Training for an Ironman triathlon [case studies]

Training for an Ironman? If only counting the two main event organizers, there are 45 Ironman and 5 Challenge races worldwide. With an average of 2 000 participants per event, we have some 100 000 “Ironmen’s” walking the streets each year. And you are about to become one – excellent!

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

Whether you have participated several times before, or if it is your first Ironman distance, you are undoubtedly thinking about how to best prepare yourself.

And you are not alone. We know by experience that the primary question for all of you are – how will I go about training for an Ironman triathlon?

But relax; when you are done reading this article (with its case studies), you will feel much more confident in approaching the quest. Except for the case studies, we will guide you through topics like how to…

  • Set the right ambition for your training and racing.
  • Define how much, how often, and how hard you should train.
  • Put everything together in a well balanced and easy to understand program for your journey.

And, in the end, if you want our help to structure your training, you can register for a free plan.

So let us get on with it…

Your Ironman journey starts with the goal

You have probably already signed up for a full-distance race (or are about to do so). That is a good start on your journey, as your competition will act as your main goal for the upcoming training season. Everything else will follow and build up to the big day.

However, if you still scroll the event calendar…

What is the best Ironman for first-timers?

It depends! Even if Challenge Roth, Ironman Tallin and Ironman Hamburg commonly are among the top 3 candidates because of their course profile and overall event experience, it really depends.

Think about it; you may be a super-strong cyclist that flies up any mountain with little effort. Then an event like Ironman Lanzarote with over 2,500 m of climbing and notably strong winds is perfect for you. So, you may factor in your strengths and weaknesses when you choose your first full-distance race.

Another variable to take into account is logistics. It might be wise to find a race close to where you live. That will save you both travelling time and money. Also, you are making it so much easier for family and friends to come and cheer on you.

And trust me, the latter can be the extra fuel you need to cross the finishing line.

What are your race day ambitions?

The next thing to define is your ambition for race day. And it would help if you think about your “success” in three levels, all creating their own distinct characteristics on your training,

  • Accomplish – means that you will finish the race. Hopefully, with a smile and a good feeling.
  • Personal best – if this is not your first time, you probably want to do better than last time.
  • Podium – as a seasoned triathlete, you might aim for winning your age group.

In the context of the podium discussion…

How do I qualify for the Kona Ironman World Championship?

Well, you have to earn one of the most sought-after Kona spots. And to be on the safe side, you have to win your age group.

Every Ironman event includes one or more qualifying spots per age group to the World Championship. The number of spots in a specific age category is determined by the number of competitors in that group.

According to the Ironman organisation, age groups between 35 and 44 usually have the most competitors and slots. So you do not always have to win your age group to get a “ticket to Kona”.

Given that there are so few who aim for the podium, we will focus the rest of the discussion on those of us who want to accomplish or take a personal best.

Nevertheless, if you want to go for the podium, you may want to consider our one-to-one premium coaching.

A piece of advice

When you set your level of ambition, please do it for yourself, not for (or because of) someone else. Unfortunately, we see this happens all too often. And it almost always results in “did not start” or “did not finish”. The case is that you really need to want to do an Ironman and to undertake the necessary training. If you are not in for it, then it is going to be too easy to opt-out during your darker moments.

That said (I do not want to scare you off), define why you want to train for an Ironman and what you are trying to achieve on race day.

Note that all levels are equally good, so do not act on prestige and group pressure. Again, it is your choice.

Months of training

We often get the question – how long does it take to train for an Ironman?

When it comes to the Ironman distance, there is no quick fix. Think about it – the event is 226,3 km (140,6 miles) long, and yields average finish times of almost 13 hours. That is, many of us continue to swim-bike-run for up to a maximum of 17 hours.

It is, therefore, useful to understand that an Ironman is not just an extended version of a Sprint. You will soon find that a race of this length involves different considerations – both physically and mentally – that will cause your strategy to vary from previous years and competitions.

To prepare for such task, the secret sauce (if there is any!?) is consecutive work over a long period. And if you are new to long course racing, your training may stretch over several years.

With that in mind, give yourself more time to explore what works for you. So that you will be better prepared on race day.

During the season, both volume (frequency*duration) and intensity will change.
During the season, both volume (frequency*duration) and intensity will change.

