The training journey towards your first Ironman finish line can seem overwhelming, whether your goal is the half distance 70.3 or the full 140.6 event. Even if you’re a strong athlete in one of the disciplines, you still need an effective training strategy in all three sports so that you arrive at the start line in the best shape possible to cross the finish line strongly. Having a competent coach guiding you is preferable, as they can personalise your training around your strengths and weaknesses, ensure that you have the right balance between training loads and recovery, and fit key workouts around your other important commitments.
If you’re unable to work one-on-one with a coach, the next best approach is to purchase a training plan from a reputable coach which meets your objectives, reflects your current skill level and has realistic weekly training sessions that fit into your lifestyle without becoming onerous. I recommend that you allow yourself a minimum of 12 months to build up to your first full Ironman event, and at least 6 months for your first half Ironman event. A good training plan should be giving you the right kind of workouts at the right stages in your build up. However even the best template will need constant tweaking because training for an Ironman requires more skill than just ticking off workouts as done. The following tips will help you to prioritise your training sessions when you’re squeezed for time, be adaptable when life gets in the way of key workouts, and build the right mindset for taking on an Ironman ultra-distance event. While I’ve written these tips with a first timer in mind, many of these points are equally relevant to ultra-distance athletes of all levels.
1. Go long
When you embark on training for an Ironman as a beginner, the most important workouts in your weekly schedule are your long swim, long bike and long run. You must do these sessions as the number one priority, as they are essential for you to build the endurance foundation in your cardiovascular, muscular and nervous systems that will allow you to complete the Ironman distance. If your training is derailed by life in any given week and you have no time for anything else, make sure that you at least get these sessions done.
2. Go often
While going long is your first priority, consistency and frequency should be your secondary rules. Building up for an ultra-distance event requires a huge time commitment, and there will be days when your training plan might call for a three-hour ride or a two-hour run, but you only have 60 minutes to spare. In these situations, going short is better than going nowhere. Maintaining the frequency of your training trumps volume and intensity, because consistency promotes the positive adaptations in your body that will build a solid endurance base.
3. Be specific with your training
A good training plan will help you to firstly build up a solid endurance volume base before increasing the training loads as you get closer to the event. These loads should be specific to your event. For example, if your event is on hilly terrain with lots of hills on the bike, then you will need to train on similar terrain, and get your body comfortable with the specific demands of hill climbing. This requires a combination of strength building in low cadence, and endurance building in high cadence. By contrast, if your event is on mostly flat terrain, you will need to focus on being at ease on your aerobars for long periods. If the swim course is notorious for strong ocean currents, then you must find a similar conditions to swim in regularly so that by event day you are confident in your abilities to handle the currents and navigate accurately. If your training isn’t specific enough, you won’t be prepared for the unique demands of your chosen event, and that can quickly turn a challenging long day into a very ugly long day.
Specificity also means that for the beginner ultra-distance athlete, learning good technique and building a big endurance base are far more important than increasing speed. Ironman racing isn’t about being fast – it’s about teaching your body to be as efficient as possible when fatigued, which will then allow you to keep good form and maintain the quickest pace you can manage over the whole distance without breaking down. Speed work carries with it a high stress load and injury potential which is more suitable for experienced athletes who have a better tolerance for that kind of load, due to having developed endurance and strength foundations over previous years.
4. You don’t need flash equipment – you do need functional equipment
Triathlon is a sport full of high-tech gadgets which can measure all kinds of data from how much power you produce when pedalling to how much lactate you produce when doing high intensity intervals. While this detailed information has a valuable place in high performance sport, you don’t need any of these gadgets to train well and perform at your best in your event as a first timer. The basics of what you do need are:
- Comfortable leak free goggles,
- Pull buoy and paddles for swimming strength work in the pool,
- A wetsuit that fits your body and is comfortable with minimal chaffing,
- A road bike in good condition which has been fitted to your body and comfortable bike shoes (aerobars are useful but not necessary),
- Comfortable running shoes
- A good sports watch, ideally waterproof for open water swimming.
Did you notice how often I mentioned comfortable? When you’re doing long hours of training you want as few distractions from poorly fitting clothing and gear as possible. In the build-up for my first Ironman event, I ended up buying three wetsuits, as the first two were too restrictive in longer swims which became stressful and panic inducing. I tried three seats on my bike to find the most tolerable one for long rides. Having well-fitting gear will go a long way to helping you to feel good during big training sessions.
