The Ironman Triathlon is the grand daddy of all endurance races: We’re talking a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike, topped off by a 26.2-mile run. And considering that the current World Champ record holder (Craig Alexander, in 2011) clocked in at just over eight hours, the Ironman couldn’t be truer to its name. (Update: his record was broken in 2018).
(Editor’s Note: This article is originally from 2012)
The term “Ironman” was actually coined back in the 70s from a dispute between military officers over which athlete—the swimmer, biker, or runner—was toughest. Since then, it has grown into a nationally televised event, and this year’s IRONMAN World Championship will be held in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on October 13, surely inspiring a new crop of athletes to take on the triple-threat challenge.
So how does a guy prepare for such a physically and mentally grueling race? For that, we enlisted Kevin Mackinnon, managing editor at Ironman and an accomplished triathlete and trainer. Here, his best tips for conquering the toughest of tough triathlons.
IT’S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT
For an event that takes nearly a whole day to complete (the swim kicks off at 7 a.m. with a midnight last call to finish the run), training for the Ironman requires a strict regimen and serious time commitment. Begin your training as early as possible. “Giving yourself a year,” says Mackinnon. “It’s very much an endurance sport, and when you choose it, there really isn’t an offseason. Most people who do more than one event are training year round.”
According to Mackinnon, the average triathlete trains for 18-30 hours a week, which is like a part-time job: 7 miles of swimming, 225 miles of biking, and 48 miles of running. If you can’t put in a full year, Mackinnon recommends training for at least seven months. An Ironman isn’t something to take on lightly.
BUILD ON YOUR WEAKNESSES, NOT YOUR STRENGTHS
Sure, Michael Phelps would excel in the swim, Lance Armstrong would breeze through the bike, and Mo Farah would mow through the marathon. What makes an elite triathlete, however, is his ability to master all three phases of the race. “As a coach, it’s important to get people to work on their weaknesses,” says Mackinnon. The best pros are phenomenal in everything; you need to have that balance.”
While the majority of your training will be dedicated to biking, since that is the longest part of the race from a distance standpoint, Mackinnon recommends doing three workouts for each Ironman stage (biking, running, swimming) per week.
“When you look at the breakdown of time spent in the race, you want to invest a lot of training in the bike and run,” says Mackinnon. “Still, you can’t neglect the swim. It sets up the rest of your race.” Mackinnon says the best pros finish their swim in just under an hour, giving them a huge advantage the rest of the way.
CIRCUIT TRAINING: THE KEY TO TRANSITIONING
Aside from training for each stage of the race, conditioning for overall strength, core stability, and balance is vital. Mackinnon recommends a total-body routine to cover your fitness bases without sucking up too much time. “Circuit training is ideal,” Mackinnon says. “The whole idea is to get the most bang for your buck.”
You’re after the resistance training and explosive aerobics a circuit provides, and moving quickly and seamlessly from exercise to exercise will accustom you to transitioning through the stages of the Ironman—which all require you to use different muscle groups. Mackinnon recommends 30 to 40 minutes of circuit training, two to three times a week with a rapid succession of muscle-building exercises in pre-exhausting cycles to keep your muscles sharp.
BONUS TIPS FROM MACKINNON
1. Get you head in the game. Keep your eye on the prize, but embrace the physical challenge. “There are times you’re convinced you can’t keep up; whether you can pull it off or not,” says Mackinnon. “I tell athletes, you need to get yourself in the mindset that you are looking forward to the pain.”
2. Make it a lifestyle. Completing an Ironman isn’t really a one-off thing. Even if you only do one, you’ll have to stay at the top of your training game, which sometimes requires serious commitment. “Successful Ironman athletes remain remarkably fit almost year-round,” says Mackinnon. “It truly becomes a lifestyle sport.”
3. Less is more. Sure, it’s a beast of a race, but if you put in the time, mileage, and circuit training, you can do it. Just don’t overdo it and get hurt. “While there’s always a lot of training involved to prepare for the Ironman, many athletes over-train for their events,” says Mackinnon. “My motto for athletes I coach is that I’d prefer to see them 85 percent fit, rather than 100 percent fit—and injured or sick by the time they get to the line.”
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