A guideline

To make it less abstract, plan at least for 6-12 months before the competition, where,

  • The first month is about starting up the “machinery” slow and getting into the structured training.
  • Month 2-5 helps you build your skills and base fitness in swimming, cycling, and running.
  • In the next three months (6-9), you continue to improve your skills and aerobic endurance. But more time will be spent on your muscular endurance.
  • Month 10-12 takes you through an ever-increasing training intensity, and it will eventually mimic the conditions and stress of racing.

So, how to approach your training for an Ironman?

Ironman training

No matter how experienced you are, the only three variables you can change during the season to improve your fitness are frequency, duration, and intensity.

Frequency – how often

As a long-distance triathlete, you need to practise swimming, cycling, and running regularly to add enough training stress to develop your capacity. The training frequency – how often you should train – will likely be high, and end up in the range of 8 to 12 sessions per week.

For most of us, we benefit more from a higher frequency with less duration per session than the other way around.

Plan in advance

By now, you realize that training for an Ironman requires some planning skills. However, since the frequency is more or less the same during the whole season, you just slot in all sessions in advance in your calendar. Then you and everybody around you know that on Monday it is cycling and Tuesday morning it is swimming, etcetera.

That way will help you to lower the friction with your surrounding and free up the necessary time for your training.

Duration – how much

When you think about how much you can train, ground your discussion in your life situation. That is, take into consideration both family and work. And training. Plan for a little less time per week than you think that you can handle. For example, 8 hours on average per week.

Revisit that number after four weeks of structured training,

  • Are you able to handle life-commitments?
  • Do you have to squeeze in training?
  • Do you feel that you have enough time to recover?

Make a new decision to continue as is, or adjust accordingly. Remember, you are into triathlon as an age-grouper and for the fun of it. And life comes first!

Base training example week for Ironman.
Base training example week for Ironman.

Guidelines for frequency and duration

I can hear you ask – how many hours a week should I train for an Ironman?

Well, a rough guideline, for the Ironman distance, of how much you should allocate to your training on average per week is between 8 and 12 hours.

When you combine frequency and duration, you get training volume. If you divide it over the three disciplines, you should spend around 50 % on the bike. And split the rest equally between swimming and running.

Intensity – how hard

If you are like most aspiring long-course triathletes, you are highly motivated. So, in our experience, when we talk about how often and how much you should train, the response is usually – great, let me start! And off you go, and immediately execute some high-intensity workouts.

Unfortunately, we meet with too many triathletes that assume that if they are not completely exhausted after each training session, then it was a waste of time.

However, attempting to train with a high volume (frequency*duration) and a high-intensity will only lead to overtraining, burnout, or injury. And this is particularly true for Ironman athletes.

So, how hard should you go when training for an Ironman? Well, the short answer is – not hard at all.

Zone 1 to 3 for full-distance

To understand “how hard”, it is vital to understand the concept of zone training. Whether it is measured via heart rate, pace or power, you should keep the bulk of your workouts in zone 1 to 3. And less than 10 % of the volume at, or just above, the functional threshold (zone 4).

This is by far the hardest thing to grasp as an ambitious and motivated triathlete. And every week we get questions like – should it not be harder!?

So, I repeat, if in doubt, stay in zone 1 to 3.

How to distribute your training intensity is vital.
How to distribute your training intensity is vital.

The Ironman training plan

In some cases, it is possible to be a successful triathlete racing shorter distances without a structured training program. However, a no-plan strategy becomes less feasible as you enter the full-distance game. A training plan will significantly improve your chances of both finishing and performing at your best.

When building your annual plan, you should always consider your own experience, as well as your personal strengths and weaknesses. If you have accomplished several years of endurance sport and possibly are an experienced short/mid-distance triathlete, then you have a solid base to start from. And, therefore, need less time to prepare.

Let me (once again) remind you that there is no quick fix when it comes to the Ironman-distance. You have to do your hours of training.

Case studies

That said, to make “the plan-making” more tangible, let us put things in context with the help of a couple of case studies. Although none of these will describe you perfectly, you should be able to get a good idea of how to apply it in your training.

  1. The experienced and time-constrained triathlete Joe, aiming for race day in 3 months.
  2. Sven is a seasoned age grouper who is going for a personal best within 35 weeks.
  3. Pat is a novice who plan well ahead and allocate almost a year in training.

Race day in 3 months (case 1)

Download the overview (PDF) of this case study to better follow along.