5. Avoid junk training
Having just said that you don’t need any gadgets, it can be useful to have a heart rate monitor as a means of checking that you are doing your key workouts at the right intensity. As a beginner the majority of your training should be done in the endurance zone (often called Zone 2). It can be tempting sometimes to get carried away and lift your effort on days when you feel full of energy, or do more mileage than you planned when you’re training with mates. You might get a quick buzz from doing a personal best time on that 5k Strava segment, or smashing out an extra hour in the hills, but if you add too much effort where it doesn’t belong, then you are sabotaging your training. If you do this regularly, quality training becomes junk training as you’re then not doing the appropriate efforts at the right times.
In the same vein, if you miss a workout, let it go. There’s no value in trying to make up missed sessions. If you’re being consistent in your training week to week, and prioritising your long workouts above all else, occasional lost workouts will have no effect on your overall fitness. (However, if you are regularly missing workouts then you will need to review your training program, time available for training and your goals to ensure that they are all realistically doable and compatible with the rest of your life!)
Junk training compromises the overall progression of your fitness towards peak performance on event day, and smart steady progression is the aim of a good training strategy.
6. Prioritise rest and recovery
You become fitter and stronger not by the specific training that you do, but by balancing the stress induced by training with enough recovery to stimulate adaptation and improvement. If you add too much training load without allowing yourself to have sufficient rest, your body won’t adapt and you set yourself up for fatigue, illness and injury.
A basic recovery strategy includes:
- getting enough sleep each night to wake up feel refreshed
- separating hard days of training with easy days in between, and increasing load weeks of training with reduced load recovery periods
- practising good nutrition with your primary fuelling coming from whole natural foods rather than convenience meals and sports supplements
- taking a few ‘off season’ low training weeks during your build up to give your body and mind a complete break from the routine and pressure of training – a great time to do this is around four months out from your event, so that you are mentally and physically recharged for the big push required in the final three months of training.
Having high quality sleep and nutrition habits cannot be overstated. No amount of massage, cold water therapy, compression garment wearing or supplement quaffing can match the recovery and repair potential of sleeping and eating well.
7. Expect to feel tired and low on motivation
The final three months of your Ironman build up are where you show your body what Ironman day will feel like, and your body and mind may find this quite a shock. This is the period when you will be doing a few weeks of very big training hours – at a minimum, your biggest volume days will need to be 90 minutes of swimming, six to seven hours of cycling and three hours of running, if you want to be fit enough to complete the full Ironman distance. These big training weeks will produce a lot of fatigue, so you must prioritise rest and recovery in order to be able to turn this fatigue into improved fitness, rather than burn out.
With high fatigue comes the potential for low mood, self-doubt and feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the Ironman finish line goal. Rather than being excited and inspired, you might find yourself struggling to complete workouts and feeling beaten before you’ve even got to the start line. This is all to be expected, as Ironman is a huge undertaking, and some days will be a real test of your commitment to reaching the finish line. So, just suck it up, and embrace the tough days as much as the good days on your Ironman journey. Remind yourself that you paid an entry fee to take on the Ironman challenge, and making it through the tough days is a necessary part of the process towards crossing that finish line.
8. Get comfortable being on your own and listen to yourself
I see plenty of advice suggesting that by doing your long rides and runs with a group you can make these more enjoyable training days. While I agree that you should enjoy your training, there is also a point at which you need to go solo in order to develop the right mindset to be able to complete an Ironman event with the least amount of mental suffering. Ironman is a gruelling solo endurance event, not a sightseeing day out with friends. The physical toll of completing an Ironman is stressful enough, and it’s a common reaction to become negative when things get tough or beyond our control. Ironman training will present you with days that test you mentally as much as they do physically. The cycle and run portions of an Ironman can be very lonely and hostile places, especially if you are having problems, and at these times no amount of cheering from the bystanders will make a positive difference if you don’t have the mental skills to constructively manage adversity when it arises. By training on your own, you’re stuck listening to your own thoughts, and you will quickly find out whether your self-talk is helpful or unhelpful when the going gets tough. Learning how to listen to yourself, and find good strategies for changing negative thoughts into empowering ones is an extremely valuable tool for Ironman day itself. There’s no easy way to cross an Ironman finish line, but it can be a more enjoyable day if you become your number one supporter every kilometre of the way.
