Check out your left calf. See an M-Dot? Nope? Then check out your right calf See one there? Nope? Well… Then chances are that either you’re a stealth Ironman finisher (and we know they exist), or it’s still up there on your triathlon bucket list of things to achieve.
How to train for your first Ironman
How to race your first Ironman
There’s a lot of talk and mythology attached to going long, though. You’d be forgiven for thinking that unless you train 30 hours a week, can afford the blingiest of TT bikes and have multiple marathon finishes already under your belt that you’re just not ready yet – and don’t get us started on the ‘I’m too fat/old/don’t look good in Lycra’ nonsense many of us beat ourselves up with.
Given a good base of previous training, a decent dose of dedication, a good support network of family and friends and a pinch of good humour you’re more than capable of getting across that finish line. Ironman made easy? We’d never say easy… But possible? Hell to the yes!
1. QUIT WORRYING ABOUT HOW YOU LOOK
Think all Ironman athletes look like Arnie in a tri-suit? That you have to work on getting lean and/or ripped before you even start your training? This simply isn’t true. Just go along to any Ironman race and you’ll see athletes of all shapes and sizes, young and old, novice and experienced, all making it to the finish line. What’s more, when you’ve been though 226km of endurance racing and have grunted, sweated and toiled to that finish line covered in salt, mud and bits of spilt energy gels, you won’t give a monkey’s whether you’ve got a bit of a spare tyre in the photos. You’ll be an Ironman! ’Nuff said.
2. YOU DON’T NEED TO RUN A MARATHON
Yeah, okay, the marathon at the end of an Ironman looks like a big scary beast, we’ll give you that. But while it definitely helps to know what it feels like to train for and run a marathon, it’s not essential. Many Ironman athletes will have come into triathlon from a swim or bike background and won’t have built up the running miles or experience to cover the 26.2 miles/42.2km. Yet, if you have the capacity to complete the swim and bike, then you’ll have the ability to run the marathon, so you don’t need years of marathon running in your legs already. We’d advise you to complete a minimum of two runs in the region of 20-22 miles (32-35km) in training. This will get you to the finish.
3. YOUR ROAD BIKE WILL DO JUST FINE
On a budget? Worried about how to get used to racing on tri-bars? Or just happy on your trusty roadie? Stop stressing. Just like any other triathlon, a look through the transition area at an Ironman race will prove to you that there’s no rule about what kind of bike you need to have. Bikes will range from £500 to £10,000, some will have standard wheels and others will have disc wheels, some with integrated tri-bars and others with no tri-bars.
It’s true to say that certain styles of bike are better suited to certain courses, such as road bikes for super hilly courses and time-trial bikes for flatter less technical courses, but there’s no rule. As long as your bike is roadworthy, and you have an efficient and comfortable set-up, then it’ll get you through the 180km.
4. FOCUS YOUR SWIM TRAINING
Many triathletes tell us it’s the swim that’s the big worry. You can make it easier on yourself, though. Okay so you’ll be in open water, but the upside is that you get to wear a wetsuit, which, if you pick the right one, will help with buoyancy and technique. Plus, with the right preparation, you can be confident of success. Instead of doing endless pool lengths, aim to spend time training in the same water environment that your race is in.
For example, if it’s a sea swim you should get along to the coast and become familiar with how it feels to be in constantly moving water. Get used to the environment and get used to your wetsuit, then on race day, you’ll feel a lot more up for the challenge. Finally, pick a race that has a swim you feel comfortable with. If the sea isn’t for you (or you can’t get to the coast to train) then look for a lake swim, or vice versa.
5. FIND THE RIGHT NUTRITION
For most of us an Ironman will be a long old day. But just like any other long day, the good news is you get to eat stuff to help you through it. A common mistake many triathletes make, though, is to miscalculate exactly how many calories they’ll need to consume to keep moving effectively – and as a result end up chowing down on far too many energy bars and gels due to the fear of running out of energy. This can lead to an uncomfortable run with a lot of trips to the loo. The key here is to start experimenting early in training, so you can find brands of nutrition that suit you and then calculate what’s needed. Remember that a large portion of racing an Ironman can be done in a fat-burning zone, and we all have body fat to draw on that doesn’t need replacing. Get this right early on and your training (and race day) will go much more easily.
6. DITCH THE MEGA-HOURS TRAINING PLAN
Able to train for 20hrs per week or more? Then you’re most likely retired, unemployed, have a whopping big trust fund or are already a professional athlete… and that’s not many of us. Let’s be real here; there aren’t many triathletes that can physically or practically cope with 20hrs training per week. So set your targets realistically and everything will suddenly seem much less daunting. The majority of athletes that I coach average 12hrs training across a 30-week plan and they’ll peak at around 16-19hrs, which’ll only be for a couple of weeks. Without a period of time where you’ve built up to such a high volume of training, it’d be physically difficult to cope with near to 20hrs anyway. And also, your family might leave you.
7. FLAT COURSES AREN’T ALWAYS EASIER
Worried that your chosen raceisn’t pancake flat? Contrary to expectations, the fastest races in long-distance racing don’t have the flattest bike courses, with Ironman Austria boasting 1,680m of elevation gain and Challenge Roth nearing that number. So, while it’s true that a bike course with only a small amount of elevation is likely to help you get a faster bike split, it’s not without its own challenges. A flatter course means you’ll most likely be holding a more aerodynamic position on the bike for long periods of time, which can lead to lower back stiffness as you’re not moving around, so practise holding that position. Flatter bike courses may also experience open and windy conditions, which counteract any benefit of holding an ultra-low position. And, let’s be honest, a flat course can be quite dull….
