These 25 beginner’s Ironman tips will help make your first iron-distance triathlon a success

Beginning Ironman is tough, but getting to the finish line makes it all worth it  (Photo: Bakke-Svensson/Ironman)

Signing up to your first Ironman is an exhilirating, scary prospect. Whether you’ve just put your name down or are still hovering over the ‘enter now’ button, here are a few points to bear in mind about Ironman racing.

1 WANT IT
It’s easy to get carried away when your clubmates start planning a trip to a big IM race for next year, especially if they’ve just come back from a 2009 race full of inspiring stories and PBs. But to make a good job of Ironman (and enjoy it) you must want to do it for yourself.

2 BE CONSISTENT
You’ll need a break from hard training after this season, but don’t let it fall off completely over the winter. Your race may be a long way off, but you risk injury if you stop training then suddenly jump back in six months later.

3 TALK TO FRIENDS
No one’s ironman experience is the same, but you’ll have a better idea what you’re getting into if you speak to as many Ironman friends as possible. They will have learnt lessons during their build-up and can help you avoid little pitfalls that can make a big difference.

4 GET A PLAN
You’re already a triathlete, so you know there’s more to training than just totting up a couple of sessions in each discipline every week. You need to plan your training to make sure you’re doing enough of everything and keeping your sessions well balanced.

5 BE TOUGH – BUT NOT TOO TOUGH
An ironman race lasts a day, so don’t make excuses when training: if you’ve planned a five-hour bike ride, stick it out. But you’ll also need to learn when to back off: persistent fatigue, sniffles and niggles and low mood are all signs of overtraining. Take a few days off to regroup.

6 SLOW IT DOWN
Don’t stop your sprint and Olympicdistance races in the build up to your Ironman; they’re invaluable race practice and will add interest to your training. But don’t expect to be at your fastest after months of slow Ironman training if you haven’t done any intense speedwork. If you’re keen to set new PBs, wait till after your IM and use your endurance base as the foundation for a few weeks’ speedwork.

7 CHOOSE YOUR RACE CAREFULLY
Not all ironman races are equal. If this is your first race, you’ll probably want to minimise travel and jetlag by doing a UK or European event (these coincide with the UK race season; see p8). You must also decide whether you’re looking for a particularly tough course, just want to get round, or really want to race hard. There are 24 Ironman races in total: visit ironman.com for a full list.

8 GET A PARTNER
Training for an Ironman takes up hours of your time and can be lonely and bleak, especially in winter. Find a local training partner (or enter the same race as a friend) so that you can spur each other on, chat on long rides, and share your pre-IM worries and excitement.

9 STAY HEALTHY
You’ll be fitter than ever by the time you reach IM, but during your peak training months you’ll have slightly lowered immunity and a higher risk of injury. Staying healthy is key to training consistently, so eat well and keep an eye on work and other stresses. Back off at the first sign of illness until you feel better.

10 EAT, EAT, EAT
Even if you got into tri to lose weight, Ironman training is no time to start counting calories. Don’t worry about how much you ‘should’ be eating; use your appetite to guide you and never train hungry.

11 BE PATIENT
Training long is just like training for standard distance tris: you won’t see results overnight. Your first five-hour rides and 3K swims will feel slow, but you’ll improve.

12 GO LONG
Start getting used to the idea of training for hours at a time, especially on the bike. Once your key races for this season are over, start building up your long rides by just 15-20 minutes every couple of weeks, so you have a solid base to start from in the New Year.

13 START NOW
One of the most common mistakes is to sign up for the big Ironman event and then stop training altogether in the off-season. Have a few easy weeks after this year’s races, but stay in regular training all winter.

14 WRITE IT DOWN
If you’ve never kept a training diary before, start now. Keep track of what you’re doing and the effects it has on you. If you have a coach, your diary will be an invaluable tool for them to assess your progress. Writing your diary every day (even just to write ‘rest day’) will also keep the Ironman in your mind.

15 RECOVER
You need to take Ironman training seriously but don’t forget to take recovery seriously, too. Loading up the hours is hard on your body so make sure every fourth or fifth week is easier, and when you have rest days, make sure you do nothing physically demanding.

16 GET PEOPLE ON BOARD
Ironman can take over your life, so make sure the people in your life are prepared for it. Talk to your friends and family about it and make sure they’re prepared to see less of you, especially in the three or four months before your race. Make sure you present it as a positive thing: it’s something you really want to do, not a chore, and plan things to do with them afterwards so they don’t feel sidelined.

17 GIVE SOMETHING BACK
There are hundreds of people involved in every Ironman race, and by the time you finish you’ll be only too aware how important they are. You’ll also be given plenty of help in your build-up events, whether they’re tris, sportives or training weekends. Why not volunteer to help out at an event after your Ironman, or help out beginners at your club.

18 RESPECT THE DISTANCE
Ironman events are hugely popular now and many people take on the long distance as their first race, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s true that ‘anyone can do an Ironman’ – but only if you respect the distance and take your training seriously.

19 TRY EVERYTHING
Use the months you have to experiment and work out every detail. Try everything in training: seemingly ridiculous fuelling strategies (ham sandwiches?), and every possible combination of race clothing. Staying comfortable will make your race much more enjoyable.

20 BE PRACTICAL
Time will fly by before your race, and with thousands of people turning up at every Ironman event, accommodation and flights book up fast. Save yourself stress during your peak training months by sorting out the practical side of your race early.

21 ‘IRON’ OUT YOUR PROBLEMS
You won’t be racing much before next spring, so use the downtime to sort out any underlying problems with your technique. Have your running gait analysed, have a coach look at your swimming, and get your bike fitted properly; make changes while you have downtime.

22 BE INSPIRED
It’s impossible to imagine what an Ironman is like if you’ve never done one, but videos can give you a taste – look on ironman.com and try youtube.com.

23 GET HELP
You don’t need a coach to train for Ironman, but having someone else plan your training and – more importantly – keep your motivation and morale up will be invaluable during the long months ahead. Joining a club is a good place to start.

24 KEEP IT REAL
Just taking part in an Ironman puts you under pressure, so make ‘getting through’ the number one goal for your first one. Whatever your experience levels, keep your expectations realistic: use a 70.3 event to get an idea of your potential for the full distance.

25 ENJOY IT!
Make no mistake, Ironman is tough and not every training session will leave you with a smile on your face. But remember why you’re doing it: because you love it! The same applies on race day – however hard you’re pushing, savour the experience.

This article was first published in Triathlon Plus magazine – click here to subscribe.

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