Let’s be honest: If you’ve done a triathlon (and even if you haven’t) you’ve probably heard of Ironman and its world championship race in Kona. It’s our Mt. Everest or our Boston Marathon—and it looms large. As you progress in the sport, it’s understandable for some athletes to be drawn to longer and longer distances. It’s also completely understandable if that’s not your goal and you’d rather go faster, or shorter, or try something new.
As a coach, I view it as my job to guide and help athletes achieve their goals, whatever those are. I believe that if you want to make the jump from a sprint to the Olympic-, half-, or iron-distance, then you should. Most of us are in this sport because we’re looking to push ourselves and step outside what’s comfortable. Challenging yourself is important (and worthy), but first make sure you’re excited about the journey—not just the destination—and that you’re able to balance your life with whatever your big goals are. Triathlon should fit into your life, not the other way around.Section divider
How do you know if you’re ready to go longer?
First, look at three things: Where are you, where do you want to go, and how much time do you have (both in hours per week and in how much time until the race)? Do you have enough lead-up time for the event you want to race, given your base fitness? Do you have enough capacity in your life—i.e., can you fit the training in with work and family and other commitments? Have you had an open conversation with your loved ones about what you have planned (and are they on board)?
Also: When it comes to scheduling, it helps to really outline trips, work, and family commitments—and to get buy-in from those around you. The last eight weeks are hours heavy, so if you can plan ahead, this helps relieve stress for both yourself and the key people in your life.Section divider
Why you shouldn’t move up
It’s easy to get caught up in the Ironman movement and look at it as the only way to go, but the truth is if you have 10-12 hours a week, you can enjoy the shorter distances and execute really well. Once you go longer, the big separation—even the athletes winning World Championships—is about 10 hours per week. Do you want to put this before everything in your life because that’s what everyone in your age group is doing?
This is a conversation I have a lot and there are a few things—most of them revolve around Kona or wanting to complete an Ironman. Doing an Ironman is worthwhile because it’s interesting and you can push yourself to that challenge. But unless you’re single or retired with minimal responsibilities, I find most people struggle to fit Ironman into their lives and have balance in other areas. Is doing this Ironman going to move the needle in terms of satisfaction? And why do you want to scratch that itch? Most of the people I coach are super Type-A, very driven, and do not struggle with motivation. My job 95% of the time is to hold people back and provide perspective for their lives. What’s going to work for you and lead you to be happy in all areas of your life?Section divider
Training guidelines for moving to Ironman distance
For your first Ironman, I certainly recommend having a few 70.3s under your belt. You should be able to execute across the disciplines, be comfortable in open water, and have a few century rides to your name. Plan ahead, give yourself at least six months and ideally nine months.
It’s also important to review the basics: good sleep, nutrition (during workouts and after), and stress management. But don’t let this undertaking consume you. Yes, it’s a big deal, but remember this is supposed to be fun, and the most important thing is consistency, not perfection. There are no perfect training weeks or workouts that are going to determine your success. Don’t panic—plan, and aim to complete 85-90% of your training. When you’re tired, take a day off. Eat more than you think you should, especially protein (aim for your body weight in grams).
A good rule: No hero training days (these actually set you back), but consistent work, week in and week out. Ten hours per week for six months is a huge base; don’t chase 15 hours one week, only to get sick and then have a 5-hour training week.
As a guideline: For 4-6 months, 8-10 hours/week of consistent training. Then, prepare yourself physically and emotionally for a big push 8-10 weeks out from race day of 12-14 hours/week. You really see the additional volume come from the long ride and long run on the weekends. This is critical. This might look like a 5-hour ride with a 30-minute run off the bike on Saturday, with a 3-4K swim on Sunday followed by your long run. Alternate this with an easier weekend following.
It’s also worth riding well over distance (~120 miles), just so you know what that feels like. You can do this in the off-season with friends, or worked into a race block. It’s not necessarily to do 20-mile runs, but aim to collect run volume through the week, and double runs are a great way to do that.Section divider
Fueling guidelines for moving up to Ironman
You can get away with a hodgepodge nutrition strategy for a shorter event, but once you start to extend beyond that, that becomes the limitation for most athletes—how much can you eat and how much can you truly absorb? Part of that is practice because you can train your gut. The main thing when you’re stepping up to anything over three hours is to treat the fourth discipline as fueling.
