CoachCox

Sub 10 Hour Ironman Training

Ten hours seems to be the Ironman equivalent of the three hour marathon. Just as my first major goal in distance running was to break three hours (Taunton 2005) when I moved on to Ironman ten hours was there in my mind. As barriers they represent an attainable point of performance for the dedicated athlete. Not requiring quite the same focus as a 2:40 marathon or sub 9 hour Ironman, but equally not a time achieved by the odd bit of training. They’re both clear indicators that an athlete has put in a reasonable amount of work into their preparation.

Inspired by a recent thread on the Tritalk forum I thought I’d look at what was involved in my first sub 10 Ironman and see what could be learnt from it. My initial memories were of long hours of training around work and a commute. In fact my recollection was of 20-25 hour weeks as the norm. Digging through old files I found a spreadsheet of training volume for 2007. The average was a little over 12 hours with peak around 18 hours in the lead in! Significantly less than expected.

I logged everything in WKO+ from 2008 onwards and soon discovered my recollection was of my second season of Ironman racing where I increased the volume and weekly training load. Even then the average was a 17-18 hour week, but with peak weeks typically around the 25 hour mark. Also notably were some training camps consisting of major volume – Epic Camp Italy represented a 45 hour training week!

Given it took a lot less training than I assumed it makes sense to consider what kind of athlete I was at the start of 2007. I came to triathlon from a couple of years running with a marathon PB of 2:50 at Taunton. At that time I was very light, around the race weight I aim for now. Running was a strength and I took advantage of this in tri by doing minimal training to maintain it. I’d learnt to swim as a child, but not to a high level so much of my training time was about becoming a reasonable swimmer. Similarly I’d only owned a road bike for two years and was still developing as a rider.

The pie chart shows the division of training time leading to Austria. You can see how little running was emphasised. I really relied on that run history to carry me through. The time I saved there was ploughed into trying to improve my swim mostly via a Masters Squad and drills during my own time (in a horrible 20m gym pool). The vast bulk of training time was spent on the bike though.

In terms of swimming the main thing I needed was to be no slower than 1:10, but the faster the better. By the time Austria came round I was at best a one hour Ironman swimmer, but very reliant on a draft for that. During the race I happened to get that draft and got dragged round to a good swim time. I’d had about 18 months of decent swim training as that point based off at least knowing correct technique from my childhood.

I had the ability to run well on very little training. A typical week even at my peak consisted of a long run of 90-120 minutes, a 30 minute brick run after a threshold session and one more easy 30 minute run. I did no speed work or focussed sessions during this time. However I regularly raced throughout the season and my regular training pace would represent a 3:25 marathon at its slowest.

Biking was where I really focussed time. I knew it was a weakness and like many runners found it hard to deal with the ‘pain’ involved. I could race a hard 5km run without concern, but something about biking as hard hurt. The importance of a good bike was obvious so I worked at it. The typical training week contained a long bike at the weekend, a threshold or interval session mid-week, a tempo ride and possibly a fourth easy ride.

My long rides were dictated by feel and I never felt I worked that hard during them. Tempo and interval sessions utilised power (once I had a power meter) or heart rate and I tended to be very strict in my numbers. Aside from those two sessions any further intensity came during races.

Effectively I had four sessions a week in each sport. For swimming two were squad based and intense and the rest were easy. For cycling I had one endurance ride up to and occasionally beyond Ironman distance and one properly hard session a week. Running is the odd one out as I only ever ran hard when I was in a race, the rest of the time I’d be close to my expected Ironman pace.

Scattered throughout the year were a couple of big training weekends. Where I went away and did much higher bike volume usually. Running remained on the back foot and with swimming outside of the squad I just ensured frequency. I think these small blocks of over reaching were significant in helping my Ironman bike performance.

When I came to the race I didn’t go in planning to break 10 hours. I was aware of the possibility, but was aiming for 10:30. I was lucky with my swim performing to the best that could be expected and getting the perfect draft. The bike felt far too easy, though perhaps I pushed the pace a little and recall feeling it a bit by the end. I have some power data (from an Ergomo) which I’ll have to compare that with recent results. I recorded a 5:12 on the bike and left myself with 3:45 to complete the run. Easy!

It turned out the run would be where I’d make my big mistake. Thirty kilometres at three hour marathon pace worked well until the wheels came off. There was a lot of walking in the last 10km and had I not given myself a huge buffer I’d not have broken ten hours. As it was time was with me and I ran a 3:26 with about 25 minutes walking in the final quarter. I finished the race in 9:46 comfortably under the 10 hour mark.

