Triathlons are tough. There is no way around it. Whatever distance you want to complete, doing one is a big project from start to finish. Training to have good results in swimming, cycling or running is a big project, but combine all three, and it starts to look overwhelming.
This article will try to break down all the elements of the Ironman Triathlon. Hopefully, this article can give the last kick to someone thinking about doing an Ironman and give some tips and ideas for you, who are already training towards an Ironman.
Doing an Ironman is all about the experience and the things you learn on the way to the finish line. The goal of this article is to help you have an even more incredible experience.
A short intro about the writer
My name is Nikolaj, I’m a danish entrepreneur and endurance race lover. I’ve completed a bunch of different races since I started training and doing sports in 2009.
I’ve finished around 10 marathons, around 10 triathlons, and an ultra trail race. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro and I’ve run up some of the most famous mountains along with the Tour de France.
One of the biggest challenges and where I have learned the most was preparing for the Ironman. I’ve done a lot of shorter triathlons and in total three full distance Ironman races.
I did my first Ironman in 2011 and finished just under 11 hours. Exactly two years later I finished my third with a 9h 33min finish.
This article is based on my experiences with different coaches, different training environments, and completing races across the globe.
What is an Ironman Triathlon?
Triathlon is a sport, consisting of swimming, cycling, and running – in that order. There are many different distances, spanning from sprint distances to long distances.
The Ironman Triathlon consists of 3.8 km / 2.4-mile open water swimming, 180 km / 112 miles of cycling, and 42.2 km / 26.2 miles of running. It is a grueling distance finishing with a marathon.
There are also some time limits to finish the race. If not finishing within these time limits, you will have a DNF assigned to your name on the participant list. A “Did Not Finish” is probably close to the worst nightmare for Ironman triathletes.
The time limits vary a bit from one organizer to another organizer, but the biggest organizer of Ironman races is WTC, World Triathlon Corporation.
It has the following time limits:
- Finish swim within 2 hours 20 minutes
- Finish bike within 8 hours 10 minutes
- Overall: 17 hours
Ironman is seen as the longest distance, but there are longer distances and multi-day events. Ironman triathlon has grown in popularity because many people see it as the ultimate challenge. According to USA Triathlon and The Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the number of members in clubs and number of participants in triathlon races has skyrocketed in the last years.
The Ironman Triathlon Races
There are a lot of different races available. The WTC is normally seen as the original company behind the distance, and they own the trademark “Ironman.” Other organizers cannot call their races Ironman, but refer to them as full distance triathlon, delivering the same distance and experience.
WTC is American and the owner and organizer of the most legendary Ironman race available: the world championship is in Kona, Hawaii. To enter this race you have to qualify with a top position in one of their other races.
All participants are split by gender and age, also called age group. This means that you are competing with others of your gender and age.
The other big race organizer available is called Challenge Family, which is a German company. Challenge and WTC compete and are the absolute most famous organizers of these races.
In general, you can say that WTC is a lot about race and competing; whereas, Challenge focuses more on the overall experience and open the distance up for more people to participate. For example, Challenge does a lot for making the events family-friendly.
There are many independent organizers available. If you are looking for your first race, I would suggest looking into these organizers. They have triathlon races across the globe, and they offer a guarantee of quality.
Read more about the two biggest Ironman Triathlon Race organizers here:
How much training does it take to complete an Ironman?
Training of three different facets, swimming, cycling, and running, is time-consuming. It’s no wonder that a lot of people see Ironman triathlon as a lifestyle, instead of just a hobby.
Doing Ironman Triathlon is something that draws you in and something that can fill a lot of your waking hours. This is of course fine if that’s what you want. For the majority of us, we are just normal people. We have families, jobs, and other interests that we need and want to prioritize, too.
With the sport growing in popularity, it has gone from something crazy endurance nerds do, to something that completely normal people can do. With this, training smart and not just hard has also become very popular.
In the 80s and 90s, most people training for an Ironman race would put in a lot of hours. And with many, we are talking + 20 hours per week.
The problem for most normal people is that they don’t have that amount of time available. But also, most people would not be able to train that much. It’s simply too much time and wear and tear on the body. They would get injuries and maybe even overtrain.
