That day that you said would never happen has arrived. You are thinking about taking the plunge and transitioning from short course (sprint, Olympic) triathlon to long course (half and full Ironman distance). Or maybe you’ve already decided to tackle the longer distance but just haven’t done it yet. There is a big difference when it comes to race preparation when you enter the long course realm, so let’s take a look at a few things to make sure you will be ready.
Distances, Times and Hours per Week
Let’s start with the basics. Just how much longer is a half or full Ironman event? The following table outlines the increased distance for all three events across all three disciplines.
As the chart shows, moving from an Olympic to half Ironman in terms of the swim is less than a 30% increase in distance. However, the bike and the run distances increase by more than double. Then by definition the full Ironman is twice the half Ironman distance. So, the swim isn’t that big a jump from Olympic to half Ironman, but the bike and run increase greatly.
How long does it take to finish a half Ironman or Ironman race? Course profiles and weather conditions aside, median times for the half Ironman typically range from about 5:45 +/- 10 minutes for men and 6:10 +/- 10 minutes for women. For the full Ironman, median times are about 12:45 +/- 10 minutes for men and 13:45 +/- 10 minutes for women.
Considering that Olympic distance triathlon finish times usually range from 2:30-3:00 for a middle of the pack age grouper we’ve got a two fold jump in time on course for a half Ironman. Athletes moving from a half Ironman to full will see a jump of two and a half times the time spent on course. For athletes racing the half Ironman, typical volumes for maximum training hours per week often range from 10-13. Training volumes get up to 14-16 hours per week for the typical Ironman focused age grouper.
Now that we have an understanding of what kind of training hours and race times we are getting into, let’s look at five specific things to keep in mind during our training.
Race Nutrition is Critical
There are a few things to think about for long course regarding nutrition. First, with a longer swim you are burning more calories and also starting the bike in a slightly more fluid reduced state. Second, you are on the bike for over twice as many miles, so caloric and fluid intake needs to be adequate to get you through the bike AND set you up for a good long run. You may not burn through all your glycogen stores in a short course race, or at least only need a little supplementation. In a long course race you will definitely need supplementation.
As with any race distance, it is critical to practice with what you will use in the race to make sure it sits well. Some athletes find that solid food (more so on the bike) needs to become a part of their nutrition plan for the long course distances. If this is the case for you, it’s a little more important to practice your nutrition timing between bike and run.
Bike Time Matters
Get very comfortable on the bike. Your bike should become your best friend. With bike times around 3 hours for a half Ironman and 6 hours for a full, not only do you need to work your bike fitness, but you also need to make sure you will be comfortable in the saddle for that long. Make sure you are comfortable in the aerobars on your long rides so that you can race in the aerobars. No one wants to be that triathlete who has the great aerodynamic bike but has to sit up for the majority of the race because they aren’t comfortable.
If you have a road bike, the long course distances are a good excuse to at least get clip on aerobars. But again, make sure you are fit because the bike set-up to be comfortable on a road bike with aerobars is different than your standard road configuration.
Typical “longest training rides” for the half Ironman distance range from 3.5-4.5 hours and are 5-7 hours for the full. Build up to these durations gradually and practice your race nutrition on every long ride. The stronger you are on the bike, the better your run will be. Which leads me to my next point.
It’s OK to Under-train the Run
I am of the camp that you do not need to run a full, stand alone marathon before you do an Ironman. If you do, I recommend it not be during the season of your Ironman, or if it is, it is very, very early in the season. The reason being is that running a marathon takes a huge toll on your body and the true recovery time can be up to a month. (Although if you are an experienced marathoner and know how to properly recover, you can most likely get away with it.)
The long runs in training beat up our body quite a bit. For a half Ironman, we can get to race distance or close as recovering from a two hour endurance run is manageable for most. Typical longest training runs for a half Ironman are 1.5-2.5 hours. For the full Ironman they often range from 2.5-3.5 hours, and more likely with the longest training run closer to 3 hours. Your longest run should depend on your running history and if you are predisposed to injury. If you have had issues with overuse injuries or are new to running long distances, stay on the conservative side and consider a run/walk approach.
Don’t Neglect Strength Training
With the longer training commitment and our busy lives, strength training sometimes will get put aside. But I will argue that it is even more important to make sure you are strengthening key muscle groups to try to keep overuse injuries at bay.
The key areas to focus on are the scapular stabilizers and the hip stabilizers (we’ll consider the abdominals a part of the hip stabilizers.) If your scapular stabilizers are weak, getting to the higher swim volumes can cause issues, especially if your stroke mechanics aren’t ideal. Rotator cuff strengthening is also a good idea.
The hips are very, very important for cycling and running. The more cycling and running we do, the more we need to insure the hips and core are strong and keep us stable. Think about the muscles that keep us upright with good posture and make sure those are strong. Performing a twenty minute routine 3-4 times a week can be extremely beneficial. Google Jay Johnson’s General Strength and Mobility for some ideas.
Pay Close Attention to Recovery
The last thing to keep in mind is recovery time. With increased training time, making sure you get adequate recovery becomes even more important. Recovery means eating properly before, during, and after your workouts. Recovery means getting plenty of sleep. Recovery can mean flexibility work such as yoga and also regular massage. To some recovery might mean foam rolling, ice baths, and compression socks, but if you get the eating and sleeping part down with some ancillary flexibility work, you might not need those other modalities as often.
Another thing to consider, regardless of the distance you are training, but certainly critical when it comes to the the long endurance work, is listening to your body. Life stress (home, work) also affects our recovery. Sometimes life stresses are unavoidable and they take a toll. If you are feeling tired or fatigued, it really is OK to take an easy day or day off. A missed day of training every so often so you can sleep more is much better than pushing through fatigue and ending up injured.
With the above items in mind, if you are making the jump to long course you should now know what to expect. Good luck and enjoy the journey!