So You Wanna Be An Ironman … (OR: Five Things to Consider Before Jumping Up to A New Race Distance) It’s that time of year: your friends‘ Strava feeds are exploding, social media is clogged with finisher photos and race recaps, your FOMO antenna is quivering, and you’re left wondering … should I throw my hat in the ring? If you’re considering making the jump from sprints and Olympics to a 70.3, or from 70.3’s to the Ironman distance, here are five things you should consider:
Before hitting up a new distance, make sure you’re solid at your current race distance. Sure, there are triathletes who jump into a 70.3 or Ironman-distance race their first season. Would I recommend it? Not really. I believe that endurance is built over years, not months, and therefore your best chance for success at a new race distance comes from one or two years of racing one tier below that. For 70.3’s, I recommend two years of Sprint and Olympic-distance racing before making the jump. For Ironman distance, I recommend completing several 70.3’s before moving up to 140.6. You also want to make sure you have at least one Olympic (prior to 70.3’s) or 70.3 (prior to 140.6's) that you would call successful, as in: you executed your day more or less as you’d planned.
If you’re going to train for a race that’s twice as long as your last one, it’s obviously going to involve some additional training hours. Here’s what you can expect along that front. Going from Olympic distance training to 70.3 training can present a noticeable change in training volume. If you’re accustomed to the two swims, two bikes, and two runs per week training approach, settling into a three swims, three bikes, and three runs per week schedule can take some time. You should anticipate doubling up on workouts most weekdays, plus completing weekend rides that build to 3 to 4 hours and weekend runs that build to two hours or longer. Ironman distance training both is and isn’t much different from 70.3 training. The three swims, three bikes, and three runs schedule still applies, and your mid-week training volume doesn’t increase by all that much.
Clearly, though, the long swims, bikes, and runs get a lot longer. You should anticipate swims building to at least 4000 meters/yards, bikes building to 5 to 7 hours, and runs building to the 2.5 to 3 hour range. (And while you’re budgeting time for training, be sure to factor in extra naps and early bedtimes. Your first year training for a new distance can be exhausting!)
Grab a Gatorade or some gel blocks and you’re good for a sprint-distance race. A full day of swim-bike-run, however, requires that you put a lot more thought into fueling. Along with training for swim-bike-run, you need to include developing, testing, and tweaking your race day fueling plan in your training. You’ll want to get a good understanding of your caloric, hydration, and sodium requirements, find products that meet those requirements, and test them on long training days - starting months before the actual race. Oh - pro tip - all those gel blocks and endurance drinks and peanut butter filled granola bars don’t grow on trees. If you’re the budgeting type, you’ll want to factor those into the overall equation.
Speaking of budgeting, your grocery bill is definitely going to go up as your training volume increases. Morning pre-workout fueling, post-workout recovery fueling, healthy afternoon snacks, and healthy dinners that can fuel tomorrow’s long workouts are all a part of long-course triathlon training. On top of the number of meals, the amount you consume at any given meal is likely to go up as well. Given that, you’ll need to start stocking the kitchen a little more robustly than you might have previously. As you hit weeks with considerable training volume, you’re going to be hungry - all the time. You want to ensure that you’ve got healthy options within arm’s reach so that you don’t default to quick and easy solutions (but sub-optimal fueling choices) like potato chips and fast food.
Most importantly, you need to have a good understanding of why you’ve chosen to undertake this massive, fabulous goal. Everyone’s reason is different, and no one needs to understand yours except for you, but you HAVE to know what it is. If you didn’t figure it out from the discussion of training hours, long-course triathlon training requires a lot of time, energy, and focus (and napping). Finding the space for that within a life that is already filled with work, family, friends, and other hobbies can be challenging. Even after you figure out that balance, you are always going to hit a point (or several points) in training where you feel like you’ve been training forever, you’re staring down the face of a long workout, and you just lack the motivation to hit the pool, road, or trail. Reminding yourself of your “why” and the realities of race day might be the only way to convince yourself to get out the door.
And then there’s race day. No matter how well prepared you are, no matter how well you execute your day, at some point (or several points) during the race you’re going to hit a low, and wonder what on earth you were thinking signing up for this darn event. This is where your “why” is of critical importance. There WAS a reason why you signed up, and if you believe that reason deep in your bones it will propel you toward the glory of that magical finish line. And believe me: that finish line is, in fact, glorious and magical, and you really, really want to experience it.