Mastering the art of triathlon is a special thing. All the technical nuances and the skills and techniques need to complete a Olympic distance or standard distance, whatever you call it, is a great accomplishment. When you started it was probably completely overwhelming. But now your at the stage where its not enough. The accomplishment is still incredible but its there in the back of your mind nagging away…Ironman
Going Long as its affectionately called is the ultimate achievement in Triathlon. The chance to push yourself and your body further than is logically possible. To swim, bike and run distances that would break you now even in isolation. “Olympic distance is one thing but, Ironman …can I really do that?” Of course you can. Follow my guide on standard distance triathlon to ironman, and you too will be “going long” in no time.
The difference between an Ironman and a standard triathlon is pretty vast. Fortunately the similarities are also numerous. Its still the same old swim, bike run. you are just doing it for longer. Because of this certain elements that can be ignored to a point in standard distance become essential in Ironman. Where as some big must/must not does in Standard become less prevalent. For example Nutrition is a Vital essential in Ironman, where as in Standard you can just about get by on water alone. The Crucial “transitions” of the standard however become a lot less important in the grand scheme of an Ironman day.
The Iron distance Swim, 3.8km, Is a perfect example of this alteration of priorities. On the face of it its just the same only a bit longer. well over double actually. But the are still long distance Open water swims. So execution Is similar. Tips and techniques such as drafting and sighting all still apply. But the general essence of the swim changes. Its so much more about getting round effortlessly. Taking 5-10mins longer than you could achieve but getting out of the water completely relaxed ready for the bike will probably translate into a faster over all time. This sort of approach would be disastrous in standard distance. But really main aim for the swim is to be relaxed and calm and swim within myself. It should never be difficult.
Translating your swim training to iron distance is really little more than incrementally stretching out your open water swims. I rarely train beyond 2000m in a pool session and instead concentrate on stroke and sprint work. My distance work comes when its open water season and I incrementally stretch out the swims as I grow accustomed to the environment. Even after multiple seasons it still takes me a few sessions to get into the open water groove after a winter of pool work.
So really now we are past the days of Ironman mass starts (Boo) there is little to daunt a competent Standard distance Triathlete about the swim. It really is a case of its a bit longer but you swim it a bit easier.
The bike is where things start to turn nastier. Its really not fitness or stamina that is the big issue in the bike. Its time in the saddle. Things start to go hurt, then go numb, then Start to hurt again. Back, shoulders, wrists, all will take a battering from being in the Cycling position for an extended period. Not to mention the “down stairs” areas. Rubbing, chafing and just plain pressure numbness/pain. all take their toll.
This can all be mitigated by just spending time on the bike. Building out your long rides before hand. This is essential as it will build up the support and core muscles that delay and reduce this soreness. Its very easy t get your legs fit enough to ride 112 miles but if you are in agony from mile 60 on its not going to be much fun.
Pacing is also very different. A standard distance bike can be attacked, high heart rates and heavy breathing are all fine. but these sorts of efforts should be avoided when Ironman racing. At all costs. An Ironman bike leg should be an easy effort at all times. Its very easy to get carried away in the first 50 miles and end up paying for it later.
That leads to another common mistake however. A lot of people get confused between easy and slow. The effort should not be so easy you are barely making progress or going a lot slower than your natural pace. Its just is shouldn’t be leading to high heart rates and lactate accumulation. I liken the effort to tickling my pedals. using minimum effort to continue the momentum. rather that pushing hard to increase the speed. It surprising how much of your normal speed this retains. And how long you will be able to maintain it for.
The bike is where Nutrition starts to rear its head. What you eat and drink on the bike will effect your whole day.
Running a 10k race following a 40km bike is a very difficult thing to accomplish. As you know. Your legs feel utterly useless and every step can be a challenge. Often though, as the kilometres click by. Things get easier as the blood begins to flow to the right muscle groups and your legs transition from biker to runner. Its a familiar feeling for triathletes and the good news is the wooden leg feeling lasts about the same in an Ironman. So the overall percentage of your run lost to that feeling is far less. I often find after the initial 2-3 miles the first half of an Ironman run to be the most enjoyable part of the day. The crowd support is normally excellent and you can just soak up the atmosphere. And normally I am just thankful to be off the bike.
The key to running a good Ironman marathon is Pacing. Taking it nice and easy normally with regular walk breaks. The wooden leg feeling often helps keep that early pace under control. In a Standard the run is so critical. And any time lost rack up. But during an Ironman walk breaks and toilet stops etc can be absorbed better. Its still important to keep moving forward but lulls in pace are acceptable and often mean you are running quicker near the end and run a faster time overall. The first half of an Ironman Marathon should NEVER be hard. And even the second half only hard/painful because fatigue has racked up.
Nutrition is again critical. But the Marathons are normally very well catered for and regular aid stations dole out endless goodies. Walk the station while picking up something the eat and drink and walk until finished then start running again. Unless you are planning on being front of the race this is often not only the best strategy but the fastest. Ironman marathons are one of those strange occasions where its faster to be slower.
Transitions are very different in Ironman to Standard. The frantic rush of an Standard distance race is not needed in Ironman. Again small delays in transition are absorbed into the day. The focus on Ironman transition is to get it right!
Time should be taken to ensure you will be comfortable for the next leg. For the Swim to Bike. Ensure shoes and sock are on properly and comfortably. Ensure you are completely sand or dirt free. A minute cleaning up can stop a lot of discomfort for the rest of the day. Sunscreen should be applied unless you are very sure that the Sun won’t be making an appearance. Remember you will be in FULL sun for the entire day. Sun burn is not fun. Some people prefer to make a full change into bike gear. Its far more important you get your self comfortable for the bike than to save 2-3 mins. That time can easily be lost later on if the discomfort causes you to slow down or even stop to rectify a problem.
The same is true for the run. Fresh socks feel so good after a long bike. Ensure they are on straight and properly fit your trainers. Any creases or imperfect fit an Blisters will form making your run very uncomfortable. Time again for sunscreen top up! Feel free to change into full running gear if that makes you feel more comfortable. There really is no right or wrong just what suite you.
That said I would always avoid one piece triathlon suits, As they just make Toilet stops difficult. Two piece suits are defiantly the way forward.
A bottle of energy drink and a few gels are all you need for an Olympic Distance Triathlon. Sure lots of people stock their bikes up with all sorts of goodies. But most of them go uneaten. There just isn’t the time on an Olympic Distance. Really you don’t need much. The body can just about cope with just water.
This is not the case for Ironman. Nutrition is the life blood of your day. A proper tested Nutrition strategy is essential. Aid stations are provided and these can be your only source of nutrition. It is essential you have tested the products available though. I have found through bitter experience if you can’t stomach them it can cause alot of problems. Some people prefer Real foods to gels and energy drinks, if that’s you then you will need to take them yourself as apart from bananas there will only be energy products on the bike.
Some run aid stations do carry more normal foods such as cake, biscuits (Jaffa-cakes are the ultimate!) and sometimes crisps or salty crackers. Salty foods are excellent later on in the run when you are low of salts lost through sweat.
The Step up from Standard Distance Triathlon to Ironman is a big one. Its it however a very achievable one. You have all the skills and technique needed and probably most of the kit. It really is just a case of lengthening your swims, rides and runs. Working on your nutrition strategy and then just getting it done. There is no Dark Art to Going long, Just a positive outlook and hard work.
Are you a Olympic distance triathlete wanting to go long? Please leave a comment below. Or if you have any questions or queries about going long?