How to train for the toughest challenge of your life

© Jesper Gronnemark/Red Bull Content Pool
Written by Claire Chamberlain
Think you’re tough enough to tackle an IRONMAN triathlon? Red Bull athlete Lucy Charles tells us what it takes to cross the finish line of this brutal event and shares her training tips.
Considered by many as the most challenging one-day sporting event on the planet, it’s safe to say that attempting an IRONMAN triathlon is no mean feat. Comprising a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42.1km run, completed back-to-back, with no break and within a set time limit (usually 16 hours), it requires months of intense preparation.
Someone who knows a thing or two about triathlon training is professional athlete Lucy Charles. The 25-year-old broke the swimming course record at the IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawai'i this weekend, taking home silver for a second consecutive year.  
The women totally smashed it out there today!
Lucy Charles
To give you the inside track on what it takes to boss an IRONMAN World Championship, we caught up with Lucy to find out her top tips. Read on for inspiration...
Lucy Charles on the podium at IRONMAN World Championship 2018.
Lucy Charles finishes second at the IRONMAN World Championship 2018

What was your own route into triathlon?

I started out as a swimmer – even as an eight-year-old, I was super-competitive! I wanted to do the hardest event there was, which at the time I decided was the 200m butterfly. Then I worked my way up in the sport, eventually competing for Great Britain, aged 16. I got pretty close to competing at the 2012 Olympic Games in open water swimming, but after missing out I decided to find a new, bigger challenge. So I entered an IRONMAN and got stuck in! I haven’t looked back to be honest – I’m loving it so far.
Lucy Charles puts a swim cap on while in a swimming pool.
Lucy was competitive in the water from a young age

How would you recommend others get started?

I would say definitely don’t follow the route that I did! Build your way up, starting with a sprint distance triathlon, then an Olympic distance, and then the half distance before you do an IRONMAN, as you’ll learn along the way. Jumping straight in and doing an IRONMAN was a very steep learning curve for me, and although it did pay off, it was very difficult at times. So I would definitely recommend working your way up gradually and making sure you enjoy it enough to want to do the full distance.

Do you need to have a good base in all three disciplines?

I don’t think you necessarily need to have a lot of experience in all three. I’d definitely say if you’ve got a swim background it helps, because it’s the most technical of the three. However, the most demanding are the bike and run, so if you’ve got some background in that, it’s going to help you out a lot as well. But as the swim is the most technical aspect, if you haven’t had much experience then I’d definitely recommend some one-to-one swim sessions.
Athletics · 2 min
Lucy Charles shares her swimming technique tips
Outline a typical training day for us…
It normally starts pretty early – I’ll be at the pool by about 5.30am. The hardest part of my day is getting up! Then I typically swim for two hours, which can be any distance from 5km upwards. Once I’ve done that, I’ll go home and have a second breakfast, and then I’m normally on the bike for two to five hours. Typically I’ll do that indoors, because I live in London, UK and it’s pretty busy.
Then I’ll do a brick run off that ride, so I’ll get straight on the treadmill or run outside in the forest, for an hour to 90 minutes. After a late lunch, I’ll do a strength or rehab session, to make sure everything’s good and to prevent any injuries coming on board.
Fitness Training · 1 min
Lucy Charles shares her cycling tips

How can amateurs fit in training around everyday life, including full-time work and family?

I was an amateur for the first two years I was doing triathlon, so I really do know how difficult it is to juggle work and training, particularly when you’ve got a family as well. We all have limited time, so it’s about making the most of the time that you’ve got and being really organised. If you can get up early and train before work, that makes a big difference, because you can go to work already feeling pretty positive that you’ve ticked off a session. Just try to really manage your time as best you can. Of course, it’s also about realising that, if you’re tired, you maybe need to skip or adapt a session, to stop you getting ill or injured.
Athletics · 1 min
Lucy Charles shares her running tips

How long is a typical IRONMAN training plan?

If you want to be competitive in your age group, I’d say you definitely want to follow upwards of a four-month training plan, just to make sure you’ve got the base miles in. Anywhere from four to six months of solid training should make sure you’ll be able to finish the distance.
Close up of Lucy Charles riding her bike while training for IRONMAN.
Lucy Charles gets on her bike

How do you train for specific race conditions, for example the heat of Kona?

I’ve been training in London, which is definitely not as hot as Hawaii! So I’ve been artificially making my training environment indoors as hot as possible, with lots of heaters. If you’re training outdoors, then really layering up and trying to get your core temperature as high as you can will definitely help. That’s the key – just making sure you’re warm while you’re exercising. You’ll know it’s working when you actually feel cold a lot of the time when you’re not exercising – that’s a good sign you’re starting to adapt to the heat.
Athletics · 1 min
Lucy Charles mental preparation tips and how to push yourself
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How important is sleep in the build-up to competition?

I’m someone who knows how important sleep is, so I try to get between eight and 10 hours of sleep every night, to make sure my body is recovering.

Finally, what do you have to be prepared to give up in order to achieve that IRONMAN goal?

You definitely have to make a lot of sacrifices, particularly when you’re leading into a big race. I often have friends and family who want to go out for dinner, but I’m like, 'well, I need to go to bed early, unfortunately'. So you have to sacrifice quite a bit of your social life in order to get the training and the rest in as well. It’s a lot of commitment. But it’s definitely worth it if you have your heart set on completing that distance.
Lucy Charles and Daniela Ryf chatting at the podium at IRONMAN.
Lucy Charles and Daniela Ryf chat after the finish