9 August 2009 15 Comments

Could you do an Ironman?

(updated March 2016)

Yes, of course you could.

If life were that simple then I suspect many more people than the 100,000 plus people who tackle an Ironman distance event annually across the globe would actually do so. However, life isn’t quite so simple and there are loads of barriers (actual or imaginary) that prevent people doing one.

I’m not even going to get into the question of why you would want to do one as plenty of people have questioned my sanity (myself included) before lining up for the start at Ironman UK in both 2009 and 2010; I’m simply going to try to answer the question, could you do an Ironman?

Of the 1500 who start Ironman UK each July I’m going to put an arbitrary figure of around 10-15% of entries who are “competitive” people, experienced triathletes aiming to try and qualify for the Ironman World Championships at Kona (Hawaii). The majority of the rest, myself included, are what I term “challenge” competitors whose number one priority is to finish the race. Of these, quite a large number will be tackling their first Ironman, and there will be some who are tackling their first triathlon. Others of this group might be experienced Ironmen aiming for a PB, but not necessarily trying for Kona qualification.

I am not a triathlon coach and I have no formal qualification except to say that I have been racing triathlons for 12 seasons, and so anything I might say should be taken in that context and not treated as gospel.

Barriers to entry

1. Your mind

The biggest barrier to entry to an Ironman is your mind. That was certainly the case with me, I simply couldn’t get my head around running a marathon after cycling 112 miles. In practice, the transition from bike to run was the best executed part of my first Ironman and I ran the vast majority of the marathon course. My distant history of marathon running had told me how hard it is to complete a marathon. What I hadn’t realised is that running a marathon on its own is a completely different experience to the run in an Ironman. When you line up to start a marathon you will be well rested, ideally tapered and ready to go; you will race at a far higher pace than you ever would in an Ironman. In contrast, the Ironman marathon is entirely dependent on your physical state at the end of the bike ride and your capacity to run at any pace at all is already severely curtailed.

The training that you do in the build up to your Ironman will help your mental toughness and it’s only by doing long training rides for 6 or 7 hours on your own, or half ironman events that will tell you whether or not you have the mental toughness to take on Ironman.

2. Age and Body Shape

The second big barrier is age and body shape. “I’m too old to do this”, or “I’m not fit enough.” There are folk of all body shapes and ages competing in Ironman.  The oldest competitor at Ironman UK  2009 was 73 years old and one of the youngest (at 20) was the winner. When out on the course I’m constantly amazed at the different bodyshapes of the athletes down the field. It’s a fact that endurance tends to build with age and the 40 to 49 age groups are considered amongst the largest and most competitive in Ironman. The weight issue is also less of a barrier than might be thought – I lost 10kg in the 10 months building up to race day and feel immeasurably better for it. You are likely to lose weight simply through training, as long as you follow a sensible diet. However, if you really are overweight for your age and height it’s vitally important to seek medical advice and start training at a pace and volume that you can cope with. Joining a gym can help for some as they can draft a training plan to suit your needs and set you on your way.

rivington_ironman_81993. Commitment

The third big barrier is commitment to the training plan. Top Ironmen will put in 30 to 35 hours a week training and good amateurs will be putting in 20 hours a week or so in the few months building up to the race. A look at my training diary shows that I trained for an average of less than 7 hours a week for the 6 months prior to each of the Ironman events that I have completed. By reading suggested training plans, you will realise that this is a lot less than is recommended (and, in truth, I would have been happier if I could have done more). If that still seems a lot then lets see how it breaks down: having a young family is always an issue for any athlete and it is no different for me. My main target is to have one long run a week (building up to about 2:30 to 3 hours a month before the race), one long swim (building up to full race distance – 3.8km) and one long bike ride (building up to 5-7 hours). The swim and the run always take place on a weekday evening, and the bike ride at the weekend. These sessions are supplemented by commuting to work by bike 2 or 3 times a week, if possible, and doing runs straight off the bike after arriving home from work. I also add some cycle sportives as extra tough bike sessions in the months building up to the race. The big problem for most is the bike training. A 5 hour training ride is a big chunk of your weekend and don’t expect to be much use to anyone after you’ve got back. The main requirement is flexibility, don’t get stressed if your key run session gets put back a couple of days, or even dropped that week altogether. Keeping an eye on the bigger picture always helps and make sure that you schedule in some key training weekends in the family diary, not just yours. Just focus on those 3 sessions, one for each discipline; if you manage these consistently, you’ll not go far wrong. If you think that you can’t commit to 10 hours a week in the 3 months before the event then you have seriously got to question whether Ironman is a sensible goal.

