16 November 2009 12 Comments

Ironman Training

How much training is needed to finish an Ironman? It’s a complex question which many experienced coaches have written books about. I’ve never had a coach and never studied sports science, so anything I might write about this is based purely on my own experience and looking at my own training diary. Simon Lewis, whose running blog is a good read, is considering Ironman UK next year and asked me about my training plan and that prompted me to write this post. What worked for me may not work for you, but it might give you a few pointers.


According to Joe Friel, training just to finish an Ironman race takes 500 – 700 hours of training in a year. That’s an average of between 10 and 13.5 hours training a week. I don’t know about you, but I have a job, a young family and a host of responsibilities to think about, and that kind of volume is simply out of the question. Looking at my Ironman year, I started training on 1st November 2008 building up to the big race on 2nd August. In that 9 month period I did 273 hours of training averaging 7 hours 12 minutes training a week which equates to an annual total of just under 375 hours. During that time I did 8 weeks where the total hours exceeded 10. Of these 8 “long” weeks, 4 of them included long cycle sportives of over 7 hours in length. And 4 of them were in the last 2 months before the race. In the period from 1st November 2008 to 1st June 2009 I averaged 6 hours per week; in the 2 months before the race I averaged 10 hours 43 minutes per week including 2 long weeks of 13 hours 40 minutes and 14 hours 40 minutes.

2 months prior to IMUK 2009

2 months prior to IMUK 2009

Click on the image to zoom

You might say that 15 hours isn’t a fantastic time for an Ironman, and I would agree, however, I was certainly fit enough to post a better time and it was mainly stomach cramps that prevented me getting close to my target of 13.5 hours (Here’s my post on how my race worked out). I’m fairly confident that with some tweaks to my training and nutrition plans I’ll get a fair bit closer to that target next year. I do actually intend to increase my volume a bit, but nowhere near the hours suggested by Joe.

The above needs to be taken in the context of my endurance background. 2009 was my 7th year in triathlon and up to that point I had completed 5 half-ironman races and numerous sprints and Olympic distance events. Add to that a fair few cycle sportives and consistently training through the winter each year (in past years I usually take October as my month off and start training again in November) and you get the picture of someone who has been fairly consistently training in some sort of capacity for a number of years. I would add to that by saying I’m far from being “competitive” in triathlon and I’m pleased if I finish in the top half of the results in any given event. My view is that to go from a non-endurance background to an Ironman in one year is a massive task, and would take a great deal more training than that which I put in. It can be done, but it’s a high risk strategy. I have mused a bit more about this in my post “Could you do an Ironman?

What did a typical training week look like?

Whenever I read a coaching article in the tri mags going on about periodisation, lactate thresholds, heartrate zones and so on, my eyes tend to glaze over. Coaches and magazines obviously have a vested interest in making training as scientific as possible, and while I am absolutely sure that if you really want to achieve your ultimate potential in any given sport, then getting a decent coach is essential, I can’t afford a coach, period. And, given the fact that my average training week seems to be about 7 hours long, I think that coaching in that context would have a relatively limited impact.

The base period (November to May)

I tried to make my training week as simple as possible. I had 3 main training sessions throughout the winter period:

  1. A long swim – gradually building up to race distance by the end of spring.
  2. A long bike ride – building up to hard a hard 112 mile sportive in May (The Fred Whitton).
  3. A long run – building up to 2 hrs 30 mins.
Spud Riley - before the deluge

Spud Riley - before the deluge

The absolute key to success in an Ironman, it seems to me, is to be able to complete the 112 mile cycle ride comfortably, so if any of these sessions had to be dropped, it would be swim 1st, run 2nd and bike last. Anything additional to these 3 would be a bonus and would include commuting by bicycle once or twice a week, going for a quick swim while my daughter had her lesson etc. In most weeks I managed 1 long run, 1 short run and a few bike rides including 1 long one. Swimming was another story, and I only really started to swim consistently in the spring.

