The Waiting Game: When To Take On Ironman

Defining and recognizing the right time to move up to 140.6 miles requires that various individual factors be considered.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Illustration by Hunter King.

How do you know when it’s the right time to step up to the 140.6-mile distance?

This article was originally published in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

Two years ago, Scott Fliegelman, executive director of FastForward Sports in Boulder, Colo., was approached by one of the newer triathletes in his 400-member club. The athlete, Steve, told Fliegelman that he wanted to do his first Ironman the following year. The coach told the athlete that he should wait; he wasn’t ready. Steve accepted the advice and targeted Ironman Louisville 2012 for his Ironman debut.

Last year, while Steve remained focused on short-course racing on his coach’s advice, Fliegelman was approached by another newer triathlete with ambitions of moving up to the iron distance. But instead of asking his coach’s opinion, this athlete, Bruce, informed Fliegelman that he had already signed up for the inaugural Ironman U.S. Championship in New York City in August 2012. Fliegelman told Bruce it was a bad idea—he wasn’t ready—but he would help him make the best of it.

Recently, just weeks before both Steve and Bruce were scheduled to participate in their first Ironman races, I asked Fliegelman how each of them was doing.

“It’s just what I expected,” he said.

Steve, the athlete who waited, had made great progress over the preceding year. He was training well and feeling confident. Bruce, the athlete who couldn’t wait, was struggling. His training was off track, he felt overwhelmed, and his looming date with Ironman destiny filled him with dread.

Of course, Fliegelman pointed out, there are no guarantees in Ironman racing. While he expected Steve to do well by his own standards, the coach granted that he might not. And while Fliegelman feared that Bruce would not much enjoy his Ironman experience, the coach conceded that he just might. But race day is only a part of the overall Ironman experience. The greater part is what Fliegelman calls “the other 364 days” of preparation. Clearly the journey toward race day had gone better for patient Steve than it had for headstrong Bruce, so Fliegelman’s judgment that Steve was wise to wait and Bruce unwise not to had already been validated.

When is the right time to do one’s first Ironman? How does an athlete know? There are no tidy answers to these questions. Defining and recognizing the right time to move up to 140.6 miles requires that various individual factors be considered. Most coaches agree that there are a lot of Bruces out there—moving up too soon is very common. But doing it at the right time is not all about waiting—it’s really about preparing in order to maximize the likelihood of a positive experience.

Bucket List or Tattoo?

According to Gale Bernhardt, a Boulder-based triathlon coach and author of Triathlon Training Basics, there are basically two types of triathletes who want to move up to the Ironman distance.

“First there are the bucket-list types,” Bernhardt says. These are generally non-competitive people who plan to do one and only one Ironman and then move on. Their only goal is to finish under the 17-hour cutoff. “They don’t care if they have to walk almost the whole marathon.”

The second type of Ironman dreamer aspires to tattoo an M-dot on his body. He seeks a finish time he’s proud to share with others—the competitive triathlete who wants to achieve the best Ironman performance he or she is capable of, even if it takes 10 tries.

While the average triathlete of this second type may be more physically ready to complete an Ironman than the typical representative of the bucket-list category, Bernhardt generally encourages the tattoo-seekers to wait longer than the cutoff-dodgers precisely because of their higher standards.

If a bucket-list Ironman aspirant without much experience in triathlon comes to Bernhardt for guidance, she prescribes a three-year plan. In the first year, racing is limited to sprints and Olympic-distance events. The following year the developing athlete does one or two Ironman 70.3’s and perhaps a few more short races. Finally, in year three, the athlete is unleashed to tackle Ironman.

Bucket-list types who have what Bernhardt calls a “deep background” in triathlon or other endurance sports can be fast-tracked on a two-year schedule. In this case year one includes races of up to 70.3 miles and the second year culminates in an Ironman.

Bernhardt recognizes that there are many cases of novice triathletes without deep backgrounds in endurance sports who have completed an Ironman in their first year in the sport, and even as their very first multisport event. But very few of these men and women have the sort of Ironman experience that Bernhardt wants for the athletes she coaches. Athletes who are content (or think they are content) to barely survive an Ironman can take their guidance from someone else. Those who accept her mentoring must be willing to take the time to prepare for a graceful Ironman debut, not just an Ironman.

Bernhardt’s ideal developmental plan for triathletes who aspire not just to finish but to truly race Ironman events is one that extends four or even five years. Developing speed is the primary objective of those preparatory years.

“There’s a reason you see a lot of former ITU racers kicking it when they finally move up [to Ironman],” Bernhardt says. “To really do well in Ironman racing you have to have speed as well as endurance. It makes more sense to develop speed first and then layer endurance on top of that.”

Rich Strauss, head coach of Endurance Nation, agrees. “If you want to get fast you have to go fast,” he says. Strauss sees merit in the idea of competitive age-group triathletes modeling their careers after those of professional triathletes such as Mirinda Carfrae and Eneko Llanos, who spent years redlining through short-course races before taking their hard-earned speed to the Ironman and watching it pay off.

