Today, I want you to meet Hannah. She is studying with me, and we got to know each other through our mutual passion for fitness. She has some incredibly helpful advice, tips and tricks, and will also tell you a little about her big plans for this year. I will let her speak for herself.
For anyone who knows what an Ironman is, I permit you to skip the next couple of sentences. An Ironman is an ultra-distance triathlon consisting of a 2.4mile swim/112mile cycle/26.2mile run all which has to be completed in under 17 hours. The first Ironman was held in Hawaii in 1978 and from there has spread into a global event, with new locations and races popping up every year as the popularity for the sport increases; yes believe it or not, Ironman places are, for the more popular locations at least, hard to come by, with some races selling out on preregistration alone. Fear not however, if you didn’t manage to get a place for your first choice there’s always the backup option of signing up for Ironman Wales. It’s notoriously hilly and regarded as one of the tougher events you can enter so generally takes a little longer to sell out than the flatter ones. Don’t judge, we are all human…an Ironman is still an Ironman after all, even if it’s on the flat and whilst we might be masochistic enough to want to complete an Ironman, some of us have the good sense to avoid excessive hills if at all possible.
So in case it hasn’t been implied from my tone, I have signed up for an Ironman triathlon. So who am I? Well I am an economics student, I have a part time job working for a designer sportswear company and I am an exercise enthusiast, although some may replace enthusiast with addict.
Saying that sport and exercise has always been a major part of my life would be an outright lie. I am not blessed with natural athleticism and during my early teenage years, boys and horses were my main focuses. If you had told the 16 year old version of me that one day I would sign up for an Ironman (you would have had to first explain to me what an Ironman was) I would have laughed at you.
My first trips to the gym were purely for vanity reasons and until about 2 years ago I would count my cardio workouts in terms of calories burned rather than distance travelled or time done. I was a gym rat that watched the calorie counter on the cardio equipment tick over until I had burned the number I had come in to do. Now exercise is mainly done outdoors and for me I no longer think of it as going for a run to burn off that chocolate bar I ate or going for a cycle ride to tone up the thighs, I think of it as training. The thought process of ‘I need to work out today in order to not get fat’ has shifted to ‘I need to train today so I can be successful’.
Obviously training as often as I do, the ‘not getting fat’ side of things sort of takes care of itself. My mind set has also shifted from wanting my body to look a certain way to understanding and appreciating that it’s not so much what it looks like but it’s what you can do with it that counts. Exercise is no longer about appearances, I appreciate the freedom that being incredibly physically fit and active gives you.
Ironman is not only regarded as a monumental physical challenge but also as a massive mental challenge which is where my lack of natural athleticism comes in handy. It may sound odd but because it doesn’t come easily to me, it makes me want it more and when you are at that physical breaking point, where everything hurts and you just want to cry, that’s where mental strength comes in and at the end of the day that is what will take you over the finish line; the hunger and the desire to be successful, the need to prove yourself in a field that you nor anyone else would ever put you in.
So why an Ironman you may ask? Well it is, as previously explained, tough and carries a level of prestige and awe that not many other events carry. I wanted to do something that scared me and excites me at the same time, that pushes me to breaking point and that at the end of it hopefully makes me realise that anything is possible if you just work your ass off. Signing up for it was fuelled more by my passion for cycling, running and my overly competitive ego than any sort of rational thought. Well there was some sort of rationality behind it, I had been thinking about signing up for well over a year, it was just I finally found my metaphorical balls and signed up.
Whilst the desire to do an Ironman is neglecting all sort of rational thought, the training structure and nutrition plans more than make up for that. There is so much literature available on training for everything from a 10km to an Ironman that sometimes it can be hard to know what to do. My advice on this is either hire a coach (one recommended to you is better than one pulled off the internet) or ask someone who you know has competed in the event you are planning to do and who you feel confident would give you sound advice.
Without getting too technical and talking about base, build and peak phases of Ironman training or without using words such as cadence, VO2 max, aerobic and anaerobic, my written down training plan (I say written down because sometimes life gets in the way and things need shuffled around a little) involves three runs, three swims, three cycles, one strength and conditioning session and one yoga session per week. Eleven sessions per week might seem like a lot, especially when some of them can be fairly long in duration, but the key is getting up early and getting it out the way. There is nothing worse than after a long day of work or university knowing that you still have to do a long run or go to the pool when all you want to do is go home and eat.
