Nice Skinsuit, Buddy! Tips on Training for an Ironman

by A Manly Guest Contributor on March 10, 2010 · 21 comments

in Health & Sports

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!

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nate @ Practical Manliness March 11, 2010 at 12:30 am

Wow! Completing an Ironman sounds like quite an accomplishment!

I had heard of another race (I don’t remember the name) that was similar… but more like an obstacle course than a triathlon. In this other course, contestants had to crawl and swim through submerged tunnels, climb over walls, and do all sorts of difficult things. I am not sure how it compares to an Ironman, but both sound extremely hard!

Anyway, congratulations Jim and all other contestants! Very manly!

2 Playstead March 11, 2010 at 2:35 am

How dare you compare a cartoon character with a super hero!!! Just bustin’ balls — great article, and I completely agree with the mental aspect of any kind of athletics, it’s amazing how much it can either limit someone or spur them to do great things. And passing down that kind of knowledge is great.

3 Basil March 11, 2010 at 2:59 am

Sigh. These Triathletes. They try to be athletes.

Must add I’m a racing cyclist, so am united with runners and swimmers in disliking tri. When are we going to have an article about when Bernard Hinault won Liège – Bastogne – Liège after riding alone for miles in a blizzard? Now that’s what I call manly.

4 Tyler Logan March 11, 2010 at 4:09 am

Awesome post. Something I’d love to – something I’m gearing towards, possibly. With the ‘it’s all mental’ statement, I’d have to agree – I think 80% is mental and 20% is physical. I always get surprised when my mind handles a situation I wasn’t sure I was capable of – these days I tend to believe I’m capable at everything and anything I fail, I will conquer eventually.

5 Jim March 11, 2010 at 7:16 am

Bernard Hinault was also the last Frenchman to win the Tour de France, in 1985. Since then its been notably dominated by a man with only one of his “oeufs”. Far manlier, if you ask me!

I’m not only this posts author, but also a USAC and ATRA cyclist, racing road, track, mountain, and cyclocross. Now that I’ve completed Ironman, I’ve graduated triathlon :)

6 DJ Wetzel March 11, 2010 at 8:07 am

A triathlon has been my goal for a long time. I keep telling myself I don’t have a bike yet and I don’t have a place to swim. From my experience it takes just as much mental toughness to actually set a goal of completing a triathlon and start your training as it does to actually complete a triathlon. granted, this is from my experience at not having ever started training. So for me, that is my first big hurdle. Anyone know of a good place to buy a cheap road bike??

7 Jim March 11, 2010 at 8:19 am

Craigslist is probably your best bet for a bike, but expect to unload $500 at minimum for anything halfway decent. An 80′s steel framed bike will work like a charm.

8 DROC March 11, 2010 at 8:20 am

Great post, I have to get surgery in a few weeks and am going to need a goal to get back in training after that. An Ironman would be an enormous challenge, so this is going to be really helpful.


9 Chaka March 11, 2010 at 10:29 am

Thanks for the encouraging and interesting post. I like the image of the trained aquatic bison. :-) But a friend tells me that bison can actually swim pretty well–especially the adolescents:

10 John March 11, 2010 at 10:40 am

Training for a Tri is all about balance. The training time needs to be balanced between three (not two nor one) sports and your commitment to tri needs to achieve balance with the rest of your life. Achieving this balance is an essential element in the sport of Triathlon. The article is a proponent of “Ironman” Triathlons which are the longest and most challenging race in the sport, and it makes the all too common mistake by pandering to the mentality that longer, harder, bigger, or more is better. This is mental belly flop is especially true in triathlon where many competitors think if you haven’t completed an Ironman race, well you haven’t competed. Such disparagement limits the participation of many people who intelligently conclude that they don’t have the time to train for nor the physical prowess to compete in a 12hr race.

Well I don’t either and I love Triathlon! Triathlon has many distances which are best rated by the length of time you would be on the course. The shortest distance is about 1.5(or less) hrs, the longest is 12+ hrs for the Ironman. They are Ironman, half-iron, Olympic and Sprint, roughly 12hrs, 6hrs, 3hrs, and 1.5 (or less)hrs. I love triathlon because of the variety that the training requires. I swim 2x, run 2x, and bike 2x a week. Never twice in a row! Boredom while getting in shape is a thing of the past. I’ve never raced longer than Sprint Triathlons and I doubt I’ll ever win anything either, but my enjoyment is derived by pushing myself not measuring others.

