It’s a question that many of us struggle with, but when is the right time to make the step up to Ironman? Matt Dixon takes a look at what is need to go from being a finisher in one of the toughest endurance races on earth to being able to compete.
Written By: Matt Dixon
The truth is that there will never be a simple and direct answer to when to attack an Ironman with the goal to excel, rather than simply finish. Experience is critical in Ironman racing, and most great first-time performances come without the burden of time or place goals. I will outline a few areas to consider in making your decision to go the full distance, and use the career path of James Cotter, one of my Purplepatch professional athletes, to provide some context.
Timeline Of You Career Path
Before you even consider fitness level you should think about the progression of your triathlon career. I think most athletes should progress to the iron distance after defining their training methodology, gaining training and racing experience at the shorter distances, and becoming a more well-rounded and skilled athlete. I see far too many who jump to the iron distance without any real experience training, racing or even having proper riding skills or biomechanics.
James Cotter is one of the pros I coach who will evolve to the Ironman distance. We began working together a few years ago and immediately set a multi-year plan. The first phase was to develop his riding to a similar level of his swimming and running. We then set about allowing him to gain valuable experience racing at shorter distances, developing speed and the ability to compete. He will be ready to step up to the Ironman distance this race season. Even for professional athletes, progression is key.
Endurance and “speed”
Many athletes develop enough cardiovascular conditioning to complete an Ironman event by simply going out and training at low intensity for hours on end. Yet they have very limited ability to generate power or pace. They are consistently fit and slow. I fall into the school of thought that it is relatively easy to step up in distance after multiple seasons of full-endurance work.
James was a talented athlete with a relatively weak bike leg. The choice with James was whether to head to Ironman distance with a weaker bike leg, then try to improve endurance and fitness through the higher volume needed to compete in Ironman—or work on becoming a more powerful and accomplished rider at the shorter distance, then extend his training volume with a stronger bike. In other words, the goal is to become stronger and more powerful, then to extend the fitness to cope with the demands of Ironman.
Ironman demands a greater volume of training than the shorter-distance events, and it is essential that you have developed the structural integrity to cope with the rigours of Ironman training. This comes about through two methods. The most important is a steady and smart progression of your training load over multiple seasons of training and racing. Accompanying this should be a complete and comprehensive functional strength programme.
James had a history of injury and setbacks when he arrived at Purplepatch. He was not progressing his training load in an incremental manner, or incorporating adequate recovery into the plan. He also ignored functional strength as part of his overall training. It has taken a couple of years to progress James’ capacity to be able to train at a higher load, with fewer injuries and setbacks.
There are plenty of approaches to achieving a great Ironman performance, all of which have merit, but all have the same core principles: patience, progression and hard work.