There are two ways of measuring sustained speed that Strauss believes are fundamental to success in triathlons of all distances. He likes to see his athletes work on improving these two metrics as much as they can through moderately high to high-intensity training and short-course racing before they go long. The first metric is functional threshold power (FTP), which is the average wattage an athlete can sustain through a one-hour time trial on the bike. The second metric is called a VDOT score, which is associated with one’s best times in various standard-distance running events and is an approximate stand-in for VO2max. Strauss believes that a triathlete who trains to increase these performance markers—FTP for cycling and VDOT for running—as high as possible has set himself up well for a successful transition to Ironman racing because the physiological underpinnings of performance in short-course triathlons are largely the same as the physiological underpinnings of performance in long-course triathlons.

Training at moderately high to high intensities is the most effective way to increase lactate threshold (FTP) and VO2max (VDOT). This sort of training and the resulting physiological improvements will translate directly into better short-course triathlon performance. If you train hard and specifically for an Olympic-distance triathlon and smash your PR by 15 minutes, you have very good cause to believe you are ready for an Ironman breakthrough. Well, almost ready: You just need to layer some endurance on top of that newfound speed. Improving these threshold metrics and thereby improving your short-course performance capacity is a crucial first step toward boosting your Ironman performance potential, a step that’s nearly impossible to take while also preparing for the sheer length of an Ironman.

RELATED: Three Ironman Training Questions For Coach Matt Dixon

Litmus Tests

While tracking variables such as FTP and VDOT can be very helpful to the triathlete who is trying to gauge his readiness for Ironman, there is no failsafe litmus test for Ironman preparedness. One reason is that the definition of “ready” depends on one’s expectations. The other reason is that an Ironman is so different from any shorter triathlon that only an Ironman itself can reveal one’s true state of readiness. We’ll come back to this point later. Let’s now focus on what you can do to determine whether you’re ready for an Ironman.

Strauss has a couple of very simple training benchmarks that he uses to gauge the Ironman-preparedness of those whose goal is to finish.

“I like to see people be able to ride for six hours and run for about two and a half hours,” Strauss says. “It doesn’t have to be fast. I’m just talking about turning the pedals for six hours and [separately] putting one foot in front of the other for two and a half hours. In my experience, if you can do those things you will probably be OK [in an Ironman]. If not, you’re in trouble.”

Strauss stresses that finishing an Ironman within the 17-hour cutoff time really isn’t very hard. As long as you’re healthy and not significantly overweight there’s nothing to it. Just train progressively until you are able to hit the relevant benchmarks—which most people can do within 18 months if they’re consistent—and race day itself is a mere formality, assuming proper execution.

Identifying benchmarks for the competitive triathlete who desires an Ironman debut to brag about is a little more challenging. Scott Fliegelman recommends peer-comparison tests for such athletes. Fliegelman’s FastForward Sports is based on a group training model that facilitates such comparisons.

“If you’re training consistently with people who have done Ironmans already, and not only done them but really done well in them,” Fliegelman says, “and you get to the point where you can do everything they do in workouts, that’s a pretty good indicator that you’re ready to race at their level.” Fliegelman is careful to add that being able to keep up with a 10-hour Ironman finisher in training is certainly no guarantee that you will be able to match that time in your first or any Ironman, but it’s a more reliable predictor than any alternative standard.

Of course, peer comparisons can also tell you when you’re not ready. “If you’re contemplating an Ironman and you consistently get dropped by the slowest group after four hours [on the bike], you’d probably better wait,” Fliegelman says.

Beyond Physically Ready

Developing the physical fitness that is required to complete an Ironman or to achieve a competitive goal in an Ironman is only one dimension of attaining total readiness for such ambitions. There are other dimensions to consider as well.

The first question Rich Strauss asks athletes who tell him they want to do their first Ironman is “why?” There are good reasons and bad reasons to chase this dream, and Strauss wants to be sure that his athletes commit for the right reasons. “It’s supposed to be fun,” he explains. “If training for an Ironman sounds like fun, then go for it. But if it seems like something you have to do, don’t do it.”

The idea that completing an Ironman would feel like an obligation to anyone might seem strange, but it’s actually quite common. What’s the first question people ask you when you tell them you’re a triathlete? That’s right: “Have you ever done an Ironman?” Let’s face it: One of the reasons we do triathlons is to impress people who don’t, and, right or wrong, finishing an Ironman is vastly more impressive to the average person than winning any shorter triathlon.

Within the sport, as well, there’s a sense that you’re not a serious triathlete unless you do Ironmans. There are many gifted age-group triathletes whose bodies are perfectly designed to kick butt in sprint triathlons but who get their butts kicked in Ironman races instead because they feel obligated to go long.

Fliegelman believes that overall experience is a more important factor in Ironman readiness than physical fitness. That’s why he told Steve to wait a year to make his Ironman debut and would have told Bruce to do the same if he’d been given the chance. Bruce is actually the more physically talented of the two men, according to Fliegelman, but Steve is more Ironman-ready because he has an extra year of experience, hence more all-around “triathlon intelligence,” as the coach puts it.

