Should I do a Marathon Before an Ironman?

It is December and it is off-season triathlon training. A lot of athletes will do a variety of activities during their off-season: mountain biking, lift weights (YES!), yoga, mobility work and run a marathon.  Here is a conversation between a coach and their athlete, who is doing their 1st Ironman:  

Athlete: “I am going to do a marathon before I do my Ironman.”

Coach: ”OK. Why?”

Athlete: “I want to see how fast I can go and run the distance.”

Coach: “Do you think you can run your best alone marathon time after you swam and bike in your Ironman? I don’t believe Christian Bustos* did that in Kona in 1992.”

Athlete: ”Well, I have never done a marathon before, so I feel that I need to do one before my Ironman. There is a marathon in the Ironman.”

Coach: ”I realize that. I understand that reasoning. My concern is the recovery time from the marathon, along with possibly injuries.”

Athlete: “What do you suggest? To do a marathon or do not do a marathon?

Coach: “No, I don’t suggest a marathon before your Ironman.”

That coach is me. Here are my reasons of why athletes should NOT do a marathon before their Ironman:

1. Recovery time –

Recovery time from a marathon is about 4-6 weeks. Everything in your body is in recovery mode…muscles, tendons, joints, ligaments, immune system, etc. Whether you set a PR for your marathon or you did your first, it is all the same.

There is a scientific study that has taken part of the calf muscle, pre and post marathon. The study showed that there was damage done during the marathon. The study explained that training for the marathon and during the marathon showed inflammation of the calf muscle, along with rhabdomyolysis, which is damaged skeletal muscle is breaking down at a fast rate, along with possibility of having urine in the blood.

Have you ever got a cold or upper respiratory infection after a major event or race? Yes, your immune system is severely damaged.  Check out this study about marathon training and immune function.

2. Possibility of Injury –

Training for a marathon is very hard on the body. The body is in a constant motion for 26.2 miles. For example, running is you and the road. You have to push your body through space and time. When you are swimming, you have the water to help you stay afloat (well for some). When you are cycling, you have the bike, to help you go through space.

As a triathlete getting ready for a marathon, you may plug in some swims and bikes but your focus will be 4-5 days of running. It takes a longer time to recover from a run, then it would from a swim or bike. Every time you hit the ground, think about how the ankle, hip and foot absorb your body weight. There are numerous studies about injuries and running a marathon. Check these ones out: Risk Factors for injuries… or Injuries Sustained by Runners…

3. Lose Quality Training time for the Ironman –

Let’s say your Ironman is in May. You did a marathon in December. It takes you about 4 weeks to recover, which puts you at January. We are starting to increase your swims and your long bikes.  Starting in January, you should be getting into your 4-hour bikes for the Ironman but this is what happens…

Body is fatigue. Mind is fatigued. You may not have the desire to get outside for those long bikes. We are losing some quality bike workouts for your Ironman. You may not have the desire to push yourself.

4. Training for a fast marathon will NOT benefit you for your Ironman-

Running a stand along marathon is completely different than running a marathon after a swim and a bike. Your Ironman run will be slower than your marathon time. Check out Timothy Noakes, “Lore of Running.” He has 15 Laws of Training. Check out #7, “Don’t Race When in Training…” Noakes explains that when you race, you race. Don’t race an event or do a “time trial” before your main race (i.e. Marathon vs. Ironman). “Racing, then, should be only the time-trials, and should only be run every two, or preferably three, weeks apart…six weeks between events would be more suitable for a marathon runner, but once every two months is probably better,” says Timothy Noakes. (Remember he is talking about running but a lot of his laws apply to triathletes).

*Who is Christian Bustos you ask? Christian Bustos ran a 2:16 stand alone marathon in Frankfurt, Germany.  At Ironman Kona in 1992, Bustos was on Mark Allen’s tail for 14-15 miles straight until he puttered out clocking a 2:49 (6:27/mile pace) Ironman marathon time. Mark Allen clocked a 2:42:18 (6:11/mile) that day. I am not sure if Mark Allen has done a straight out marathon. My point is, you will not be able to run a stand-alone marathon pace during your Ironman.

What do I suggest for your off season?

  1. Lift weights. See my blogs about weight training (5 Strength Exercises and How often to Lift). Start building those antagonist (opposite) muscles in the gym, that you don’t use for the swim, bike and run.
  2. Work on mobility. Check out Kelly Starrett’s Mobility WOD Tons of great stuff for athletes.
  3. Sign up for a Masters Swim group. Want to improve your swimming. Swim with FASTER people.
  4. Lift more weights…
  5. Find a Zen. Read. Hang out with friends and family. Go to a movie. Clean those headboards. Focus on your recovery from a successful triathlon season.

I understand why new Ironman triathletes want to do a marathon before they actually do one. It is for the mental aspects of that they can complete a marathon.

Let’s look at your off season…let’s start looking at quality workouts versus quantity workouts. Let’s start looking at enjoying life for 2 months and do something different because in January, you will be right back at it getting ready for your Ironman!

Interested in my ebook or paperback, “Rulon Rules: Strength Training & the Triathlete.” Grab a copy TODAY!