One thing I notice that as I get older (I’m 53 this year) I need much more rest between sessions. I never scheduled a hard training day after a long run or long bike ride, and often had 2 or even 3 rest days after the toughest sessions. Occasionally I do schedule 2 or 3 tough days back to back, but these are always be followed by extended rests.

For a more detailed look at my training for Ironman UK 2009, read this post.

The lesson when constructing your training plan is that if you want to do an Ironman, you must make it a shared task. Involve family fully in the discussions. There will always be tension between what you perceive as your essential training targets and family life. If your family are behind you, these moments will be far less frequent.

4. It’s Expensive

Finally, triathlon has the perception of being an expensive sport requiring lots of pricey kit. Just the entry fee will cost upwards of £300, and if you read the triathlon press there is masses of editorial on aero this and lightweight that, and it’s true that the top bikes that the top people ride won’t see much change for £7,000. I have written a separate post about kit requirements, but you can find kit packages from the major triathlon suppliers for under £2,000 containing practically everything you need to get started. In reality, the place to start is with a bike and a pair of running shoes. A decent fitting mid range pair of runners is essential (mine cost £55). You don’t need to go for super high  volume, high cost running shoes as you won’t be doing the mileage to warrant the expense. What you should do is get good advice from a good running shop so that you get shoes to suit your running style and weight.

If you are going to spend money anywhere, then I suggest it should be on your bike as you and it will develop a fairly intimate relationship. Plenty of people dip their toe in the triathlon water at short events using hybrid bikes and mountain bikes, but you’d be a peculiar brand of masochist to want to tackle an Ironman on one. (note: mountain bikes are banned in World Triathlon Corporation races  – Ironman branded so you’ll have to invest in a road bike if you want to do one) Similarly, don’t buy an aero bike as your first race bike. For the majority of athletes, especially inexperienced cyclists, a road bike is by far the best option. Spend as much money as your budget will allow – there are some fantastic bikes around the £1,200 – £1,500 mark. I would suggest that if you buy very cheap (less than £800) you’ll get a heavy bike with cheap gear on it that will lead to frustration and breakdowns on repeated long distance training sessions. The last piece of advice I would offer is spend the extra £60 or whatever it takes to get a professional bike fitting, it will repay you in spades on those bike rides.

Should I jump straight in to Ironman distance?

There are quite a few athletes on the startline of every race for whom Ironman is their first ever triathlon. That’s a pretty incredible achievement, but it’s an extremely high risk strategy, and I would be interested to know what percentage of the athletes who fail to finish were in that category. I think it’s very high risk for several reasons.

Firstly, you have no experience to build on. By racing shorter distance triathlons you build race craft, practice transitions between disciplines and go through all the pre race programme over and over again making the Ironman experience immeasurably less stressful. You also build the mental toughness to tackle long events.

Secondly, many people experience hyper-ventilation and panic attacks at the beginning of open water swim races (I did at my first triathlon in Windsor way back in 2003). These are often controllable as you settle in, but do result in a number of rescues. I can’t imagine the feelings of someone who had put in months of training, only to be rescued within a few hundred metres of the start. Doing some shorter events will obviously build experience and help prevent this sort of thing. I have now done 4 Ironman races and have witnessed canoe rescues on every single one.

