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A Simple Ironman Training Week’s Plan

A final product from the recent sub 10 Ironman discussion. Taking what I’ve learnt reviewing my 2007 training diary along with conversation on Tritalk I’ve produced a simple Ironman training week plan. Not a guaranteed route to sub 10 or sub any other time for that matter. I hope they provide an example of and achievable week for working athletes that can progress them to Ironman fitness.

The two weeks below represent a minimal approach to Ironman. Training along these lines worked in 2007, but I had frequent weeks above minimal volume or with different structure (races or big weekends. I’ll come back to these later). Were you to repeat this structure until next summer I think you’d be in good shape to race an Ironman.

There’s no substitute for work. The more you train well the better your performance will be. There’s a balance when training more compromises quality, particularly of key sessions, then it’s counter-productive. Compromised quality is not hitting the heart rate, power or pace targets or not lasting the duration of a session. What distinguishes front of pack age groupers is not just hours of training, but the capacity to train effectively in those hours.

The Simple Weeks

Version one ranges from 10 hours per week to a maximum of 18 depending on how much volume you do in each session. You’ll likely fall into the 12-14 hour mark during the main build of your season.

Full Weekend Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
AM Swim
(1 hour)
  Swim
(1 hour)
  Swim
(1 hour)
Bike – Endurance (2 – 6 hours)
Run – Easy/Steady (30 min)
Swim – Open Water
(1 hour)
PM Bike – Tempo
(1 – 1.5 hours)
Run – Steady/Tempo
(30 – 60 min)
  Bike – Threshold (1.5 – 2.5 hours)
Brick run – race pace (30 min)
    Run – Endurance
(1 – 2 hours)
Hours (min/max) 2/2.5 2.5/3.5 3.5/4.5 5.5/7.5 6.5/8.5 9/15 10/18.5

Version two is similar, but attempts to give more free time at the weekend. Many athletes have family as well as work commitments so a rest day at the weekend can be a good option.

Easy Sunday Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
AM Run – Endurance
(1 – 2 hours)
Swim
(1 hour)
Swim
(1 hour)
  Swim
(1 hour)
Bike – Endurance
(2 – 6 hours)
Swim – Open Water
(1 hour)
PM   Bike – Tempo
(1 – 1.5 hours)
Run – Steady
(30 min)
Bike – Threshold (1.5 – 2.5 hours)
Brick run – race pace (30 min)
Run – Steady/Tempo
(30 – 60 min)
   
Hours (min/max) 1/2 3/4.5 4.5/6 7.5/10 8/11 10/17 11/18.5

Both plans schedule an open water swim on the Sunday which would be seasonal and optional. I always recommend some open water practice before racing so ideally there would be a few of these sessions over the summer.

Key sessions are in bold. I consider these most important and would encourage you to ensure you complete them each week. There’s room to tweak the plans slightly, but generally I’d advise against stacking key sessions too much. The aim is to come into them able to perform close to your best on the day.

Volume should be varied according to where you are in your season. Over winter I’d not expect endurance rides to be too long in poor conditions. I’d probably suggest viewing them as another opportunity to do a structured session. Keeping it less intense than the threshold bike, but with longer efforts perhaps.

Key Session

I’m not going into detail, but I’ll give an outline of what you want from your key sessions.

Swim – one or two key swims a week should involve a good portion of hard work around your threshold pace. The aim is to develop speed in the water. Use the other sessions to emphasise technique and endurance more, but make sure you have hard, measured work in the pool. For any athlete where swimming is a work in progress some kind of technique analysis or coaching is a great idea early in the year.

Bike – the endurance ride and a threshold session each week are key. The aim of the endurance ride is a steady pace (not easy) which leaves you finishing tired. It’s not cruising around or soft pedalling, by the end you should be feeling the work you’ve done. The threshold session needs to be a focussed effort including a period of work at threshold heart rate or power. Vary the session, but a simple classic is two 20 minute efforts with 10 minutes in between.

Run – the endurance run and a shorter steady run are key. The former I would build to two hours, but find too much fatigue for minimal returns beyond that. Optionally a stronger runner could build to 2.5 hours or alternatively adopt tougher routes and throw in periods above race pace. The second run has faster blocks, but not sprints or speedwork. Time spent above your Ironman race pace is the aim.

The key sessions alone will probably do a lot of the work needed to get you fit enough to get round an Ironman, but it’s only with the further training around them that you will really develop the fitness and endurance needed. In isolation they will at least help you towards the goal, but as part of the weekly package they will be major contributors to developing fitness.

