The triathlon is in many ways considered the pinnacle of endurance sport. The combination of swimming, cycling and running requires a multidisciplinary training regime. It tests participants physically and mentally through a gauntlet of three races combined into one.
Then, there is the Ironman. A triathlon with a 3.8‑km (2.4 mile) swim, 185-km (115 mile) bike ride and a 42.2‑km (26.2 mile) marathon may seem superhuman to perform, but as tens of thousands of “Ironmen” demonstrate every year, it is actually possible to do with the right discipline and mentality.
For a look at what goes into readying oneself for an Ironman, we chatted with Whistler, B.C. based athlete and personal coach Christine Suter, who recently completed her ninth Ironman event.
The Clymb: What kind of person is a suited to attempt an Ironman?
Christine Suter: A lot of people come up to me and ask, ‘do you think I can do it?’ I just look at them and ask ‘Do you think you can do it?’ It more comes down to having enough time to prepare yourself. It’s like having a second job. You can go into it kind of prepared and make it through, but it makes for a very long day. Yeah, some people are more suited to Ironman absolutely. But I do think anyone can do it if you put your mind to it and take the time.
The first time I met a client she had a panic attack swimming 25 meters — she couldn’t make it to the end of the pool. She started off with a sprint tri, then an Olympic tri, then a half Ironman, and this year will be her second full Ironman.
The Clymb: What training load do you recommend?
Christine Suter: Everyone is different and can adjust their training to the fitness level they currently have. For the three months leading up to race day you should be training 15–20 hours a week and 10–12 hours a week in the month before that. Having a background in one of the disciplines helps the start.
The Clymb: What’s the most common mistake by athletes when training for an ultra endurance event like this?
Christine Suter: Over-training. I attribute it now to training out of fear. It gets close to the race and people react like they’re going into a final exam and cram before the race. That is the biggest mistake. If you go in five percent under-trained rather than one percent over-trained, it’s night and day. Training while you’re fatigued makes it hard to maintain form and that’s when people break down.
The Clymb: What kind of injuries are common from over-training?
Christine Suter: I’ve seen everything, but it’s mainly hips, lower back, and knees. The great thing about training for a triathlon is that if you get injured in one you always have another discipline to fall back on. You can kind of maintain your fitness just by switching from sport to sport.
The Clymb: Ironman is quite an elitist event, what are some of the barriers to entry?
Christine Suter: It’s an expensive sport. Your entries, your equipment, your rehab, there’s a lot. As well the level of fitness and training you need is quite high, so you need to invest a lot of time. With endurance events you learn how to endure, how to overcome the non-physical barriers. You’re alone with yourself for 12 to 16 hours sometimes, there’s a lot of inner chatter that goes on.
I love triathlons because everyone competes together. Regardless of age, shape or size, everybody’s on the start line together when the gun goes off.
The Clymb: Do Ironman events get any easier after doing nine of them?
Christine Suter: No! You know what to expect from the training but race day is still race day. You still get the jitters, you’re still nervous, and that doesn’t change. My goal isn’t to qualify for Kona (the world Ironman championships in Hawaii) anymore, it’s a totally different ball game when you set those goals for yourself. You really have put in the time and effort for that, it’s very different from just going out and doing one.
All photos credit and submitted by Christine Suter