From Marathon To Ironman: Expert Advice

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If you’re a marathoner, you know that running 26.2 miles is not for the weak and undisciplined. But what you may not know is how close you are to becoming an IRONMAN triathlete.

Yes, you read that right. If you are a marathon runner who is feeling ready to expand your accumulated fitness, an IRONMAN race may be just the thing. You already have the aerobic base, specific run training, and commitment/mental fortitude required to launch into a solid IRONMAN or IRONMAN 70.3 training plan. After a week or so of recovery, you’ll be in the prime position to target an upcoming Ironman race this year which keeps happening all across the globe (presently not conducted in India but you can participate at Hyderabad Triathlon 2017, 8th Oct or New Delhi Triathlon Championship 2017, 5th Nov).

First off, you will be coming into your training with a great base of running fitness—the sport of the three that can take the longest for people to adapt to. (Swimming is the easiest of the three on the body, and generally, cycling is a very easy transition for runners who already have substantial leg fitness.)

Second, blending three sports helps a lot of marathoners actually reduce the aches and pains that pure run training can cause, and at the end of the day, you’ll likely find that your marathon fitness can take a leap up with less actual running. This is because of the added endurance and overall body strength that you’ll get from swimming and cycling.

If you’re a pure marathon runner looking to challenge yourself (and experience a finish line like no other), you probably fit into one of two groups: those who don’t have much experience at all with swimming or cycling training, and those who may already incorporate a bit of such cross-training activities into their marathon run preparation. Let’s look first at how the first group could get started ramping up to IRONMAN training.

Group one: No swimming or cycling experience

Swim 101 for Marathoners

First up is going to be your equipment. You can’t swim or bike properly without the right stuff. Swimming is the easy one. Most sporting goods stores have swimsuits made for pool work (tighter fitting gear as opposed to loose baggy board shorts). Goggles are also a must, and many wear a swim cap to keep the chlorine from doing a number on their hair. These are easily available online or you can also visit any sports goods store.

Once you have your gear it’s time to swim! Most runners who are getting wet for the first time face a few challenges from the get-go. The first is stroke mechanics. Swimming freestyle is not a skill anyone on this planet is born with. It must be learned. The best way to fast-forward your progress is to go through a quick lesson in stroke mechanics. One of the easiest and most effective solutions for this that I have seen are swim programs designed specifically to help you do this.

Know about our Fitso SEALs program scientifically designed for people aiming open water swimming.

Next up is going to be the actual training. Join any swim group in your area with a coach who can give you workouts, as well as help develop your stroke. Another area where marathoners often benefit is improved shoulder and ankle flexibility, as running tends to tighten the range of motion in your shoulders, and the dorsiflexion of your ankles. Improving both give you free speed in the water because you fight your body less (shoulder flexibility) and you move through the water without having the brakes on (what happens when ankle flexibility is limited).

If you have limited shoulder flexibility (test: can you grasp your hands behind your back with one hand coming up from below and the other dropping down behind your head from above?) or ankle flexibility (test: can you sit with your legs folded directly underneath you with your feet facing directly back), start a yoga or flexibility program now to get a jump start.

Bike 101 for Marathoners

Now for the bike. First, set your budget. You certainly won’t need to start with a top-of-the-line model for $10,000. Somewhere in the $1,500 to $2,000 range will get you a decent machine, and it goes up from there. If you have an old road frame that you used 20 years ago in college, forget it even exists. Riding 112 miles in an aerodynamic position on that bike will be torture. Today’s aero models are designed specifically to get you in a very comfortable aero position that you can sustain for the bulk of the cycling leg in an IRONMAN triathlon. Ask around and go to a trusted, triathlon-friendly bike shop in your area. Talk with the staff. Tell them you are just starting, but want to make sure that your new bike is set up properly, just for you. There’s a lot more to fitting a bike than standing over the top tube.

Find here must have bike accessories and complete guide to buy them.

Once you have your bike, cycling shoes, helmet, gloves, riding shorts (a very critical piece for your riding longer miles), patch kit, spare tube, sunglasses, and ID, you are ready to hit the roads. Take some time getting used to riding a bike in the aero position. Take a few rides that have nothing to do with conditioning as the focus, but everything to do with learning how to handle the bike, and to stop and start and get your shoes unclipped from the pedals. These will all become second nature in a very short period of time but are critical safety components when getting started.

Now it’s time to really train! A sample 16-week program that will get you from ground zero in your swim and bike to being able to complete an IRONMAN 70.3 event can be found here. Did I trick you there? You thought I was getting you ready for an IRONMAN race. That will come, but if you are truly starting without any experience swimming or cycling, even with great marathon fitness, it’s best to stair step your fitness by first targeting an IRONMAN 70.3 event. Once you complete that goal, continue to build on your new fitness and then go for the big one.

Group two: Swimming and cycling experience

If you already have some experience and fitness in cycling and swimming—or perhaps have even completed a shorter distance triathlon—then you can attack your long-course aspirations with a bigger goal in mind. I’ll give you a hint: It starts with “I” and ends with “MAN.”

Athletes with a marathon base can ramp up fairly quickly, even with a moderate level of experience and fitness in swimming and cycling. The strong advantage here is that your body is already tailored to the sport that demands the most adaptation: running. All three require cardiovascular and muscular changes, but running takes the most, and also requires your joints, tendons and ligaments to respond because of the weight bearing and pounding nature of running. Then, if you are comfortable swimming around 2,000 yards in a workout and biking about two hours, you’ll be able to scale up that base and be ready for an IRONMAN in just 12 to 16 weeks.

Here is a sample 16-week program that you could follow as a somewhat more experienced triathlete and experienced marathoner. The one thing to keep in mind as a marathoner targeting long-course triathlon is that your run in the races is going to feel much different than running fresh. Not only is it the last of the three segments in a triathlon, it’s important to reset your gauge for what “good” running feels like. “Fast” in an IRONMAN race will not come close to feeling the same as “fast” in a flat-out marathon. (Bike plus run workouts, known as “bricks,” will help you figure out what that “fast” sensation is after you bike.)

running foot landing

Plan on doing one of these bike rides followed immediately by a run workout at least every other week during your training. It is best to eventually do a brick that incorporates a short run after a long bike ride to start to get the idea of how you’ll feel at the end of 112 miles in the saddle. A good brick does not require a long run. It can be anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes. That is enough to program into your body that the bike is not the end of the day, and will help your system be adapted to transitioning into your run pace off the bike.

Eventually, you’ll start to recognise the signals that you’re having a good run off the bike. For example, mental clarity/alertness (a sign of good fueling on the bike), open hips, and lack of tightness and muscle fatigue. Use that feeling in races so that you’re excited to run rather than comparing it to your normal marathon pace. How much slower will you go? It’s tough to say, but in general, in an IRONMAN 70.3 you might run 30 to 60 seconds per mile slower than your half marathon pace, and in an IRONMAN race it could be 1 to 3 minutes per mile slower than your best marathon pace. But even though it’s slower, the feeling coming across the finish line is like no other!

This post was first published by Mark Allen (six-time IRONMAN world champion) at Ironman Blog.

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