Ironman Training – A retrospective

Ironman training is not really a one year thing.

I’m talking about the kind of training that it takes to do Ironman as a race. The vast majority of people out there are not doing Ironman as a race, they’re doing Ironman as a stunt. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it’s a stunt, a “look at me, let’s see if I can do this” kind of undertaking and it does not require what I’m about to describe. I also know that it doesn’t take more than one year to prepare to do the stunt called Ironman because hundreds of people do it every year, they watch the race on Sunday, sign up on Monday, and start training on Tuesday. The next year they make their way to the finish line on Sunday and are spending Monday spending in the merchandise tent outfitting themselves with all kinds of clothing and widgets with M-dot insignia to tell everyone that they were successful at the Ironman stunt.

Ironman was conceived as a race and to tackle Ironman with any sort of race-mentality or race-approach there’s a requisite level of ability in swimming, cycling and running required. I wasn’t keen on attempting 226kms of racing until I was going to do 226kms of racing and not just performing the stunt. I would recommend the same thing, and to do that requires a few years of learning to swim, bike, and run. Learning what different paces feel like in the pool and on the road. Learning approximately how long you can last for a variety of these different paces. Learning that you can push your body to do a bit more than you know is possible. Learning what kind of effort it takes to do 25kph 30kph 35kph and 40kph on the road with your bike. Learning what it feels like to accumulate fatigue over the course of a period of tough training and learning to trust your body to recover and get stronger when you unload training stress. Learning how to change a flat tyre on your bike. Learning how to request a higher level of performance from your body on race day than you do on any other random given day of the week. Learning how to consume food and nutrition while exercising at intensities that allow for it. Learning how much clothing is appropriate to wear in a vast array of differing environmental conditions. I think those are all prerequisites to deciding to try and race an Ironman. None of it is necessarily difficult but I believe that all of it is important, without those basic skills, you would have too much experience to gain that you’re going to be unable to train yourself effectively without getting caught up addressing details throughout the preceding year. When push comes to shove, you need to direct your attention to training your body rather than learning how to train your body. Learn in the minor leagues, perform in the majors.

It would be awfully nice to have completed all three legs of an Ironman as stand-alone events prior to race day. The confidence boosting aspect of not setting a record longest ride, longest swim, or longest run at the same time as trying to race Ironman is worthwhile. If you’re out there for the stunt, then disregard this, why not make Ironman your longest swim, longest bike and longest run. The stunt is just all the more impressive if you do it that way. If you’re racing though, the extra stress is nothing but bad news for you. You’ll likely do the swim and ride durations many times throughout the year but likely will never do the run in that final year if you’re being intelligent about it. (Full article about why that would be considered intelligence) In short: the recovery from doing so will cost you too many days recovering of the 365 in that last year to be of net-benefit. Thus to have previously run a marathon at some point in your athletic career is a real asset.

I did 800 hours in the preceding 12 months. That averages to about 16 hours a week. I did 700 the year before that. Ironman takes a lot of training so you’d better love training. Even Ironman athletes who are way on the low end of the spectrum with an average of around 10 hours per week are still doing more than an hour a day on average. That is a lot of training. The 800 hours level of volume is almost certainly more than what you need to be able to race, but it’s not unreasonably high by any stretch of the imagination compared to others in the sport. 800 hours is likely somewhere close to what is required to get yourself in and around the 10 hour mark.

That said, you don’t need to do it fast to have a good time. My biggest goal this season was to have fun. Luckily for me training is fun, especially riding. I think I would have had just as much fun on race-day if I did it in 12 hours if 12 hours was what I was prepared to do as a best effort. My second goal was to finish (an important goal for first timers!). My third goal was to run the entire marathon. I didn’t have a time goal but rather a time target of 10 hours to keep me on track for what I knew I could do rather than what I hoped I could do. I was within a percentage of that in the end and so I’m at peace with it despite agonizing over that one minute quite a bit in the following week. Be careful about setting goals, they can make the sport a lot less enjoyable. On a slightly related note I think it’s mightily important to get approval from the people in your life before you try and train 800 hours. That’s a lot of hours.


