How To Do an Ironman Triathlon

Finishing the Grandaddy of Them All Isn't as Impossible as You Might Think

Running athlete

The sport of triathlon is booming and as it does, so is the number of individuals participating in the granddaddy of triathlons, the Ironman. That’s 2.4 miles of swimming, followed by 112 miles of cycling, topped off with a little thing they call the marathon.

While the annual Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, is the one that started the craze some 30 years ago, that race is near impossible to get into. Like prestigious races such as the Boston Marathon, everyone wants in to the Ironman World Championships, but there are only 1,700 slots available. And almost all of those go to folks who’ve finished in the top ranks of previous Ironman races. No matter. Like just about everything, the Ironman franchise has grown. There are now almost two dozen officially sanctioned Ironman triathlons throughout the world, including seven in North America. In addition, there are a number of Ironman-distance, but not Ironman logo-bearing (READ: less expensive) races that are more than worthwhile. So, you’ve done a few triathlons and now you want to take the Ironman plunge? Here’s how to go about it.

  1. First up, register. If you want to do one of the official Ironman races (Arizona, Coeur d’Alene, Lake Placid, Canada, Louisville, Wisconsin, Florida) you’ve got to sign up quick. On-line registration for the following year’s race usually begins the day after this year’s race and, in some cases (i.e. Lake Placid, Canada), sells out within hours. Another option is to show up to spectate or volunteer at this year’s race then stick around 'til the following day when on-site registration for next year’s race begins. To find schedules and registration information about Ironman and/or Ironman-distance races, go to and
  2. Train. A lot. But you know, maybe not quite as much as you’d think. To finish an Ironman triathlon, it’s not like you have to say good-bye to family and friends for months at a time. In general, what you need to work up to is the ability to do each of the following at least once before the race: swim 2.4 miles, cycle for 6 hours, and run for 3 hours. Also, a 6-hour brick (bike and run workout) is advisable. That could be 4 hours of cycling followed immediately by 2 hours of running. If you can complete these key workouts, chances are good that you can finish an Ironman. To help you get you there, a couple books—Training Plans for Multisport Athletes by Gale Bernhardt, and Going Long: Training for Ironman-Distance Triathlons by Joe Friel and Gordon Byrn (both Velo Press)—have workout schedules and are loaded with valuable tips and info.
  3. Equipment. Another word for triathlon equipment is “expensive”. Carbon wheels, titanium triathlon bikes, personalized training programs, required five-night hotel stay—eek! It runs into money. But the truth is, you don’t need a lot of the Ironman accessories and accoutrements that are out there and are somewhat pushed upon you as if it’s the only way to go. A wet-suit is quite useful not only in keeping you warm in some of the chillier race locales, but also since its buoyancy makes it easier to swim. These can be had for prices starting out at a little more than $200 or rented from triathlon-geared shops for about $35. Certainly you need a bike, preferably a fairly light one with a carbon fork (as most road bikes come these days). Aero bars, which start at about $40 and can go into the hundreds, are a big help but really, that’s about all you need. You don’t really need any triathlon-specific running gear. As for the required five-night stay at many Ironman host city lodgings, book way in advance and/or rent a condo with another athlete. The particular race website is sure to have an extensive accommodations link.
  4. Have fun. Most Ironman-type races have a 17-hour time limit, which is quite generous. Many are the folks who walk the entire marathon and still finish by the midnight cut-off time. So enjoy it all. You’ll be an Ironman!


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