In order to focus my training further I included a number of fairly tough cycle sportives in the spring. My theory was that completing events like the Cheshire Cat, Fred Whitton and Spud Riley would provide me with rides that would be significantly harder than the bike section of the Ironman (I wasn’t to be disappointed!). Riding all those hills certainly got me massively stronger on the bike and gave me a great base when it came to doing more tri-specific training in the run up to the race.

Being 45 at the time (I became 46 in June), another important factor in the build period was rest. I always tried to have a rest day after my long bike ride and particularly my long run. In many weeks I would often have 2 or even 3 days when I didn’t train, and every few weeks I’d factor in a lighter training week. I also tried to stretch as often as I could – it’s actually something I quite enjoy, so would often do 2 or 3 sessions in a week which I didn’t include in my training time. (Note: I think it’s fairly well accepted now that stretching immediately prior to a training session offers relatively little benefit to endurance athletes- just start easy.) In the run up to Christmas I did some core strength work (sit-ups, planks, lunges etc), but these are very much an extra and getting out on the bike or running would be much more preferable if you were stuck for time. Having said that, if you are new to sport, or are injury prone, core strength work could be an essential part of your training.

Because of the limited training time available to me, I tried to make every session count, and this meant training at as high an intensity as possible. On cycle commutes I would attack the hills, on runs I would pace myself at much higher than projected Ironman marathon pace (up to around 1:45 half marathon pace). This doesn’t really fit with the high volume/low intensity base training model, but it worked for me.

The build period (Mid-May to August)

Once the Fred Whitton was out of the way I got much more focused on the specifics of tri racing. In training terms, this meant doing bricks. A brick is a training session that includes 2 of the sports, usually either a swim/bike brick or bike/run brick. The latter is the most popular as it’s the easiest to incorporate into your training regime, and in fact I didn’t do any swim/bike bricks. My bricks tended to take the form of either a long bike ride (up to 3 hours) followed by a shorter run (1 hour); or the reverse: a short ride (1 hour) followed by a long run (over 2 hours). I also did a few repeat sessions – a 15km bike ride followed by a 5km run repeated 3 times at increasing intensity: moderate/hard/eyeballs out. Runs on their own, and bike rides also usually included interval work in them. I usually did pyramids on runs 2/3/4/5/4/3/2 minutes hard on runs with 1 minute jogging between and 8/9/10/11/12/10/9/8 hard TT efforts with 5 minutes rest in the second half of a 3 to 4 hour bike ride. Periodically I would put in extended time trial tests to measure my improvement, these would usually be 40km and at hardest effort. Training sessions tended to be a maximum of 4 hours in length for bike rides and bricks, 2 hours 30 mins for runs and 1 hour 30 mins for swims, and at a much higher intensity than in the winter.

Because of my complete ineptitude at swimming, my focus was purely on building up to race distance, and the open water swim session on Thursday nights at the Boundary Breeze near Holmes Chapel were an essential session (and frequently the only swim session).

During this period I did one triathlon (The Dambuster) which was an Olympic distance event and 2 sportives. These were very much part of my training and I didn’t taper for them at all beyond a day’s rest before the event.

Big Day

A popular part of many triathletes’ training is a so-called “Big Day” in which you get fairly close to doing a full race effort in a single training day, the difference being you have a couple of hours rest between each discipline in which to rehydrate and refuel. I planned to do a full 3.6km swim, followed by an 80 mile bike ride and then a 2 hour run. The intention is to practice race pacing, nutrition and to build confidence. Unfortunately, a combination of bad weather, mechanical failure of my bike and illness scuppered the 3 times I tried to schedule in such a day. This was a pity and it’s definitely something I’ll try next year.


I started my taper 3 weeks before the big day coming off the hardest training week of the whole year. I still did two over 4 hour bike rides (the last one being 2 weeks before the race), some long race distance swims and a couple of long runs. Ten days before the race I cycled the bike course, and after that, I only did one more training session: a 40km easy tempo ride on the Monday before race day. I would have done a few more shorter race intensity session, but the weather in the days running up to the race was spectacularly bad and the last thing I wanted to do was crash or catch a chill.

