28th September 2017.Which type of athlete, at the top of their sport, is the most fit? Is it the swimmer who slices through the water quickly and effortlessly? What about the marathon runner who puts in extreme distances at respectable times? Perhaps it is the cyclist, pumping the pedals through stage after stage of a gruelling race. A disagreement over the answer to this question would lead to the formation of the very first Ironman Triathlon: an excruciating test of willpower and physical prowess across all three sports in just one day. Today, it is one of the most popular and most difficult sports competitions in the world. What else contributed to its origins, and what does this triathlon entail? It is an event with a unique history and an even more unique challenge to provide to athletes. For those who decide to make completing an Ironman race a personal goal, what do you need to do to ensure you train properly for finishing the race? A lot of careful preparation must go into your efforts, or you'll quickly find yourself overwhelmed on the course. We can break down the elements of training to allow you to find the best way to hone your body for this intense competition. Before touching on that, let's take a closer look at what these events involve.

How does the Ironman Triathlon work?

The actual format for the Ironman Triathlon is very simple and has remained unchanged since the early days of the event. The triathlon takes place over the course of one day, and competitors have up to 17 hours from starting to cross the finish line. While that might seem like plenty of time, you need to consider just what you must accomplish in that time frame! First, the event begins with a 3.9-kilometre swim. In the original events, this took place in the open ocean around Hawaii; today, it might be a natural body of water, but sometimes indoor pools take their place, especially in winter or in landlocked areas where it wouldn't be feasible to swim outdoors. After the swim, it's time to dry off and climb onto your bike ? and be prepared to stay there for a while. The second leg is a 180-kilometre bike ride around a pre-determined course; originally, it was a full circuit of one of the Hawaiian Islands. If the thought of that long ride alone is making your legs tired, wait until the final part of the race: a full marathon. Overall, you'll end up covering more than 200 kilometres under your own power over the course of the whole race. It's not unreasonable to be intimidated ? it's a challenge, no doubt. Yet able-bodied people and those with disabilities regularly complete this trial every year, earning the Ironman title for themselves. You can, too.

Training basics: how to juggle training in 3 sports

It will take a serious amount of training to make the Ironman race bearable; you could skimp on the training and potentially still finish, but it will be a challenging task, and you certainly won't enjoy yourself. A good, basic rule of thumb is to plan to spend about 12-13 hours every week on your training. How far in advance should you start? Unless you're already in peak physical condition, you'll want to give yourself several months. Some people take up to six months to complete their training. While that might seem like a very long time to spend training for one race, consider that many runners spend just as long training for their first marathon. First things first: get everything you need ready. If you aren't a proficient swimmer, start spending more time in the water. You might even consult a swim coach or an experienced swimmer so they can analyse your form. If you are wasting energy during your swimming stroke, it could influence your whole race. Working out the kinks in your style is crucial. For the bicycling portion of the race, be sure you have a cycle that fits your body well. A pro-level cycle that is both lightweight and easy to ride will make the second leg of the Ironman that much simpler to complete. As for running, well ? that's easy, too! You just need to block out time to go on runs as any marathon trainer might. Overall, you should plan to dedicate each of your workout days to one activity. There's not much need to cross-train early on here. Your gains across all three of the sports will feed into each other as you practice.

Planning and maintaining your training

As you progress towards your race date, you will want to start mixing in other activities while maintaining one rest day a week. After a couple of months of hard training, take a week off to allow your body time to recover, then it's time to start mixing things together. For example, on a day when you normally only do an hour or two of heavy cycling, throw in an hour's worth of running afterward. On the days when you do your "long ride" to build cycling endurance, try to hop off and run for at least 20 to 30 minutes right out of the saddle. It may not be enjoyable, but it allows understanding of what you'll deal with on the course. Continue increasing distances as race day approaches, but begin to slow down gradually once you are under one month to go. In the final week before the race, you will train far less; this is called the "taper week" as you decrease your efforts. After all, if you go too hard, you won't have any energy left for the big day. You will need to prepare adequately for the day of the race as well, and it's not just about making sure you hydrate throughout the day. Nutrition will play a critical role in whether you can finish. Let's look at what you should do to make certain your training pays off in the end.

Aiming for the finish line: race day

Your body will burn through tonnes of calories and electrolytes during your Ironman Triathlon. To help prevent fatigue and stay in the race, you will want to eat a healthy carbohydrate-loaded diet in the days leading up to the race. Get one final meal in a few hours before the start, filled with protein and carbs. This boost will provide the basic energy you need for the initial stages of the race. You will want to bring along other supplements, like energy gels, for later in the day. Sodium replenishment is also important; as you lose salt through sweat, your muscles can begin to cramp. Replacing these lost nutrients with sports drinks or supplemental pills will keep you in the game. Don't underestimate the importance of pacing, either. You don't need to come in first place to feel accomplished, so don't start out your swim at your maximum effort. Remember how much farther you must go, and let the endurance you've developed in training do the work. If you don't feel well at any point during the race, listen to your body! Slow down, consume a sports drink or a nutritious supplement, and wait until you feel better to push harder. Avoid drinking water, or use it sparingly if you must ? too much can result in an uncomfortable "sloshing" in your stomach. If there's one way to end up losing your breakfast on the side of the race course, it's making one of these rookie mistakes.

Can you cross the finish line? Begin training now

There is a well-known saying in the Ironman community that crossing the finish line at all is a victory in itself ? coming in first place isn't as important as the overall accomplishment. When you consider just how difficult any one of the Ironman events would be on its own, it's easy to see why many competitors think that! Do you have what it takes to claim the "Ironman" title for yourself by crossing the finish line? You'll need to start your training soon ? and be sure to look for a local event that you can attend as well. With hard work and determination, you can prepare your body for its biggest challenge yet.