This post will look just what is involved in training for an Ironman triathlon and how to get started. We will also look at how much time do you need to train each week. We will detail how much training is actually involved in just crossing the finish line versus how much training is needed to be competitive. We will look at what’s the best way to split your training time and offer some suggestions about how to best fit Ironman into your life without coming home to find a suitcase on the doorstep. Click on through for all the good stuff.
How long does it take to train for your first Ironman Triathlon?
There are a number of things to consider when asking this question. Firstly your current fitness. If you’ve a background in endurance sports, ideally shorter triathlons, then you may be able to allow a shorter lead in than if you are starting from scratch. For a first timer with a decent sports background we typically recommend a full year of which the first six months will be spent getting ready to train and the last six months will be the properly structured Ironman specific training.
For someone with no sports background they might need as much as 18-24 months so that they can build enough strength and fitness just to be able to handle the required training load to complete an Ironman.
I’ve seen Ironman specific programs as short as twelve weeks and as long as 52 weeks. I think for most athletes the ideal period of specific training is somewhere around four to six months. Any more and there’s a tendency to burn out and lose motivation. Any shorter and it’s hard to build a big enough aerobic engine that’s required to complete an Ironman relatively comfortably.
How do you split your training time between the three disciplines?
When deciding how to split the training it’s important to take into account what your strengths and weaknesses are but typically it would be normal to allocate approximately 50% of your time to the bike and around 25% each to the swim and run.
The swim is for most people their biggest limiter. When Aisling entered her first Ironman back in 2008 she couldn’t swim at all. However she was an elite runner with loads of ultra marathon experience. What that meant was that she was able to do much less running than most athletes would need to for an Ironman. She effectively just had to maintain her running as opposed building up to a marathon like most people, in fact for Ais who’d completed ultra’s of 180km the marathon at the back end of the Ironman was actually going to feel like a short run.
The flip side of that was that she had to swim almost every day because when she started she couldn’t even swim 25m continuously. In this instance swimming made up a much bigger portion of her training than running because if she didn’t address the swim she simply wouldn’t make it as far as the bike never mind the run.
Bonus content: My three favourite swim workouts
So the 50/25/25 guide should be treated as that, a guide and not a hard and fast rule. You must allow for your weaknesses and strengths and allocate training time appropriately. It’s also fairly normal that we tend towards our strengths which we often enjoy more and avoid working on our weaknesses. Who enjoys doing what we’re not that good at? This can be a big mistake and one that can have big implications. If for example an athlete was in great run shape but their biking wasn’t great. They would likely be unable to take advantage of their running strength as they would be so fatigued getting off the bike because they hadn’t prepared well enough for it. In this instance a little less running and more biking might be a better option.
How do you fit Ironman training into your life?
There’s a couple of answers to this and often none of them are particularly appealing to someone just starting out. Essentially you need to give something else up to free up the time to fit in the training. For most people that’s either time at work, time with family or time spent at another activity like watching tv.
For me I try to balance where I take my training time from. I try to work a little less and take a little from home time. When I asked an athlete today with a very senior position in a large multinational company how he fits the training in he said he is very strict about getting out of the office by 6:30 and then goes straight to training. He also sacrifices a long leisurely lunch in favour of a sandwich eaten at his desk after a 45-60 minute session in the gym or pool.
Get approval from the real boss
Probably the most important and very often overlooked aspect of of how to fit it in to your life is getting your significant other on board if you have one. And I don’t mean getting them excited about the prospect of what a massive achievement finishing an Ironman somewhere off in the distant future is.
What I’m talking about is getting them on board with the reality of you being absent for between 8-20 hours a week for six months or more before you or they ever get to enjoy the glory of the day itself. Making sure they (and you) know just what’s involved before starting out all gung-ho only to have things come to a dramatic halt around eight weeks in when you arrive home from yet another 6 hour bike ride to find a suitcase waiting for you on the doorstep and the front door locks changed.
