How to win Ironman…guaranteed


I don't see the point of advice columns by Ironman champions. Just because you won doesn't mean you know how to win, at least not in ways that you can explain to others. Kind of reminds me of reporters asking those people in the Andes how they lived to be 120 years old, as if one of those people actually knew the reason. ("I never drink, I drink every day, I don't smoke, I smoke three packs a day, yada yada yada.")

Qualified scientist that I am — I had a chemistry set when I was in grade school — I decided to give some thought to how people actually win The Big One, the Ironman World Championship, whether they know it themselves or not. Took a bit of digging and some research, but I'm ready to share the secrets with you. If you follow these simple steps to the letter and don't overcomplicate things with a lot of extraneous gobbledygook, you will win. I guarantee it.

Secret #1: Swim strategy We all know that Ironman isn't won or lost on the swim. The idea is to get through it as efficiently as possible so you have plenty left for the bike and run. Then again, if you're a pro, there's a premium for winning the swim leg. So what you should do is this: Stay about half a body length behind the leader until the last 100 meters, and then sprint around him to the finish. That way you'll save energy, win the prem and have a comfortable head start on the bike.

Secret #2: Technique The better your technique, the less drag you'll create, reducing the effort needed to move through the water. So make sure your technique is really, really good and the rest will take care of itself.

Secret #3: Swim a straight line Okay, I have to introduce a little math here, but stick with me and we'll get through it together. The time required to finish is the distance divided by your rate of speed. Therefore, the shorter the distance, the faster your time. Now, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. (Don't try the proof yourself, just trust me. Ignore Einsteinian space-time curvature, too: That only comes into play in longer races.) So the closer you stay to a straight line in the swim, the less distance you'll travel and (if you've been paying attention you'll be way ahead of me here) the faster your swim time will be. Bottom line, even if you didn't follow all of that, is this: Swim in a straight line and you'll come home a winner.

Secret #4: Reduce wind resistance The work you do while pedaling accomplishes only two things: overcoming wind resistance and overcoming friction. This was dramatically demonstrated in 1984 when two-time Olympic cyclist and Ironman winner John Howard rigged up a contraption that eliminated all wind resistance and hit 152 mph using nothing but pedal power. So the first secret of the bike leg is this: Reduce wind resistance.

Secret #5: Reduce friction Secret #4 dealt only with wind resistance. There's also friction to worry about, so make sure you reduce that as well.

Secret #6: Pedal faster Sorry, we have to use some math again, but believe me, this is worth understanding. For any given gear setting, every turn of the pedals gives you exactly so much distance. This is fixed by the immutable laws of physics and there's not much you can do about it. What you can do something about is "turnover," which is the rate at which you pedal. Now, here's where the math comes in. Let's say that, for a given gear setting, X turns of the pedal gives you Y distance. (In technical terms, Y is a function of X, but let's not go there.) If that's the case, then aX gives you aY distance. Okay, I know I lost you, so let's get this down to practical terms with an example: Let's say that one turn of the pedals gets you 30 feet of distance, or Y=30X. Well, if you pedal 20% more, then you go 20% farther. Simple and obvious, but here's the good part: If you pedal 20% more in the same amount of time, you go 20% farther in the same amount of time. In other words – ready for this? – the faster you rotate the pedals, the faster you go! That's Secret #6: Pedal faster and you shorten the bike leg! Increase your turnover and you'll be a winner!

Secret #7: Know your target run time If you give the run leg only cursory thought, you might think that your basic task is to run faster than your competitors. But it's not that simple. The problem is that one or more of your competitors (probably the ones that already know these secrets, even if they don't know that they know) might have gotten off the bike and onto the run ahead of you. Therefore, the job ahead of you is to run according to this formula: Tyr < Togr – Diff (By, Bog), which can be read as "The time of your run has to be less than the time of the other guy's run less the difference between your bike finish time and the other guy's bike finish time." So let's say that she finished the bike ten minutes ahead of you. According to the formula, you have to run ten minutes and one second faster than she in order to win the race. As it turns out, any fairly sophisticated sports watch with a built-in programmable calculator can be used to perform the computation so you don't have to do it in your head while you're still dizzy from the long bike.

Secrets #8: Break it down: Just because you know the formula for computing your required run time doesn't mean you're home free. You still have to figure out how to accomplish it. This is a little tricky because calculations involving time are done in a "modulus 60" numbering system but, again, any fairly sophisticated sports watch with a built-in programmable calculator can do the job, as follows: The marathon is 26.2 miles. Take that number and divide it by the Tyr figure you computed above. The result is the amount of time per mile that your run must be faster than your competitor. If you didn't follow that logic, don't worry about it. Trust me, it works every time and can't fail. For example, if you came off the bike nine minutes behind your competitor, all you need to do to wrap this baby up is run 21 seconds per mile faster than he does. Do that, and I absolutely guarantee that you'll win the race, even if you didn't grasp the underlying mathematics.

(If that spun your head, just remember this: You have to run fast enough to overcome your opponent's lead plus a few seconds extra to get you out in front at the finish line. Here's a little shortcut mental trick: Make sure you pass your opponent on the run, and then get about fifteen feet in front. Hold that through to the finish and you're home free.)

Secret #9: Eat correctly Your body is like any other engine: It needs fuel to run. So make sure you eat the right amount of what it requires so you don't "run out of gas" before the end of the race. While we're on the subject, there's also the matter of hydration. Your body needs water, and you have to replace whatever it is you lose while underway on the race course, including associated electrolytes. So it's critical that you do this, by drinking the right amount of the right fluids. And don't cramp up or get sick, either, as this will only slow you down.

Secret #10: Be fit I know what you're thinking: All of this sounds great, but don't you need to have the strength and endurance to pull it all off? Well, of course you do. That's why I saved the most important secret for last. You have to be as fit as possible coming into race day, so you should plan your workouts to accomplish that. Also, and this is mostly for the pros, your fitness level varies according to the intensity and duration of your workouts. You want to be as strong as possible on race day, so plan your workouts so you're at your very best at just the right moment. Olympians do this all the time and it works.

Summary: I didn't mean to overcomplicate the task at hand. All of these secrets are really just stepping stones to your major objective which, boiled down to its essentials, is to get from the start line to the finish line in less time than any of your competitors. But that's not as easy as it sounds, especially in a race as long as Ironman, and when it gets lost in the noise and hubbub of race day, just remember these ten essential secrets and you'll be amazed to discover yourself at the top of the podium at the end of the day.

I guarantee it!

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top