Field Reports: The Working Man’s Guide to Ironman Training

Tyler’s Note:  This is a Riskologist Field Report by Jarie Bolander of Endurance Leader. Field Reports are written by regular people just like you, so be nice, enjoy the story, and take action on the lesson.

For a triathlete, the ultimate goal is to finish an Ironman. It’s the pinnacle of the sport and a tremendous personal achievement.

The problem is how to train for success (be it to place or just finish) while still holding down a full time job, being there for your family, and having some sort of social life.

But Training for an Ironman is doable if you organize yourself, adhere to a few simple rules and enjoy the adventure.

The History of Ironman

The 1st Ironman triathlon took place on February 18th, 1978. Only 15 competitors participated and the winner crossed the finish line in 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds.

To put that in perspective, the current world record was set in 2011 by Adreas Raelert at Ironman Kona. His time was 7:41:33.

Back in 1978, they kept things simple. The info packet (if you could call it a packet) was written on three sheets of paper. On the last page, handwritten by John Collins (the original organizer) was:

Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life! – John Collins

Over the years, the Ironman mantra has morphed from those simpler times into what it is today:

Anything is Possible!

Anything is Possible… if You Have a Plan

One of the major challenges with Ironman training is that it takes up a lot of time. In fact, it’s like having a part time job because the average training form 7 to 12 hours per week with “peak” training of anywhere from 10 to 20 hours, depending on your goal.

That’s a lot of time for a working man (or woman)—especially if you have a family and want to hang out with your buddies—but not impossible if you take some sagely advice.

Sage Advice From Mr. Franklin

One of the most critical skills to master for both life and Ironman training is time management. No other quote exemplifies this more than this famous one by Ben Franklin:

Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise – Ben Franklin.

If you want to fit in all that Ironman training, you’ll have to be disciplined about your time and use it efficiently.

One of the best ways to get your training in is to wake up early. The morning is one of the best times to workout because your body is well rested, your household is probably still asleep (if it’s anything like mine) and you’ll feel good about getting your training done and out of the way.

Now, I can already hear the whining about waking up early and how hard it is, or “I’m not a morning person” or blah, blah, blah.

Suck it up.

There is really no excuse. You can do it if you just make an effort and follow these simple rules:

  • Go to bed early: I know this is hard but you can always Tivo sports center and watch it while you train on your indoor cycle trainer.
  • Don’t eat right before bed: Food in your stomach can create reflux and cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. Try to avoid eating at least 2-3 hours before bed to ensure that everything is properly digested.
  • Reduce alcohol consumption: While alcohol is a sedative and can induce sleep, it appears that it disrupts the second half of the sleep period (REM sleep) which can lead to poor rest.
  • Use your bed for sleeping only: A lot of us use our beds for multiple things (like eating, reading, or watching TV). Try to wean yourself from any other uses. Doing this will get you into the mood to sleep and will make it easier to fall asleep quickly.
  • When the alarm goes off, jump out of bed: The absolute worst invention ever is the snooze button. Don’t use it. Instead, jump out of bed and attack the day as soon as the alarm goes off. This will get your blood pumping and gain you valuable time.
  • Don’t skimp on sleep: You need your sleep so don’t skimp on it. Most of us need at least 7 to 8 hours a night to feel refreshed and ready to take on the day. When you start training, your body will need the rest.

Waking up early will take several weeks to adjust to but it’ll be one of the most important parts of your training discipline. It’s tremendously satisfying to get your work out done early so you can go about the rest of your day with a major accomplishment under your belt (not to mention the tranquility of getting up before the rooster crows).

Train by Time Not Distance

A lot of us (me included) feel that if we don’t put the miles in, we won’t be successful. That’s just not true. The most important aspect of a working man’s training plan is to train by time—instead of distance—and within the proper “zone.” The proper zone refers to your heart rate and conditioning yourself for maximum endurance (lower heart rate) instead of maximum speed (peak heart rate).

This advice I learned from Don Fink’s excellent book, Be Iron Fit.

Don’s approach is all about time efficiency and getting the maximum amount of benefit from training by focusing only on time and not distance. This makes it a lot easier to plan your training around your life.

It’s also sound advice for not overtraining. Too often, athletes overtrain, and that can really dampen not only your training experience but your race performance, too.

Along with training by time, it’s important to rest so that your body can absorb the training properly and recover right. This can be hard to do given you might miss a training day or two (or three if you travel).

The temptation is always to make up for it on a rest day or do more on a training day. This usually backfires since overtraining and improper rest will take their toll on your life and performance. If you have to miss a day or two, that’s fine—just be sure to adjust your schedule accordingly.

That’s another important thing to mention: have a training schedule.

A training schedule is an invaluable tool in maximizing your training time because it keeps you on track and working on the right things. Your training schedule does not have to be overly complicated—just be sure to post it where you and your family can see it.

Getting Your Family on Board

Training for an Ironman takes dedication, hard work, and a lot of help. It might seem like you’re doing all the heavy lifting, but there’s a group of people who will be your support staff through it all—your family.

Training can be a burden on a relationship and your family because it’s a huge time commitment away from them. You need them to buy into it before you start training.

