10 Tips for Stepping Up To The Half Ironman Distance

Wednesday, December 9, 2015 | By Mike Ricci
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10 Tips for Stepping Up To The Half Ironman Distance

You've done a few short distance triathlons and now you are itching to step it up to the next distance- the Half IRONMAN. It may have seemed daunting when you first started triathlon, but now you're ready, or at least you think you are. Here's what you need to know to make that transition.


First, understand that in order to race for five to seven hours you need to have trained to go that long. Don't short change yourself, because if you do, payback is on race day and it's not worth it. Put the time into the training so the race is a great experience for you.

Add in Big Training Days

This can be something simple like a 2,000 to 3,000 yard swim / 50 mile bike / and 1 hour run. Or it can be something more complex like 2,000 yard main set at Half Ironman pace, with a ride that's 90 percent of the time you expect to be out on the bike course, and then a certain number of miles at race pace off the bike. You and or your coach can make this as simple or as detailed as you want. The swim distance doesn't change too much. If you've had good success at the Olympic distance swim races, then keep doing what you've been doing.

Don't Forget About Nutrition

All the training in the world won't prepare you for a race that you aren't fueled properly for. A big key is to know your caloric needs and your sweat rate. Should you take in 200 calories an hour or should you take in 350 calories an hour? Do you need one bottle an hour to replace what you sweat out or do you need 3 bottles an hour? Do you need to take in 500mg an hour in sodium or 1500mg an hour? These are questions that need to be answered during your training and you need a solid plan on race day. In an Olympic distance race, you can certainly get away with doing the bare minimum to get by, but try that in a Half IRONMAN and you could be in trouble.

Get Comfortable Gear

Part of training long is having the right gear so you're comfortable. There's nothing worse than having chafing burns and blisters from having old or worn out gear. As you'll learn from all the riding you'll do preparing for a Half IRONMAN, you'll want to invest in a couple of pairs of good bike shorts. The last thing you want is a few saddle stores to stop you cold in your tracks. In addition make sure you have a few pairs of running shoes that you can rotate through, so you aren't putting all your mileage into the same pair of shoes.

Include the Family

Get your support staff on board so they know you'll be training more on the weekends. You can't be skimping on the rides for a Half IRONMAN like you can for an Olympic. If you can get away with a 20 mile ride for an Olympic distance race, don't think you can get away with a 40 mile ride for a Half Ironman. Put the time in, let the support staff know your plan; where you are going, when you'll be back and the route you are taking.

Training for the Big Day

Training through the winter for a Half Ironman may seem tough, but really it's about getting the work done that needs to get done. I'm firmly against long trainer rides that 'build aerobic endurance'. I think there's a lot more to be gained from doing some shorter, quality workouts consistently week in and week out. Some examples would be VO2 work, Lactate Threshold, and or steady state Half Ironman paced rides on the trainer.

A sample week could include VO2 max efforts on Monday, Threshold work on Thursday and steady state Half Ironman paced rides on Saturday and Sunday. The higher quality your rides are, the better you'll be prepared to add some endurance once the weather changes and you can get back outside and ride long. The same can be said of the run. Run often, and cap your runs at 90 minutes. With the right amount of intensity, you'll be ready to step it up once the weather outside warms up.

Add in Half Marathons

Although you can be limited in the winter months for longer outdoor bike rides, you can certainly gain a lot of fitness by continuing your long runs of 90 minutes or more. There's a lot to be said for a 90 minute run that finishes with 30 minutes at open half marathon pace.

Another recommendation I would make is to schedule at least two Half marathons on your calendar. Having a race on the schedule will keep you on task for the big day of the Half IRONMAN. For the first half marathon, run this race as fresh as possible.

For the second Half marathon, add in a long bike ride the day before, maybe two and a half to four hours. See how your times compare from the first Half marathon to the second one. These types of workouts will also tell you a bit about your nutritional choices on race day and how well you recovered from the long bike day the day before to the race the following day.

Understanding Pace and Intensity

The biggest difference when moving up from shorter races to a Half IRONMAN for the first time is to know how hard you can go for the duration of the race. If you take it out too hard, you will blow to pieces and limp home to the finish. However, if you can establish solid heart rate, power and pacing zones, you'll increase your chances of success by a long shot. Testing your zones every few weeks will help you determine the correct zones to train and race in.

Additionally, using Best Bike Split can give you an exact power plan to follow on race day. 

Know How to Use Technology

Too many athletes have the technology but don't properly use the data it produces. Learning how to use your heart rate monitor or power meter properly is key. During a workout your heart rate monitor or power meter will help you stay in the correct zones for that session. 

Mental Approach

As with many challenges, the right frame of mind and mental toughness can make a big difference. Your longer rides and runs are the perfect time to practice mental toughness. Find a positive mantra you can repeat to yourself when the going gets tough. Know that everyone has low points during a race, dealing with them, keeping moving and staying positive will carry you a long way.

Following these ten tips will help you be prepared  for your first Half Ironman. While you will likely have some time or placing goals, remember that for your first Half Ironman having fun and learning from the experience should be first on your list.

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