel it was still possible to improve with age rather than just deteriorate.

I decided to do an Ironman race. When I told my wife about my plans and explained that an Ironman was a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 226-miles run all within maximum cutoff times. Her advice was clear “don't do it,” she said, “you'll kill yourself.”

The following day, when I returned home from work my mama who was staying with us at the time marched me into the guest bedroom, sat me down on the bed like a scolded schoolboy and said firmly “don't do it, you'll kill yourself. A man of your age ought to know better.”

The only one in my family not just pin such darkened advice was my daughter but this was on the account of her age. For at the time she was just one year old and has still to delight us with her first words.

Later, as I neared the race happy turned out to be “don't do it, Papa, you'll kill yourself.” I guess I might have pulled the plug on the whole idea but I didn't. And I completed my first and to-date only Ironman in Vichy France just two months after my 50th birthday. In 35-degree heat, taking 15 hours 30 minutes to do it.

What I learned about myself in the two years it took me to train for the race and get myself over the finish line surprised me, but it also developed me to and in ways I could never have imagined.

Today some three years on, I feel I'm not only much fitter but much better as a person for attempting such a mad feat of endurance. It improved my motivation, my self-discipline and both the quality and quantity of the output at work or at least that's how I remember it.

But memories are unreliable, they play tricks on you. For some reason, we tend to do them with rose-tinted spectacles. And we all know that as we recount events to friends and family each time we get a little lost in terms of what really happened and what truly were our overriding experiences.

So recently, I set myself in task of finding other Iron-men in Northern Ireland to ask them about what they experienced when they train and complete a race. I was curious to know whether their conclusions matched or contradicted my own. What follows are four interviews with Iron-men and women followed by my own learning from doing an Ironman race myself.

At first is Ironman Alan McElhenney, an employee at WG Baird in Antrim and a veteran of six Ironman races and 20 triathlons. With each of them, I begin by asking them about the training that they would do in any one week as they approach an Ironman race.

Alan McElhenney: So in any particular day, I'm doing anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours and on the weekend then it's the long runs of 3 hour runs on sector 7 or on bikes. So it could be up to 17 to 19 hours of training in a working week.

Barry Phillips: and in a week like that, how far in total would you have cycled, would you have run, and would you have swim?

Alan McElhenney: The cycle almost 200 miles.

Barry Phillips: Yeah,

Alan McElhenney: The run in a routine of 40 and 55 miles.

Barry Phillips: Yeah,

Alan McElhenney: The swim right 8k, 8 to 9k swimming.

Barry Phillips: Okay, and do you have a struggle to do any of that, I mean do you have any problems with procrastinating and..?

Alan McElhenney: Nothing, not at the fine, at the fine point of the training and then last five, six weeks when you knew you have to do it, you have to get out of bed. The decision is made, during the wonder whether you are going to be able to do it at that time or not. It is the wonder would struggle more. Will you go? And 25 weeks out I can afford to miss a day, I don't need to get up in the morning. But when you're six to eight weeks out from the race, every day you have to train. I’m just mentally ready for that no matter what I feel like, I get up and do it.

Barry Phillips: So it's almost like you don't have a choice, there's no decision there. It's just you wake up, you get out of bed and you do it.

Alan McElhenney: Yeah, of course, and the fears that if you're not out of bed and you're not doing that hour that you're dedicating yourself, you will feel it on the race.

After meeting Allen, I felt I have met someone who is extremely self-disciplined. Keeping to a rigorous training regime appeared easy to him. But I was curious to find out from other Iron-men whether they found it just as easy or whether they had to work on their discipline in the same way that you have to work on your fitness, your health, and your diet etc.

Here's Ironman Connor Devine and what he had to say about discipline. First a note about his training regime.

