Eat Well - Medical Advisory Board

What It Takes To Be An Ironman: Part II

Published: September 20th, 2013
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Part II: Physical Preparation, Nutrition and Finding Balance

Being motivated and having a healthy mental and spiritual approach to training simply isn’t enough to be an Ironman. Training for and actually completing the race is one of the most incredibly demanding physical challenges in the world. For me, it takes a minimum of 6-8 months of preparation, starting slowly to build a base of 5-7 hours per week of swimming, biking and running. By August and September, the workouts range from 16-22 hours per week and include an average of

  • 5-7 miles of swimming
  • 170-250 miles of biking
  • 20-40 miles per week of running/jogging/walking



When I began running around that high school track many years ago, I intuitively knew the fuel I was using for my body – fast food burgers, fries, soft drinks, etc. – was like putting bad oil into an engine. I quickly realized that to maintain and accelerate in a physical fitness program, I needed proper fuel and supplements. I essentially “discovered” the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, high-quality protein, avocados and healthy fats and good carbohydrates.

In addition, I learned that magnesium is frequently depleted with intense exercising and required additional supplementation. Vitamin D3, CoQ10, L-carnitine and N-acetylcisteine are all anti-oxidants for added mitochondrial support. D-ribose and creatine do the same. Protein supplementation with a high-quality whey protein, along with fish oil and resveratrol as natural anti-inflammatories, are also helpful. Proper hydration and calories, particularly as the work outs get longer, must be calculated. The grueling length and harsh conditions of an Ironman triathlon cannot be performed without attention to these details.

Finding Balance

For me, the most challenging aspect of Ironman training has been balancing sport with life.  Maintaining a strenuous training schedule, while finding time for work, family, and friends was never easy. However, I am never more efficient, defter in my hand-eye coordination, or mentally sharper than when I am training for such an event. What is the physiological explanation for this?  Simply stated, physical exercise is the strongest stimulus for the release of BDNF – brain derived neurotropic factor. This substance increases brain plasticity and the formation of new brain cells, both of which increase our memory, efficiency and learning. As long as we maintain a degree of insight into “touching” the family, social and spiritual sides of our lives, we know the work and the physical activity will take care of themselves.

Stretching our mind and our body to its limits – in any endeavor – does indeed provide the most fulfilling moments of our lives. I am triply blessed to experience this in neurosurgery, in triathlons, and with my family.

Read more of Dr. Maroon’s reflections on What it Takes to be an Ironman in Part I: The Mental and Spiritual Approach to Training.

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