A year ago I signed up for a challenge that I was unsure I would complete.
A year ago I could not swim front crawl.
A year ago I was terrified of cycling.
A year on I am an Ironwoman and to be honest, if I can do it anyone can.
Here are a few tips to make losing your Ironman virginity less painful.
1: Mental Toughness
Before anything you need to ask yourself if you are mentally prepared to take on the challenge?
- Do you know what it entails exactly?
- Are you willing to train when you don’t want to?
- Are you ready to make social sacrifices?
- Are you ready to totally change your life for a few months?
- Can you push yourself past the breaking point in training and on race day to finish?
- Can you motivate yourself to keep plugging forward when you want to stop?
You need to be disciplined and tough. It is no secret that our minds give in before our bodies and mental toughness is something you need to have for an Ironman. You need to have a fighting spirit; you need to have a hunger for completing a challenge. Are you someone that stops as soon as they feel tired on a run or are you that person that pushes on to the next driveway entrance? If you are the latter, then Ironman is for you.
What motivates you to get to the finish is up to the individual, but you need to have something pushing you forward. For some people this is the responsibility of running for a charity, for others, it is bragging rights, it purely depends on the person.
One man I got talking to on the marathon section at Bolton was running just because his friends had told him a year ago he would never be able to finish it. He was 16 stone, depressed and had never been in a gym. Looking at him jogging alongside me I was in awe. He used the doubters to get him through training and to the finish line in a respectable 14 and a half hours.
He had his fuel, his motivation and that is what spurred him on when things got tough.
Everyone has a different motivation, but it is essential to have an answer to the “why am I doing this” moments during training and racing, of which there will be many!
3: Get the right kit for you
Chances are if it is your first Ironman you are going to be competing to complete rather than to race. Therefore, do not worry about expensive bikes, sperm helmets, the most expensive tri suits or fancy trainers.
You need to buy items you are comfortable in and that you will be able to spend a long time in. There is not a direct correlation between money spent and your finishing time. Do not buy the kit just because it is expensive. You will have people tell you that you need aero bars, you need a costly tri bike, you need all the latest watches etc. and you do not. Yes, as time goes on and you start to race Ironman then maybe these items will be useful, but for popping your virginity, it is just a waste of money. You might not even end up liking triathlons!
Invest in a decent pair of bib cycling shorts as these will be invaluable on the day and will save your bottom from all sorts of pain on any rides over 4 hours. Mine was £100, so not expensive in the grand scheme of things (however not the cheapest either) and they did stop arse pain. Wetsuits can be found for around £100. Mine was £95 Speedo in the sale and felt a lot comfier for me compared to the £250 alternative I tried on. Decent tri watches are £200 plus, I used my phone strapped to my bike with a free app to clock my bike times. Trainers were £30 cheapos, but I got made to measure insoles for £40, worked like a charm and still cheaper than the high-end shoes on the market. My bike £500 off eBay, the little trooper has seen me through over 800 miles of cycling in 6 months with no more than a few inner tube replacements and a new rear tyre.
With all kit try it on, walk around the shop, really try it out and find what works for you. But do not go mad and think you need all the latest gear for extortionate prices. Think about what you are buying and if you need it. Of course, if you have just won the Euro Millions then splash out! Just make sure you are comfy for 13 plus hours of exercise rather than looking like the Brownlie brothers.
Self-belief starts from the moment you decide to do an Ironman or any race. You have taken that exciting decision to challenge yourself so believe in yourself and your preparation. Don’t listen to others, e.g., if someone is trying to tell you should be doing a 22-mile run when you’re planning 15 miles as your longest don’t freak out, believe in your plan and stick to it.
Prepare for hurting in your key sessions; you need to be able to push through these to not only teach the body what to do on race day but to teach the mind for what lays ahead and how to keep focused when you’d prefer to back off. Knowing you’ve done this in training gives unbelievable confidence that you can overcome the low parts of race day which are inevitable.
5: Support system
Prepare your friends and family. Explain to the what Ironman is, explain how hard it will be and how much training you will have to do. At first, they will brush it off with “oh yes fine, fine fine, good luck”. However, as time goes by and you can’t go on a night out on the piss because you have a 70-mile cycle at 6 am on a Sunday, they may begin to snap and get a bit arsey with you.
You need to sit them down and explain again. Tell them it is only for X number of months and that their support would be a huge boost. Get them on side early on. It will make all the difference having their support during training and on race day if possible. I had a friend turn up on my last lap of the run on a half Ironman, I was last, I wanted to stop but seeing her there spurring me on kept me going and pushed me to finish.
