Marathon Training for Ironman Triathletes

I get asked this question many times each year.

"Can I do a marathon before or after my Iron man triathlon as preparation or to run a faster time now that I feel invincible? I do not want to waste my hard earned fitness?"

Highly motivated tri-athletes are a tough breed. Iron men usually want to run a marathon before their next iron man or at the end of their season.

"Just something to focus on or complete?"

This may seem like a good idea to aim for in training especially during the winter months when the weather is too treacherous for cycling.

Most Triathletes want to have a make a good showing rather than just get round. Focusing too much on the marathon will usually be detrimental to your Iron man performance unless it is in the autumn of your ironman season.

Only the experienced few can run a good marathon within 3 months of completing an ironman.

One persons ceiling is another person’s floor – meaning we all have different horizons and these change throughout our athletic careers. What may have seemed an ambitious target a few years ago may now longer seem daunting?

The confusion comes from thinking that the marathon is only a part of the ironman, doing one should be easy, while this is true it is still 26.2 miles (42.195km) and a long way which takes time to recover from.

POSITIVES of running a marathon.

Good to focus on running especially if running is your weakest event.

Single sport emphasis can help bring your fitness to a new level. Running is high impact and therefore has a high risk of injury.

Building up running gradually first will help, then incorporate cycling and swimming.

Good confidence booster if you run a good marathon.

AGAINST running a marathon

Running a fresh marathon will be at a much faster pace 1-2 minutes a mile quicker than an ironman marathon.

This will NOT be Ironman specific; running slower in the Ironman Triathlon is uncomfortable and uses slightly different muscle groups so you need to develop them in training.

You will need a taper and recovery resulting in a loss of building volume and will delay your long term Ironman fitness.

If you start your marathon build up too soon (within 4 weeks) after completing your Iron man you could be at high risk from injury.

Failing to fully recover, most age group triathletes usually need at least 8 weeks before starting a marathon training programme.

A big mistake is to think I can train for the marathon now that I have more free time as I am not cycling and swimming.

An hour run can be worth 2 hours cycling – recovery time is longer for running and your average heart rate is higher running than swimming and cycling.

You also need to let your most important muscle recover – your heart!

Train on how you feel, listen to your body when training, during recovery rather than just the number of hours you train.If you have a disappointing marathon this will also lower your moral.

Your dilemma is trying to follow a triathlon training routine but with marathon training emphasis.

Making the correct decision all depends on the following.

If you are new to long distance triathlon completing in a spring marathon then an iron man Triathlon all within 6 months can take its toll.

If you still have to run a marathon aim to run an even pace, practise nutrition and try and run within 15 seconds of your predicted Ironman marathon on similar terrain.

You will also benefit if you have at least 16 weeks between the marathon and your Ironman, any less time and the demands of ironman training will delay your marathon recovery.

Marathon training

You will have to reduce the sessions swimming and cycling which can have a negative impact on your long term fitness ironman day.

It may take a long time to build swim and bike fitness which you have neglected in favour of training for the marathon.

It is a fine balance between not swimming and cycling and doing too much which will be detrimental to your marathon.

If you run too much in favour of swimming and cycling you will become distracted, although you will be in great running shape by the time you get to the marathon.

You may underperform in the Ironman because of an imbalance in your training. This is due to lack of swim & bike fitness and as a result you will have a very disappointing ironman marathon because you are tired by the time you get to the run section of the triathlon.

You will compare your ironman marathon time to others who you should have been faster than but due to being side tracked by mostly running in your build rather than balancing your time swimming cycling and running.

Most athletes who underperform in the second event (bike) or third event (run) is commonly due to a weaker event before which was tired them out too much.
A lack of fitness or being uneconomical or a combination of both with no nutrition plan is often the reason for a sub standard performance.

Swimming for the marathon
Use swimming for improving your breathing. Swimming intervals improves your heart and lungs for your marathon, gets you fit without the impact from the road.

When its cold outside swimming at high intensity allows you to work at a decent intensity in an indoor swimming pool. Allows you to avoid breathing in cold air associated with hard outside spring or winter running usually above 75% of maximum running heart rate.

Also use swimming as an active non weight bearing recovery day. You can recover much quicker from hard intensity swimming and unlike cycling will not tire your running muscles.
Add some swim kicking as a great way to recover from a long or tempo run. Single lengths for recovery should not be leg sapping.

You can build up good extra endurance by cycling after steady 50-90 minute runs. This can be done straight after running or 1-4 hours later.

Cycling after is good for recovery and will not alter your running style when you run after the bike.
Choose an easy gear (usually one smaller than normal due to fatigue).

Avoid a cycling cadence below 75 revs per minute as this will build up the larger cycling muscle groups. Plenty of time for this during your pre & competition phase of training.

Long walks (2-6 hours) carry a rack sack off road is a great endurance fix.
Heavy supportive boots build up leg strength and learning to keep hydrated for long periods of time needs to be practised for the Ironman.
Long walking is under rated and has many huge endurance benefits especially improving your aerobic capacity.
Great for time on your feet and carrying a rack sack improves core strength.
This is ideal for runners who find it difficult to run slowly under 75% of run max heart rate. Exercise at a steady pace is needed to develop using fat as fuel.

It is vital that you maintain your swimming and cycling so once the marathon has been completed you can quickly get back into Swim Bike Run & Triathlon training.

Aim to swim and cycle a total of 3 times per week when marathon specific training.

Week 1 swim twice cycle once week 2 swim once cycle twice then repeat.