I think that being disciplined is one of the most important aspects of fitting Ironman into your life. Getting out the door and onto the bike as soon as you’re ready instead of deciding that maybe I’ll just have one more coffee and check who has liked my latest Facebook or Instagram post (that’s written from lot’s of personal experience) I have limited time to train and I’ve learned that if I start late I don’t get the work done (or I end up showing up late for work which I’m lucky enough to be able to get away with occasionally)
Plan everything. When myself and Ais start to build my plan we first start at the target race and work backwards to now and structure what is needed in a general way. We then start to plan the first weeks training and when Ais has written out the weeks plan I insert it into the calendar on my phone where I also have my work schedule and any other appointments we have for the week.
We have actually synced our calendars so Ais can see when I’m training, working or when we have scheduled time off. Yep we schedule time off and I think this is one of the keys to fitting in training on a long term basis. Allowing that life must not revolve only around Ironman or training regardless of how much we might love to swim, bike and run.
K.I.S.S: Keep it simple stupid
There can be a temptation to try to get an advantage from all sorts of fancy kit and toys. Triathletes are known to be early adopters when it comes to cutting edge technology but it’s really important to remember that the fancy kit can only make you faster, not fast. Getting fast only comes from training.
It took a long time for me to trust one of these new fancy “smart trainers” Not just because I occasionally struggle with technology but because if I’ve only got an hour to do that 60 minute turbo session in the plan then I can’t afford to spend 20 minutes trying to make the trainer connect to the app on my iPad just so I can use it.
I’m at the stage now where I use a Kickr and trust it but I still have my old Tacx Satori in the back of the training room just in case of technological meltdown which would quickly lead to an emotional meltdown as my training time dribbles away.
I find that set up time is inversely proportional to the likelihood of actually training. There’s a formula for this.
MTSSUT+F = LTsT
Where MTSSUP = more time spent setting up trainer, F = Faffage and LTsT = less time spent training
The less time it takes to set up training equipment the more likely you are to train. Take away as many of the excuses that stop you getting a session done.
Excuses like: I don’t know where my turbo is, I can’t find my wheel riser, someone moved my bike shorts, the dog poo’d in my bike shoes.
By having my turbo set up all year round I find it’s easier to get myself onto it. The less impediments there are to getting the training done the more likely it will actually happen.
Bonus content: Three of my favourite bike workouts
I’m sure we can all relate to the time when we return home from work tired and stressed and the last thing you want to do is get onto the turbo or do the session in the training plan. As the probability of whether we get the session done is teetering on a seesaw, maybe I’ll just skip this one, no I’ll definitely do it, maybe I’ll do it in the morning instead, ok so I’ll do it. Your tenuous grip on the conviction to train will most likely slip if you are then faced with the very problematic situation of the missing turbo trainer.
If you can’t leave the trainer permanently set up then at least store everything you need to use it together.
- Wheel riser
- Trainer mat
- Sweat cover
- Heart rate strap
- Trainer wheel etc
- Drinks bottle
I do the same with my swim bag, gym bag and run kit. I permanently have a swim bag packed and ready to go so that I never arrive to the pool to discover that I’ve no goggles or worse swim briefs. My gym bag is also permanently packed and ready so that I just have to grab it and go and I keep a set of run kit at work so that if the opportunity presents itself I can squeeze in that session I had to skip in the morning.
Another basic but invaluable lesson was to get the next days gear and food ready the night before. This means if I’m up early to ride or swim I wont wake Ais which helps with not getting a slipper fired across the bedroom as I stumble noisily around in the dark using the torch on my phone looking for my heart rate strap or runners at 5:30am. It also means I’m much more likely to show up on time for sessions as I always underestimate how long it takes to get kit, the days work clothes and training and post training food ready.
So how much and how often do you need to swim for an Ironman?
When Ais was training for her first Ironman and had to learn how to swim she swam six or seven days a week. For someone with a very strong swim background it might be sufficient to only do one or two. For most of the rest of us it’s probably somewhere between two and five, with three being the sweet spot. Three swims should mean there’s never too long a break out of the water and you’re not sacrificing the other two sports too much.
