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.