Ironman triathlon training: this is a phrase that conjures up either much respect or much dread! It was a joke in our triathlon club that Ironman triathletes were either single- or about to be! There is generally a major increase in training hours once you consider doing 70.3 and especially a full Ironman triathlon training.
But how much training is really required?
How much (or how little) Ironman triathlon training can I get away with?
How much is too much?
An Ironman triathlon is a major achievement for sure- but there is a little talked about potential downsides: Dangers to your relationships and downsides to your health.
“What -but I thought I would be in the shape of my life when training for an Ironman!?” To a certain extent -yes- but also know that the risk factor of cardiac problems gets much higher the longer distance you train for. I am certainly NOT saying to avoid Ironman or longer distances, I am just saying train smart to prevent issues occurring.
It is many triathletes dream one day to compete in an Ironman triathlon.
What puts many off is simply the thought of how much time is required for ironman triathlon training: week in, week out for months and months and months.
To be honest, even getting to the start line of a sprint or Olympic distance event is a major achievement by the time you have got your head around 3 sports, transition and all the gear you need!
There is much more commitment required for Ironman triathlon training: both in time and financial. Both partners and families must be on board at the beginning or it may place a strain on relationships. It may seem to others (and to you) that all you do is work and train and have no time for anyone else! However do not let that stop you- but DO make sure you communicate at the beginning what your goal is and what the amount of training required!
Studies show that the average group of amateurs do Ironman triathlon training for 7-10 months and train an average of 20 hours a week
That’s right- about 3 hours a day!
That’s after fitting in work, family, chores and shopping.
Of course then there are the extras which take time- like the eating, the stretching, the sports massages, the bike servicing, the gadget shopping and it goes on…..
It is no wonder many shudder at the thought.
Professionals tend to train 4-6 hours per day.
If you are a beginner or have only done a couple of shorter races, give yourself longer than 7-10 months to prepare. This will reduce stress and allow for injuries, illness and recovery.
Give yourself 1-2 years, do a 70.3 as a shorter term goal before you start Ironman triathlon training and you might even enjoy the training along the the way without the added time pressure on you every week.
It is easy to write down on paper “I will run 5 miles this week, 7 miles next week, 10 miles the week after”, but sometimes your body does not respond in a linear fashion.
Be disciplined of course but remember to allow some flex in your schedule.
I will live for ever
Of course, with increasing fitness and Ironman triathlon training, you might be entitled to think, you are super healthy, super fit and should outlive most of your non-Ironman mates.
However, sadly, that is not always the case.
While you may be fitter, it does not mean you will be healthier.
There are famous cases of very fit athletes who have dropped dead suddenly.
Good health depends on what you do with your body and what fuel you put in the tank.
Many triathletes are so used to being slim, from all their training that they do not have to worry about being “fat” and so happily stuff their face with junk food and sports gels.
This can still lead you down the road of diabetes or heart disease if you are clogging your system with junk. Make sure you get in anti-oxidants ( fruits, veg and lots of green) to off set this. If you do not have time for all that shopping and chopping and washing up, get something like Organifi which contains all the good stuff quickly and instantly.
Dr. James O’Keefe, a cardiologist from the Mid America Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Hospital, has acknowledged that people who exercised regularly experienced significant health benefits including living 7 years longer on average than those not physically active.
But he also highlighted another worrying fact, which we need to pay attention to.
He reported, June 2012, that chronic cardio training and racing for extreme events can be harmful.
When he looked at extreme endurance athletes, he did not find exponential health benefits (due to increased fitness) but significant risk of heart damage!
Specifically, completion of an event requiring Ironman triathlon training (or even a marathon) was shown to cause structural heart changes and elevations of cardiac inflammatory biomarkers.
Most of these cardiac changes return to normal within one week so most of us should not freak out.
But an individual who is frequently competing in such events can experience months and years of repetitive cardiac injury, and this can lead to development of atrial fibrosis, myocardial scarring, and increased susceptibility to arrhythmias.
There are some well documented cases of this.
In 2012, distance-running legend Micah True- better known for his role as Caballo Blanco in Christopher McDougall’s epic book Born To Run – died while on a trail run from cardiomyopathy due to an enlarged heart. He regularly ran distances of 100 miles. True was just one example. Tragically there are many others.
There, sadly, are MANY more:
Greg Welch – multiple triathlon world champion: Ventricular tachycardia, with a need for nine open-heart surgeries from 2001 until 2003.
Emma Carney – Australian former professional triathlete and two time World Triathlon Champion: cardiac arrest in 2004, diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia (electrical abnormality in heart) and had to have a pacemaker fitted for life.
I am not trying to put you off entering these races.