As a good ground rule, I normally say if you train on average 10-12 hours per week and you have between 8-10 months to train before your first Ironman race, you are good to go.
In recent years there has been a trend towards training less, but better – where better means more intensive. This was the same philosophy I trained under, and it worked perfectly for me. I trained between 8-12 hours per week and a bit more leading up to the Ironman.
This amount of training is something that most people can fit into their lives and balance among other priorities. That doesn’t mean that it is easy, but for most it’s possible.
I did an experiment that lasted a few weeks, where I noted all the time I spent on triathlon training because the number of effective hours you train is just one part. You also have to go to the pool, fix your bike, etc. My experience was that I should multiply my effective hours of training such as for every ten hours of actual training, I can count on four more hours of extra things I must do to be able to train.
The Art of Starting Easy
For most people, who want to do their first Ironman, they have to start easy. Of course, how easy depends upon your background, but even though you may have been used to running a yearly marathon, a triathlon is something different and something new for your body.
To start easy means that the risk of injuries and sickness will be minimized. Starting easy is more difficult than it sounds. When you set off on a big project like this, you must be dedicated and want to succeed. This dedication can sometimes result in training too much, which will not help you in any way.
When I first started, I trained too much and too fast and that meant that I was sick again and again. I just wanted to train a lot and get this thing started. If I had the flu, I would return to training as soon as possible, instead of taking my time and getting 100% ready.
This sounds simple, but I see this kind of mistake again and again. Dedication and motivation are great, but you have to start easy and build up, so your body gets used to training a lot.
Planning your training
I’ve already mentioned this a couple of times: Training for an Ironman is a big project. In all big projects, planning is important.
The beginning of an Ironman project can be confusing, and if you feel that the project looks impossible, there are two things you have to know. 1) That feeling is perfectly normal. 2) It’s not impossible; you can do it.
Planning helps both the mental and physical components, but also with planning comes the best results. With a time-consuming sport like triathlon, you can save some time with the correct planning.
A training plan should always be tailored to you, your background, and your goals. A plan should consider your work and family life. It’s easy to find a program online, but no program fits everybody.
Do shorter triathlons before your first Ironman
If the Ironman race is your ultimate goal, then you should also put in some smaller races before, so you get some experience with doing a triathlon. The experiences you gain in each race are extremely valuable, so I cannot stress this enough. Do 1-3 shorter distance triathlons before your Ironman.
Normally, I would recommend doing sprint distance at the very beginning of your training period, which means after 2-3 months or whenever you feel ready for it. This will give you some experiences such as learning to eat correctly before and during a race, to handle the changing zones, and to feel the overall atmosphere of race day.
One and a half to two and a half months before your Ironman I would recommend doing a half Ironman / 70.3 race. A half distance doesn’t tear your body that much, so normally you only need under one week of rest after the race before you can start training again.
Doing a half Ironman some months before your Ironman should be considered an important part of your preparation. This will give you the kick of going from building speed to building endurance during the last few months, and you will get some valuable insights into doing long-distance triathlon.
Coach or no coach?
So, a plan is good and a custom plan is even better. So should you have a coach or make the program yourself?
Of course, this again depends on different things, like how serious you are and what is your budget. In my eyes, Ironman is about experiences and learning, and working with professionals, as a coach, is something you can do to increase your readiness and knowledge.
I would always prefer spending a little less on a bike or other equipment and spending that money on something that makes me better. Everybody can buy an expensive bike and a disk wheel. But being in great shape is about you and the work you put into the project.
Doing an Ironman is expensive all in all, so most people have already set aside a sizeable amount of money for the project, but the money should be spent wisely. Spend it on something that makes you better and gives you some knowledge you can use in the future, too.
But when you are just starting, both a nice bike and an effective coach are big investments. The best advice I can give is that you should get involved in a local triathlon community, either a club or a bunch of friends that are already into the sport. This will give you various experiences to learn from. Take those experiences of other people and adjust them to yourself.
Triathlon clubs are a good start because they have everything you need. In the beginning, triathlon training is a jungle, but with clubs, you will get social training, advice, and often also an introduction to everything from fixing your bike to keeping energy during a race. When you get some experiences like these, you know what you have covered and where you have a lot of room for improvement.
Another good thing about clubs is that you often save a lot of money because you get access to discounts on equipment, gym memberships, pool use and of course, advice from more experienced people.