As for the distance to be covered I think that a beginner should be aiming to build up to swimming 4k weekly by the time they are in the last six to eight weeks leading into the race. For an intermediate athlete who’s in the pool three times a week I’d ideally have all three swims between 2500-4000 meters.
In 2013 while preparing for Kona I was fairly consistently averaging 10-15k a week and hit 20k a couple of times. This got me (not a very strong swimmer) down to about an hour in an Ironman wetsuit swim and 1:08 in Kona without the benefit of a wetsuit.
One of my favourite ways to squeeze in more training with less time is to swim less often but go for longer during each session. This means that if I can only swim three times a week but I do 4000m each time instead of four swims of 3000 I cover the same distance but spend less time traveling to and from the pool as well as the extra time spent getting changed etc for each swim.
For me to do an extra 1000 meters only adds about 20 minutes to each days swim. I also think there’s a huge physical benefit to doing three long swims a week. There’s a great fitness transfer, particularly to the run and by the time you get to your Ironman you’ve covered the distance dozens of times in training.
Swim toys have their place but first concentrate on just getting the work done before trying to figure out how to use a central snorkel at the same time as a pull buoy, paddles, drag shorts, fins and a Finis tempo trainer. Maybe the 15 minutes lost to switching between one set of toys and another a dozen times in a session would be better spent just swimming instead.
How much and how often do you need to run for an Ironman?
Again it depends on your level of run fitness and your background. Ideally a program should have three runs a week and I like to have one medium to long strength run in the hills, one long run and one interval run of some description. During Kona prep my long run would typically be about 2.5 hours, my hilly run is between 75-120 minutes and the interval run will change depending on the time of the year but might be long ironman paced intervals, mile repeats or a whole lot of 800’s.
An intermediate athlete will probably build up to between 2.5-3 hours for a long run and we typically include a session with long Ironman paced intervals of up to 2 hours or for shorter intervals we might prescribe a 90 minute run.
For beginners the most important run is the long run and we will usually try to get them comfortably able to run 30-32k and we will try to get them to do a lot of their early runs on grass or trail to reduce the risk of injury but we will transition onto roads so that the body gets used to the impact and the race day isn’t too much of a shock. We usually have beginners run two to three times a week and we try to avoid back to back run days. The reason for this is again to reduce the risk of injuryc as much as possible.
How much and how often do you need to bike for an Ironman?
The bike is for most people the most important part of the day. Because it is the longest of the three disciplines, often as long or longer as both the other two combined, it will have a bigger effect on the overall outcome. I discovered in 2012 in Kona that being in really great run shape doesn’t matter if the bike takes so much out of you that you then can’t use your strength. I had neglected the bike somewhat after qualifying thinking that I would carry the bike fitness through to October with “maintenance” sessions and instead focused on improving my run which I felt needed more work.
It turned out that the bike course in Hawaii is every bit as hard as I’d heard but hadn’t believed and by the time I started the marathon I was already almost on my knees. I only lasted 10 miles before the wheels came off completely.
Every Ironman plan is built on the foundation of three key sessions a week. The long bike, long run and the long swim. Regardless of whether you are a beginner or elite athlete the long bike is arguably the most important of the three.
For beginners if you are doing two sessions we would recommend that the second one should be based on strength. This is often called big gear or overgeared work and done on hills when possible. Most beginners will benefit more from building a big aerobic base and being strong. At no point do you need to be racing at an effort that would be thought of being hard or fast during your first Ironman.
If you can fit in a third bike early in the season we would still usually focus on aerobic or AET fitness or strength or a combination of both. Depending on the athlete’s ability we would add in some harder lactate threshold sessions but these would be less frequent than either AET or strength work.
