Tricks of the Trade – Complete an Ironman

If you have completed a full marathon and are ready for more, read on. This article will describe how someone who has finished a marathon can take steps towards their goal of completing a full Ironman. There are many excellent books on this topic. I recommend The Triathlete’s Training Bible by Joe Friel. This article focuses on the philosophy and strategy rather than workout schedules. My goal is to describe a method of simply completing the event not taking first place.

Limit of Liability: Running involves inherent risks. Running long distance endurance events increases these risks. The purpose of this article is to make the risks of hurting yourself objective and, then, attempt to mitigate them. This said, there is no way to completely eliminate risk. By reading this article, you are agreeing to hold the author harmless for any injuries that might occur. As always, you should consult your health care professional before making any changes to your workout regiment or medications. Full disclosure: I receive a small commission if you follow some of the links listed in this article and make a purchase.

After turning 40, my wife convinced me to schedule a physical. Though I wasn’t facing any immediate danger, my doctor told me that the minimum he would like to see is “45 minutes of exercise, three times a week”. Since I was having trouble motivating myself at first, I decided I needed a goal. I trained for and completed my first half marathon in early 2006 and then, a few weeks later, signed up for the Long Beach Marathon.

Long Beach is held in October so the weather was perfect. The energy coming from the 18,000 participants was overwhelming. I had trained using the Galloway method of walking a minute after each mile completed. I practiced this technique in the race as well. After the half way point, my shins started to ache. As I continued, the pain only grew worse. By the end of the race, I was walking more than running. I hobbled across the finish line at 4:48. I finished my first marathon!

After more than a month of shin pain, I concluded that I had a stress fracture. I made an appointment with my doctor to get his advice. At the visit, I told him that since he suggested I increase the duration of my workouts, it was his “fault” I hurt myself. He smiled and then ordered some X-rays. Rather than a stress fracture, I had something more mundane – “shin splints”. My doctor explained that the place where the muscle attaches to the bone had low “vascularization” and that recovery would be slow. He told me (over an over again) that running was hard on my body and that I should think about other forms of exercise at least while I waited for my injury to heal.

Progression, Progression, Progression
What’s the number one rule in real estate? Location, location, location. What’s the number one rule in endurance sports? Progression, progression, progression. Just as I started my journey down the road of endurance sports with a half marathon, followed by a full marathon, the same goes with Ironman events. While there are some people have made the jump from marathon to full Ironman, it is not advised. It’s better to work your way up, successfully completing a half before signing up for a full Ironman.

Months after completing the Long Beach Marathon, I started looking for ways to maintain my fitness while I allowed my injury to heal. I joined a local fitness club and start swimming. It’s sad, but at first I couldn’t even make it once across the pool without stopping to catch my breath. But, over time, I was able to increase my distance. As my endurance improved, it dawned on me that I only needed to master one more sport (bicycling) to have the skills I needed to compete in a triathlon. Even though all I had at the time was a mountain bike, I signed up for the 2008 “Big Kahuna” Santa Cruz Half Ironman.

Practice Makes Perfect
With six months before the race and before temperatures starting to rise, I plotted my workout strategy. My goal was the duplicate the conditions of the race during my training. I applied this philosophy during every workout. Since the swimming portion of Santa Cruz takes place in the ocean (you swim around the pier), I made it a point to drive to the beach (40 minutes away) and swim. When I couldn’t make it to the beach, I wore my wet suit in the pool at the club. As for the bike portion of my training, I purchased a used “Tri” Bike on eBay. I had it fitted at my local bike store and then make small adjustments myself to improve comfort. For both the bike and running portion of my training, I learned about fueling and supplementation and practiced eating and drinking with the exact pattern I would use in the race.

Sport Rotation
The most difficult part of competing in a triathlon is that you need to be fit in three events, not just one. I looked at my workout schedule a week at a time. My plan was to rotate through all three events each week. Since I have a full-time job and a family, I wasn’t able to train for hours every day. Most weeks, I targeted five days for training: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. I usually practice two events, two times during the week with the remaining sport on Saturday. For example, I might swim on Monday and Wednesday, run on Tuesday and Thursday and then ride on Saturday. During the week, I trained 50 minutes a day (really). On Saturday (or Sunday if Saturday didn’t work), I trained for four hours or more. Again, my goal was to complete an Ironman, not take first place.

Staying Healthy
My doctor was right. Running is hard on my body. So, if my shins or knees hurt, I focused on the other two sports. This could be a problem if I have pain just before the race. But, if the race is still months away, I will simply skip running and substitute the walking, tread mill, the step mill (simulates endless flights of stairs) or weights. Once I start to feel better, I slowly reintroduce running – limiting both the speed and the distance. The key is to train without crossing your pain threshold. If you have trouble with your knees, check out my article titled Tricks of the Trade – Knees.

As I choose to rotate through sports on a weekly cycle, I also look at my workout schedule as a monthly cycle whereby I would stair-step up the effort and duration over four weeks only to have to return to more modest levels at the end. Imaging hiking over a series of ever-increasing peaks, each one higher than the last, culminating in the mother of all peaks at the end – the race itself.

Doing the Distance
Some say that 80% of an Ironman is mental. I say that the other 20% is mental too. As my race approaches, I plan “trials”. For example with two months to go, I would do a “quarter Ironman” – all three events on the same day. This is not an official race. (They cost too much and never match my training schedule.) During this trial, I am training my body and my mind. I am also focusing on my gear – what’s working and what’s not as well as the “transitions” where you switch to the next event. With a month to go, I run all three events with the full distance. However, this time, instead of doing them all on the same day, I do them over a three-day weekend or two events on Saturday and the remaining one on Sunday.

It’s a Timed Event
If you don’t finish the race within the time limit, you receive a DNF (Did Not Finish). What most people don’t realize is that, each sport within a triathlon has a time limit as well. If you don’t finish the swimming portion of the race within the prescribed time, that’s it…, you pack your bags and go home. The same goes for the bike portion. Even the individual laps of the running portion of the race may have time limits. This really adds to the pressure during competition. When you are doing the trials described in the previous section, make sure you are timing yourself. The information that you collect is crucial when you are riding the bike portion of the race, for example, and need to decide whether you need to speed up in order to make the cutoff or slow down, to save your energy for the run.

Completing an Ironman is one of my most memorable achievements. I will never forget it. It’s something I lean on when I’m having trouble. I have new confidence that has helped me in other areas of my life. Let me know your story. You can email me at or just leave a comment below.

Photo credit: Boundless Creation

One thought on “Tricks of the Trade – Complete an Ironman

  • March 25, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    Hi, I just wanted to let you know this is very helpful. I ran the Nike Women’s marathon in October and now have my goals set for the Big Kahuna Half Iron Man in Santa Cruz. I have been hesitant because I’ve never done a triathalon before but I now have a road bike I’m riding and have begun to swim. Hopefully I’ll be ready. =)


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