This article will provide the tools and knowledge you need to show up to the starting line feeling strong and confident.
The Ironman is the pinnacle event in any triathlete’s career. To some, it is a personal challenge stemming from a deep desire to prove to themselves that they can conquer this intimidating event.
Some train for the Ironman to lose weight or to improve overall health. Some want to check it off their bucket list; others even do it for charity.
There are various reasons why people sign up for an Ironman, but they all have one thing in common: The Ironman is the ultimate challenge for endurance athletes.
Its training requires tremendous effort and dedication, but it will all be worth it in the end when you can call yourself an Ironman.
Whatever your reason, remind yourself of it on days when motivation is low, and the weather is gray, as it will help you crush your Ironman goals.
How Long is the Ironman Race?
The Ironman is the longest of the four primary triathlon distances.
It starts with a 3.8 km (2.4-mile) swim, followed by a 180 km (112-mile) bike and ends with running a full marathon of 42.2 km (26.2 miles).
Finish times vary significantly between competitors and terrain. Most Ironman races start at the break of dawn, and for some, they don’t end until late at night. Here are some reference times so you can set a reasonable goal for yourself:
- Median* male age group triathlete: 12 hours 27 minutes
- Median* female age group triathlete: 13 hours 32 minutes
- Current World record: 7 hours 35 minutes (by Jan Frodeno at challenge Roth, Germany)
*Median times based upon data from 2019 data from Ironmans worldwide (found at this address)
Be aware! Unlike most other sporting events, just crossing the finish line does not mean you “finished.” Since the Ironman is the most challenging athletic endeavor (to accomplish), the standard for finishing is high. There are cut-off times in place which the participants must meet on race day:
- Swim Cut-Off: 2 hours 20 minutes
➔ Minimum swim pace of 3’37” per 100m
- Combined Swim & Bike Cut-Off: 10 hours 30 minutes
➔ Minimum bike pace of 22.1 km/h or 13.7mph (based upon 2hr 20mins swim)
- Maximum Finish Time: 17 hours or Midnight
➔ Minimum run pace of 9’15”/km or 14’53”/mile (based upon 6hr 30mins run)
If you do not finish within these times, you will get a DNF (did not finish) behind your name, and you cannot (yet) call yourself an Ironman.
How to Start Training for an Ironman?
Before You Start
The Ironman did not get its reputation as the ultimate endurance challenge for nothing. Less than 1% of all people in the world will run a marathon in their lifetime.
The number of people that accomplish this feat after swimming and biking for hours is even lower. It helps if you have an athletic background before you embark on this great challenge.
Most athletes that venture into the sport of triathlon have at least some prior experience in an endurance sport. It helps if your experience was in swimming, biking, or running; however, this is not always necessary.
For example, former NFL offensive lineman Darryl Haley weighed 300 pounds (136 kg) when he successfully finished the 1995 Kona World Championships in 16 hours 44 minutes.
Build Your Aerobic
Base Building your aerobic base is crucial for any distance triathlon, but is paramount for a successful full distance Ironman.
Swimming, biking, and running a lot of slow miles is the key to build a strong aerobic motor.
Studies in the last decade, like this one, show that better performances are directly associated with more training time spent at low intensity; furthermore, biking too much at even a moderate intensity could lead to a reduced overall performance.
There is an overabundance of different theories on how to best build this base, depending on the equipment available to you.
For example, if you have a heart rate monitor, you can train based upon heart rate zones, or you can use the Maffetone method to strengthen your aerobic system.
If you do not have a heart rate monitor, you can use Borg’s RPE (Relative Perceived Exertion) to train at a comfortable pace where you are still able to hold a conversation. What all theories have in common is that you must slow down before you speed up.
To boost the endurance of all three disciplines simultaneously, you should continuously be working on strengthening your cardiovascular and respiratory system.
One way of gaining a competitive edge over other triathletes is by boosting your vital lung capacity with lung training devices like Airofit. This new technology is ideal to complement your base training, as only 5-10 minutes of breath training can increase your overall performance by 8%.
Race-Specific Ironman Training
The last weeks before your big race is the most crucial time of your preparation.
By the time you begin race-specific Ironman training, you should have some triathlon experience, and ideally, you have experience racing a half Ironman.
If not, don’t panic; you can still succeed. It is essential to distribute your workouts over all three disciplines evenly.
This part is where your base training volume comes into play, as it dictates how many workouts you can manage in this phase. If you were training over 20 hours per week during base training, you should aim to do two workouts per week in each sport.
If you were doing less, you should only do one of each. If you feel like you can add more exercises, add them in this order: bike-swim-run (because a strong bike leg will improve overall performance the most on race day).
One exception to this rule is if you have one weaker discipline, you should add that workout first. Whereas low intensity was crucial in base training, the emphasis of this final phase is to train at race-specific intensities.
If you are serious about completing this Ironman, you should have your goal times locked in by now, and you should have a good idea of your projected race day paces.
If planned correctly, this race-specific pace will be a moderate to high intensity that you can hold for the entire duration of the triathlon.
The best way to evaluate your workout intensity is to monitor your pace while running and swimming, and monitor your power output while biking (since biking speed depends too much on external variables such as hills and wind).
However, this does not mean that you complete all of your workouts at this higher intensity, instead aim for an 80/20 ratio (80% low intensity and 20% at moderate to high race-specific intensity).
Many successful endurance athletes use the famous 80/20 rule, such as former Marathon world record holder Paula Redcliff. This higher intensity training is critical to building the neuromuscular connections to perform your best when race day comes.