How to train for your first Ironman?

By September 5, 2019 No Comments
ironman finish line

Ironman Sunil Menon talks about what it takes to train for your first Ironman and the will and endurance it takes to conquer the punishing course.

What is an Ironman?

It is a 3.8K swim, 180K bike ride, and 42K run. But that’s just numbers. For me, Ironman is Time Management. It’s a single sport with 5 disciplines: Swim, Bike, Run, Nutrition and Transition. You have to be a JACK in these 5 disciplines to cross the finish line with a smile.

Start with a WHY

Before you start your journey, start with a “Why” and question every answer with another “Why”. Do this five times and if you get a satisfactory answer, you’ve got your motivation.

The F words

Choose your race based on the five Fs: Fitness, Finance, Facilities, Free Time, Family & Friends circle


Do you know how to swim? Can you swim 1K continuously in 50 minutes?

Ans: No.

Advice: Learn swimming. Put a timeline to it. Swim 5 days a week for a month. Take the help of a coach.

Can you cycle 100km in 5hrs?

Ans: No.

Advice: Invest in a good road bike. Commute to work on a cycle. Go for long rides on weekends. Increase your endurance and speed.

Can you run a half marathon in 2hr 45min?

Ans: No.

Advice: Register for a half marathon race and do 3 short runs and one long run in a week. Start with Run-Walk-Run. Find your comfortable Run Walk ratio. Make sure your walk is not more than a minute.

Once all the answers are “Yes” for the questions above, you are ready to start your triathlon training.


If you have the money, you can invest in expensive gadgets and accessories but here we are going to focus on the bare minimum with no gadgets like a watch, HR monitor, Indoor trainer or Power Meter.

Find a race that suits your budget. Honestly, I think you can do an Iron distance even in India, though it won’t be called Ironman. There are races in South East Asia that are easy on your pocket. List down all the expenses you may incur right from registration fees, visa, food & stay, travel, etc.

Equipment you need to buy like a road cycle, running shoes, Tri suit, Wet suit (depends on the race venue), swim accessories.

Total them up and add an extra 10% over that. That’s your financial requirement. Create a monthly investment fund if required so that it can be easily managed. Avoid taking loans. Earn it.


What facilities are available to you in your area? Swimming Pool, Safe Roads, Riders Club, Runners Club, Coaches, Bike shops, Gym.  Does the organization you work give a fitness reimbursement?  Find a group in your area. Group sessions motivate and help you progress faster. Find a coach/coaches who can give you the right training plan and can help you improve on all the disciplines. Look around, find a training plan or create one.

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Free Time

How much time do you have available for training? You need a minimum of 10 hrs a week and might go up to 16-18 hrs a week. Are you ok if this eats up a bit of your family time? How is your workload? Do you travel a lot? Be wise and realistic. Once you commit there is no looking back.

Family & Friends Circle

Are your family and friends supportive of your dream? Are they willing to support you in your journey? Remember you can’t do this alone. You need a good support system who can take a lot of work and stress for you so that you can focus on your training. Get their support. Talk to them about the time and money you are willing to invest and their role in your success. Live your dream with them.

Once you have all the Fs in place. You need a plan to start your training.

Nutrition Plan

I am starting with a nutrition plan as this is the most important pillar for a successful race. Keep it very simple.

Hydration Solution: Lime, Pink Salt, Honey or Jaggery. Find the right combination mix that suits you. Drink approximately 1ltr per hour. Take a sip every 15 minutes.


Make your own energy bars (lots of recipes on the internet). Make square pieces and eat every 30 minutes even if you are not hungry. Remember, your digestion capacity reduces as time goes by.

Have a pre-workout meal like sweet potato or peanut butter sandwich or curd that will give you enough energy to sustain you for an hour or more.

Post-workout. Rest for 45 minutes before eating anything solid. Keep hydrating. Make sure post-workout you eat seeds and nuts (like sunflower, sesame, chia, almonds, cashews, walnuts, etc). You can mix them in your juice, salads.

