Be Iron Fit by Don Fink is an amazing guide to self-coaching your way to an Iron distance triathlon finish. The book is filled with inspirational stories, great triathlon training advice, and valuable information about how to conquer 140.6 miles of swim/bike/run. The focal point of the book is the 30-week training plans, broken down into three levels to suit the needs of most triathletes. You can follow the “Just Finish, Intermediate” or the “Competitive” training plans. I have used the Competitive plan for my three Ironman finishes and I was very confident that I was well prepared.
I belong to a handful of Facebook pages for the races I have done and to one awesome page in particular that is devoted to users of the book. We often support our fellow triathletes in their goal of finishing an Ironman using Be Iron Fit, and never hesitate to offer opinions on training and racing, and help when questions arise. Each new season brings in a new crop of first-timers that often have the same experiences and questions about the plan. Here is my advice that I can offer you about using the book in your pursuit of becoming an Ironman. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am not a coach, a top age grouper, a pro, or anything that makes me evenly remotely qualified to offer advice. I’m just a three-time finisher sharing my thoughts on the training.)
READ THE BOOK – Most of us that hear about the book or are referred to it are looking for a training plan to follow. Be Iron Fit has three plans to fit most peoples needs. But that is just a part of the book. Of course the plans are the main focus, but the book also goes into depth about training and triathlon in general. In the book, the author Don Fink explains most of the reasoning for the method he uses. But newbies will inevitably ask a question that will be a clear indication that they didn’t read the book. The swim training is probably the most confounding to people, myself included. The explanations are in the book, but someone will inevitably ask what “@20sec” means.
ONE SIZE FITS ALL – Be Iron Fit is a one size fits all program. Don Fink doesn’t have the luxury of knowing you were a great high school or collegiate swimmer, or you are a competitive cyclist, or you have qualified for the Boston Marathon. He wrote the book to help the average Joe and Jane balance life and training in attempting long course triathlon. Imagine a line drawn down the middle of all types of abilities. Some of us may be right on that line, some of us may be above it, and some below. Those on the line can do the training without many issues, and those above it may have to drop off some. The below people may need to work harder, but should find success as well. If you are way off the line, you may need to rethink your goals and decide if this book suits your needs.
There was a guy who joined the Facebook page devoted to BIF and had a dilemma: He was a so-so swimmer, a so-so biker, but he humbly claimed he was an above average runner. I looked him up on Athlinks. He was a sub-2:50 marathoner! Yeah, that’s above average for sure. He struggled with the run training because he didn’t want to lose his run conditioning, dropping down from the 50+ miles of high intensity running per week to 15 minute jogs. We suggested a personal coach, someone who could take that into account and create a training plan around that, because BIF can’t change. So yes, Mr. or Mrs. Fastrunner, you have to adjust yourself to the plan or find alternatives. The beauty of the program is that he has given us three levels in hopes to satisfy all athletic abilities and goals.
COACH YOURSELF/HOLD YOURSELF ACCOUNTABLE – Fink gives you three levels of plans to choose from and train for Ironman. Words of wisdom are in the book, and plenty of your questions can be answered by others seeking the same goal. But the book can’t coach you like a real coach. You can’t email it with a question about missing a few days of training and get a response. You can’t have it realign your training if you get injured. You have to do that on your own. You have to follow the plan in order to expect the results that the plan was created for. If you follow the plan you can expect the results you are hoping for. But if you need to rearrange the plan to fit your life, by all means do it. You just need to get the work in, especially the weekend workouts.
TRUST THE PLAN – How did the first couple of weeks go? I’m guessing you have done a few 15 minute runs and have wondered how that is going to get you through a marathon after a 2.4 mile swim and a 112 mile bike ride. Look, this is 30 weeks of training. It is a long time. You will slowly and methodically build to the point that you will be ready. You have to adopt the motto – TRUST THE PLAN!
QUESTIONING FINK – At some point you’ll be asking what is the purpose of doing a specific workout, or you will have an issue with the heart rate training. Or someone will say that they chose to do it differently. It’s okay to have a different approach, but it always amuses me that these first timers think they know more than the guy that wrote the book. He is an accomplished triathlete and well regarded, certified triathlon coach. Stop questioning him, and TRUST THE PLAN!
DON’T COMPARE YOURSELF TO OTHERS – Someone on the Facebook page will eventually comment that they are seeing others being able to swim at a much quicker pace than they can, or that others are averaging 18 mph on their bike rides and wonder why they are not doing the same. The truth is there is a wide range of abilities on these forums, from multiple finishers, athletes with finish times in the sub-11 hour category, and those that are at the other end of the spectrum. Don’t compare yourself to the others in the group. You may be in the 40-44 age group and be comparing yourself to comments made by someone in their 20’s. What you should be aware of is the time cutoffs for the race and where you stand against them. For most first timers, you are racing the clock, not the others on the Facebook page.
STAYING IN Z2 – You can’t stay in Z2 on your run, can you? Neither could I when I started and I thought I was a decent runner. Guess what? Maybe you and I aren’t as fit as we thought we were. Maybe the reason is most of us come from competing in shorter distance stuff where the focus is running faster and being quick. Finishing an Ironman marathon means you have to budget your effort to go the distance. Fink uses heart rate monitoring to help you build endurance and keep you from burning out. If you are doing your early training stuff above the recommended HR zone, you risk overtraining and injury. The goal is to be able to finish a marathon not just after swimming and biking in the race, but also after 30 weeks of training. You need to learn to pace yourself.
