How to choose and plan your Ironman

Whether it's your first, or 20th, full distance triathlon; whether you just want to complete or be a podium contender, it is important to choose the right race for your skillset and ability if you're going to have a successful and enjoyable day

Ironman Wales

How to choose the right swim leg

It’s the shortest yet potentially the most scary part of any Ironman. So how should you ready yourself for the swim? Over to top Ironman racer Andy Blow…


Despite being the shortest section of an Ironman by quite some margin, the 3.8km swim can actually be the most daunting aspect of the event for many long-distance newcomers, as well as for anyone whose athletic abilities are, shall we say, better suited to land-based pursuits.

To make your iron swim experience as smooth as possible, it’s important to consider the following points when picking what races to do and how you go about preparing for them. First, look at the body of water the swim is in. Lakes and, to a degree, rivers (both found at the Bastion) tend to offer calmer and more predictable conditions than you can get in the sea. So, if you’re really put off by the idea of getting a wave in the face, think very hard before signing up for a coastal race such as Ironman Wales. If you’re set on a sea swim race, then it’s a good idea to hope for the best but plan for the worst. Get plenty of practice swims in rough water during the build-up so you know you can definitely cope with it on race day. Just turning up and hoping it’ll be flat and calm isn’t a great idea…

Second, do some research to find out the kind of water temperature you’ll be faced with in the race you choose. Early-season events and most of those in the UK tend to be held in water that can be bracing, which can really add to the challenge. As with learning to cope with waves in the ocean, getting plenty of practice in water of a similar temperature is the best way to adapt body and mind to coping with the cold. A well-fitting wetsuit is also a must when the water is chilly, as anything baggy will allow cold water to flush through and make the experience miserable.

Third, take a good look at the course layout. Multi-lap courses (especially those with an ‘Aussie exit’ style run between laps as seen at Ironman UK, Ironman Wales and the UK Ultimate Triathlon) can be mentally easier as they offer a short break at half way and naturally split the swim into two halves to be tackled separately. On the flip-side, a long single loop (see The Outlaw) or an out-and-back swim can be tough in terms of both navigation and holding your concentration. So prepare yourself for those with some longer non-stop simulation swims in training.

Overall the main message is that forewarned is forearmed when it comes to getting your mind and body ready for an Ironman swim. Prepare as specifically as you can for the exact demands of the course and the conditions, and with the realistic worst-case weather scenario in mind. Lean into the challenge rather than hoping it’ll all just be lovely on the day and you’ll get to the race confident and ready to get the job done, no matter what’s thrown at you.

How to choose the right bike leg 


Lasting up to eight hours, the bike will be the longest element of your race. So how should you prepare for 180km in the saddle? Over to the reigning Bastion champion, Matt Leeman

When it comes to picking your long-distance triathlon, the 180km bike course is going to be the biggest portion of your race. Therefore, this’ll play a major part in choosing which one. It’s fun to pick a fast bike course to go for a PB, but a race on difficult terrain – be that technical or hilly – can be equally rewarding. It’ll take away that element of clock watching and allow you to just race and push yourself, which is what I believe triathlon is all about.

In the off-season, ahead of a season featuring an Ironman, quality over quantity will ensure you get the most out of your time. The days are shorter and colder, so don’t compromise your immune system by enduring long training sessions in bad weather. Use the time to build your speed and strength. There’s plenty of time to piece it together with your longer aerobic sessions as the season approaches and the weather improves. Be flexible to accommodate your training and make the most of good weather to get out on the bike. Use the bad weather to train indoors or get out for a run. Getting ill or injured will affect your consistency, which is the most important training component in Ironman.

Every triathlete should use a turbo trainer, particularly in the off- season as it enables you to carry out a specific session without being affected by the environment. Utilised correctly you can build a great deal of strength, which is
of particular importance in long-distance triathlon. You can replicate hill reps and specific time intervals, a steady endurance ride or simply a recovery session where you can be warm and dry and take it as easy as necessary.

Long-distance races like the Bastion can offer some of the most varied bike courses you’ll find, with hills and descents as well as fast flat sections over the 180km duration. Therefore, you need a bike set-up to accommodate this. Using tri-bars – whether they’re on a road bike or a time-trial bike – can provide huge benefits, but only if you use them! Get used to the ‘time-trial’ position and try to stay in it as much as possible even on substantial climbs. You’ll be more efficient and preserve your energy for the run.

How to choose the right run leg


How prepared you are for your challenge will become clear on the run. Here’s 36-time iron finisher Mark Kleanthous on putting yourself in top shape for the marathon leg

Even if you’re experienced at Olympic- and middle-distance triathlon or marathon running, I’d suggest you pick an easier course for your first Ironman race. You need to learn your craft before entering and training for Ironman UK or Ironman Wales, as these are some of the tougher official Ironman courses in the world. Aim for a race that’s local to you if possible, as I strongly recommend you run some of the route several times during the months leading up to your race.

The winter is the time to build a solid foundation and to gain fitness. You can achieve this by having a mental and physical break at the end of the triathlon season. When you resume training, during the winter keep it simple and focus on the five pillars of success, which are efficiency, consistency, variety, progressive training and rehearsing run nutrition. Increase the frequency, before then reducing the regularity and increasing the distances of your sessions.

You can add variety to create regular training stimulus, then add progression with more climbing elevation per hour during your longer running workouts. Variety is good for the mind and constantly creates a training stimulus. Aim to always train on time but avoid being concerned by average speeds; become more efficient on the run by running at an all-day pace.

I’m amazed how many enquires I get in the final six weeks before most UK iron-distance triathlons on what to eat and drink, and how far the longest run should be. During the off-season you must practise your run and nutritional intake on flat routes to establish your individual tipping point of what you can digest to prevent delayed gastric emptying, which leads to digestive meltdown during the marathon.


How to race your first Ironman

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