The training is generally low-impact and most people you meet are self-trained, so you share your secrets. I’m a family man so I don’t have the hours to put into training like some might, but after a year of effort I’m training at about 5-6 hrs per week. I started at only 3 hours per week and you can too. As a side note, I’ve also lost 40lbs and I’m in the best shape of my life. You don’t have to go long to be strong.

11 Kris March 11, 2010 at 11:51 am

Wow, just over a year is incredible. I’d love to hear more about what actually kicked off that motivation in the first place. Seems like you went from terrible health to a mindset of conquering great adversity overnight.

12 Jim March 11, 2010 at 2:10 pm

A lot of things, but it certainly wasn’t overnight. I just want to enjoy life, and I’ll try anything pretty much. I always thought I’d have what it took to not give up, so I decided to find out.

It was a lot harder than I thought.

I could ramble about life philosophy pretty much endlessly, though, so I’ll cut myself off before I get going too much :)

13 Kris March 11, 2010 at 2:21 pm

I’m kind of a rambler about life philosophy as well. Sometimes I spend more time rambling about it than I do living it. Doh!

Iron man is something that I will probably decide to do one day but it doesn’t fit my current goals so I’ll save it until it does. I think it would be pretty amazing to be one of those 70 year old guys doing his first iron man.

Anyway, that’s great. Thanks for the story. I’ll check out your blog from time to time for some more inspiration.


14 dpmason March 11, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Great story Jim you are an inspiration

15 justin March 12, 2010 at 2:03 am

in case people where wondering, an Ironman is
2.4 mile swim
112 Mile Bike
26.2 Mile run (Marathon)
Pro men finish in about 8 hours
Pro Women finish in about 9 hours
The max time cutoff for joe everyone is 17 hours but there are time cutoffs along the way as well..Ie. you need to finish the bike in a certain time etc.

The Ironman World Championship in Kona on the big Island of Hawaii is the granddaddy of Ironman racing…Most people who do an Ironman dream of qualifying..somehow…
Like the author said though, Ironman is just a portion of the sport of triathlon. Sprint and olympic distances are MUCH more accessible for those of us with jobs and families. There are also half ironman distances (popularly known as 70.3, this is the total distance, which is half of 140.6 the total distance of an ironman in miles) a true olympic is half the distance of a half ironman, and a sprint is half of an olympic distance. On many occasions due to course restrictions, these distances are not set in stone, but those are the guidelines… See for information on triathlon training and racing.

16 Grant Muller March 12, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Great article Jim, I’m an experience triathlete…though only in Olympic/Sprint distance. I’m a sprinter not a staminizer. :)

I’ve done the Peachtree City Triathlon for years, great first Sprint Tri! I recommend anyone getting started around Atlanta GA to get involved with that club, as Jim has.

Regarding an earlier post about splitting training to 2 of each every week, that’s a good approach, you just need to remember that the majority of the time you’ll spend out there will probably be running, the minority in the water. The Ironman swim will probably take 1.5 hours tops, but the run is going to take you at least twice that (same with the cycle). Think about where you’ll be spending your time out there when you’re planning your training. You may swim twice a week, but those swims should be MUCH shorter than your runs or cycling efforts.

17 Mike Davidson March 13, 2010 at 6:29 am

Ironman 1998
If you can make it through the training and the time that takes, the race is anti-climaxtic.

18 Blake March 14, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Ironman 2005, 2 x 2007, 2008, 2009, Ultrarunner, and Adventure Racer.

Got to love those rodies and their opinion of IM. Imagine HInault getting off the bike and then running a sub 3 hour marathon. The IM pros ride and run alone, often for 138.2 miles. Try doing that in 90 degree heat, 80 degree humidity, and tropical force winds. We could go on and on about who are the best athletes. Frankly, try running 100 miles in in Colorado (i.e. Leadville and Hardrock), or 135 at Badwater, or multiday adventure racing around the clock for 5 + days.

The point being, challenges are relative. Accomplishments are individual. Demeaning attitudes – very unmanly.

19 DH March 15, 2010 at 7:16 pm


Is that a picture of you crossing the finish line at the Ironman? What IM is that?

20 Aivaras April 2, 2010 at 10:11 pm

“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.”

Damn thats deep… keep on keepin on bro

21 Joel April 24, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Blake – Well Said

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