Seems like there’s way more articles that discuss how to potentially get the last 1% of your performance than the ones that talk about the main 99%. I think that’s not a coincidence as hard work was never a popular subject. It’s much more enjoyable to read articles about methods that promise big improvement with little sweat. That’s why I’ll write a bit about stuff that’s not so popular but I find it important.
So, below you’ll find a training plan for someone who wants to finish an ironman without a specific time goal (except the one related to cut off time). I think more ambitious competitors will find something for themselves as well.
It’s hard to write general plan as potential readers may significantly differ in their sporting abilities. For some this may seem too easy, for others too hard. However, some things are universal (length of the race, for example).
Before giving this schedule a shot you should have some basic level of fitness that would enable you to run 30k and to swim 4k without major problems. If that seems overwhelming it would be advisable to postpone an ironman for a year or two and gradually increase your fitness level. There’s no new apocalypse forecasted for the next period so there’s no need to rush.
Even if you have good level of fitness give yourself 4-6 weeks for adaptation. Some of these methods may be new for you or maybe you didn’t have consistency in training lately. If you make a quick jump from the couch into full training it’s likely you’ll soon get back to the couch.
The idea is to design a basic training week and repeat it for as long as possible. There’s no need for periodization, no micro and macro cycles, rest weeks… It may seem too simple but simple things often work better. Besides that if this doesn’t work I’ll offer you a full refund.
Foundation of the plan are long ride, long run, and longer swim with 4 km main set. It would be good to do those sessions every week and the rest depends on available time and your ambitions.
Maybe you don’t have a time goal but it would be good to exit the water with some energy left for the rest of the race. Swimming is non impact sport and thus enables more intensity in program. Use that fact and don’t be afraid to go hard in training. Just because swimmers look effortless doesn’t mean they’re not working hard. Good swim fitness will help with pre-race nerves and part of that fitness will transfer to other sports as well.
If you’re short on time don’t waste it for long warm up, kick sets, drills, strokes other than front crawl (unless you plan to use other strokes in the race)… Technique is important but it requires a lot of time and someone on the deck to give you feedback. If you don’t have a lot of time focus on the other part of equation, fitness. Even if you have a lot of time don’t neglect fitness. Otherwise it may happen that you develop excellent technique but can’t hold it for more than 50m.
It would be good to have at least one session with main set around 4 km. For example 40 x 100 m on a send off time that gives you 3-7 seconds of rest. Maybe it seems boring but so is ironman, learn to deal with it. These kind of sessions can be useful for technique development as well. When it gets tight you tend to make small adjustments to your stroke in order to squeeze in a second or two to be able to make another interval on given send off time. Some of these adaptations work, others not and stopwatch is an unbiased judge. If your times slide down too much add 5 seconds to send off interval and finish the session.
This can be done with pull buoy, paddles and ankle band. Those toys enable you to do more quality strokes. Especially if you’re a bad swimmer and your technique falls apart when you get tired. They also help when you have heavy legs from bike or run. This is also a good core session so you can save some time on push ups, sit ups…
Longer intervals. You can play with interval length. For example:
9 x 400m with 30’’ rest (descending 1-3, 4-6, 6-9) + warm up and cool down
Shorter intervals with a bit more rest, e.g.:
15 x 25m, 20’’ rest
10 x 50m, 30’’ rest
5 x 100m, 1’ rest
10 x 50m, 30’’ rest
15 x 25m, 20’’ rest
This kind of session is not so specific for Ironman, especially for someone who just wants to finish the race. For that reason I wouldn’t use it too often. Maybe better alternative would be to do some longer intervals and then e.g. 15x50m.
Sprints can be done in every session as part of warm up. e.g.:
6x50m (25m sprint/25m easy)
Long bike ride should be part of every training week. Length of the ride depends on terrain and rider ability and its duration should be 5-6h. Faster ones can get away with 5h and those that are a bit slower should aim for 6h. Their race will last longer as well. I prefer lower cadence booth in training and in a race. I think I’ll write a separate article about it. Aim for a cadence around 75-80 rpm and try to spend most of the time in aero position. If you’re short on time that week shorten the ride but increase the intensity. This session is ideal to practise race nutrition.
15-30’ warm up
1h hill repeats (repeat for 1h: 3’ uphill hard, in aerobars, cadence 50 rpm; rest is descent back)
As a bonus you get another core session.
If you live in flat area you can do this on the trainer and if you don’t have a trainer switch to your biggest gear and ride 1h tempo.
Tempo session, e.g.:
30’ IM pace
30’ HIM pace
30’ oly pace
If you have time for 2 sessions per week alternate between hill repeats and tempo session.
Long run should be your main session. You can do 30 km or 3h, whichever comes first. It would be good to do long bike on Saturday, and long run on Sunday to get used to running with heavy legs. Walk if necessary but finish the session. After all, maybe you’ll have to walk in the race.
Brick run after your long ride. It can be from 5km to 1h long. If you choose longer version you can shorten your long ride or long run a little bit.
Depends on available time and ambition. Less ambitious can do an easy run, more ambitious can do a tempo session. If you have time for this session do it mid-week.
Pay attention to cadence. Unlike bike cadence, running cadence should be quite high. Aim for 90+ steps per minute. Higher cadence prevents you from landing in front of your center of gravity and all problems associated with it. It’s not easy to change it but try to gradually increase it. If you’re running with music load some higher beat songs. Treadmill is good tool to increase cadence as well.
It’s hard to generalise but I hope this helps someone. As said before main sessions should be mandatory and other are optional. However it would be good to include some of those optional sessions in each week. If you have extra time use it for cycling. The more fitness you have on bike the less likely you’ll have to walk on the run.