The Essential Guide to Training for Your First Ironman Triathlon

The Ironman Triathlon. 2.4 miles of swimming followed by 112 miles of cycling followed by 26.22 miles of running. No breaks. Most with a 17-hour time limit. For many endurance athletes, this race is the true test of will and body. It’s widely considered one of the most difficult and challenging sporting events in the world. 

I’ve run a few Ironman Triathlons myself. They’re no joke. If the numbers sound intimidating, it’s because they are intimidating. Participating in an Ironman race is one of the biggest challenges you’ll overcome as an athlete. 

And before you ever race, there’s all of the training that goes into it.

If you’ve ever considered tackling an Ironman Triathlon, here’s the good news: I’ve been there. I’ve run the race, come out the other side, and beat it. And I’ve been through the training that got me there.

So I’ve got some advice for those of you who want to take on the big one.

4 Training Essentials for Your First Ironman Triathlon

1) Measure Where You Are Right Now

Before you even begin to pick the date of your Ironman race, you need to assess where you are as an athlete right now. Running an Ironman is an achievable goal for anyone, honestly. You just need enough time and dedication to get there. If you search for any training regimen for an Ironman race, you’ll find that they have a TON of different lengths on them. Be ready in 6 months! A year! 20 months!

Why is that? It’s because we’re all in a different place physically. Maybe you’re already in fantastic shape. You’ve been running triathlons and all you need to do is fine-tune and work on form and endurance. You won’t have to train for nearly as long as someone who is starting at ground zero because they haven’t run their first 5K yet. 

You need to make an honest assessment of your abilities. That starts by taking a sampling of your abilities in swimming, cycling, and running. How fast can you run a mile? What about cycling and swimming? Can you maintain a target heart rate? 

These are questions to ask yourself! 

2) Consider Your Schedule

Training for an Ironman is going to take your time. This is not an hour of training three times a week. It’s going to be a major time commitment. Are you going to be able to make it? Estimates are that it takes a minimum of 13 hours a week to successfully train for an Ironman. That’s nearly two hours a day if you train every day.

Many of us are busy professionals and there’s not a lot of wiggle room to our schedules. If you can’t find that wiggle room or you’re not willing to make it, the Ironman might not be a challenge you’re ready for. Because if you don’t put in the time, you’re going to be paying a hefty price tag (it varies on the race, but roughly $750 to register) to hate your life for 17 hours. 

Don’t be that guy. 

By the same token, you’ve got to consider where you are and where you’ll be running. Ironman Triathlons aren’t held just anywhere. You’ve got to consider when and where they are so you can hit a favorable climate, on top of the season you’ll be training in (it won’t matter so much if you’ll be training for a year or more). If you live in a hot, humid climate...well, you might want to dodge the summer. 

3) Aim for Consistency & Form

Before you start worrying about your times, focus on getting your form right. Form is something that many, many amateur athletes neglect. We forget to breathe right and we don’t know how to move our bodies efficiently to avoid unnecessary strain. 

When you’re in-training, especially in the beginning, your attention should be on getting your forms down; particularly when it comes to swimming and cycling. If you’re primarily a runner, you may be less accustomed to the nuance and finer points of the two. Form, breathing, and staying well within the right heart rate range for your age and body are crucial for your endurance. 

If you can get your form down pat, you’re going to be able to vastly increase your endurance and shave down your times.

4) Invest in Nutrition

There’s swimming, cycling, and running. But there’s also eating. The neglected aspect of any triathlon. When triathlon training, proper nutrition is paramount to success. And when it comes to an event as intensive and demanding as an Ironman, if you don’t have the right fuel, you’re likely to crash and burn no matter how hard you’ve been training.

Here’s the problem: an Ironman is so intensive and so calorie-burning that it is physically impossible for you to ingest more than you burn. Short of a pro, you’re going to take at least 10 hours to finish the race. And you can’t recoup more than a few hundred calories an hour during this kind of intensive activity. 

Mostly, you want to avoid anything that’s going to cause you gastrointestinal distress during the race, while also getting enough fuel and hydration to keep you going strong.

So nutrition leading up to the race and during is absolutely paramount to being able to finish. 

Here are race day nutrition tips from the official Ironman Race blog, and here’s a guide to changing your diet to accommodate Ironman training. 

If you made it through these tips and still want to run an Ironman, that’s great! It’s a wonderful experience. There’s nothing like the feeling of pride and accomplishment when you cross that finish line. As difficult and grueling as it is, once you do’ll find yourself wanting to do it again and again.