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.

Reasons Not to Wait

There is a common belief in triathlon that athletes younger than their late 20s are not physically mature enough to excel in Ironman racing. It is difficult to find hard evidence that supports this notion. While many younger triathletes lack the conditioning background that is needed to excel in Ironman racing, those who have an extensive endurance background need not worry about being held back by physical immaturity.

“Well-trained young athletes, if their body is predisposed to going long, can and should do so at any age,” says Brett Sutton, head coach of Team TBB, who has coached short-course specialists such as Greg Bennett and long-course specialists such as Chrissie Wellington.

It is true that, as they age, endurance athletes tend to lose speed before they lose endurance. For this reason—and because nearly all young professional triathletes necessarily start out as short-course racers—many pros choose to wait until the second half of their career to shift their focus to long-distance racing. But this career-management rationale for waiting is different from having to wait for purely physical reasons. Age-group triathletes don’t have to worry about career management.

Another reason not to wait is that if your overall situation in life allows you to train for and participate in Ironman events now, there’s no guarantee that this window will still be open a few years from now.

“Most sane, balanced people who throw themselves into Ironman are able to keep it up for two or three years before they find out that it’s just too much,” says Strauss. “They’re sacrificing something—time with family, investment in their career, sleep—that they can’t keep sacrificing forever.”

While most triathletes are capable of improving as long-distance racers throughout their 30s, younger age groupers typically have an easier time “doing it all.” Speaking for myself, at age 41 I certainly can’t get away with sacrificing sleep as I could when I was 31.

A third reason not to wait to move up to Ironman if you’re ready is that, as Strauss puts it, “The key to success at Ironman is knowing how to race an Ironman.” All the talent, fitness and short-course racing experience in the world won’t help you on race day if you cannot master the unique nutritional, mental and pacing elements that make Ironman almost a sport unto itself.

Some triathletes have good Ironman instincts and nail their very first one. Others have to do several before they figure it out. Beyond a certain point, amassing experience at the 70.3 distance and below will not improve your chances of hitting your first Ironman out of the park.

A survey of great Ironman triathletes past and present proves that age and experience do not predict initial Ironman success. Some athletes start racing Ironman events early in their careers and find immediate success. Chrissie Wellington won her first Ironman (Korea) in her first season of professional racing (2007) and two months later won her first Ironman World Championship title. But for every Chrissie Wellington there’s at least one Tim DeBoom, who did his first Ironman (Kona) in 1992, when he was 21, and returned to the race every year for nine more years before winning it in 2001 (and again in 2002).

The point is that you cannot possibly know whether Ironman racing will come naturally to you until you try it. You sort of have to assume it won’t, and if it doesn’t, you’ll want to get started on the process of figuring it out sooner rather than later.

Most coaches believe that merely not expecting to achieve a fantastic time in one’s first Ironman doesn’t go far enough. One shouldn’t even try.

“How can you set a time goal for your first Ironman?” Fliegelman asks rhetorically.

It’s much wiser, he says, to focus on doing things right throughout all three legs of the race (and transitions) than to be hell-bent on reaching the finish line with a particular number showing on the clock. It may be tempting to go for broke when you’ve trained hard for months, you’re in great shape, and you’re used to letting it all hang out in shorter races. But giving in to this temptation as an Ironman rookie seldom ends well.

If your goal is to complete an Ironman with a time that you can proudly tattoo on your forehead, plan to do at least two Ironmans and race the first for experience.

It’s a sport of patience.

The X Factors

It takes more than a willing body and mind to finish an Ironman. Prepare yourself for these other obstacles before taking the plunge.

One crucial piece of experience that Ironman aspirants often overlook is race travel. Coach Scott Fliegelman prefers to see athletes travel for at last one shorter triathlon before they travel for an Ironman. Every triathlete learns lessons the hard way in his or her first “road game” that can be used to make the next race go more smoothly. Of course, rookie mistakes can spoil a shorter triathlon just as well as they can spoil a longer one, but which one would you rather have spoiled?

The race entry fee is only one of many costs associated with racing Ironman. Travel, accommodations, training costs, etc. add up quickly. Coach Scott Fliegelman suggests setting aside at least $5,000 for the journey assuming you already own a good bike.

Family Commitment
“Familial readiness” refers to the time commitment of training for an Ironman, which catches many first-time participants—not to mention their spouses and children—off guard. It’s not hard to wrap one’s head around the idea of having to do a multi-hour bike ride on Saturday and a 90-minute-plus run on Sunday. But families frequently fail to consider what it’s like for one of their members to have to do multi-hour rides every Saturday and 90-plus-minute runs every Sunday for several months on end. It’s not that it can’t be done; the family just has to be truly ready for it, which requires good communication and is helped by learning from families that have already been through the experience.

RELATED – Dear Coach: Should I Do An Ironman?

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