For an intermediate athlete we would expect them to do at least three bike sessions a week. The tow key sessions would be made up of long AET ride with Ironman race pace interval work included, a strength specific session and depending on the time of year the third and possibly fourth would be either another AET/strength session or an interval workout.
Do I need a triathlon bike?
The answer to this question will differ depending on what your aims or target is for your race. A tri bike is almost always faster so if you are concerned about speed or the time the answer is almost always go for a tri bike. The time difference is too significant to ignore.
As a conservative estimate if you are correctly set up on a tri bke v’s a road bike you will save five minutes over 40k. That’s a whopping 22.5 minutes over an Ironman bike split. On the extreme end I’ve seen people save over ten minutes over 40k saving you over 40 minutes. That is typically more than most people could save in a year of consistent training.
Another important consideration when deciding on whether to choose a tri bike is that being much faster on the bike significantly impacts your enjoyment of the overall race. Everyone falls apart in an Ironman at some stage, it’s just a question of how late this happens. A tri bike pushes the falling apart further down the road by the virtue of the fact that for the same energy expenditure you get off the bike sooner which means that you start the run earlier and with less accumulated fatigue so as long as your pacing is good the point at which you start to fall apart on the marathon happens much later.
I know from painful experience that falling apart at the 10-15k point in an Ironman marathon is one of the most difficult mental challenges you will face. The thoughts of being in that much pain knowing that there’s hours more to come is soul destroying. However it’s a very different experience if you can push that point back by an hour by virtue of getting off the bike fresher. Facing into 10-15k of hurt is much easier to face than 25-32k of suffering.
If however you just want to finish an Ironman and tick that off your bucket list then a standard road bike will more than suffice.
Is frequency of training sessions more important than duration?
This is one of those questions with several answers and sometimes more than one of them apply at the same time. Training an hour a day every day and adding one long day at the weekend is almost always better than doing just two or three big sessions crammed into a couple of days each week.
The other side of the argument is that pretty much every week you should aim to do a long swim, long bike and long run. These are the cornerstone of any Ironman training program. As I said in the swim section above I try to make all of my swims long as I feel there is more benefit to me given the time it takes to get to the pool and back. If however you have access to a pool every day during your lunch then short more frequent sessions may work better.
Pick your course carefully. Terrain, climate and time of year.
If it’s race performance you’re looking for then this is crucial. Picking the wrong course or underestimating it can lead to disaster I’ve qualified twice at Ironman UK in 2012 and 2013 and a large part of my success there was due to the fact that the climate and terrain suit me. It’s a relatively easy lake swim and a very technical hilly, hard bike followed by a hilly hard run. I have fairly good bike handling skills from a number of seasons spent both mountainbike and road racing. My light weight means I’ve a better power to weight ratio over bigger more powerful riders and this helps on the hilly run too.
I don’t usually handle the heat very well so IMUK is a good option for me as the weather rarely gets as hot as some of the continental European or South American or Asian races.
If however you are just looking to tick the “I did an Ironman box” and maybe combine a family holiday with your Ironman then Bolton maybe isn’t the most exotic of locations. Ironman France in Nice for example is a really good location offering everything from good value campsites just outside Nice to luxury hotels on the Promenade Des Anglais right at the race site. It also offers beaches, city entertainment and shopping for the family while you swim, bike and run your little loaf off. It’s also one of the easiest races for supporters to watch as it’s a single transition in the city so while you’re off on the bike or run course they can grab coffee or lunch at one of the numerous cafes or restaurants.
What are the options of working with us?
- We have a couple of options currently available. The first is one on one coaching where we write a fully personalised and custom program each week for our athletes. If you are interested in talking to us about 1:1 coaching you can do that here
- The second option is to use one of our training plans for Ironman and 70.3 There is a couple of options from first time athlete to someone looking to improve right through to advanced plans and all of them include sessions that we use ourselves and teach our own coached athletes. You can check them out here.
I’ve written a mini book on how some of the most successful athletes get to Kona not just once but multiple times, how they cope with injury, problems and how they train. You can download that for FREE here