How to Go From Zero to Hero
Steps to completing your first half Ironman.
Just typing the word, “Ironman” makes me twitch a little. Since I started this column for Austin Fit Magazine over a year-and-a-half ago, I've focused mainly on shorter race distances including sprint triathlons and 10K runs. This month, I'm kicking readers off on a journey to long-course racing.
Perhaps you've raced shorter distances for a few years now and are ready to add another photo to the finish line wall of fame. Heck, you might never have been in the pool before and still decided that a half Ironman distance is for you (I shall not judge). Whatever the motivation, this column will be dedicated over the next months to taking you to this distance safely.
The half Ironman (also referred to as half distance, 70.3, or even long course) covers half (you guessed it) of the Ironman’s 140.6-mile distance, or 70.3 total miles. You'll swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles, and run 13.1 miles. Yep. That's a half marathon after several hours of pedaling away.
Think this distance is for you? Are you ready to go from Clark Kent to Superman? Central Texas has two great fall options, including High Five Events' Kerrville Triathlon Festival (Sept. 27–28) and the Ironman Austin 70.3 (Oct. 26). This plan, which builds from June through September, will get you to either of these with 16 weeks of training. Along the way, I'll be hosting some clinics, Facebook chats, and other informative sessions to answer any questions you may have while you're changing costumes in the phone booth and transforming your life (and the lives of those around you).
As I noted in my February column “Constructing Your Dream Season,” you must build a strong foundation, regardless of the race’s distance. When it comes to the half Ironman distance, this foundation is especially vital to a successful training season. It's long and requires a tremendous amount of physical and mental fortitude. Here are a few tips on structuring your life and laying the foundation to 70.3 success:
Time and Real World Expectations
For the 70.3 distance, plan to train five to seven days per week, for an average of 8–12 hours. Depending on your level of expertise and time, you may also train twice per day. In general, your training sessions will last from one to two hours during the week and as much as four hours on the weekends (we'll be building up to 60+ mile rides on the bike, after all). You also must consider the time it takes to prepare for these sessions, set up your equipment, and drive to training locations. Your ultimate plan must mirror your reality; adapt this plan so that it best fits into your busy life—and, believe me, I know your life is busy. At the very least, plan to train in each discipline at least twice per week. Consider this plan as your training recipe; if you've ever used a recipe, you know that it can always adapt a little to fit your taste buds and dietary requirements. I may have a swim scheduled on Monday, but a rest day then may work better for your needs. Make the change necessary to fit your lifestyle.
Don't Ignore the Core
It doesn't matter how many times per week you are running, biking, or swimming if you're in severe pain. When you're injured, all bets are off. Injury is an athlete's kryptonite. This plan will include at least one core/strength day. That isn't a “rest day” (although those are vital as well); the core/strength day may involve a simple weightlifting plan, yoga, or even a functional movement class designed to strengthen core muscles—glutes, lower back, hips, and hamstrings—that take a beating during repetitive triathlon training. Think of these sessions as the spice to your training recipe. Anyone can make chili, but the best chili is the kind with a kick or a spice that takes it up a notch. Core training takes your training up a notch and gives you a longer shelf life.
Consistency and Proficiency are Key
The most important thing you can do as a beginner triathlete at long-course distance is be consistent. Triathlon coaching legend Joe Friel, author of The Triathlete’s Training Bible and other training reference books, wrote, “The biggest mistake most self-coached athletes make is not training consistently...If you periodically pile on huge doses of stress, or skip a recovery period, you greatly increase your risk of injury, burnout, illness, and overtraining.” As he noted, you may get away with it for a while, but lack of consistency will catch up eventually. When in doubt, be moderate and be consistent in your training. As a beginner, this will lead to the biggest initial fitness gains.
And, as important as it is to be consistent, you also want to be proficient at the sports you are tackling, especially as the duration and intensity grow throughout the summer. As training volume increases, so does the risk of improper technique reinforcing bad habits. A house built on quicksand will eventually sink, so make sure to learn technique and skills while building distance. Hire a coach or professional to look at or give feedback on swim stroke, bike fit, and running gait.
Don't Forget to Have Fun
It seems silly that to remind you to have fun, but the number of people who stop having fun and start to feel resentful of the time and energy required of training for this distance may be surprising (or not). Yes, for the next few months, several happy leisure hours will be replaced by trainer rides, and some precious morning hours will be spent swimming laps. You're going on an extended recess. Remember, the grass is always greener. There are people who would love to be able to do what you're doing. Some of those people may even be significant others or kids, so include them in as much of the activity as possible.
Here we go. The journey to your half Ironman begins with this first month of training and several weeks of endurance-building strategies. Be realistic about your goals, remain consistent, practice good technique, take care of your body, and have fun!
Dust off your cape, Superhero, because you're about to learn just how strong you are.