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Triathlon Vs Ironman – What’s The Difference?

If you’re looking for a bit more of a challenge than regular races, you’ve probably considered a triathlon. And if you’ve been looking into triathlons, chances are you’ve come across the Ironman.

Wondering if you should do a regular triathlon vs Ironman? What’s the difference? Do you need to train differently for each one?

We’re comparing the two in this article. By the end of it, you should have a much better idea of where you stand and which one is right for you!

What is a Triathlon?

You probably know what a triathlon is. It’s a race that consists of three separate disciplines: swimming, cycling, and running, completed in that order. These vary in distance depending on the specific event.

Triathlon dates back to the early 1900s in France. Back then, they didn’t include swimming in their triathlons. Instead, their three disciplines were cycling, running, and canoeing.

The first modern-day triathlon happened in 1974 in California. By this time, canoeing had been replaced with swimming, but they took place in the order of running, cycling, and then swimming.

What is an Ironman?

An Ironman event is kind of like a triathlon on steroids.

It’s longer and tougher than a long-distance regular triathlon. The name says it all! It was apparently so named because someone (nobody knows who) commented that the winner should be called the Iron Man due to the difficulty of the race.

The first Ironman event took place in 1978, in Hawaii. From the start, it used the swim-bike-run event order, which is now the standard for all triathlons. Since then, Ironman has become a trademarked name.

There are some other triathlons that cover the distances the Ironman covers. But they were the first to do so and they’ve always been the most popular. In fact, these other triathlons are known as “Iron-distance” triathlons.

It’s an excellent thing to have on your athletic bucket list, but definitely needs an extensive foundation of training first.

Ironman vs Triathlon Length

The biggest factor in deciding if you should do a normal triathlon or an Ironman is the length.

Triathlons come in a variety of different lengths, and the Ironman has two standard lengths: the Ironman (aka. The 140.6) and the Half Ironman (aka. The 70.3).

How Long Are Regular Triathlons?

Triathlons come in a wide range of different distances, making them perfect for just about everyone.

Whatever your skill level, whatever your experience, there’s a triathlon distance to suit you.

  • Super Sprint Triathlon: 437.4-yard swim, 6.2-mile cycle, 1.55-mile run.
  • Sprint-Distance Triathlon: 820-yard swim, 12.4-mile cycle, 3.1-mile run.
  • Standard Triathlon: 1640.42-yard swim, 24.9-mile cycle, 6.2-mile run.
  • Middle-Distance Triathlon: 1.55-mile swim, 49.7-mile cycle, 12.4-mile run.
  • Long-Distance Triathlon: 2.5-mile swim, 74.5-mile cycle, 18.6-mile run.

How Long is a Half Ironman or 70.3 Triathlon?

If your goal is a full Ironman, starting with the Half Ironman is a good idea. It’s somewhere between medium-distance and a long-distance triathlon.

The Half Ironman is a set distance of:

  • Swim: 1.2 miles
  • Bike: 56 miles
  • Run: 13.1 miles

How Long is an Ironman Triathlon?

The Ironman is the longest official triathlon you can take part in. Here are the distances you’ll be doing:

  • Swim: 2.4 miles
  • Bike: 112 miles
  • Run: 26.2 miles

Just the run is a full marathon on its own! The Ironman isn’t something to be taken lightly. You need to be fully competent in all three disciplines before even thinking about attempting it.

Ironman vs Triathlon Training

Naturally, a shorter-distance triathlon would require much less preparation than an Ironman. A sprint-distance triathlon could be done with just a few weeks of work for an experienced athlete. A standard triathlon would need a few months of training.

But the distances covered in an Ironman event need much more prep work. It takes a full day to complete, so you’d better be sure your endurance is on point. The only way to build it up is to put in the time.

You can’t just train a couple of times a week and go out on the weekend with your buddies if you want to complete an Ironman triathlon. Ironman training is likely to be a full year of rigorous training, careful nutrition, properly executed recovery time, and extreme discipline.

The mental preparation is another aspect that can’t be neglected. You need to have extreme mental strength and stamina in order to push yourself through the distances required, and you can only build that up by training hard for these distances.

If you want to train properly for an Ironman, you won’t have much space for anything else in your life at the time.