This will give you a good background when making decisions about all of the other investments. Going all-in and investing in a coach is something I would recommend waiting until you have gained your first experience.
I prefer to have a coach instead of a club. I lived in Beijing while training for a period, and there weren’t a lot of clubs. I wanted my training to fit into my other schedules, so that was the best way for me. There are more and more options out there, so it’s possible to find something that matches your needs. There is everything from cheap, automated training programs that you subscribe to up to expensive professional coaching where you meet with your coach regularly.
The Ironman Training. Swim, bike, run and the fourth discipline.
What I liked about Ironman training was the diversity in training. You always shift among swimming, cycling and running, so you will never get bored with too much of the same kind of training. Also, these disciplines supplement each other and minimize the risk of injuries.
In this chapter, we will look into each part of the training, giving you some advice that can be used for beginners, but hopefully, there will be great ideas that experienced triathletes can use, too.
Ironman swimming: The discipline that most have difficulty with
The swimming part of an Ironman race is usually the part that people worry the most about. That’s interesting because, at the same time, it’s also the smallest part of the event.
Some years ago, someone looked into the average number of 41.000 finishers in 25 different Ironman races. Check out the most interesting numbers here.
The average was 1 hour and 16 minutes for the swim and 12 hours and 35 minutes for the whole event. The average participant spends 1/10 of the day on the swimming portion, but every triathlete I have ever known – especially those who are training for their first Ironman, spends the biggest part of their energy and worry on swimming.
And it’s clear why. For most people, swimming places them where they have not been before. Open water swimming with thousands of others is really out of the comfort zone for most people. There is a reason why they call it the washing machine, right?
Overall, there is no reason to worry about this part. It’s really common to start training for an Ironman without being able to swim or even have a fear of water. That’s the great thing about Ironman: you learn something new, and you push yourself to meet the challenge.
Ironman swimming – How to learn crawl / freestyle
When I decided I wanted to do an Ironman, I couldn’t swim. I was able to get from one end of the pool to the other without drowning. But I wouldn’t call it swimming, and I wasn’t able to do it multiple times in a row. It took so much energy.
My first time in the pool after deciding to train for an Ironman did not find me very motivated. At that point, I realized that there was a long road in front of me. Over the few years, I raced Ironman, I moved from not being able to swim (and not feeling comfortable in the water) to swimming just under one hour at Challenge Roth.
I analyzed both my training and performances, but also a lot of my peers’ examples, and I saw a pattern. Most people that don’t have a swimming background might swim between 55 and 80 minutes. And they do that year after year. Most hit some kind of plateau in which they do not get much better.
What I experienced was quite different. I got better and surpassed this plateau. This accomplishment takes a lot of hours and a big focus on technique. For me that investment in hours was not worth it just to swim five minutes faster.
I got some good advice from a bunch of different people who helped me to go from a non-swimmer to a 60-minute Ironman swimmer, that I want to pass on to you:
- Get swim lessons with a professional instructor.
- Get in the pool three times per week.
- Use a pull buoy.
- Learn Ironman swimming technique online.
- Don’t focus too much on the legs.
Get swim lessons with a professional instructor
This was the very simple formula that I used. I had no idea how to swim correctly, so I booked a lesson with a swim instructor, who saw me swim and just slowly gave me good “swimming habit making” tasks and taught me about correct breathing, etc. Overall I only had four swim lessons between the beginning of my training through my first Ironman, but those sessions helped. During each lesson, I gained some advice and ideas, that I could use for myself in the coming weeks and months.
How many lessons you want and need is up to you. I think most people could learn to swim with just a few instructor-led lessons.
Get in the pool three times per week
Going to the pool three times per week is a simple formula, but just being in the water makes you more confident and helps you build fitness. Use this formula for the first couple of months, so you get used to the water. After this, you can work much more with, for example, specific training sets, but the absolute basic is being comfortable in the water and that takes a bit of time.
I never swam much more than three times per week, averaging around 6-9 km per week, even when I trained the most.
Use a pull buoy
A pull buoy is a great tool for both beginners and advanced swimmers. I can’t recommend it enough. A pull buoy is a piece of foam, that you put between your legs. It takes your focus off your legs, and you will be placed more stably in the water, so you can focus on technique, upper body fitness, and breathing.
