Ironman - Advice For Anyone Thinking About Attempting Their First Ironman


Having just completed my first Ironman race, I thought I'd jot down the key learning points I picked up along the way.  

If anyone asked me for advice, this is what I'd tell them as they started down the road to the challenge of a long triathlon.  Especially those of us who have more years behind than in front of use.

Of course, I am not an expert.  I do not have loads of Ironman events under my belt, so I can't speak from a wealth of knowledge.  In fact, that's the point.  It's all so fresh and new that my perspective isn't dulled by routine. 

I'm going say a lot of good things about my coach, Joe Beer.  If you know a coach you recommend please do so in the comments below and say why.  To keep reading, open this page.

1. Get a Coach
This is the single most important thing I did and would recommend for a host of reasons.  In fact, this could be a separate article on its own. 

I like to think I'm reasonably knowledgeable about training and nutrition and have previously managed my training plans.  

But until you've done an Ironman you really don't know what it takes.  There are too many unknown unknowns.   

A coach will do much more than draw up a training schedule.  He/she (let's assume he for the moment) should be able to answer the myriad questions you'll have and keep you on track whatever life might throw at you. 

It might be someone at your Tri Club who's doing it as a favour, or you might prefer to pay a coach as I did.  I wanted a simple business relationship - expertise in exchange for money.  I wanted someone who was specifically a coach, not a current racer who coached in his spare time, because his prime focus would be his training, not his clients.  I didn't want someone starting out in coaching, I wanted someone with a depth of expertise and stayed up to date with the latest research.  And I wanted someone who understood that coaching me at 58 years of age would need a different approach to coaching a 30 year old.

After a bit of research and phone chat, I hired Coach Joe Beer for six months, and renewed for a further six.  Here are my arguments for getting a coach.

a) A coach will save you money.  It costs a lot of money to enter an Ironman (€500 in my case) plus travel costs, insurance etc.  I reckon my event cost just under £1000.  

But my single biggest expense was time.  I trained for about 500 hours for this Ironman, and even at UK minimum wage, that's £3600.  

Imagine doing all that and not getting to the finish?  Or worse - imagine not even getting to the start line?  The job of a coach is to guide you through your training, frequently to rein you back when you want to go too hard, too often too early.  

According to the analysis on the Coach Cox website, 164 of the 1864 listed athletes didn't make it to the start line or out of the swim.  57 didn't finish the bike and 79 didn't finish the run.  Incidentally, 246 athletes came from the UK, third only to Netherlands and Belgium - rather ironic racing in Maastricht, home of the EU Treaty just after voting for Brexit.

He'll also guide you when you're thinking of buying new toys to motivate your training - do you really need that carbon Tri bike?  What a coach tells you not to do is as valuable as what he tells you to do. 


b) No junk training.  Training smart is about doing the right sessions at the right intensity at the right time, in the season and across your periodised plan.  Without a coach there's always that nagging doubt.  

You initially think you've got it right, then you read an article about the ten best sessions for better biking. Should I be doing those?  Is there a secret session that all the pros do? 
deep water running belt
Then there's the big one.  Am I training enough?  Get that answer wrong and you'll either fail, over-train, or get injured.  My wife was the one who said, "Perhaps you ought to get a coach so you don't break yourself in training", and Liz was spot on.

c) Injuries.  Getting to the start line uninjured is more than half the battle.  Injuries happen and a coach will help you to manage them by adapting your training.  

I twisted an ankle last October (it's still not right) so Joe had me Deep Water Running as a low impact alternative that really does work.

d) Confidence.  When you stand on the start line the big question is "have I done enough?"  The day that stretches before you is a swim, bike and run into the unknown.  Yet in my case, I had very few doubts.  

Joe knows his stuff and, while there are no guarantees against mechanicals or crashes, Joe had already told me why I could finish this Ironman.  Joe has guided countless athletes, from elite racers to, well, me, to numerous start lines all over the world.  If Joe says I'm ready, I'm ready.  The race-day calm this engenders is priceless.

e) Don't do that.  Let me give you some immediate examples of things Joe steered me away from doing.   

I was going to bike 112 miles in training - Joe said ride 130 "Then you know you can go further than is needed".  

I was going to enter a marathon early season - Joe said, "There's no need.  Because it's your first you could do more harm than good".   

