So you want to do an Ironman or Iron-distance Triathlon. Great. Assuming you are medically fit or your doctor has told you there is nothing about your condition to stop you. Now, the only problem is well you are not exactly fit…
But Couch to Ironman is a journey you ARE capable of making. Its a journey that many many people have already taken. Me being one of them. But you are going to have to want it! Really want it.
There will be hundreds times where you think “what’s the point” and want to quit. Where you think “I can’t possibly do this!” this is normal. I have said before:
Iron distance Triathlon is 80% mental and 20% Physical
This is true but it suggests the physical side is easier than it is. This is not the case. Its just that mental side is SO important. You are doing something that is so physically demanding that you need huge mental fortitude to drag yourself kicking and screaming toward the goal.
A 10k run or a 50-60 mile charity bike ride or a obstacle course style race are events anyone can really do, without any specific preparation or training. It may not be pretty and their time may be on the long side. but most people would get around with only a few weeks training. I have even heard of people going as far as completing marathons without any real training!
This is unlikely to happen in an Ironman. The technical nature precludes a “have a go hero” from rocking up and making the cut offs. I would say for anyone around 6 months consistent training would be required to have a very good chance of making the finish. Any less and if you are carrying fitness or bags of natural talent and you may still finish but it may end up a long and very unpleasant day.
But for the complete NON athlete this cycle could well be a lot longer. Especially if like when I started your swim history is along the lines of “did a bit in school and in the hotel pool on holiday”.
This is by far the hardest discipline to learn from scratch or almost scratch. We can all run, It’s a natural body function. Even if you think you can’t, put in the right situation or the wrong situation it should be, and you will run. It just needs tuning and distance adding. The bike, by it mechanical nature, allows you to cover long distances with reasonably low efforts. By contrast if you were to throw someone who can’t swim into a deep pool there is a chance they would drown. Its just not a natural process for us.
Ask an untrained person to swim 3.8km in open water without rest in a strict time limit and I’m afraid it isn’t going to happen.
There is Good news though
All that said the swim is still easily trainable by anyone. At the beginning it may be frustrating. It may seem like there is NO chance you will be able to hit the distance’s required. A few length of the local pool may be all you can manage without rest. Its very difficult from this place to see how you can ever get to level required. But there is a point where Swimming Clicks
One week any continuous swimming will be hard then without warning you seem to go on forever. What was impossible is now achievable. It might take some help or special training but you can get there.
The reason is Swimming is primarily a technique activity. In the beginning its not fitness that is holding you back. Its your technique. Water is very Viscous. meaning trying to move through it is extremely difficult. Try walking in water and you will see this demonstrated. This leads a lot of swimmers to waste most of their energy:
Fighting the Water
A pro swimmer can move through the water almost effortlessly. Their body position is flat, and most of their effort in going into forward propulsion. Its quite beautiful to behold. Most people confuse their speed for fitness. This is incorrect. While an Olympic swimmer is obviously enormously fit they would be able to outswim most people while exerting the minimalist effort. They would probably be unable to swim as slow as my fastest pace even if they tried. Their technique is SO efficient.
But they are not shaped any different to you or me…well not a lot different. So its pure learnable technique. Its not necessary to be anywhere near the level of an Olympic swimmer to complete an iron Distance Triathlon.
You just need to iron out the flaws that are wasting the majority of the energy. Novice swimmers will waste a lot of energy pushing down against the water with their arms. This downward force is completely wasted energy also it raises the upper body and lowers legs leading to a slanted swimming position. This exposes more frontal area to the water. Increasing resistance. slowing the swimmer and wasting further energy.
Breathing is another common problem for the novice. The effort is high and with the face underwater its hard to get enough air in. This leads to panic and is normally the reason people need to stop to rest frequently. Learning proper technique and building tolerance through repetition all help to overcome this issue.
Finally there is the issue of converting pool swimming to the daunting world of Open Water Swimming. But once again what feels impossible to begin with is easily overcome with a little practice and determination. Open water Swimming is also an incredibly rewarding and exhilarating activity!
What Stroke ?
You should Aim to learn front crawl / Free style. It is by far the most efficient stroke. But Breast stoke is ok and some people do use only that. But it is normally a lot slower unless performed very well and is less efficient so you will expend more energy for the same swim. An ironman swim is all about efficiency, there is a long day ahead. Breast stroke is best saved for a back up in case your breathing gets out of control and you need to swim head up to recover. Your primary stroke should be front crawl.
Backstroke is frowned upon as swimmers on their back is a warning sign to safety crews! and Butterfly is just so inefficient its not worth considering.
Where to Start
Well first up is to just get swimming. Pick up some trunks or a costume. and maybe some goggles. You don’t need anything fancy. Just something to cover your modesty and then get in the local pool. And that’s it. Your journey has begun.
