Should I Take One Year or Two to do Ironman?

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Coach Wendy writes: What do icebergs and Ironman have in common? It is what you don't see that determines their true size! On the surface, the Ironman is a simple sporting event that involves swimming, biking and running. Yeah Right! We know that it is a beast of a triathlon, it is a huge day that is about putting a total performance together – publicly putting your hand up and doing it and being prepared to answer some big questions.

One of the many great features of the Ironman is its honesty. You will find this with any endurance event, the longevity demands preparation, patience and high quality fuel along with a sound mental approach and clear targets for each stage. The Ironman rewards preparation, planning and patience and it can brutally punish those under prepared, those with self doubt, those who are physically under -trained and equally those that assume their right of passage instead of earning it.

I think most people would agree you need to be seriously fit to be able to swim 3.8kms, ride 180kms and then run a marathon, all in one day. To do an Ironman, there are hundreds of hours of training required. You need to be prepared to make a serious investment of time and money. Countless early nights, shortened parties, reduced alcohol, time when kids have missed Mum or Dad and the hours when work saw you there in body but not in spirit. There will always be the competitors that will say that they did it on bugger all training, rode a mates bike and did it on a shoe string budget – good on them. But as a coach, I would ask, just imagine what they could have achieved if all that raw talent was trained, provided access to great gear and gave themselves the best opportunity to have the race of their lives. Granted that we have seen year after year, this event is very achievable for the trained, BUT doing it, doing it well and being satisfied with your results are three different things. This to me is the determining factor in helping people decide on which time frame is suitable for them.

So how do you determine the right time frame for you?

Personally as a coach, for clients with no or limited endurance experience I will always try to encourage a two-year plan – unfortunately it is not the answer many like to hear when they want to do it in one! Ironically though, when the event is over and time has been spent reflecting on how hard the event really was, many thank me for that advice. Having said that, we have had many clients tick off the Ironman goals after training for one year…but for those new to the tri game or new to endurance training… it bloody hurts and no amount of good gear or nutrition will make the pain any easier! The only time you will see a smile is at the finish line and at the thought of being able to stop.

So what makes people think that they can do this event in one year? Well when you often talk to first timers, they will more than happily share their stories as to how they came to be lining up on the start line. It ranges from “we came down and watched and it was so inspiring that I thought I'd like to try it” Or “if so and so can do it”, then so can I!”

The finish line fever, as I call it, is alive in well with Ironman events. You have all the hype, loud music and an American accent talking non stop about people completing a journey, having battled out there all day and on crossing the finish line, to the endless volunteers to be told “You're an Ironman”. With all the lights on, the music pumping, the yelling of the crowd, you have to ask yourself, who wouldn't get excited about this great race. Add to this sensory overload, the sight of people achieving and the sporting heroes such as Cameron Brown crossing the line. Ever so modest and welcoming and he always makes it look so easy! (How many has he done to develop this level of skill?). Yes, I think if you asked most people who come down to watch the Ironman, they would all secretly love to experience the feeling of running down that chute.

In my opinion, the Ironman is like any high level achievement, if it was easy then everybody would do it. To a certain extent the shifting of the New Zealand Ironman from Auckland to Taupo has significantly changed the demographics of the entrants doing the event. The brutal bike course in Auckland proved to be a natural selection process, where as Taupo has a bike and run course which is much flatter in comparison. The media portrayal of the event, in conjunction with the easier course, has allowed many first timers to think, “I will give it a go”. I'm sure you'll agree that some of the most memorable moments watching the Ironman in recent times have been the images of the bigger or older athletes out there mixing it with the best. And why not? Life is about having a go, BUT whether you take two years or one is a critical decision that I believe all first timers need to ask themselves.

Realistically with Ironman, everyone hurts at some stage, but by being out for a longer period of time, not only do you potentially have to hurt for longer but you get tired. For me as a coach, I want all athletes to have an Ironman day that is one of the best days of their lives. Realistically though, we know that long miles take years to accumulate as does your ability to make sound decision on your pace judgment, nutrition and generally developing a tough mental attitude to a race of this length. For me as a coach it is one of the hardest things to watch, when someone's race dissolves on the run largely due to being under prepared. I often think a video clip showing athletes at the back of the run course, sobbing in pain or just sheer fatigue would portray a very realistic side of the Ironman. This portrayal would not be good for marketing, but the reality of the event is that if you get it wrong, you usually get it horribly wrong.

So having read all this, where would you put yourself? I would encourage everyone to seek out a good coach who can provide you with a tailored plan to the event, a plan that caters for your needs, work and family requirements. Master all the three disciplines in terms of learning how to swim, how to ride a bike and how to run.

How to swim means being able to bilateral breath, gain good water confidence and developing an efficient style. Being able to ride a bike means being able to ride comfortably at a cadence of 90 – 95 RPM. Being able to ride at a heart rate that is sustainable for 7 – 8 hours and being able to judge your nutrition accordingly. Being able to run means that you can run, or as we have proved, develop an effective style of run/walking at a pace that will see you pass many a blown ego!

Get into a swimming squad with a coach that understands Ironman, no point doing speed work in August! Ensure that you have a bike that is the correct size for you and one that is fitted specifically for the Ironman. Your bike fit will determine your ability to ride and run the fastest you can. Join a running squad and learn how to run, head to the hills, leave the roads alone and find trails that you can run on for hours! Develop sound core strength, have a balanced muscle firing pattern in your gait and ensure that your running technique is efficient and comfortable. Having got to this stage NOW I think we are ready to think about an Ironman.

So in summary, be ready and be prepared to take full responsibility for your own decisions in determining how long you think you should take to give you the best go at this monster. If you think by having a 2 year build up, that you will be better placed to have the race of your life…then there's your answer.

Brendon Downey of is an Exercise Physiologist, Level 2 triathlon coach, and coach to Sam Warriner, the 2003 ITU Oceania Champion. Coaching and detailed training programs are available at


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