I was going to run the organised recce lap of the Maastricht run course, three days before the event and do the organised river swim 2 days before - Joe advised against both.  These are just the first points that spring to mind.  There were many more in the year I've worked with him.

I could have muddled through all of this myself, but I'd have felt a lot less confident that I had been spending my time wisely.  There are reasons why Pro racers have coaches.

2.  Is everyone on board?
Training for an Ironman demands a lot of time.  Your family and loved ones must be willing to join you on this journey, and even then there will be friction.  Liz has said more than once,  "I'll be glad when all this is over".  

We have no kids and I work for myself, so I can slot my work around my training.  Quite how people fit their training around their work and parenting commitments is utterly beyond me.  Talk this through with prospective coaches and make sure you can devote the necessary time.  Or buy Joe's book.

3. Learn to Swim
Triathlon coaches plan great speed and stamina sessions but, from what I understand, they don't usually delve too far into technique.  You can swim four times a week, but if your stroke is as rubbish as mine was, you will not get faster or more efficent.  You may even knacker your shoulders.  Of the three triathlon disciplines, swimming is by far the most technique dependent, so good swim coaching is valuable.

Dan Bullock of SwimForTri
As I've previously written, two years ago Ididn't swim, I sank.   

Yet when I stood at the start of Ironman Maastricht, I was probably one of few triathletes genuinely looking forward to the 2.2mile river swim. 

My swimming was transformed by Dan Bullock,of London based SwimForTri.  

Liz and I attended two of Dan's week-long swim camps at Club La Santa in Lanzarote where our strokes were dismantled and put back together in faster, more efficient form.  For the last year we've been to the pool twice and swum in our local Scottish loch once every week, including all the way through winter.  Three sessions a week is the minimum if you want to improve.

Our winter swims seem to have impressed coach Joe Beer, who may be re-thinking the point in the season that his other triathletes should get into open water.  


Swimming the Sound of Mull
Neoprene booties, gloves, hood, under-shorts and vest make cold-water swimming bearable (article).  

Swimming in cold water week after week conditions the body and actually makes the experience comfortable, almost pleasant.  

It gave me the confidence to sign up for a swim across the Sound ofMull, which might only be 2.4km but is a tidal, busy shipping channel.  

Having done that in a chilly 12C in May, a Maastricht river swim in a balmy 23C was always going to be straightforward.  There's that confidence thing again.


4.   Sort Out Your Bike
Get a Retul bike fit and expect to pay decent money for it.  Don't get a bloke with an App on his phone do it on the cheap.  Then remember, it's your body.  Mark your seat-post, stem and other variable positions with a fine paint pen, and after you've ridden the bike a few times, don't be afraid to tweak that position.

Joe subsequently tweaked this position
Tri bars are essential (clip-ons, which actually bolt on, are fine) so have the fitting done in that position.  

It took me quite a few rides and position tweaks to get comfortable.  

The turbo doesn't really count because it feels so different on the road.  Remember you have to be comfy on this for 5-7 hours. 

Get a Power meter.  It's a far superior tool to HR monitor when it comes to pacing yourself on the bike.  

My coach had given me power zones to stick to for half IM and they worked, allowing me to run with relatively fresh legs.  I could adapt the figures on the fly during the Ironman.

Whenever you can, ride your race bike and keep it clean.  If you don't want to risk lovely race wheels, get some winter training wheels.  As much as possible, training should mirror racing.  In my case I wore tri shorts and always stuck to the nutrition plan (see below).

You will need a turbo for winter sessions, but these need not be long or desperately hard.  Your coach might not want you blasting yourself silly on Sufferfest sessions at this point in the year. 

A fully aero TriBike might not be best for your course or for you.  There were numerous crashes at Maastricht on the rain soaked cobbles, rough farm roads, and tree lined descents.  The majority of crashes I saw involved bikes with Tri specific handlebars which are notoriously harder to handle than regular road bikes.  I had clip-on TriBars bolted to my regular Parlee road bike, which at 6.5kg and with a 32T cassette was superb on the hills and at no time threatened to spill me into the gutter.  I had been thinking about buying a TriBike for next year but I'm reconsidering.