Tips for Training and Completing the Triathlon or the Ironman

If you’re determined to become a triathlete, here’s some info and tips on training for your chosen event.

Triathlon

Sprint Triathlon

This is the most logical place to start if you’re new to triathlons. It’s challenging, especially if you’re moving from doing just one discipline to having to become competent in all three.

The great thing about starting here is that it doesn’t require excessive lifestyle changes to train for. Sure, you’ll need to do some training and watch your nutrition, but if you’re already relatively fit you can get away with doing this event with very little preparation.

Depending on your experience and fitness level, a sprint-distance triathlon typically takes between an hour and two hours to complete.

In terms of training, if you want to do it properly from the beginning, you should be actively working on training for it for three to four months before the actual event.

Olympic Triathlon

Once you can complete a sprint triathlon, you can move onto the standard triathlon, also known as the Olympic triathlon.

It’s quite a bit longer than the sprint (around 4x). Aim for between 5 and 10 hours a week actively working on your outdoor swimming, cycling, and running. Keep this up for 4 to 6 months before your event in order to be properly prepared.

Ironman

Half Ironman

The Half Ironman is your first step towards a full Ironman event. Don’t even consider the full event if you haven’t done a 70.3 yet!

You’ll need between 5 and 8 hours to complete a Half Ironman. It’s about twice the distance of a standard Olympic triathlon, but it’s actually roughly the same as a middle-distance triathlon and shorter than a long-distance triathlon.

You’ll need 6 to 9 months of solid training to master this event. That means 5 to 10 hours a week of training, as well as tweaking your nutrition to increase your running stamina and endurance.

Full Ironman

The Ironman event is known as the most challenging human fitness event, both physically and mentally. You’ll be on the go constantly for between 10 and 18 hours, which is an extremely long period of time to be constantly working out.

As you can imagine, training for this kind of event is not to be taken lightly. A year of preparation is common, or more for your first one.

That means for a full year before your Ironman event you’ll be sticking to a very specific training program for 10+ hours a week, split between your three disciplines. You’ll be dialing in your nutrition and eating to fuel your goals. You’ll be going to bed early and getting your full 8 hours, every single night.

For a year, there’ll be very little socializing, focusing on other hobbies, or indulging in treats on a regular basis. Losing focus means setting yourself back. You’ll need to be hyper-focused on your training.

Not only that but your family and friends will need to understand and accept that this is how it’s going to be. It’s not just a matter of training for another event. There will be sacrifice. It’s up to you to decide if it will be worth it!

Before You Decide to Train for an Ironman

Does training for an Ironman sound like something you’d like to do?

Here’s a quick rundown of what you should expect so you have an idea of the changes you’ll need to implement in order to be successful.

Lifestyle

Although you’ll have to dedicate yourself to your training, it’s also very important to find an appropriate work/life/training balance. Going all-out in your training and nutrition but neglecting your work or family won’t end well.

On the other hand, being too busy with work and family and not having enough time to train appropriately will dash your dreams of finishing an Ironman event.

It is perfectly possible to balance things out with a bit of planning and discussion with the people involved, though.

You don’t need to go all-out and do 20 hours a week of training from the start. Typically, the first 10 weeks or so of your training plan will consist of 8 to 10 hours of training per week.

From there, it will increase increments. The closer you get to the race, the more time you’ll be spending training, with the exception of your taper.

You’ll need to work out your properties and structure your life a little differently from normal. If you have a family, it’s important not to neglect them leading up to the race. Make sure you’re still getting in quality time with them, even if it is less than usual.

If you have a full-time job, obviously you still need to meet your deadlines and get your projects done. But you may need to put some things on the back burner, like nights out with your buddies or going to the movies with family.

Costs

The Ironman is an exceptional feat and something to be very proud of. But it’s costly. The race fee alone is between $600 and $1000, depending on the location.

If you think that’s exorbitant, the bad news is that it’s not the only cash you’ll be shelling out to complete this iconic race. Tri gear alone can be extremely pricey. You may find that your grocery bill goes up as you’re being more strict with your eating.

Then there are travel and accommodation costs if the event isn’t happening down the road from your home.

Don’t even start training for an Ironman if you haven’t considered the cost and budgeted for it. A year’s worth of training will go to waste if you haven’t considered the cost upfront!