How is 2010’s training plan going to be different?

In terms of a successful season, 2009 most definitely was for me. I completed IMUK, I finished the Fred Whitton in a decent time and I smashed my pb at Olympic distance. However, it could have been better, in particular, I didn’t hit my target time for IMUK. So, I’m going to tweak my training plan for 2010 by reflecting on what worked well, and what was less successful in 2009.

  1. I’m going to swim much more consistently through the winter and build up to over the distance (4km). This year, the long swim impacted my bike ride in Bolton far more than I expected;
  2. I will do some swim/bike bricks (I didn’t do any this year), again to improve the transition from swim to bike;
  3. I’m going to up my running volume a little and include a marathon in the spring. Although I was pleased with my marathon at Bolton, I think this is one area where I can make some significant improvements;
  4. I will do fewer cycle sportives and more shorter distance triathlons (including a half-ironman) in the spring. Although the sportives definitely helped, I don’t think I approached them as training – they became a target in themselves. It was only the shorter Roses Round that I treated more as a hard time trial effort minimising stops at feeds. The triathlons will be much more beneficial in terms of race conditioning;
  5. I will train on the bike course at Bolton more often (I only did it once this year). My hope is that this will make my bike effort far more economical.

Will this get me closer to a 13 hour race time? I’m hoping so.

From Drop Box

12 Responses to “Ironman Training”

  1. mrlewis 16 November 2009 at 1:36 pm #

    Cheers John. All very interesting. I am daunted by the whole thing but I know I could go out and run a marathon or cycle 112 miles now so I feel its possible. I will get into the pool starting this week and maybe get some lessons. Then I’ll see how I feel. Simon.


  2. John Sutton 16 November 2009 at 1:53 pm #

    Go for it!


  3. maryka 23 November 2009 at 1:42 pm #

    Sorry for the late response! But here’s my 2 cents and more:

    I think you should ditch the spring marathon in favour of an autumn one. The reason is that the recovery time from a marathon and damage to your legs is just too great. What will really make your Ironman marathon faster is overall improvement in run speed at any distance, and the way to do that is to increase intensity in training (not distance!) Best way to be motivated to do that is to plan some 10k, 10 mile and half-marathons in the spring instead. They will make you faster and with limited recovery fall-out, you won’t have to compromise your IM training.

    Have a look at the Vdot stuff here, http://www.attackpoint.org/trainingpaces.jsp , do a test (or plug in values that you know you can run) and use those paces to run more intervals in your winter period. Best return on run time and effort investment is to focus on half-marathon paced intervals (e.g., 3 x 1 mile, 2 x 10 min, etc.) Approximately halfway between marathon pace and threshold pace in the tables lies your half-marathon pace.

    And yes I know that goes against what Triathlete magazine and every other old school coach and plan dictates, but the truth is, periodisation for Ironman means building up your long distance stuff in the BUILD period (i.e., the period closest to your race) not the BASE period (i.e., the period farthest from your race). Base period is where you get faster. Build period is where you take the new speed and put it to work gaining endurance and distance.

    It works much the same with cycling, though as we know volume in cycling is much less damaging than volume in running. But the getting faster stuff is the same — do hard intervals (whether that be hills or steady efforts on flats) in the winter in favour of longer slower rides. Come spring when the weather is nicer and 5-6 hour rides are more enjoyable, your overall threshold power and speed will make you faster there too. Or at least less effort for the same speed you had before. Intervals are defined at hard zone 3/4/5 efforts either by HR or power (I prefer the latter as there’s limited drift). These feel hard but you can really reap the benefits from them.