To help you manage this delicate balance, try some of these techniques below:

  • Train when your loved ones are asleep: I like this one a lot because I can get my training done before my wife even knows I’m gone.
  • Use your lunch hour for training: Training at lunch is a great way to break up the day and get your training in. Even if it’s as short as 30 minutes, a lunchtime training session will pay big dividends.
  • Schedule training when your spouse is busy: This is another one of my favorites because I don’t have to feel guilty about spending time away from my wife. This method can be a little tricky for us routine lovers (guilty as charged) but it does a world of good for your relationship.
  • Include them if you can: If you spouse also works out, try to include them in your training. Even if it’s not at the same level of intensity, it’s a great way to stay connected and still train.
  • Try to schedule as much training ahead of time as possible: If you have a hectic schedule, then you’ll benefit from scheduling your long training days ahead of time. This can also be a great way to throw in some practice triathlons to hone your transition skills.

Your situation is different from mine, so you’ll have to adjust your schedule or methods accordingly.

One thing to pay particular attention to is getting your spouse’s buy-in before and during your Ironman training. Tell her how much it means to you, not just once but as often as you can. Bring her along on your adventure and explain why being an Ironman is so important to you.

Your Support Network

Other than your spouse and family, you’ll find it essential to have fellow athletes and fans in your support network.

The triathlon community is one of the most awesome groups of people you’ll ever meet. Everyone I’ve met wants to see you be the best you can be. Part of being a triathlete is carrying on that Esprit de Corps by being there for other triathletes.

Another way to give and get support is to join a team or online group. My first triathlon was with Team In Training, an organization that raises money for Leukemina & Lymphoma Society. TNT can take any athlete, at any skill level, and make them successful. They even have an Iron Team.

There are also online groups like the Impossible League where people get together to support each other not just for triathlons but other impossible goals.

Remember that it’s OK to ask for help and support. You don’t have to go it alone. There will be times when you’ll really need that extra push to continue on. The triathlon community is always willing and eager to help a fellow athlete succeed.

Nutrition: Just as Important as The Event

Anyone can figure out how to swim, bike, and run just fine. What makes a triathlon—and in particular an Ironman—so challenging is fueling your body to sustain athletic effort for over 8 hours.

Fueling distinguishes an endurance event from any other sporting event because it’s probably the single most important aspect of endurance training—teaching your body to eat and hydrate when you don’t feel like it.

Fueling is an essential skill that took me a lot of trial and error to get right. If you eat too much, you get cramps. If you eat too little, you’ll bonk. If you don’t drink enough fluids, you’ll get more cramps.

Nutrition and hydration are very personal things that you have to figure out for yourself. Diet is also important when you’re not training (even though you can eat more jelly donuts than normal).

This is important for the working man triathlete because your diet will directly affect the quality of your training sessions (read: no big, fatty lunches anymore).

There are several rules of thumb that can help you sort all this nutrition stuff out:

  • Replenish don’t replace: Your body can only digest so much when you’re exerting yourself. The amount of calories it can process is way less than what you’re burning, so don’t eat to replace. Rather, eat to replenish some of what you burned.
  • Take in small amounts constantly: Gorging yourself will lead to gastric distress (a fancy word for upset stomach) and a whole lot of pain and suffering. Take in your fuel in small amounts spread out over time. That way, you can properly process the fuel without it sitting in your stomach and fermenting (yes, it will do that on a hot day. Yuck!).
  • Hydrate with electrolytes: I have a hard time in the heat and have to really watch my hydration and electrolyte level or I’ll cramp up something bad. This is different for everyone, so you might need to experiment a bit to find your optimum level of hydration. This can even be a problem for after-work-workouts because you’re usually tired and dehydrated at the end of the day.
  • Eat what’s right for you: There are so many different types of endurance food it would take a whole other article to cover them. Food (or “fuel” as we like to call it) is personal. You’ll need to experiment with what your body can handle. Be sure to do this during training and stick with your food choice during the race; I made this mistake and it cost me dearly.

Along with race day fueling, your normal diet will change as well. With all this working out, your body will require more calories. Like race fueling, your normal diet is a personal thing that you need to figure out on your own or ask a trained professional.

I will say it’s really tempting to eat all those bad-for-you-foods (like a Western Bacon Double Cheeseburger with curly fries) because well, you can.

Like anything, moderation is important even if you can eat what you want and a proper diet will allow you to sustain both work and training.

One last thing to consider is supplements. A good quality multi-vitamin daily will help replace vitamins and minerals you’re depleting as you train. A great resource for the ins and outs of supplements is Hammer Nutrition. They have great articles and free guides that explain which ones are appropriate for endurance athletes.

Enjoy the Process and The Results Will Follow

Ironman training takes a lot of time and effort. You’ll spend countless hours in the pool and on the road. While the ultimate goal is to finish and become an Ironman, the process is just as fun and rewarding.

Focus on the fun you’re having while training. Take in the beauty of the natural world around you and the health benefits that come with training. Marvel at how you can balance your work, life, and relationships all while training for one of the most challenging endurance events ever created.

Seek out others that share your passion so you can support each other. The journey to Ironman is more than just crossing that finish line—it’s a lifelong adventure in improving yourself.

Jarie Bolander has competed in triathlons since 2006, and He’s finshed over a dozen of them including four half Ironmans. He’s presently training for his first full Ironman in July – all while working full time in the biotech industry. Jarie also blogs about endurance and leadership at Endurance Leader, where you can take a free e-course on Leading from Within which shows you how to lead your most important supporter—you.

Image by: Michael Lokner