How to train and complete an Ironman in less than a year

“Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run 26.2 miles. BRAG FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.”

John Collins, IRONMAN Founder

A lot of people have heard about Ironman – probably the most famous endurance event on the planet. In order to complete it you first have to swim 2.4 miles in the open water, then bike 112 miles, and finally run a full marathon. You’re given 17 hours to complete all 3 legs, otherwise you get disqualified. For most people it sounds impossible. Some try, train for years and still can’t finish it. I was able to become an Ironman by self training for only 10 months. I’m absolutely sure that any relatively fit, active person with no major injuries can prepare themselves for an Ironman in 12 months or less. You don’t need a coach, a complicated training plan or a lot of money.

Eliminating the reasons why you would not finish

When you think about the distance, it just sounds crazy. Each of the three legs of the Ironman is a huge challenge for 99.99% of people. In reality if you want to complete your first Ironman you simply have to eliminate all the reasons why you would not finish and this way you get to the finish line. There are 3 common reasons why people do not finish the race and if you can eliminate them – you’ll get to the finish line, guaranteed.

Reason 1: Freaking out in the open water with lots of people

Most people think that the distance is the #1 reason why most people quit their Ironman race, but they are wrong. If you look at the stats – about 20-30% of people do not make it through the swim leg. Why? Because it’s super uncomfortable. Human beings were not designed to swim in the water. It’s a very natural fear. In addition to swimming 2.4 miles, while sighting, which is a challenge by itself, you have even bigger challenge – the crowd. You will CONSTANTLY be pulled, pushed, kicked in the face while swimming your dear 2.4 miles. This will make the majority of people very uncomfortable. Here’s what you need to do to overcome it:

  1. If you’re not a good swimmer – start swimming as quickly as possible. Find a pool, sign up for classes, find a coach, whatever. The more time you spend in the water – the better. I recommend going to a pool at least 3 times a week if you’re not a good swimmer. You need to be able to swim 1000 meters/yards easily before moving to the next step. One hack that I definitely recommend here: Buoyancy Shorts. They will make any swim coach mad, but remember – you’re most likely going to swim in a wetsuit and these shorts mimic the wetsuit feel pretty accurate, making you float so much easier. I personally like Roka for all my swimming gear but there are plenty of other options.
  2. Once you can swim decent distance – start introducing sighting into your stroke. In order to complete an Ironman swimming is not enough – you have to swim AND sight. There are plenty of videos on Youtube that can help you with that. Your long swim should incorporate sighting (yes, in the pool), so once a week you should be practicing it. Over time you’ll get pretty good at it and sighting will feel natural.
  3. Now you can comfortably swim+sight in the pool, it’s time to hit the open water. The best way to do it is to find a triathlon or a swim club in your area and join the group. NEVER swim alone in the open water. As a member of the club try to go to their open water swims at least once a week. Ask people to emulate race conditions with you to get used to pushing and pulling.
  4. When you decide which Ironman race to sign up for – choose the race with the easiest swim. I’d definitely recommend a lake/river swim over ocean, ideally with no current and minimal chop.

Swimming is the shortest of all 3 legs, but unfortunately this is where most newbies fail. Don’t let it be your weakest discipline, make water your friend. Being able to swim, especially in the open water is a key life skill and you will definitely not regret learning it even if you don’t complete your Ironman.

Reason 2: Injury

Once you get through your swim, things will get a little easy unless you’re trying to hit a certain time (and you should NOT in your first Ironman). You can always go slow on a bike and you will probably see that most people walk/run during the marathon. Now the second most common reason for people not to finish is an injury. Why would you get an injury? There are three reasons – 1) You can get unlucky, for example you can get hit on a bike; 2) Maybe you have an old injury that just keeps coming back no matter what you do; 3) Or you did not prepare your body well enough, so it decided to give up on you.

Not much you can do with #1, except for paying attention and participating in other races to get used to the pace and people around you. With #2 you should see a doctor / PT and see if you can improve. Most of these things happen because of the improper technique. With #3 you just have to be smart about your training (keep reading) and make sure your body is ready to go on the race day.

Reason 3: Running out of gas

I bet if you ask a random person why they would not complete an Ironman – that would be their initial answer. In reality building endurance is probably the most predictable and straightforward thing during the entire training process. There’s a well proven method and formula to build your endurance: increase the distance by ~10% each week with 1 recovery week every 2-3 weeks. This is what you’re going to focus on during the months leading up to the race. All you have to have is time and Ironman training takes a LOT of time.

You can find the exact training plan in one of the books that I recommend below, but in short:

  • You have to train exactly 6 days each week and gradually build your distance.
  • For each discipline you should have at least 2 workouts per week, one of which should be focused on your speed and the other one on your endurance.
  • 2-3 weeks before your race you need to have a rehearsal for your swim (ideally over-distance, like 3 miles instead of 2.4) and then a rehearsal for your bike (full distance or a little more) + run at least 6 miles at the end of the bike. The race rehearsals should be done in conditions as close to the race conditions as possible – including weather, course, nutrition, hydration, etc.
  • Last 2 weeks should be your taper, where you gradually reduce the load and prepare your body for the race.