In this case, we have Joe, who has been into short-distance triathlon for a while and looking for a new challenge. Joe is considering a full-distance event, and do not have more than 3 months to go before race day. The goal is to cross the finish line within 12-14 hours without illness or injury.

Since Joe has built a solid ground leading up to this point, and the last twelve weeks are said to have the most impact on race performance, Joe is convinced that it will be enough.

As Joe does not have much time to train, the most extensive training week will be about 13 hours; which varies slightly depending on the periodization.

The Race Up training program will give you an edge on race day.
The Race Up training program will give you an edge on race day.

Joe’s race training

With the help of the 12-week Race Up Triathlon program, Joe gets all in. Workouts are organized in three iterations, each including three weeks of escalated training, followed by one week of recovery. Sessions mix force, muscular- and anaerobic endurance, with long slow distance.

Joe will test on a regular basis and calibrate the training zones for an even more adequate approach. Tests are also a perfect way to practice pacing, which is absolutely vital during an Ironman.

To further mimic racing, Joe performs a big day at the end of week 7. And to give Joe the best possible situation on race day, the last two weeks are designed to optimize the form.

Personal best within 35 weeks (case 2)

Download the overview (PDF) of this case study to better follow along.

Sven is a seasoned age grouper who has finished several triathlons. With a running background, a medium strong bike, and a weak swimming, he is now aiming for sub 11:30 in his next Ironman.

Follow along in the video, where we walk you through how we approach the planning of the training and racing season.

Sven is aiming for sub 11:30 in his next Ironman

12-month training plan for Ironman (case 3)

Download the overview (PDF) of this case study to better follow along.

In this scenario, we have Pat with no previous experience of triathlon, but with the dream of accomplishing an end of the season Ironman.

Before this Pat has trained with the local cycling club and participated in a couple of century rides. Swimming is more about surviving (2:15min/100m) while running is part of the regular training. Pat is active daily, and train around 6 to 10 hours per week, which depends on the season and weather conditions.

Pat works full-time and are married with two kids. With that in mind and the support from the family, Pat can allocate 10 hours on average per week for triathlon training.

Preseason training

The preseason aims to build Pat’s foundation and to increase the capacity for the upcoming racing season. The period is 37 weeks long, and the content has to vary to keep Pat motivated and to develop Pat’s abilities at a consistent pace. Without any injuries!

We will divide the preseason into a series of steps,

  1. Start Up – Training starts easy and aims to get Pat into structured training.
  2. Swim analysis – After some initial training, it is time to address Pat’s weakest discipline – swimming. Based on the feedback from the analysis, Pat can use the insights and recommendations in the upcoming steps.
  3. Keep Up Base – Then it is 12 weeks of base training in all disciplines. The focus is on “heart and lungs” (your aerobic system) and the ability in each sport.
  4. Boost Up Bike Base – That is 4 weeks of solid bike training. Even if the bike is Pat’s strong sport, we still recommend that Pat put extra focus on bike training during the preseason. There is a lot to gain from it because the bike-split during an Ironman is so demanding. And tends to affect the running negatively. So by creating capacity on the bike, Pat can get the most out of the run.
  5. Keep Up Build – During this step, Pat once again train all three disciplines. The training will be a bit harder and continue where Keep Up Base ended.
  6. Boost Up Bike Build – As a last step during the preseason, Pat will continue to build the muscular endurance on the bike.

Race season

The last 12 weeks of the plan are highly specific and focused on Pat’s big goal for the season. All sessions are periodized and aiming to get Pat ready when standing on the starting line. This is done via the Race Up program.

The content in Race Up picks up where Keep Up Build ends and takes Pat through an ever-increasing training intensity. Pat will perform two tests and one big day, ending with peak training. And an Ironman!

Special events during the season

The content will help Pat determine how much, how often, and how hard to train throughout the season. To make training relevant and on par with Pat’s given capacity, Pat will conduct regular tests.

To mix things up and to help Pat stay motivated, we have scheduled events outside of the daily training. Remember, we are into triathlon for the fun of it…

Your long-course triathlon training plan

Needless to say. But, for your training to become relevant, motivating, and also to help prepare for your upcoming Ironman, you are served by an individual full-distance triathlon training plan.

If you want our help to structure your training, register your information in the form below. We will then send you a recommended structure for free.

Welcome to TOT,
Joachim Cronquist

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