Eat home-cooked food. Completely avoid processed food (any food wrapped in plastic is processed). Avoid sugar at all costs. Stick to organic honey or jaggery.

Follow these simple advice and you will recover well and be ready for the next workout.

Training Plan

Your primary objective should be to be well within the cut off time in each discipline. There is no Silver bullet training plan that will suit one and all, so I am highlighting key points that a training plan should address. We will use RPE (Rate of Perceived Effort or Exertion). You can find the details on the internet.

  • Baseline all your disciplines.
    • Your best 1K swim time. RPE 8-9.
    • Your best pace in a 30-minute run. RPE 8-9
    • Your best speed in a 30-minute bike. RPE 8-9
  • Add 25% of these best times as your base speed for Ironman distance. For example: suppose you took 50 minutes to complete 1000m. 25% of 50 minutes will be 12.5 minutes. Which means you will take 63 minutes to complete 1000m. So, 3.8K swim will take you approximately 2hr 59min. The cut-off for the swim is 2hr 20mins. This means you need to work on your swim to be able to meet the cut-off comfortably.
  • Do this for all the disciplines and find out if you will be able to meet the cut-offs. This way you can find your weakest discipline.
  • Your weakest discipline should have a minimum of four days focus in a week
    • Swim drills, Running drills, Biking drills. For example, one arm drill for a swim, cadence drills for run, Isolated Leg training for Bike. RPE 4-5.
    • Speed workout. For example, 5x50m swim hard with 20 secs rest, Bike 3 min sprints with 5 min recovery, Run 800meters sprint with 400meters recovery. RPE 7-9
    • Endurance workout. For example, swim 2x1000m swim, 4-5hrs bike ride, 2-3hrs run. RPE 4-6.
    • Strength training. For swim it can be dry land training or using hand paddles, for a bike it could be lunges, isometric wall sits, for running it could be single leg skipping. RPE 4-5
  • Baseline your disciplines every month so that you can track your progress. It’s important to measure your progress to avoid last minutes surprises.
  • Plan a race simulation once every month. Do a swim, bike and run together. Note down the transition times, energy levels and tune in your fuelling and pacing.
  • Learn how to fix flats and do basic bike maintenance.
  • Increase workout time/distance by 10% every week for two weeks followed by a recovery week -10%. This will give you a linear approach to your training.
  • Find some Sprint, Olympic, and Half Ironman races to get used to the race environment in addition to increasing the distance more gradually to full ironman.
  • Your last big race simulation workout should be 5 weeks before the race week.
    • 5 hrs swim, 4 hrs bike and 1.5 hrs run.
    • Treat this as your actual race. Follow everything you will do on race day.
  • Taper weeks. Your taper week duration should not exceed 7hrs. Focus on short interval workouts. Keep your mind and body fresh.
  • During taper weeks, work on mental conditioning. Study the route profile. Make a list of items you need for the Swim, Bike and Run. Watch YouTube videos on transition. Read the rule book. Have a plan A, B, and C in place. Expect the unexpected and be prepared for it.
  • Visualize your race. Write down how your race will go and visualize a perfect finish.
  • Reach the race city a week in advance if you can. Swim, ride and run parts of the route.
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Most importantly, enjoy every moment of your training and race. Don’t forget to thank the volunteers and keep a smile on your face. Post-race, celebrate and thank everyone who made this dream a reality for you. Plan on making your next dream a reality!



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Sunil Menon

Sunil Menon

Sunil Menon, an Ironman certified coach started MenonFitness systems (MFS) in 2016 with the sole purpose of introducing healthy life habits to every individual. Currently coaching 80+ athletes worldwide and his coaching techniques have enabled them to rediscover and redefine their endurance levels. He is also known in the running community as the ‘Desi Superman' in India and abroad and is turned to for advice and coaching by runners, corporate employees housewives, fitness enthusiasts and triathletes alike.