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How the Ironman Works

Triathlon Training
Cameron Brown from New Zealand leads Ainalar Juhanson from Estonia during the running leg of the Ironman New Zealand held at Lake Taupo.
Cameron Brown from New Zealand leads Ainalar Juhanson from Estonia during the running leg of the Ironman New Zealand held at Lake Taupo.
Jeff Brass/Getty Images

There are dozens of different training guides and plans for everyone from professional triathletes to beginners just thinking of trying a sprint distance event. Training programs can range from a few months to an entire year, depending on the type of triathlon and the competitor. There are a few training guidelines that are generally a safe bet.

  • Build endurance, not speed. In other words, you're going to spend a lot of time swimming, biking and running.
  • Rest. If a training cycle has no rest period, your body will eventually break down.
  • Train to your weakness. If you're a marathon runner, focus on biking and swimming for a large proportion of your training.
  • Don't forget about your strength. Especially as the event gets closer, work on the aspect you're strongest in.
  • Find someone to train with. It's a lot harder if you're alone.
  • Use the proper equipment. It doesn't have to be top-of-the-line, but you should train with the gear you'll use in the actual event.
  • Ironman training is hard. You need to be in pretty good shape just to start an Ironman training regimen.

There have been some reports that extreme endurance athletics can cause heart attacks or even cancer [source: Seek Wellness]. If you're not in good physical condition, you should talk with a doctor before beginning a training program. Some endurance athletes have suffered heart attacks, and there is evidence that the buildup of free radicals in the body during extended bouts of exercise can increase the chances of developing cancer. However, these risks are considered slight, and far greater than the dangers of not getting exercise.


As far as race injuries, USAT doesn't release specific statistics, but anecdotal evidence would suggest they're quite common during these grueling events. The 2003 Lake Placid Ironman had what was considered an unusually low number of injuries. Just 14 people were hospitalized [source: North Country Public Radio]. Common injuries include dehydration, heat exhaustion, various leg, knee, foot or ankle injuries, and injuries sustained in bike accidents.

This brings us to the question: If it's so hard, why do people put themselves through it? Ironman competitors know that, in the course of the race, they'll experience great suffering. But the sense of accomplishment and the pure physical feeling of overcoming that suffering makes it worthwhile to them.

On the next page, we'll meet some notable Ironmen. 

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