Schedule Example: How to Train for a Half Ironman

Not sure how to start? Here’s a quick sample training routine for a Half Ironman that should suit most athletes.

  • Monday: Short bike ride and short swim
  • Tuesday: Rest day
  • Wednesday: Long bike ride and stretching routine
  • Thursday: Short run
  • Friday: Long swim
  • Saturday: Rest day or cross-training
  • Sunday: Long run

There’s no need to change this routine at any point. All you need to do is increase your distance, time, or intensity as you go.

Tips for an Ironman

  • Choose the Right Race for You: Do a bit of research and find a race location that you’ll enjoy. Environment can make a huge difference!
  • Plan in Advance: Not only can this help you get better travel and accommodation deals, but giving yourself some time to acclimatize to the area and a couple of days to recover afterward is also important.
  • Have a Training Plan: You can’t just wing Ironman training. Structure is important for consistency and progress.
  • Be Accountable: Keep a training journal so you can monitor your progress or get an accountability partner to keep you on track.
  • Consider Hiring a Coach: Not only will this help you formulate an effective training program, but you’ll also have someone to be accountable to. If you struggle in one particular discipline, hiring a coach just for that could be worthwhile.
  • Focus on your Weakest Discipline: Prioritize your weakest discipline training until it’s up to speed with the others. Don’t neglect the others, though!
  • Practice in Open Water: You want to practice in conditions as close as possible to the event conditions. Although you can’t control weather on the day, if you’ve practiced in similar places and conditions, you’ll be much better equipped to handle anything that comes your way.
  • Find Training Partners: This is an excellent idea for motivation and accountability. Don’t just do it because we said so, though. If you prefer training alone, that’s perfectly okay too.
  • Learn What Iron Marathon Pace Feels Like: Work on hitting your Iron marathon pace at least once a week on your shorter distance runs until you can maintain it on longer ones.
  • Consider Getting a Bike Fitted: You’re going to be spending an awful lot of time in that saddle. Getting a professionally fitted bike could be invaluable in terms of comfort on that long ride.
  • Don’t Neglect Technical Skills on the Bike: Don’t just aim for distance. Understanding and being able to execute technical skills can save you valuable time on race day.
  • Practice with the Provided Nutrition: If you can, find out what will be provided on the course and use the same nutrition in your training. You can always carry your own nutrition, but there’s a chance of dropping it and having to rely on the provided items.
  • Prioritize Rest and Recovery: Don’t neglect your rest and recovery! It’s just as crucial as your training and nutrition. Don’t be tempted to push harder at the end when you should be tapering.
  • Fix Minor Irritations: Make sure your gear is exactly right. If you have a pair of socks that chafes a bit, find something else that works better. Small details are important, especially on race day.
  • Don’t Neglect Strength and Flexibility: Building muscle and increasing your overall fitness can help your muscular and cardiovascular endurance on race day. Include cross-training in your training program.
  • Do Shorter Events First: Work your way up through the various triathlon distances until you’re certain you have what it takes to complete an Ironman.
  • Complete a Simulation: If you can, plan to do a “test run” of your Ironman before the real event. Organize to swim, cycle, and run the same distances, in similar conditions and terrain, using similar nutrition. This will give you a good idea of how race-ready you are. You can do a few of these in your year’s worth of training to measure your progress.
  • Respect the Taper: Don’t be tempted to skip the taper! It may feel counter-intuitive, but it’s an important and strategic part of preparing your body for what’s ahead. Taper for 5 to 14 days, depending on your own preference.
  • Have a Race Checklist: Even experienced athletes can forget stuff in the excitement of the event. A simple checklist (made in advance) can help you not to forget anything important.
  • Research the Course Beforehand: Go into your event knowing what to expect. Know how many laps you’re doing, the terrain you’ll be on, and the twists and turns you can expect. This will not only put your mind at ease from the start, but it will give you a slight advantage as you move through the course.
  • Remember Your Why: The race is going to get tough, no matter how well you’ve trained and how prepared you are. When that moment hits, remember why you’re doing this. It will help you to push through.
  • Enjoy Yourself! Be proud of your accomplishment, regardless of the final outcome. Just reaching the point where you can take part in an Ironman event is a huge achievement and something you should be very proud of.
The Wired Runner