When and Why to Move Up in Distance

a triathlete running through transition in kona, hawaii
January 8, 2017

Simon Butterworth



If you are new to triathlon and want to get a handle on a coach's honesty, and diplomatic skill, tell your prospective coach you are looking for someone to train you for your first ironman distance race. You can tell him about the few sprint races you've done and perhaps are a bit more seasoned in one of the three sports. Then listen carefully for the answer.You should hear something along the lines of "Don't do it", and if not, you are not getting an honest answer. For sure there will be some questions from the coach to understand more about your athletic history but if you stick to the script you should be advised against it. How gently the coach lets you down will tell you something about their diplomatic skills. If it is a very soft landing hire the coach as your psychologist (I was told in my USAT certification class that a coach is sometimes called on to be a psychologist or at a minimum a friendly good listening bartender).

So what is it that propels some people to want to take on this challenge now with limited endurance training (or none) and not later? Why go Long (What's wrong with shorter distances). I'm not a physiologist but most of the credit must go to the organization behind the Ironman brand.  Marketing of Ironman events have unquestionably been extremely successful greatly helped by NBC and originally ABC Wide World of Sports. That success can be measured by the mistaken idea of many casual spectators of the sport who think that Ironman events are triathlons and the only ‚"Real Triathlon‚" distance.

The only other triathlon that gets attention on national TV (in the US at least) is the Olympics (every 4 years). Since there are not masses of armatures following the pros around that course it's easy to understand why the public in general does not associate this type of racing with amateurs.That's most unfortunate. If you have watched the Olympics, or any other professional race over the same distance you will know that it requires an amazing level of fitness. It's a different type of fitness from IronMan competition but both deserve a jaw dropping respect from the public.The effort for amateurs who compete in shorter races should command similar respect.  Completing a sprint race is for many more effort than running a ¬Ω marathon. An Olympic finisher is working as hard and longer than many take to complete a marathon. The amateur winners of a Half IM are at it for twice the time of the winners of a marathon. To have a good day in a shorter than Ironman race, is every bit as physically challenging as a full length Ironman. Don't forget the challenges of managing a career, relationship and a family too!If you do have your mind set on doing a long distance triathlon, such as Ironman, think long term. Consider this: To get in a swim at a local pool you have to allow some time to get there, back and change. Say 15 min to get ready and get to the pool, 5 min to change, 10 min shower and dress afterwards and at least another 10 to get to work or home again. Total non-exercise time 2 hrs per week assuming three workouts.

Non-training time for biking would be similar to running so that's 3.5+ hrs a week for all three events. Now add the training time. Some coaches say you can do an Ironman on 12 hrs a week; I am not one of those. But at that level you are looking for another 15.5 hrs a week out of your life to train for an IM, 18.5 hours if you use my minimum time.  But there are even more factors that play into Ironman success. Read on.Years ago at the annual party of my Triathlon Team (Team Runners Edge) back in NY two friends asked me what it took to train for an Ironman. Don and Scott were two of the best 40 something AG athletes on LI at Sprint and Olympic races. Their wives were with them, neither athletes themselves. They each had two young children and a long commute from LI to NYC.I started by saying you need at least 8hrs of sleep a night and more if you want to be at the top of their AG in Ironman events. I was not able to finish my thoughts with how much training time was needed. Their wives had erupted in laughter. Everyone knows that the biggest commodity while raising a young family is sleep. To Don and Scott's credit they stuck with Olympic distance racing.  

When their children are older I suspect they will move up to longer stuff and they will be very good at it.If you are building a career, family or both think about moving up in distance and if it's right for you. Sure there are plenty of athletes out there racing Ironman distance who have both but a great many of them have a very big support group, paid and unpaid. It takes a lot of sacrifice from your entire team to make it work.On the other end of the spectrum, someone coming off the couch looking to compete in a sprint triathlon, is a huge goal. Just how big that goal is was brought home to me when a friend finished her first triathlon.  Not that Mindy was a novice to endurance sports, she had finished marathons, but overcoming the demons of open water swimming and running after a hard bike ride put her in the clouds. And she did that while raising a family and working. In my experience, Mindy is doing it the right way, by building from small races up to the longer ones.

She's patient and as a coach, that's what I like to see.Even at the professional level, most of the well-known athletes started out with smaller, shorter The most famous members of the sport like Dave Scott, Mark Allen and Paula Newby-Frazer all participated in shorter races. All of the top pros of today started racing at shorter distances. They also started out as armatures. No one, not even Chrissie Wellington, arrived magically on the top of the podium of an Ironman without paying some dues (Chrissie just flew under the radar for a while)I think it is fair to say that the best athletes in any sport enjoy what they are doing. It is especially important for amateur athletes that sports should be a fun, as it is supposed to be a diversion from the other stresses in life for most of us. If in short order you add another 18+hr workday to your life that is not likely to be stress free.  If the success of that endeavor is uncertain, and be assured it would be if you jump in too soon, then there is more stress.Would it not be better to pick off lower hanging fruit to start? If you are worried that your time will run out before you get to the big event remember that there were 5 athletes in last years IM World Championship, 4 finished, in the 80-84 Age Group. Yes that is an awesome inspiration to go out and do an Ironman now but think long term.My advice to you, as a seasoned coach and veteran racer is to enjoy the shorter races, learn all you can and when the time is right, move up to the longer distances so they are just as enjoyable and worthwhile. Be patient and when you're ready to move up in distance, you'll know it.

Coach Simon followed his own advice in his racing career.  Starting with Sprints in 1992, and moving to Olympic distance in '95 he made made Team USA in '97 for the next 3 years (riding a QR). In 2001 he qualified for Kona in Lake Placid in his first IM. He has now raced in Kona 14 times with 5 podium finishes and one win.  His coaching will ignite your passion for racing!

Coach Simon Butterworth has an experienced philosophy about coaching.  The key ingredients in a good coach/athlete relationship are regular and open communication, mutual respect, and keeping it fun for the athlete and their family.  His training programs are developed with those ideas at the forefront. He works with athletes to develop both short-term and long-term objectives that work well within the context of the other things they have going on in their life.

Coach Simon is a 2X World Ironman Champion and has 16 Ironman World Championships races to his credit. He has finihsed on the podium 7x.  He is a USAT Certified Coach, USMS Swim Coach, FIST Certified Bike Fitter and Training Peaks Certified Coach.

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