Am I ready for Ironman?
Perhaps a better question to ask would be: “Do I have the right foundations for Ironman success?”
The element I love about the sport of triathlon, in particular, Ironman, is that any shape, size, gender or ability can have a go on an equal playing field. Spectating or watching an Ironman is all it takes to catch the bug – planting a seed of when and where your next or first Ironman will be. The essence of our sport will continue to attract a wide array of individuals from varied backgrounds and abilities who are motivated by very different things. They might be driven by Kona qualification, merely crossing the line, making others proud, making themselves proud, or completing a PB or a particular time. With all the hype and excitement that comes with an Ironman event, there can also be a “dark side” for some athletes. The niggles, fatigue, grumpiness, strained relationships, injury, bike or mechanical issues, impaired work performance, mood disturbances and other health concerns, and more. With these elements in mind, considering tackling an Ironman should not be taken lightly. There is also a large financial investment to consider. With so many things to juggle, before you think about doing an Ironman. I want to take you through the key foundations of endurance training – training that puts you in the best position to take on an Ironman, minimising the chance of injury, burnout, hormone imbalance and mood disturbances, while ensuring you have an enjoyable and rewarding (albeit tough!) Ironman experience.
Before a baby can learn to walk, they need to lay the foundations of movement. First, they learn to lift their neck and use their spine and then they learn to roll over from front to back, and back to front. Then they learn to crawl, stand and walk. For my recommendations below to work, I need you to harness your inner baby, embrace the baby steps, literally – because, minute as they may seem, they have the largest effect on Ironman success.
Let me explain.
A consistent athlete will be a successful athlete. Obviously, success is defined differently for each individual. Illness and injury are the number one factors to derail consistency. To minimise your risk of illness and injury you need to lay solid foundations, no matter how small, insignificant or boring they may seem. With this in mind, I’ve come up with eight key questions to ask yourself when considering embarking on an Ironman Journey.
1. Do you have a clear and concise nutrition plan that will enable you to recover from large training volume or intensity; manage inflammation; maintain hormonal health; develop and maintain immunity; assimilate sports nutrition and maintain weight or achieve race weight goals? I’m referring to a day-to-day nutrition plan in the early phases of your training for Ironman – these are the months will lay the foundations for optimal health.
Who do you need to help with the above elements?
And what do you need from them?
Jot down some notes and options available to you, then take action!
I recommend seeking out a sports nutritionist that can provide individualised advice, based on individual needs, physiology and metabolism.
2. Do you have a plan to ensure you have optimal mobility, functional movement and physical function to prevent injury and enhance performance?
Yes: GREAT! What action steps do you need to put in place to ensure you maintain consistency with this? Jot them down.
No: Time to build a team! You will want to consider consulting with a Strength Coach, Myotherapist, Sports Physiotherapist, Osteopath or Chiropractor.
I recommend starting with a Functional Movement Screen (FMS) or assessment. This process will help identify current imbalances that may put you at heightened risk of niggles in the future. After your assessment, a Strength Coach or Exercise Physiologist can write an individualised program targeting activation, mobility and strength.
3. Do you have a tailored training plan that is suited to your current ability; personal lifestyle needs and is specific to ensure success?
Yes: Fabulous! What action steps do you need to put in place to make the most out of this training plan or coaching relationship? Jot them down.
No: I would highly recommend investing in personal guidance through coaching and programming. Yes, I’m a coach, so I’m biased. But even as a coach I seek the assistance of a mentor to support my training. We all need an expert who can be objective throughout an Ironman journey. It’s also a great learning tool. When seeking out training or coaching support, jot down a list of needs and wants so you can match these with potential coaching options that you find. It’s worth doing your research and due diligence to get the right coach or plan for you straight from the start and not two months before your race!
4. Do you have a solid aerobic base?
There are many ways to define or measure this, so I’ll provide you with some essential characteristics that indicate a solid aerobic base:
- Ability to ride for two to three hours, predominately in Zone 2 heart rate without crashing or bonking.
- Ability to run for 75-90minutes, predominately in Zone 2 heart rate without crashing or bonking – ideally in the absence of exogenous fuel, indicating a sufficient level of fat adaptation.
- Low level of aerobic decoupling (< 5%) when analysing long ride or run heart rate data (see resources).
- You can control your heart rate up and over inclines without having to slow your pace dramatically.
- Your sleep is not affected by training.
- Inflammation is low, and recovery is high.
- You can miss a few days training without feeling “unfit.”
5. Do you have the support of others?
Ironman might be a solo sport, but it takes a village to get you across the finish line. In the final weeks, you will be tired, grumpy, short on time and fatigued. It’s important to have a discussion with the significant people in your life at the start of your Ironman journey. Communicate WHY this is important to you and how they can support you. It might be through doing extra things around the house, kid-sitting duties, cooking meals, or just a good hug when you’re tired and grumpy.
If the people close to you aren’t overly supportive, then you need to seek out people who are. You cannot do this alone. Whether it’s a coach, training buddies or other professionals – hey, maybe even a chef!
6. Are your hormones happy?
Guys, this includes you. Unfortunately, Ironman training isn’t what the body is designed to do in its natural state, which is why Ironman is such an achievement. With the training comes physiological effects, some of which are very positive but others which can be detrimental to your health. There are some crucial aspects of your health to consider when taking on an Ironman. I recommend consulting with an Integrative Practitioner (see resources) and conducting pathology tests as a baseline, to gain an understanding of your current health status – with the knowledge that Ironman training could exacerbate any current imbalances if not managed correctly. Some factors and tests to discuss with your practitioner are:
- General and cardiac health:
- Blood lipids
- Liver function
- Blood sugar (Hba1c)
- Thyroid and HPA-axis function
- Sex hormones
Even without consulting a practitioner you can make yourself aware of how your body is feeling and general symptoms to get a better idea of your inner health. Areas of your life to pay attention too:
- Sleep quality and duration
- Ability to recover from training
- General fatigue levels
- Mood and mindset or outlook on life
- Females: Menstrual cycle health – is it regular? Do you suffer PMS?
- Females: Peri and post menopause – are symptoms affecting your training and results?
- Inflammation and niggles
7. Are you willing to make sacrifices?
This is a big one because Ironman will require sacrifices (or choices), either by you or those around you, which is why point five is so important. If your drive, purpose and your WHY are clear, then making these choices will be a no-brainer. But it’s still important to acknowledge the areas you may need to adjust in your life, such as:
- Social life
- Romantic life
- Nutrition habits
- Work hours/balance.
8. Do you know your WHY?
There will be challenges along your Ironman journey, so it’s important to be able to tap into a deep level of motivation and fire in your belly during these times. I find that if athletes’ motivation for Ironman sits on a surface level, they struggle to get consistency and push through when the going gets tough. Your WHY needs to mean something to you; it needs to elicit a high level of emotion and motivate you intrinsically. Beating your best mate is not a WHY. Do you know your WHY?
Write it down, explore it, and remember it.
Now that you’ve read through theseeight questions write down your key actions steps required to address each one. I hope this process then enables you to enter your first or next Ironman with confidence and clarity of the path ahead. Despite the sacrifices, fatigue, time and commitment required for Ironman, I can wholeheartedly tell you it’s worth it. Running down that finish shoot hearing the words “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN” is a moment that will stay with you forever.