Ironman Competitions

The champion of the grueling Olympic decathlon is often described as the world's greatest athlete. The winner of the Hawaii Ironman event, a world championship competition involving open water swim, bicycle ride, and marathon run, can lay a legitimate claim to the title, "World's greatest endurance athlete."

The Ironman is a sporting competition with relatively recent origins. It comprises longer distances in the same disciplines that constitute the triathlon, an Olympic event with prescribed distances of a 1.5-k swim (1.0 mi), 40-k cycle (25 mi), and a 10-k run (6 mi), with the Ironman elements. The term "Iron-man" is now accepted as both the generic term for any form of long-distance triathlon, as well as the name of the sanctioned events that have fixed distance classifications and international entrance qualifications.

Ironman competitions have two distinct historical points of origin. The first formal triathlon race was held at Mission Bay, California, a competitive progression made from the informal joint training sessions of runners, cyclists, and swimmers who lived in the area. In 1978, in a development independent of that in Mission Bay, a debate had simmered for some time among the endurance sport athletes of Hawaii as to which of their sports was the most demanding. At that time, Hawaii hosted three separate endurance races: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, an open water race of 2.4. mi (4 km) in the Pacific Ocean; the Around Oahu Bike Race, which looped around Oahu island for 112 mi (170 km); and the Honolulu Marathon, at 26.2 mi (42.2 km). The first Ironman competition simply took all three of the existing Hawaiian endurance races and combined them into a single competition; the distances have remained unchanged since 1978. John Collins, a retired United States Navy commander, and his spouse, Judy Collins, organized the first Hawaii Iron-man in October 1978. Collins declared prior to the race that, "Whoever finishes first we'll call the Iron man." Fifteen athletes started the inaugural race, and twelve managed to finish.

Ironman competitions are such a demanding event that they seem beyond the range of the recreational athlete. The demands upon the body, in terms of the training required, the physical effects on the body, as well as the variety of techniques to be employed in each of the athletic components, were initially seen as so great that the Ironman was seen as a sideshow to more serious athletic endeavors. The Ironman did not receive wide-scale publicity until 1982, when it was first broadcast on national American television. That publicity, with both the rise to dominance in the sport of American Dave Scott, a six-time Ironman champion in the 1980s, as well as the increasing popularity of the triathlon, were the factors that propelled the Ironman into an international sports niche. In 1986, a purse of $100,000 was established, a then-unheard of prize for a triathlon; the annual first prize for both the male and the female champion now exceeds that amount.

The Hawaii Ironman was imitated in various parts of the world in the 1980s. Ultimately, the Hawaii Ironman, an event that is now the property of the World Triathlon Corporation, has become the de facto world Ironman championship, as athletes from around the world race in sanctioned international qualification events for the coveted Ironman slot, a place in the Hawaii event. Given the demands of the Ironman distance, athletes will usually seek to qualify in the year prior to the targeted Ironman. The modern race is divided between professional athletes and age group contestants, and the total field exceeds 3,000 athletes. The World Triathlon Corporation is a world sports organization that has accepted the World Anti-Doping Code in the governance of its events, as developed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

International triathlon distances, which are governed by the International Triathlon Union, are now harmonized with those used in the Hawaii Ironman and its qualification races. A sprint triathlon is defined as a swim/bike/run event where each segment is approximately one half that raced at the Olympic distance. The Olympic triathlon is both the name of the event as well as that sanctioned for the Olympic Games. The "half Ironman" involves race segments precisely 50% the length of each Ironman component, with the Ironman distances the longest form of competitive triathlon.

The training required to complete a Ironman event is one that places significant demands on every aspect of the endurance and energy systems of the body. Like the decathlon, the Ironman is an ultimate testament to excellent cross training techniques. The elements of technique in each of the disciplines, diet and nutrition, sleep, overall musculoskeletal strength and flexibility, and technological concerns with respect to the cycling component are all essential; a failure to adequately prepare in any of these areas may lead to a competitive failure.

While a number of professional Ironman competitors may have the ability to live in a climate similar to that of the event, most athletes will have to include acclimatization techniques in their training programs.

Many athletes who take up Ironman training have previously completed a number of shorter triathlons. It is inconceivable that an athlete would attempt as the first triathlon the Ironman or the half Ironman distance. The experience of the athlete in the shorter races will provide him or her with an inventory of the personal strengths and weaknesses in each of the components of the race. The training of the athlete to succeed in the challenges presented by the longer Ironman distances will begin with a determination of what areas require more extensive training than others, without sacrificing the abilities achieved in that segment. Most athletes enter Ironman training with a pronounced preference for one of the swim, bike, or run aspects; swimming is generally regarded as the most difficult of the Ironman sections, and over 60% of all Ironman champions have come from a swim specialty background. The elite distance runners and cyclists usually possess a very slender frame, which is a difficult transition to the rigors of open-water swimming.

Each of the Hawaii Ironman course segments has significant variables that are subject to environment. The swim, raced in open ocean waters, can be subject to intense wave action and current. The cycling course, which is conducted on the roads through the ancient lava fields, often subjects the cyclists to swirling winds and significant heat over the longest of the race components, typically five hours for the elite Ironman racers. The run portion is similarly affected by heat and wind; the athletes are particularly vulnerable to these effects because, at the beginning of the run, they have been in the warm, often dehydrating environment for many hours. Virtually all of the sanctioned qualifying races for the Hawaii Ironman have their own unique course topography and environmental conditions to overcome.

Athletes who consider attempting the Ironman distance, whether in Hawaii or elsewhere, will generally possess a high level of basic fitness. The training for the Ironman will therefore center on developing that existing base, with particular emphasis on techniques to improve efficiency in all three aspects of the competition. The training, which will extend over a period of months, will employ the principles associated with the "periodization" of training, with built-in peaks and rest periods to ensure injury prevention and mental sharpness. In addition to the actual swim, bike, and running training required, the periods will include both weight training and stretching and flexibility exercises.

The stretching and flexibility exercises used to prepare for Ironman competition are intended to achieve a number of purposes. Stretching will assist in recovery from hard workouts, in which every muscle group will be employed. Stretching will also assist the body to remain in balance, as a preventative against the injuries attributed to muscle imbalance, such as groin pulls, calf strains, and Achilles tendon injuries.

Weight training, both with free weights and machine weights, serves a number of training purposes. Weight training also aids in the balance that the body must possess to be effective in completing three athletic disciplines where arms, shoulders, core, upper, and lower leg muscle groups are essential. Given the hours that are of necessity spent in the actual training for each segment, weight training can also represent a change in routine that is beneficial to the mental outlook in a challenging sport.

Athletes beginning the swimming leg of the 2005 Ironman Triathlon.

In the actual event training, technical points will be emphasized where the athlete has prior triathlon experience. Mechanical issues, such as the maintenance of stroke technique in the water, proper aerodynamics on the bike, and achieving an optimal efficiency in running stride, are all matters that will receive ongoing attention as each plays a crucial role in the ultimate speed that the athlete can achieve in each portion of the race. The Ironman, like all triathlons, has the further technical issue of transition. The events are many hours in length (the male course record at Hawaii is in excess of eight hours, and the female course record is over nine hours), but as races are often decided by seconds, Ironman competitors will seek out the aspects of the race where time can be saved. The transitions from swim to bike, and from bike to run, involve equipment, shoes and clothing. The more organized athletes are heading into the transition area, the quicker they will be onto the next segment. Ironman competitors will practice and hone their transitional skills.

SEE ALSO Cross training; Cycling; Hydration.