The Waiting Game: When To Take On Ironman

  • By Matt Fitzgerald
  • Published Oct 31, 2012
  • Updated Oct 31, 2014 at 4:40 PM UTC

How do you know when it’s the right time to step up to the 140.6-mile distance?

This article was originally published in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

Two years ago, Scott Fliegelman, executive director of FastForward Sports in Boulder, Colo., was approached by one of the newer triathletes in his 400-member club. The athlete, Steve, told Fliegelman that he wanted to do his first Ironman the following year. The coach told the athlete that he should wait; he wasn’t ready. Steve accepted the advice and targeted Ironman Louisville 2012 for his Ironman debut.

Last year, while Steve remained focused on short-course racing on his coach’s advice, Fliegelman was approached by another newer triathlete with ambitions of moving up to the iron distance. But instead of asking his coach’s opinion, this athlete, Bruce, informed Fliegelman that he had already signed up for the inaugural Ironman U.S. Championship in New York City in August 2012. Fliegelman told Bruce it was a bad idea—he wasn’t ready—but he would help him make the best of it.

Recently, just weeks before both Steve and Bruce were scheduled to participate in their first Ironman races, I asked Fliegelman how each of them was doing.

“It’s just what I expected,” he said.

Steve, the athlete who waited, had made great progress over the preceding year. He was training well and feeling confident. Bruce, the athlete who couldn’t wait, was struggling. His training was off track, he felt overwhelmed, and his looming date with Ironman destiny filled him with dread.

Of course, Fliegelman pointed out, there are no guarantees in Ironman racing. While he expected Steve to do well by his own standards, the coach granted that he might not. And while Fliegelman feared that Bruce would not much enjoy his Ironman experience, the coach conceded that he just might. But race day is only a part of the overall Ironman experience. The greater part is what Fliegelman calls “the other 364 days” of preparation. Clearly the journey toward race day had gone better for patient Steve than it had for headstrong Bruce, so Fliegelman’s judgment that Steve was wise to wait and Bruce unwise not to had already been validated.

When is the right time to do one’s first Ironman? How does an athlete know? There are no tidy answers to these questions. Defining and recognizing the right time to move up to 140.6 miles requires that various individual factors be considered. Most coaches agree that there are a lot of Bruces out there—moving up too soon is very common. But doing it at the right time is not all about waiting—it’s really about preparing in order to maximize the likelihood of a positive experience.

Bucket List or Tattoo?

According to Gale Bernhardt, a Boulder-based triathlon coach and author of Triathlon Training Basics, there are basically two types of triathletes who want to move up to the Ironman distance.

“First there are the bucket-list types,” Bernhardt says. These are generally non-competitive people who plan to do one and only one Ironman and then move on. Their only goal is to finish under the 17-hour cutoff. “They don’t care if they have to walk almost the whole marathon.”

The second type of Ironman dreamer aspires to tattoo an M-dot on his body. He seeks a finish time he’s proud to share with others—the competitive triathlete who wants to achieve the best Ironman performance he or she is capable of, even if it takes 10 tries.

While the average triathlete of this second type may be more physically ready to complete an Ironman than the typical representative of the bucket-list category, Bernhardt generally encourages the tattoo-seekers to wait longer than the cutoff-dodgers precisely because of their higher standards.

If a bucket-list Ironman aspirant without much experience in triathlon comes to Bernhardt for guidance, she prescribes a three-year plan. In the first year, racing is limited to sprints and Olympic-distance events. The following year the developing athlete does one or two Ironman 70.3’s and perhaps a few more short races. Finally, in year three, the athlete is unleashed to tackle Ironman.

Bucket-list types who have what Bernhardt calls a “deep background” in triathlon or other endurance sports can be fast-tracked on a two-year schedule. In this case year one includes races of up to 70.3 miles and the second year culminates in an Ironman.

Bernhardt recognizes that there are many cases of novice triathletes without deep backgrounds in endurance sports who have completed an Ironman in their first year in the sport, and even as their very first multisport event. But very few of these men and women have the sort of Ironman experience that Bernhardt wants for the athletes she coaches. Athletes who are content (or think they are content) to barely survive an Ironman can take their guidance from someone else. Those who accept her mentoring must be willing to take the time to prepare for a graceful Ironman debut, not just an Ironman.

Bernhardt’s ideal developmental plan for triathletes who aspire not just to finish but to truly race Ironman events is one that extends four or even five years. Developing speed is the primary objective of those preparatory years.

“There’s a reason you see a lot of former ITU racers kicking it when they finally move up [to Ironman],” Bernhardt says. “To really do well in Ironman racing you have to have speed as well as endurance. It makes more sense to develop speed first and then layer endurance on top of that.”

Rich Strauss, head coach of Endurance Nation, agrees. “If you want to get fast you have to go fast,” he says. Strauss sees merit in the idea of competitive age-group triathletes modeling their careers after those of professional triathletes such as Mirinda Carfrae and Eneko Llanos, who spent years redlining through short-course races before taking their hard-earned speed to the Ironman and watching it pay off.

There are two ways of measuring sustained speed that Strauss believes are fundamental to success in triathlons of all distances. He likes to see his athletes work on improving these two metrics as much as they can through moderately high to high-intensity training and short-course racing before they go long. The first metric is functional threshold power (FTP), which is the average wattage an athlete can sustain through a one-hour time trial on the bike. The second metric is called a VDOT score, which is associated with one’s best times in various standard-distance running events and is an approximate stand-in for VO2max. Strauss believes that a triathlete who trains to increase these performance markers—FTP for cycling and VDOT for running—as high as possible has set himself up well for a successful transition to Ironman racing because the physiological underpinnings of performance in short-course triathlons are largely the same as the physiological underpinnings of performance in long-course triathlons.

Training at moderately high to high intensities is the most effective way to increase lactate threshold (FTP) and VO2max (VDOT). This sort of training and the resulting physiological improvements will translate directly into better short-course triathlon performance. If you train hard and specifically for an Olympic-distance triathlon and smash your PR by 15 minutes, you have very good cause to believe you are ready for an Ironman breakthrough. Well, almost ready: You just need to layer some endurance on top of that newfound speed. Improving these threshold metrics and thereby improving your short-course performance capacity is a crucial first step toward boosting your Ironman performance potential, a step that’s nearly impossible to take while also preparing for the sheer length of an Ironman.

RELATED: Three Ironman Training Questions For Coach Matt Dixon

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