Over 25 years, I have competed in 5 Ironman races and 12 marathons. My pursuit of extreme fitness produced some incredible experiences but valuable lessons too.
I travelled to beautiful parts of Europe, made great friends and have some incredible memories. Like most adventures in life, there are cautionary tales to be told and questions to be asked. Which is harder? Which is better value and healthier?
I don’t feel it’s as simple as comparing 140.6 versus 26.2 miles.
If you put an Ironman competitor and a marathoner in the same room, a debate follows. The Ironman triathlete proclaims:
“I run after a 112-mile bike ride”
The marathoner retorts:
“Shuffling ain’t running, I run hard!”
For the sake of comparison, here’s the frame of reference I devised:
Emotional factor: Ironman distances can be intimidating. 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile marathon. The swim can stress out athletes (when it was a mass start at least- it isn’t anymore), but the bike is fairly relaxing aside from the Tour de France stage-like distance. Then the marathon. The run leg in an Ironman can be emotional by virtue of the preceding physical and mental fatigue.
Unlike Ironman, a marathon, however, attracts a vast number of charity runners. If you run for charity it’s likely you’ve been affected directly or indirectly by cancer, MS, Alzheimers, stillbirth or leukaemia, to name a few. The start line contains more charity run vests than not. The emotional factor is enormous: runners will run to honour friends, family, and sponsors. I would say marathon running wins on the psychological factor.
Gender inclusion: typically and worldwide, in Ironman races, 28% are female whereas in marathon racing 32% are female. There is not much difference there, so we can call it a draw. Twenty-five years ago these numbers were half of what they are today. Thus, both events have done well though with some way to go still, so I will call it a draw.
Race Pain: in an Ironman the swim does not strain any major muscle groups such as the legs. In the bike leg, if you maintain a high pedalling cadence, you can get away with extensive fatigue. But here’s the thing: I have always thought that the bike portion (as crazy as this may sound) warms up the legs and preps you well for the run portion.
Yes, it is true that the swim and bike combined will cause some shoulder and back discomfort, but I would say the race pace pounding endured by the quads during a stand-alone marathon, is more significant.
I measure pain (in sport) in terms of intensity and duration. It comes down to prolonged moderate low-level pain (Ironman) versus ‘short’ sharp leg pounding racing the marathon. Even though I feel a lot stiffer after a marathon, I would go for a draw here by virtue of different kinds and duration of pain.
Technical aspects: In Ironman, you almost need decent skills for the swim and bike leg. Swimming with 3,000 other competitors requires nerves of steel and proper technique. With the bike too: you need mechanical skills to fix basic issues as well as strong bike handling skills. While both sports require excellent running skills, I would say Ironman wins in technical complexity.
Financial viability: Ironman triathletes will immediately complain this metric is not fair. For running all you need is a decent pair of trainers and shorts, unlike Ironman triathlon (multiple races, exotic training camps, and expensive kit), which nearly bankrupted me, and, contributed to a costly divorce (as I like to think). For running, you barely need a budget. We keep it simple. Look where it got Forest Gump. Marathon may well present more value for money, so the marathon wins this one.
Avoiding overtraining: because of the training volume, the likelihood of overtraining in Ironman triathlon is higher than in marathon training. The requirement to train in three separate disciplines and the associated mileage creates a higher probability of overtraining.
Three times, while preparing for an Ironman race, I succumbed to overtraining. The physical knock-on effects and the psychological ones are horrendous. Such fluctuations in wellbeing are something I have not experienced while training for a marathon.
I’m not a qualified coach nor an expert in exercise physiology and nutrition. I do though have a degree in psychology and 25 years of training and racing experience. While I loved every single moment of training and racing in Ironman, the dangers of overtraining are something many athletes experience yet few talk about it.
The reason for this is a sense of failure and shame especially when an athlete is self-coached. Marathon training, on the other hand, requires short sharp training sessions which necessitate more extended recovery periods. Marathon wins this one.
In conclusion, comparing apples with pears may be pointless. But if budget and time are not a problem, Ironman may well be your cup of tea. While it is a race which started in 1978 and has grown exponentially, marathon running has some serious history.
The first organised marathon was held in the Athens 1896 Olympics and remains to this day the most iconic foot race the world has ever known, and it is unlikely to be beaten in simplicity, efficiency and the glory it provides its devout followers. Ironman does, after all, crowns its beauty by ending with, wait for it… a marathon!