For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Inspired by Kona and getting the itch to tackle Ironman in the next year? Coach Lance Watson helps you decide if you’re ready.
Coaching in Hawaii at the Ironman World Championship last month was incredibly inspiring. LifeSport has coached many athletes from a variety of backgrounds to finishing their first Ironman and qualifying for the “big show” in Kona, sometimes much to their surprise. It is fascinating talking to people from around the world about their journey to the sport’s biggest race. Ultimately, they all started at some point with the simple goal of tackling a triathlon and exploring Ironman.
You may wonder, is it possible for you to complete an Ironman within the next 12 months? This is a question I am often asked from both new and experienced triathletes, and even people who have never attempted a triathlon.
For the most part Ironman is a wonderful and challenging journey, which involves some soul searching and many personal breakthroughs. A broad range of abilities, ages and body types make it across the finish line in Ironman. There are some questions you should ask yourself before tackling the journey. Consider these points before targeting this incredible ultra-endurance test this year:
Are you generally healthy? This includes arterial health, a strong heart, or a reasonable body composition not leaning toward obesity. A thumbs up from a good sports doc is a starting point. You also need to consider whether joints, tendons, and ligaments are in good shape as well. A proper Ironman progression gradually adds load. Starting from a foundation of good health means that you should be able to achieve your goal feeling strong and stable and ready to undertake a long racing distance. Starting with injury means that you are behind the eight ball before you even get going. There are workarounds. For instance you can focus on swimming and cycling while still rehabbing from a running injury. But generally speaking it is good to have a clean bill of health before you get going.
Additionally consider your age. This is more pertinent for youth than for the elderly. It is a big undertaking to do this for the first time after age 60, but it can be achievable if you have a reasonable background in fitness and endurance and you are starting with a good base of general cardiovascular fitness. Recovery times are greater as you age, so a more graduated build is important, which considers extra rest days and recovery weeks. Running volume is a consideration as well as it is weight bearing versus the less stressful swimming and cycling. Running loads joints and requires more muscular recovery.
While patience is not always a characteristic of youth, athletes under the age of 20 should wait before they contemplate the Ironman distance as the body is still developing, and there is potential for long term damage as muscle and joint stability has often not caught up with a recently height lengthened body. Athletes who are still growing can damage their growth plates and this can impact physical activity down the road. Performance wise, an athlete in their early 20s has the capacity to train to finish the distance. Long term performance development favors shorter racing and threshold speed development until an athlete reaches their mid-20s. Young athletes are ultimately robbing themselves of potential future performance by training long and slow when they should be going short and fast. An optimal age to tackle your first Ironman is after 25. Most Ironman athletes peak in their mid-30s.
I have coached athletes who run multinational corporations, working in different time zones throughout the month, while raising a family. Some train for Ironman and do extremely well. It can be manageable, and I like to hold up this example for any athlete who says “I don’t have time.” It does require an incredible level of dedication and desire though. These athletes tend to get up at 4 a.m. to do their long ride before work or train late in the evening after the young ones are in bed, and plan their travel to include facilities to stay on schedule. A good coach can tailor a program to accommodate a fluctuating work schedule. With careful planning and built-in recovery block weeks, paying attention to sleep patterns, that program can be managed. If this mimics your lifestyle, you should ask yourself if you have the desire to go after this. Alternatively, you can attain a very high level of fitness with far fewer training hours pursuing shorter distance triathlon.
For many, Ironman is the bucket list event, or the ultimate endurance achievement. In this case ask yourself if you want to perform to the peak of your ability, or if you want to finish feeling good. My experience is that you can attain 80 to 85 percent of your top-end fitness and performance level with only 50 to 60 percent of the training volume of a full high performance program. However, it takes a lot more training to get that last 15 to 20 percent of performance out of yourself. So if finishing an Ironman and having a steady day is “mission accomplished” for you, then Ironman is achievable for almost any individual. If truly maximizing your potential is your goal then it takes an in depth analysis of lifestyle and choices to make sure that you are maximizing the time that you do have available and prioritizing the key training sessions and training weeks, particularly in the three months prior to your event.
Don’t go it alone: Emotional support and inspiration is imperative to get you through the key training blocks en route to your ultimate goal, the finish line of Ironman. Having the buy-in of your spouse and family, and giving them a very good understanding of what is entailed in terms of time, travel and finances, alleviates stress for the athlete and supporters. It also means that as you go through some of the trials and tribulations which are part of this awesome journey, you will have someone in your corner to help get you out the door on the rainy days and to high five you after completing those special epic days.
Training partners aid in motivation and accountability to show up for set training times and experienced Ironman athletes can share some tips and tricks, and provide mentorship.
Also make sure you enlist a coach that has experience working with an athlete with your background, level, age group bracket and goals. Having a professional who spends focused time creating an achievable program targeted to your developmental needs is a huge weight off your shoulders as it allows you to simply accomplish the task at hand. An experienced coach leaves you assured that you are doing the right kind of work through the 12 months leading in, and educates you why you are doing it, which is very motivating. It is valuable to have someone you can download the finer details of your sessions to and discuss technical aspects like “how many gels?” or “what is my optimal gear ratio?” My experience is that even the most supportive spouses get tired of hearing about the finer details of “which bike saddle weighs 10 grams less” or “which tire provides the least rolling resistance.” Coaches love these kinds of conversations.
In summary, most anyone can complete an Ironman within a 12 month time frame, newbie or veteran. Contemplate your parameters and goals in formulating your plan to the finish line.
LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group champions over the past 25 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Join Lance to tackle your first triathlon or perform at a higher level.