Keep running to a minimum after the marathon for 4 weeks spending time on swimming and cycling and core fitness.

Better to add some strength in the gym, running strength can be lost training and running the marathon. Go and cycle up a hill 2 weeks after a marathon and see how much strength you may have lost.

Long gentle walks can help speed up the marathon recovery.

Past experience

What you have done before will always help you answer your own question.

If you have done a particular marathon before do not use this as a gauge to how your run speed & endurance is as this will not be ironman specific.

You need to run the marathon at a slower pace.

By running at Ironman predicted pace see how your recovery is, notice any muscles soreness in different places than normal?

Your real ability to recover after a marathon will also help you decide how to pace your next marathon.

If you felt great afterwards you have paced yourself right.Running a marathon requires ability to run at a decent tempo for 26.2 miles (42km), endurance alone will not help.

Iron man training will give you a huge base to draw from.

If you have enjoyed a good Iron man marathon then your pace and endurance will help you. A poor Iron man marathon could be from failing to taper, poor nutrition during the event going too fast in the early stages of the swim bike and marathon.

Incorrect specific training or injury pre Iron man will not allow you to fulfil your true potential. A combination of all of the above are contributory factors.

Good fitness levels. Past good aerobic fitness is not a perquisite of success in the marathon. You now have to be marathon run fit. The difference is the ability for faster speed and ability to cope with more pounding compared to the iron man shuffle.

Having spoken to hundreds of triathletes and from my own past personnel experience I feel more pain in my legs from a straight marathon than after an Iron man marathon.

You will also use a different energy level in a fast marathon compared to Ironman paced marathon.

Speed kills
Often running faster will cause fatigue to set in much sooner. Have a nutrition plan- for this fresh marathon and your performance will improve.

Nutrition plan
Learning to take on fuel and fluids running faster may need to be practised again. Taking on board gels and drinks may seem like a completely new sport compared to the ironman!

Have a drinking / nutrition strategy to get through the event.If you fail to plan and use the plan you will take longer to learn what works for you.

Getting to start line on time.
This is not what it seems, be ready for the B of the Bang not the training run 4 weeks before.

Injury prevention
Many a single sport athlete turned triathlete like Mark Allen (6 time Hawaii Iron man winner) had a excellent single sport fitness base then got numerous injuries from being able to run before muscles joints and tendons had adapted.

He soon adjusted his training then once injury free became world Ironman champion 6 times.

Painful legs.
Avoid more than spending 10% of your training running hard.

Race pace specific. From 8-2 weeks out your long run should be at predicted marathon pace and recovery runs half to quarter in distance should actually be run slower per mile/km than your long run.

I.e. long run at predicted marathon pace & short runs of 60-90 seconds per mile slower. Your key session is your long run not these in between sessions.

Learning to cruise at the marathon pace is what is required so come race day it will seem perfectly natural.

Use training supportive shoes rather than light weight racers is mandatory. Leg shock is considerably reduced saving your legs for the latter part of the marathon also preventing injury.

Clothing should be tried and tested as your running style will be different running at ironman marathon pace.

Use a chaffing (Vaseline) on longer runs.

Incorporate hill runs for pure leg strength, needed on any hills or head winds or the last part of the marathon.

Use the official race day energy and fluids during your training build up do not take anything for granted.

Respect the marathon distance, Yes I know you can run this far after a 3.8k swim and 180km bike many an Iron man has come unstuck by ignoring the small aspects.

Key marathon sessions
Down hill running should form part of at least once week run training.

Your risk of knee and lower leg injuries are high at first but will make your legs stronger.

Medium paced hill reps then running back down again is an important part of your marathon training.

Practise to do what you need to do not just training. A good marathon will help you in the future. Yes I know you can learn more from what goes wrong rather than a great race but work on marathon speed endurance.

Your up and down hill running should be at the same heart rate.Aim for 75-83% of your max run heart rate.

Key point
You are working your heart so ignore speed for this session.After a good 10 minute warm up aim to run 4-8km on a hilly route.

If you have a small slope, run starting from one side like a wave run up then down avoiding any adverse camber.

Incorporate a 40-60 minute run once a week from 8 weeks out then 2 weeks before 30 minutes then race week - 6 days before a 10 minute runs at this pace during your taper.

The pace should be at an effort you can only maintain for 60 minutes.

Build up these sessions. First distance then heart rate. 3 weeks building up distance then 3 weeks increased distance and heart rate.

Injury prevention.
Build up hill time from 20 minutes (up & down) and do not add more than 10% each week. When you plan to add another session reduce the main set to avoid a 30%+ increase for that week.

Progression training then add some hills running once a fortnight for 10-15 minutes if your legs are not sore from the main up & down hills. If your legs are sore then you must be running down to fast or too tense. This is easy to remedy find a less steep hill and drop your arms sand shoulders.

Do not compete a new Up & down hill session if your legs were sore 3 days ago or are still sore.


Good supportive foot wear
(a) not worn out
(b) firm so you do not slip inside shoe
(c) have adequate grip for the surface.
Start by 60-70% effort up and down hill to check this during your warm up.

Stretching and sports massage will also help in your injury prevention armoury. Supple muscles are happy fast muscles.

Regular deep massage at least every 14 days as part of serious training plan helps speed up recovery and can prevent or delay injuries.

Keeps the muscles relaxed and removes any early tightness or scar tissue built up from training.

A good masseur will notice any changes and advise accordingly: rest, stretching or treatment.

Experienced marathon runners know the benefits of having massage and claim to have less fatigue problems in the later parts of the marathon caused by jarring.

See you on the road.