All you need to know about Ironman triathlon including disciplines, distances and age-group World Championship qualification.

Inarguably tough but incredibly satisfying, Ironman will change your perceptions of what you think is possible as an athlete. A triathlon race format with over 40 years of history, Ironman comprises of a 2.4-mile (3.8km) swim, a 112-mile (180km) bike ride and a 26.2-mile (42.2km) marathon run. The longest mass-participation tri events, Ironman races are a serious physical and mental challenge that will take you on an emotional rollercoaster and test your reserves of strength to the limit.

Ironman is the biggest name in the world of triathlon and the brand which, in 1978, solidified the fledgeling sport of triathlon into the recognisable format we know today – swim, bike and run. The sport of Ironman triathlon originally came about as a challenge to see who the best endurance athletes were: swimmers, cyclists or runners, and as such, took in challenging distances for each type of athlete that remain to this day, totalling 140.6-miles or 226km. The winner was called the Ironman.

Along with official Ironman events, there are plenty of iron-distance triathlons out there. If you don’t fancy any of the Ironman races, but are looking for a similar competitor experience, then Challenge Family might just have the big-brand event in the location you want. There are plenty of grassroots events too, which offer great value for money. Meanwhile, an ever-bigger selection of extreme iron-distance events – inspired by the original Norseman – are filling the race calendar, targeted firmly at athletes who believe Ironman isn’t already tough enough.

Why do an Ironman?

This is the big question. Choosing to race an Ironman is a huge undertaking that takes hours, weeks and months of preparation – both mentally and physically. Just clicking the enter button can be a big deal in itself! When most people first start triathlon, the idea of doing an Ironman seems impossible, yet for many of us the seed is planted in the back of the mind – even if we won’t share that ambition with anyone right away.

Ironman finishing chute (Photo: K Agaoua – Wikimedia Commons)
Reaching an Ironman finish line is an incredible feeling (Photo: K Agaoua – Wikimedia)

The training in itself can be all-consuming but it’s also very rewarding – you’ll become the fittest you’ve ever been simply because you’ll have to in order to get through the big day. When it comes to the race itself, all that fitness and mental strength gained is pitted against a challenge that most first timers – and many multiple finishers – aren’t certain they can complete.

It’s the nervousness and excitement of going into the unknown and ultimately overcoming the challenge by yourself that makes Ironman so satisfying. Just ask any Ironman finisher what it feels like to cross the finish line and you’ll get a small idea of what to expect – elation, relief, satisfaction, euphoria, overwhelming emotion or a combination of all of them – as your name blares over the PA with the immortal words: “You are an Ironman”.

The Swim

The 2.4-mile (3.8km) Ironman swim leg marks the beginning of your epic day of racing. It’s here that all the bundled-up nerves and excitement that have been building during the build-up to the race are finally set free. The Ironman swim always takes place in open water – a lake, the sea or even rivers on occasion. Depending on the location, swims might be a single long lap or multiple shorter loops, often with an ‘Australian exit’ between each where you’ll have to drag yourself upright out the water, run along the waterside and dive back in.

Ironman races can commence in a number of ways, from the chaos of a mass start where thousands of athletes turn the water white with flailing arms and hard-kicking legs to the more dignified rolling start where you essentially queue behind the start line, your own race time beginning when you cross the timing mat. You might begin in the water or with a run from the beach. In the case of the latter, you’ll need to think through and practise your strategy for when to transition from wading to swimming.

Swim start (Photo: Johann Schwarz (Creative Commons))
The Ironman swim start can be a chaotic affair so seeding yourself in the correct position is important (Photo: Johann Schwarz – Creative Commons)

Whether or not the use of wetsuits is permitted depends on the temperature of the water. Below 16°C and wetsuits are compulsory, then there’s the optional range up to 24.5°C above which wetsuits are usually banned. At the discretion of the race organisers, the optional range may be extended to 28.8°C but in such cases, athletes won’t be eligible for age-group awards or World Championship qualification. Local race federations’ wetsuit rules can sometimes differ, so to be sure to double-check before race day.