Bruce has difficulty pacing himself appropriately in workouts. Steve, on the other hand, has mastered the art of training by heart rate, and over the past year he has also learned how to train effectively by power on the bike. While Bruce is a better pure runner than Steve, Bruce has never run well off the bike in a race. Steve is better at holding himself back on the bike and saving something for the run. It’s not that Bruce will never get to that point; he just lacks experience.

RELATED: A Physiological View Of What The Human Body Goes Through In An Ironman

Reasons Not to Wait

There is a common belief in triathlon that athletes younger than their late 20s are not physically mature enough to excel in Ironman racing. It is difficult to find hard evidence that supports this notion. While many younger triathletes lack the conditioning background that is needed to excel in Ironman racing, those who have an extensive endurance background need not worry about being held back by physical immaturity.

“Well-trained young athletes, if their body is predisposed to going long, can and should do so at any age,” says Brett Sutton, head coach of Team TBB, who has coached short-course specialists such as Greg Bennett and long-course specialists such as Chrissie Wellington.

It is true that, as they age, endurance athletes tend to lose speed before they lose endurance. For this reason—and because nearly all young professional triathletes necessarily start out as short-course racers—many pros choose to wait until the second half of their career to shift their focus to long-distance racing. But this career-management rationale for waiting is different from having to wait for purely physical reasons. Age-group triathletes don’t have to worry about career management.

Another reason not to wait is that if your overall situation in life allows you to train for and participate in Ironman events now, there’s no guarantee that this window will still be open a few years from now.

“Most sane, balanced people who throw themselves into Ironman are able to keep it up for two or three years before they find out that it’s just too much,” says Strauss. “They’re sacrificing something—time with family, investment in their career, sleep—that they can’t keep sacrificing forever.”

While most triathletes are capable of improving as long-distance racers throughout their 30s, younger age groupers typically have an easier time “doing it all.” Speaking for myself, at age 41 I certainly can’t get away with sacrificing sleep as I could when I was 31.

A third reason not to wait to move up to Ironman if you’re ready is that, as Strauss puts it, “The key to success at Ironman is knowing how to race an Ironman.” All the talent, fitness and short-course racing experience in the world won’t help you on race day if you cannot master the unique nutritional, mental and pacing elements that make Ironman almost a sport unto itself.

Some triathletes have good Ironman instincts and nail their very first one. Others have to do several before they figure it out. Beyond a certain point, amassing experience at the 70.3 distance and below will not improve your chances of hitting your first Ironman out of the park.

A survey of great Ironman triathletes past and present proves that age and experience do not predict initial Ironman success. Some athletes start racing Ironman events early in their careers and find immediate success. Chrissie Wellington won her first Ironman (Korea) in her first season of professional racing (2007) and two months later won her first Ironman World Championship title. But for every Chrissie Wellington there’s at least one Tim DeBoom, who did his first Ironman (Kona) in 1992, when he was 21, and returned to the race every year for nine more years before winning it in 2001 (and again in 2002).

The point is that you cannot possibly know whether Ironman racing will come naturally to you until you try it. You sort of have to assume it won’t, and if it doesn’t, you’ll want to get started on the process of figuring it out sooner rather than later.

Most coaches believe that merely not expecting to achieve a fantastic time in one’s first Ironman doesn’t go far enough. One shouldn’t even try.

“How can you set a time goal for your first Ironman?” Fliegelman asks rhetorically.

It’s much wiser, he says, to focus on doing things right throughout all three legs of the race (and transitions) than to be hell-bent on reaching the finish line with a particular number showing on the clock. It may be tempting to go for broke when you’ve trained hard for months, you’re in great shape, and you’re used to letting it all hang out in shorter races. But giving in to this temptation as an Ironman rookie seldom ends well.

If your goal is to complete an Ironman with a time that you can proudly tattoo on your forehead, plan to do at least two Ironmans and race the first for experience.

It’s a sport of patience.

The X Factors

It takes more than a willing body and mind to finish an Ironman. Prepare yourself for these other obstacles before taking the plunge.

One crucial piece of experience that Ironman aspirants often overlook is race travel. Coach Scott Fliegelman prefers to see athletes travel for at last one shorter triathlon before they travel for an Ironman. Every triathlete learns lessons the hard way in his or her first “road game” that can be used to make the next race go more smoothly. Of course, rookie mistakes can spoil a shorter triathlon just as well as they can spoil a longer one, but which one would you rather have spoiled?

The race entry fee is only one of many costs associated with racing Ironman. Travel, accommodations, training costs, etc. add up quickly. Coach Scott Fliegelman suggests setting aside at least $5,000 for the journey assuming you already own a good bike.

Family Commitment
“Familial readiness” refers to the time commitment of training for an Ironman, which catches many first-time participants—not to mention their spouses and children—off guard. It’s not hard to wrap one’s head around the idea of having to do a multi-hour bike ride on Saturday and a 90-minute-plus run on Sunday. But families frequently fail to consider what it’s like for one of their members to have to do multi-hour rides every Saturday and 90-plus-minute runs every Sunday for several months on end. It’s not that it can’t be done; the family just has to be truly ready for it, which requires good communication and is helped by learning from families that have already been through the experience.

RELATED – Dear Coach: Should I Do An Ironman?

Trending on Triathlete