If you’ve been inspired by seeing the world’s best compete through the lava fields of Hawaii’s Big Island, and are now looking to make your own big step up to iron distance, then we’re here to help. And while we can’t guarantee you’ll be swimming like Lucy Charles-Barclay, biking like Jan Frodeno or running like Anne Haug, we can provide the knowledge you’ll need to help make your first full iron-distance race an enjoyable success.
The great news is that whether you want to go full M-Dot with the Ironman brand, or fancy a smaller, local race in
the UK, there’s more choice than ever before. But deciding where you want to make your debut is just the start. If race day is the celebration, then the journey to the start-line is often the real achievement. Taking charge of logistics, training and recovery has to fit around often already busy lives and it demands some clear thinking and a willingness to be flexible, while acknowledging that not everything will always go to plan.
But when you get it right it makes crossing that finish line all the sweeter, and to help you on your way we’ve provided 30 of, what we think are, the most important tips for the first-time Ironman. So let’s get cracking…
1. Pick a race that’s right for you
Triathletes are spoilt for choice with iron-distance races these days from pancake-flat sunkissed drag strips to windy and hilly challenges and exotic climes that you’d struggle to find on a map. Consider what you – and your supporters – will enjoy first time out.
2. Plan early
It’s not just about the race. If you’re travelling afar, do you want to acclimatise beforehand or have downtime afterwards? Or both? Think flights, insurance, bike boxes, a spare derailleur hanger, hotels… Then put your feet up in compression socks, knowing it’s all done.
3. Have a training plan
It doesn’t have to be overcomplicated, but having structure in place for your training that means you swim, bike and run every week, will give you the No. 1 factor for a strong race-day performance: consistency.
- Find a training plan here, including a selection of Ironman plans to suit ever ability, from a 12-weeker to a 12-monther
4. Treat social media with caution
While it can be great for connecting, celebrating, picking up tips and being held accountable (see point 5), social media should also be handled with caution. Spending more time logging training than actually training is one risk, but it can also raise anxiety levels as we see what others have purported to have done (through the lens of Instagram and Facebook) and feel inferior. Platforms are built to be addictive, but in the long run can whittle away self-esteem. Not good for a happy mind, and therefore not good for happy training or racing.
5. Be accountable
You don’t want to simply pile pressure on yourself, yet publicly stating your goals can help keep you on track when it comes to early morning starts or hitting the ‘snooze’ button. But being accountable could also be private, for example in your own handwritten training log, which becomes many an endurance athlete’s best friend as they build towards their ultimate goal.
6. Consider hiring a swim coach
There are plenty of reasons to get a multisport-specific coach when training for a long-distance race (especially your first), but help with the swim – particularly if you don’t come from a swim background – is worth the investment. Swimming’s more technical nature means that as well as (literally) needing to dive in regularly to see improvement, guidance on your stroke can make all the difference.
7. Focus on your weakest discipline
It’s tempting to gravitate towards our strongest discipline in triathlon because it’s often the one we most enjoy. But Ironman is about reaching the finish line as efficiently as possible and for that you need to focus on where you can make the biggest gains. If you’re struggling with your swim or fearful of the long run, for example, prioritise these sessions in training, ring-fencing the time to dedicate to them before adding on your go-to activities.
8. Practise in open water
Swimming in open water, whether a lake, river or sea, is a world away from your local swimming pool. There’s no blue line to follow, lane ropes to keep you straight or wall to grab every 25m. Instead, you’ll have thrashing bodies and maybe some sea life for company, and it’s likely to become rather murky when you dunk your head. You’ll also potentially be clad in neoprene that changes your body position in the water. So even if you live in landlocked suburbia, make time to find a safe, open-water venue and give it a go.
9. Err on the side of caution
Injury is the biggest culprit in stopping triathletes reaching the start line and the majority of issues come from run training. Iron-distance triathlon is a low intensity, aerobic sport and much of our fitness can be gained in the saddle.
10, Find training partners…
While Ironman is a solo pursuit come race day, it doesn’t have to be in the build-up. Most of us enjoy training more when it’s shared with like-minded individuals. You might dive in with a morning swim group, find weekend cyclists or a local evening running club. Don’t compromise your plans completely, but don’t worry if you’re training has to flex a little to fit in with others. If it’s enjoyable, you’re more likely to stick at it long term.
11… but also learn to train on your own
The last point notwithstanding, become comfortable training on your own as well. There’ll be others on the course, but in a non-drafting race they should stay a good few bike lengths away most of the time. This means you need to be content with your own company for long periods.
12. Learn what Iron marathon pace feels like
Most triathletes lose the biggest chunk of time in the second-half of the marathon – forget any expectation that you might negative-split it on the first go! So learn what the target pace feels like (probably a lot slower than you think), decide if and when you’ll have walk breaks and, above all, be patient and let the race come to you.
13. Consider getting a bike fit
Whether you’re sticking with a road bike or switching to a TT bike, seeing an experienced and trusted bike fitter could be money well spent. It’s a balance between comfort and aerodynamics.
Being super streamlined isn’t going to matter if you can’t hold a tucked position or you’re unable to then run a marathon because you’re too stiff.
