A few weeks ago my website coordinator competed in the Budapest Ironman 70.3 in a respectable time of 5 hours, 54 minutes, and 22 seconds. Not bad for a first-half ironman or, for that matter, a first triathlon. With triathlons increasing in popularity he felt it a good opportunity to impart some wisdom and experience on those looking to complete either the Ironman (70.3 or 140.6) or something a little shorter. In this two-part series, Chris will explain 10 things he feels is well worth people knowing for their preparation. Enjoy!

  • Brick training and triple-discipline training sessions

Training for a triathlon (especially one such as the Ironman) requires dedication and discipline. In order to prepare my body both physically and mentally, I had to make changes in all areas of life including what I ate, how I trained, and how much I slept. I didn’t reach the levels of a professional, however, I did find a program (which I stuck to as best I could), eat good nutritious food, and make sure I slept enough. For the sake of this point, I’m going to assume you have the training plan and the diet sorted so wanted to add something to your training plan (if your plan doesn’t include it already).

One of the things recommended to me was that I complete brick sessions and triple-discipline sessions and to the man who suggested this, I owe him a lot of thanks. Brick sessions are training sessions where you perform two disciplines back to back such as a swim to bike or bike to run and these are crucial to train your body to adapt to the transition from one form of exercise to the next. Have you ever been out cycling, finished, stepped off, and found your legs wobble and it hard to walk? This is a classic example. Physically it’s difficult but even more important than training your body to deal with the change in exercise is training your body to deal with the psychological toll this takes. The difficulty in the event lies in that when you step off the bike you HAVE to run meaning you HAVE to deal with it. I can say it’s far easier completing the run if you know what to expect.

  • Never underestimate the importance of open water swimming

Any good training program will be designed in such a way where you can complete double the swim distance in the time required in the pool. For my Ironman 70.3, it began with a 1.2-mile open water swim (72 lengths of a standard 25-meter pool) and as part of my training, I made sure that I could do double the distance within the 1 hour 10 minute time limit. Whilst this is a good milestone by which to measure yourself, I can’t stress the importance of open water swimming. I have heard of people training solely in the pool which puts you at huge risk. Here’s why.

With open water swimming, there are a number of things that come into play that are impossible to replicate in the pool. Temperature is the first. I was fortunate that in my race (and most of the times I trained) the water was at a pleasant temperature but there was a session where the water was extremely cold and before I started swimming I had to spend 10 minutes acclimatising the water. This is something you don’t want to experience for the first time in the event.

Having overcome the temperature component of the swim, what does take time to overcome is the lack of visibility. When swimming in the pool (or even the sea) you have a clear vision of where you’re going but when swimming in open water you’re extremely restricted which does play a part. It’s difficult to truly commit to the swim unless you have experience of this! Running with this theme, sighting (which is being able to coordinate seeing where you are going with swimming) is an extremely important skill to develop. I’m far from an expert and would suggest either reading some online articles or seeking a coach but this is a skill that’s essential to develop otherwise you could find yourself swimming away from the course. Lastly, it’s important to acclimatise to wearing and removing the wetsuit. It sounds funny but it’s a very different experience swimming in a wetsuit compared to trunks or jammers and does take some time to acclimatise to. (N.B I always had someone with me whilst I was training and would always recommend you do the same. Safety first)

  • Get a proper bike fit

So you’ve entered the event, bought a brand new bike (maybe carbon fiber) and you’re out training. Great stuff, the only thing missing is a professional bike fit. Bike fits range from £75 to £150 but I cannot underestimate the importance and value of this. Cycling is a low-impact sport that’s great for building leg muscle, losing weight, and bettering your fitness, however, without a proper fit you expose yourself to the possibility of injury. I myself was a victim of this and after training for a couple of months noticed pain in my inner right knee. To cut a long story short, the seat was 1cm too far forward. It sounds too small to be significant, however, when repeating the same poor motion for 2 hours it’s very easy for problems to form. Injuries can occur in the knees, hip, lower back, and shoulders if the bike isn’t fitted correctly.

The second reason to ensure your bike is fitted is the retained power. Every cyclist is different and the ‘one size fits all’ approach puts you at serious risk of poorer performance. When you get a bike fitting, each fitter will be able to assess your body shape, composition and tailor the bike to your needs and not those of the factory setting. You wouldn’t use Bradley Wiggins road bike because it’s fitted (well, custom-designed and built) to his needs, yet when we ride a bike that’s not fitted we do the same thing, only this time to the manufacturer’s standards and not our own.

  • Triathlon suit

A simple yet vital piece of advice is to invest in a triathlon suit and wear it throughout the entire race. Wear it under the wetsuit in the swim, on the bike, and whilst running. Why? Increased speed and efficiency in the transitions. With the physical toll of the event, you want as little to think about as possible and by changing on two occasions you introduce more variables and things to think about. By wearing a triathlon suit you not only increase the efficiency of the event but decrease the time in the transitions, also. This is vital. To gain 30 seconds in the run, swim or bike requires an additional effort and training, however, to save 30 seconds in the transition because you think smarter is not only common sense but easier to earn than sweating in training!

  • Practice and visualise

My last piece of advice for this part is to practice the transitions. Something as simple as taking off the wetsuit is much harder when you’re tired and in the commotion of the event. I’m not saying spending hours on this, but just a few times each time you swim. It also helped for me to lay out the relevant clothing and equipment into three piles (one for each discipline) and then talk my way through the event such as ‘ok so after the swim I do this… and after the bike, I do this…’. I went into the order I was going to change and everything simply so I was crystal clear on what I was doing and when. On race day, I saw other competitors doing things I thought might help (leaving their shoes on the bike for example) and was tempted to change but stuck to my game plan. Even if you see a number of things you could do and might be tempted to change on race day, don’t. Mid-race your decision-making skills are impaired and having prepped beforehand where they were much sharper and focused you know each decision is right and one that you feel comfortable with. Trust yourself and accept that if it’s your first triathlon you will make mistakes but you will learn a lot.

More in part 2…