Considering the path I took to Austria I consider a few factors particularly important. Firstly I’d achieved a level of fitness or performance in each of the sports that meant I was comfortably able to race suitable splits for the sub 10 hour mark. It’s also worth mentioning that Austria is a fast course and helped me along the way. I’d not planned sub 10, but had trained for it whether I knew it or not.

I had a big advantage being able to suffer to a 3:26 Ironman marathon on an average of 2.5 hours running per week. This freed time to focus on improving bike and swim so I worked harder in both those areas. Being very focussed in most of my bike sessions helped and this is something I’m working to improve in my current training. Clearly swimming lots with a squad paid dividends too that sort of short, intense work built the speed I needed.

If I take anything away from this it’s just how important those last two points are – squad swimming (at the least quality pool work at high intensity) and focussed bike work. You don’t need lots of it, but what you do have has to be good. I’ll certainly be more focussed in ensuring athlete’s I coach for long course racing are able to hit their hard sessions hard. Hopefully some of them read this and will appreciate the benefits to be gained from the turbo sets they’ll have over the winter!

This isn’t to say there’s nothing to gain from increasing volume, but rather to emphasise whatever volume you use you need to have a portion of hard work in there. I’m going to revisit this area to look at the data from 2008 and 2009 where I trained a lot more at times. It’s a demonstration in diminishing returns, but also the need to keep control of the details and the benefits of a cumulative training load.

Ironman Training Library

From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.

Comments

  • Very interesting.

    Having left triathlon and ironman racing in 1997 I have seriously gotten a need to get back at it now again. Especially after watching Challenge Copenhagen and standing there on the marathon giving the two buddies I had in the race times and encouragement. It was awesome.

    I did a 10:07:17 in 1997, and that feel so much like unfinished business. Being 39 I don’t have a lot of time to accomplish sub-10 in, but I think I might have enough.

    So it is very helpful to see some hard numbers from you on how much time I need to set my life up to accomodate training. Thank you for that.

    /Morten

  • Thanks Morten,

    I may well upload the spreadsheets to google later today so you can have a look at all the data. I’ll also have to look at the power data from Austria and how it compares with my recent, better races.

    I think there’s still time to get that sub-10. Make sure you pick the course for it, not Ironman Lanzarote!

    Russ

  • Anita

    I really enjoyed reading your blog it’s great to hear what it takes to achieve a brilliant time like that in an Ironman. I hope I can remember what you have said when I move up from Oly distance to the big one!!! Thanks

  • Thanks Anita,

    Glad it’s of interest to you and certainly hope it helps you make the step up to Ironman distance. Check out some of the other pieces I’ve written if you haven’t already there might be some useful advice buried in there! 🙂

    Russ

  • oli

    Just found your blog. Really enjoyed reading it. Just done my first tri (IM UK) and would love to go as hard as you.

  • Cheers Oli and bold move making an Ironman your first Tri.

    Glad you like the blog hopefully they’ll be more of interest coming soon, I’ve some good ideas relating to this sub 10 theme. Put in the training and you’ve every opportunity to race faster. 🙂

    Russ

  • Rasmus

    Whoa! 3:26 on a 2½ hr pr.week training schedule??
    Damn you rock! Im planning on my first full IM this August and Ive got 22 hrs a week during peak hard weeks lined up already with 5-6 of those being running of misc kinds. You give me hope for nailing a 3:15 and I like it 🙂
    30kms at 14kmt is pretty darn fast, espec in IM after hours in the saddle. I think you spent your carbs too fast and not enough fat during that. Ive trained specifically to run lower than 155 HR(77% for me) to increase fat burn to 50%+ and then increase my pace gradually till I can run faster with fat burn still going high. Im up to 13.5kmt now with that fat burn rate and if I can get it to 14kmt Ill be quite happy as it will give me that kinda split with more carb preserved in the system. It was recommended to me by a semi-Pro who used it to run a 9:03.
    Some Q came up though:
    – Do you use a split saddle like ISM Adamo to lighten the crotch blood vessel pressure? (That helped my friend alot for the run!)
    – Do you use compress socks/leggings for the run and/or bike?
    – I think your swim time is really good and I personally would be very happy with 1:10 or under for a sub 10 IM. The bike is where I would put the pace in, but you wrote that it couldve been faster. Im aiming for 5hrs atm, but I may get surprised as Im good for short runs atm of 1-2 hrs at 85% with intervals but yet to test the long hauls.
    Very inspirational post!

  • Rasmus – Thanks for the comments.

    It would be fair to say that my 3:26 marathon time on so little run training was the product of all the running I’d done in the time before Ironman. I was really just maintaining that fitness whilst working on other areas. To go faster I ran more. If you’ve got some running in you already then 5-6 hours a week should be plenty to deliver a 3:15 Ironman run One point to note: most of my running was close to Ironman pace. Worth noting how easy that pace is for you – if you can mostly run 3:15 in training as a steady pace you should be good.