    Swimming is a different beast, as it’s so much more technique than fitness until you get to a certain level. Swimming more consistently is only useful if you’re focussing on good technique. Good technique = more relaxed = maybe slower at first but faster in the long run as you improve. But ask yourself if you can’t accomplish this with 3-4 months of solid swimming (April to August) rather than 8 months of it. If you’re pressed for training time and motivation in the winter, you’re best served by running and cycling more as that’s where your biggest time gains will come in the race. Unless you’re swimming slower than 2:00min/100m in the pool, I would recommend not swimming much in the winter at all. You can get so much more accomplished in your 7-8 hours a week if 4.5 of them are cycling and 2.5 of them are running, rather than trying to squeeze swimming in there at the expense of run or bike intervals. And those bike and run intervals will feel hard, so if you’ve got extra time to just rest and recover rather than rushing to get to the pool, the better you’ll feel with them.

    Regaring the Big Day, I think it’s entirely unnecessary! Definitely some big riding days followed by a 6-10 mile run, but even then no more than twice in your build period, and all of it done as a race simulation to nail down nutrition, pacing, etc. I have never once done an 80-mile run followed by a 2-hour run, and I think if I did it would fry me so badly that I’d need a week to recover properly and get back to real training again. If you’re not doing big hours in your regular training, doing a 7+ hour day just for the sake of it will be too much. You’ve done an Ironman now; you know what a long day like that is like! No need to remind yourself of that in training, in my opinion. You’ll be better served by the sprints and oly distance races you have planned instead.

    I know a lot of this is a huge departure from what you and a lot of others have been doing, and it requires a sort of leap of faith to try it out. But trust me when I say this: you WILL get faster in the winter. You WILL be stronger in the spring when you bring in your longer runs and rides. There’s PLENTY of time to build up endurance and distance in the build phase after an intensity-heavy winter of training. And you WILL have a faster Ironman time. With proper pacing and a strong nutrition/hydration plan, I think you can go sub-13 no problem.

    As always, mail me if you want more info… I’m happy to help!


  4. John Sutton 23 November 2009 at 4:07 pm #

    Wow, thanks Maryka. There’s a lot to think about in there, and it does turn what I normally do on it’s head. Plus points – I like your attitude to swim training 😉 Minus points, doing hard intervals through the winter seems so …hard. However, I can see that you’d hit the spring feeling very fit and strong – there’s nothing like intervals for building fitness.

    Your thoughts on the Big Day concept are interesting, too. I think it’s perhaps more of a comfort blanket/confidence builder, and clearly I got to the finish without doing one.

    I think you’ve sold me on the basic concept. Now to do some reading around it.

    Incidentally, I’m looking forward to reading your blog post about Kona 😉


  5. John Sutton 23 November 2009 at 4:18 pm #

    Incidentally, Maryka’s blog can be found here: http://smaryka.blogspot.com/


  6. maryka 23 November 2009 at 4:48 pm #

    The fast intervals are hard, no doubt, but not as hard as you’d think. I managed to do one set of mile repeats a week for running (on flat dry trails usually), along with some other intensive stuff like hill repeats with my club (~ 1 min hills) and a medium length tempo run, and that was enough for me to build that extra speed. Marathon and half-marathon pace intervals are great for runs over 10 miles, a great way to get the most from your mileage. They feel steady-hard but not difficult.

    On the bike, you can do them on the trainer if you have to (boring and painful) or pick some hills or routes that you know. I like to mix it up so that I’ve got rides with lots of 5-10 min climbs that I take at max level (as hard as I can do for that time without blowing up), rides with 10-20 min spent at threshold (25 mile TT) pace, and longer rides with 15-30 min tempo pace thrown in. That way you don’t burn out from one type of interval or ride. I’ve got a few loops that take ~20 min to do that I end up riding a lot, like Richmond Park in SW London for example.

    Personally I enjoy intervals in the winter because I feel like I can do shorter rides and still get a really good workout in without feeling bad that I wasn’t out there for 3+ hours. I can get a lot done in an hour on the trainer or 90 min in Richmond Park. With the days being short of daylight and the weather being inclement at best, I like the idea that I can ride short and fast and hard and come away with great returns in my fitness. Winter crits, sporting TTs and cyclocross races are ideal for this kind of training by the way.

    Kona report coming soon…. 🙂



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