Also explain that when you do meet up, you might not be drinking, will be tired and in general might not be in top form. Many of my social events during training consisted of going around to friends and sleeping on their sofa and watching a film rather than the drunken Friday nights they were used to, but they got used to it in the end. Stick to your guns, real friends and family will be supportive.
After entering Ironman, I fell into the trap of crisis of confidence. Panic set in and I ended up training too hard too soon rather than building it up gradually. As a result, I ended up injured for five weeks.
You do not need to turn into a highly tuned athlete overnight magically. If you give yourself enough time, you can spend a couple of months building up the mileage of each discipline, getting techniques right. The difference is from other races that the 12 weeks before the Ironman event the volume builds, and intensity of session become high. You will be doing long bike rides, intense brick sessions and ultimately preparing your body to cope with the high load of exercise it will be enduring on the day. The volume should peak around 4-5 weeks before race day. Though mine was three weeks before race day (again everyone is different, find what works for you).
7: Be prepared to be tired a lot of the time
Despite having two rest days a week (one active and one stretch and roll only) on top of 8-9 solid hours of sleep a night, I was still exhausted 90% of the time during training. You will get tired, and you will get moody.
8: Set goals and milestones
Similar to the above, do not go in guns blazing. Have a few races as milestones to test where you are with training. The most valuable ones I found were a 100-mile cycle nine weeks before and a half Ironman 6 weeks before and a 5k swim two weeks before. I figured if I could do these then an Ironman, in theory, should be doable, they not only spurred me on to train but also helped mentally with covering the distances on the day. If you have not run a marathon previous to signing up for Ironman get a few practices in.
9: Give yourself enough time
Another mistake on my behalf. Despite signing up for Ironman a year before the race, I only started training six months before. I was the un-fittest I have been in years in January 2018, not being able to run 2 miles without having a strop and cry and I wish I had never let myself fall into the trap of “oh I have months until race day”. You need those months to acquire skills and build up stamina. Fortunately, I got away with it out of stubbornness, but I wish I had not had to rush it all, in hindsight I would have liked to have enjoyed the learning to ride a bike and swim a bit more!
10: Rest and Recovery
“If you feel tired learn to rest not to quit” Invaluable words from my sports masseur and something I had to learn the hard way.
I stupidly tried to train on niggles that turned into painful injuries and had to start from scratch in December 2017, part of the reason I was so unfit at the start of 2018. However, I learnt:
- To have regular massages, whether this is with a deep tissue massage therapist or self-massage using a foam roller or ideally a bit of both, make sure you have one at least twice a week. I aimed for a rest and recovery session on the roller once a week and then a quick roll on any niggle through the week. I visited Brett, my sports masseuse after any events that left me a bit sore.
- Don’t let niggles develop into something more chronic.
- Don’t cram sessions together and don’t play catch up.
- Listen to your body. Training for Ironman will mean you do a lot of training sessions tired which in a way is good as it teaches you to keep form even when fatigued, this will happen on race day but know your limits.
- Fuel the body. Make sure you have enough calories pre, during and post training and incorporate some protein into your post-training food.
- It is vital to do at least one strength and conditioning session a week to develop/maintain a strong core and reduce the risk of overuse injury, focus on any weak/injury prone areas.
11: Practice races and events
I signed myself up for one event a week. Whether this was a sportive, an open water swim event or a triathlon. It focuses the mind, puts you in race conditions and lets you know how you will deal with any issues in a race environment.
- Do you know what to do if your goggles come off during the swim because some idiot kicked you in the face?
- What happens if you forget to unclip and crash your bike as a result?
- Do you know how to fix a puncture at the side of a road on your own in the rain?
- Are you confident enough to go around an unknown hairpin turn with 14 other cyclists on top of you?
- You will if you do race-style events as it is all bound to happen at some point! And it is better to happen beforehand than on the day.
- Be prepared.
12: Start getting used to long days of exercise.
Make sure you do a few long sessions beforehand to make sure your body is used to hours and hours of exercise. I made sure I did a few ultra marathons before taking on an Ironman so that I knew I could mentally be out for a whole day. The best mental training was doing a 70 mile in 19 hours endurance run from Carlisle to Newcastle. I knew I could mentally cope for 19 hours so an Ironman should be doable. I am not saying everyone should do this! But make sure you get some long sessions in before the event. It could just be going out running and hiking all day one weekend for 12 hours so that you are used to being out moving for a prolonged period. Make sure you get a long bike ride, run or brick session in once a week as standard to build up stamina.
