Someone commented on an article I wrote a while ago that while volume might be the best way to get Ironman fit that’s all well and good if you can fit it in. But what if you can’t fit in big volume? What if you just don’t have the time? Surely there are ways to improve but without committing so much time that you arrive home to find a suitcase on the doorstep after yet another 6 hour bike ride.
There is one type of training that delivers huge gains and is also key when it comes to racing. Being strong is as crucial to Ironman success as being fit. How do you get strong and why is it so important? Read on for the good stuff…


  • Ok so I’m going to tell you to swim long here. I know I said that there are other ways to improve but the cornerstone of any Ironman plan has to be your long sessions and the long swim is the best way to fit a long session into a busy life. Depending on your fitness your long ride might take 5-7 hours in your biggest weeks but a 3-4k swim can usually be done in 60-90 minutes. If you’re training for Ironman and can’t fit in a 90 minute session a couple of times a week you’re in the wrong sport. Bang for your buck it delivers the biggest gains.
  • Strength as I said is key for Ironman and the best way I’ve found to get strong in the water is with paddles. Introducing them slowly and gradually is key. Start with small paddles for short intervals first. A typical weekly progression might look something like this. 5x 100 the first week, then 3x 200, 8x 100, 5×200 and over the 16-20 weeks of an Ironman program you could build up to 5-6x 400 repeats. Combined with pull buoy and a band tying your ankles together is the most effective.

The bike

  • Compressed climbing

This is one of my favourite ways to get strong on the bike. With most of these “short cuts” however there is a downside. They are purely training sessions and not necessarily the most entertaining but they do deliver results. I find a climb or a series of climbs and ride seated big gear repeats with a ride down recovery. To give you an example of how efficient it is one of my early season 3.5-4 hour 100k rides has over 3000m climbing in it. The Wicklow 200 which is widely recognised as being the hardest 200k sportive ride in Ireland has a similar amount of climbing and would take 2-3 times as long to complete. Big gear riding and over geared seated climbing is the most effective way to build strength on the bike and this session allows me compress a huge amount of high quality work into a shorter ride.

  • Turbo trainer

The turbo, like quite a few of the more mentally challenging sessions is one of those areas neglected by many for that exact reason, how difficult it is to get your head around. In physical benefit terms I reckon an hour on the turbo is probably worth 90 mins to 2 hours on the road but only if what you’re doing is a quality session, if you’re sitting there tooling along watching coronation street then it’s probably not quite as beneficial.


  • Hills

Running hills or hill repeats works on the strength aspect of training again and delivers big results. I try to do my long run on the hills or if that’s not possible I will do a hill repeat session on whatever climb I can find. If I’m traveling and don’t know the area I will fo the session on the treadmill with the incline set up.

  • Split long run.

It’s not always possible to fit in a long run to your life but sometimes it is possible to fit in two shorter ones. Maybe as your commute into and home from work. The benefits are that you can incorporate more quality into the session and I’ve found that recovery is faster than if I’m just running straight through.

Most of these ways around doing big volume are things that I include in my training all year round. I think that being strong is one of the most important aspects of Ironman. It’s not the fastest athlete who succeeds, rather the one who slows down the least and in my experience slowing down in Ironman is usually as a result of poor pacing, bad nutrition or because somethings breaking down. The weakest point of the body will fail first and that failure will cause you to slow down. It might be weak hip flexors, a weak core or an old partially fixed injury. Whatever it is being strong will help you not break down and fall apart.

We coach a small number of athletes each season if you’re interested in talking to us about coaching you can do that here.

If you’re interested in reading about how I went from smoker to Kona you can do that here.

I’ve written a mini book on the lessons I’ve learned myself and that I’ve learned from some of the most successful Irish Ironman athletes and you can download it free here

You can also keep up with my weekly training blog as I attempt to qualify for Kona again here.