In fact I encourage it. You will get so many benefits: an amazing sense of self worth, pride, personal growth, new friendships and wonderful benefits will come as a result.
Just make sure you are fully aware of the facts and do not go overboard on training volume for no reason.
I encourage you to train based on latest scientific research, not just based on 1970s folklore.
I encourage you to train smart and remember to understand why you do what you do.
Less is more.
Many triathletes(especially in Ironman) get injured -or worse- by blindly just doing more volume for the sake of it.
Of course you need to train more than 20 -30minutes moderate daily exercise per week!
Yes you can always do more- but that is not the point.
More is not necessarily better.
But how much will be effective?
And how much is too much?
Whilst average Ironman triathlon training takes 20 hours a week, it does not mean this is the best way to do it.
I am sure most of you would give your right arm to finish in an Ironman under 10 hours.
And to do it without sacrificing your sanity, your marriage, your mates and your work- wow- is it really possible?
And to know you are significantly reducing your risk of cardio myopathy?
What are they doing?
Ditch the pure volume/pure chronic cardio mentality
Instead mix up Ironman triathlon training with:
1) Strength training
Strength training is massively important for ALL triathletes of ALL distances.
There is tons of research to support this.
The massive performance benefits and time saving benefits of strength training are numerous but many triathletes STILL don’t do it- because they “don’t have time”.
Wow- as I have discussed at length elsewhere, strength training will SAVE you time because you substitute this for one or two of your other long, slow boring, sessions.
Personally I find strength training has massive bang for buck.
My performances have significantly improved since I implemented regular strength training sessions.
My knee niggles disappear, I have more power on hills, my swim stroke is stronger, and my running technique and speed is improved as I can maintain the correct posture longer.
Research shows that strength training improves endurance performance by increasing neuromuscular recruitment, efficiency and economy – especially for cyclists and runners.
Do 2 sessions a week 30-45 minutes.
2) Increase intensity on swims
Instead of 2 long steady state swim sessions, do more frequent swims but shorter duration.
Switch on your mind when you are in the water- Try to develop the “feel” of the water.
Your body will learn more quickly how to glide through the water by doing regular sessions than by forcing your way through the water. Here are the five best swim drills.
Try to do 3-4 sessions a week.
Do one long session :60-90 minutes.
Then make the rest 30 minute sessions- of sprints 25 x 50 m sets. Or 12 x 100s.
Long sessions tend to give athletes rotator cuff problems through too much volume on hunched (desk based) shoulders.
If you are a desk worker or do a lot of driving, it is imperative that you look for opportunities throughout the day to stand up as much as possible throughout the day to try to prevent hunched tight shoulders. Also do regular chest stretches to open up your pectorals area and anterior shoulder muscles.
3) Intense turbo work
This is a great way to save time. The 112-mile bike obviously is one of the biggest time saps for Ironman triathletes. Usually every Sunday is spent with your triathlon friends going out for a 3-5 hour bike ride.
There is a lot of faffing about and wasted time associated with cycling.
Of course it is not just the 3-5 hours training, it is the 40 minutes before hand checking the tires, the chain, filling water bottles, grabbing the gels, getting dressed up, finding your sunglasses and helmet.
Then getting to the meeting point. Then waiting another 15 minutes for the one friend who is always late.
Once you actually get going, you end up you stopping frequently because of traffic, red lights, stop signs or someone else’s flat tire. Your training performance is also dependent on the speed of the slowest person in the group.
Outdoor cycling once a week for a long ride is essential of course and has multiple benefits.
Do a couple of 2-5 hours rides once a week as you approach race day but that is all you need to do ( as long as you train with intensity).
You will save so much time and save chronic cardiac changes.
If you go hard on the turbo 45- 70 minutes- my gosh- it is an intense workout. You will notice very fast gains in speed, fitness, strength and lactate threshold. Even 15 minutes intense can deliver dramatic results! Here are some ideas of how to get the best out of your turbo training.
When you do go out with the triathlon club or your mates for your once a week long ride, you will start to leave people behind on the hills and when it gets tough.
Remember to monitor everything: your power meter, heart rate, which intervals you did, length of rest period.
There are no interruptions eg red lights, traffic or no waiting for people to catch up or turn up.
You will have done a proper intense workout- before the group has even started. All your fuel and water bottles are there within easy reach, there is less preparation time. You will even have time for a stretch afterwards and still be further ahead than where you would have been on a group session.
The Sufferfest: Downloadable Cycling Workout Videos are the best cycling DVDs to use to kick your butt and make indoor cycling more exciting. Trust me, you will work harder using these DVDs and Sufferfest than watching the news or a reality TV show.
4) Minimize long runs
Long runs in Ironman triathlon training take too long to recover from (up to 2 weeks) and hammer your joints. Intense runs of 60 -90 minutes are all you need.