Despite what you may like to believe, I believe that triathlon is all about the run. You may cite examples of various race outcomes that might seem to suggest otherwise but on average over the many years that this sport has evolved and changed, it’s the best runners who are the best triathletes. That doesn’t mean that they don’t ride well, or swim well, but more often than not it’s the guys who can approach the run like it’s an ace in the hole that are performing to their potential. They need to be smart about the bike ride but they don’t need to worry about going too hard, they’re good enough runners that they can do portions of the bike “too hard” when it’s strategically advantageous to do so and still run extremely close to their potential. Treating a triathlon as though the run leg is the most important makes you want to be a great swimmer and a great rider. You’re going to train hard on the bike because you want to arrive to T2 ready to lay down a run split that is within only a few percent of your open run time over that distance. This means running the whole marathon no exceptions. Having the ability to run that entire marathon is going to make or break any charade of whether or not you raced Ironman. To do that you need to make yourself into a runner. (You’re also going to have to be a cyclist so you can ride 180kms to even start that run running).

A year ago I wouldn’t consider myself to be a runner. Now I would. I didn’t do anything totally out of the ordinary except make running a priority. My biggest run week was at around 90 kms. Based on the decision of my coach I took a low intensity approach and tried to target high frequency. Many weeks I ran every day if only a bit. For basically all of it I used a heart rate cap of 162bpm which is my maximum aerobic function heart rate. How you settle on a heart-rate to use can be as the result of gas analysis while running on a treadmill or guessed at by some combination of formulas as originally explored by Dr. Phil Maffetone. Get your google search going and you can find all sorts of info on this approach and will likely also find this endorsement from uuber-Ironman-runner Mark Allen. The purpose is/was to develop durability and efficiency at around IMpace, which is going to be aerobic and likely sub-maximally so. There are a lot of people out there who will tell you that you don’t need speedwork for Ironman because you will not run fast, no-one runs fast. When you’re building up your durability and making aerobic development this is totally correct. There’s a point to doing some fast running though as on occasion it’s necessary to make your muscles sore and to develop run strength. Not doing this is going to result in your legs giving up before you lungs and that’s what happened to me. It’s the better of the two options though, because if you’re not fit enough you go really really slow despite how strong you are, if you’re not quite strong enough you’ll slow a bit but it just really hurts. Speedwork: that’s icing on the cake, so you first need the cake. I got the cake baked but didn’t have the time to ice it completely on my first go-round. If someday I am going to try it again I’d hope to be able to put some more icing on the cake, but I wouldn’t force it, you’ve got to be confident that you’ve got that cake baked first. So, back to the strict aerobic cake baking strategy… The strategy means you often run tired but never run sore. Tired running is where you’re going to make your biggest leaps in running economy and if you’re challenging yourself with the volume this is also a great place to be developing mental fortitude. This is the kind of mental strength you need as it’s race-specific. Mimi from Endurance Corner stated it like this: “Train tired. Learn to push through fatigue that is driven largely by volume, not intensity. Being able to get the job done when tired builds capacity for concentration.” As the race approaches, it comes time to choose a realistic target pace and run a lot at that target pace so you know what it feels like. Ideally you do this enough that it becomes default pace and when you leave T2 you don’t need to think too much, on race day you’ll just run.

Where to start? If you’re unable to run 45 minutes every other day for a statistically significant duration (ie, twice running 45 minutes in three days doesn’t suggest that you could do it forever) then that’s the first target. Get to the point where you feel like you could do 45 minutes every other day for the rest of your life. Once there, starting daily running even if just for short durations is a great way to boost the run volume and start working on efficiency and durability. There are numerous ways to do it including a 30 day run challenge where you try and run 30 times in 30 days with some minimum duration. There area a boatload of variations on this challenge including increasing the duration or varying the minimum. I did a 30 minute minimum for 30 days and then a 40 minute minimum for 40 days in my lead-up to Ironman. A friend did a 40 minute minimum for a month and there’s talk of a crew of us trying 100 runs in 100 days starting on New Years Day 2011 to build a big run base for next summer. (20x20min 30x30min, 40x40min, 10xhalf marathon is one proposed minimum, 100x10kms is another which has the added bonus that you’d also conquer 1000kms during the challenge which is at least as good a number as any other (stats are stupid but they’re also fun.).

