6 Things I Learned While Training for a Half-Ironman

Written by Tamsin Douglas

Image by Guille Faingold / Stocksy

Last summer, a friend and I ramped up our cycling with progressively longer endurance fests culminating in a 124 mile, one-day ride from Canada’s Capital, Ottawa, to Quebec’s most cosmopolitan city, Montreal. With that epic ride under our cycling helmets, we needed to up the ante. So we signed up for the inaugural 70.3 Half Ironman (that’s a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, 13.1 mile run) in beautiful Mont Tremblant, Quebec. The opportunity to experience a 70.3 mile race so close to home was irresistible, but the clincher for me was the challenge of completing a longer endurance triathlon.

Over the past six months, I have trained my body and in the process learned, not just about triathlon, but also about myself. You will, too, if you take up the challenge.

1. Hiring a coach is worth it

If ever there was a time when you need a coach, it’s when you are training for not one, but three different athletic disciplines. A coach will help you with time management, among other things. After discussing my work/life schedule with my coach, I found myself with a plan. Now, I receive daily emails from Training Peaks with the plan for that day. And what’s more, I understand the purpose of each workout thanks to my coach who frames the work ahead on our daily calls. I can see that each session has a near term objective that helps me get closer to my longer term goal of the Half Ironman. Somewhat driven at times, training with a purpose is key to my sense of accomplishment and helps avert motivational issues.

2. Training consistently breeds confidence

Okay, you can have a plan, but if you don’t execute on it, what’s the point? There were many weeks that I had to rework my schedule with the help of my coach when my business travel, or just life in general, got in the way. By consulting with my coach and adapting as necessary, I am able to get in the training. When traveling for work, I rent a bike instead of a car. I also fit in my workouts in the am before work to ensure that my job obligations do not interfere with my training. And by committing the hours to swimming, biking and running each week, I discovered a new level of fitness. Suddenly a 70 mile ride seemed less like a slog and more like something to work in before lunch. Consistent training and commitment to the necessary work ultimately breeds confidence. I believe now that I can comfortably complete the 70.3 mile distance.

3. Training the weakest link works

Naturally, most of us prefer to do the thing that comes easiest to us. For me, it’s swimming. But training your strength won’t help you on race day. You have to identify your weakness. Cycling is mine, with running a close second. While I am an experienced cyclist, I struggle up the hills. My asthma plays a part for sure, but much of it has to do with my willingness to suffer and my ability to harness leg power. My coach prescribed intervals and strength work on the bike. I committed to the work and, sure enough, started to see results. Now, I am no longer the last one to crest the hill top. And I actually enjoy the challenge of a hilly course where I used to dread it.

4. Training your mental strength is just as important as training the body

While I have learned lots about the technical aspects of the three athletic disciplines required for a triathlon, what I think has been the most valuable to me is learning that I have the mental fortitude to stick it out when it gets tough. It would have been all too easy to sleep through my six am swim practice or stay warm and dry when it’s cold and wet outside instead of heading out for a run. But I didn’t. Beyond getting the workouts done, I also had to face down my fear and self-doubt. Could I do that crazy brick – bike for 40 minutes followed by a half marathon run? I confronted my fears and came out the other side knowing that I do have the mental strength to see myself through my doubts. And what’s more, I actually enjoy the challenge, the pain of getting myself through these hard sessions. The sense of liberation and self-esteem that comes with this is priceless.

5. Yoga is an athlete’s ally

Swimming freestyle for many kilometers a week or spending long hours on the bike or on the running trails can cause your body to get a little tight and sore in places. Apart from regular sports massage, I try to maintain a yoga practice. Sometimes, I only have a few minutes a day, but I find by regularly moving myself through postures that focus on areas that feel tight, I am able to stay one step ahead of injury. I also believe that yoga can help you learn to listen to your body and be aware of its limits. Beyond the physical, yoga can also be a great tool for relaxation and learning to deal with training setbacks with equanimity. (Check out Sage Rountree’s books and website for more about how yoga can benefit the athlete.)

6. Training is better with friends

Lastly, while it’s possible to get through the training without much help from family and friends, it sure makes the journey a lot more fun to have their support. Through the training process, I learned how lucky I am to be surrounded by such wonderful and encouraging people. Not only did they tweet or text me messages of encouragement, but they also accompanied me on long bike or run sessions. They didn’t have to ride in the cold or the rain, but they did. And I’ll never forget when a good friend stepped in to see me through a scheduled half marathon run. It was bucketing down rain that day, but she came out anyway. How awesome is that?!

In the end, triathlon training can be much more than just about performance.

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