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If you’ve committed to completing your first Ironman race, we salute you. These notoriously gruelling competitions separate the fit from the fittest, and regardless of whether you’re in it to win it or to just experience the journey, completing an Ironman is an incredible achievement. You’ve got a few months ahead of you (hopefully!) and it’s time to take stock of your fitness schedule and focus on your end goal because preparation won’t be easy and good training habits are essential.
The Ironman Triathlon is the king of endurance races – a demanding test of willpower and the ultimate trial to see if you can verify the truth in the old adage of ‘mind over matter’. We’re talking a 2.4 mile swim followed by a whopping 112-mile bike, and just when you’ve got your head around the triple figure cycle, you’ll be faced with a full marathon to top it off. There’s a strict 17-hour time limit to complete the race and the Ironman Hawaii course record is 8 hours 3 minutes 56 seconds, set by Craig Alexander in 2011.
First things first, we recommend that you make an appointment with a physical therapist before you commence any kind of training. They will be able to evaluate your overall flexibility and strength which will help in the future stages of your training. Performing strengthening exercises and stretches to target specific weaknesses and inflexibility may not seem as ‘essential’ as making sure you’re anaerobically fit enough, but they will help to prevent injuries in the future and improve performance.
Technique is key. Get it checked. A good swim coach will pick up any weaknesses so you’ll be able to work on them early on in your training. This is important because an effective technique will preserve energy and shave valuable minutes off your time. In such a demanding training programme (and race), there is no room for inefficiency!
The second phase of the race is the longest by far and you’ll need and want to be comfortable on your bike. A professional bike fit can ensure this and experts will be able to provide you with advice on efficient cycling technique.
Even as the World Champ, an Ironman triathlon will take you a whole working 9am -5pm day to complete…though it’s likely you’ll be starting earlier. The swim normally kicks off at 7am with a midnight last call to finish the run. With endurance sports, there isn’t so much an offseason and you’ll need ample time to prepare. According to Ironman trainer Kevin Mackinnon, the average triathlete trains for 18-30 hours a week: 7 miles of swimming, 225 miles of biking, and 48 miles of running. Don’t take this commitment lightly!
Dave Scott, the triathlete who won the Hawaii Ironman six times, completed the same rides, runs and routes day after day. His training varied very little – the only difference being that he tried to go faster and faster. Simplicity both minimises mental stress and makes it easy to track progress; it also prepares you for the endurance aspect which is the hallmark of the Ironman race. It is only through increasing training volume and workout duration that you can build endurance successfully.
A weekly circuit training session is perfect to minimally break up your endurance regime. Training for each stage of the race is important but you’ll also need to condition for overall strength and core stability. Explosive aerobics where you move quickly from exercise to exercise will prepare you for the transitional stages of the Ironman and the use of different muscle groups.
In all aspects of life it is easier to spend more time on what we’re good at. Sure, it’s comforting and it will certainly be easier to drag yourself out of bed in the morning to go for a run instead of a swim if that’s your forte. But the makings of an elite triathlete lie in his ability to master all three phases of the race. Don’t devote too much of your training to biking just because it covers the most distance in the race; the swim is the easiest to neglect but is hugely important as a strong start in the water can set you up with an early advantage.
Finally, remember to keep sight of the whole picture. While the Ironman triathlon is more a lifestyle than a sport for dedicated athletes, for others, training will need to complement rather than dominate the structure and routine of their lives. It needs to fit in alongside work, family and marriage. Try to sign up for races in fun places that your loved ones will also enjoy and turn the event into a memorable weekend getaway.