10 tips for taming your first Ironman

Preparing for your first Ironman? Here’s our 10 tip guide


Many people over-complicate iron racing. But, says top Kiwi coach Silas Cullen, by following basic nutrition, gear and training principles, you will reach your goals…



Before anything, answer this conundrum: why do you want to take on the iron challenge? For your friends or family? For the feeling of self-fulfilment that will envelope you when you finish? Or simply to see if you can?

Your reasons for completing Ironman will be personal and should drive you when the going gets tough, both in training and then over the last 20km on the day.


After entering an Ironman, you’ll almost certainly have a crisis of confidence. ‘Ironman panic’ will set in and you’ll probably go for a bike ride the following weekend that’s far longer than necessary.

Remember: you don’t magically turn into Superman on the day you enter the race – the overall load you can handle remains just the same. The big difference between training for Ironman and training for a shorter event is how the load is periodised through the programme. In the last 12 weeks before the race, you start very gradually and build up the distance in a similar way as you would for a sprint. But unlike a sprint, the volume keeps building. So, instead of adding speed, your training sessions get even longer, with this volume peaking 4-6 weeks before race day.

The bread and butter weekend for an athlete training for Ironman is a long bike on the Saturday of up to 6hrs and a long run on Sunday of up to 3hrs. From Monday to Friday, the body will need time to recover from the weekend. The only real swimming volume needs to be completed in the last Ironman-specific phase. But it’s a good idea to work on technique all year round, as you can never be too efficient in the water.

3. THE 80/20 RULE

The Pareto principle – set out by business-management consultant Joseph M Juran in the 1940s – states that, for most events, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This applies perfectly to Ironman. The longest sessions give you 80-90% of the benefit for race day, and not just because they provide the most specific training. It’s the learning you gain that’s far more valuable.

When performing these longer sessions – anything more than a 4hr bike or a 2hr run – is a chance to experiment and to learn about the event and yourself. It could be nutrition, pacing, bike position or any of the other variables that make up Ironman. Treat these sessions as a golden opportunity to learn. Practise with everything you’re thinking of using on the day, whether that’s trying
out some new gels, a new race suit or new bike position.


It’s important to make sure that the gear you buy will actually help you in the race. With so much marketing and hyperbole around Ironman, and because people are suffering from Ironman panic, they do crazy things like buying products just because they have ‘Ironman’ written on the side.

Think about whether products will really make you faster. Your choice of wheels is a good example of something that can be a benefit, but also a hindrance. The faster you’re going, the more beneficial deep-rim wheels will be as aerodynamics become more important. But, on a hilly course, you can gain more from lighter wheels to help on the uphill than you’ll gain from being aerodynamic. Pick a wheelset based on the course, likely weather conditions and your speed, and always have a back-up set with a different profile in case conditions are different on the day.


Read tame your first Ironman: Pt 2 (tips 5-7 2/3)