5.  Fueling the Body
Hopefully it goes without saying you should eat healthy all the time.   The exception comes during training when sugary crap is on the menu.  Previously, I eschewed this gunk on training rides, preferring real food or coffee stops.  But a couple of years ago I came completely unstuck when riding the big French Sportive, La Marmotte (article).  I had my worst day ever on a bike, largely because my body wasn't conditioned to process the simple carbs it needed.  I was determined this was not going to happen during my Ironman.

Joe's training plans detailed how many carbs per hour I should be consuming, and we discussed and tested what worked for me.  I came up the following; starting 30mins into the race I'd eat 1 energy bar every hour, with a gel around the top of the hour.  

The energy drink in my water bottle was an added bonus and I drank every ten minutes.  As soon as Ironman Europe confirmed High-5 as their nutrition sponsor I used only their gels and drink, although I'd eat a range of bars including PowerBar and OTE. 

I had a 30 minute alarm set on my bike Garmin for the gels and bars, and a ten minute alarm on my watch to remind me to drink.  Lots of beeping, but it worked.

During training, coffee shop cake stops became a thing of the past.  "Unless you're going to stop for an espresso on race day, don't do it", advised Joe.  

My nutrition regime was practiced on every ride over 90mins (that wasn't meant to be done fasted). 

This amount of sugary crap can play havoc with teeth, so right at the start I had an independent assessment of my dental health and was given an oral hygiene plan to minimise the damage.

6. What's The Worst That Can Happen?
Sea kayakers are encouraged to be self-reliant by envisioning the worst scenarios they can find themselves in and then working out what they'll do.  If they need to carry certain equipment in specific places, then that's what's done.  I took the same approach to preparations for Ironman Maastricht.  


Maastricht swim course
I thought a goggle strap might snap at the start of the swim, or the goggles might be flicked off in a crush, so I tucked a spare pair inside my wetsuit in the small of my back (my wetsuit opens from the bottom). 

I knew the bike would be wet and I thought I might need chamois cream so I smeared my backside in T1 and put a sachet in the special needs bag to be collected on the second lap.  I also added a spare co2 cartridge and inner tube, because I felt it was bike route on which punctures were likely.  I also felt some locals might be annoyed with the new closed roads and might spread tacks, something which has happened at other events.   I reduced my tyre pressures slightly for greater grip in the wet.

On the run, I correctly predicted my groin/hip injury might flare up, so I carried diclofenac gel and (compatible) pain killing tablets, sadly they didn't provide much relief.  In my run special needs bag were plasters (in case of nipple rub), an instant ice-pack (in case of extreme heat), some solid nutrition which I couldn't get on the course and a tiny sunscreen.  I didn't use either special needs bag, but it was good to know all the stuff was there.

When you can't guard against is pain.  Being forewarned helps.  You know it's coming and you'll have to cope.   

7.  Race
A useful preparation for my Ironman was to race a couple of half Ironman events.  I could prove my nutrition strategy, prove my coach's suggested power output range, and prove all my equipment worked. 

Joe calls it "inoculation".  When I tested out a way to avoid having to poo during the race, it all went wrong - read about that here.


8. Pick Your Event
I felt I'd only ever do one long course event so I wanted it to be an Ironman.  

It's the clear market-leading brand, mocked by many in the endurance community, but I knew they put on a damn good show.  Despite the price, that is what I wanted to be part of.

I wanted it to be outside the UK because I like the idea of "see the world from a start line", even though that's another marketing phrase.  

It had to be late enough in the year that I could get some decent weather training at home in Scotland - that ruled out IM Nice which I would have liked.  And it had to be a wetsuit swim because I have sinky legs, so IM Barcelona and IM Majorca were a bit risky. 

Maastricht on 31st July slotted in at just the right time and was a city which I probably would not have otherwise visited. 

I also entered IM Weymouth 70.3 in September.  If anything had gone wrong in the preparations for Maastricht, I felt I could always upgrade Weymouth to full distance.  It would also fill the inevitable hole of anticlimax once the Ironman was done.

So three days after my event those are the key points I'd make to anyone considering taking part in an Ironman.  Remember, I'm no expert.  However,  I have recently completed the journey and I know which route worked best for me.  That's what I'm sharing here. 


If you have your own thoughts to contribute, please please do so in the Comments.

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