How to Plan Your First Ironman Triathlon: Part 1

Part 1 of this post will cover planning your first Ironman triathlon from:

  1. What is an Ironman?
  2. Am I fit enough?
  3. Which race should I do?
  4. How long will it take to prepare?

What is an Ironman?

First thing you need to understand is what is an Ironman and what specifically will it take to complete. An Ironman is a Long Distance form of a Triathlon. It begins with an Open water swim of 3.8Km a Bike of 180Km and finally a whole marathon run of 42.2km. To put into perspective the duration of the race I have broken each leg down below:

Source: RunTri

  • Average Swim time: 1hr 16mins
  • Average Bike time: 6hrs 25mins
  • Average Run time: 4hrs 54mins
  • Total: 12hrs 35mins

The current world record for the Ironman distance is 7hrs 41mins set by Jan Frodeno in 2016. One this to note is most Ironman events have a cut off time of 0f 15-17 hours.

Now you know the distance required to complete and the duration spend on each discipline, you can understand what level of fitness you will need to attain in order to complete the challenge.

Am I fit enough?

If this is your first Ironman distance event your only goal should be to complete it, regardless of your ability. It is easy to get carried away with past experience and of  elevated fitness levels during your training and begin to change your ambitions. This is known as goal inflation and should be avoided at all costs. When you set out to ‘complete’ the race it is a massive achievement, but it is easy to see others who are aiming for SubX time or to qualify for a championships, or to beat their training buddy. Swallow your ego and ignore others peoples goals. Concentrate on finishing and this should remain your exclusive goal.

Now its time to understand your current fitness levels and determine the gap between your fitness now and the fitness required to complete the race. some good ways to understand where you currently are, if your new to triathlons it would be wise to spend at least a season or two building up to the olympic distance, not only is this a safer way to do it but by learning the basics in a shorter race it will make an ironman much more enjoyable as you can focus on the performance rather than the basics of a triathlon such as pacing,transitions,competition environment and managing your fuel.

  • Fastest time for a recent triathlon (olympic or half)
  • Longest time spent cycling in training
  • Longest cycle event completed and duration it took
  • Longest continuous open water or pool swim
  • Longest run and what was your average speed.

The general guide for knowing if you are at Ironman fitness, surprisingly is not being able to run a marathon or to ride for 10 hours straight, it is much more race specific than that. If you have gradually built up your training to a level where you can complete 75% of the the total race distance in one day. Then this is a good barometer of success. That doesn’t mean it has to be non stop but that day may look like this:

  • Wake up snack or light breakfast
  • Open water swim 3Km continuous
  • Change, rest and have a snack or breakfast
  • Cycle 135Km or 5hrs
  • Change, rest, lunch
  • Run (run/walk) 30Km or a maximum of 2.5hrs
  • Recover, refuel and sleep

The above test day (brick workout) is a very long day but what it does is prepare your body to be exercising for an extremely long period of time, without the benefit of having some additional rest between disciplines and being able to fuel more appropriately. This is also is a safer way to push your limits than doing for example a half Ironman, which will put your body under increased stress and take longer to recover from.

Now you have two key bench marks to work from

  1. Your current fitness level

  2. Your desired fitness level (pre race day)

The next step is to build a plan backward from point 2 to understand how long this will take to achieve.

Which race should I do?

Planning which Ironman event to do needs to be a key consideration before you start your planning. You may dream of doing it in an exotic location or picking one which is right on your doorstep. but with the enormity of the challenge in mind there are a lot of factors to consider:

  • Budget– Pick and event you can comfortably afford (remember it is likely to be a weekend trip) it takes pressure off if the worst happens and you can’t make the event.
  • Access for Supports– Having supporters in the crowd is the best part of the race, make sure its a venue where they can come to see you race
  • Climate– If you train in a cool climate, don’t pick an event where you run the risk of heat exhaustion, pick one as close to training climate as possible
  • Terrain– Know your strengths. If your a weak cyclist find a course with the fastest bike route (note: not always the flattest)
  • Ocean or Lake Swim– If you’ve never swam in the ocean it may be wise to pick a calmer lake swim
  • Popularity– Some iconic locations are great events to do, but don’t let the hype make you pick a course not suited to you.
  • Branded or Unbranded– Unbranded ‘Ironman’ events are significantly cheaper and often just as well organised. If you want the bragging rights of the brand then prioritise that. If you just want to finish the distance save the cash and go unbranded.
  • Time– Depending on how early/late in the season the race is will dictate how much time you have to train but also how much of your season/summer will be spent preparing for the race.
  • Location– Flying you bike abroad is expensive and stressful as is being in a foreign country, unless your comfortable with the added stress pick a race more local.

How long will it take to prepare?

Once you have picked a race/event you know what date you need to be in peak condition for.  Below is a guide as to where you need to be fitness wise in the build up to the event.

  • Race Day: Fit, Rested, Energised and Injury free
  • 2 -4 weeks out from race day: Your peak volume training should be completed and you are now at your ‘fittest’ state. The challenge between now and race day is to maintain as much of that fitness while gradually reducing training load to ensure you are resting and recovering fully. This means by race day you will be slightly less fit but significantly more recovered.
  • 4 weeks out: Peaked your  total training volume and have completed your largest brick session of 75% of race distance completed in one day.
  • 8 weeks out:  Built your training volume up to a point that you have completed 50% of race distance in one day
  • 12 weeks out: Built your training volume up to a point that you have  completed 30-40% of race distance in one day.
  • 16 weeks out: Built a solid foundation pre season where you can cycle/run at a slow steady rate for multiple hours ( approx 1.5-3hrs) and swim a broken aerobic session for up to an hour.

16 weeks is a long training cycle and getting into ironman condition in this amount of time is dependant on how much time you spent building a base in the preseason/winter season prior.

As a rule; the longer the base (steady aerobic conditioning) the more successful you will be.

Part 2 coming soon…..