IRONMAN races start early for a reason—it’s going to be a long day! Most age group IRONMAN starts are between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., and you’ll want to plan on being up several hours before the starting gun goes off.
Because you have been following this guide, you have your special needs bags already packed, your nutrition plan all dialed, and you are already aware of exactly how you are getting to the start line and how long it will take to get there (go you!). You can now focus on fueling and prepping your body and mind for the big event.
Lay out your race clothes the night before, including any race belts and portable hydration systems. Put on a layer of sunscreen on your body and face before you put on your clothes so you can make sure you’re adequately protected.
Fill up your water bottles before you get to the race event so you aren’t running around last-minute trying to get all your hydration mixed and ready to go.
You’ll need to top up your glycogen stores that have depleted overnight, but you also need enough time to allow for that food to largely digest before you start your race. Plan to eat an initial breakfast that contains carbohydrates and some protein a minimum of three hours before your race begins. This will give your body enough time to digest and absorb the necessary nutrients before high-intensity exercise begins.
You should also begin your hydration well ahead of the start of the race. Start drinking your preferred (and tested!) electrolyte drink with your breakfast, and continue to sip from a water bottle as you head to the race start.
Once you are at the race event, take in roughly 100-200 more calories within an hour of the start (a gel, some energy chews, a banana—whatever you are accustomed to eating shortly before your workouts), along with plenty of water or electrolyte drink.
“IRONMAN can change your life if you let it. I wish someone gave me the same advice that I was given before my wedding day: make sure you take the time to take everything in. Don't just put your head down and think only about racing—find moments to just be proud of yourself.”Laurie M., 2 x IRONMAN Arizona Finisher
How much of a warm-up you need for an event like an IRONMAN is a highly individual thing. According to acclaimed Coach Jim Vance, an athlete simply looking to finish the IRONMAN doesn’t need a lengthy warm-up, however an athlete looking to compete should plan a more detailed routine in order to prep their muscles for the demands of the day.
The main idea for an IRONMAN warm-up is to prepare your body and mind for the demands of the day, so the particular racing conditions should factor into your own warm-up routine. If it is a cold morning or the water temperature is cold, you’ll need some time to prepare your body to perform in these conditions. Vance recommends a progressive warm-up that focuses on your mind, your nervous system, and your muscular system—in that order. Here are some details of each of these three types of warm-ups:
Mental Warm-Up: Now is a good time to revisit some of the mental preparation tactics discussed earlier, including race visualization and meditation. Either when you wake up or perhaps in the car on the way to the race event (as long as you’re not driving!), take some time to open up your meditation app and get into a relaxed but focused headspace. Visualize your start, imagine yourself looking strong as you cross that finish line, and push out any negative thoughts immediately.
Nervous System Warm-Up: Some quick activation exercises will help get your nervous system firing correctly so it is prepared to amp up your heart rate and get your blood pumping the second the gun goes off. “Short sprints, dynamic stretches, and other activation exercises allow you to wake up the connections between the brain and the key muscle groups you will use in the race,” says Vance.
Muscular System Warm-Up: Vance recommends doing some foam rolling the second you wake up in the morning, and then allowing your mental warm-up and your nervous system warm-up to continue to prime your muscles for the race. For your muscular warm-up, Vance recommends only doing the movements that feel the most comfortable for you on race morning. “If you have a strong swim background, you might not want to run at all and instead extend your swim warm-up. If you are a strong runner you might want to run only and put on your wetsuit and do a few pull sets with bands on the shore.”
What to Expect: The IRONMAN Swim
Before you head down to the water, take a note of all your transition area entries and exits (and your bike location relative to them) so you don’t waste any time running around looking for them during the race.
If you can, take some time to get in a short swim so your body is acclimated to the water temperature. Take note of the buoys and pay attention to any pre-race swim course briefings, as last-minute course changes do happen.