The feeling of swimming with a pull buoy is quite similar to the feeling that a wetsuit gives you. It’s simply easier. You will drift with almost no energy, and you will be able to focus more.
A pull buoy was a lifesaver for me at the beginning of my training.
Even later on in training, I would recommend using the pull buoy, because you will be able to focus on your arms and upper body fitness.
Learn Ironman swimming technique online
Swimming is about technique, so spend some time learning about the correct technique. There are a lot of YouTube videos available, but I just want to give a shout-out to Swim Smooth.
It is a handy little animated video where you can see the swimmer from many angles and with different speeds. It’s an awesome tool to go in-depth with specific areas of swimming.
What about spending your Friday night getting familiar with how your hands should go into the water? Welcome to life as a triathlete!?
Don’t focus too much on the legs
A few years ago I took a swim lesson with former world champion Mette Jacobsen of Denmark, and she told me that triathletes have too much focus on their legs. Her point was first of all, that you are going to use the legs the rest of the day, and the legs don’t produce enough speed compared to the energy they take.
Her point was that you should just use your legs a little bit to stay stable in the water, but use your upper body and arms to get movement.
This helped my swimming quite a bit. It made me a lot calmer in the water and made me focus much more on the arms.
Cycling training for Ironman: How to get the most out of your hours.
Cycling is probably the one discipline of the three that takes the most time. In my experience, it’s also the thing that most feel comfortable about because they know how to bike and have biked their whole lives.
Count on a lot of hours spent on your bike, so there is a great reason to train smart on the bike and not just put in a lot of hours.
During the years I trained for Ironman I always trained intensively and didn’t put in the long rides during the few months before the race. In general a couple of months before the race, it’s a good idea to train some really specific sets, where you go long and slow. But before that, you have to build up strength on the bike and for that, I can truly recommend a home trainer/turbo trainer.
For a deeper look into bike training, I can recommend this article: “The Ultimate Guide to Time Trial Training.” It’s not aimed at triathletes, but there are a lot of points you can use for your training. This guide is also a good start toward understanding different terms like threshold, VO2, etc.
Smart Ironman training with a home trainer / turbo trainer
Depending on where you live and what race you have signed up for, you will probably go through a winter of training for your race and cycling especially is not fun in the winter.
For time-effective cycling training, I cannot recommend a home trainer enough (also called a turbo trainer, but I will call it a home trainer.) A home trainer is a piece of equipment that holds your bike, so you can train inside.
A home trainer is really good for fitness because it enables you to do specific training sets. Cycling outdoors includes different factors that can disturb your training such as having to crossroads.
Most people who train for an Ironman are normal people, that need to balance their lives to get the most out of their hours. With a home trainer, the quality of training is high and you can use it without even leaving the house. A home trainer is perfect if you have kids to watch, don’t get home from work until quite late, and so on.
Using a home trainer is the absolute best way to improve your shape and increase your threshold power. To get some insight regarding how to increase your threshold power, read this article.
Cycling technique – More difficult than you think
But using a home trainer is not enough. A home trainer will give you strength and build fitness, but you will not learn better cycling techniques.
Race-specific training is always good and you are not going to do the cycling leg of an Ironman standing still with your home trainer, so it’s really important to also get outside in the elements and get comfortable with riding the streets.
I made the mistake of training a bit too much on the home trainer, and too little out in the real world. The result was that my technique was not good enough compared to my fitness, so I didn’t get enough out of my fitness. I was simply not good enough at corners and such.
Be careful of riding too much in groups
Ironman racing has a cycling rule of no drafting. This means that you can’t bike in groups on race day, unlike other cycling races. Staying on the wheel of someone else reduces how hard you have to work for your speed, but this is not allowed in an Ironman.
An Ironman is 100% your work, so be careful not to train too much in a group. It makes a difference. If you are training with a club, make sure that you do a lot of the rides with 10 meters between you and the other cyclists, so it will be like on race day.
Ironman marathon – This is where it all happens
When putting your bike into T2 (where you change from cycling to running), the day starts. This is where the action in an Ironman is. This is where people break down.
