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Ironman Triathlon for Beginners | What does it really take?

Have you decided that this year is the year to take on a full Ironman or iron-distance race?

If you are new to triathlon, possibly moving up from a previous distance to tackle this monster event, or if you are going whole hog and diving straight into triathlon by making your first event an Ironman, then the question that will inevitably come up is:

  • ‘How much training do I need to do’ and

  • ‘What does it actually take’?

Ironman Triathlon: Where to Start

Signpost for Ironman Training

Let’s look at what Ironman comprises. It’s a 2.4 mile (3.8k) Swim, 112 mile (180km) Bike and a 26.2 Mile (42.2km) Run. This event is no mean feat and is not something to be undertaken without serious time investment in training. Exactly how much training is required depends on your own aspirations, background in the sport, current fitness levels, the realistic amount of time you have to train and to some extent your natural talent and genes. If you are an accomplished 70.3 athlete looking to move up to the iron distance with a view to a potential podium placement, you will have a solid background and know what you must put in to get the results you need.

Whereas if you have a sudden urge to jump in feet first and just do an Ironman with little or no experience of triathlon, and your last real exercise routine was an occasional gym session or a dip in the pool, or maybe you haven’t really done anything since leaving school or university, then you are likely to have no clue about where to start and what is involved.


For this blog I am going to go through the requirements for those that either have no experience at all or have potentially completed a few smaller triathlons and have now decided to take on the Ironman challenge.

Ironman Training from Scratch

To start your adventure on the road to the magic red carpet and those immortal words, ‘YOU ARE AN IRONMAN’, you firstly need to look at yourself as an individual and be really honest about your starting point.

Questions for a Beginner Triathlete

Ask yourself some of the below questions and write down your answers:

  1. Why do I want to do an Ironman?

  2. How fit am I honestly?

  3. Taking into account work, family, social events, holidays, how much time do I have that I can give to training?

  4. What is my budget? Ironman races are not cheap to enter, especially if you are thinking of doing one abroad. On top of this you need to look at what kit you already have and what you will need to purchase to get up and going.

  5. How does my partner feel about me doing this? Have I spoken with them and told them what is involved? Are they supportive? What are their concerns/issues?

  6. Where am I going to train? What facilities are near me? Are there good roads for cycling and running?

  7. When am I going to take on the Ironman? This is a big question, as there is no point in deciding to go for an Ironman and only giving yourself a month or two to prepare.

  8. Where will you do your Ironman? With races all over the world, what is your thoughts on a location and a course style? There is a massive difference between a race like Ironman Barcelona which is fairly flay and fast, compared to Ironman Wales which tests the legs of even the most hardy and experienced long distance triathlete.

  9. An interesting question which I like to ask is ‘What is your personality type?’. Ask yourself; Are you easy going and can let things slide from time to time, or do you get frustrated and stressed if things don’t go perfectly? Can you hold motivation, or do you get distracted easily and lose focus? Do you train better on your own or in a group?

  10. What is your goal? This could be to simply cross the finish line, all the way up to a Kona qualifying slot. Unless you have a huge fitness background the Kona step might be a few events off, but never say never as I did meet someone who came 2nd in their age category at Ironman Wales having never done a triathlon before, (and qualified for the big island), but they had a strong back ground in running and cycling.


How long does it take to train for an Ironman Triathlon?

The answers to the questions above will allow you to formulate a basis to start. But the two factors that are probably still sitting in your mind are, ‘Where to Start’ and ‘How much time is it actually going to take on a weekly basis’ to train for an Ironman event.

Let’s look at the second question first. As previously mentioned, the iron distance is not for the faint hearted, but be sensible and build up gradually and it is within your grasp.

The two biggest pitfalls I have encountered for athletes aiming for full distance are:

  • volume of training

  • training intensity

Stopwatch | How many hours should a triathlete train?


How many hours of training for Ironman per week

Not as many as you might think! Most triathletes achieve good results with around 15-20 hours per week in the season, with around 10 hours per week over the winter.

Athletes’ view of the volume of training is often based on misinformation. Maybe you have watched a YouTube video and seen a pro or elite triathlete talking about putting in 30+ hours per week of training. There are also plenty of blogs online that refer to this volume. Maybe a friend has told you that they are putting in 20-30 hours a week with hundreds of miles racked up in each discipline. The absolute truth on this is far from the thought process that a lot of athletes can find themselves in. Yes, some of the pros will rack up these huge weekly volumes in preparation for the season, but these are in specific blocks of training and not week-in-week-out throughout the year. Also (and this the big one) this is their job. It is how they make their living, so their week is dedicated to training and recovery - they don’t deal with the daily grind of a 9-5 working day and then train on top. Not that I am saying that a pro-triathlete’s job is an easy one, far from it.

Female_Triathlete_Exhausted_over_training

As for your friend or the social media contact who is throwing the numbers about of 20-30 hours per week: really?! I would hesitate to take this as an actual fact. 20+ yes, but rarely do age group athletes hit the 30 hour per week marker unless they are an elite triathlete looking for a podium or high rank placement, and even then they will not roll to 30 hours on a regular basis. The key to volume of training is not just the time it adds to your already-busy life, but who you are as an athlete. Some triathletes can absorb huge amounts of weekly training, whereas others can occasionally put in longer hours during peak weeks and then back off to a more comfortable amount.


The message I am trying to get across is: at the start don’t worry about what everyone else is doing or saying, and don’t panic about needing to go from zero to hero for weekly volume. Training too much will lead to potential injury and early burnout.


