Ask Steve: Ironman Training Advice

>> Wednesday, September 26, 2012

If you've been reading my blog for a year, you might remember Justin. Here are 2 photos of him from the second part of my Lake Marion 2011 race report as he was finishing his FIRST TRIATHLON!!

Heading to the finish!

Finishing his first triathlon!!

And Justin's wife (a mother of 3) just became a duathlete for the first time this summer! Congrats Kelly!! (Yes, their names are Justin and Kelly. Yes, like the first season of American Idol. You have to move on. Please. I did. We all have.)

So I recently got an e-mail from Justin mentioning that he signed up for Ironman Wisconsin 2013! I knew he had fun last year in his first tri, but I didn't know he had THAT much fun! I'm super pumped for him!

Part of his message said this:

My question initially this summer was going to be "Is there a BMI/body fat % cutoff for running around the neighborhood shirtless in tri shorts/spandex?" Since then I've dropped 20 lbs. so I think I'm ok, or maybe it's never ok to do that if you are a sweaty, sweaty, hairy man.

But I do have a question - I'm doing IM Wisconsin in 2013 - I'll be starting it anyway, don't know about finishing - what tips/suggestions do you have for training - books, coaches, websites, training plans, fuel, gear, etc. Also, any tips for the spectators going to watch?

First of all Justin, I'm a sweaty, sweaty, hairy man, and I'm ALWAYS running topless. But maybe the rules are different out in the suburbs than they are here in St. Paul. I dunno.

Secondly, about your Ironman questions, I'll give you my 2 cents, but I'd like to ask all of you for your input too! I've only done one Ironman, and it was in my 2nd year of triathlons, so I DO. NOT. KNOW. IT. ALL. But I'd love to help if I can. Please comment if you have any thoughts for Justin! Justin, here are my thoughts for you:

1. Books: Pharmie's favorite book is "Triathlon Training" by Michael Finch. She thinks it gets overlooked and people don't seem to talk about it much. Many people seem to love "The Triathlete's Training Bible" by Joe Friel (which we have, but we just don't love as much). We've also liked "Going Long: Training for Ironman-Distance Triathlons" by Joe Friel, and "Training Plans for Multisport Athletes" by Gale Bernhardt.

2. Coaches: I don't know that you need a coach. Just knowing that you're a busy Doctor / Dad, coaching might be too much. I LOVED my time with Coach Jen, but she'll kick your ass. Locally, I know a lot of people like the coaches at Optum. Tell them Steve sent you. That will get you nowhere, but you can still say it. (Even though I just said I don't think you need a coach, the RIGHT coach will really be able to work with you and your busy schedule, and they'll take ALL the thinking out of it for you, so really, it might be a good idea.)

3. Websites / Training Plans: When Pharmie and I trained for IM WI, we used a free training plan from Now I think you have to pay for them (it's not much). It got us there, which was our only goal. I finished in 13:53, and now I keep thinking about hour many hours (yes, HOURS) I'd like to take off that finishing time the next time I'm insane enough to sign up for an Ironman. BT also has some good forums where you can search for questions or ask your own. It's a good community.

4. Fuel / Gear: Use what works for you! That's what it all comes down to. We loved "Carbo-Pro" powder during long-distance training and racing. It's a flavorless powder you can add to anything to get more calories. (Read more about Carbo-Pro in my blog post about my first 100 mile ride back in 2006, and there are more details Carbo-Pro in this mini-review I did of it.) Pharmie and I both did our first Ironman Triathlons on relatively cheap road bikes with aero bars clamped on. It was nothing fancy, but (as I said above with our training plan) it got us there. Check out THIS BIG BLOG POST from about a year ago where I talk about my race-day nutrition - that post is geared slightly more toward shorter races, but much of it can be translated to longer distance racing. Obviously, this is the stuff I TRAIN with as well as RACE with. IM requires you to NAIL your nutrition on race day, so practice, practice, practice with the same nutrition in training.