Beyond the simple week

It’s advisable to go beyond the minimum weekly volume. You can achieve this either by working towards the maximum volume for a session or adding sessions in free periods. Your first choice for an additional session should be in your main limiter – an extra run or bike, maybe a swim (though bike/run has greater potential to impact overall finish time). Remember though you don’t want to add more if it prevents you performing the key parts of the week.

Training works through progressively overloading the body to produce adaptations. Working harder in a session can achieve this overload as well as training for longer. For Ironman a mix of both is appropriate. The longer rides and longer runs are essentials for both physical and mental preparation. You don’t need to constantly do six hour rides, but you should at least have a few. The more ambitious your goals the more I’d aim to complete and the stronger I’d aim to ride them.

Over the course of the year you’re bound to deviate from the week’s structure. Sometimes it’s an unfortunate consequence of illness or injury. Always prioritise recovery in those circumstances as quicker recovery gives better long term returns. On a more positive note a week or weekend’s training camp or a race will also require adjustments. All three are great ways to push and test progress.

Avoid rushing into training camps once you’ve established a decent level of fitness from a month or two of consistent training they’re worth considering. The aim on either of these is to have a large, but temporary increase in training load. This means you’ll take the opportunity to train more and hopefully train harder. Without other distractions you should be able to achieve far more work than normal. Allowing recovery afterwards will see you return fitter than before.

I encourage racing in the build up to an Ironman as it’s a good test of fitness along with a hard training session. Usually I want to minimise taper and recovery periods though so my preference is that you race shorter. Short, sharp events will challenge someone mainly focussed on endurance and generally won’t have too much impact on the program. With minimal taper and recovery the consistency of the week can be maintained.

There’s a lot of writing about Ironman training plans on the web so I’ll finish with some recommended reading. Firstly Chuckie V has written on the topic of simple training weeks a number of times. Check out this 12 hour per week program where he goes into far more detail than I have. For those with more time he’s also outlined a longer 18 hour training week in a pair of posts. If you’re thinking of a training week or weekend then Gordo has some superb advice on how to plan these.

Hopefully this has given something to consider for those of you looking to race an Ironman in the coming season and not sure of where to start. I know it’s easy to get tied into either too much volume or too much intensity when what’s required for most is a mix of both. Whilst I believe that to really achieve your peak you may need to do more than the minimums presented here or even adopt a different structure a week like this should get you through comfortably.

Ironman Training Library

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

Comments

  • This is a fantastic post Russ. I imagine I’ll be referring back to this page quite a lot over the next two months as I start to setup my training schedule. You’ve managed to get the distill the essence of a beginner’s ironman training plan. In the internet age the problem is always too much (often conflicting) advice. You’ve just written the cheat-sheet! Thank you!

  • Cheers John,

    Hopefully the volumes in there are manageable by working athletes with families. I think we all tend to try and put too much complexity in our programs in order to compensate perceived deficiencies. The reality is a quite simple plan that’s consistently applied should do a pretty good job.

    One comment I’ve had is there’s a lot of swimming. I don’t think that necessarily does any harm and the weekend open water swim is effectively optional/seasonal. At this volume of training 3 hours of swimming per week is probably plenty. I’d advise keeping frequency up and possibly reducing duration of sessions. Have at least 3 swim per week, spread out over the week. If this gives extra free time for another session, consider adding a further run (I’m assuming there’s insufficient time for more biking)

    Glad you like it and think it’ll be useful anyway. There’s plenty of potential for refinements.

  • Graeme

    Noticed that Chuckie included tabata intervals on the bike whereas you’ve got a threshold session. Any thoughts? I tend to get on best doing a programme like the one above for around 12 weeks then when I’m a bit stale with it (progression slows) switch the midweek sessions to include more shorter intervals. I normally handle about 8 weeks of this before wanting to revert to the first schedule

  • I think Chuckie V is going for big bang for the buck with Tabata intervals, but I’m not entirely convinced myself. Partly because I’m not sure people actually manage the proper Tabata protocol that well, but also because they are damn painful!

    Personally I’d opt to throw in some sprint intervals at the end of the occasional threshold session. Typically I’d do a 2.5 hour turbo every so often with some threshold work at first and then some sprint stuff to finish.

    Changing the program round is worth doing. If you can stick with it and make progress tweaking intensity or duration that’s great. If you do find you plateau a break and switch to shorter interval work does no harm. In 2007 the regularity of my racing delivered some of that to my program.

  • Jamie

    Russ,

    I came across your site the above mentioned Tritalk discussion. I did Outlaw in 10:02. The above plans looks very achievable for a working and married person. I will def be using them as a guide for my IMSA training. I am also going to be getting the Paleo Diet for Athletes book. Thanks for opening sharing all your knowledge here and on the forumn.

