Are you really ready for an Ironman?

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Are you really ready for an Ironman? Scanning my news feed this past week, I came across this article on TrainingPeaks.  It gave three indicators that you are ready for a full distance Ironman. To summarize:

  1. Lifestyle – In essence, asking whether your family, work, and social commitments can support 15-25 hours a week of training, early bedtimes and adjusting to the stress of training.
  2. Athletic experience – Is your body primed for the training and the demands of the course that you have selected specifically?
  3. Costs – Do you have the money not only for the race fees but the extra food and equipment of taking on a long distance triathlon?

All of these are valid points.  And the author, endurance coach and athlete Maria Simone, is fairly thorough in her analysis of what it takes to take on a full distance tri. I especially liked how she believes that the social environment in which you train has to be conducive for you to succeed. However, she glossed over three key points that I think should weigh more heavily in the mind of the athlete who is contemplating going long.

Firstly, a person’s health. While this ties into the lifestyle component of triathlon, she does not specifically mention it, so I will. Mark Sisson and Brad Kearns, host of The Primal Endurance Podcast, argue that an athlete’s health is one of the most important things that he/she has. To truly succeed, you need to optimize your health first. This is why in our program “The Fit Triathlete,” we emphasize health as the basis of your training pyramid instead of the training itself. (Listen to our round table discussion here for more on Brad and how health plays into triathlon training). In order to take on a triathlon, you need a healthy lifestyle in order to adapt to the stress of training.

Secondly, I would have emphasized the swim and the run. While she does mention that you need some athletic experience especially with longer events, I think athletes who want to race a full distance triathlon need more swim experience before advancing to the 2.4 mile race. A cyclist, for example who has no experience swimming but who can go out and ride a bike for hours on end, is not necessarily ready to take on an Ironman.

Your swimming (both form and endurance) has to be at the point where you are relatively fresh getting out of the water after a solid workout. Otherwise, no matter how fit you are on the bike and run, you are not going to make it through the day by the cut off because you will not have any energy left. Nor is it going to be an enjoyable experience.

Even after 24 weeks of swimming, if your swim program or coach has not addressed your technique weaknesses, you are sabotaging the rest of your day. Yes, you might be able to swim the distance. But can you swim the distance without so much energy loss that you jeopardize your bike and run.

Of course you hear about people who go from couch to Ironman in the course of 24 weeks, and still go under the 17 hour cut off. But are they the exception or the norm? These stories overshadow the countless athletes who are pulled out of the water in the swim ending their day. Of the three disciplines, the biggest concern and weakness for the majority of participants is the swim.  Thus fitness, form, and swim psychology needs to be in place before bumping up to the Ironman distance.

And the run is by far the most demanding on the body. Unlike swimming and biking, the third leg of the triathlon is where people run (pun fully intended) the risk of injury. Add in weak hips, low mobility, tight hamstrings, calves, and  quads, and you have a recipe for injury before you even get to race day. You cannot complete a triathlon if you are not able to run because of injury. Running consistently and injury-free, therefore, needs to be a factor in the IM registration decision.

Lastly, and most importantly, there is no mention in the article as to the “why”. Even if you have the best swim form and health, enough money to buy several bikes, and never get injured, you have to have a strong reason to train for the Ironman.

This “why” has to go beyond the desire to beat your co worker or put the tattoo on your calf or the bumper sticker on your car. It has to be strong enough to get you up at 4:30 am to get to the pool and to lace up your trainers at the end of a full day of work. If that intrinsic drive is not there, you are wasting your money and time. With the proper drive and mindset though, you can overcome all the rest of the needs for Ironman training.

So are you ready for an Ironman? Yes, you may be able to check off all the physical and environmental boxes, but can you check off that “mental drive” box?