14. Don’t neglect technical skills on the bike
While many triathletes turn to the indoor trainer for time-efficient training and safety reasons, a static bike won’t improve your cornering or descending skills. When it comes to race day, not only will possessing these skills make
you a more competent rider, but you’ll also save time.
15. Don’t fret if you miss a session
Just as nailing one killer workout will not make you an Ironman champion, neither does missing a session mean calamity. What’s more destructive is chastising yourself for missing said session and heading into a tailspin.
Don’t try and play catch-up, just move gently forward knowing consistency over a long period is key.
16. Include brick sessions
Brick sessions for iron-distance tri (normally bike-to-run, but could also be swim-to-bike), provide familiarity for that uneasy feeling of running after a long bike ride, or riding after swimming for an hour or more. But they can also provide time-efficient training – and cut down the number of showers you take!
17. Learn to fix a puncture
You might feel you can get away with it in a sprint, but on a 180km loop you need the equipment and skills to sort out any minor mechanical difficulties, such as running in a new inner tube if you’re riding clinchers.
18. Practise with your nutrition
However you decide to fuel the race, make sure you’ve practised in training. There are also practical concerns such as how you’ll carry your race nutrition. In your pockets? In a box on the top tube? Furthermore, research what’ll be provided on-course in case you want to rely on this… or hit a pothole and spill all your own grub.
19. Prioritise rest and recovery
Training provides the stimulus to become a stronger triathlete, but it also breaks down the body and it’s rest, recovery and fuel that are equally as important if we’re to improve. As your training load rises, make sure you have adequate recovery to compensate. If not, ease back on the training.
20. Fix minor irritations
A wetsuit neckline that chafes, a hole in your tri-suit that leads to sunburn, washing powder that irritates your skin, or shoes that give you hotspots on the soles of your feet. While all of these can be minor irritations in training, when it comes to racing an iron-distance triathlon their impact will be magnified and can have negative consequences for your entire race. Attention to detail with body and kit maintenance is a must.
21. Don’t neglect strength and flexibility
Look at any Ironman marathon and the age-groupers are rarely moving slowly because they’re out of breath. More often it’s because of tight hips or lower back, or weak glutes. Having swum 3.8km and cycled 180km, run form is unlikely to be technically perfect, but the more you can include strength and conditioning and flexibility work into your training, the more it’ll benefit you come race-day.
22. Don’t rely solely on technology
Heart rate monitors and power meters can be wonderful guides, particularly in reining in our efforts when pushing too hard, too early. But batteries can fail, calibrations can be off, and external factors such as an unexpectedly warm day can throw out all your numbers. Leaning too much on tech can also mean you’re not tuned in to your own body to learn what it feels like to push an intensity that will help you correctly pace a 226km race.
23. Be prepared to adapt your plans
Despite all the very best intentions you’re likely to have to make changes to your training at some point. Accepting this and adjusting appropriately is a skill. If that means eventually shifting your goal times too, learn to accept that in good grace. Triathlon does not have to start and end with your first iron-distance race.
24. Do shorter, low-key events
Most triathletes work their way up to iron-distance through sprints, standard and then middle-distance races, and having triathlons booked in during your iron-distance build will break up training, get you used to that race-day feel and be a useful indicator of form. It’s also often a time to post shorter-distance personal bests. Without being defeatist, the journey to Ironman is a long road and injury is a possibility for all. If you do end up having to defer your A-race, you’ll still have banked some excellent results along the way.
25. Complete a simulation
You don’t have to complete the full distances prior to an Ironman, although some triathletes love the confidence of knowing they can swim 3.8km straight, cycle 180km and run a marathon. But plan some big swim, bike, run simulation days, ideally on similar terrain to your race, and use the same nutrition you will for race-day.
26, Respect the taper
Ironman triathletes will always perform better if they’re fresh and not overcooked, so cramming training right up to the event in the hope of gaining fitness rarely pays off. Give yourself time to relax and recover, so you reach the start-line raring to go.
27. Have A, B and C goals
Whatever your level it’s good to give yourself targets. Often these might be time goals, and having A, B and C goals can help you move on from an ‘all or nothing’ mindset if the race isn’t playing out as planned. But you could also have process goals. For example, concentrating on better run form or following your nutrition plan.
28. Have a race checklist
Even the most experienced triathletes can forget small items such as a tri-suit or their bike. No, really! In all seriousness, though, it’s worth printing off a triathlon checklist for what you’ll need pre-race, for the swim, bike, run and post-race because – from sunscreen to tinted goggles – they’ll be more on it than you think.
29. Know the course inside and out
Marshalling is generally excellent at triathlons, but listen intently at the race briefing – particularly for any hazardous spots or last-minute course changes, and make sure you know how many laps you’re doing for each discipline. One short, you’ll be DSQ’d. One too many, and it’s a world of hurt.
30. Finally, remember your ‘why’
Signing up for an Ironman is not a trifling undertaking, so (hopefully) you did it for a sound reason. Whatever that reason is, stay true to its essence. Whenever you’re having a bad day, a session doesn’t go well, or you hit a rough patch on race day, remind yourself of your initial ‘why’, understand that this difficult moment will soon pass, and in just a short period, you really will be an Ironman.