Here we go again….

I’m in the thick of it now: Ironman training, that is. And since this is coming off of a block of training for ultramarathons, the comparisons here are fresh in my mind. In fact, I get asked quite a bit a question everyone loves to debate: Which is harder, racing an ultra, or racing an Ironman?

And, I think I’m finally coming around to a bit of an answer. I like to consider this question by comparing a 100k or 100 mile run, to the iron distance triathlon. I’m still not ready to say which is easier, a 50 miler or an ironman…..and I think my answer would contain a lot of “it depends”… And I think a 50k is easier than an Ironman, hands down.

But I’m beginning to realize that I think I have an answer, or at least a way to start an answer.

I think race day in an ultra is harder…..but I think training for an ironman is harder than ultra training (the disclaimer here is that I’m discussing training and racing for your best performance, not training/racing to “just finish”).

Triathlon is very tricky you see. Because you pick your first layer of training – just one of the three sports – and you focus on making that good and strong, using the other two sports less, and often just for recovery. When that is finally shaped and ready though, you don’t get to sit back and enjoy it just yet. Nope, you have to start on the second sport. And that means that the first sport stops feeling crisp and smooth because now you have to do two sports pretty well. And since you haven’t been focusing on the second sport for awhile, that doesn’t feel good either. So there is just a whole lot of hard stuff and a whole lot of blah for awhile.

But, you keep reminding yourself to keep the blinders on – focus on mind over matter. Just grind it out. And then, after a few weeks….they come together. There starts to be a synergy. But don’t sit back – there’s still a THIRD layer. And when you throw that in, yet again, the other two start to come apart a little bit. And it takes everything you have not to let it all melt down and to just be like “I’m too tired and too hungry and there is too much laundry to do this anymore.”

But no, instead you find that morsel of belief you have inside you, and you once again, keep the grind going. Trusting that the synergy will return. And it does —  it’s finally there. The three sports are almost flowing from one to the other that you start to be like “yeah, triathlon ISN’T three sports, it’s one!”

And then you get some rest to freshen up, right?

Well yes, but also no, because as Leslie reminded us — that rest, is never really restful after all. Because each of the three continues to be sharpened, right up until race day.

Ultrarunning is different. There is much more of a direct ebb and flow to the intensity of training – because there has to be. When the focus is on just running long distance, you have to train to run long distances. And the body can only sustain so much practice there. You have to build in much truer REST – not go out and ride your bike for 3 hours, or go swim 5k cruisey, rest. Real, feet up, more time for sleep, rest.

And for me, that’s easier. It’s easier to face a build you know is built of really really hard times followed by some really easy ones. Triathlon is much more of a melding of the sports, one always being used for hard while the others for easy, one getting you stronger or faster and the others keeping your body moving and recovering to go hard again tomorrow. There is a break from one sport – but rarely from all of them.

But that break, that transition of sports and therefore different muscle groups being used, I find make the grind of actually racing the Ironman a little “easier” than ultrarunning in the race itself (please note I am in no way saying racing is easy). Whether it’s distraction mentally to switch sports, or on the body, I find that while the ironman still hurts like no other, I find it easier to finish the day – even on a hard day – than to finish an ultra. Ultramarathon races also have you often finding yourself alone in the middle of the woods for hours on end…..and that my friends, is when challenges arise. Finding the ability to push on as hard as you can with no one else around, one foot in front of the other, after you’ve been doing that for the last 10….15….20 hours. That is really, really hard.

There is more to the debate, and to be honest I’m also too far into training to delve too much further in. But lucky for me, this is my blog, so I can stop the discussion when I please 🙂

Happy training everyone! Next up for me is a week in Tucson for camp (hello SUNSHINE!)….then home for a week….then racing season begins!

Published by Alyssa Godesky

Alyssa Godesky is a professional triathlete & coach.

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