Sacrificing comfortable mornings in bed for a pre-work swim, having electrolyte drinks while running so you don’t collapse from sheer fatigue, and testing your determination on long-distance bike rides. It takes discipline and training to prepare for an Ironman event that is unfathomably long for most of us: swimming 2.4 miles, then cycling for 112 miles, topped off by a marathon. The cut-off time is usually 17 hours.
Sound a bit mad? Last year, James Woolfenden completed his first Ironman. His verdict? “I absolutely loved it from start to finish.” He completed the feat in just over 13 hours.
James, 44, runs a web design company in London. He hadn’t planned to take part in any triathlons until after a drunken dare from his colleagues when he was 28. In his own words: “It just went from a dare to, actually, I’m quite into it.”
Last year he smashed his personal best for the Olympic Distance Triathlon completing a 0.93 mile swim, followed by a 24.8 mile bike ride then a 6.2 mile run in 2 hours and 21 minutes. When his friend, who is a doctor and an ultra-runner (runners who run further than marathons) said things can take a “little bit of a downhill” when you reach 50, he committed to do an Ironman, sooner rather than later.
Work Out as You Commute
Many of us have busy lives that distract us from becoming the next Olympic champion. Running or cycling to work is a great way to fit training around work and social life.
James goes to the gym first thing, then runs 10 miles to his office in the morning. On weekends he gets up at 6:30 a.m. before his two children are awake, has a bowl of porridge then cycles for 50 miles or does an 18 mile run.
If that doesn’t sound realistic, you’re not alone. Triathlon coach and personal trainer Ralph Hydes recommends not overdoing it when you’re just starting out.
“If you travel into Waterloo, get off two stops early at Clapham Junction, then build it up … Otherwise you’ll break in the third or fourth week,” he said.
For those who are time poor, Ralph said the key is to focus on your weakest sport – if it’s swimming, then focus on that – particularly because of the time limit. Ironman athletes have to finish the 2.4 mile swim in 2 hours and 20 minutes to carry on with the rest of the race.
A Way of Switching Off
Triathlons can be a test of mental toughness as well as physical resilience. But training can be a chance to unplug from the busyness of work, while also benefiting from a post-exercise buzz.
“You have all this time to yourself when you just solve problems and think about things. It’s your own time when you’re not being interrupted with phone calls or people asking questions. It’s good down time to process what’s going on in your business,” said James.
“I find it very de-stressful, and you feel great afterwards.”
One of James’s tips is to train with friends. “At least you’ve got someone to talk to, because it can be a bit boring,” he said.
Training with the food you will be eating during the race and testing your diet early is key, said triathlon coach Ralph, who is also a nutritionist. He said regulating your blood glucose levels prevents “bonking”. If you’ve “bonked” it means you’ve “hit the wall” in a physical and emotional sense. Your body has run out of energy and you might find it impossible to carry on.
During an Ironman race athletes burn around 7,000 to 10,000 calories, much more than the average human consumption of 1,500 to 2,000 calories per day.
It’s important to have high-energy food during the race and maintain a healthy diet in general. He said during the race athletes can consume gels, jelly babies, jelly beans or energy drinks with electrolytes. Fluids like gels (taken with water) or energy drinks absorb into the body more quickly than solids. Natural alternatives include dried fruits like figs, apricots or nuts – although nuts present a choking hazard. Ralph recommends things you don’t have to chew that much, like bananas or flapjacks.
What about alcohol? Elite athletes wouldn’t touch a drink, he said, with even one or two beers consumed the week before affecting their performance. But if you’re doing it for fun, a drink here or there causes no harm. Even one glass of wine the night before the race can relax your mind.
The Right Coach
Mark Kleanthous is an Ironman triathlon and sports nutrition coach who has completed 39 Ironmans. At 56 years old he makes sure to compete in an Ironman every year.
“It’s good to push the mind,” he said. “Age is no barrier.”
When choosing a coach for Ironman, he recommends they are qualified as a British Triathlon Level 2 or 3 coach, that they have coached someone for the event you want to take part in, and that you get on well.
“I have confidence in all the athletes I train. The athletes need confidence in my training plan too,” he said.
He helps to find an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses and create a flexible plan. “No two people are the same, even if they are identical sisters.”
James said the cycling part was like being on the Tour de France, and the hundreds of people cheering during the run makes competitors feel like superstars.
“They tell you that a lot of your barriers are your psychological state … I was on a high from start to finish,” he said.
“The feeling over the finish line was amazing. All I wanted to do was finish, I didn’t care about the time. I enjoyed it so much, that’s why I’m going to do another one. I’ll do it somewhere else and try again.”
Triathlons are Not Just for Super-Fit Athletes
If you’re thinking about trying one there are several different distances to choose from depending on your fitness level.
Super Sprint Distance
0.25 miles (400 m) swim
6.2 miles (10 km) cycle
1.6 mile (2.5 km) run
0.47 miles (750 m) swim
12.4 mile (20 km) cycle
3.1 mile (5 km) run
Also known as standard distance or 5150 (representing the total km of the race)
0.93 mile (1.5 km) swim
24.8 mile (40 km) cycle
6.2 mile (10 km) run
Also known as Ironman 70.3 (representing the total mileage of the race)
1.2 mile (1.9 km) swim
56 mile (90 km) cycle
13.1 mile (21.1 km) run (half-marathon)
2.4 mile (3.8 km) swim
112 mile (180 km) cycle
26.2 miles (42.2 km) run