Connor Devine: So a typical week sort of three-months to six-month training block where I would be training most lunchtimes for 45 minutes doing swimming or cycling or running. And then, I would do the longer stuff start at night maybe two hours run on Saturday, two-hour bike and that end up to maybe 4 or 5 hours on Saturday, five hours on Sunday over the six months. So for me personally, one of the problems like if you want something done ask a busy man. I’m a single parent of two young kids as you know. I've got this business which is roaring and I’ve  got a real chance of doing something special and then I'm training for Ironman, so how do you do it so? You do it because you have to be incredibly disciplined and incredibly organized.

So discipline requires some work to make sure you turn up but how do you show up and get the best out of yourself each time and every time? Isn't it tempting to think that you've done well just to get into a pool of water at 6 a.m. in the morning and everything else is a bonus? That's the question I put to William O'kane from Limavady, formerly a senior employee in Salter and now in business on his own. He is a veteran of six Ironman races, countless triathlons of adventure races.

William O'kane: I guess I had been fairly avid reader and fairly avid researcher and always interested in sports science. And there’s this one phrase that I heard about years ago and I really do believe in it and you know they talk about Junkman’s (8:24) You know that if you just whether it's on the bike, if you just get on the bike and you sit there 15 miles in an hour or if you, if you're doing a run and you don't think about it and there's no structure to your training and similarly with the swimming you might as well not be doing it. So as I said three core sessions are the long steady sessions that you want to get in once per week but those other sessions you have to make them current. So doing more of the, of doing a shorter transition ……(8:55)….. and approach not the same way as your long transition, it really won't do you much good. And and for me, that's where it always became easy and that I've done the hard job of getting up. I'm standing at the side of the pool to make out the decision of lengths and just don't as you say go in and do 30 or 60 mindless lengths because you'll not benefit.

Barry Phillips: But what about reward? What part is this play in helping you achieve or at least aim for optimum performance once you're out there training? Here’s William O'kane again.

William O'kane: The biggest challenge is the weekend and that's really where you do, you do deal with yourself.

Barry Phillips: Yeah

William O'kane: So as you say, if you do, if you planning a good transition, you know,   quiet have a nice lunch, have a glass of wine this evening. So absolutely, you know, it does need some degree of self-motivation and some degree of self-reward.

But what about Ironman in the labor market? What type of employees does it make? Would you employ one? Many might think that this crazy amount of exercise each week could only lead an Ironman at work who are tired and not really focus. I put this to Laura Wiley. Laura competes the island as a triathlete although recently she entered her first half Ironman and won it. Impressive but then so is her training schedule. Swimming at least 200 lengths in the pool each day, that's 5 kilometers by the way. And running and cycling crazy distances every week including finishing with a 15 mile run on Sundays. Here's what she had to say:

Laura Wiley: I think it’s all by positive and definitely with. I personally think that if I didn't swim in the morning I would be almost more tired because you're just getting out of bed and you're like “oh, I have to go to work.” But I think where, but whenever I'm swimming I'm like “okay right, I've got work after this. Get out of the pool, go to work” and this is just what you do. And I personally find that if I miss swimming or anything like that, that I would feel more sluggish. Whereas I think it actually energizes me for the day.

This is a view undoubtedly shared by Ironman Conor Devine. Conor took up endurance racing as a way of fighting his MS. He's now done two Ironman races and has his eye on a third next year in Cork. Here is what he had to say about the impact of intensive training on you would work on your life generally.

Conor Devine: If you're going to be training for an Ironman or a marathon, your lifestyle and your nutrition is going to improve. You're going to be training every day so you're getting physically fitter and stronger, you getting mentally fitter and stronger. One of the huge differences that I noticed whenever I switched to a plant-based diet and start to train every day was the absolute mental clarity. I'm speaking to you today with absolute mental clarity. I feel really sharp and I think once you commit, if you commit to an Ironman and you don't go all-in, you're maybe not eating well and you're not sleeping well. One of the last books I’ve read by Matthew “Walker Why We Sleep” made a huge impact on me. The value you can add to your life by sleeping and how important sleepiness, what happens when we sleep? And that has brought a new dimension to me personally because I am always trying to figure out how I can get my body back. So to answer your question, I mean your productivity increases tenfold your form, you're better to be on your own. You know you're not tired or you know and if you can, if you can pull all the stuff together I mean I'm not, I’m by no means the family's …(12:30)… but I am, I feel as if I'm getting in there I've just got to work out the central nervous system problem but I'm not having a lot more great days but ignoring my MS. The benefits of committing to an Ironman program and sticking with the Ironman program are tenfold.

