March 10, 2010

Health & Sports

Nice Skinsuit, Buddy! Tips on Training for an Ironman

Image from merfam

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jim Hodgson.

A quick delve into the history of Ironman is enough to inspire in anyone either awe or craven nerdy-ness. This is due to the fact that perhaps the manliest endurance contest in the world shares a name with a cartoon character. Please note that this guide will not help you become Ironman. That would be ridiculous.

What it intends to do instead is help you become an Ironman. This too is ridiculous, but also possible… if you have the sack for it.

I have left out anything that I was able to learn from training schedules and triathlon forums and included instead what I consider to be the most important and yet obscure things I learned in the process of completing my first full distance Ironman race. This is the stuff that I needed to know at the beginning, but was only able to discover when I was in the thick of it.

Mental Toughness

I was standing in line for the start of my first ever real triathlon, a sprint distance race in August of 2008. My triathlon skinsuit was making a garish and comical display of my gut and love handles as I listened to the other guys in my swim wave talk. They were all talking about Ironman, much in the way that a middle school student makes predictions about post-doctoral study.

“I never want to do it. It’s just too long, those people are crazy” one gentleman said, and there was general agreement.

I remember that I was thinking even then, still thirty minutes away from jumping into the water on my first tiny little sprint distance race, that I was going to go all the way to Ironman.

Seven months later, on the course at my first ever full marathon, I was pretty well cooked around the sixteen or seventeen mile mark, and a guy ran by screaming at the top of his lungs, urging everyone onward.

“Keep going! It’s all mental!” he was shouting. There were some doubtful groans from my fellow marathoners.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Is this buffoon correct? Is it all mental?”

I took a quick stock of my various howling ankle joints and leg muscles, and I considered it. Later, both legs cramping solid with ten miles to go on my Ironman run, in danger of being yanked off the course, I had time to reflect even more upon this question. I have spent a great deal of time considering it since then as well, and here is my opinion.

Is it all mental? No. You must train your body to withstand the distance, absolutely.

Having said that, people’s mental image of themselves becomes very apparent when you train with them. If you run with the same 20 people every Thursday, let’s say, soon you will notice that some people are faster than others. My experience was that the distribution of people is pretty much the same each week. Most people are content to stay at a certain level indefinitely.

Each runner is seemingly thinking to himself, “Well, I am faster than Craig, but that George guy is better than me.” At the end of the run each week they will almost always end up between Craig and George.

You must not fall into this mental trap because it will cause you to stagnate. George may very well be faster than you today, but he’d better be on the track all week if he wants to be faster next week, let alone the week after that.

You must think of yourself before you even begin as an Ironman finisher. This is, in my opinion, the most important thing you can do to help yourself.

So, yes — It is absolutely all mental.

A Word about Training

I advise everyone who is an Ironman hopeful to join a triathlon club. I joined the Peachtree Tri Club and met a lot of great people who are now friends. The club and its members provided invaluable advice and camaraderie as well as clinics and training schedules. It also provided a place for me to swim and some instruction on my swim stroke.

This was important to me because I had the approximate natural swimming ability of an adolescent male bison. Now, at least, I swim more like a trained aquatic bison.

If you live in an area without such a club and intend to train solely on your own, I highly recommend that you consider traveling regularly to be around other people with the same goals as you.

Getting All Triathletic About It… Should I Buy a Carbon Bike?

Triathletes love gadgets. There is a myriad of products designed specifically for triathlon, from bikes to skin lubricants to teardrop shaped helmets to shoes with only one wide velcro strap closure. My advice to you is to steer clear of anything you don’t know for a fact that you need. Otherwise you end up wasting brain energy and financial resources on superfluous knickknackery when the only thing that really matters is your engine.

I never bought a wetsuit, for instance. I rented one for the one race I did that was wetsuit legal. It cost $50 to rent. I wore it during my race and sent it back. Simple as that. There are similar services for bike wheels that are a bargain in my opinion.

Beginners ask me sometimes if I think it’s dorky to do their first triathlon on a mountain bike. I think it’s far dorkier to be slow on a super expensive carbon bike and carbon wheels. You will see a lot of people being slow on very expensive bikes. Laugh inwardly at them, because you know that this is a mental game, not a fashion show.

Having said that, I am a free market capitalist at heart. If you want to buy a nice bike, then by all means do something to help the economy and drop that coin. Just know going in that you are buying a thing because you want the thing. Don’t justify it as something you need to finish.

To quote Ronnie Coleman, arguably the greatest bodybuilder who ever lived, “Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder; don’t nobody wanna lift this heavy-ass weight.”

Wrap it up, B!

I used to weigh 320lbs. I used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. I have lost over 100lbs and given up smoking and regular drinking. I went from no triathlon experience whatsoever through all the popular distances there are in just over a year, from sprint to Ironman, and I am by no means a thin or svelte man even today. I am proud of myself, but my accomplishments are but a wisp of smoke compared to the sea of people who have overcome a dizzying array of illnesses, amputations and sensory deprivation to complete Ironman races.

When I’m trying to put in my mileage and its raining and I am wet and cold I think about how lucky I am to be alive. I think about my mother’s passing due to cancer and how I want her to be remembered by someone who is worth being remembered by. I think about my little niece and the example a man should set for a child. Sometimes I think about girls who have broken my heart.

Ultimately, the physical effort of endurance racing and the mental toughness it requires has embodied for me the single most elusive and important thing that a man needs, in my estimation — a challenge.

No matter how fast I am today, there are always more miles to ride. I can always go harder and be better. There are always people whose mental game I can learn from.

And that, as far as I know, is happiness.

For more adventures and gripping philosophy, you can find Jim practicing the manly art of writing every weekday on his own blog. Check out his story of completing his first Ironman and subscribe by RSS feed or email!


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