5. Spectator Advice: There's a shuttle that goes out to the middle of the bike course so your family can go out there if they want to (but that might get a little hectic with 3 kids). When we've cheered, we've just stayed in town because it's easy to get around and see a lot there (just not a lot of the bike). The run loops around, so it's easy to have your family move about 4 blocks and see you 5 times on the run! And check out this recent post (and the comments of that post) where a friend asked for cheering advice at an Ironman. Some of the commenters pointed out something I missed: bring a fold-up camp chair!

One final bit of advice is to sign up for a half-ironman before your full Ironman. The Liberty Triathlon is in June, and the Chisago Lakes Triathlon is in July (many locals use Chisago as a "tune-up" for IM WI). It's a BIG difference going from a half to a full (think of the difference between a half marathon and a full marathon), but I still think it's good to feel a 70.3 before jumping to a 140.6.

Good luck over this next year, Justin! Start getting those miles in! And if you need any more inspiration, read my 5-year old Ironman WI race report or my post of more race photos. I always like to look back on that race report when I need a good kick in the pants. :)

Do you guys have any thoughts for Justin on training for his first Ironman? Thanks everyone!

p.s. If you have a question you'd like me and / or my readers to answer, please let me know! I'd be glad to help! Thanks!

There are a LOT of great comments rolling in! Thanks for your help everyone! Keep them coming! I want to note that I REALLY agree with riding the course once (or twice) ahead of time. Pharmie and I might be going out to a free organized WI group ride next summer called WIBA. (Commenters have mentioned this - it's put on by Pharmie's team. We've been out to it every year except the last 2. Here's my first WIBA write-up. Try to get out to WIBA this next summer!) And if you can find a friend (or training group) for those long rides, that will make things more bearable. Actually, I REALLY agree with everything Jason said. So check out the comments, Justin. Thanks everyone!!!


I'M Tri-ing 8:55 AM, September 26, 2012  

I completed IMWI this year (my first). I used a training plan from (free) and it was 36 weeks long. The plan was probably on the long side, but I really enjoyed every minute. I agree on doing a half iron (I did Chisago) prior to IM. It will be a good gauge of your current fitness and a chance to practice race day nutrition. As for nutrition, I used the KISS approach (Keep It Simple Stupid), I found a few things I like to eat and only drank water (w/endurolytes). During IM I had no GI issues the whole day.

Melissa C 9:04 AM, September 26, 2012  

So, I just did my first IM this past Aug, as a super last minute decision. It is kind of how to NOT train for an IM. Here is the summary of how I got to the start line:

I had raced 2 halves last year, and one this year. They are different animals. Nutrition is very specific to each person. I tried to be super careful of my bike nutrition to not screw up my run, which I know exactly what to do since I love running marathons.

It also comes down to will. How bad do you want it? I didn't train nearly as much as friends of mine, and I think I did the best I could with what I had. I didn't have a specific coach, but I am friends with two coaches, plus several others that I consider experts that I could use for advice. Also, my neighbor had been provided with a free beginner plan from the IMKY race director that bridged the gap between my Muncie and the IM.

I did not have my spectators at the big festival on the bike course. It is so crowded there. I asked that they go to other places on the course that were also accesible, because it was nice to have the cheers at the big crowded spots, as well as having my friends in their own spots to look for them.

Jason Goepfert,  9:13 AM, September 26, 2012  

Congrats Justin!

1. Embrace the anxiety and excitement. After it's over, you'll likely be remembering the journey just as much as the race itself.

2. Just get to the *starting* line. That means be careful, particularly on your bike and avoiding over-use running injuries. Easier said than done, but LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. If your feet are screaming at you to walk during a 14-mile run, then walk. Believe me, from unfortunate personal experience.

3. Find a training group. Doing 80-mile solo bike rides is not only unsafe, it's unfun (is that a word?). People doing IM are typically of a similar mind, so there is a lot of cohesion in these training groups. It makes those long training days so much more bearable.

