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Ironman Training

So You Want To Do An Ironman?

This isn't supposed to be a difinitive set of instruction on how to trian for an Ironman, it's a few ideas to get you thinking about the right things.

Now you're over the “what have I done” when you pressed the enter button you can get down to the task of drawing yourself up a plan. It's best to draw yourself up a series of blocks ending on race day. That way each block can have a purpose and a target and its easier mentally as it's not long until it ends. It feels easier working through smaller blocks and stages are nicely punctuated with a beginning and an end rather than a huge 36 week non-stop slog, draw up something that looks like this:

Block 1: Technique (32wtg – 36wtg)
Block 2: Base 1 (27wtg – 31wtg)
Block 3: Base 2 (22wtg – 26wtg)
Block 4: Race Month (17wtg – 21wtg)
Block 5: Intensity 1 (12wtg – 16wtg)
Block 6: Intensity 2 (7wtg – 11wtg)
Block 7: Taper (2wtg – 6wtg)
Race Week (1wtg)

Yes, 36 weeks but don't worry. Most of it is just consistent training keeping the Ironman as your aim. Lets expand a little on the phases:


Time to get those swimming lessons you've always meant to have. Sort your bike position out and chose what sort of trainers are right for you. Get all your kit sorted during this phase. Experiment and see what's right for you. Training is consistent in this phase but not silly. Although you're still 6 months from the race thoughts are already starting to focus on it and setting up all your kit for it will help you stay focussed. Getting your bike position right is also very important, you see far to many people with a position that's costing them time. You want as much free speed as you can in as comfortable a position as you can get so get it all sorted out.

Base 1 and 2

Get your weekly schedule sorted out and get into a routine of consistent training. Things like doing your long run on a Wednesday, long bike ride on a Sunday and long swim on a Friday. Although the sessions aren't that long as yet it's great to get your routine worked out nice and early. That way you and all your family will know what's going on. Let them know that July is probably going to be a busy month for training so they're aware of it and have time to get used to the idea. Everyone should fall into a nice weekly routine.

Base is the time to build up some race specific strength with long interval sessions on the bike, such as holding zone 3 for 20 minutes. Remember this phase is to get you fit enough to take on the Intensity phase it's not necessarily time to bash out century rides. For running try and get out into the hills and up the trails. Build up that leg strength.

Race Month

Ironman training can be boring and mentally challenging so I like to mark the change between Base and Intensity with a month of doing whatever you feel like. Enter sprint races, running races, time trials or whatever you feel like. Keep training, don't give up the hard work now, but give yourself a mental break from all the target setting. Go freestyle and chill out. Usually you find you want to train more because you've removed the targets!

Intensity 1 and 2

This is the key phase where the Ironman training is done and the race rehearsed. You should already have a decent base in you and this phase will take your endurance out to the required level and also build up some speed. Remember that Ironman isn't about outright speed, it's about not slowing down so your endurance and race pace simulation sessions are important. All the training up to this point is to get you safely through this final phase. Hopefully you'll take your bike rides up to 100 miles and your runs to 20 miles with interval sessions between. How you lay your week out is up to you but try to avoid doing back to back days with hard sessions. What you call a hard session is also up to you, just keep track of how your body is coping with the sessions and back off if it's having problems keeping up. While this phase is key to the race it's also the phase where things are likely to go wrong. You should already have enough endurance in you to get around the race so cutting the occasional session short isn't going to harm your day. During your long rides you'll also be checking your race day nutrition and getting your race plan worked out and finalised (this is vital and there's more on it below).


The taper starts 5 weeks out with your last big run. Running takes a lot out of you and you'll need 5 weeks to get over a 20 mile run and properly get the benefits from it. Doing your last run 5 weeks out also doesn't clash with your last long bike ride which will be 3 weeks out. Your last long swim could be as late as a week out as it doesn't take much to recover from it. Taper is a high intensity phase until you reach that 'last biggie' session then you step down the distance quite quickly but keep the speed up. During the last couple of weeks it feels as if you're not really doing anything but resist the urge to do a last minute mega session. Have faith in your taper. You go through a lot of mini-cycles during the taper that'll probably affect your mood. You'll have high and low days, huge self doubt and huge self confidence. It'll all normal though so just ride it out. You'll be coming into a phase where you're fitter than you've ever been before and your body is working it out, repairing and taking on all that fitness.

The taper is also the time to get your mind sorted for the race. Big yourself up and have total confidence in your ability. Don't even contemplate a DNF. Don't even let it enter your mind. There is no reason at all why you'll not cross that line and collect your medal and earn the bragging rights for the rest of your life. You've done the training, rehearsed the race, sorted your kit, got your nutrition plan tried and tested. You're a winner who just needs to go through the motions to get to the finish.