Some events, such as Ironman Austria, have different starting and finishing locations for the swim while Ironman Wales is known for its extra-long 1km run from the swim exit to the transition area. Whatever the swim course, for most athletes this first leg of the event is a low-intensity warm-up for the rest of the race. While concentration is needed to sight the buoys and stay on course, the swim is also a great opportunity to calm the race nerves and prepare yourself mentally for what’s still to come.

T1 – Swim to Bike Transition

While you’ll stow your kit next to your bike in the majority of smaller triathlons, Ironman and Challenge events utilise bags for competitors. You’ll have a different colour for each discipline numbered with your race number and full of the kit you’ll need for the bike or run.

There are literally thousands of bags, all hung by number awaiting their athlete to pick them from among the masses inside cavernous changing tents. Making sure you know where to find your bag is essential, so drill the position into your mind by doing several walk-throughs at transition check-in.

Ironman transition areas can be hundreds of metres long

In T1, you’ll run out of the water and into the huge tent, where you grab your bag and get changed. All your swimming gear will go into the empty bag, which you’ll usually add to an ever-growing pile in the corner, not to be reunited until after the race. Ironman transition areas can be hundreds of metres long, so locating your bike amongst the regiment of two-wheeled machines requires plenty of run-throughs. Finding a landmark outside the transition area that lines up with your bike can be a great way to ensure you don’t miss your trusty steed in the madness of transition.

The Bike

If all goes to plan, the 112-mile (180km) Ironman bike leg is the longest part of the day for most athletes. Courses vary wildly across the globe from the relatively flat roads of Ironman Florida to the Tour de France style mountain ascents of Ironman Nice or the tough, windy hills of Ironman Lanzorote. While the amount of climbing will vary hugely between courses, hilly or mountainous profile isn’t necessarily slower. While Ironman Austria is one of the fastest courses in the world, there is still over 2,000m of climbing to overcome.

Official Ironman events usually feature closed roads for better athlete safety considering the vast number of triathletes taking part whereas most iron-distance events, which tend to have far fewer competitors, will be held on open roads. Ironman bike courses are sometimes one lap like Ironman Kalmar or multiple loops like Ironman Frankfurt. All Ironman bike courses feature several aid stations where you can refuel and rehydrate during your ride, these also provide a great way to mentally break up the distance as well as get a bit of extra support.

Kona bike course
Once you are in the draft zone you have 25 seconds to pass (Photo: Christian Reed – Wikimedia)

Ironman bike legs are non-drafting, meaning that you aren’t allowed to get an aerodynamic advantage from the athlete ahead. Ironman’s competition rules state a 12m draft zone for all competitors from the front wheel of the leading athlete to the front wheel of the following athlete. That’s roughly equal to six bike lengths of clear space between athletes. You can only enter this zone when overtaking and you only have 25-seconds to complete the manoeuvre – any longer and you’ll face a five-minute time penalty. With so many competitors taking part in official Ironman events, unavoidable drafting can be a big issue, especially on courses with fewer climbs to break up the numbers. Single-lap courses are usually less congested while non-official events with fewer racers can offer more relaxed cycling environments.

Nearly everyone feels emotional highs and lows during the bike, but there’s plenty of time to get back on track if you hit a rough patch. More than anywhere else during an Ironman, patience pays off on the bike – there’s still a marathon to run and that will be a whole lot harder if you push it too hard during the bike leg.

T2 – Bike to Run Transition

In T2, you’ll rack your bike back in its designated place on the rack same place – though occasionally there are volunteers to help with this. Then you’ll enter the change tent, grab your run bag from its hook and get into your running gear as quickly as possible before. Once changed, you deposit your bike kit into the bag and add it to the pile. There are usually plenty of toilets in transition if you need to go and don’t forget to re-apply sunscreen if it’s a hot race.

Some Ironman events are ‘split transition’ meaning that T1 and T2 are in different locations. Split-transition events require a little more planning from athletes – you may need to get a shuttle bus to the swim start – meaning an even earlier start – or transport back after the race if you’d prefer accommodation near the swimming venue.

