One of the most common Ironman training questions we get is regarding training volume v’s intensity. How much should people train and how hard should they go. Can they possibly get faster by training slower? And can intensity deliver better results than big volume? Click on through for the good stuff…
Ironman is primarily an aerobic sport and for most of us our performance limiter is either fitness or strength. Ironman is also an unusual sport in that the bulk of the participants are in the 30-50 age range yet have an athletic age in single digits, often between 1-5 years. For athletes with such a short background in endurance sport the performance limiter in this case is almost always fitness and in my experience the best solution is volume coupled with strength work. The aim for me in Ironman is always to build a bigger engine. Not to supercharge a small one.
A super charged Smart car is still a Smart car and no matter what you do to make it faster its always going to be limited by it’s engine size. Sure it’ll probably do 150kph but it’ll have to work very hard and be very inefficient while it’s doing it. It will also likely blow up if you tried to go that fast for 6 hours non stop. On the other hand if you build a big engine you will be hardly tickling the throttle to cruise at 150kph and keeping your Lamborghini cruising at motorway speeds takes no effort.
Same speed, but different delivery method and very different energy costs. There is no doubt that speed work will make you faster but do you want to make your tiny little smart car engine faster or would you rather build yourself your very own 6 liter v 12 Lamborghini one? If building the Lamborghini engine sounds better then we are on the same page.
Building a bigger engine for Ironman is quite a simple process but one that not everyone has the patience for. It usually requires a lot of time and a lot of training volume. Now I know not everyone wants to hear that. We all want to know what is the quickest way to the results but there aren’t really any shortcuts with Ironman. One of the most respected coaches in triathlon Gordo Byrn also believes in volume over intensity and he sums it up really well with the quote
“People try to short cut with intensity” – Gordo Byrn
While he does believe that lactate threshold work delivers, your LT is rarely the limiter in Ironman.
“While some LT work can be useful, your critical limiter will be steady state aerobic endurance” – Gordo Byrn
You can check out his full article here
Brett Sutton the most successful Ironman coach of all time is very clear on the subject of volume in Ironman training. He reckons the only way to train to swim 3800mts is to swim 3800mts, every week. How should it be swum? What drills or intervals or technique work does he think we should incorporate into this 3.8k? None, just swim it. First get fit and strong enough to do the distance then you can fine tune technique.
For those who are really stuck for time there is one way to slightly shortcut the process but it doesn’t quite deliver the results that aerobic conditioning will. Strength work is the second of what I call the magic bullets but a lot of people misunderstand what’s meant by this in the context of Ironman training or just do it incorrectly. I will go into strength work for Ironman in the second post in this series.
I’ve written a mini book on what 6 of the most successful Irish Ironman athletes do that differentiates them from the rest of us and with 29 combined Kona qualifications they have a lot to teach. You can check it out here