So let’s say right now 2.4mi swim + 112mi bike + 26.2mi run sounds crazy to you. But what if I told you that last week you swam 3 miles one day and the other day you rode 112 miles and were able to run easily after that? I bet you’d get a serious confidence boost. Now you can say “But riding 112 miles is impossible for me right now!”. Sure, but what if I told you that one week prior you were able to ride 100 miles and easily run after that? This cycle continues all the way down to day 1 when your Ironman training starts.

Fat oxidation

One thing that can really help you during the race is your diet in the months leading into the race. Your body has 2 sources of energy: glycogen (carbs) and bodyfat. Your glycogen storage is very limited – about 2000 calories. You can replenish some of it by eating on the course, but it won’t be enough and a lot of people start having digestion problems when they eat too much. Your body needs to learn how to use your bodyfat for fuel. This ability is called “fat oxidation” and you can improve it with proper dieting and training. Many coaches put fat oxidation just under VO2 Max when it comes to factors predicting race performance. Aside from your training this is probably the most important thing you can do to ensure the success of your race. You should definitely read more about this, but in a nutshell:

  1. Cut down your carbs as much as possible except for the days when you do speed work
  2. Only eat “good” carbs – no refined sugar, etc. Note: all of this goes out of the window during the rehearsals and the race day – eat all the gels and bars that you can stomach
  3. Try to eat very little and definitely no carbs on your “distance” days before the exercise. Your body needs to learn to use your body fat as the primary energy source when you exercise at a low intensity, which is how you should do it when you build up your distance.
  4. Eat enough after the exercises, but try to eat more healthy proteins and fats rather than carbs. Some people go on a full-blown keto diet, which definitely improves fat oxidation, but I personally find it very tough to stick to. And the best diet is the diet you can stick to.

Big side benefit of sticking to this plan is that you’re going to lose a lot of weight and improve your body composition. I was able to get to 7% bodyfat (hydrostatic method) in just a few months of training.

Nutrition

Many coaches will tell you that nutrition is the 4th discipline in triathlon and I fully agree. You have to nail your nutrition+hydration for your race day, otherwise you’ll run out of gas. Most of us will burn 10,000-12,000 calories on a race day and you will have to figure out how to replenish them. The only way to nail your nutrition is to practice it. Do it during your secondary races and during your rehearsals.

Step-by-step plan

OK now you have a basic idea of how to get to the finish line and you’re ready to give it a go. Where do you start?

Here’s how I’d approach it:

  1. The most important step is actually signing up for a race. Seriously, just do it. Without this step you’ll never cross the finish line. Once you do it and spend a lot of money – it will have a domino effect on your life. You will start training, change your good diet, etc. Pick a race that is 10+ months in advance (really judge by your level), lake or river swim, easy bike and run course, predictable weather. ObsTri is the best source for finding this information. A lot of the races get sold out in the first few days after the registration gets open. I did Ironman Arizona and I definitely recommend it as a first Ironman for anybody. Lake swim, relatively easy bike and run courses, amazing town and atmosphere.
  2. Buy the 80/20 Triathlon book and read it right away. It will also have a training plan for you. I recommend picking Ironman Level 0 and adding more workouts if you have time. The Triathlete’s Training Bible is also a pretty good book. This is optional and it covers a lot that was already covered in 80/20, but I did find a lot of good advice in this book as well.
  3. Once you have your ‘A’ race on the calendar – sign up for a few ‘B’ races. You should do a half distance (ideally Ironman branded to learn the organization around the race) at least 2-3 months prior to your full Ironman. Try to do a Sprint race as soon as you’re comfortable in the water. Schedule an Olympic distance half way between your Sprint and Half Ironman.
  4. Get a bike. I recommend buying a cheap used road bike for the first few months and then upgrading to a TT/tri bike if you have a budget for this. At the very minimum try to get a good bike fit. You should be able to ride 6-7 hours straight and if you’re just a little uncomfortable in the saddle – it’s going to be a problem.
  5. Buy a watch (I recommend Garmin 935 or 945) and a heart rate monitor (HRM-tri or Wahoo TICKRx) and establish your Hear Rate zones as quickly as possible to start training efficiently.
  6. Join a triathlon club. Triathletes are in general very nice and then will teach you a lot of things and help you with your technique, gear, etc. The membership is usually free or very cheap, so it’s definitely worth it. On top of that tri clubs often have free races and these races can be very helpful as you’re getting ready for your big race.
  7. Communicate your goals with your family. You will be training a lot and usually at the expense of spending more time with them. It’s going to be important that they are on board with that.
  8. Work on eliminating the three reasons I described above. Remember that if you eliminate all the reasons why you would not finish – YOU WILL FINISH. It’s as simple as that.
  9. Go for it! It’s a long process, but it’s totally worth it. Even if you don’t complete your first Ironman you will become a better person in the process of training for it. You’ll probably be in the best shape of your life, find a lot of new friends, learn how to be more patient. Your health will improve significantly and you will feel much better overall.

Let me know in the comments section below if you have any questions or comments – I’ll be happy to share my experience and help other people who are just starting their journey.

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