4. Acknowledge the sacrifices your family and friends will be making. It's a long journey, and it requires a lot of commitment - not only from you. Be sure to thank those who are supporting you.

5. Welcome the pain. It will be a familiar companion.

Good luck!

Esceptico 9:51 AM, September 26, 2012  

Just finished IMWI in 11:45, training by myself. Here are my tips:

1. Book: Don Fink's "Be Iron Fit". Followed it with some adjustments and worked great for me.

2. Swim: Join a master's swim program. This helped me tremendously, made swimming more fun and met a lot of great people and triathletes. In the summer they all swim out in the lake which is a whole different animal.

3. Bike: Signed up for Only $10 a month and its cheaper than going to a CompuTrainer studio. It has detailed plans and can be used with any home trainer. It will get you in top shape for killing those hills in IMWI.

4. Bike 2: Ride the course. I rode the IMWI course like 5 times (about once a month) before the race. It is a great asset to know when to slow down, and when to kick ass on the bike. Also, learn to pace the hills. Easy going up, go fast when going down. Most people do the opposite which will kill your legs.

5. Run: Just followed the program on the book.

6. Nutrition: Just practice what you will eat during the race. There's no secret formula, its very individual. I aimed for 250 - 300 calories an hour. Mostly solids on the bike (Cliff bars) and gels on the run but I have a steel stomach so I've never had GI issues. Others are more sensitive and need to dial it in more. Bonk breaker bars are my new favorite. I try to eat what its offered on the course to simplify and carry less stuff.

7. Bike fit - get fitted, it will save you a lot of ass pain. You're going to be on the bike 6 hours or more, so make sure to do it comfortably. It will cost you, but its worth every penny.

8. Find people to train with. This will be a big help during those long ass rides.

Good luck and enjoy!

Amytrigirl (aka Amybee) 10:28 AM, September 26, 2012  

OMG Steve, don't get me started.

I'll be super quick and fast about this, but Justin should know that if he wants information. Lots and lots and LOTS of information, he should get a hold of me.... I'm happy to (over) share anytime.

Books: In additon to the ones mentioned, have FUN reading "Iron War" (about Mark Allen/Dave Scott's big showdown, with a lot of great infor re: mental training, endurance athletes, etc. thrown in. It was eye-opening for me... as in: "Oh! This is SUPPOSED to hurt! I'm right on track!" and "You are an Ironman", which follows the story of about 5 age groupers as they get ready for Ironman Arizona. Just some nice, easy reads that you don't have to calculate any watts or calories for.

Coaches: I can not say enough about Greg Rhodes ( I used him for my first 1/2 iron (Pigman) and again for my successful IM WI finish this year. I used other coaches for unsuccessful trys at IM WI in 2010 and 2011. While I can't say that the other coaches were the reason I didn't finish in 2010 and 2011, I can say -- emphatically- that if you use a coach, make sure it is the right coach for you. You have to fit well together because there are going to be some good times and some really, really hard times. You need someone in your corner that will push you. You do not want to be a number.

Finally: Get to Madison and ride that bike course as much as you can over the course of the year. Get to know those hills. Get to where you know the course backwards and forwards. Learn to love Dane County -- and cows.

Finally: Have FUN, enjoy the journey. It is quite the ride.

I'M Tri-ing 11:08 AM, September 26, 2012  

Agreed on riding the course. WIBA is a good group (and free). They also have a 30 min video of the bike course on their website which I watched at 15-20 times. Oh, WIBA also has a forum section to post messages about carpooling or sharing a hotel room for the weekend.

TriEric 4:19 PM, September 26, 2012  

First off...AWESOME. We have a group of about 25 people from Cleveland Tri Club doing IM MOO '13....including Aimee (wife) and myself.

Books: My wife and I have used "Training Plans for Multisport Athletes" by Gale Bernhardt in the past and will use it again in 2013.

Coaches: A good idea if the books are too confusing or you don't have time to map out your own schedule. A coach will create your schedule for you. And a great coach will make the necessary changes around the busy life or bumps in the training.

