You'll never have an easy 140.6-mile race, but proper training will get you to the finish line. An Ironman triathlon, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, is arguably the most grueling one-day competitive event you can enter. Going into the race without proper, structured training is a surefire way to fail. The official Ironman website notes that about 75 percent of athletes preparing for the race end up working with a coach. If you prefer to go it alone or simply cannot afford the expense of a professional, at least find a free plan that can get you through the race.
If you've never raced an Ironman distance before, look for a plan that offers 26 to 36 weeks of preparation. This endurance event requires a strong base of aerobic fitness that takes weeks to develop. A long-range plan permits you to ease into training and build up a high volume slowly so your body can become accustomed to the work and you don't end up doing too much too soon, which is a recipe for injury, overtraining and burnout.
Consider Your Schedule
When perusing free plans, consider your schedule. While a plan may look good on paper, it may not play out successfully in your reality. Plans can top out between 15 and 20 hours of training per week. If you have a busy job, an active social life and a demanding family life, look for a plan that works with these time constraints. More isn't always better when it comes to training. A plan that maxes out at 16 hours per week, but offers quality drills and focused sessions, may be more valuable to you than one that includes 20 hours of low-intensity aerobic work -- especially if fitting in all those hours adds stress to your life.
Identify Your Weaknesses
Free plans are unable to detect your weaknesses when it comes to triathlon like a coach can. You'll have to be able to identify the sport you most need to work on to feel successful come race day. Look for a plan that emphasizes cycling if you are not comfortable going for five or more hours. If swimming causes you anxiety, find a plan that provides guidance for open-water and pool swimming. A free plan must still offer a general balance of swim, run and cycle training; after all, you aren't training for three separate sports. You are training in three different disciplines that meld together for one long race.
Consider the Source
Before following any-old free Ironman training plan, consider who wrote it. You are best off finding a plan from a certified triathlon coach, not some athlete who managed to cross the finish line by doing his own thing. While his accomplishment is impressive, it may not translate to your body. Although free plans tend to be a one-size-fits-all approach, a coach has a better idea of what works for most bodies. You'll have no guarantee that any particular free plan will work for you, but if it comes from a certified coach you will at least know that you'll be following safe and proven training methods. A quality plan will increase your duration by just about 10 percent each week and leaves time for an occasional lower-volume week for recovery.