If your race is a mass start, make sure to seed yourself accordingly. If you’re not a strong swimmer, don’t hesitate positioning yourself in the back so you can avoid a lot of the early race congestion.
If your race has a wave start, pay attention to the announcer and make sure you are moving toward the water with the correct group. Even with a wave start, you should anticipate some heavy congestion for the first several minutes of the swim. Stay calm and just focus on your own swim.
Be prepared for your heart rate to spike during the first several minutes of the swim. This is perfectly normal, but you can control it by breathing regularly and focusing on a smooth, even stroke. Don’t go out hard thinking you can get past the swarm of swimmers—unless you are a former professional swimmer, you will just tire yourself out and end up swimming far slower than if you just focused on an even pace.
Make sure you are sighting every few strokes, even if you are drafting off of another swimmer. There will likely be another traffic jam around the first buoy turn, so if this really concerns you plan a wide turn around the buoy to give the other swimmers room. And, above all else, just stay relaxed and keep moving forward.
Many IRONMAN swims are two-loop courses with a short run section in between across a timing mat. There will be water available, so take the time to grab some, especially if the conditions are warm or are forecasted to be later in the day. Even in the water, you are sweating and losing fluids.
Drafting off of other swimmers can be a great way to save energy and even gain some time, however be careful not to rely on others completely. Just because they are going at a good speed doesn’t mean they have any idea how to sight, so make sure you are keeping your wits about you out there as far as finding the shortest line possible.
If at any time you feel like you sincerely need to rest or you feel scared, you can stop and hold onto one of the kayakers or lifeguards on paddle boards, however you are not allowed to get any assistance in moving forward whatsoever. Take a short rest while holding onto the edge of the boat or board, take some relaxing breaths and then continue on with your swim as quickly as possible.
What to Expect: T1
It is perfectly normal to feel a little dizzy and/or discombobulated after swimming 2.4 miles. As you run out of the water and into T1, you might need a moment to compose yourself. Take off the front half of your wetsuit and your cap and goggles, get a drink, run underneath the freshwater showers (if your race has them), and then quickly head toward transition.
Plan ahead of time to take advantage of the volunteer wetsuit removal service offered at most IRONMAN races. A volunteer will come up to you and ask if you want help removing your wetsuit. You simply lie down on the ground and they will quickly rip off the wetsuit and then hand it back to you. It does involve some momentary awkwardness as a stranger rips off your pants, however it saves you valuable time and energy. Volunteers will be on hand to retrieve your T1 bag, so grab it and quickly head into the changing tent.
Once you’ve entered the T1 changing tent, either change into your bike clothes, or if you have on a race suit, simply sit down and put on your cycling shoes and socks. There are rows of folding chairs and tables containing fuel options, water, and sunscreen, so please take advantage of them. Make sure to apply sunscreen and eat a little something before you head out onto that six-plus hour ride!
Volunteers are on hand to help you put on your clothes (this is extremely helpful if the water was very cold and you can’t feel your fingers!), so don’t be shy. IRONMAN volunteers are some of the best friends you’ll have out there on race day, and they work their hearts out to make sure you have a successful race.
Make sure you have your helmet, race number, and gloves before you head out to your bike. A volunteer will help you find your bike if you need them to.
What to Expect: The IRONMAN Bike
Use the first 10 miles or so of the bike to just relax, take in some nutrition, and get your bearings after the swim. Depending on when you exited the water, you might have to deal with some early congestion with other riders, so be patient and keep your wits about you. Remember always to pass on the left and announce yourself to the rider(s) in front of you before you make a pass.
You should be well aware of drafting rules in a non-drafting event such as an IRONMAN, as a drafting penalty (or any other type of competition penalty) can quickly derail your day. Here are the basics:
Your bike’s front wheel should remain at least 12 meters in length away from another bike’s back wheel (except during the act of passing). This area is known as the “draft zone” and roughly translates to six bike lengths.