Websites: There are many out there. Take your pick.

Fuel/Gear: Nutrition and gear needs to be dialed in during training, like Steve has said, so there are no questions come race day.

We are planning on the WIBA weekend as well. I did IMWI in '08 and am excited about going back.

CautiouslyAudacious 4:54 PM, September 26, 2012  

Let's see, I did not know the course at all before I went therefore was surprised by the false flat at AZ and happy when I realized I started going downhill at the turnaround, do what you want with that tid bit. I went to get Level I USAT coach certified at the Co. Springs training center to train myself then used a free training plan along with a plan in Triathlon training for Women. I did a half IM the year before the full. I did way too many smaller races the year of my 1st full totally changed that this year. I tested all different types of fuel before and practiced grabbing water bottles while on a bike. When I stopped to pee on the bike course I couldn't feel if I was peeing or not :-) So maybe this stuff isn't very helpful but the point is do what works for you and ask questions as you come across them in your training. Good luck!!

Mark Johnston 11:23 PM, September 26, 2012  

I would second both masters swimming and doing long rides with a group. Safety for the bike and more fun + motivation for both. You will swim much better with people.
I train with a coached group and it has been great (KQ off 1st IM bdb...). If it is feasible I would recommend that, but the training programs floating around seem pretty good. Being organised (night before etc) helps with motivation a lot, I find it easier getting up when everything is ready to go.
Don't over train! Injuries are average.

Dr. Q 7:12 AM, September 27, 2012  

Great stuff! Thanks everybody for your comments/suggestions. I am already so excited that I want Sept to come sooner, yet I know I have a ton of training to put in so it's good that I have the year to work on it. Master's swim is part of my plan, riding the course sounds like it is highly recommended as well so I'll have to check out WIBA. And if I ever need some motivation I can check out your blogs as well! Awesome.

Lisa Goepfert,  9:02 AM, September 27, 2012  

Hey Justin best of luck! Madison is amazing! We have been down 3 times in as many years and although I haven't raced it (hubby & friends) I am the best damn spectator there is LOL! The first year we went with all 3 kids. Let me tell you that spectating is a sport in itself and if your wife is bring all the kids have her bring the village too because it is a LONG day :) Steve is right going out on the bike course would be a lot unless Kelly has many hands on deck. The first year we were on the helix and then went right to State Street and got our spot. Have your wife bring band aids, Advil and good shoes!! It is going to be a blast soak up as much as you can. Take advice from folks that have been there, nothing like experience. Again best of luck it will be Epic for you and Kelly!!

Eric Swanson 10:27 AM, September 27, 2012  

I'll keep it short. Get a coach. I work with Jonny J who is an awesome coach. But you need to find someone you click with. There is so much info out there on training and nutrition, but finding what works best for you is the challenge. A coach can simplify all that often conflicting info and provide much needed objectivity. It's easy to follow some training schedule you find on the internet, but what do you do when bad things happen--bike accidents, nagging injuries, tired from over-training, or "life" interferes with your training--that's where the value of having a coach comes in. And recovery may be the most neglected phase of training. Second piece of advice is go ride the course as many times as you can prior to the race--do those ironman WI training camps. Oh, and of course, get on the 'Eric's Multisport Connection' FaceBook group to find people to train with and places to train.

CoachLiz 1:44 PM, September 28, 2012  

All good advice here. I am only going to add new info. I am a USAT Certified Coach and I have a coach. I needed someone else to objectively look at my traing and make adjustments when needed. Interview your candidates. Do they have IMWI experience. Are they an expert at the leg that you struggle with? Are they available for phone calls at least once a week if needed? Do they have a team of people they work with such as nutritionists, bike fitters, sports injury doctor, and/or other coaches? You ate going to pay this person a salary. Make sure they meet your job requirements.
Second, find a good and reputable sports chiropractic doctor. They can treat the aches and pains before they become injuries.
Third, reserve a set of Race Day Wheels. This is much cheaper than buying a pair of Zipps and you get the speed.

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