If you had asked me when I started on this triathlon lark whether I would attempt an ironman, I would have said, “I’m not that crazy.” Then I got addicted to the feeling of having pushing my limits, and started wanting to challenge myself over longer distances.
Others go into triathlon with the goal of doing an ironman from the very start. Whatever spurred your decision to do your first ironman, it is a months-long journey into the unknown. Make sure you go into it with both eyes open.
Here’s what you need to know before your first ironman
Have a clear purpose for doing an ironman
Why are you doing this race? What would it mean for you to finish it? Definite answers to these questions will motivate you through training all the way to the finish line and enable you to battle past strong feelings and thoughts about quitting — and trust me, those thoughts WILL come.
Belinda Granger is a veteran of 50 ironman races and a member of the Australian Ironman Hall of Fame. She says: “The advice I would give anyone… age-groupers and pros, who are thinking about doing their first IM Distance race: make sure it is something that YOU really want to do and make sure you prepare for it properly. You need to be 100% committed and not just do it because you think you should or because someone else told you to do it.”
Training will require lots of time, commitment, and hard work
An ironman is a 3.8-kilometer swim, 180-kilometer bike ride, and 42-kilometer run rolled up into one very long day — but that’s just race day. Leading into it will be months of training almost daily, sometimes twice or thrice a day.
Training plans for beginners can log up to 18 total hours during a peak week of training, which will take time away from your other pursuits and commitments. If you’re holding down a full-time job, have a family, and participate in a busy social scene, something will have to give way. You’ll have to skip late nights out with the boys so you can make your morning run session the next day. Family weekends will probably be limited to early nights staying in watching Netflix, instead of a full day at an amusement park.
Training for an ironman will require a commitment not just from you, but also from your family and friends, so it’s important they understand what you and they will be getting into during this time.
Training can get tough. One of my favorite athletes, four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington quoted her coach Brett Sutton in her autobiography: “Some sessions are stars and some sessions are stones, but in the end they are all rocks and we build upon them.”
The training will not always be as glamorous as gorgeous photos hashtagged #ironman on Instagram may make them look. In some sessions, like short track sets where you hit your target times, you will feel great. Some sessions, like long rides and runs, will be dull and monotonous and ridiculously long (even more so if you have to do them on an indoor trainer or treadmill!). Other sessions will leave you feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally spent. It’s all part of the journey that will prepare you for your biggest undertaking yet.
Get a plan and a coach
You’ll want to make use of your limited time the most efficient and effective way possible, and that comes with a training plan designed by an expert coach. Remove the guesswork by following a tried-and-tested plan with proper build-up and recovery. A coach can take other factors into consideration when customizing a plan for you, like whether you’re a strong cyclist or need more work in the run, or have a work schedule that won’t allow you to get to a pool on a certain day of the week.
Challenge Roth champion James Cunnama has a sports science background. He notes: “There’s so much information out there… it can be very overwhelming very quickly. This sport is fairly young as far as what works and what doesn’t work, everyone’s trying new things and new experiments.”
James recommends getting a coach. “If you can have a coach who can just tell you, ‘Today you’re doing this.’ No thinking, you get out, you do it. If it hurts, you go slowly, if it doesn’t hurt, you go faster basically, but you get what your coach said. That takes all the pressure off and you can still enjoy it.”
Enjoy the training
Belinda reminds us that an ironman is a journey. “I say journey as it is not just about race day, it is the hours of training that goes into it in the months leading up to the big day.”
Training hours will be long and on some days you just won’t feel like doing it. Maintaining consistency is key to successful training, so you need to find ways to enjoy and love the work you’re putting in.
James says: “If you’re gonna drag yourself out of bed every morning, even for an age grouper it’s a lot of work swimming and biking and running and trying to get them all ready for the distances of 70.3 or Ironman. If you have to force yourself to do it, you won’t last very long. It’s too difficult.”
Athletes may fall into the trap of thinking they don’t have to enjoy the training. James knows otherwise. “The process has to be fun and enjoyable, not just the outcome at the end of the day. You know, it’s too much work and too long, too many long hours to just put off the enjoyment until race day and get all the reward on race day. Don’t get me wrong, race day is very rewarding, but there’s just too much time before that that you won’t enjoy for you to do it again the next time.”
Training partners help ease the monotony and loneliness of training; the social aspect provides additional motivation to show up to a session. Traveling to camps where you can focus simply on training, especially with a like-minded group, can also help you get through the grind of a big week.
Nutrition is key to survival
If you’ve previously been doing shorter triathlons, you may have committed some mistakes in your race-day nutrition but were still able to finish well. An ironman exposes the flaws in your fueling strategy.
Four-time triathlon world champion Chris “Macca” McCormack wrote in his autobiography I’m Here to Win: “The longer the race, the harder it is to fight your way home when you’re running out of fuel. You can make nutritional errors in a half-ironman and survive. If your stores run out, you can get to the aid station, get some Coke, and because you’re only five kilometers from home, you can get there.
“But in a full ironman, you have no chance of winning or even finishing if you make a nutritional error… So in ironman, it’s all about keeping the hydration and calorie stores as high as possible for as long as possible.”
The best time to work on your nutrition strategy is during your long rides and runs. You can test different gels, bars, and alternate nutrition like sandwiches and rice balls, determine whether your body absorbs calories better in liquid or solid form, and find out if you have difficulty absorbing fructose, lactose, or maltodextrin among other things. The key here is finding a nutrition solution you are comfortable consuming.
Don’t get caught up in what others are doing
This happens a lot when a big group of people are training for the same race. You see that someone is doing a 200-kilometer ride this weekend, so you’re going to try to match it. You see that two weeks before the race, another guy is still hitting the big miles and sessions so you start to think that what you’ve done may not be enough. Trust in your training plan and your coach. Everyone is different and no one absorbs workloads the same. One person may recover well from runs, while another may not.
The pre-race taper is where many athletes get stressed out comparing themselves with others. Macca says: “In the week prior to the race, rest. Don’t cram training in. Do a little bit of work, don’t do nothing, but the focus is resting even though you’re starting to get anxious, get to the event and see people walking around looking bloody fit, see people riding their bikes, people walking around with their shirts off, people with compression, and you’re like ‘I should do more’ — don’t do it. Rest.”
There is no such thing as an “easy” ironman, but you won’t regret crossing the finish line
The reason you train so long and so hard is so you have a bank of training sessions where you broke through and surpassed your expectations of what you think is possible. When faced with similar situations during the race you can draw on how you overcame past obstacles. However, putting it all together on race day is still tough. You will be tired physically, mentally, emotionally; it will hurt, and you will be tempted to pull the plug at various points. Because the race itself is so long, there’s plenty of time and opportunity for disaster to strike. But there’s also plenty of time and opportunity to recover and keep going until the finish line.
While it took Belinda some time to go into doing ironmans, her only regrets are for not finishing (she has two DNF’s to her name). She says: “I can tell you that I have never regretted doing any of the IM races I have lined up for.”
Two-time Ironman European champion Caroline Steffen recommends: “My advice is just enjoy the whole thing, just stay in the moment, concentrate on what you’re doing right now, not worrying about what may happen in three hours. Get in nutrition, live in the moment and enjoy your time racing. I really enjoyed my first race, that’s why I’m still racing. I still remember it like it was yesterday, so I hope you can do the same.”