Ultramarathons, defined as any running race greater than 26.2 miles, continue to gain popularity. Athletes already racing IRONMAN distance triathlons have a great endurance base, experience with fueling and hydration, and the discipline for long training days—so many are looking for a “bigger” challenge and an adventure into the unknown.
But can you combine both ultramarathon and IRONMAN training in the same season? Yes, but it’s tricky, and should only be attempted if you are very familiar with IRONMAN training and recovery. If you’re newer to the IRONMAN distance, and intrigued by ultra, then it’s best to focus on just one or the other. Feel like you’re up to the challenge? Here are some logistics to keep in mind.
Don’t Neglect the Swim and Bike
Continue biking and swimming during ultra training. Obviously your focus will be running while training for the ultra, but if you can continue to swim 1-2 times per week and bike at least once per week, you will maintain some fitness in those disciplines which will make the transition back to triathlon much easier. Swimming and biking are also a good way to add some higher intensity work without the stress that higher intensity running can put on the body. Plus, swimming is a great way to stretch out the joints and muscles after pounding them with the run miles.
Plan your Timing
Plan to do either an early season ultra, then transition to tri training for a late-season Ironman, or vice versa. In 2018, I raced Umstead 100 mile in April, and then raced IRONMAN Maryland in late September, along with a few 70.3’s through the late spring and summer. This schedule worked well, and I had strong races at both the ultra and IRONMAN. When I did my first 50-miler, I raced triathlons all summer, then after 70.3 worlds in early September, transitioned to ultra training for a late November 50 mile race. This also worked well because I was starting 50-mile training with a great endurance base and just needed to increase my run volume and get out to the trails.
Notes of Caution:
Prepare to lose some speed. Ultra training requires a lot of long, slow running miles, and even fast hiking. You’ll become strong and durable, but will likely lose the top end speed required for triathlon. Be prepared to have to build that speed back with track workouts and tempo runs after you’re fully recovered from your ultra.
It’s also important to stay on top of recovery. Combining ultra and ironman will only work if you manage to recover well from both races, recover from workouts, and stay injury-free. So, do not skimp on sleep, eat well, foam roll, stretch…did I mention sleep? And take the post-race recovery seriously – both ironman and a 100 miler take a ~4 weeks of recovery depending on the athlete.
Be sure to have support. Ultra training takes close to the same amount of time as IRONMAN training because of the long back to back runs on weekends which are often on the trail (slower miles). So, before you sign up for both an IRONMAN and an ultramarathon, be sure your family is on board with what the training will entail.
Doing an IRONMAN and Ultramarathon in the same year is tricky but doable, and creates an epic year! Happy training!