9. Set process goals rather than outcome goals
A great way to become your number one supporter is to set process goals. These are goals that reflect actions you can take which are within your control, and which will boost your performance potential by improving your skills or fitness. Think of process goals like steps on a ladder – each goal accomplished is another step closer to your ultimate aim, to become an Ironman, and this is great for building confidence. Therefore, these goals need to match the specific targets you must reach in your training. For example: completing all my long workouts each week, investing in six swim technique lessons to improve my stroke efficiency, trialling a different nutrition option on each long ride this month to determine which works best for me, practising running with a higher stride rate twice a week until it feels natural.
By contrast, outcome goals are mostly outside your control, and they tend to be ego driven. These are the kinds of goals that can be great motivators, however they can also deflate your confidence when you don’t get the results that you want. For example: finishing a race in a specific time, doing a personal best time on a particular course, beating another competitor, achieving a placing in your age group.
10. Brick it
The most important transition to practice for an Ironman event is the bike-to-run change over. While some athletes may experience light headedness coming out of the water after being horizontal in the swim, the jog to the bike transition usually provides ample time for your body to readjust to being vertical. You don’t need to practice the bike-run brick all the time, as it is a high load (stress) activity, so the best time to include bricks is in the final few months building up to your event.
For the beginner, the best way to practice bricks is to run off the bike twice a week, for a very short time. Do one of these brick runs immediately after your long bike ride of the week, and then after one of your other rides, with several days between these brick sessions. The first few kilometres of running off the bike are the most challenging transition period as your legs often feel like jelly (wobbly) or concrete (dead), and by doing frequent short bricks, you teach your legs to get used to the feeling and still be able to run anyway. By very short I mean anything from 10 to 15 minutes, and no more. Begin your run at your target race pace to get a ‘feel’ for it, then after 5 minutes settle into an easy endurance pace. If your legs are completely fried after a tough bike ride, only run for 5 minutes or give it a miss completely.
Running off the bike after a long ride is also a good way to find out if your nutrition choices on the bike will cause you issues on the marathon (or half marathon) run. If your gut is not digesting and absorbing what you eat, you’ll pay for it on the run, either with stomach issues like nausea and vomiting, or hitting the wall (complete loss of energy to keep going).
There are reasons why running for longer or faster off the bike is of benefit to more experienced athletes; however, as a beginner doing this can increase injury risk, it requires longer recovery between sessions, and more importantly the run won’t be of good quality as you’re running on tired legs. You are much better off to do your key runs on fresh legs. Think of these bricks like icing on the Ironman cake – you want enough icing to be gliding smoothly across the top but not so much that you get bogged down in fatigue.
11. Be adaptable
So, you’ve been training solidly for three months and you’re beginning to notice how much fitter and stronger you feel. Then out of the blue you’re struck down by Covid, or your work load has doubled due to a colleague’s resignation, or you have to spend more time with an ageing parent who is relying on you more and more. Life happens, and life stress can negatively impact your training if you aren’t adaptable in your approach.
Being adaptable means not sweating it when your training gets derailed. Do your best to get done what you can, but make sure that you know where your priorities lie at the right time. No matter how important it is to you to become an Ironman, there will be times when your health, or someone else’s needs, are more important. At these times, focus on getting your long sessions done where possible, and consider any other training a bonus. Don’t add unnecessary stress to the scenario by worrying about all the training you’re not doing, or forcing yourself to train when you’re not well.
12. Your ‘why’ should be your primary motivation to cross the finish line
Your ‘why’ isn’t a time goal or a placing, it’s your unique super power. Your ‘why’ is the reason that you press on through tough training sessions day after day, and your ‘why’ will get you to the finish line when every cell of your body wants you to quit. If you don’t have a compelling ‘why’ then you won’t have the mental strength to continue when the physical discomfort sets in – and I can guarantee you that things will hurt in places that you’ve never experienced before! If your ‘why’ is seeking an external result such as a specific finish time, then you are setting yourself up for all kinds of mental torment, as these types of outcome goals are subject to many factors well outside your control. Having a ‘why’ which is centred in personal merit, rather than an external accomplishment, allows you have complete control over your performance and your state of mind, and for this reason your ‘why’ can be extremely empowering in both your daily life and on event day.