Back to William O'kane and here's what he had to say about the impact of extreme exercise on his own work performance.

William O'kane: I have actually to say that since I took up fitness and particularly with the endurance that enhanced my work performance. If you consider that you physically at a weekend you’re capable of doing a three to four run hour on Saturday followed by six to seven on the bike on Sunday. If you're only doing a ……(13:17)…… training on a Monday or Tuesday you have the stamina for a whole lot more. So I get my energy levels, in general, were increased. I was much more alert physically and mentally as well. So you know I would, I would advocate that exercise, even endurance exercise improves your ability to contribute at work.

During my research for this podcast, I met a triathlete who said he had suffered from depression for the past five years. He told me deciding to run his way out of it by hitting the road and putting a mile after mile of training for a triathlon. He saw it as a way out because he noticed every time he trained for an event his mood lifted considerably when he stopped he was susceptible to depression. He didn't want to be interviewed so I asked Laura Wiley whether his story was something she could identify with or at least understand.

Laura Wiley: Definitely, there's something about exercise, it does lift your mood. And if there's something you can't do then it's more difficult because you do, you do come ……(14:25)… only it’s a good thing about triathlon it's just three sports. So if you hurt your leg you could still swim, if you hurt your arm you can still run and things like that. And you always have to look at what you can do not what you can't and that would be the biggest thing that I would always say, always focus on what you can because there's no such thing as cannot.

What Laura says sets well with what really William O'kane said on the same subject?

William O'kane: 2013 I did a race and I did fell, I was self-inflicted. I fell off the bike and broke my collarbone. So after the race, I was thankful I didn't know what at the time. So I was able to finish the race probably wasn't the most sensible thing I've ever done. But after the race I was in England, I got back home, went for an x-ray. I was diagnosed …(15.10)…. and I wasn't able to train for eight weeks and my wife said jokingly that, maybe half-jokingly that’s, that's the worst that I've been in the last ten years in terms, a ….(15:25) with me. She just said that I was grumpy because I wasn't getting the training and I was starting to eat junkier foods, I didn't have the same structure around. So, you know I say, I found that the training and the physical activity gives me great mental well-being.

Talking to these Iron-men I discovered that what they continue to experience is what I learned while training for my Ironman race. That is the copious amounts of exercise actually improves your daily performance at work or at home rather than reduces it through fatigue. It makes you mentally sharper, it lifts and maintains your mood, overall, it makes you more productive.

I have thought that joined the peak of my training schedule would be exhausting at work and I'd have to try hard to hide it until an extent …(16.20)….it with my colleagues. Instead, I was arriving to work so pumped up, it was everything I could do not to burst in through the door every morning like some saintly version of The Incredible Hulk. Pumping myself up and everyone else too, imploring them to get on, get on with the day and get the most out of every minute. I thought that working shorter day that is always in not before 8 a.m. and never out later than 4:30 would affect my levels of output but it didn't. In fact, I think they may have increased. There’s something very powerful about setting down your non-negotiable leaving time when you first going to work. I found myself being far more careful with the planning of my work. Delegating stuff that I shouldn't have been doing in the first place and quite frankly, been really ruthless with my time. I arrange my work, put similar tasks together, stop using my email inbox like it was a to-do list and did my best not to check my emails more than three times a day. I was determined to get out by 4:30 and I wasn't planning on doing any overtime.

But I learned other things too that I think are worthy of sharing now. I learned how to source good organic food and the savings you can make in other areas to be able to afford to do it. In a quite personal level, I discovered I was flat-footed. Early in my training, my hamstrings were tightening with every run I was doing and I figured something was badly wrong. But physically consultant couldn't tell me for how long I have been flat-footed maybe a few months, maybe a few years he said. But it was   with a simple pair of insoles and walking and running has felt so beautiful ever since.

