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Overreaching on the simple Ironman Training Plan

The simple training plan is the backbone of effective Ironman training. A program that can be performed consistently by an athlete. Adapting volume and intensity over time to emphasise individual sports or to increase training load. Another way you can boost training load throughout the season are periods of overreaching.

Don’t mistake this for the feared overtraining syndrome. It’s very unlikely you can overtrain if you’re following my simple plan at around twelve hours per week. Overtraining syndrome exists, but to push yourself to that point takes an extreme amount of stress. Many athletes conclude overtraining when periods of hard work lead to fatigue.

Building fitness requires fatigue its a natural consequence. I’ll reach the end of training blocks exhausted and under-performing. Rest or a taper will restore me though it may take a week or more. After this recovery phase I’ll return to greater fitness.

Overreaching is about short periods where you step beyond the regular plan. Applying extra stress to the system by increasing volume and intensity. It needs to take you beyond normal training levels to push you further. The aim is to work harder for bigger returns, but to do so in a manageable fashion.

In 2008 training took on a new form. Spurred by success in my first two Ironman races I dreamt of new PBs and Kona. More significantly I had the nerve to imagine leaving work and training full time. With all these in mind I started to increase my training volume and soon was averaging close to twenty hours per week.

The additional volume came in several ways, frequently from big weekends of overreaching. Additionally two very large volume training camps, first in France then Epic Camp in Italy pushed me further than before. You can see the size of the Epic Camp spike in week 21 of the graph.

For working athletes periods of overreaching are effective ways to push themselves. Utilising big training weekends makes scheduling around work and family easier. Hopefully over an entire season you can arrange a few weekends focussed on Ironman preparation.

Scheduling

Big training weekends are short enough that they can be regularly scheduled. Once a month seems to work well placed before an easier week in your training cycle. You make a final push at the end of a training block knowing you’ve allowed for more recovery the following week. Most importantly you don’t break the consistency of your weekly program.

More experienced athletes with more time on their hands can look to generally increase the training volume at weekends. As 2008 progressed the distinction between a normal weekend and a big weekend became smaller. As I often mention the key is being able to recover from the extra work at the weekend and continue with your week as planned.

Training camps are a different matter. Early in the year the focus is likely to be getting away and training volume. If you’ve time to commit to this pick a week and set out with an objective of training more than usual. With additional rest and fewer distractions you’ll find yourself doing far more than usual. Whilst you can do home based training camps a new environment can provide a motivational boost and minimise distractions.

Moving on in the season the nature of a training camp changes slightly. It’s no longer a matter of a week logging high volume, you want to factor in race specific work. There’s the potential to use a trip as a very specific period of training, perhaps looking to emulate your A race’s course. Whilst you’ll do higher volume than normal there needs to be improved intensity within that.

Recovery

Consideration of recovery takes more significance nearer your race. An easier week will work for a weekend, but a more significant step back is required from a week’s camp. You need to factor recovery time into the program minimising impact on consistency. Placing training camps before scheduled easier weeks, but backing the easier week off further is the easiest approach.

Recovery isn’t inactivity the body is in a constant state of repair even when training. The effective rate of repair changes the less you do the more it focuses on rebuilding. Equally the less you do the more you lose fitness adaptations. The body is ruthlessly efficient in what it does! A balance that minimises fitness losses, but allows strong recovery is required.

My experience of Epic Camp Italy a few weeks before Ironman Switzerland is an example of what not to do. Primarily I’d allowed too small a gap between a huge camp and my major race. A week of recovery wasn’t enough following the jump in training load. I would probably have coped better simply tapering from Italy through to Switzerland.

Attempting to minimise the recovery period and squeeze in a further ten days of focussed training acted to drain me further. I was overreaching, perhaps even bordering onto overtraining, but the main issue was I didn’t allow adequate recovery for super-compensation. Without that final step my body was unable to repair and rebuild itself in time for the race.

What to do

Cycling makes up the bulk of training time on most Ironman programs and is normally the focus of a big weekend or training camp. A weekend is too short to make a swim focus worthwhile, though on a week’s camp there’s potential. Running can be an option, but comes with the associated injury risks. Something for the more experienced runner to experiment with if they’re confident.

Plan two long rides with the objective of riding both at a solid effort. If you’ve not ridden long back-to-back before this will probably be a challenge in itself. Managing pacing and recovery between sessions to ensure you finish strongly takes practice, but also teaches you about Ironman pacing. Too hard too soon and you will suffer.

Schedule at least one swim over the weekend, probably on the Saturday. A decent Ironman distance swim before breakfast followed by a long ride during the day. Starting with a swim/bike day then a bike/run day is a manageable approach. With more experience and greater fitness there’s the option to add run and swim to both days. Build into that volume weekend the aim is to do big training, but not break yourself.

Adding a shorter distance event (olympic or less) is another way to increase training load over a weekend. Racing is motivating and adds intensity to your week. Going into the event without tapering may not lead to a PB, but it will increase the week’s training load. With the rest of your weekend’s training still in place you effectively have your big weekend.

In 2008 I raced local sprint tris or duathlons followed by a three or four hour ride in the afternoon on several weekends. It was a lot of fun and tough training too. The racing would be intense leaving me exhausted, but after lunch I’d be getting a long ride into the legs. Again more experience of riding in a fatigued state and pacing.

With week long (or more if you’re lucky) camps try to extend the principle of the weekend. Train in at least two of the sports each day with the focus being bike mileage. Facilities allowing it’s good to swim as often as you can, even if it’s only an easy session. Again be cautious with your run volume experience should dictate how far you push this.

Conclusion

Putting aside normal time limitations for a big weekend or training camp is a useful tool in Ironman preparation. Not essential, but it can go a long way to improving your Ironman time. It’s hard to recommend a structure for these occasions as they’re dependent on personal fitness levels and experience. A definite area where a coach can help you make the most of them!

If you’ve not tried this approach before be cautious in introducing it. Don’t attempt to do the hardest training right from the start, grow the volume and intensity of the weekends with experience. Remember the aim is to work harder over a short period, but not to interrupt the overall consistency of the program.

Ironman Training Library

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

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