How to prepare for an extreme triathlon

A conventional Ironman not enough for you? Then welcome to the fast-growing extreme triathlon scene, a world of leaping from ferries, scaling mountains and unforgettable memories. Sean McFarlane has all the advice you need to tackle Norseman, Celtman and co.

how to prepare for an extreme triathlon

Celtman, Norseman, Patagonman… the world of extreme long-distance triathlon is on the rise. The XTRI World Tour alone now counts Taiwan and Canada, Chile and Scandinavia amongst its globe-hopping destinations, with some 5,000 athletes vying for one of the 250 entry slots of its trail-blazing Norseman event.


So, if you have an Ironman finish in the bag already and are tempted to go extreme, how do you actually tackle a 3.8km swim in a bracing loch or fjord? Cycle 180km (or longer – the Celtman has a 202km bike route) on windswept roads where you’ll climb a minimum of 2,000m? And then face a marathon run leg on some of the most inhospitable terrain you’ll ever experience?

Thankfully, having conquered Celtman and extreme races from the Arctic Circle to Cyprus, Sean McFarlane is a man who knows how. From open-water acclimatising to working with a support crew, training for vertiginous bike legs and mountainous running, here he provides part one of his proven and race-winning advice on reaching that hallowed extreme triathlon finish line in 2021.

From topography to climate and elevation gain on the bike and run, extreme iron races can vary markedly – so pick yours carefully. Personally, I find it far easier to run off a TT bike than a road bike, so very hilly bike courses don’t always suit me. Also, temperatures vary a lot, as do the costs, so consider both.

Last year I raced in the Pyrenees – hot and pretty cheap – and Lofoten in the Arctic Circle – cool and pricey. Both were fantastic experiences, but very different both on and off the course. There are a growing number of races out there, with the established XTRI World Tour known for its epic and well-run events.

How do you start your extreme triathlon journey? All key race targets have to be ambitious – yet realistic – and finding that is a difficult balance. Many people structure holidays with family or friends around these races. In many ways that’s a natural thing to do, particularly given the locations involved and the need for support. But consider your team wisely – see more on support teams below – and, if it’s on a family holiday, try to plan for the race to be at the start rather than the end. No-one likes a mum, dad or partner in full taper mode

You’ll need a support crew for the vast majority of extreme triathlon races, with XTRI events requiring a separate car and support driver for each event. Different races require different levels of support from your chosen crew, but most will require an understandable degree of competence that’s beyond that of someone with no prior experience of long-distance triathlon.

It’s common for the swim legs in extreme triathlons to have colder water than most other races. Temperatures are often under 15°C (Norseman can be around 12°C) and can even be close to single figures. It’s do-able, but you really should try to swim in similar temperatures in your preparation.

Get in the race course’s water at least the day before the race for some acclimatisation. Extreme races also like to have point-to-point swims, so prepare mentally for that and try to arrange some such swims in your build-up.

Several wetsuit companies have thermal options and there’s a range of extras you can wear. Practise in these beforehand, but not too much as you still want to feel the benefit of them come race day.

I once did a survey at Celtman of how people best cope with cold water and 80% said drink plenty of water beforehand and pee as much as possible. Don’t shoot the messenger! Also, avoid the temptation to be too quick in T1. Take your time – I often have a bucket of warm water that I stick my feet into as I’m changing – and prepare for a big ride.

Split the race up into manageable chunks. Extreme races tend not to have laps as such so use support points, landmarks or changes in the terrain to do so. On the bike section, I usually have some details taped to my top tube with distances on it between support points, significant climbs, etc. It all helps. You can also use any cut-off times involved to break things up.

Cut-offs are one of the most talked about aspects of extreme races. In particular, much focus is given to the cut-offs which determine if you get a certain colour of t-shirt and do the main, high level or top course. My advice? Don’t overly focus on them, and certainly don’t in any way beat yourself up about not making them.

Also, aim to make a real effort to engage with your surroundings, whether that’s the Munro of Celtman, the fjords of Norseman or the Chilean wilds of Patagonman. This may sound a bit glib but it really does help. Remember: there’s always energy around you in extreme triathlons – it’s up to you if you use it. Look up, more than once and breathe it all in. 

Extreme triathlons are almost always hilly. Do a decent bit of research on the bike course, particularly the undulations involved and the nature of them. Is it rolling or more like several steep ramps? If possible, do a recce in advance but, if you can’t do that, look at online resources such as Strava. Choose your race bike early and practise on it well in advance. Comfort is key. You have to be able to hold your preferred position on your chosen bike. I would err on the side of caution here. For example, if you’re not sure you can stay on the aerobars for a long period of time on your TT bike, opt for your more comfortable road bike with clip-ons.

Think about your gearing and remember you definitely want to avoid grinding up any climbs. Particularly on a hilly course, spin up as much as you can. On the run, the change between flat trail-type running and mountain terrain can be stark so prepare for that. Going from trail to mountain uses different muscles – it’s a feeling much like switching from biking to running – so settle down and look to find your rhythm as you ascend.

The first thing to remember is that 15 hours or more of taking energy products isn’t going to sit well with anyone (well, nobody we’ve ever met). Aim to intersperse energy products with real food in both your training and racing. Real food varies – you know what you can get away with – but the take-home message here is use what works for you.

Taste is important especially as the clock ticks forward on race day, but hold back on pizza and crisps. Unless – and this is important – that’s all you can stomach. Getting something down you, especially later on in these races, is far more important than what you get down you.

I continuously see people coming off the bike or over the finish line still laden down with nutrition, usually of the product variety, complaining that they couldn’t face consuming what they had. This is a very common mistake, but one I continue to make.

Also, remember to use your longer days of training to see what works best for you in terms of nutrition. Many competitors in extreme races struggle with the sheer volume of what they are trying to consume because they haven’t practised sufficiently. You don’t need to replicate that exact volume of nutrition in training (you’ll learn a lot over a nine-hour training day, for example) but give yourself a fighting chance come race day.


Top image by XTri