How to Train for an Ironman - Part 1

author : Tre_bor
comments : 5

So you want to become an Ironman?! Are you sure...? It's not a light undertaking. You will be required to train in the wet and dark hours of winter. Sacrifice nights out with your friends because you need to ride 180km the next morning. You'll miss out on social activities because of "B" races that were planned months ago and the list goes on...If you're happy with that, read on and I will attempt to help you make it through without making too many rookie mistakes.

How I Can Help You

I am writing these articles because I have just completed my first Ironman race and I feel there were lessons that I learned which will benefit others who are new to the world of Ironman triathlon racing. This is not going to be an Ironman workout program. It's aimed at those who have never completed an Ironman distance race before. With over 50% of the field at a large number of Ironman races being Ironman virgins, there are probably a lot of mistakes that could be avoided.

But before we get to that it's probably a good idea to give you a little bit of background about me, so you can see where I started with all of this and how the Ironman mantra "anything is possible" took on a different, more personal, meaning.

In At the Deep End

In June 2012 my friend said he wanted to get fit before he was 30 and decided triathlon was an ideal way to achieve this. He asked me if I wanted to join him. I definitely did but there was a small problem: I couldn't swim!

When I say I couldn't swim I mean front crawl. I could tread water and swim breast stroke but not put my face in the water. Each time I tried to put my head under I would panic and suck in water through my nose, like an involuntary reaction similar to when someone throws cold water over you and you uncontrollably gasp. I attempted to get over it and conquer that fear but I couldn't, not in time for my first race anyway...

My Frist Tri

It was a sprint distance triathlon (750m swim, 21km bike, 5km run) at Dorney Lake in England. I had to complete the swim doing breast stoke with my head out of the water.  Not very efficient but I did it in 19:04 so it wasn't too bad. I completed the race in 1:22. That was on Sunday and on Monday I booked in for my first swimming lesson to learn how to swim properly.

Swim Lesson One

One 45 minute swim lesson later and I could just about bring myself to put my head under the water without taking in water through my nose. After that I trained five times a week on my own, just for 20 minutes at a time and taught myself how to swim. I later learned that I should have got some technique training earlier on in my swimming life, but more on that later.

Cycling and Running

It's fair to say that I was a relatively novice cyclist, having only cycled to commute two miles to work and back for three years.

I had a little experience in running, having taken on a few 10km races but I'd never been serious about it and the thought of doing a marathon did not appeal to me - too much training!

As you can tell, I'm no Olympic hopeful, nor am I super fit. But what I do have is discipline and commitment. When I want to do something I will make sure I achieve it. Having the right mindset is half the battle in Ironman racing.

Ironman Racing

Ironman racing is like no other race I have ever entered. The fact that I was looking at taking up to 13 hours to complete - it was something completely new to me. How do you train for that? How do you fuel for that? I didn't know at the time.

Knowing what I know now I understand that a large part of it is conditioning the body. For example, when riding your bike for 180km the first thing that starts to hurt (when you are riding at a lower intensity) won't be your legs. It'll probably be your neck or back. For me it was my neck, first from being in the aero position, then my back for the same reason. It takes a lot of time to condition those muscles to get used to being in that awkward position.

When swimming, cycling and running for that length of time small niggles can become big problems. A small rubbing of your cycling shorts may seem irrelevant when cycling for an hour or two, but after six hours that small rub may become a really sore part...

Preparation

It's really key that you have a plan in place if you want to do anything well and this most definitely applies to Ironman racing. You need to do the following:

  1. Know how many hours a week you have to dedicate to each sport
  2. Understand where your weaknesses are and have a plan to improve them
  3. Understand and practice race fuelling, which is different for every person
  4. Be able to pace yourself through the swimming, cycling and running sections of the race so you don’t burn out
  5. Develop a weight training program to help prepare your body and make you faster and more efficient in each of the three disciplines
Time

To train for an Ironman takes time. A lot of time. This is not just the fact that you spend a lot of hours each week exercising, but also that a long ride needs to be 6-7 hours long. That's pretty much your whole Sat/Sun gone. Do not underestimate the amount of training you need to do if you want to get around the course without too much pain and get a half decent time.

Depending on your fitness levels and your swim, bike and run skills, you'll need a good six months to prepare. Preferably nine months. Remember, though, that you are not training at 100% intensity for that time without a break. In general you will be training in blocks of 3-4 weeks with a week of active recovery, before starting the next block of 3-4 weeks.

Effort

If you are reading this you have probably already dabbled in some other sports or completed a triathlon of a shorter distance. The thing about Ironman distance is that it's not just twice as hard as a half ironman (also known as a 70.3), it's exponentially harder; probably five or six times as tough.

Note: Why is a half Ironman called a 70.3 race? Because a full distance Ironman is 140.6 miles, therefore half of that is 70.3. It's an easy way to brand Ironman events; "Ironman" is full distance, "Ironman 70.3" is half distance. It has a nice ring to it. Great marketing.

Unless you are a top level athlete you won't be stressing your cardio system that much throughout the race. It's more of a zone 2, 140-155 beats per minute kind of effort. The real effort is maintaining comfort.

Staying in the time trial position on a bike for 6-7 hours is not natural. Your neck and back will be the first things to hurt and your legs and cardio system probably won't feel stressed too much. Therefore, time spent conditioning your body is absolutely critical to success.

Your Overall Strategy

What you first need to do is look at your weaknesses. For me it was the swimming. You then need to allocate a certain amount of time to each discipline per week. When doing this, you shouldn't just split your time equally, even if you are average at swimming, cycling and running. Why? Because they are not equal in terms of time when racing.

If you were average at each of the disciplines (average is 1:15 swim, 6:40 bike, 4:30 run so total of 12:45 including transitions), your breakdown of time per discipline as a percentage of the total time would look something like this:

  • Swim: 10%
  • Bike: 60%
  • Run: 30%

So, looking at that you would need to spend your time in those ratios training in each discipline. If you had 15 hours a week (hinting to a good number of hours to train each week...) your training schedule might be something like this:

  • Swim 1.5 hours
  • Bike 9 hours
  • Run 4.5 hours

That works out quite nicely. It will allow you to do a long bike and a couple of shorter rides in the week and the same for the swim and run.

That's it for this months post. I hope that it has given you something to think about and maybe got you asking some questions, like:

  1. How much time do I have to train for this Ironman race each week?
  2. What are my strengths and weaknesses?
  3. Can I map out a typical weeks' worth of training between each discipline?

In the next post I will be covering some swim specific advice so look out for that. If you have any questions about any of this please leave a comment below and I will do my best to answer you.


Author Bio: Robert Jackson this year became an Ironman! He believes a balanced, yet consistent, approach to training and diet will deliver results. Having started out with a fear of the water, he managed to complete the 3.8km Ironman swim in 1.5 hours just 11 months later, proving that "anything is possible...". Robert has recently created a website to guide those looking for protein powder. Click here to find out more.

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date: December 9, 2013

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Tre_bor