    Back then I had less clue about fat and carb utilisation. I went too hard on the bike and way too hard early on the run and never ate enough. Like you;re doing I work a lot now on ensuring I build up my efficiency. My long term goal is to break 9 hours and I’m using this year to focus on building a much better engine (and chassis!) Lots of steady hours till my body can handle harder work, but also developing efficiency, working on technique and so on. If you’ve not seen it I blogged about my fat burning on the bike last year.

    To answer your questions:
    – I don’t use an ISM Adamo saddle, never tried one. I’ve had issues once with a saddle, but mostly get on with it. Use a Fizik Arione (standard one).
    – I didn’t use compression back then, but these days I tend to wear compression sleeves throughout the race. I find it can take the edge off rough roads on the bike and feels better on the run. Whether it makes me faster is an entirely different question, it feels better though.
    – Better swimming can make for a better race, though I think it’s hard to miss the sub-10 goal on the swim alone. I still aim to improve my swim as part of all round improvements. It’s a question of time investment for those of us who struggle more with swimming can we gain more overall working on bike and run?

    Thanks again,

    Russ

  • Rasmus

    Hi again and thx for the answers,
    No I didnt see the blog post, but Im far from done with reading what you have to offer 🙂
    I can’t run that fast yet for that amount of time and the 5-6 hrs a week isnt till much later, as I don’t want to bust my knees or calves.
    I must say, I completely agree with you that bikes are overrated and the engine counts the most. Some guy also told me that yes bikes help but 85% of the drag is created by the panting engine on top of it, which is my pointer to getting fast through the bike stage. That and not having to stop at all during the bike, so water bottle minimum, learning to stay aero for hours and deliver watts enough, while keeping the pulse zone going and eating/drinking smart and not puncture(using superresistant tubulars). I simply don’t have the cash or sponsors for bike gear.
    I also agree that one has to figure out up front how much in minutes a certain extra effort will give. Like fx 5 hrs of swim extra a week versus using the same pn the bike or the run. If one will get 6 min on the swim, 12 minutes on the bike and 7 min on the run, then bike effort it is, though these predictions are hard as nails without lots of racing being done.
    I still want to focus my time on bike and run most, once I hit the threshold of 1:10 or lower for the swim. It should be enough for the ultimate dream of hitting sub 9 hrs with a 4:50 bike stage and a 3hr marathon. Eventually in 2012 or 2013.

  • Rasmus,

    Building up the training is the smart approach. get your body able to handle the running before you try to make it go harder. Staying injury free is the key to long distance success.

    I’ve been going well enough on a road bike for a few years. I’d love to get a time trial bike at some point, but like you there’s only so much room in the budget. Better to keep building the engine.

    Sounds like you’re taking the sensible long term approach to reaching those goals for 2012/2013. I hope I’ll be joining you sub-9 by then.

    Russ

  • Rasmus

    Russ, just an update since last time.

    Completed my first IM in 1:19 – 5:21(with a crash!) – 3:59 = 10:50

    My spare tub’s 3 elastic bands wasn’t enough for 800m cobblestones and it hopped out, got into my rear wheel = dead sliding stop, I got a shock and fell sideways crashing and bruising a knee. Then some official requested I’d go to the side for safety and reattached the tub, and the whole ordeal must’ve cost me 3-4 minutes plus whatever energy I lost doing it for thje remaining 90km, but I still completed the race with rubbish winging the nutrition on the run, as I realized the aid stations had no iso-gels…
    Oh and apparantly the only had caffeine gels for the first two times I got a gel, which didn’t help at all as I ran tired and the Caffeine iso-gels I had 2 of in my back pockets, didn’t give me a boost when I needed it. So I lost lots from 22km to 29km then forced myself to run 5min/km 8/mile home and I did. i didnt get any injuries during the entire training or the race, but my butt muscles and thighs were exhausted and sore 3 days later 🙂

    The hunt is now on for improving all 3 disciplines and gunning for 9:30 next summer, and a sub 11 in downunder Jan 2012 🙂

  • Hi Rasmus,

    Thanks for the update and congrats on your first Ironman, sounds like a great performance, especially considering the problems you had on the day.

    Good luck with the training and chasing those improvements.