SPINNING AT 100 RPM/100 BPM – I’m guessing you can’t do this either. This is something that you will be able to accomplish over time, but it will take a while. The point of this workout is to get you to learn to spin your legs on the bike in an efficient manner without taxing your muscles heavily. These spins build cardio, promote good cycling technique, provide butt-in-saddle time to condition your butt, and keep you from overtraining. I relied heavily on the spin during the hillier portion of my three races and watched with some amusement at the others mashing up the hills out of the saddle, only to be completely out of breath at the top of the hill. I would usually pass them easily going up the hill, and would be much less tired at the top while they needed time to recover. Spinning an easy gear is smart training and will also be smart racing when attacking hilly courses. Plus you will be saving your legs for the run.
WHERE IS ZONE 3? – Go grab your book and find a workout that Fink says to do in Z3. I’ll wait. Did you find one? There aren’t any. Why? I wondered that myself, especially when I couldn’t stay in Z2 on my local hilly running route. Here’s my idea on it: I think Fink knows that we will struggle with Z2, and as long as Z3 doesn’t morph into Z4, he’s okay with you being in Z3 occasionally. But he just doesn’t want you training in it all the time. Most of the Iron distance racing pace advice you will find is to stay within Z2 for the race, so training in Z2 is the best way for you to learn the feel of the pace. Plus it keeps you from overtraining and injury. I found for myself that the local hills I run on my usual running route will push me out of Z2, but it is brief and I learned that I will quickly get back to Z2. Conclusion: Z3 is okay, but don’t live there.
THE THINGS I DID DIFFERENTLY – I followed the Competitive plan for my three Ironman races. I felt that I wanted to do the best I possibly could, and I had the time to put into the training that the Competitive plan called for. Plus my training buddies were also following the Competitive plan, and we thought it was best to all be following the same plan. But I have to confess to making some changes.
For my first race at Ironman Wisconsin in 2013, I followed the plan as close as possible in training – until I could no longer stand using the heart rate monitor and staying in Z2 all the time. Early on I was resorting to walking some of my run workouts, and being a long time runner there was just no way I was walking a run workout. Plus, after 25 years of running, I had a pretty good sense of pace and was confident I knew what each zone felt like. So I switched to “perceived effort,” which Fink warns against because he knows most of us can easily be enticed out of the zone he wants us to stay in. But I understood the importance of Z2 and knew as long as I didn’t live in Z3, I would be okay, and I was. I did Ironman Wisconsin very conservatively, finishing in 14:37.
Three years later (2016) I did Ironman Lake Placid and again followed the Competitive plan. For this race I had gotten better at my swim technique and would sometimes skip the Friday swim workout, or just do straight swims in training when it called for a specific workout. I always thought that the swim workouts were much more intensive than the bike or run workouts were, especially during the Base Phase of training. As a matter of fact, I did do swim workouts in the last 10 weeks of training that took me to the 2.4 mile distance, whereas I reached 100 miles on the bike and 20 miles running only once each during training. The other thing I did at Lake Placid was move out of Z2 more. The cycling course there almost forces you to, and I wanted to PR badly. I kicked hard for the last 4 miles of the run and finished strong. I improved my times in all three disciplines, finishing in 12:52.
The most recent finish was 2017 Ironman Louisville, again following the Competitive plan. This time though I said screw the swim workouts and did just two 45 minute swims per week for most of the plan. Occasionally I would do some drills and throw in some tempo/speed workouts, but mostly they were just straight swims. I did add some additional open water swims of longer lengths just to give me confidence. My swim finish at Louisville may have been partly due to the current aided Ohio River course, but I PR’d by about 10 minutes over Lake Placid and 20 minutes faster than Wisconsin. I finished with a PR at Ironman Louisville with a time of 11:46.
Here are some other changes I made:
- Fink prescribes two races during training, an olympic and a half-Iron distance race. I couldn’t find a local race close enough or cheap enough to warrant racing, so I did them at home. Luckily for me, I have a pool at home to train in, and I could relax and do them without all the anxiety and cost that comes with racing. Plus, I didn’t want to risk an accident or injury racing. Devoting 30 weeks to a goal is a lot of time to invest, and I didn’t want to jeopardize not getting to my A race in one piece.
- I would sometimes skip the Sunday bike spin prior to the long run, or would do it after the run later in the day.
- I didn’t do a single weight training workout. Not a single one. I hate lifting weights. No core stuff either. No thanks.
- I skipped a week of training to chaperone band camp. I missed all of the swim and bike workouts for the week, plus 4 hour weekend ride and 1.5 hour long run. I worried about missing them, but in the end it didn’t matter.
- Although not anything related to the training plan itself, I did buy a tri bike late in the training plan. This was something new I had to adapt to, but it did not take long to adjust to riding an aero bike vs. a roadie.
- As if just being an Ironman finisher wasn’t enough, I started a running streak on January 1, 2015. This meant that I ran at least a mile on the Monday rest day, and also on the days where there wasn’t a run planned. It was sometimes very taxing. I was able to handle it, but it probably didn’t add much to my ability to finish an Ironman. The only positive I can feel came from it is that I did a lot of bike/run bricks, and they became no big deal to do.
CONCLUSION – I went from being a doggy paddler afraid of open water to being a fairly confident swimmer. I went from thinking 30 miles was a long way to bike to crossing the century mark for the first time during my first Ironman race. I went from thinking I knew everything about running to learning new techniques. I went from watching the Ironman World Championship on television, wondering how finishing such a race was even possible, to being able to do the distance myself. I went from being only a runner to being a triathlete. I went from questioning myself to having confidence in myself. I went from fear of the unknown to having confidence in myself.
I’m a three time Ironman Finisher thanks to Be Iron Fit. TRUST THE PLAN!