Minimal Ironman Training?

Two for one deals work in the supermarket, but I can’t offer the same on a training plan. There are no special workouts or shortcuts. Train, rest, repeat until race day; that’s all there is. Reviewing this blog’s stats I see search terms like ‘minimal Ironman training‘ or ‘easy Ironman training‘. I wonder if these people have made a smart choice?

Minimal and easy are not words I associate with Ironman training. I appreciate there are many reasons and motivations to race. It is a personal choice. The race may not be for you if your first consideration is ‘how little can I do?‘ Ironman is a challenge, but there’s no obligation to race long. I have as much respect for those who sprint as those who spend the entire day racing. Sprints hurt.

For many it’s about completion. The idea of competing, pushing the pace and challenging for positions is irrelevant. That’s fine. It reduces the pressure. Training only needs to ensure they can comfortable cover the distance before the cut off. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

Competing is a different matter. It’s about efficiency, endurance and energetics. The faster you go the more work it will take. When you hear of an athlete who performed a great Ironman on little training ask about their past. They could be gifted or they could have a long history of training and racing already.

Eliminate junk miles and you won’t need to do as much. Just quality training. I don’t like the term junk miles. The miles add up; they all contribute. The closest a mile comes to junk is when it wears you down; when it stops you performing the plan. Volume isn’t junk inappropriate training is.

A hard effort at the weekend that leaves you too tired to back it up with a good week: that’s junk. Drop the session plan and go easy when you’re feeling fresh: that’s low quality. High quality and junk free training is not about a particular volume or intensity it is about how you train. Sessions need to be relevant the less you do in training the more important that becomes.

What is the absolute minimum you can do? It doesn’t require huge hours, but it does need consistency. You’re signing up for a long race, some workouts will be long too. I averaged twelve hours per week for my first Ironman. That number hides the peaks; a typical week involved ten to fifteen hours training.

That wasn’t minimal. I would have completed on less. My brief athletic history consisted of a lot of running. I had the endurance and fitness to perform well at a marathon so could focus my efforts on swimming and cycling. It freed time; a huge contribution to performance off reduced training volume.

Depending on commitment and where you are in the season my simple Ironman training plan is between ten and twenty hours. Most athletes would spend between ten and fourteen hours training for the bulk of the year. It’s still not minimal (and certainly not easy). There’s an opportunity to save time by swimming less; manage without that tempo ride or run and shave off more.

Two swims, two bikes and three runs a week should get you round. The lightest week around six hours, but you will need more. At some point you need longer bike rides and longer runs. Cutting hours won’t make training easier, if anything it adds pressure. Your athletic history may help: work on weaknesses and maintain strengths.

There are no rules. Committing more time to training won’t guarantee better results. You can complete an Ironman on less training, but a minimalist approach comes with risks. Everyone’s time is limited and training inevitably compromised. It’s never about exactly how much or how hard you trained, but always about how appropriately you worked towards your goals.

When I see athletes looking for an easier route or a minimal approach I just hope their expectations are realistic. I’ll admit a bias: I love to train. When I enter a race I don’t ask how little I can do, I ask how I can best use my available training time.

Ironman Training Library

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


  • Chris

    So if you were to adopt the minimalist training plan (Dont worry I’m not intending to start requesting lower volume weeks, just interested) of 6-8 hrs what sort of consistency running into the race would you be looking at? I’m guessing you would need to be hitting 6-8hrs every week for at least 20weeks? Also with such a reduced loading are you not also increasing your risk of injury? The higher volume not only allows your body to cover the distance but it also forces the adaptation required to cross the line in one piece.

    Its an interesting question ‘how little can you get by on’ and everyone is different. Even more interesting to think you could get by on 6hrs a week as that would only cover the long ride of most programmes in the final ‘peak’ phase…which is likely to be far less time than someone on a get round plan is going to be spending on their bike in the race…

    Think I’ll stick to the plans your setting for now…

  • Hey Chris,

    The important thing to note is a minimal program should get you round. How fast or how well you get round is another question entirely. There are those with a good athletic history who may do pretty well off lower hours, there are those who won’t. If you’re new to the sport and have limited time to train you’re likely going to suffer in an Ironman. Risk of injury is probably increased (though that can depend on how appropriate your race plan is too); I certainly think you’re less likely to enjoy the day.

    So all said if you’re determined to do it and absolutely can’t cross the 6-8 hour line what do you do? I would probably expect the athlete to do those hours week in week out for all 20 weeks with no taper. A taper if unlikely to make a huge difference to them. Sure we’ll lighten stuff off a little in the week of the race, but no more. If it’s at all an option I’d hope they could commit to an occasional bigger weekend.

    What they need to be doing is training across the disciplines and only going longer occasionally. Assuming they’re new they are unlikely to have the time to run or bike as far as they will on race day. I would aim to have them run and bike long a few times throughout their program. Not in the same week for time reasons and it would impact the rest of the week’s workload.

    If they can swim and are going to be comfortably within the cut off I’d minimise this. They haven’t got the time to invest in good training to make real improvements; it’s simple return on investment. One or two 30 minutes swims a week, then an occasional longer session for the endurance. One hard bike session of an hour per week and another longer bike session of two to three hours without dawdling. On the run, regular 30 minute runs around their race pace and a longer run around an hour occasionally longer. That’s a rough idea, but it would entirely depend on where they came from.

    Enough of that will get them round, they’ll survive the day, but they may not perform as they hoped. History can play a part. I ran 3:45 in Kona after a couple of months without running. I wasn’t run fit by any means and suffered, but didn’t do so bad. For my first Ironman I averaged 2.5 hours running per week, but I came from a year of marathon training. I suffered on that run too due to pacing and nutrition errors.

    I suppose really my main question is taking on a project like an Ironman with the mindset of what is the least I can do. I would rather see people opt for olympic or even 70.3 where the limited time would still give them good opportunity to perform. But Ironman has a lure and the distance is ingrained in some. You can tick the box off on little training, but I think it’s more satisfying to be able to commit fully to a project.