The Swim

I’m a mediocre swimmer at best so I don’t think you should take a whole lot of stock in my advice on how to swim well. My biggest swim week was at around 20 kms but it only happened before I was trying to boost volume in the other disciplines. Throughout the rest of the year I tried to swim more than 10 kms more weeks than not. I swam as much as I could with a coach on deck. I also made an effort to try to swim intervals rather than just zombie swimming in the pool for an hour. I also tracked progress at how fast I could do a 4000 yard TimeTrial approximately each month. Lots of the stats from those Friday-night swim TTs made it into this blog so you can see my progression and retrogression and re-progression if you want by using the search box. This mentally prepares you to pace a long swim and it should show you progression of your speed when your training is working. I got the idea from Chuckie Veylupek, who is a mighty fine swimmer as far as triathletes go and a beacon of hope for people who start swimming later in life. The same concept (track progress on long swim) was reinforced by my coach Steven Lord when he came on board. Ideally you’ll want to see improvements in your 4000yd speed.

4000yd speed is supposed to be threshold speed, so you could also use Mr. Smooth’s critical swim speed calculator or the threshold speed calculator formula suggested by TrainingPeaks. They’re the same calculation, and I think the same one that my coach uses/used (same results anyway). Ironman is a 2.4 mile swim though and that can’t be avoided, so doing the long swim is a demon you’re going to have to face eventually… better to start sooner rather than later.

When the improvements arise, look at what you’ve been doing and then keep doing it! Like I said I am not yet a good swimmer but I felt like I prepared with a high degree of specificity for what this swim would be like and thus did an acceptable job on race day. You don’t need to do all strokes in the pool but if you swim enough it is a good thing to do them all as you get more in tune with how your body moves in the water than if you just do front crawl. I will be doing more varied strokes next season. I also am kicking myself for not learning to flip turn ages ago. Partly because it makes you faster but partly because it forces you to hold your breath for a bit on every single length. Despite never flip turning during the race that’s an Ironman specific skill. When you get hit and splashed and dragged under you’re going to have to skip a breath now and again and you damn well need to be able to do it and keep swimming otherwise the hitting and dragging and splashing is going to continue. Flip turning is now on the menu of things to tackle for me.

The Bike

It’s not all about the bike, but if you want to be an Ironman you need to spend an awful lot of time on your bike. So the first order of business would be to get some good shorts and get comfortable riding a lot. Get a sore ass. If you can ride with effort long enough that you are having a hard time sitting on your bike. Then you’re probably riding enough. It happens to me when I get past 400 miles in 4 days.

This year between Jan and race-day I rode 10000 kms. Biggest week was 1000 kms. I targeted 400kms most weeks since May and accomplished the target basically whenever I didn’t have an excuse (ie no bike to ride). I once did 300kms in a day to see what a 10 hour day was like. You certainly don’t need to do this, but it is confidence building if you can. Do it in 10 weeks out at the latest if you do or it will interrupt your training close to the race when it counts more.

Most weekends since April I rode more than 6 hours one day and the other day some other combination of riding and running totaling more than 4 hours, often 5 or 6. I rode my TT bike a lot, but did recovery rides on my road bike. I often rode alone, I also often rode with groups. You can do both only if you ride a lot. If you only ride a bit you need to ride alone or at least don’t draft and make sure you’re the one setting the pace so you’re learning pace judgement at the same time. Now that I write that I realize: essentially all of my riding this year was self-selected pace. When I group-rode I did pace setting for a vast majority of the time. That’s a big coup and it made a big difference. Sitting on the front of a paceline into a headwind sitting straight upright to make a big draft and trying to keep a group together is good motivation to keep the power steady and high.