Race Week

No point in scheduling proper training for this week as it's a weird week, you'll be travelling and getting to a strange place where you have no pre-planned routes. So best to keep this week out of the plan and make it up when you get there. There's little you can do for fitness anyway so just make sure your bike is fine after the flight/drive with an hour or two easy ride, a swim in the lake to test the water out and get your sighting points sorted and a brief run to loosen the legs up. It's important to stay chilled during the final week and fuel up for the race. Try not to get to caught up in the hype of it all and freak yourself out. Be cool and have faith in yourself.

And there's more!

What I set out before was a general guide but you're free to work outside those guides and still achieve your goals. But you will need to cover the basics to get around the course so let's list them:

A base phase
Get your cycling up to distance
Get your running up to distance (well 18-20 miles or thereabouts)
Some intervals for some speed

The base phase should come first to get your body used to the effort, your probably working on that now. But rather than save the longer distance stuff until the last 12 weeks and build cycling and running together you can split it and do them at different times. You'll hear plenty say they're doing their long rides during the winter and if that suits you that's great. Many do a spring time marathon which can also be worked into a schedule. It's probably a good idea to split the build up to avoid injury. So maybe something like this:

1. Base phase (from now onwards)
2. Long running phase (spring time)
3. Bike interval phase (from now onwards)
4. Long cycling phase (early summer)
5. Race

This would mean you get your long runs over with while the weather is bad and avoid going out for hours and hours on the bike when conditions aren't good. You can get your bike intervals done during the week on the turbo when it's dark then run long on a Saturday/Sunday when it's light. Doing it this way also means you can make the most of your local races and use them for your Ironman training.

There are lots and lots of different ways to achieve your goals but I guess my basic message is that if you chose to step up cycling or running before the last 12 weeks there's no need to worry that you'll loose all that fitness if you don't keep doing it. I did IMUK last year but didn't do another long ride until April when I did 80 miles on the mountain bike without problem. Once it's in the tank it'll stay there as long as you don't have an extended period of doing nothing. So anything you're doing now counts!

Race Nutrition

Three things will get you to the finish, fitness, mental prep and race nutrition. The one thing that marks Ironman out from shorter distances is that you can't get your nutrition wrong and get easily to the end. It's pretty much key to your efforts on the day so you have to work out what works for you and test it over and over again, bring in several variables and testing them out as well.

Your body can absorb an amount of calories per hour at a given intensity. So, let's pluck a figure out the air for an example, you're riding along with a heart rate of 145bpm you will be able to absorb between 300 and 600 calories. You need to find out as accurately as you can what that figure is. So when you start cycling a bit longer, say three or four hours and over, you have to keep a track of what you consumed per hour. My hourly feeding looks something like this:

1 x 500ml bottle of Powerbar energy drink (130 calories)
1 x CLIF energy bar (240 calories)

Nice and easy to remember and carry out on race day. You'll hear people with all sorts of weird and complex feeding strategies but during the race you'll have plenty to think about so best keep it nice and easy so you don't mess it up. Once you've hit on something you feel works for you it'll need testing out at different intensities to see what happens. As disciplined as you feel you might be, it's incredibly hard to take things easy at the start of an Ironman bike leg. You're as fit as you've ever been, properly rested with a taper and now in a race with 1500 other people around you and lots people (friends and family) cheering you on. It's hard not to go off to fast. So you need to test your feeding at a higher intensity. So head off out for a long ride with, to use our example again, an average HR of 150bpm (slightly above your chosen race HR). The higher up the intensity scale you go the less food you can absorb so you need to know what it feels like when you're over eating. If your faster ride goes well with no problems then that's brilliant but it also means you can eat more at your lower intensity so edit your original plan.

After half a dozen decent longish rides you should hit upon a calories/hour figure you know you can absorb and a target heart rate figure where you know you can last the distance, keep feeding and feel good. Two very important figures but you'd have also tested out what happens when you go over it and have some experience about what to do when you start to feel sick or go off your solid foods. Information like that is so valuable during the race as things are bound to go wrong somewhere along the line. If you've rehearsed it then it'll just be a simple edit on your plan and you can continue without fuss. But I guarantee you'll see people during and after the race where their feeding has gone wrong. You certainly don't want to be one of them (and your family don't want it either). Test out plenty of different foods, gels, salt pills and whatever else you feel you'll be eating on the day. Make sure it all works for you and have confidence in your plan. Don't be concerned by other's plans, whatever you know works for you is the right plan for you, even if it goes against what others are suggesting. If you've rehearsed it and know it works for you then it's right for you.

Once you have your plan stick to it. You have your calories per hour figure and your race pace sorted. So stick to those two figures. But on top of your feeding you can drink as much water as you want (as long as you don't go nuts with it). If you feel you're dehydrating during the race DON'T drink more energy drink as it'll affect your calorie intake. Drink more water. Put a Nuun pill in it if you want but don't stray from your rehearsed feeding unless something is going badly wrong (which you'd have rehearsed in training and know what to do).

Good luck and remember you're doing it because you enjoy it.

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