  • Cheers Jamie,

    Good to know that I’m not completely out of touch with the normal working world! Also glad to hear it’ll help you prepare for the next race.

    Looks like you’re close to breaking sub-10 there! Or maybe you’ve done it already? Hopefully a good winter of preparation will see you ready to give it another shot down in SA.

    Russ

  • Thomas

    Hey Russ, following the thread on TriTalk and reader of your blog – some great stuff for non-coached athletes here.

    Also, for the coached athlete, there’s some excellent things to bring up with their coach.

    Keep up the good blogging 🙂

  • Cheers Thomas,

    I’m really glad people are finding this stuff valuable. Hopefully it’ll inspire a few to look at their training and focus on their goals. It’s been a big help to me in really establishing what I needed in my training program.

    Russ

  • Richard

    Hi Russ,
    Interesting stuff and very useful. Question though: As I get older – aproaching the big 50! – I find I need a rest day a week for these weary old bones how would you structure the week with that in mind? Also as a supplementary how about a blog on threshold/easy/etc etc I know I get confused and am sure lots of otehrs do to
    Cheers keep up the good work

  • Hi Richard,

    The simplest approach would be by moving a swim.

    In version one with the big volume at the weekend you could move either Wednesday’s or Friday’s swim to the Tuesday. I’d probably pick the Friday swim as a good Threshold session with brick run should leave you suitably tired.

    In the second plan the aim is to make the weekend free for personal life so moving the swim there gives you the Sunday off. Possibly placing it on Saturday morning or mid week if you have access to open water swimming.

    The primary role of the fourth swim is for open water practice, not that I don’t recommend swimming more if you’ve the time and fitness!

    Thanks for the blog suggestion, always looking for new ideas I may well put up some examples of what is meant within the plan.

    Cheers

    Russ

  • Andy heaps

    Cracking post Russ, I appreciate it’s 12 months old now but seems as relevant as ever!

    Just to be clear – if you’re working to a periodised training plan, the amount you do (between the lowest and highest number of hours) depends on the period you’re in? I.e. Closer to the upper limit as you approach the top end of a ‘build’, closer to the lower end if you’re in a peak period?

    Or would you recommend a completely different training plan for base, build, peak etc?

  • Hi Andy,

    Glad you like the post. the basic principles remain true, I don’t think the plan will date much. I may have refined certain things over time, but not made huge changes. I am considering revisiting this topic shortly with a more detailed series of weekly templates and sample sessions. I’d give a better indication of how I periodise – it relates less to time of year so much as personal fitness and also weakness targeting. For most of us the notion of truly peaking doesn’t apply, but we have to manage fitness growth in blocks and ensure we don’t overly fatigue or plateau on route to an Ironman.

    If you’re thinking about a 2012 race now and starting preparation the kind of work that’s useful isn’t just base building until Spring. It’s an opportunity to intensely work on a single sport or element of triathlon for those who are already in good fitness. My normal ‘periodised cycle’ for athletes involves a month or two just generally building fitness for training, followed by an extended period focussing on individual weaknesses or areas to make significant improvements. With about 2-3 months of the goal race I then focus on more specific race prep, peaking for about a month from 6 weeks out.

    In other words – base could come in two phases an initial preparation involving the general structure at the low end of volume and intensity with a goal of preparing the athlete to train harder. Then moving to more specific development with some sports at the higher end of volume or intensity and some further back. Then onto a slightly more generalised build with more balance between sports and a progression to the highest volume. Finally the peak has lower than maximum volume, but a good focus on intensity and race specific work.

    If I revisit this in the next month I’ll likely build sample weeks based on specialised focus and also demonstrate how the weekly structure changes over the time. For most of my athlete periodisation does relate more to their abilities/fitness and where we need to work. I have guys doing a lot of intensity on the bike now because they have the fitness and a stronger bike will serve them well in next year’s races.

    Hope that goes some way to helping,

    Russ

  • Hi Russ,

    I’ve just come across your website and love it. I really appreciate the detailed analysis of race and split times, it’s really interesting and the level of detail is right up my street.

    As an ironman first timer, and husband, dad and full time worker, this plan and approach to ironman training is perfect for me, and although finishing is my initial target, sub 10 hours will be my aim!

    Cheers

  • Hi John,

    Glad you like the site and found it useful. This simple training week is largely based on the training I did for my first Ironman. when I reviewed my diaries it became clear that all the hours I thought I’d done just weren’t happening. There were some bigger weeks and weekends, but for the most past much of the year was simple like the plans above. Certainly enough to ensure you complete, sub-10 might require a little more, but i’ve written about that too.

    Cheers

    Russ

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