The Run

The 26.2-mile (42.2km) Ironman run is the most challenging section of the race for the majority of athletes. You’ve already been racing for several hours, energy levels will be wavering and it’s at this point that the chinks in your armour as an athlete – nutrition strategy, core strength, pacing, running form, mentality – all come to the fore.

The relief of getting off the bike means it’s easy to celebrate that freedom by running too fast at the start of the marathon. But as with all aspects of the Ironman, patience and perseverance are key. Like the bike, there will almost certainly be dark patches and it becomes ever more important to properly gauge energy intake. Thankfully, there are usually aid stations every few kilometres with everything from cola – an instant energy boost – to salty snacks like pretzels to keep sodium levels up.

Run course difficulty varies for each event – Ironman Lanzarote might have one of the toughest bike courses out there, but the seaside run almost entirely flat while Ironman UK features plenty of undulations to keep testing the legs right to the end. Courses are usually multi-lap and often feature out-and-back sections, which offers supporters plenty of opportunity to see you during this last discipline.

Ironman run course
26.2 miles is a long way especially off the back of a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike (Photo: Bo Jorgensen – Creative Commons)

As the kilometres tick down, things might get difficult but at least you know each step is getting you nearer to the finish line – and when you finally get there, it’s an incredible feeling. In the last few hundred metres, the pain vanishes as the enormity of what you’ve achieved starts to sink in, mixed with the sheer relief of having completed the race. Take in as much of the finish-line feeling as you can and you’ll be able to draw strength and inspiration from the memory in future training and racing.

Ironman Cut-off Times

Traditionally, Ironman events have had 17-hour cut-off times, though this now varies slightly based on the times of rolling starts. The swim and bike sections of each Ironman race also have their own cut-off times that athletes will have to make if they want to continue.

Typically, the 3.8km swim must be completed within 2:20 of the start with competitors needing to finish the bike within 8:10 (10:30 after the gun going off) 8:10 of the gun going off. This usually leaves 6:30 for the run to complete the race before the end of the ‘magic hour’ leading up to midnight.

Where Can I Race Ironman?

With a legacy dating back over four decades, Ironman events have grown steadily in number and now take place all over the world. There are around 40 official Ironman races – as far north as Norway and as far south as New Zealand with just about everywhere you can think of in between.

How Much Does An Ironman Cost?

There’s no getting around the fact that Ironman events are a serious investment with entry costs being around £450 / €600 / $800 plus a sizeable eight per cent transaction fee for the privilege. What your money does get you is thousands of competitors creating a buzzing atmosphere, the best race organisation in the business, closed roads on the bike course and the chance to be called across the finish line as an Ironman. On the other hand, if the Ironman brand doesn’t speak to you, there are plenty of cheaper alternatives.

Ironman World Championships

Once rightly obsessed by the Ironman lifestyle, it’s hard not to become enthralled by the idea of racing at the Ironman World Championships, which takes place every October in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. Each Ironman race around the globe offers the fastest athletes in each age group a number of slots for Kona, divided up based on the number of competitors in each age group.

Qualifying for Kona is the great ambition of many Ironman athletes who dream of following in the footsteps of many a champion: swimming in the ocean off Dig Me Beach; riding the Queen-K highway; and treading the hallowed tarmac of Ali’i Drive, the road made famous for hosting the Ironman finishing line.

Ironman World Championship Finish Line (Photo: Ironnato – Wikimedia Commons)
Crossing the magical finish line in Kona is the ultimate dream for many triathletes (Photo: Ironnato – Wikimedia Commons)

Whether you get to Kona or not, becoming an Ironman is an enormous achievement. Not just because of the distance covered or the time taken, but because of how hard you have to work to get there: the dedicated training week after week; the early starts and late finishes to fit sessions in; overcoming the dark patches in the race when your brain’s telling you to quit; getting your nutrition dialled to stay fuelled up; and just the sheer physical effort needed to get yourself to the finish line. All that takes something special – and it’s what makes Ironman special too.