I soon discovered that all three disciplines required a huge amount of mental application, especially, the running which in the early days I struggled with hugely. A friend of mine, a fellow Ironman said that if I couldn't get under 60 minutes for a 6 or 7-mile run I'd really struggle on the day of the race. My time was more often 80 minutes, occasionally 75, rarely under 70, and never under 60. Until one day I decided to run the course in my head in a very different way. I did three things; first, I broke the course down into four manageable segments and focused on the first part only then the second and third and so on.

The second thing I did was to make sure that each part would have a significant item of nature that I imagined would re-energize me when I ran past it. A bit like Pac-Man in the old days would gain energy when he got a cherry or a piece of fruit that appeared quickly then disappeared. My cherry was a big oak tree in segment 1, and river in segment 2, a gate to a farmer's field in 3 and a beautiful yard of trees in segments 4.

The third thing I did was to divide my body in my head into three paths; feet and legs, arms and head and shoulders. In doing so I found I was no longer alone runner but actually had a team with me. Each part had the main responsibility to cover a particular segment.

For the fourth segment, they all came together as a team as I tried to let the guns go and give the last part of the run everything that I had.

For the first time, I tried this mental technique I shaved a full 10 minutes of my best time. Getting under the hour for the first time and giving me real hope. By the way, 10 minutes of a 70 minute time is like shaving 2 seconds off the time of a hundred meter sprint. Another thing I spent a lot of time working on, is with me still today and I think it's the most valuable thing that I took from my Ironman episode, I call it the six-pack or taking a six-pack to work. And it's probably different to what you're thinking it is. Then and now I experimented with the idea of doing sex useful things before getting into work each day. I found that in doing so I was sitting down at work already thinking my day had been productive but would be really great if I could get the most out of the working hours immediately, ahead of me. The six things were these;

1-    I get up and meditate for 10 minutes.

2-    I’d run or swim for 40 minutes.

3-    I do an hour of study, most usually a foreign language.

4-    I’d eat a really good breakfast; porridge, almond milk with flaxseed, spirulina, and cranberries

5-    I take with me to work a really good lunch which usually organic vegetable soup frozen from a batch I've made it on Sunday.

6-    And finally, cycling to work and listen to a podcast, Desert Island Discs for Roquemore or Tim Ferriss.

I managed to do this by allowing them to fall into a pattern. I practice what I called no decisions before 8 a.m. the time I was usually sat at my desk ready to start work. I'd wake up at 5:30 and immediately get up and follow the exact same process as the daily before; same breakfast, same meditation, same study hour. What I found was that I had removed my cues to procrastinate. Instead of waking up and thinking about my options to lie there for another 10 minutes, another 15 etc. I just got straight up and on with the first of the six-pack. The same breakfast and lunch routine proved really useful. Knowing that at least two of your three daily meals are going to be really healthy is very motivating.

Before I finish, I'd like to share with you two quotes that came across most on my Ironman journey. The first I actually saw on the day of the race, it was on a billboard. It was a quote from one of the founders of the Ironman competition and it read as follows “You could quit an Ironman race at any stage and no one will care a damn but you will know for the rest of your life.”

Finally, here's a quote from Mark Twite not Twain but Twite. And it catches to me perfectly “The spirit of Ironman determination and motivation goes as follows.”

Eventually, I second (23:43)of people, myself included who don't think enough of themselves to make something of themselves. People who did only what they had to do and never what they could have done. I learned from them the infected loneliness that comes at the end of every misspent day. I knew I could do better.

Finally, I just like to conclude by saying this, this podcast now has regular listeners all over the world from Argentina to Finland, Russia to the USA. Can I say a quick hello and shout out to my two regular listeners in Malawi as well. Hello to you

Please email me or contact me via any social media platform where you can find me if you would like to comment on anything that you've heard today I'd love to hear from you. My email address is Thank you.


This article is correct at 12/11/2018

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