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Revisiting Minimal Ironman Training

You may be experiencing a sense of deja vu: a year ago, having spotted that the search term, ‘minimal Ironman training’, featured regularly in my site statistics I wrote a post chastising those who sought to complete an Ironman without putting the work in. How things change. Those three words still bring new readers to my site, mostly to be told they shouldn’t be entering an Ironman, yet my own training shares more with the minimalism they are intending, than the life encompassing approach I have typically presented. It seems ironic that I am now spending the season doing just enough to get me round and not – at least – offering some advice for those looking to do the same.

Before I begin, you do know there are other distances? Half, olympic, sprint? Performing your genuine best at any distance is hard; and with the shorter formats there is the additional bonus that you won’t lose the entire day. Before my mechanical at Wimbleball I was excited by the idea that I would be finished in time for lunch. Reducing the race distance reduces the training volume, few sprint programs will ever require a five hour ride. Where a minimal program for Ironman may well mean targeting completion, the same hours for a shorter race potentially give the opportunity for competition. But possibly – as I realised I am during Wimbleball – you are fixated with the notion of 140.6 miles of racing, and nothing else will cut it.

For those who absolutely have to race an Ironman and are willing to accept that with limited time investment comes limited performance, these are my thoughts on how to get through.

First – time. What is minimal Ironman training? I’m sure we all have our own definition, but my criteria is – less than 10 hours per week. I’m keeping the definition broad; I don’t want to alienate an athlete only planning to do five, but I think they are nuts – they are not going to enjoy that race. Instead I hope those looking for a minimal solution are thinking of around 8 hours, maybe stretching to ten; perhaps with an odd long weekend, after all it would be nice to have the occasional endurance session.

Second – consistency. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a high volume or low volume program, if you’re not consistent the plan won’t work. You are setting yourself up for a lot of suffering on race day. I have repeatedly proven this to myself – I have trained without consistency and watched races unravel; to be honest, I don’t enjoy it that much. Do the few, shorter sessions you have every week, stick with it and don’t waste time with recovery weeks, chances are you’re already getting enough.

Third – intensity. If you are not training as much, train harder. Forget arguments about specificity, you abandoned specificity when you entered an Ironman planning to prepare on low volume. Swim, bike and run hard every week, perhaps not every single session, but most. There is little time for soft pedalling when you spend little time pedalling.

With those three elements in mind, the structure of my minimal Ironman training week would look something like this:

An example minimal Ironman training week

Eight to nine hours per week – two swims, three bikes, three runs. Most days requiring less than an hour of training. Simple. By my standards minimal. We could still lose a bike if required and get round the course – there, that’s 6 or 7 hours. If you can repeat this training every week for a few months you’ll be fine. You may not be fast, but you will be fine.

Then, on top of this, if you can occasionally spare the time, making that long ride longer – 4 or 5 hours – and taking that long run to 2 hours will pay you back on race day. If you can sneak in an extra swim – open water at the weekend – once or twice, while still completing ride and run, it will do you no harm. If you are fortunate enough to be able to attend a training camp at some point during your season, then you will make real gains. In fact these steps would go a long way to addressing the deficit of minimalism.

If nothing else, I suspect were you actually to manage a consistent nine hours every week, you won’t be far from the Ironman norm. It would be interesting – were triathletes completely honest – to collect statistics on training hours versus performance; the majority of those on the course, the middle and back of the pack, probably won’t be averaging much more. I know from the athletes I coach that much of the year is spent averaging only a few hours over this, not a huge stretch above.

Old age (thirty-six) is making me soft. Or at least a couple of years coaching experience has shown me the limitations age group athletes face and the need to balance the desire to race long against these. I still believe many, myself included, would be better placed and have an entirely more enjoyable experience were we to – sensibly – race shorter events, but I can’t deny Ironman has allure.

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Comments

  • Richard Dodgson

    An interesting read and I can certainly equate with the allure of training for, starting and completing an Ironman. In fact, I think the ‘training for’ bit and most probably most importantly, being able to tell others that your are training for an Ironman, is part of the allure.

  • The classic, “did I mention I’m training for an Ironman.” They have their appeal and have become me preferred race distance, even though recent focus would see me better placed racing shorter for a while.

    On the coaching front I don’t really encounter many athletes looking for minimal hours, 10 is about as low as most tend to go in there assessment of time. But I realise that doesn’t fully reflect every athlete out there, plenty of completers who want a simple structure that isn’t too demanding and will ensure they can get round. It’s once they start throwing lots of rest days and recovery weeks they hit problems.