Running a marathon after being out there for so long, swimming and cycling are difficult. There is no way around it. In a normal marathon, you will start when you are fresh, but a marathon in an Ironman will start when you are tired.
You might feel most uncomfortable looking forward to swimming and cycling as the biggest part of the day regarding time spent, but running is the hardest. Running a good marathon is key to overall performance.
Backing a bit off the swimming and cycling can give you that energy you need to make a decent run (or just prevent you from not walking) and is always a good investment.
Run training for an Ironman is also difficult because this is where you are most likely to get injured.
How to prevent running injuries
To prevent injuries, you have to start small and build up the miles month to month. Don’t be afraid of not reaching the optimal fitness you want; you will quickly gain great fitness through swimming and cycling, so don’t ruin all your hard work with an injury you could have prevented.
As we talked about earlier, a customized training program can be extremely valuable, and with running, that is especially true.
If you can feel something is not right, then back off. You might miss a set or two, but that is much better than getting an injury that can last for months.
To build up your body for training hard for the run part, actually takes years, because the load on your muscles, feet, tendons, and other parts of your body (like knees) is so big.
If you are just starting and have not been doing a lot of running before, then split your running over three days per week, and don’t go over 15 miles per week for the first months.
Diversity is key in run training
In all aspects of run training, diversity is the key to being successful. First of all, running different kinds of sets, like short sprints, long sprints, jogging, tempo runs, and long slow distance is always the best solution. Combine different kinds of sets of speeds and distances to build the best shape and prevent injuries.
This also helps to ensure that running will never get boring because you will be doing something new all the time.
Also, diversity should be a part of where you do your training. Do some on a track, some in nature, some on roads, and some on a treadmill. Different places have different positive things about them.
Running in nature, where there are rocks, roots, hills and more will strengthen your ankles, tendons, and key muscles because you will land differently on your feet depending on what is under you. This can help prevent injuries in the long run.
The track is good for sprints and the same is true about the treadmill. Both are controlled environments, where you can do very specific sets.
Asphalt/road is what tears the most on your body because the ground is so hard. That is why I like to do a lot of my training away from the road. That way I can run more than if I did 100% on the roads. Keep in mind that most people will complete their actual race on the road, so it’s important to get used to that, too.
The fourth discipline in Ironman
What I like to call the fourth discipline in Ironman is also known as “everything else”. Swimming, cycling, and running are what triathlon is, but there are many other related elements you need to focus on as well.
Don’t feel overwhelmed, but food, sleep, balance, equipment, energy products, and core training are all important parts of preparation for your Ironman.
We won’t go into unnecessary detail here, but I would just like to mention them shortly because they are important. Ironman is a big project. Training takes a lot of time, so you must be focused on having a good balance between work, family, training, and rest. Without things like that, doing an Ironman is difficult. This is the only thing in “the fourth discipline” you should focus on before starting the project. This is the absolute basic. You have the demands and support of your job and more importantly your family/partner, so you have the foundation to succeed in the project.
Starting an Ironman is a big project and there are many things to consider. My overall advice is to take it easy. Don’t focus too much on this “fourth discipline” for the first couple of months. Just get started and get some routines formed for training and start building your experiences and fitness. Much of this fourth discipline will take place automatically, and you will make good decisions about them when you need them.
The fourth discipline will take time and energy. This chapter will provide advice to you such as not to get too caught up in these things, not in the beginning anyway. It’s so easy to get caught up because you want to succeed in your project. For example, don’t start a radically new diet because you want to race an Ironman.
When you start training a lot, you will start eating and sleeping accordingly, simply because your body has increased needs.
Things like the huge range of energy products for training and racing are a jungle. There is so much available that it can be difficult to choose. Use your training to try different products and see which ones you like the taste of the most. (You will need something satisfying after ten hours of racing). Why not start with the brand that the Ironman producers will offer at the race you are signed up for?
Ironman race day – 10 things you should know
During your months of training up to an Ironman, you will talk to a lot of people who have raced before. You will probably read many articles and watch tons of YouTube videos about how the race day is, what the atmosphere is like, and all the practical issues.
This article is mainly focused on your preparation, but I would like to share a few tips about race day. Here, I have gathered 10 things about the Ironman race day that you should know.