One you begin to pass another competitor, you must do so within 20 seconds, or else you need to fall back to a space outside of the draft zone.
Violations are given as either yellow, blue, or red cards. A yellow card means you must stop, place both feet on the ground and then continue back on course (known as a stop-and-go penalty). A blue card means you have been given a five-minute time penalty.
There are penalty boxes at specific points on the bike course so you can ride ahead to the next available one to serve your time. A red card means immediate disqualification and you will be escorted off of the course. Any accumulation of three cards (yellow or blue) is grounds for disqualification.
Because you have familiarized yourself with the course ahead of time, you are aware of where the aid stations are and can be prepared for them. Make sure you’ve practiced your bottle hand up so you can grab what you need on the fly. However, you should ride past all aid stations with caution as sometimes bottle drops can happen or volunteers might need to rush out in the road to pick up debris quickly.
Don’t forget about your nutrition plan — in fact, use it as a way to pass the time. Consider setting your watch to beep every so often to remind you to drink or take in some calories (depending on your plan). If you feel thirsty—drink. Don’t ever deprive yourself of fluid because you are concerned it might be slowing you down or you don’t want to have to stop and refill a bottle. Depriving yourself of fluids and calories now will come back and bite you big time during your marathon.
About two-thirds through the bike you will come across the special needs bag area. You can call out your number and a volunteer will help you locate your bag quickly. Try and use this time to rejuvenate, refuel, and reset your focus as you will need adequate time to let your fuel digest before you start that marathon!
What to Expect: T2
In an IRONMAN race you will dismount (at the dismount line) and then hand your bike to a volunteer who will rerack it for you. You might feel a bit stiff and wobbly after that much time in the saddle, so expect it and don’t despair—your muscles will recoup once you start the run.
You will head back into a changing tent to put on your running shoes, hat, and change your clothes if needed. Remember the volunteers are there to help, so don’t hesitate to ask! Don’t forget to put on lots of sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses (even if it appears cloudy outside), because you won’t get much of an opportunity to apply once you start the run. If you are carrying a hydration pack, make sure the bottles are all filled and you have all your personal nutrition with you before you head out.
What to Expect: The IRONMAN Run/Finish line
The first six miles of an IRONMAN marathon will feel very different than the first six miles of a regular marathon. You will likely feel very stiff and you might need to start off very slowly. This is where all those brick workouts you did during your training will pay off big time.
Settle into a nice easy pace and try to just enjoy the spectators and the scenery. After the first 10K take an assessment of how you feel before you up the pace. You don’t need to go faster if it doesn’t feel right, just try and stay relaxed and the miles will begin to tick by.
Run aid stations are great opportunities to get high-fives from volunteers and spectators and just revel in how far you’ve come. If you’re starting to feel sluggish or cranky, walk through an aid station, grab a drink and some food, and give yourself some time to regroup before picking it back up again.
At about mile 13 you’ll have another opportunity to access your special needs bag. This is a great time to eat something that you’ve packed for yourself, reapply sunscreen if it’s still hot and sunny, or put on some chapstick to feel refreshed.
In any marathon, there comes a point where things just start to hurt. For most runners, that point is somewhere between miles 17 and 22. If it’s starting to get dark, you might be handed some glow sticks to hold for safety, and if the weather starts to dip in temperature, they will bring out some warm broth. The mixture of warmth and sodium can really, really rejuvenate a tired IRONMAN athlete, so take a cup and enjoy it for a little while.
When the going gets tough, just remember you are only a few short miles from the greatest finish line of your life! Talk to other runners if you can, look for your friends and family, and keep your spirits up.
When you make that final turn toward the finish line, no matter how much you’ve been suffering, you will immediately feel like a million dollars. The IRONMAN finish line will be lit up as if only for you—so run to it! Make sure to listen to them call your name because there’s nothing quite like hearing the words you’ve been dreaming about for months, “You are an IRONMAN!”