    Oh, and if you enter an Ironman and don’t love the idea of training – that is definitely nuts. You need to want to train if you want to race long.

    Russ

  • Interesting post. a few comments – the vast majority of IM participants are limited (to different degrees) in such a way that they don’t approach their actual potential. this is the case with someone able to devote 20 hrs a week and someone able to devote 10, although the 20 hour devotee certainly has the ability (with a good training program, nutrition, etc) of more closely approaching that potential. essentially we’re all in that position of really trying to do as good as we can based upon the other external circumstances that make up our life.

    About enjoying the race – does an athlete that puts in 20 hours and goes as hard as they can ‘enjoy’ the race? or the result? in my experience – when i push as hard as possible i don’t really enjoy it during that phase, regardless of my fitness going in. i’ll go faster when i’m fitter, but i think most of those striving to race at their potential will do well to abandon the notion that it will be ‘enjoyable’ during.

    Finally, you’re right – IM (and other ultra type events) has serious allure for a variety of reasons – one of which is as a personal challenge. To aspire to do an ironman on limited training is just another variation of this challenge. I for example love the challenge, but train VERY minimally by your standards, and have for some time. my goal is still to do as well as i can (given my situation) – i train hard and race hard, just a lot less of the former compared to most people. In my experience, a degree of mental ‘fitness’ is an essential component that is often overlooked, critical for success (on any amount of training), and harder to develop (again on any schedule).

  • Andy,

    Your comment got lost without reply during my holiday. I’d agree most of us never really reach are full potential for one reason or another, whether it’s time restrictions, motivation, our approach or many other factors. As for enjoying the race, I suppose the word here reflects my own state of mind: coming from having trained a lot and pushed hard to not training as much, but still trying to push as hard. that transformation isn’t so enjoyable, but I find it hard to let go during a race and so suffer more from a lack of fitness with respect to the pace I am trying to sustain. If I slowed more, then I’d not suffer as much and my enjoyment might rise. So I feel those pushing towards the front of the age group hurt, but not as much as those pushing beyond their level of fitness. Minimal Ironman training has to be paired with an acceptance that you can’t go as fast and enjoy the experience as much.

    Definitely lots of different challenges within Ironman. For me I know I need to be able to race hard, so realising this, I’ve chosen not to race Ironman for a while, not while I’m not as committed to my own fitness. Instead I’ve opted for marathons where fewer hours can potentially allow me to perform at a level that gives me satisfaction.

    It’s very much about finding a balance that works for you. Being realistic about how much time you actually have to train, what you can achieve in that time and what you want from the sport. It doesn’t have to be about fastest times, you can take pleasure in completing new races and different courses. In terms of mental strengths, it’s about knowing yourself and what will work for you.

    Three hours per week? That is seriously minimal!

    Thanks for the comment,

    Russ

  • Casey Don

    That’s a nice simple program for a minimalist iron man. I set myself a personal challenge to complete every triathlon distance up to the iron man a few years back after surviving cancer. I’ve never been remotely athletic, was always a bit of a couch potato, and decided to do something about it. I haven’t the time or commitment to train to compete – only interested in competing against myself and completing each event. I went from about 19 stone 10lbs (275lbs) to finishing my first half iron last year in 7hrs 20 and was so pleased with myself I was fit to bust. The elites would be almost finishing a full iron man in that time, but so what? 🙂
    I don’t expect to get much faster while at the same time going much longer – I’m just hoping I can get through a full iron comfortably in less than 16 hours at a leisurely pace that means I can actually enjoy the experience and not feel like I’m killing myself or wind up against the wire to beat the 17 hour cutoff.
    My biggest concern has been the amount of training volume required. A program like this gives me hope that it’s possible to complete an iron man on minimal hours – this is only a few hours more than I was doing in my half iron build up and that was a challenge in itself.

  • Casey,

    Firstly congratulations on beating cancer and what you’ve achieved in the sport so far.

    Having coached and worked with a huge range of athletes of all sorts of abilities I can assure you that you can complete an Ironman without having to complete long hours of training. Obviously if you can devote the time to do more it tends to help, but I’ve got athletes around on fewer than 10 hours per week. The one thing I’d stress with this if that for it to work well you need to be quite consistent – the odd session missed is fine, but not missing too many weeks as a whole. It is useful if a handful of times you can get a longer ride or run done, just doesn’t need to be every weekend. Three of four months of that and racing sensibly will get you around the course in 17 hours.

    Good luck.

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