Lately I have been getting a lot of questions from runners regarding training for an Ironman. Most runners that I coach are intrigued with the cross-training aspects of an Ironman training season, not to mention the allure of completing a 140.6 mile event. As an Ironman athlete myself whose roots were set firmly in the sport of running, I totally understand the curiosity of an Ironman event to a runner. Today’s post is a high level view of what you should expect if you choose to take on an Ironman event. As with all things worthwhile, it will not be easy; nor should it be. So expect and prepare yourself for the difficulties which are bound to come up. It will be an emotional and physical roller coaster with it’s own peaks and valleys. Chances are you will doubt yourself along the way. When this happens, take a deep breath, trust in yourself and keep your sights on the bigger picture… you will be an “IRONMAN”… Just be warned it will change your life forever!
Picking the Perfect Race:
As you commence your Ironman journey you are immediately faced with a few critical decisions. What race to choose, what plan to follow, what training group to join, etc. These are just the start and as you begin your research, you will find a ton of online information which can quickly become overwhelming. So, here’s a little advice: Think of the bigger picture, upcoming life events; vacations, kids, school, weather. Then be honest with how much time you can dedicate to training, carefully considering your family obligations. The most successful athletes have the full support of their family. So, make sure they understand that for the next few months you will need their support to focus on training. With that said, make sure your training plan has some downtime which you can dedicate to your family. Think about the weather where you will be training and weather at the race location, when selecting an event. Work backwards to find a race which will set you up for success during your training season. It’s less than pleasant to have to do a 4 hour ride in the heat of the summer, or run 3 hours in sub-freezing temperatures.
Be prepared to drop some cash. Race entry fees are about $600, flights + hotel + transportation + gear shipping let’s say $2,000; so budget about $3,000, depending on the location. Make sure you select a hotel close to the start/finish line. You’ll likely have to pay a premium but it is worth it on race day. These “host hotels” typically have a discount for race participants, dinners and are ready for athletes on race morning with breakfast and transportation if necessary. Consider renting a car since you want to be off your feet as much as comfortable and minimize the stress of public transportation. Just remember to make sure the car is big enough to fit your bike and gear. Some races have partnered up with companies who take care of bike and gear transport and it is definitely worth spending the money on this service. Once you arrive at the race, your bike and gear will be waiting for you and at the end of the event they will pick up your bike and gear and ship it back home… strongly recommend this service.
Triathlon is not a cheap sport so plan accordingly. Training gear, bike, nutrition, accessories, training races, wet suit and shoes are all things to budget for. My advice would be to get quality gear as it will pay dividends in the future. Unfortunately some things you might have to buy a few times till you get the hang of what works best for you. Wetsuits come in all price ranges, generally speaking the less expensive models lack flexibility and don’t feel as natural as the premium models. Bikes, consider getting a used bike but make sure you have an expert inspect it to ensure it is safe to ride and it is the right fit for you. You will be spending a lot of time on the bike so it needs to be very comfortable and fit you well. A poor fitting bike may even impact your running mechanics and eventually cause injuries. Save some cash by not investing in gadgets, in your first year of Ironman training you should be getting a feel for all three disciplines, it is easy to distract yourself with power meters, fancy heart rate monitors and sweet aero wheels. Keep it simple, you will have plenty of time to get all the toys next season.
Race days goals should be simple for a first timer, “just finish and enjoy the race”. That’s it. You will learn SO much while participating in your first event that the best thing to do is just take mental notes for the next Ironman event you do. Ironman is a totally different animal and even if you are a seasoned runner, set yourself up for success and limit the expectations that you put on yourself. You always want to leave your first event of any distance happy and energized to improve and continue with the distance. Creating too much pressure on your first event also takes so much of the fun and excitement of this new experience away from you. After your first event your coach can work with you to set strategic goals based on your training and outcome of the first to set realistic but stretch goals for the next one.
So you have put in the months of training, you have your nutrition dialed in, you’re well rested at the starting line waiting for the cannon to go off. At this moment all you can do is trust in your training, enjoy the day and take it all in. If things don’t go as planned, don’t panic. Adjust and adapt to the situation. I ask my athletes to visualize the race ahead of time and plan for issues that might arise. This will help ease the mind a little in case your goggles break mid-way during your swim, or you get a flat and run out of air. You will have already planned for that situation and can handle it and move on without an issue.
Swim: If you have a chance to warm-up, take it. It is the perfect opportunity to do final adjustments to your gear and ensure your body is warm and ready for the swim. Once the race starts allow the masses to pass and settle into a comfortable pace. Be careful with swimmers around you that might inadvertently hit you. A few minutes after the start you will be able to get into a groove and follow the bubbles. Find a swimmer you can draft from and stick with them to conserve energy. As they get tired take this opportunity to ensure you are going straight and find the next swimmer to draft behind. Always make sure you are breathing and relaxed.
Bike: Be smart on the bike. Conserve your energy, eat, hydrate and don’t overextend yourself. In every race we see athletes who are strong on the bike push themselves so hard that they have no choice but to walk the marathon. This makes for a very long and agonizing day. So even if you are feeling amazing on the bike, take a step back and realize that you have a marathon coming up soon. Again, trust your training. By race day you should have the appropriate miles under your belt, your nutrition plan should be dialed in and you should be mentally ready for anything that might come up unexpectedly.
Run: Be smart and pace yourself. You will be tempted to leave transition at a higher pace than you should. It is normal with all of the excitement and given that the legs have been used to the high cadence of the bike. This is the moment when it is critical to pace yourself. Take the first few minutes to fuel and get your legs under you, as they might feel “noodly”. After that, settle into a comfortable pace but be ready for your body to start to feel uncomfortable. At this point it has been a long day. Refocus on the task at hand, stay hydrated, don’t lose motivation and lean on your fellow athletes and supporters to energize you to the finish.
The finish line of an Ironman event is indescribable. The energy and feeling of emotions will flood your body like nothing you’ve ever felt in your life. Enjoy this moment, this is what you have been preparing yourself for all of these months. On your first finish line, I suggest not sprinting towards the end, but just jogging through, giving high fives to the crowd of spectators and setting yourself up for the best finish line picture you can get. This is your moment, take it all in; YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!
So you are a newly minted Ironman, now what? Well, first thing’s first – time to recover, reward yourself and spend time with those special to you. You will find yourself hungry for more and you might have to fight back the temptation to immediately sign up for another event. The best way to avoid those crazy decisions made during a post-race high is to make them ahead of time. Or, at least have an idea of what might be next for you. Spend some time with your coach during your taper to begin considering what’s next. That way once the race is over and you know if you want to take a little break from training or set a new time goal and sign up for the next race right away, you’ll have a plan and be making smart decisions.