The Waiting Game: When To Take On Ironman

  • By Matt Fitzgerald
  • Published Oct 31, 2012
  • Updated Oct 31, 2014 at 4:40 PM UTC
Illustration by Hunter King.

Litmus Tests

While tracking variables such as FTP and VDOT can be very helpful to the triathlete who is trying to gauge his readiness for Ironman, there is no failsafe litmus test for Ironman preparedness. One reason is that the definition of “ready” depends on one’s expectations. The other reason is that an Ironman is so different from any shorter triathlon that only an Ironman itself can reveal one’s true state of readiness. We’ll come back to this point later. Let’s now focus on what you can do to determine whether you’re ready for an Ironman.

Strauss has a couple of very simple training benchmarks that he uses to gauge the Ironman-preparedness of those whose goal is to finish.

“I like to see people be able to ride for six hours and run for about two and a half hours,” Strauss says. “It doesn’t have to be fast. I’m just talking about turning the pedals for six hours and [separately] putting one foot in front of the other for two and a half hours. In my experience, if you can do those things you will probably be OK [in an Ironman]. If not, you’re in trouble.”

Strauss stresses that finishing an Ironman within the 17-hour cutoff time really isn’t very hard. As long as you’re healthy and not significantly overweight there’s nothing to it. Just train progressively until you are able to hit the relevant benchmarks—which most people can do within 18 months if they’re consistent—and race day itself is a mere formality, assuming proper execution.

Identifying benchmarks for the competitive triathlete who desires an Ironman debut to brag about is a little more challenging. Scott Fliegelman recommends peer-comparison tests for such athletes. Fliegelman’s FastForward Sports is based on a group training model that facilitates such comparisons.

“If you’re training consistently with people who have done Ironmans already, and not only done them but really done well in them,” Fliegelman says, “and you get to the point where you can do everything they do in workouts, that’s a pretty good indicator that you’re ready to race at their level.” Fliegelman is careful to add that being able to keep up with a 10-hour Ironman finisher in training is certainly no guarantee that you will be able to match that time in your first or any Ironman, but it’s a more reliable predictor than any alternative standard.

Of course, peer comparisons can also tell you when you’re not ready. “If you’re contemplating an Ironman and you consistently get dropped by the slowest group after four hours [on the bike], you’d probably better wait,” Fliegelman says.

Beyond Physically Ready

Developing the physical fitness that is required to complete an Ironman or to achieve a competitive goal in an Ironman is only one dimension of attaining total readiness for such ambitions. There are other dimensions to consider as well.

The first question Rich Strauss asks athletes who tell him they want to do their first Ironman is “why?” There are good reasons and bad reasons to chase this dream, and Strauss wants to be sure that his athletes commit for the right reasons. “It’s supposed to be fun,” he explains. “If training for an Ironman sounds like fun, then go for it. But if it seems like something you have to do, don’t do it.”

The idea that completing an Ironman would feel like an obligation to anyone might seem strange, but it’s actually quite common. What’s the first question people ask you when you tell them you’re a triathlete? That’s right: “Have you ever done an Ironman?” Let’s face it: One of the reasons we do triathlons is to impress people who don’t, and, right or wrong, finishing an Ironman is vastly more impressive to the average person than winning any shorter triathlon.

Within the sport, as well, there’s a sense that you’re not a serious triathlete unless you do Ironmans. There are many gifted age-group triathletes whose bodies are perfectly designed to kick butt in sprint triathlons but who get their butts kicked in Ironman races instead because they feel obligated to go long.

Fliegelman believes that overall experience is a more important factor in Ironman readiness than physical fitness. That’s why he told Steve to wait a year to make his Ironman debut and would have told Bruce to do the same if he’d been given the chance. Bruce is actually the more physically talented of the two men, according to Fliegelman, but Steve is more Ironman-ready because he has an extra year of experience, hence more all-around “triathlon intelligence,” as the coach puts it.

Bruce has difficulty pacing himself appropriately in workouts. Steve, on the other hand, has mastered the art of training by heart rate, and over the past year he has also learned how to train effectively by power on the bike. While Bruce is a better pure runner than Steve, Bruce has never run well off the bike in a race. Steve is better at holding himself back on the bike and saving something for the run. It’s not that Bruce will never get to that point; he just lacks experience.

RELATED: A Physiological View Of What The Human Body Goes Through In An Ironman

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