13: Do not underestimate the power of strength sessions
You are probably thinking “So I have to find time to do run, swim, cycle training with rest days and now you want me to do strength gym sessions to!?” Well, no, not if you don’t want to, but I found they helped improve everything and stopped me from getting bored.
Twice a week I would go to the gym in the morning and do an hour strength session before work. Run drills for a warm up and quick roll after. Focus on single leg exercises such as single leg deadlifts, step ups with an Olympic bar, waiter lunges, cable hip thruster pulls split squats etc. these will ensure you are building strength in both legs and are not overcompensating with one leg. No harm in fitting in a few heavier compound weights such as deadlifts and clean presses. Box jump circuits are another significant element to add, it mixes things up and builds up your functional power which can be transferred to triathlons.
14: Plan your life
Ironman takes up a lot of time. Many people have full-time jobs or children or other hobbies. I have a job Monday – Wednesday, freelance Thursdays and Fridays and on top of that was doing a university degree in Interior Design, had my pet horse to look after, a boyfriend to keep happy and had to try and fit unmissable social events in also such as birthdays and bridesmaid duties. I had to drop pole dancing and kickboxing as yes, something had to give. However, I managed to fit my training around the above. It was tiring, and it was stressful at times with a lot of running around, but it was doable. If you want something enough, you will find a way around it.
The only way I managed to fit all of this in though was from planning and being organised. I would block each week out with work and uni giving me my training hours and would then itemise my weekly training sessions that could not be moved, and the rest would be slotted around this. I am naturally entirely organised, and it was a saving grace for me. If you are not organised or dislike planning, then get over it as you are going to have to be!
15: Abuse the cyclo park
Cycling scared me enough, let alone cycling on the roads with people honking at you every few minutes. Eventually, I gave up with trying to learn to cycle on the roads and adopted the cyclo park at Gravesend. Once I was confident on a bike the roads where fine, however, I still trotted off down to the cyclo park twice a month for a skills session to practice one-handed cycling, running food stops, clipping in and out of cleats and to practice eating on the bike. All skills you WILL need on the day. Do not think you have to cycle on the roads straight away if you are learning; it is safer to build confidence at a cycle park and then go out when you feel ready, there is no shame in that.
16: Join a tri club if possible
Best decision ever. It was not until I started having cycling sessions with people, swimming lessons and a bit of structure that I started to see improvement. The lessons I learnt, the information parted onto me, and all trinkets of knowledge I have picked up have been down to joining the Maidstone Harriers, and if I am 100% honest, this was the saving grace of my training and a large portion of how I managed to finish Ironman.
17: Do not underestimate the importance of the swim
The swim is 2.5 miles, so people tend to think it is unimportant and you can muscle through it quickly, not true. If you miss the swim cut off, half drown, get mowed down by another swimmer, are sick in the water, are not used to open water, are not used to a wetsuit, are not used to factoring in nutrition before and after a swim then you might screw up your day. Messing up the swim means Ironman is over before you even start.
Do the distance, do it a lot on the lead-up. If you can, do longer distances than the race slightly so Ironman feels easy (I did a 5k ten days before race day to put my mind at ease on the distance). Open water swimming is a must to get used to open, dark water and to calm any potential nerves well beforehand, also learn to sight correctly to help in the mass carnage on the day. Wetsuit swimming, for the most part, is easier and you will be quicker, but practice open water swims without a wetsuit in case race day is warm and a none wetsuit swim, be prepared for all eventualities.
Whilst open water is brilliant fun, it is often a wasted training opportunity unless you are incredibly disciplined, I have heard it be referred to as “easy/lazy swimming” as the wetsuit does a lot of the buoyancy stability for you and you tend to stick at the same pace for the duration of the distance. I found those pool sessions were a better use of my time for technique and speed improvements. Therefore, I partook in one swim lesson in the pool a week combined with an open water swim to Ironman distance a week, and this saw me improve leaps and bound in 6 weeks from not being able to swim 200m without stopping to completing an open water 5k swim in under 2 hours.
18: Prepare to fail
Prepare for all the things that might happen on race day:
- Being kicked in the face on the swim
- Sighting issues on the swim and swimming further as a result
- Inner tube punctures
- Chain slips
- Chain snaps
- Falling off or crashing your bike
- Blisters and niggles on the run
- Lack of energy from poor nutrition
- Period Pains
Prepare for everything that could go wrong!
