Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Which is Harder? A Half IRONMAN or a Full Marathon?

There have been quite a few discussions comparing the difficulty of a half IRONMAN with a full marathon, (Slowtwitch, Beginner Triathlete, and Cool Running) and I have thought a lot about it too, as I have done a few of each.

On the Slowtwitch forum, it's no surprise that most [triathletes there] think the triathlon is easier. Just about 42 of 42 people posting in the Slowtwitch forum agreed that a marathon is harder than a half IRONMAN. If we posted a question about the difficulty learning to play the drums vs the guitar on a guitar forum, you know what the answer would be.

The consensus from Beginner Triathlete and even Cool Running pretty much is the same, agreeing that a full marathon is harder.

The fact is, the one that's easier will be the one that you have trained the most for, that you love the most, and that you simply have a natural ability for. That's all there is to it.

However, if you only have experience in one (marathons or triathlons), and you want to know whether to consider entering the other, it's a fair question. Before I had ever done a half IRONMAN, I asked friends if it would be as hard as a marathon.

Let's break the events down into the following:

Training, Equipment, Preparation
The sheer complexity of training for a triathlon certainly beats just running. It requires much more planning, logistics, equipment, equipment maintenance, and don't forget, time.

I love the simplicity of just lacing up your shoes, and running out the door. There's no equipment to fiddle with, nothing extra to buy, nothing to break down, just you, your shoes, and the ground.

Figuring out a training plan that properly incorporates swimming, biking, and running in the right proportions and correct order is hard. With marathon training, you just run enough to avoid injury (not necessarily that simple), rest properly, and get some long runs in (30+k). While there are dozens of both marathon and half IRONMAN training programs to choose from, making a running-only plan work is much easier.

I might only run 7 hours a week while training for a marathon; my half IRONMAN requirements are 8-11 hours. I can do the 7 hours before my family is even out of bed; once I hit half IRONMAN training durations, it eats into my family's time. Especially when the pool is closed before dawn and the long bike rides may go more than 4 hours.

The complexities continue: Re-learning to swim well, finding a good pool that's easy to get to, getting a bike fit on your road bike to be suitable for a tri, buying a tri bike, fixing flats, adjusting the bike, finding nutrition and hydration storage on the bike, the list goes on.

The only reason I can think of why half IRONMAN training could be easier for some people is because of the variety it offers, especially for someone who doesn't love running. The fatigue and monotony of running day-in and day-out can take a toll over the 12, 16, or even 20 weeks you may be training for either event.

Completing vs. Competing
Some athletes race to compete, others are just happy to complete. This is all about how hard you exert yourself during the race. It also contributes to the difficulty of the training before the race - if you only need to complete an event, you may not put as much effort or energy into the training, you may miss some sessions, and you may not be as disciplined.

Personally, I am not happy to just complete any race. I have to do so as fast as I possibly can, racing against a personal goal. I can derive this personal goal from a past result of a prior race or from training. This is why if I can't put in the full training required, I will not race. A lot of my friends have said I'm ready for a full IRONMAN, and I know I could complete it, but I'm not ready to do it unless I can complete it well.

I believe the 42.2km of brutal pounding your body takes in a full marathon, when done at a level to compete, is worse than in a half IRONMAN in which you take a cool swim, do a paced spin on the bike (and coast, drink water, eat food - what luxury!), before doing a half-marathon run at the end (shorter than any long run you will have done in your marathon program).

Running means you carry your full body weight with you (not so on the swim or bike). Running means you subject your body to thousands of falls to the ground, creating impact your body may not want to take (not so on the swim or bike). Running means you cannot coast, glide, roll, or slide (not so on the swim or bike).

You may think that if you can finish a marathon in, say, 4 hours, but it takes you at least 5 or 6 hours to do a half IRONMAN, the marathon is easier. But because it's full-impact body pounding the entire time, the marathon is harder.

If you are only there to complete, a half IRONMAN is definitely easier due to the variety and the fact that swimming and cycling take less of a toll on your body than running. I have seen people walk the half IRONMAN run in its entirety and still finish well within the time limit. Try walking a marathon - you won't finish in time.

If you are racing to compete, whichever you have trained the most for and are better at will be easier.

Recovery
Again, the pounding your body takes running 42.2 km is greater than swimming 1.9, cycling 90, and running a measly 21.1.

That being said, after I finished the Seoul Marathon in March of 2015, I had no problems exploring the city, shopping, taking trains and taxis all over, and doing touristy sightseeing into the night. But I had trained very well for it.

Three weeks later, I finished the Putrajaya 70.3 in Malaysia, and needed a full day to recover. I was shattered. But I did no cycling training and very little swim training.

Conclusion
Which is harder? Plumbing or carpentry? Oil painting or watercolor? American football or soccer? Depends who you ask. Depends on what you know. Depends on what you have trained for.

But all things being equal, the act of running a marathon is physically more demanding than any half IRONMAN. Some in the Slowtwitch forum even think a marathon is harder than a full IRONMAN, because the pace is faster. You see more people walking the run leg of a full IRONMAN than a normal marathon.

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