8. USE A RUN/WALK STRATEGY
Many aspiring Ironman athletes have a vision of running every step of the marathon, keeping a good pace, then flying across the finish line like some kind of triathlete gazelle. Let’s get real. It’s a nice image, but forget it. This just won’t happen for 99.9% of first-time iron athletes. A successful Ironman run will include periods of strategic and planned walking, most likely through aid stations where you can get refuelled properly, and it also helps your heart rate drop and legs recover. Now we’re going to say this once but we want you to pay attention: this isn’t a sign of weakness. Not even a little bit. In fact, it’s a clever and useful strategy that may even see you complete the marathon faster. In training, practise different strategies to see what works for you (e.g. 14mins run/1min walk or 3km run/50m walk), and you’ll take a whole load of pressure off.
9. BE CLEVER WITH YOUR BUDGET
Again, unless you have that trust fund or pro sponsorship (we wish!) then you’re going to be on some kind of budget, and spending it wisely can make life a lot easier. There’s no getting away from the fact that the cost of taking part in an Ironman can be high in comparison to other triathlons. But there are cheaper iron-distance events (entry for the UK Ultimate Triathlon is £274, the Outlaw £299) that give you the opportunity to complete the distance and still face the challenge of 226km in a day. Racing in the UK will also keep travel costs down and mean you can train more easily in your chosen climate/terrain. And the cash you’ve saved? Use it on things that will make a difference. A regular sports massage, physio for niggles (if you get them), a comfier saddle for your bike… Little treats will add up to make your long-distance experience much more pleasant.
10. FIND STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
One of the things you do get for free for your cash at long-distance races is atmosphere and, put simply, this is free motivation come race day. See it as a gigantic, noisy, banner-waving kick up the backside when things get tough, and feed off it as much as you can. Despite the gruelling length of an iron-distance race, you’re rarely completely out there on your own. In the larger races with 2,000+ athletes, there’s always other athletes around you and, in fact, in many of the large events you can be surrounded by so many new compatriots that you need to be careful of drafting on the bike. In the smaller races of less than 500 athletes, the organisers will pay special attention to looking after you and making you feel special. The atmosphere created by spectators is amazing. Plus, get your friends and family involved in training to buoy you up. Join a club, get the kids to ride alongside you on their bikes while you run – anything that gives you that extra little boost, a smile (or some tough love) when you need it.
11. BE SMART WITH YOUR TRAINING PLAN
We’re gonna be honest here. If you’re used to training around 5 hours a week and racing sprints, then you might want to think about doing an Olympic distance or 70.3 before heading all the way up to Ironman. Even then, it goes without saying that there’s a necessary increase in the amount of training hours compared to a middle-distance event. If you’re doing 8-9hrs per week currently then you’ll be looking at increasing that to an average of 12 hours a week, with your biggest weeks at 16 to 19hrs, and trying to maintain this can potentially cause injury and fatigue. But don’t fear, as the longer bike and run sessions tend to come in around halfway through the iron training plan and it isn’t necessary to increase midweek sessions by doubling the duration. Also, look at where you kind find ‘bonus’ training. Can you cycle or run to work? Squeeze in a lunchtime strength and conditioning session? Do a swim set while you wait for the kids to finish one of their after-school activities? It all adds up – and there are plenty of training plans out there that are realistic for time-pressed triathletes.
12. DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOU
We’re full of good advice here at 220 Triathlon and we have some of the best coaches in the world writing for us. The things they’ll never tell you? Sometimes, just sometimes, doing the thing that you know works for you (but is often frowned upon!) can get you through. For example, all the way through training for an Ironman, it’s likely you’ll experiment with various foods and drinks. So when you find the perfect combination, stick with it. But if things aren’t going so well and you get to a point where you’re craving a specific food, then don’t deny yourself. The most classic example is drinking cola; it’s rarely used in training but on race day it can seem like the only thing to get you through. Or if you know you won’t motivate yourself to do that long wet and windy Sunday training session without a (small) glass of red and a Sunday roast waiting for you at home, then don’t stress about it. Enjoy the journey!
13. LEARN FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE
Putting off that Ironman because you think you’re a bit past it? Let us set you straight. At the 2017 Ironman World Championships in Kona, the 70-74 women’s and 75-79 men’s age-groups both had six finishers in them. Long-course racing is predominantly filled with athletes who have enjoyed the experience of racing faster in their youth, when they were able to be more explosive and powerful due to their physical capabilities. But they’ve learned through years of experience that it takes something different to race an Ironman. It takes a strong body that’s tuned to performing at just below threshold for many hours; it takes endless patience to train and then race for 15hrs+; and it takes learning from years of mistakes. And the benefit of being an emotionally-mature athlete cannot be underestimated. Age is just a number, not a barrier!
14. RELY ON MENTAL STRENGTH
Ironman’s a big commitment, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that this is something we choose to do… for fun. Yes, fun. Plus, remembering this can also make you faster! It’s always better to race with a smile on your face, and your friends and family and spectators will react better to you if you’re smiling. But sometimes you’ll need to be prepared for the fact that finishing an iron-distance race requires you to go through some dark moments, and smiling is the last thing you want to do. If your race takes between 12-17hrs, there’s a good chance you’ll need to draw on positive experiences from your training in order to get to the finish line. Many athletes will have positive words that they repeat to themselves, or even write on their body, and some will use imagery, or hum through a favourite song. Remember those dark moments don’t last forever and it will become easier. And then you can get that M-Dot tattoo…