Coach Tip Tuesday: Are You Ready for an IRONMAN 70.3 or an IRONMAN?
It’s the middle of race season in the Northern Hemisphere. In my home region of the northeastern United States (and specifically my home state of New York), July is always a big month of racing since IRONMAN 70.3 Musselman and IRONMAN Lake Placid both take place in July.
These races are exciting, epic, and challenging. As a result, they definitely make for some photos and stories that are inspiring. After big races like these, I’m often asked, “Do you think I could do [insert race name here]?” The answer is often nuanced and complicated, and I remind folks that what they are seeing in social media posts or hearing from their friends is honestly only the tip of the iceberg - the cherry on top of the sundae. Those finish line photos and stories are the result of a TON of work (and often a few tears). This week, I’ll be talking about how to tell if you are ready for an IRONMAN 70.3 or IRONMAN race.
Hard, But Possible
Let’s be clear about one thing right up front:
I believe that ANYONE can be successful at IRONMAN 70.3 or IRONMAN distance racing.
That statement is true, and so is this one:
Training for a long course triathlon is not something you can fake your way through and hope for the best. You must be committed to the training and the road to a goal like this, or you will not be successful.
In my opinion, holding two seemingly conflicting ideas as true simultaneously is a sign of maturity. So yes. Both of these things - which may appear to be in conflict with one another - are true at the same time. Anyone is capable of success AND this is something that must be taken seriously. If you don’t do the work, you will not reach the goal. It’s as simple and as hard as that.
If you have any endurance athletes in your social circles, things like completing a marathon or finishing an IRONMAN may start to feel normalized to you since “everyone” is doing it. But let’s be clear: Everyone is NOT doing this.
An average of 1.1 million people worldwide finish a marathon each year. That’s about 0.01% of the world’s population.
Approximately 50,000 people finish an IRONMAN each year around the world. That’s 0.000006% of the world’s population. More people run the New York City Marathon in a single day than finish an IRONMAN in an entire year. (Let that sink in.)
The reason why those numbers are so low is that these events are HARD. They are not something that everyone wants to do. A person must have a lot of grit, mental fortitude, time, patience, and a solid work ethic to become a finisher at a long endurance event. That being said, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The IRONMAN Group got it right: Anything is possible. It does, however, take the right recipe.
How Much Time?
“How much time do I need to train?” is the question I am most frequently asked, no matter what endurance event an athlete is training for. My answer to this question encompasses two main categories: Training Time and Recovery Time.
When it comes to training time, athletes can expect to spend 10-18 hours per week executing cardio workouts when training for an IRONMAN depending on what phase of training they are currently in. For an IRONMAN 70.3, that range is lower, but still in the range of 7-12 hours per week. Yes, properly training for an event like this is like a part-time job in terms of the time requirement. With a finite of available hours each day and week, you will need to decide what you are willing to give up in order to make space for this necessary training time.
In addition to that, athletes should plan for the time they will need to spend doing “the extras” that will make them successful, including recovery time. Again, this varies based on the athlete and the phase of training, but a good rule of thumb is to expect your “extras” time to add an additional 40-90% of time to your weekly training hours.
Yep, you read that right. You can expect to “double” your training time from your actual training time when you account for everything else besides workouts (sleep, nutrition, mobility work, strength work, etc.) that you need to do in order to be successful. The extras actually end up being the most important things, as they are what enable you to handle and get the most out of your workouts, which snowballs into more preparedness come race day.
Preparation Timelines Are Key
When I say that anyone can be successful at IRONMAN 70.3 or IRONMAN distance racing, I mean it. However, WHEN someone is successful at these distances may be vastly different from person to person. It’s really, really important to honestly assess where you’re at so you can determine your own personal preparation timeline.
The athletes who have the most successful races at IRONMAN 70.3 and IRONMAN distance races are consistent in their training and do not try to cram for goal races. (When I say “successful races” I am referencing races where the athletes feel strong and in control for the entirety of the race.) Consistency over time (read: many years) is what leads them to success here. Long-course triathlons are the absolute definition of endurance events; they require athletes to keep moving for hours and hours and hours. The ability to do this cannot be achieved in a few months of training or with short workouts.
