How To Train For An Ironman Triathlon [1/2]

Let the carnage begin

Let the carnage begin

So you have finally committed and signed up to the Ironman Triathlon – good job, you won’t regret it.

But you still don’t know where to start? Or perhaps you even struggled through last time, just got over the finish line and want to dominate it next time? Well don’t bother buying a book and spend hours reading about how to train for this monster – here is the main training tips from some of the world’s top coaches which you can read during your office ‘downtime’ on a Friday afternoon. Right here. For free.

With this bit of inspiration let’s hear below on how you are going to smash it for the next 6 months in the pissing rain – nothing like passing on tales of suffering and effort to your fellow athletes? I could also need some motivation for the next 4 months of Deca Ironman training at athlete lab – those coaches are beasting me!

Plus if I missed something, hold me up on it and point it out below!

Lonely miles ahead of you

Lonely miles ahead of you

Training commitment

One of the best words of advice I received in regards to triathlon is train for a distance you can manage. Even if the full Ironman is your final goal, athletes should begin by taking on Olympic distance, half distance or marathons to not only improve race fitness, but learn about race nutrition, preparation and well, on the day nerves. It can also prove a good test for learning how to balance training with your day to day routine. My first triathlon was an Ironman and although I got through it, I struggled with the transition fitness (swim to bike was a killer), features like the mass swim & probably only got through it because of my stubbornness from ultra marathons. On the other side, I know alot of triathletes that took a while to move up from Olympic distance to the full Ironman. Athletes that I could smash on a Sunday ride but were always streaks ahead when we got to the run because I had struggled to pace the bike leg with weak legs from the swim.

The Ironman Triathlon is still renowned as the grand daddy of all endurance races – you may already know but its name was even coined in the 70s from a dispute between military officers over which athlete – the swimmer, biker or runner – was toughest. To get through this grueling race the average triathlete trains for 18-30 hours a week, which is like a part-time job: 7 miles of swimming, 225 miles of biking, and 48 miles of running. If you can’t put in a full year, Kevin Mackinnon, Managing Editor at Ironman,  recommends training for at least seven months.

Quote from the Ironman Champ. Athlete Lab in Singapore/London & Sydney allows me to balance my work and training commitments

Quote from the Ironman Champ. Athlete Lab in Singapore/London & Sydney allows me to balance my work and training commitments

With months of hard training stretching out before you, it’s key to start forming good habits, building base miles and working on identifying strengths and weaknesses. To be taken on properly – you don’t want to regret a half effort on the day after all that preparation trust me – the Ironman requires a strict regimen and serious time commitment. You don’t want to take this event on lightly. You may even want to give employers, family, friends the heads-up that you will be taking on this challenge because there will be sacrifices that will need to be made. However, it’s important to avoid burn out—since six months of IRONMAN training can take its toll both mentally and physically. Training schedules are designed not only to increase your endurance, strength, power, speed but to prevent muscle fatigue, injury and mental exhaustion.

You can train yourself, but having an experienced coach who understands your specific needs will be money well-spent. For example my gym – Athlete Lab – Singapore (but actually just starting in London) puts on group training sessions away from the intense indoor cycling, eg:

4/3 Tuesday 7.30pm 

Swim Threshold Sets Squad (90mins) – CCAB Pool (21 Evans Road)

5/3 Wednesday 7.30pm

Run Track Intervals Squad (90mins) – CCAB Track & Field (21 Evans Road)
6/3 Thursday 7.30pm
Swim Speed/Strength Sets Squad (90mins) – CCAB Pool (21 Evans Road)

Furthermore before you start training, there are two simple things you can do that will help get you off to a good start:

1. Get your swim technique checked. A good swim coach will pick up any weaknesses you can work on before the big weeks of training kick in.

2. Get a professional bike fit. This will make cycling comfortable and ensure you are as efficient as possible with your technique.

Training schedule – its a marathon, not a sprint

Below is an interesting Q&A video from Craig Alexander, 3x Ironman World Champion, on workouts – its a steady intro.

Every athlete is different – that includes time commitments, life ‘getting in the way’ or response to training techniques – but a broad six month plan could include the following, as detailed by Former New Zealand international triathlete John Newson at (Note: I have a more technical schedule detailed below this)

Six months out

Aim for five key sessions each week.