The key to maintaining training is to eat more than you think you should, especially protein (aim for your body weight in grams). On race day, Ironman is all about pacing and fueling—and managing any issues that arise. Be sure pacing is appropriate and you’re eating enough for the demands of the event. Aim for 80-90 grams of carbs per hour, 24-30 ounces or more per hour of fluids, with 500-1000 grams of sodium. (Note: This is highly specific and testing is required to understand your sodium loss, which is hugely beneficial to Ironman racing.) I strictly speak in carbs because although there are other schools of thought, that’s what you need to race.
You should practice your strategy at least four times in the lead-up, during very specific pacing sessions. The adage of “no new things on race day” applies—prepare with what you plan to use on race day. The biggest mistake I see athletes make consistently is not eating enough and not practicing their nutrition strategy. Just by fixing that alone, you can unlock huge amounts of potential.
See what your tolerance is starting at 60-70 grams of carbohydrate in training. In the race, stay diligent about eating on the bike because you can’t eat as much on the run. On the run, it’s kind of like whatever you can get in—which is OK if you’ve been on top of it on the bike.Section divider
Race day: 70.3 vs. Ironman
Most athletes over-swim and pay for it on the bike and run. The key is to conserve as much energy on the swim and bike as possible so you can actually run. I want athletes to be able to make decisions by the time they get to the run and not just survive. All the time loss and pain or regret or mistakes come from going too fast early and it always shows up on the run. If you’re walking—whether that’s a sprint or Ironman—it ruins the rest of your race.
The mentality of a 70.3 and Ironman is similar in that you have delayed feedback: It’s easy to overestimate how much energy you have from miles zero to 10 on the bike because you feel fantastic. You don’t know you’re in trouble until it’s too late. You’re better off being patient early so you can make decisions later, rather than if you shoot all your shots early and your only decision is walking the last half of the day.Section divider
Sample 70.3-to-Ironman Workouts
Ironman prep swim
The point of this session is longer aerobic work, which builds efficiency and comfort in the water.
500 with buoy
2 x (2 x 25 fast, 50 easy)
2 x 500 all easy endurance pace, 60 seconds rest
2 x 400 endurance pace (little stronger), 45 seconds rest
8 x 100 strong IM race pace, 10 seconds rest
400, 300, 200, 100 mixing tools
Ironman prep swim #2
4 x 50 odds build to fast evens easy, 15 rest
8-10 x 100 Threshold (sustainable, but strong—your 1000-yard time trial pace if this helps), 15-20 seconds rest
3 x 400-600 Endurance (goal IM pace will work here), 60 seconds rest
8 x 50 fast, 30 seconds rest
Ironman prep brick workout #1
Practice, practice, practice pacing and fueling.
90 mins. easy riding with some openers
90 mins., 60 mins., 2 x 30 mins. all at IM effort practicing fueling and riding well in aero
(This won’t be overly hard, but a chance to really feel how the body responds to consistent load. If it’s your first IM, you can also simply ride steady while fueling well.)
5 mins. easy
45 mins., alternating between 3 mins. at IM effort, 2 mins. easy—fueling with 50g of carbs
Ironman prep brick workout #2
This would be a key brick session, with the emphasis on running long and practicing fueling during the ride and especially the run.
Warm-up and Bike Main Set
60 mins. easy, building power and effort slowly
4 x 4 mins. at Olympic effort or threshold, 2-4 mins. easy between
60 mins. at Ironman effort alternating 10 mins, at lower cadence (55-70 RPM) with 10 mins. normal cadence.
10 min easy
Run Main Set
60 mins. easy time on feet, then
60 mins. as:
[5 mins. IM effort (slower than open marathon pace)
5 mins. 70.3 effort
5 mins. easy aerobic
5 min easy
Ironman run workout #1
Interval work in the AM and easy pacing in the PM to accumulate volume without beating up the body too much. Fueling between sessions is key.
10 mins. easy + 5 mins. of strides
4 x 8 mins. at threshold (between 10K and half-marathon pace), 2 mins. easy between
To total run time of 1:45-2 hours.
10 mins. easy warm-up
45 mins. at Ironman effort (managed with walk-run as needed)
5 mins. easy cool down