Depending on your background, your preparation timeline for success at an IRONMAN 70.3 or IRONMAN race may be anywhere from 1-5+ years long. If you have a history of consistent training (and therefore have a very solid endurance base), you can likely build to the IRONMAN 70.3 or IRONMAN distance within a couple of years. If you are new to endurance sports, your best chances of success at these distances is honestly probably in the 3+ year range.
I know, I know. A year feels like a long time, and three or more years feels like an eternity. Well, it feels like a long time because it is. We’ve all heard the saying that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Athletes are not built in a day, or even in a season. They are built over time, as they complete series after series of workouts. Ask any athlete who has done an IRONMAN or IRONMAN 70.3 and they will tell you that the time goes by faster than you can imagine. A year may seem like a long time to get ready, but it’s honestly not when talking about a race of this scope.
If you’ve already completed an IRONMAN 70.3 (and have maintained the fitness from that training), your timeline to IRONMAN can be relatively “quick”, and may be less than one year. The reason for this is that IRONMAN training doesn’t differ as much as you may think from IRONMAN 70.3 training. The frequency generally stays the same (an average of six days of workouts per week), and the main thing that changes is the volume of longer workouts.
Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should
Many, many people do prepare for IRONMAN 70.3 and IRONMAN races on timelines shorter than what I am talking about. And some of them do find success. But that’s honestly rare, and that success is reserved for those humans who have some genetic gifts in the athletic department. (Spoiler: That’s not the majority of the population.)
Other athletes prepare for these races on shorter timelines, and are able to finish. But the training itself can be much harder and more stressful as a result of that time pressure. And race day itself usually ends up being harder than it would be if a more appropriate timeline was followed.
So yes, you CAN prepare for an IRONMAN 70.3 or an IRONMAN on a shorter timeline. But just because you CAN does not mean that you SHOULD. My goal for each athlete is this: I want you to reach your goal, feel good doing it, AND be able to walk the next day. This is best achieved by following a plan that contains the effective dose of workouts for you over the most effective timeline for you.
Races like IRONMAN Lake Placid or the IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i are iconic because of their locations and because of the challenge they pose to athletes. However, courses like these may not be appropriate for everyone.
It’s important to select a course that makes sense for you given how you like to train, how you actually train, what you have access to training-wise, and how you personally fare in certain conditions.
If you live in a flat area or primarily train indoors, training for a hilly course like IRONMAN Lake Placid may not be in your best interests. If you live in a hilly area, training for a flat course like IRONMAN Maryland may not be in your best interests. The specifics of the course of your goal race are incredibly important, and they must be trained over the course of your training plan. One or two sessions on a route that mimics your race day course will not be enough to set you up for your best chances of success.
The ambient conditions of your race course are also important to consider. If you live in a cooler climate and want to race at a race that is typically very hot, you will have to be very intentional about how you prepare your body to handle that heat. If you train indoors and want to race somewhere that is often windy, that’s a condition that you will not be prepared for come race day.
Be honest about how you train and what you have access to (ambient conditions included) when you are considering what goal race to select, and pick a course that suits your training style and what conditions you fare best in.
Proficiency in Other Sports Does Not Guarantee Success
I’ve coached a lot of athletes over the years who had a background in athletics: soccer, lacrosse, speed skating, horseback riding, football, baseball, tennis, weight lifting, and more. A background in sports such as these is extremely helpful when coming into endurance sports, as a lot of the core skills of athletics do cross-pollinate into other sports. However, a background in one sport does not guarantee success in endurance sports such as running or triathlon.
In short, yes, you are likely ready to take on the training for an IRONMAN 70.3 or IRONMAN race. However, your journey will be unique to you. As I’ve talked about many times over the years, I often have many individual athletes racing at the same goal event. However, the roads that they take to reach that same goal race are vastly different from each other.
Take an honest assessment of where you are now, select a course that makes sense given what you have access to training-wise, and plan for a reasonable timeline for you, and you CAN and WILL be successful when you hit that IRONMAN 70.3 or IRONMAN start line.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.