This is actually where training partners come in handy. You are accountable to someone and if you are lucky enough to have one that you are competitive enough with, you are never going to be the one who pulls out of a training session or suggests shortening your run because you’re tired or you’re legs hurt, you simply suck it up and rebrand your grimace as a smile.
My top tips for training is utilize your commute if you have one, look for the odd hour in your schedule and fit in what you can when you can, if you’re injured give yourself a day off or go swimming (unless it’s a swimming injury of course) but ultimately training just comes down to consistency, hard work, perseverance and listening to your body.
It doesn’t matter if you are training to be a body builder or training for an Ironman, diet is hugely important. If you are not fuelling your body correctly or eating for the type of event you’re training for, you will struggle to succeed.
People often say to me ‘with the amount of exercise you do, you must be able to eat whatever you want’. There’s an element of truth in that, I can consume more calories than the average person but simply because I am burning them off. I however cannot eat whatever I want. Firstly not all calories are equal and secondly if I eat crap then I feel crap.
One thing that is not talked about a lot, mainly because it’s a little disgusting, is the fact that endurance based exercise does funny things to your digestive system. All that running around seems to churn up your intestines and the result is sometimes unpleasant; often called runner’s tummy (yes the runners’ part of that phrase could be taken one of two ways). The key to this is a balanced and consistent diet. Don’t introduce unfamiliar food to your diet before races or before long training sessions. I will not lie, my diet is fairly boring and repetitive because I know what I can eat and I know what will make me feel sick or bloated and for the most part I stay well clear of those food.
Again without getting too technical about macros, the key thing I find when training is to eat healthy and if you can cook from scratch with one ingredient food. What do I mean by one ingredient foods? A food item that has no list of ingredients, it simply is what it is. For example a pepper is simply a pepper or a chicken breast is simply a chicken breast. If you can do this for 70% of diet, you would be doing quite well.
Like with training, listening to your body with your food is massively important and over time you learn to know what your body needs. Odd indulgences are fine as they make you realise how good your strict diet make your body feel.
I would definitely say that my attitudes to food has changed. I now no longer train to justify the food, I eat to justify the training. You cannot run your car on an empty tank of fuel so why anyone thinks they can run their body on an empty stomach is beyond me.
So if you’ve made it to this point, then congratulations, I’m giving myself a mental hug that I haven’t completely bored you all. I guess you’re now thinking that training for an Ironman sounds like great fun and a bit of a walk in the park. I’m about to shatter that illusion.
The hardest thing with training for an Ironman, or maybe I should say the hard things as there are multiple challenges, are no drinking (or only on very special occasions), the long training sessions even when you don’t want to do them, the caffeine addiction (don’t worry if you don’t have a caffeine addiction at the moment, it will come and soon you too can be one of the cyclists you see in artisan coffee shops with their Lycra and cycling shoes on), the sense guilt you get when you’re at work or at university when you feel you should be training, or the sense of guilt you get when you’re training that you should be at work or university, the wind and the rain and the dark cold nights, the getting up at the crack of dawn and wondering if you’re awake enough not to drown in the pool but most of all for me the absolute hardest thing is the fear of missing out (of FOMO as it’s now known as by the youth of today) on social events or simply just hanging out with your friends.
It’s the realisation that your time is somewhat limited and you can’t do it all. At the end of the day you have to choose what is most important to you and for me I associate far more with a quote by Muhammad Ali “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion” than I do with the school of thought that you’re only young once so do what you want and think about the consequences later on.
Hopefully, you’ve read this and thought that maybe you would like to sign up for an event of some description. Well there’s never the perfect time and there’s never the perfect race, it’s all about challenging yourself and pushing yourself to be better than you were before. So as Nike infamously said ‘Just Do It’, honestly what have you got to lose?
I don't know about you, but after reading this I am super keen to sign up for a Marathon! However, I should wait a couple of minutes, I am sure that feeling will go away just thinking about putting my running shoes on and jogging through the rain...
Nevertheless, signing up for a race is the perfect way to get in shape. It is a commitment you make, from which you cannot get out once you tell your friends and family about it. Start slow, and build up your strength and endurance over time. It will be very difficult at times, but in the end, the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment is more than worth it. We might not all look the same way, and we might not all feel the same way, but on the inside, there is an Iron Maiden in all of us.