19: Train like a racehorse
You will have days where you feel like you are not making any progress, you will doubt yourself, you will think you are doing something wrong. I was told to train like a racehorse by my PT Paul Slythe at Bob Prowse. “They do not sit in their stable and worry about if they are improving or not, they eat their hay, rest, recover and do as their trainer tells them the next day. They get on with it, no worries about performance or improvements.” Stick to your plan, trust the process and try not to worry about if you are doing enough. If you are in doubt ask your trainer if you have one.
20: Be consistent
You can not have one week off and then the following week make up for it. It is better to do 10 hours every week than 18 one week and then two the next week. You will need discipline to an extent. We all fall off the wagon occasionally, we are only human, but make sure that a day or two does not turn into two weeks.
21: Be inspired
I found that having an inspiring video helped me when I was having down days. Reading peoples stories online also spurred me on. This video, in particular, helped:
22: Do not worry about other peoples training plans
Focus on yourself. All too often we are worried about other people; Ironman is not a time to be thinking about what other people are doing. Commit to yourself and your training, be selfish and focus on yourself. If Mary from next door is doing a 200-mile cycle as a training element two weeks before the race, but you only have a 50 miler down do not up your mileage. We are all different; people will hit different targets at different times, some people won’t need to taper for as long, others can merely handle more mileage as they have been training longer. Do not set standards based on others, that is how you lose confidence in yourself.
The number of people I heard saying they were on strict diets while training was insane. Pretty much every person I spoke to online said they took all chocolate, sweets, white carbs, alcohol etc. out of their diet. Do not get me wrong I ate healthier than I used to and cut out alcohol completely for four months, but I was not strict. I allowed myself creature comforts when I needed them and never deprived myself.
Nutrition is important, yes, but I found it was more that I was not eating enough. I had to keep reminding myself to eat more than I usually do as I was burning around 3000 calories a day. Cutting out alcohol is a good idea, but white carbs especially rice I doted on for energy, and sweets, well they are a nice pick me up during a hard training session. Do not punish yourself for training by living off kale, everything in moderation still. That bar of Galaxy is not going to stop you finishing Ironman.
There are many different opinions out there re tapering for an Ironman, mostly from what I can see is that people seem to do a 3-4 week taper. However, I did one week and felt great before race day, any more, and I think my body would have started to believe it was on holiday. During this time you will drop your volume enough to recover from your last hard sessions which will have been 10-14 days out and you will freshen up enough to feel good on race day.
Some people feel rubbish during the taper, and some get twitchy that they are not doing enough, I am the latter. Remember your body needs a rest before race day, so it is vital to bring the volume down according to how you best function but do not stop altogether as it is essential to keep the body ticking over ready and primed for Ironman.
I cannot stress how horrendous the first run off a bike was back in February at a Duathlon. I felt like I have had someone else’s legs sewed onto my body, they did not work. You do not want this feeling close to, or on race day. Practice running off the bike, so you do not get jello legs on race day.
Equally, if you can practice cycling after a long swim, I left this brick session out of training until after my first triathlon where my legs were heavy and did not want to cycle. After that, I tried to practice cycling for a few minutes after longer swims. It is all to get the body used to race day conditions, do not try to wing it your body needs to be applied to the various transitions and exercises off the back of one another.
26: Give yourself time to prepare
If it is your first time, then take all the time in the world to get registered and transitions set up the day before. Arrive early, get the race briefing done, get your race packs and use all the day to pack your transition bags making sure you have everything!
Once the bags are in transition, you cannot go back and fiddle around. Set up your bike ready to go. If you are relaxed doing all the prep, you will feel less stressed on the day.
27: Break the day down into sections
Do not think “in 14 hours I will be done” that seems like a mammoth task and will put you on the back foot confidence and motivation wise. Break it down into the three sections and then into loops if there are any. I broke Bolton down into:
- Survive the swim start and beat anyone up that hits me
- Celebrate and wave on the exit of the first lap
- Second lap relax and enjoy space around me
- T1 food time! And dry clothes to look forward to
- Cycle lap one make the first cut off
- Cycle lap two relax and enjoy it
- T2 Food time again and fresh clothes
- Lap 1 of the run, scope out the course
- Lap 2 speed it up a bit
- Lap 3 try not to cry and stay mentally strong
- Lap 4 enjoy the atmosphere its nearly over
- Finish line, milk it!
- Having a tick sheet in your mind and crossing things off frequently keeps you motivated to plug on.