    Russ

  • Dan

    I dipped my toe into the Im world this season at IM UK. I have 2 years experience of sprint and olympic distance events behind me. Was happy to finish in 10h39 (1.08/5.56/3.28) No real mistakes just a learning curve. Pacing seemed to go well but wasnt expecting the run to feel as bad. Not sure if this was due to not doing the miles on the bike or the run in training. Longest ride was 4h 30. I had plenty of long runs but mabe i should of increased my second longest run and also included more bricks. Would welcome your views please Russ.

  • Hi Dan,

    That’s a great result for a first IM after a couple of years in the sport. Splits look pretty balanced (though I’m guessing you’re not from a swim background) and with no real mistakes it’s a good starting point to work from. Whilst you mention the run hurt, it clearly didn’t overly impact performance that’s a very respectable time for an Ironman marathon.

    My general inclination would be that you need to work on the bike more. Bike fitness is a huge component of Ironman racing, not only impacting performance on the bike course, but also the marathon. It sounds like you did plenty of running and more would not make a huge difference to that time. I would suspect that the pace you rode at felt fine, but was possibly on the high end, Ironman pace is surprisingly easy, especially for the first few hours. Developing bike fitness will enable you to go faster on the bike and use less energy in the process.

    The other area that might be worth considering is nutrition. Ironman is all about conservation of energy, ensuring you spread it out till the end of the race. Potentially you may have suffered more on the run with fading reserves.

    Areas I would look to practice – maybe the occasional longer ride, but making sure your long rides are a good effort, practicing race pacing and also race nutrition. Build more intensity in the bike and if you want to increase running, look to increase frequency of runs, add another in the week. Increasing run volume through frequency can help build the strength to last the marathon without too much risk of injury. Focus the intense work on the bike and not the run at first.

    Hope that’s some help,

    Russ

  • Dan

    Thanks for the quick response. No previous swimming experience, so i`m already setting in place a good solid winter of swimming. My bike has always been my strength but over the shorter distances. My average hr for the bike was 139. felt i was holding back all the time. Started feeling tired in the last 10 miles I also had a lot to eat on the bikestarted the run feeling a bit sick but held a good pace and was only a couple of minutes down on the ag leader for the first 9 miles. seemed to fall of a cliff soon after that!!

  • Dan,

    139 doesn’t sound unreasonable for an Ironman bike, depending on where your threshold HR is. Assuming you’d race an Olympic in the 160s-170s, it’s probably about right. Though HR only tells so much. You tired at the point people typically do – this really is around the region where nutritional mistakes or pacing errors come into play. They could be quite subtle, but at that stage of the race there’s a good chance you’re low on glycogen and will struggle. Did you eat well early in the run, was your intake of energy consistent in that? Potentially you’d reached the run without nutritional issues, but not feeling too good you didn’t eat enough during the run.

    Balancing the nutritional requirements against speed is part of the challenge – you really need to ensure glycogen is available down to the last mile of the race. Fuel can be a major limiter at any stage of the day.

    Hard to give a precise reason, but I would still emphasise working on your cycling – you need to ensure that the Ironman bike is truly easy and that you can sufficiently fuel during the ride. Do that and the main thing that a good Ironman run requires is resilience, frequent runs will develop that.

    Russ

  • Dan

    Russ,

    Thanks Russ. My max hr is around 187 on the bike. Since I started training for the IM my weight dropped which maybe included some muscle mass. my racing weight was around 72kg. when riding up hill i was passing people with ease but didn`t have the overall strength to push a big gear on the flats or down hill sections. I took on lots of food and drink on the bike but cound`nt stomach much on the run, couple of gels and pepsi. didn`t practice nutrition in training. Going to work on bike strength over winter as well as running and swimming !!! But overall very happy with my first effort. Where are you based Russ??

  • Dan,

    It’s very hard to pin it one any particular thing, especially not knowing all the details of training history etc. It sounds to me like bike intensity was correct, one thought to bear in mind is if you were tending to spike effort at certain points, crossing above threshold it may impact. I looked at a few of my athlete’s power data from Austria in a blog post a while back and noted the impact of repeated spikes there. Power does make it easier to analyse races!

    My thoughts for you would be along the lines of:
    – Incorporate some practice of race nutrition into your plans, doesn’t need to be every time, once a month and perhaps more nearer race season.
    – Incorporate an occasional longer bike, again only once a month and don’t worry too much over winter.
    – Focus on developing power on the bike over winter with shorter, harder work indoors.
    – Once you’re feeling bike fit all your longer weekend rides should be good efforts. Worth practicing race position and intensity regularly in them. I like to incorporate long intervals in the second half of rides when I’m more fatigued.

    Those are a few things I generally try to have people do.

    You should be very happy with that result on your first outing, it was a great effort and something I’m sure you can build on.

    I’m based in Reading, if you’re in the area I’m always available for a ride.

    Russ

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