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Ironman Training Tips from Rock/Creek racer Tom Sell

Unless you live in a cave, I am sure by now you are aware that Chattanooga has been awarded the Ironman Triathlon (starting this September) for the next five years. The event sold out online in one minute.

I was fortunate enough to gain a coveted spot and I will be attempting to complete my third Ironman Triathlon.

I have talked to numerous people who are also doing Ironman Chattanooga, and I thought I would jot down some tips to help everyone have their best race possible whether that be just finishing, setting an Ironman personal record or placing in their age group.


  • The key to the Ironman is long, slow workouts.
    If I were given the choice to train one hour a day for seven days or seven hours a day for one day I would opt for the seven hour training day. You have to condition your body to be out there for nine plus hours of non-stop exercising. Consecutive hours of exercise are a key in developing your long-event endurance as well as dealing with hydration and nutritional issues. Build your entire training program around these long, endurance-building workouts.
  • Eat and drink early and often during workouts and your event.
    Trying to come back from bonking and dehydration is virtually impossible once you start to feel the effects; keep your tank filled throughout your workout and your race. You will find that, a majority of the time, this will require a conscious effort on your part to stay fueled up with liquids and calories. Make yourself eat and drink.
  • Be Comfortable on the bike.
    I feel like there are a lot of people who drop thousands of dollars on the latest, greatest aerodynamic, lightweight, carbon machine only to be uncomfortable riding it for hours on end. Sacrifice a little bit of aerodynamics and stiffness to be more comfortable on the bike. Getting a professional bike fit can help to ensure that you are dialed in on the bike. The more comfortable you are coming off the bike, the better your run will be.
  • Practice your nutrition in training.
    Use in training what you will use race day with regards to gels, energy drinks, chews, etc. Find out what will be available on the race course and practice with it, if you don’t like what they have on the race course or you have not used it in training then bring your own nutrients. Use what has worked for you, not what is easiest.
  • Get strong.
    Imagine that you have the most powerful engine in the world and that you want to build the perfect race car. Are you going to stick that engine in a chassis of a Ford Pinto (Google search Ford Pinto for those under the age of 35)? Heck no, you are going to find a strong, lightweight chassis that will hold up to the power of that engine as you race.

    You could have the strongest cardiovascular system in the world, but if your body is unable to hold up to rigors of one hundred and forty miles of racing it does you no good. Pay attention to getting every muscle in your body — especially your core muscles — strong to withstand the pounding it will take. My favorite go-to exercises include-pull-ups, push-ups, plank, crunches, bear crawls, lunges and a fifty pound sand bag for burpees, push press, and front squats.

  • Listen to your body.
    I think that this is where I excel in my training program: I have no training program, only a loose template of what I need to do to get stronger and faster. I see too many people treat a training plan as the absolute must do. Training plans are a template and mere suggestions. Unless you have someone monitoring your blood work and vital stats there is no absolute way to know what is exactly right for you- it is all a guess and only YOU know how you are feeling and how your body is doing.

    Elevated pulse rates, irritability, insomnia are all signs of over-training. Listen to your body!! If in doubt, REST! I fully believe that the majority of Ironman people over-train and DO NOT rest enough. Resting is when the body heals itself and gains take place. Training your body while it is broken down is like constantly picking a scab on a wound-it will not heal as fast.

  • Try to end every workout feeling strong.
    I have nicknamed this my post workout Goldilocks principle: not too hard and not too easy but just right. I do not want to bonk, suffer from dehydration and feel absolutely miserable following a workout, nor do I want to feel fresh as a daisy like I did not push myself at all. I want to walk away feeling tired and yet like I could have gone further. Keep a little in the tank and don’t run out of hydration or fuel. Staying strong at the end will help the mental aspect of your training as well, always knowing you had more in the tank.
  • Eat as quickly as possible after long strenuous workouts.
    Following long, tough workouts of four or more hours, get food in you as soon as possible. Lots of proteins and carbohydrates to replace your depleted energy stores will help you to recover much quicker if ingested within an hour of when you finish your workout. I personally think peanut butter sandwiches or bean burritos coupled with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and pickles (for the salt content) are the best post-workout recovery foods.

  • Do several races prior to your Ironman.
    Do four or five triathlons or century rides in the six months prior to your Ironman. Try to schedule a couple of half Ironman races and do not do any race lasting longer than four hours within a month of your Ironman.
  • Always end your bike with a run.
    Jumping off the bike and running is a hard transition for the body to make. To help master the feeling of running on those dead legs always includes a run after your ride even if it’s only a mile or two. Your legs will better acclimate to making the bike-run switch on race day. It’s all about muscle memory and making an easier transition through persistent practice.
  • Swim open water.
    The majority of triathlons are held in open water. Pools are fine to train in part of the time, but ultimately you should find your way to a lake or river to swim in the open water. The reason for this is twofold: first you will practice your sighting for swimming open water; secondly you will gain confidence by swimming where you can’t see or touch the bottom. The buoy line at the dam is an excellent place to practice your open water swimming.
  • Do not go it alone.
    Ironman training is a different animal. It requires countless hours of training to condition your body to prepare to race. I really think the actual training for the race is tougher than the race itself. Schedule rides, runs, and swims with groups of people. It will make time go by faster and having the group camaraderie will spur you on to train on days when you are not feeling the love.
  • Two days on, two days off.
    This is my own personal formula that I find myself using the last month and a half of IM training. I train hard two days and then take two days completely off. It probably goes against a lot of conventional wisdom but I find that my body reacts really well to have two complete days to rest and recover. I feel both mentally and physically fresh when it is time to train again. I feel that the training is sometimes more mentally overwhelming than physically overwhelming. Often times less is better when it comes to training in your final month. You are better off going into the IM a little under trained than to be over trained.
  • Be prepared to suffer.
    It is very difficult to cover one hundred and forty plus miles and not suffer. I would be willing to bet that the majority of participants in Ironman Chattanooga will do some suffering. Endurance athletics by their very nature test one’s ability to suffer. He/She who suffers best and manages their suffering goes fastest…


Tom Sell has a BS and M.Ed from UTC and just recently added an Ed.S from Lincoln Memorial University. He is a 2x Southern Conference Wrestling Champion, a 2x Chattanooga Track Club Runner of the Year, a 2x High School Cross-Country Coach of the Year, a 4X Mount Mitchell Challenge finisher and a 2X Ironman finisher who is hoping to break his Ironman PR of 10:35 this September in Ironman Chattanooga. Questions or coaching needs? Feel free to contact Tom via email – [email protected]

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