Training for an Ironman

Will you be one of the tens of thousands of athletes to take on an Ironman this year? If so, are you prepared for the journey that lies ahead? Joe Beer makes sure of it…

At the start of a quest towards reaching the finish line of an Ironman, understand two things: you need a plan and patience. It takes time to develop stamina and strength, as well as determining things like pacing. Okay, history shows people can do an Ironman during their first year in the sport on less than an average of an hour’s training a day. But follow this route and failing to finish becomes a real prospect.

That said, the great news about Ironman is that, like triathlon as a whole, it has moved away from being the 30-hour hero’s quest and edged towards a people’s challenge. However, unlike many race distances, Ironman has cut-off times, so you must hit certain criteria to get to the finish line. For example, swim too slow, taking more than two hours and 20 minutes, and you’ll never get the chance to ride the $5,000 bike parked in T1! Make no bones about it, this race distance – 3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42.2km run – takes guts, dedication and a structured programme. So what follows are a series of guidelines that will take the guesswork out of training and, hopefully, get you to the start line in peak condition.

Have a plan

Okay, even with the best-laid plans it won’t go exactly as written and crisis management is something you need to be ready for. Life tends to get in the way of perfection, but it shouldn’t stop you sticking to your plan and seeing yourself move closer to completing a long-distance swim, Tour de France-distance bike and full marathon.

The training strategy I prefer is based on a 3:1 ratio (see 24-week training programme, right), working on overload for three weeks with progressions of volume and some sessions that extend your boundaries. This is called the ‘building’ phase. (It’s not three weeks of training tired but just extending your ability.) You then train for a week of back-to-normal levels – the ‘recovery’ phase. If a week doesn’t freshen you up, you’ll need to think about your training pace, other life commitments or areas of recovery like sleep, nutrition and body work.

The key workouts should revolve around bricks and long, continuous swim, bike and run sessions. After all, the event isn’t fast; it’s long. That’s probably reflected in most of your statistics: you’ll swim eight minutes per 400m or slower, bike around 15-17mph and complete the marathon in about four or five hours.

For the vast majority of training, keep it simple and stay in your zone 1 (less than 80% HRmax). You can add some faster work of long swim time trials, 50-mile bike time trials and runs of eight to 18 miles. But be aware that the latter could be the least multisport specific unless you’re fatigued. Hence, look for hilly terrain, or off-road or ‘brick’ the runs by riding long the day before.

Back in real life, all this progression consumes a lot of hours so you’ll need to stretch time management, brownie points and people’s goodwill to the limit. In short, get people on your side from the start. Planning is about telling others what you’ll be doing, working around them and having a vital support crew in place. For example, a good bike shop, masseuse, training partners, mentor and a non-training mate to keep you grounded.

24-week Ironman training plan

The following schedule uses a 3:1 training ratio. Training volume is built up over the first three weeks, which is followed by a week’s recovery. (Note: for key workouts, use race gear whenever possible.)

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Making progress

While the 3:1 ratio gives you progress, there are other, more specific ways to reach your Ironman goal…

1. Mental rehearsal

Every recovery week gives you a chance to do some non-training things that still benefit your outcome. One example is visualisation. Take time to sit quietly, close your eyes and take yourself further into the race. From doing the swim you can move to T1, and then the first part of the bike, through to T2. In the last four weeks before the race, focus on seeing strength in all three sports right to the line. Also, plan some ‘what if’ scenarios and work out a solution for each.

 2. Aerobic speed sessions

These tax the system at around 80% of HRmax and at Ironman pace. They give you an idea of how fit you are, what it feels like at your desired pace and if you’re absorbing the training. Examples are: a wetsuit swim of 1,000m; on your race bike, ride a rolling 25 miles; or run a rolling six to eight miles. Aim for an equal effort and to match average heart rate (or effort) from your last test. If your pace rises and perception of effort drops, you’re on track.

3. Strength work

You don’t want to get progressively weaker as training distance goes up, but if you fail to build up lean tissue, or more efficient neural pathways for increased muscle fibres, this will be the end result. More strength means, come race day, you’ll be using a smaller percentage of your total strength and things will therefore feel easier – or at least it’ll feel less hard further into the run.

Some examples of strength work include: swim some sessions with two costumes on or a drag suit; use a heavier bike in training – it’s pointless having no extra speed to add come the event; even with just one bike you can use heavier tyres, add more tools to your saddle pack and wear looser clothing than you would on race day;
go on hillier runs with lots of uphill slogs – even mega-long walks with a back pack can strengthen the legs to the demands of Ironman running.