In the off season I rode inside on a stationary bike with a weighted flywheel. It’s lousy riding but it makes for a good workout as everything is some form of drill or interval. There’s no such thing as an easy ride inside, you’ll loose your mind if you try to do it. I made a point this year in the out-of-season season to nudge up my cadence a bit and really work on my pedal stroke. These weren’t weaknesses, they were already strengths, but neuromuscular efficiency is of high importance when you’re going to be riding a lot and so I made a point of focusing on them while inside. Riding aero doesn’t become too important until ~8 weeks out from a race (in my opinion) at which point you’ve got to switch and then start riding aero almost exclusively. I wouldn’t bother being strict with it at all and ride the aerobars if you want to but never force yourself if you don’t want to during out-of-season season, sit up let yourself breathe fully and don’t restrict your hip angle. You’ll be a better cyclist and get a better workout as a result.

I often rode more than 200kms and during the last two months did up to 50% of my long rides at IMeffort. Lots of 20,30,60 minute intervals at IM pace with 25% duration easy between each. That’s the formula for “Muscular Endurance” according to Joe Friel. I’d rather just call it what it is, TT specificity. Not a lot of sprinting since April, but in the winter I did lots of drills and shorter intervals to make the most of my time when riding stationary bikes. Then on race day I rode conservative the whole way. I never worked hard on the bike at all, this might sound crazy as I was fastest in my AG, that’s true though. Luckily I was able to get ahead of this traffic jam though:

Photo from gallery: Triathlon - 2010

IM effort on the bike takes learning. What I ended up targeting would be described by this highly unscientific formula:

~10 beats per minute below the highest HR you’ve ever averaged in a half Ironman and still run within 2% of your open Half Marathon time after it.

Likely unless you’ve been around the block a few times you don’t have an actual datapoint for this. It’s likely ~20bpm lower than your running Maximum aerobic function HR. In retrospect I may have been able to push a bit harder on the bike during Ironman. It’s also likely true that I could have pushed slightly harder on the bike in the Half Ironman I was basing this estimate on as I ran a Half marathon PR, so I was within 0% of my PR instead of the 2% or so that I would have allowed for. When I trained at IMeffort I typically tried to average the ceiling of what I would eventually actually attempt on race day. IMeffort in training often netted me around 37-39kph and on race day I did less than 35 which was partly due to conditions but partly intentional, to take it easy in the race.

Training Load

You’re going to want to take an out-of-season break from structured training sometime in the winter to recharge a bit and relax. Then once you get going again the key will be to stay uninjured and healthy all the way through to the race without any gaps in your training. That’s a tall order. Until you take that break you should be stretching yourself a bit and finding out what kind of weekly volume is sustainable and manageable. It’s OK if you get too tired once or twice and have to back it off to recover. The idea being that once the real season starts in earnest you’re not going to make mistakes of biting off more than you can chew… because at that point you’re sacrificing race-performance if you miss training. During the pre-season season, you’re just learning how your body responds so pay attention to it and write a lot of stuff down. How far out from the race you want to “start” your buildup is a matter of preference. Many professionals often do 11 months of it every year but they’re fitting in some mid-season R&R as well. I did 8 months of gung-ho and it was a bit long and I think that 6 months would be more ideal. Ideal is a relative term. If the weather decides to be minus 40 then I better decide to not try and do 20 hour training weeks. On the contrary, when you’re motivated to train because there’s no snow on the roads in the middle of February you should capitalize on it and ride your bike!

One other note that I only remedied mid-season was that when you look at your training log in week by week chunks it is easy to miss details like one back-end loaded week being followed by a front-end loaded week. Those sorts of things can make you more tired or more rested than you believe should be the case. I switched to calculating an acute stress score and a chronic stress score in a similar manner to that done by TrainingPeaks’ WKO+ language and as a result I got a much better handle on it. I’ve yet to settle on what I believe to be the best way to calculate race-readiness as the training stress balance metric used by WKO+ leaves something to be desired, the problem is that I haven’t pinpointed it yet. What I’ve got is pretty good, it gives me a curve of where my fitness would go if I stopped training right now. It would rise for a while while I rested and then start to fall. I’ve also used it as a gauge on how much training stress I think I should be able to handle… perhaps I’ll write a bit on that in the future.

I’ll leave this post off with a comparison between my planned training stress and my actual execution of training during my taper for Ironman. I was basically able to execute exactly what I wanted to during the final month.

taper plan

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