Thirdly, it takes time to build endurance. Before starting on a build up to an Ironman you need to realistically appraise your existing state of fitness. It may be that a season of doing shorter distance triathlons building up to a half-ironman at the end of it might be a much better strategy than going for it in a single season. If, on the other hand, you already have a good base of fitness because you are a marathon runner, regular sportive rider etc then a single season might be a reasonable option.

Training your weaknesses

Many people come into triathlon with a background in one of the disciplines and want to broaden things out. There is an obvious tendency to favour your strong suit and swimmers in particular are guilty of this. Swimmers please note: the swim in an Ironman is only roughly 10% of the total race time and therefore, should only be about 10% of the total training time. Those long training rides on the bicycle through the winter are the key element to Ironman success. Long efforts on the bicycle and running are not replaceable by long pool sessions.

I’ve never had a coached training session in 11 years of triathlon – some might say that I should have had plenty! While I’m sure that it means my swim in particular has never been much good, I’ve never felt the need to make that commitment. Joining a club, however maybe of great benefit to many newcomers to avoid some basic training mistakes. Regional search here. You’ll also get to talk to experienced Ironmen and women and their advice on nutrition, kit, race strategies are absolutely invaluable.

Choose your races

Ironman races come in many flavours, some feature a tough sea swim (South Africa, Brasil, Lanzarote, Wales); while others make the bike leg a “feature” with lots of climbing (Lanzarote, Wales, and France); some sell out virtually instantly (Austria, Germany); others like Ironman Mallorca and Barcelona are more suitable for people chasing quick times. Make sure you research your race carefully – any race featuring a sea swim (even if it’s normally calm) can have a potentially really tough start (Ironman Wales’ swim in 2015 caught out a lot of people, making the rest of the race far harder than they had planned). Some races such as Austria have official agents who sell travel and accomodation packages including race entry after the event has sold out. I have written a post about which are the toughest Ironman races here, and it’s worth noting that there are triathlons over a similar distance to Ironman that don’t come under the Ironman brand. The website Ironindex.com ranks Ironman and Challenge branded Iron Distance races according to difficulty rating Ironman Lanzarote as the hardest of them all and Challenge Poznan as the easiest (if any Ironman can be said to be “easy”).

As an illustration of the difference that the course can make, I did the bike section at Ironman Regensburg in 2011 in 6:14, whereas Wales in 2015 was 90 minutes slower – the rough roads and over 2000 metres of climbing make the Tenby race one that demands absolute respect. Throw in a sea swim and a hilly marathon and it’s easy to see why Ironindex rates it as second only in toughness to Lanza.

There is always the temptation to make an Ironman race part of a family holiday. If you do, be realistic. The three days leading up to the event will be taken up in large measure by race prep, registration, racking bikes and doing as little as possible. You will also be in a pretty stressed state and likely to be highly irritable if things don’t go according to plan. And, of course, you’ll be as useless as a chocolate teapot for a minimum of 3 days afterwards.

“You’re an Ironman”

There are few physical challenges that are as easily accessible yet as tough as an Ironman, and there are few moments in your life that will exceed that one when you cross the finish line and hear the announcer say “… you’re an Ironman”. In an age when pantomime donkeys finish the London Marathon and celebrities race the London Triathlon, the Ironman challenge still stands apart. Are you up for it?

Both images from Richard Seipp at qwertyphoto.com

Both images from Richard Seipp at qwertyphoto.com

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15 Responses to “Could you do an Ironman?”

  1. redbikes 9 August 2009 at 1:12 pm #

    Highly inspiring. I think I might try for a half iron man next year. Yep, i’m happy to be just half a man!

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  2. John Sutton 9 August 2009 at 1:22 pm #

    Good place to start. Checkout Ironman UK 70.3 (Wimbleball, Somerset) in June. Super tough bike course. The Vitruvian in early Sepember is a much faster course and well organised (Rutland Water) but enter early as it fills up. The Beaver triathlon (based around Belvoir castle) has a great reputation, although I’ve not done it. Lastly the Bala Middle Distance is also on an excellent course (tough run). Let me know which one you put down for!