1. Relax – Take one thing at the time
Going into race day, the project will seem bigger and bigger. What will you eat for breakfast, transportation to the start line and other matters may overwhelm you. Just relax and focus on one thing at a time both before and during the race. When you swim, focus on swimming, not on how well you do the cycling leg. Focus on the present.
2. Have a plan before race day
Have an absolutely clear plan about race day: which pace you are going to cycle, what you will do if you get a bike tire puncture, and more. Think all these things through, so you have a plan that makes you feel comfortable and ready.
3. Visualize the race the day before
The day before is for resting and visualizing the race. Take it easy, close your eyes and go through your race plan in your head again and again. At one point you will feel ready. You will feel that you have done enough and now it’s showtime. Normally that is pretty late the night before the race?
4. Go through T1 and T2
T1 and T2 are the two changing zones where you go from swim to bike and from bike to run. Normally, you have to check in your bags and bike the day before and that is a good chance to go through both, so you know exactly where your things are and you feel comfortable about the zones.
5. Eat correctly leading up to the race
Don’t start changing your routines too much leading up to the race. Eat what you are used to eating, so your body doesn’t have to adjust to something new. The last couple of days before, don’t eat red / dark meat like beef and don’t eat too much fiber. Eat something that your body can quickly turn into energy
6. The coffee trick
If you, like myself, like a couple of cups of coffee per day, you would want to lower your intake of caffeine the last week. On race morning, drink a cup of strong black coffee, so you have to go to the toilet. This way you will empty your stomach and trust me; that’s much better to do in the morning than in the middle of your run and when your body is having problems taking in more energy.
It’s very, very normal to have stomach problems on the run, but having coffee is a really good way to avoid such.
Also, many energy products come with caffeine. You shouldn’t ingest too much of this, but on the run, some can be good. If you lower your intake the last week, you will get a bigger “kick” from the caffeine on race day. Simple!
7. Take it easy on the swim
You have a big day ahead of you; don’t ruin it on the swim. You cannot win the Ironman via the swim part alone, but you can lose it. If you are not an experienced swimmer, then you should take it extra easy in the beginning. Start the swim portion on one of the sides, so you won’t be in that much traffic. It’s better to spend five minutes more on the swim in this way to avoid potentially painful contact with others and save some energy than in giving your fullest in the middle. You should go into T1 with lots of energy left.
8. Have an energy plan
Plan your exact energy intake for the whole day, including how much to drink. At some point, you will get extremely tired of energy drinks, but if you stop drinking and eating, you run into problems. Having a plan will make you take the correct amount of energy at the right times. Racing after 8, 10, or 12 hours it is easy to make wrong decisions, so plan carefully beforehand. Energy is key to a good race.
During a day of Ironman like this, you will sweat. A lot. That’s why it can be a really good idea to combine your energy intake with salt, so you will get the minerals that your body needs. This is especially important if you are racing in hot and humid weather.
One thing you have to know about taking salt is that your body will stop producing it as would normally be natural. So if you start, you have to continue through the race. This should be a part of your energy plan. There are different options here, ranging from tablets you add to your water and special gels and energy bars to pills/tablets you swallow. I recommend trying everything in training, so you get an idea of what works best for you.
10. The 5/5 Ironman marathon rule
The marathon in Ironman is where things happen. This is when the Ironman gets challenging and where you have to follow your plan and/or be very wise about adjusting it. A good rule is the 5/5 rule, which is about the five first and five last kilometers of the run (3.10686 miles). Start the first five a bit conservatively and give your body and mind some time to adjust to running. Starting the run in this atmosphere is normally pretty incredible, so it’s easy to run too fast.
The last five kilometers are the absolute last work of the day. Now, it’s time to go all in. You should not have any energy left when you cross that finish line. You have worked so many hours, days, and months for this Ironman, and the last five are just the very last part of the work. Give it all you have, stop thinking, and just get to that finish line as soon as possible.
I hope this article has helped prepare you for your first Ironman.
It’s a big project and thinking about all the training and preparation can feel confusing and overwhelming. Remember what a wonderful challenge the Ironman is; be sure to prepare carefully for several months. You will be ready!
Normal people, like you and I, have met the challenge of an Ironman before and had great experiences. So will you!
If you have any questions or comments, don’t hesitate to write in the available space below. I will answer as soon as possible.