The biggest takeaway from tackling my first Ironman is how it is able to transform you into a better, stronger person
Lead photo from Getty Images/Unsplash+
When I started training for my first Ironman 13 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of knowledge readily available. Locally, only a very small percentage of the triathlon population had ever conquered the 3.8K swim, 180K bike, and 42K run in rapid succession. There was a lot of apprehension and even fear surrounding the “hardest single day sporting event.”
Fast forward to today, it’s amazing to see the sport grow. Not only do we have our own Ironman in Subic Bay, hundreds of Filipino athletes conquer it on a yearly basis. It has become more common like tri bikes, aero helmets, and speed suits. Much of the growth is thanks to the increasing number of races, the larger multisport population, and the wider knowledge base available to athletes in general.
With this in mind, we want to add to the information available for first-time Ironman aspirants. Here are a few things I learned when I was training for my first Ironman.
Much of your week will be spent biking
Coming from running prior to joining triathlons, cycling was the least developed sport among the three. Simply put, I sucked at biking. Not only did I lack the leg strength to put out the watts, my bike handling and overall confidence was severely lagging. The Olympic distance and 70.3 bike legs were not easy but I somehow managed. However, to do well for 180 kilometers, I knew I had to level up my training. Indoor training wasn’t popular a decade ago; hence, I was forced to ride outdoors. The small number of people training for an Ironman meant I often rode for 130 to 200 kilometers alone. In the succeeding years, thanks to the advent of better trainers, I started to appreciate riding indoors. This gave me more quality miles in a safer environment.
You cannot escape the fact that the bike leg in an Ironman takes more than half of the total time spent racing
Nonetheless, whether riding indoors or outdoors, you cannot escape the fact that the bike leg in an Ironman takes more than half of the total time spent racing. Spending time developing this sport will not only result in faster bike splits, it also helps you run better off the bike. It’s also a less troublesome way of building cardiovascular fitness in general as it’s a lesser impact, non-weight bearing sport.
Tip: Setup an indoor pain cave where you could easily do your cycling workouts. Adding a treadmill is a huge plus as you can easily squeeze in a brick.
You don’t need to do a marathon when training for your first Ironman
It’s easy to get intimidated by the 42-kilometer run after the 180-kilometer bike. A lot of people respond by training like a marathoner (or even doing a marathon) while training for an Ironman. While this may work for some, most people (newbie or not) probably shouldn’t follow this approach. Not that running isn’t important—on the contrary, run fitness is the deciding factor in a long distance triathlon.
However, there are a few things to consider about the marathon run in an Ironman. First, you won’t be running as fast as if it were a regular marathon. Doing the speedwork and tempo runs becomes less important as sheer endurance is given more weight during the race itself. This means you’ll probably run-walk the run leg compared with a fresh marathon where most of you will be running the whole way.
Secondly, running a marathon during the preparation for your first Ironman can actually set you back more. It’s no secret that racing that distance takes a lot out of you. In most cases, you’d need to recover a few weeks (maybe a month) after covering that distance. It would be wiser to cut back on mileage, stay strong, and peak for the race itself. Of course this takes some trial and error, and perhaps guidance from a well-experienced coach.
Tip: Do a lot of bricks (even short ones), and practice running in the afternoon. This is what you’d expect on race day so doing it in training would help.
Long swim sets are your friend
During my preparation for my first Ironman, I didn’t really have any structured swim training. Most of the time, it was just about covering the distance. After swimming with a proper swim coach, I realized the importance of structure, rest times, and target intensities. Training for a half Ironman and full distance were radically different though.
For a half Ironman, I really focused on pushing the pace while for an Ironman, my goal was to stay comfortable and steady. This meant my sets were mostly 500 to 800 meters in distance; there were times when I did a kilometer straight of swimming. For the most part, it was also about training my mental toughness and focus. My goal was to make it seem like that nearly four-kilometer swim was nothing; after all, looking at the big picture, the swim is only a ~1hr warm-up prior to a cycling tour followed by a marathon.
Tip: Get a coach who can guide you about structure, technique, and even mental focus. Winging it may work, but there’s a lot to be gained with proper help.
Nutrition is half the battle
This holds true for any triathlon but is felt more for distances longer than an Olympic. I always tell my athletes that no matter how fit you are, if you’re out of gas, you’re going nowhere. Over the past 10 years, one of my biggest advocacies has been about teaching people regarding energy systems and the importance of proper carbohydrate supplementation. This is what I focus on in the lab for long distance athletes (aside from proper zones and structure of course).
During a triathlon, we burn calories (specifically carbohydrates) at a faster rate than we can replenish it. This means without proper planning, we’re slowly nibbling away at our stored glycogen until it eventually runs out
During a triathlon, we burn calories (specifically carbohydrates) at a faster rate than we can replenish it. This means without proper planning, we’re slowly nibbling away at our stored glycogen until it eventually runs out. This is akin to a time bomb in which the inevitable will happen: the bonk. The solution is simple: We need to learn how many calories we need to replenish so we can manage this deficit. However, the execution is where things become complicated. Choosing the right fuel not only means “enough calories,” you also need to consider what types of nutrition your body can tolerate. Taking the same gel or drink over and over again for half-a-day is not something you would want.
Tip: Plan out your nutrition and practice it. Most of the time, tasteless gels and drinks actually work better. Brands like Maurten are not only absorbed quicker, they also help prevent taste fatigue. Make sure you add some solids every other hour or so. Some solids, contrary to popular belief, can actually help digestion during long races.
Your family is part of the equation
This is an important element but it also gets overlooked at first. When you’re training for 12 to 20 hours a week, it’s not just about your mental resolve, physical fitness, or discipline; the family needs to be considered, too.
There will be times when you can’t spend time with loved ones during weekends. Some trips need to be postponed or canceled to give way to training. Training, rest, and sleep become increasingly time-consuming, especially as you inch closer to the race. So keeping them on the same page, attending to their needs and wants, and of course making them happy are just as important as training and racing. Make sure you talk to them about your plans before you sign up and prepare.
Keeping your family on the same page during your first Ironman, attending to their needs and wants, and of course making them happy are just as important as training and racing
Tip: Make it a family affair. You can opt for a race where they will also enjoy it. Including them in some training sessions or even preparing them for shorter distance triathlons might help mitigate the stress of the circumstances. Just make sure you make up for it with some quality time after the race.
All things considered, I’m happy I got to race the Ironman distance events in the past. It’s one of those things that you really must tick off your bucket list. Along the way, you’ll learn a lot of things about yourself. For the most part, the biggest takeaway from tackling such a huge challenge is how it is able to transform you into a better, stronger person. Anything is possible.