Ironman Triathlon: What Is It and How Do You Train For It?

An Ironman Triathlon is no easy feat. To a nonathlete, combining a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run in a single-day event is almost unimaginable. But recently, Ironman Triathlons have gained more and more popularity across the world. 

But, what exactly is an Ironman Triathlon? How do you train for it? 

In this article, we’ll talk about everything you need to know about this long-distance endurance race. 

What is the Ironman Triathlon?

An Ironman Triathlon is an annual long-distance race that is organized by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC). It consists of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and a marathon 26.22-mile (42.20 km) run, performed consecutively. It is widely considered as one of the most difficult one-day sporting events throughout the world. 

Most Ironman events have a limited timeframe of 16 or 17 hours to complete the race, course dependent. Typically, the race starts at 7 AM; the mandatory swim cut-off for the 2.4-mile swim is 9:20 AM (2 hours, 20 minutes); the mandatory bike cut-off time is 5:30 PM (8 hours, 10 minutes), and the mandatory marathon cut-off time is midnight (6 hours, 30 minutes). Any participant who manages to complete the triathlon within the provided timeframe is designated an Ironman. 

The Ironman Triathlon History. The concept for the Ironman race originated from the 1977 Oahu Perimeter Relay. Among the participants were members of both the Mid-Pacific Road Runners and the Waikiki Swim Club, who often debated whether swimmers or runners were in better shape. The bike race was also added when U.S. Navy Commander John Collins argued that cyclists were more athletic. To settle the debate, Collins suggested to have a race that combines the three existing long-distance competitions already on the island: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (115 miles), and the Honolulu Marathon (26.219 miles). 

With a nod to a local runner who was famous for his demanding workouts, Collins said, “Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Iron Man.” Prior to the race, each athlete received three sheets of paper listing a few rules and a description of the course. Handwritten on the last page was, “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life,” – which is now a registered trademark. 

Further, each of the racers had their own support crew to supply food, water, and encouragement during the event. Of the 15 men who participated in the race on February 18, 1978, only 12 completed the race. Gordon Haller, a US Navy Communications Specialist, was the first to earn the ‘Ironman’ title by finishing the course with a time of 11 hours, 46 minutes, 58 seconds. 

The event quickly became famous for its length and harsh conditions. The triathlon was repeated several times with wide-ranging television coverage.

Around 1979, Collins no longer wanted to direct the Ironman race and approached Nautilus Fitness Center owners, Hank Grundman and Valerie Silk about taking over control of the race. Following the couple’s divorce in 1981, Silk received ownership of Ironman. 

A milestone in the marketing of the history and legend of the race happened in February 1982 when Julie Moss, a college student competing to gather research for her exercise physiology thesis moved toward the finish line in first place. As she was nearing the finish line, severe dehydration and fatigue set in and she fell, just yards away from the finish line. Although Kathleen McCartney passed her for the women’s title, Moss still crawled to the finish line. Moss’ performance was broadcast worldwide and created the Ironman mantra that just finishing is a huge victory. By the end of that year, the Ironman race had maxed out at 1,000 participants. 

Ironman Today. Today, the Ironman format remains unchanged, and the Hawaiian Ironman is still regarded as a prestigious triathlon event to win across the world. In the triathlon community, an Ironman is someone who has completed a race of the appropriate distance, whether or not it falls under the aegis of the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC).

Ironman Triathlon Philippines. Frank Lacson is widely recognized as the Father of Philippine triathlon. Finisher of over 140 triathlons, he is considered to be the very first Filipino triathlete – Pinoy triathletes call him ‘The Legend’. 

The Triathlon Association of the Philippines is the national governing body for triathlon in the country. It is accredited by the International Triathlon Union, the governing body for triathlon in the world. The Triathlon Association of the Philippines is also a member of the Asian Triathlon Confederation. In its 2014 and 2015 evaluation of its members, the Asian Triathlon Confederation gave the Triathlon Association of the Philippines ‘developed status’ in the areas of coaches development, technical officials, and athletes development. 

On February 2018, the Triathlon Association of the Philippines was awarded as the National Sports Association of the Year in the Philippine Sportswriters Association Annual Awards, citing their gold medal finishes in Men’s and Women’s Triathlon events during the 2017 Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Ironman Triathlon Distances

Ironman is the ultimate distance triathlon, but there are different shorter distance triathlons that are held regularly. 

  • Ironman Distance: 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bike and 26.22-mile (42.20 km) run.
  • Olympic Distance: .93-mile (1.5 km) swim, 24.86-mile (40 km) bike, and 6.21-mile (10 km) run.
  • International Distance: .62 to 1.24-mile (1 to 2 km) swim, 15.5 to 31-mile (25 to 50 km) bike, and 3.1 to 6.2-mile (5 to 10) km run.
  • Sprint Distance: .3 to 1-mile (.24 to .62 km) swim, 8 to 25-mile (5 to 15.5 km) bike, and 1.5 to 5-mile (1 to 3 km) run.

There are also shorter distances for youth races, as well as ‘Ironman 70.3’ events that are exactly half as long as an Ironman. 

Ironman Triathlon Training

Ironman triathlons aren’t just difficult races to compete in, they are also incredibly hard to train for. You will need structure and consistency in your training. If you’re looking to complete in an Ironman triathlon, here are a few tips to keep in mind. 

  • Set a training plan. Before you even begin training, make sure you set a training plan. Generally, if you are aiming to complete your first triathlon, plan for at least 12 weeks of training before your event. If you are very healthy, physically fit, and are familiar with swimming, cycling, and running, an 8-week training program could be enough. If you are starting from scratch, you may want to give yourself at least 16 weeks to train. 
  • Train every day. It takes a minimum of 13 hours of training per week to get in shape for an Ironman triathlon. That mean that you will be training almost every day of the week! After all, you not only have to swim, cycle, and run during the race, but you also have to beat the cutoff times. So, get ready to spend some serious time in the pool, on the bike, and in your running shoes! 
  • Set your swim/bike/run schedule. At a minimum, complete two sessions of each activity (swim, bike, and run) during the week. Also include a brick session – your bike and run workout completed consecutively (this can also be a swim/bike workout). Also, include an open water swim each week if your race is taking place in a body of water other than a pool. 
  • Include resistance training in your program. Be sure to include resistance training as part of your program. This can be done after your main endurance work. Include exercises that strengthen the primary muscles necessary in each race, as well as create stability and mobility for healthy, effective range of motion. For the swim, you’ll want to enhance your arms, shoulders, and back strength and create mobility in your trunk. For the bike, focus on increasing strength in your glutes, quads, and hamstrings and creating stability in your chest and trunk. For the run, you want to build strength in your legs, mobility in your hips, and stability in your shoulders and trunk. 
  • Avoid overtraining. While you may have to train every day, be smart about it. Avoid overtraining. Do a slow, steady increase (distance and intensity) of your swim/bike/run, as well as your stretching and weight training. If you notice any injuries that won’t go away, it’s a sign that you are overtraining. 
  • Get help. If you can afford it, investing in a coach or a training program can provide structure to your training. Plus, it can provide you with some much-needed motivation to continue with your training. 
  • Incorporate rest. Taking off a day or two each week is crucial for recovery. Rest days should be taken either before or right after your long brick workout, or both if you are including two rest days in your training program. 

The Bottom Line

An Ironman Triathlon is no easy feat. Not only is it difficult to compete in, they are also incredibly hard to train for.

If you’re truly motivated to compete in an Ironman triathlon, make sure to keep the above mentioned tips in mind. Good luck!

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