Pretty soon you will begin to find limiters. Local swimming or triathlon clubs or Masters swim groups can help overcome these limiters. But I got to where I am through self learning. I found one flaw and focused upon it until it went away. Then another.
Finally you will need to venture outside. For UK readers or people in cooler climates you will probably need a wetsuit.
It is always very sensible to attend an organised open water session as they will provide safety cover and usually offer beginner services. Its very easy to get into trouble in open water.
Hopefully you can ride a bike. If not its time to learn. But from my experience most people thinking to do an Iron Distance Triathlon can at least ride a bike. But riding a bike is a very different proposition to riding 112 miles within a set cut off time, and still being in a condition to run a Marathon.
But cycling conditioning is a very simple process. You just need to ride. Its not “quite” that simple but in essence it really is. Its simply a case of riding for longer and longer progressively building out the miles until 112 miles an achievable feat.
There are more and less efficient ways to achieve this but essentially its not a complex process.
How often should you ride?
Whenever you can to begin with in time I would aim for twice a week. Three times if really working hard. But often it will only be once when life dictates, sometimes not at all. and this is within the training period. Consistency is the key. If you have a light week make sure its following a heavy week. There is a technique called periodization that I will talk about in detail elsewhere. but in essence its the theory of building large amounts of stress on the body and then resting (or training lighter) to allow the body to absorb.
This works brilliantly with Iron distance Training. Both mentally and physically. As the month plod along training can get very tiresome mentally so its good to know there is a rest week coming up. it also ties in great to test events or races, which you may chose to do as a benchmark or confidence booster.
Where to Start
This depends on one thing. Do you have a bike? If not well that’s first. The good news is it doesn’t have to be a super expensive lightweight carbon fibre racing bike, but it could be if you like!
I started out and did my first few triathlons, up to half Iron distance on a cheap Ebay second hand road bike. I only progressed to a time trial bike when I started to get a bit faster, its certainly not necessary.
So you have got your bike. now what.
Get out on it. Ride, ride, ride, then ride some more. To begin with all you are doing is building base fitness. some solid ground to build on. Time yourself, then you can use Google maps to measure your distance. then work out your average speed
Alternatively to get you started on GPS data based training there are tons of FREE smartphone Apps out there. Strava MapMyRide for example. These will track your ride and provide you with tons of interesting data about your progress. All for free
Running is certainly the discipline that most people will feel is the toughest of the three. We all know marathons are very tough. But a Marathon after a 3.8km swim and 112mile bike…that’s surely impossible.
I certainly used to think so. I am not a runner. When I started run training the thought of completing a marathon seemed impossible. In fact even a 10k seemed a pipe dream. But like the other two its just a case of starting small and building up. Only with running it must be done really slowly.
The problem with running is it can very quickly lead to injury. All the mental strength in the world can not push through running injuries. If you are out of practice running or have never run distance at all. Its imperative you start small and build up gradually.
Where to Start
Kit for running is quite simple to begin with. All you need is some shorts a top and some trainers. Then head out the door. If you have not run in a long time its going to be tough to begin with. DON’T worry about walking. Run for a while then walk. Then run again. Then walk. As time goes on your run distances will increase and your walk distance shorten.
the Day after its very normal to feel sore. hopefully this will fade within a couple of days.
Don’t over do it at this stage. Nice and easy. Don’t worry about distance just run for now. During this stage your body is undergoing a lot of physiological changes. tendons are strengthening supporting muscles you have not used in years are activating and strengthening. There a cellular changes within the muscles. Progress wont some super quickly but it will come.
Just like cycling its great to get feed back on your running, and the Apps mentioned above Strava MapMyRun all work just as well for running. They can also act as a LOG for you to record all your data. and in the Future if you upgrade to a Sports Specific GPS watch these will integrate to them as well.
I personally use Strava but all of them have Pros and cons which I will discuss further. for now its just a simple was to record some data to Prove to yourself you are progressing.
Putting it all together
The great thing about Triathlon is that all the fitness you develop in one discipline carries over to the other. Not completely but they all help each other in some way. The variety also helps. as you build and progress its important to take it all slow. Find time to REST and not train.
The high calorie expenditure should also be beginning to have an effect on your weight! Even without addressing your diet too much. But you should also look into that. See my Diet, Nutrition, Fueling page.
Next you need to decide on you time frame and route to Ironman. You may want to just Go straight into it, and that is perfectly ok. More often than not people want to stagger it and do Shorter – Standard Distance Triathlons. Its not necessary, but it helps build confidence.
Whatever you chose, its all about perseverance, patience and consistency. These will lead you on the journey to an Ironman Finish!