• Monday – 1 hour swim

• Tuesday – 1 hour cycle

• Wednesday – DAY OFF

• Thursday – 45 to 60 min. run

• Friday – 1 hour swim

• Saturday – 60 min. run

• Sunday – 2 to 3 hour cycle

Five months out

Gradually increase the time spent on each discipline in the schedule above by roughly 10 percent each week. This is also in line with the recommended advice on increasing distance in marathon training to avoid injury – every run increase distance by 10%.

At the end of the first two months, take a week’s break – mind and body – before ramping up your training with a 16-week Ironman-specific schedule. In this preparation always keep in mind the following points:

Tapering – ideally you should be hitting your best performance times 4 weeks out from the goal race and then as you approach the event date you are tweaking your training to recover & avoid overuse injury.

Pacing – As your sessions get longer and you start taking Sunday afternoons to do a ‘race stimulation’, keep in mind pacing throughout the triathlon. This also applies to brick seasons i.e. bike-run/swim-bike. A big, common error in triathlon is to put loads of effort in the first stages of the race, only to lose momentum and fade towards the end. Nowhere is this more true than during the marathon at the end of an Ironman.

Pacing in training can also be determined effectively by monitoring your heart rate. This article from Competitor magazine – Get In The Zone: The Pros Of Heart-Rate Training For Runners – is a good introductory guide to zone training using the heart. Ideally on an endurance event like this you shouldn’t be pushing more than 80% of your heart rate. This ‘tool’ can also be applied to check for overtraining. In the next few weeks I will be detailing my Deca Ironman training through the use of my sponsors MIO Alpha Heart Rate Watch, see video below:

Four months out

• Monday – DAY OFF

• Tuesday – 1.5 hour cycle/1 hour run

• Wednesday – 1 hour swim

• Thursday – 1.5 hour cycle/1 hour run

• Friday – 1 hour swim

• Saturday – 3 to 4 hour cycle/15 min. run off the bike

• Sunday – 40 min. ocean swim/ 1.5 hour run

You should increase the cycle and run times by 10 percent (on average) each week throughout the month, allowing one week to be slightly less as a recovery week.

As stressed by the advice at get the mind ready for some long, steady sessions in the pool

As stressed by the advice at get the mind ready for some long, steady sessions in the pool

Three months out

• Monday – DAY OFF

• Tuesday – 1.5 hour cycle/70 min. run

• Wednesday – 1 hour swim increasing distance at session

• Thursday – 2 hour cycle

• Friday – 1 hour swim

• Saturday – 4 to 5 hour cycle/20 min run off the bike

• Sunday – 45 min ocean swim/1.45 run

Two months out

If possible, include an Olympic or half-distance race about six to eight weeks before your IRONMAN.

Also include race simulation brick sessions – that include a swim, bike and run. This will replicate how your legs will feel getting on the road after smashing it on a bike for the last 5 hours!

• Monday – DAY OFF

• Tuesday – 2hour cycle/1 hour run

• Wednesday – 4km swim

• Thursday – 1.5 hour ride/ 1.5 hour run

• Friday – 1 hour swim

• Saturday – 6 to 7 hour ride/10 min. run off the bike

• Sunday – 45 min. ocean swim/1 hour cycle/2 hour run

Don't be afraid to do some hard rides with a buddy. It will push your pace & gives a bit of mental stimulation. Maybe get some tough hills in to 'race' & build up muscle stamina

Don’t be afraid to do some hard rides with a buddy. It will push your pace & gives a bit of mental stimulation. Maybe get some tough hills in to ‘race’ & build up muscle stamina

One month out

• Monday – DAY OFF

• Tuesday – 1.5 hour cycle/1 hour run

• Wednesday – 4km swim reducing to 3km until taper week

• Thursday – 1 hour cycle/1.5 hour run

• Friday – 1 hour swim

• Saturday – 4 hour cycle

• Sunday – 30 min. ocean swim/1 hour cycle/1.5 hour run

Pre-race week

• Monday – DAY OFF

• Tuesday – 2 hour cycle/1 hour run

• Wednesday – 1 hour swim

• Thursday – 45 min. cycle/30 min. run

• Friday – DAY OFF

• Saturday – 20 min. swim/30 min. cycle/10 min. run

• Sunday – Race day. Enjoy!

Getting down to specifics

If you are looking to improve your Ironman time/performance there is no better resource than the weekly newsletter of Triathlete Europe. This Super Simple 20 Week Ironman Training Plan is one such example:

Get a note pad!