4. Pace yourself

From your key brick sessions, you can begin to see how pace in one sport affects the other. And it’s an awareness you must transfer to the race arena as it’s very easy to get pulled along by others. So let’s get one thing straight: you need to have drilled the right pace into your brain and be confident that  it works for you. A heart rate monitor (HRM) is the best tool to use to maintain pace. For example, on the bike it’s far too easy to feel fresh and feel the need to catch up to those ahead.

Pacing is a vital skill that training will teach you – so long as you listen to your body, note what works and have the ability to do your own thing. After all, it’s your challenge and others may be on a higher performance level or simply be getting it wrong.

To see how your actual performance is going, you can always pencil in sessions that mimic race conditions. For example, a long swim Friday, long bike Saturday and long run Sunday. Then move them closer: swim long Saturday afternoon, then do a bike and run brick early Sunday morning. This gives you back-to-back training stress and a chance to see what pace works.

I would also advise that you do other single-sport and triathlon events along the way, so you don’t put all your eggs in one Iron basket. But make sure it’s an event that will help your ultimate goal of taming an Ironman, so go for a 20-mile multi-terrain run, or an Olympic or 70.3 triathlon, rather than wasting time and effort on a sprint.

Our only reservation is that you don’t take too much out of yourself too close to the event. Beating your arch enemy in a build-up event may elevate the ego but it’ll extract vital reserves from your racing bank. Come the main event you’ll need a big deposit, so make sure that your account isn’t overdrawn.

Potential pitfalls

The very nature of Ironman means that many people fail to get to the start line, the finish line or their goal time – it stretches the mind and body to, and beyond, their limits. So be warned: there are pitfalls and you need to be ready for them…

1. The long run journey

Running: the hardest sport on your body and the one most likely to cause an athlete to come unstuck and contemplate a DNF somewhere over the course, normally due to pain from a niggling injury. Therefore, you must be aware that a previous running injury should guide your run mileage and not what our plan says or how many miles your mate is putting in this weekend.

Don’t run too fast, or always on hard surfaces, or without taking on adequate nutrition (see p151 for more on Ironman nutrition). You’re not a marathon runner or a sprint triathlete; you’re an Ironman, so your training must be different.

2. Swim over-emphasis

A swim takes up around eight to 12% of the total race time. You need to be efficient; that means not spending 50% of your week trying to alter your race time that yields just 1% on the big day. Unless there are real problems with your ability to complete the swim, be sure to dedicate no more than 25% of your weekly time to the first discipline.

Swimmers take note: you might have an awesome sub 55min swim, but it could take that long to walk the last three miles of the race. If you hear and believe that Ironman is all about the swim, you’re likely to be the same person who responds to e-mails that say there’s a million pounds on its way to you from a dead relative.

3. Don’t rely on the bike 

Aero bikes look awesome but they require a helluva lot of power to get them to the finish line. Train the body and use the race bike to feel fast from time to time, but don’t think it’s going to dig you out of the mire because you failed to ride further than 50 miles at any point in training. Bikes go as far
and as fast as the owner’s legs can take them – and no further.

4. Know when to back off

If you get a serious virus or chest infection and still keep training you need to question your sanity. Ironman athletes are fit – but they are healthy, too. If problems arise you must attend to them and ease off the training for however long it takes. Don’t get off the 3:1 work:rest plan but adapt the amounts so you build back into it.
It’s just a guide: your body dictates what can be done, not a coach, not a previous training year and not because you want to be a hero.

5. You don’t know it all

Ironman forgets the last race you did so you’re always starting with the chance of failure – even more so if the last solid race or the last time you got anywhere near the distance was three, five or even 20 years ago. Remember: be humble and you can crack the distance; be arrogant and above your ability, and it will eat you alive, spit you out on the run and leave you puking your guts out by the roadside.

6. Being a hero

Normal people do Ironman, but it also attracts the slightly abnormal who just can’t do anything but train. The Ironman distance gives them an excuse to do so.

Do the race but be sure to pay back all those who help you with added interest. Better still, if you’re going to
be a hero, be one for a charity and do some good at the same time. Ask yourself, why has the London Marathon attracted so much attention? Because normal people do it and raise money and awareness for the less fortunate.

7. maintain persepctive

Unless you’re going to be an Ironman monk, you’ll still need your friends, work associates and family for when
all the training and racing is over. At all times, balance training with what is around you; it keeps the last and most important ‘P’ in clear focus: perspective.

Have a great journey on your Ironman training quest. It’ll tell you a lot about yourself and open up parts of your soul and mind that you never knew were there.

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