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  3. Simon Lewis 9 August 2009 at 10:29 pm #

    Thanks John. Excellent article. I am really seriously considering an iron man either next year or 2011. Having done marathons and sportives, I know I have it in me. I just have to learn to swim properly. I can do a length without stopping but not well. Would you suggest lessons? Just not sure where to begin.

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  4. Swim Coach Finder 10 August 2009 at 3:28 am #

    Great blog piece. Another tip would be if you swim more efficient, you will go faster and have more energy later in the race for the bike and run.

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  5. John Sutton 10 August 2009 at 9:12 am #

    @Simon I never had swimming lessons and just built up my swimming over time trying ti improve efficiency by reading articles etc. However, in hindsight I really wish I’d started out properly and got lessons. Swim Coach Finder is definitely right, if you have a really efficient stroke, you will save energy for later in the race – see the lessons I learned from my Ironman in “How did my race plan work out?”

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  6. austinslide 10 August 2009 at 10:07 am #

    Excellent blog John. Reassures me all the more that I can do it next year.

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  7. David Williams 16 August 2009 at 9:08 pm #

    hi john, just thought l would say thanks for the “just ridden bike course” blog you did before the ironman, l live a long way from bolton and was unable to ride course,l finished in 13 hr 59 min, and had great day, cheers dw

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  8. John Sutton 17 August 2009 at 8:48 am #

    No problem, David. Glad it was useful. Well done on finishing – did you sprint to sneak in under 14 hours? 🙂

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  9. Paul Goddard 22 September 2009 at 7:41 pm #

    Hello again John, couldn’t help but hi-jack your forum again. Once again another honest and inspiring account. Just thought I’d put my experience in as this is a forum I would point any aspiring IM to. Let me take you back to 2 August 2008. I had had my bike, a Scott Speedster S60 £470, entry level, for one day. My only other bike is a rusty 14 year old mountain bike, with original tyres. I bought the Scott because my very first triathlon was one month away and I wanted to at least look the part. Top tips: a set of clip on aero-bars and getting the bike fitted (3 months before Ironman) was invaluable. Swimming. 1 year before Ironman I had had 3 swimming lessons for front crawl. I can’t remember swimming a stroke of crawl ever prior to this. Prior to this I was a very pedestrian, very very occasional breast stoke man. These swimming lessons were invaluable. The longest I ever swam prior to IM was about 75 minutes 3 weeks before the event. IM time 1 hour 48 mins, Wetsuit, ORCA Equip (entry level again).
    Finally my opinion is Ironman is a mind game, I proved this to myself as I completed the whole event without a watch and there were no distance markers, as noted on other parts of this forum. Having been a runner for 9 years and being a slave to 10K times, running a marathon without a clue how long you’ve been running for or how far you’ve gone is a real mind messer. The strength comes from hearing that man say ‘You are an Ironman.’ That kept me going. Thanks for letting me have my say John.

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  10. John Sutton 22 September 2009 at 7:46 pm #

    Hi Paul, hijack to your heart’s content! I agree completely with you – Ironman is all in the mind. I found it tough enough to do the run with no mile markers, having no watch for the entire event is the stuff of Ironman nightmares!

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  11. Buck 22 July 2011 at 11:03 pm #

    Again, thanks. My first ‘standard’ (half Ironman) distance triathlon this year was in Cornwall. My first open water swim. In the sea. I wish I’d have read this first.
    I panicked, waves in my face, took on lots of water and really thought I was going to drown. I was pulled out behind a kayak. 🙁
    They let me do the ride and run, even though I was already DNF, but I was so gutted.
    Which is why I have issues with the swim.
    It’s good to know you had it and overcame it.
    I agree with the point of your post. Less than a year ago I was working towards my ambition of running a half marathon.
    Here I am, two days from the full Iron distance!
    Buck.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks.

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