Get a note pad!

One of my favourite recent articles from the publication was by Dan Bullock on ‘Breaking the hour in the Ironman swim‘ which lists some of the techniques which can lead to ‘the tiniest of improvements to speed will yield big improvements over 3.8K‘. The key points include:

– ‘Swim sessions covering 3-4.5K with lots of technique reminders punctuating mid to long distance repeats’

-Monthly testing and the use of block pacing over the 3.8K distance to improve confidence & endurance. For example in middle doing 4x300m strong steady pace,followed by 20sec rest and then 4x200m strong steady pace.

– Making sure that a typical training set has an improved distance whilst rest is kept consistently short.

– Importantly the training schedule should allow you to take control on race day of ‘your own swim, be confident, relax and try to find a smooth rhythm as soon as possible’.

As you can see from this swim training advice, each Ironman workout should be set out to addresses one, or more, critical success factor(s) for improving your performance on the big day.

You don't just need weight training for the swim

You don’t just need weight training for the swim

Circuit & weight training

Aside from hours in the pool and on the road, training should also consist of conditioning for overall strength and core stability. This can take the form of resistance training and explosive aerobics, perhaps at lunchtime during a working week. A rapid succession of muscle-building exercises will not only improve your overall fitness & stamina, but make different muscle groups accustomed to transition and strengthen knees & hips which are often the point of injury in endurance preparation. Not only can circuit training fit more easily into your weekly schedule but a very valid point in endurance planning is ‘Less is more’ – i.e. being 85 % fit & feeling strong may be better than 100% fit but having niggling injuries or feeling tired. Some of the best strength exercises recommended by Mark Allen, 6xIronman World Champion, include:

1. Lateral Pull-downs (upper back; improves pull phase of swim stroke)

2. Leg Extensions (upper legs/quads; supports weight-catching phase of running and builds additional muscle mass necessary for half-marathon distances and up)

3. Leg Curls (upper leg/hamstring; boosts pull-through for both cycling and running)

4. Bench Press (chest; improves pull phase in swim)

5. Squats (glutes and quads; generates power for cycling and strength necessary for hilly running)

6. Lateral Dumbbell Raise (shoulder joint; supports healthy shoulders to prevent swimming injuries)

7. Calf Raises (lower legs/calves; helps push-off for running)

8. Dumbbell Pullover (works all muscles in catch phase of freestyle stroke)

9. Backward Lunges (adductors and glutes; targets all muscles used in push phase of hilly running)

10. Bicep Curls (front of upper arm; assists in part of the pull phase in the swim and provides climbing leverage on the bike)

11. Tricep Extensions (back of upper arms; maintains form through back half of swim stroke)

12. Leg Press (glutes and quads; most important exercise for developing power on bike)

Eating a quality daily diet

When you are slogging out the miles everyday it won’t be that energy gel that is either going to satisfy your appetite or promote growth & recovery. A quality diet will also aid you in consistently improving your performance and not feeling ‘tired’.Your diet should be loaded with fruits, vegetables, lean protein and complex carbohydrates – not, as guilty as I can be sometimes, loaded with junk foods & caffeine.

Starting the day with a wholesome breakfast (and not in sleep deficit) is very important to carry you over the day’s training. If you are training extensively or late, you will often end the day with a caloric deficit – you might not even feel that hungry with all the adrenaline pumping – so a good breakfast is vital. Don’t skip it because you are up early in the pool!



Bob Seebohar, sports dietitian, exercise physiologist, and coach at, recommends that you should consume 200 to 300 grams of carbohydrates 1 to 4 hours before a workout lasting more than 3 hours. For shorter, high intensity workouts it is advised to ‘teach’ your body to rely on fat stores for energy and not to specifically carb ‘load’. When it comes to post workout, your muscles need to repaired and 30 to 60 minutes immediately after a long, high intensity session you should be looking to have 10 t0 25 grams of good quality protein. Often you might not feel hungry after these workouts and it might be good to invest in some protein shakes for these occasions.

That is part 1 of the brief introduction on training for an Ironman Triathlon. Next time we will look at more specific training for improving speed on the bike & run, monitor macronutrients and hydration, as well as getting it right on race day. If you are keen to learn more about the endurance training, do sign up to our bi-weekly newsletter HERE

You can now find PART 2 of ‘How to train for an Ironman’ HERE

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