Do not forget to eat on the bike. A mistake I always made and suffered with until race day where I crammed my bike full of goodies. I had 4 Nutella sandwiches as the reward for getting to the top of each hill climb. I sipped water every 15 mins, sipped energy gel water every 15 mins, used every water pit stop for extra hydration guzzling and had a bum-bag full of sweets for when I needed a morale boost. I felt fresh throughout the entire bike course which was a first for me, I usually flag at mile 40 but the right nutrition and remembering to eat kept me going.
29: Get your head around the on the day cut-offs
The bike cut-offs are where many people fall and get carted off the course due to ill planning. I had the cutoffs printed off and taped around my handlebars with my distance app on my bike, so I knew exactly where I was and how long I had. I could gauge speed and plan accordingly to make sure I made the cut-offs.
Do not wear underwear on the cycle you will end up redraw with chaff.
There are ample Portaloos on the cycle and run routes; there really is no need to pee yourself and wash away with water to hope no one noticed, we can still smell the urine and quite frankly is gross. Highly unnecessary unless you are an elite racer.
Do not wear short shorts on the run, no matter how warm it is; you will end up with chub rub on your inner thighs if you have any fat whatsoever.
The Portaloos on the run route will be the vilest toilets you ever go in. They will rival the Inca trail pits in the floor and are ten times worse than any festival toilet on the last day. Be prepared to see renditions of what the Battle of the Somme was like in a meter squared area.
In the event of a hot day pack salt tablets for the cycle and T2. There is no salt out on course apart from some tortilla crisps on the run leg. Salt tablets kept me going throughout the day and no need to chew on dry crisps to get a fraction of the amount needed.
35: Pace yourself
Do not tear off during the swim, seed yourself according to your ability or you will burn out. Equally, do not overdo it on the bike. I did and suffered on the run with having to walk the last 13 miles as my legs were shot. Pace yourself through the day, and it should see you jogging over the finish line.
36: Enjoy it!
The training can be gruelling, tiresome and depressing but on the days you feel like poop there are always days you will feel great for achieving a new PB, not falling off your bike or finishing your first 4k open water swim. You will accomplish so much during the training, and sometimes this is overlooked due to the pressures of race day. However, do not lose sight of how much you conquer on the way, do not just trust the process, enjoy it too! Enjoy the moments you prosper and improve, brag about it on Facebook, pat yourself on the back you are living the Ironman dream and are closer to becoming an Ironman.
I used to think people that said “it’s about the process rather than the race” were being ridiculous, but it is. The race is just the reward for being an Ironman and doing the training, but there is so much more to celebrate during the months leading up to the event. The medal at the end I not for completing the race, it’s for the months of hard work leading up to it, the race is just the final hurdle.
Standing on the start line of Ironman Bolton I felt sick with the worst nerves I have ever had before an event. I did not think I would enjoy the day at all. However, once in the water and everything was underway it was one of the most enjoyable days of my life. You might not feel as though you are going to enjoy it, but trust me, you will get swept up in the atmosphere, the support and having thousands of people shout how awesome you are every few minutes at you isn’t a bad way to spend a day!
Needless to say, enjoy the finish line, crowds cheering, music thumping, a new lease of life pumped into your body and the words “you are an Ironman” is as close to competing at the Olympics as I think many will come to. It is something else and is the best feeling ever. I wish I had milked it a bit longer!
ANYONE CAN DO IT
Ironman doesn’t require any magic. Many people have done Ironman as their first triathlon from what I have read on forums.
That being said, while it is not unachievable you also certainly can’t blag it. A 5 or 10k, a half marathon, even maybe a half Ironman to an extent you can but if you try to blag Ironman chances are you will end up dead or hit by the sweeper truck. It is tough but doable with motivation, a bit of time and dedication. Find a plan or make a plan and stick to it. It might not be set in stone, but you need to be consistent to a degree.
These are tips you should follow, however realistically I left training until six months before race day, had my peak week a week out, tapered for one week and did no running training outside of events. I focused mainly on swimming as I enjoyed it, was falling off my bike until a couple of weeks out from the race and my training plan went out the window with me doing more of what I wanted than what I needed. That being said I worked my butt off to make up for this with a lot of events at weekends. So it is more than achievable even if you do not train the textbook way.
Ironman is daunting yes; it is scary, yes there is no denying it is a mammoth task for a first timer. However, I wish I had believed people when they said: “you will be fine”. I did a lot of worrying leading up, and that is normal, but it is not as bad as people think. If you put in the hours during training to make sure you can ride a bike, run and swim decently and can cover all the distances, then you will be just fine. Trust the process and enjoy every moment, you will miss it when it is over and probably sign up for another!