Weekly Triathlon Training Plan

How many hours are actually needed to train for an Ironman? Well, this all depends on how much training you have done before and how much time you ‘genuinely’ have to dedicate to training… oh, and recovery! An athlete looking to begin their journey towards Ironman needs to give themselves plenty of time to get there and allow for the ups and downs that training and life will throw at them. You do not need to train every day and a dedicated rest-day is a must, especially for the new Ironman devotee. As I previously mentioned, 10-20 hours is plenty – it is the gradual build-up of the 4-week training blocks which matter most.

Go sensibly and plan in a swim, bike, run on consecutive days and slightly increase the amount over a three week period, then drop back on the fourth week. This will allow for some recovery and adaptation and is a standard cycle for training on a continual basis as you move forward. Basically, three weeks build, I week recovery/adaptation.

Triathlon Training Plan 4 Week Block
Training Plan Example - Courtesy of 220 Magazine. Note that in this example, Mondays are rest days.

How hard should I train for an Ironman?

Ok so now let’s look at training intensity. This is another blinding example of how things can go pear shaped very quickly if a sensible and considered process is not adopted at the start. Again, the internet and social media has a massive amount to answer for. Triathletes, especially pro-athletes, are shown doing some incredible sessions. I remember one with Craig Alexander (Crowie) where he completes a 100-mile bike and of the back of it he performs 1 mile repeat shuttle-runs at 6min miles off 60s recovery. Yes, I have tried it, but at the time I was a podium-contending triathlete and I can tell you it still hurt like hell! The point is that sessions like this are publicity. Yes, Crowie did this session (and I can believe it is one that he regularly did in preparation for his season), but Crowie was a three-time Ironman world champion with a huge pedigree in the sport. This session was on YouTube because it is great to see, and in many ways be in awe of, but these sessions are the harder end of Crowie’s training and are carefully planned in. These are not the sessions performed day in and day out. Would you sit and watch a YouTube video showing Crowie holding aero position on a bike for 3-4 hours at his steady base pace effort……..?? No! But the reality is that 80% of Ironman training is (and should be) steady. So as much as the hard workouts are motivating and inspiring, they are not the bread and butter of the sport. If they become your everyday sessions, you will be doomed to failure and over training very quickly.

Triathlete Doing Steady Run Training 80/20

What is 80/20 Training for Triathlon?

There is a mantra that is widely adopted in triathlon and especially in long distance triathlon which is the 80/20 rule. This simply means that 80% of your training should be at a steady pace that you can build on week by week, with just 20% being higher intensity that really pushes you out of your comfort zone. This rule is essential if you are going to make it from day 1 to finally crossing the finish line. For a full breakdown on the reasons for this style of training and why it works so well I would advise you to checkout 80/20 Triathlon by Matt Fitzgerald which is available in book form or on Amazon Audible and I would say is a must read/listen to for anyone starting their Ironman journey.

How long to train for an Ironman from Scratch?

Ideally, you should start training at least 12 months before your first iron distance triathlon. At a push, you can get to the finish line within 8 months. Any shorter than that and you will be severely pushing your body’s limits and risking injury (or just not enjoying it!) – unless you are highly athletic before you start.

Pin in the date to start training for an Ironman Triathlon

Can you train for an Ironman in a year?

Yes. 12 months gives you 12 4-week training blocks to plan in, each of which will build upon the last, with a ‘taper’ for the last block to give your body a chance to ease out and optimally absorb all of those months of hard work before the race. The taper is essential to hit the start line (and finish line!) in top form to perform at your best. I have heard many examples (including myself) of athletes achieving PBs despite being ill 1-2 weeks before. Perhaps the forced rest did more good than the illness did harm!


What you certainly shouldn't do is high intensity training for the whole year. I have met athletes doing long hours and high intensity 9 months before their race. This is a route to burn-out, or at the very least a disappointing race experience as your body will be tired out before you hit the start line.

Beginner Ironman Training Plan

You have started to get an idea now of what’s involved: the hours, volume, and intensity patterns. What about actual plans and workouts? Again, the easiest place to go is the internet, but be warned. Some plans I have seen get you working much too hard, much too quickly and are probably more suited to athletes with a solid training background rather than the novice or beginner triathlete. Good places to look are 220 Triathlon (as per the image above), Tri247 or Triathlete.com, that have fairly comprehensive beginner guides that gradually work towards your goal.

Why is a triathlon coach important?

Even better than downloadable triathlon plans (yes I am going to advertise!), get a coach and plan this into your Ironman budget. I self-coached with downloaded plans for years and managed well, but certainly did not achieve my full potential and I slid easily into overtraining. Whilst online plans provide a useful weekly structure, the content of the individual sessions is just as important as the timetable. 1-1 coaching gives you structure for every session, working with your personal strengths and weaknesses to optimise your training and performance. Coaching takes the headache and uncertainty of planning out of the equation and gives you access to knowledge and plans formulated by coaches with years of experience in the sport that have been tested time and again. Each plan is formulated specifically around your needs and time available, and coaching also gives you someone to supply motivation and continuing incentives as well as being able to answer any questions that will inevitably crop up.

Ironman Certified Coach Matt Cunningham-Neuff with an athlete

How much does an Ironman coach cost?

Not all triathlon coaching is vastly expensive and Total Tri Training (myself included) have 1-1 coached training plans starting at only £90 per month. The investment in a coach is, in my opinion, worth it just for the piece of mind it brings and the fact that you will always have that strength of knowledge to keep everything on track throughout your triathlon journey.

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This blog has briefly touched on the starting points to take on an Ironman and obviously there are far more areas that need to be looked at like, kit, recovery and nutrition, and I will cover these in my next blog. But for now I hope it has helped to enable you to look at taking on an iron-distance triathlon with a clearer initial thought process.

If you are interested in coaching then check out my website at www.r4-3.co.uk or www.totaltritraining.com as we are open to chatting things through in more detail, working out a plan that works for you and helping guide you every step of the way.


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