You can supplement if you want with elliptical or stair master- as they have less impact. The run MUST be high quality- no sloppy technique be mindful and engaged- perfect posture, perfect pacing. It MUST be intense. If you know your technique is no good, get some tips and improve your running technique. It will make running so much easier and less effort.
Your other runs during the week should be short and intense.
For example: sprints 10 x 200m flat out.
8 x 400m flat out.
You will be finished in 30 minutes but feel like you have done 90 minutes hard.
Here’s how to run faster...
Do not fuel your body with junk food. It is just like a car- if you put the wrong fuel in- it will either not work as well or will break out and rust from the inside out.
So whilst you may look good on the outside- if your insides are being destroyed- you will not have longevity.
Even the traditional endurance athlete diet high in breads and pastas is pretty empty of high nutritional value. Consider a diet like Paleo… even if you do it 80/20 you will be moving towards better performance and recovery. Eat high fat, high protein, and lots of veg. Ditch sugary drinks and too much processed food. Supplement with green juices and shakes if you know you do not eat your vegetables but do not ignore it.
You need a great diet for better sleep, for better recovery and to not become chubby while you are not doing hours and hours of LONG, boring mileage sessions.
6) Use Mental Training for sport
The mind is a phenomenal tool in triathlon.
As well as training our body, a big ( under valued) part of training is strengthening the mind. Especially in Ironman triathlon training- there is a lot of time to think!
As soon as your mind gives up- it is all over!
As Craig Alexander (Three times Ironman World Champion) said “The mind is the athletes greatest asset”.
If you strengthen your mind and get mentally tough, you will be able to beat stronger athletes who crumble when it gets tough. Those who give up when there is a strong headwind or they get their second puncture of the day, or their mind tricks them into focusing on an ankle niggle.
The mind can also be your biggest weakness- and hold you back from reaching your potential.
We always have two voices in our head- the one who tends to whispers softly:
“I know you can do it”
“You are feeling strong”
“You are gaining on him”
And other other really loud annoying one who never goes away shouting evil things at you
“Why are you doing this?”
“You’ll never make”
“You are really tired-maybe you should give up and take up chess”
Which one are you going to listen to?
The other aspect is that by doing mental rehearsal in our mind, you actually get major performance benefits.
You can enhance the neural connections, help lay down the neural pathways, learn the techniques in your mind so when you go do them next week- you feel much stronger.
Mental rehearsal and mind training does not take long- you can make significant gains from just 10 minutes a day.
Here is a FREE guide on exactly how to implement this.
7) Don’t Neglect Your Weaknesses
We will all have a strength depending on whether we come from a swimming, cycling or running background. But do not make the mistake of avoiding the one discipline you hate. Ironman triathlon training peaks with a VERY long day out on race day. Any weakness will be magnified!
For many it happens to be swimming.
If this is the case for you- book some lessons and learn it properly.
You tube videos may help- but you really need the feedback and coaching to understand how to execute the technique correctly.
Otherwise you will not make much progress and you will be getting stronger at the wrong thing!
If you always get injured when running or cycling- book a gait analysis, learn running technique or a get bike fit. There will likely be some biomechanical error going that once fixed- will allow you to progress much more quickly and pain free.
Make sure you allow plenty of recovery in your schedule during the build up. Listen to your body. Get plenty of sleep- this is when your body repairs itself. Here are the 7 best recovery methods to enhance your performance.
Make sure you schedule a break from training after a big race. I know some triathletes who go straight back to training.
They often get injured- not during training or the race but 2-3 weeks afterwards as they did not allow rest and repair to occur.
Hopefully this article gives those athletes looking to jump up to 70.3 or Ironman some hope that you do not have to completely sacrifice your life to fit in the hours of training.
If you are already doing Ironman triathlon training, hopefully it will give you some food for thought about potential changes or small tweaks you can make to your program to give your better results.
Knowledge is power- IF you use it!
This article is not here to scare you or put you off the longer distances.
On the contrary- hopefully it has shown that you that it is in reach of most people.
Many triathletes probably train 8-10 hours a week for Olympic distance anyway.
You do not need to be doing several 5-hour bike rides and 3 hours runs per week to successfully compete in Ironman triathlon.
As Einstein said doing the same things and expecting a different result is insanity. Sadly most endurance athletes think the ONLY way to get better is to do more volume!
This only leads to misery, injury and burn out!
Instead train smarter, train different to convention.
Less hours training = less mental burn out= less physical burn out= healthier body=better performances=longer tri career!
(More podium chances ☺)
If you are currently doing Ironman triathlon training, how many hours are you doing?
Please comment below
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