From The Archives: Find Your Long-Course Triathlon Training Formula

Answer these eight questions to dial in the training program that works for you.

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This article was originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

After a decade as a professional triathlete and with ITU world championship wins at both the short- and long-course distances, Leanda Cave seemed to have her training dialed in. Then two years ago, she slipped and cracked her ribs while pulling a pool tarp during a spring training camp in Borrego Springs, Calif. So her coach, Siri Lindley, limited Cave’s running to uphill treadmill intervals because running any other way proved too jarring and painful. The result?

A month later, Cave surprised herself by winning the Wildflower Long Course Triathlon, covering the half-marathon distance in 1:25, her fastest showing ever over the extremely hilly course. Realizing that uphill running could help with her long-course weakness, the marathon, she and Lindley soon made it a regular part of her program, which enabled Cave to run her way to a podium finish in Kona in 2011 and two world championship long-course wins in Vegas and Kona last year. “Uphill running helps every athlete,” says Cave. “But until then I never really had the time to hone in on uphill running to see the effect that it had on me.”

The point of Cave’s story is not that uphill running should be a component of your Ironman training (although it does help those who, like Cave, lack natural leg strength). It’s that people respond differently to training. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. And developing your own training recipe for long-course success, as Cave herself discovered, can take years of trial and error to figure out.

Over the past decade, I’ve talked to enough pro and age-group winners at Kona about their training to realize that Ironman athletes prepare themselves for the performances of their lives in vastly different and sometimes contradictory ways. Some find that high-volume, low-heart-rate training works best, while others have discovered that frequent doses of quality and speed are far more important for a solid performance on race day. So instead of presenting another cookie-cutter, long-course training program for the “average” athlete that may or may not work for your next 70.3 or iron-distance race, here instead are some key questions to ask yourself before embarking on (and hopefully modifying) your training plan to achieve a peak performance in your next long-course triathlon.

1. Did you do enough volume last year to train for an Ironman this year?

That’s the first question Jesse Kropelnicki, the founder and head coach of QT2 Systems in Boston, asks prospective clients who inquire about his Ironman training program. To him, the primary mistake of people who aspire to do an Ironman—even those willing to devote themselves to a full year of long-course training—is their lack of “sustainable volume” the year before. “What I call sustainable volume is the volume they were able to turn over year after year without getting injured or burned out,” he says. “At the end of the day, if you want to have a good experience in an Ironman, you need to get the volume into the 18- to 19-hour [a week] range. For someone who has a 12- to 13-hour training history the prior year, there’s no way you can jump up to 18 or 19 hours the next year without getting injured or burned out.”

To prepare adequately for an Ironman, Kropelnicki recommends that triathletes spend at least a year doing 70.3 races while gradually building their total swim, bike and run training to at least 18 to 19 hours per week, with their peak training weeks reaching 22 hours. “That’s the minimum we recommend in order to have a nice experience. I mean, sure, you may be able to finish with less, but the risk of injury goes up so much, so why not have some patience and wait? We try to instill patience in athletes because most of the time they’re not patient. People decide to do an Ironman and it doesn’t matter what they’ve done in the past; they want to do it next year. A lot of people rush it and in the end they don’t get to start the race; or if they do start the race they get injured along the way. You need to take it in small chunks year after year so your body is prepared to complete the distance comfortably.”

2. Are you tailoring your season for peak performance?

Don’t unwittingly set yourself up to be a victim of over-racing syndrome. Are you planning back-to-back Ironman “A” races in the spring and summer like many age groupers and pros who aspire to qualify for Kona? And then counting on a peak performance in Hawaii when October rolls around? After Cave broke her ribs two years ago and got injured again early last year, she realized that getting fit later in the year was in large part responsible for her 2011 Kona podium and last year’s world championship wins. “That ultimately was a blessing in disguise,” she says of her two injuries. “My goal was Kona, and that comes in October, so there’s no sense in trying to be 100 percent fit in January and February. So I think I’ve learned: Don’t come into the year trying to be so focused and trying to win every race. Try to win the races that really count. And that for me is Kona.”

3. Are you swimming, cycling and running efficiently?

Most top coaches put economy and efficiency high on their list when it comes to training their athletes for long-course triathlon—and for good reason. The more efficiently you swim, bike and run at a given effort level, the farther and faster you’ll go. Better economy also reduces the impact and strain on your muscles and joints. That means less risk of being sidelined by injuries while training for your big race. That’s important because being consistent in your training is essential if you want to build the necessary training volume to handle the physical demands of a long race.

In the Ironman, Kropelnicki says the primary limiter on race day for most people, especially those new to long-course racing, is their durability. “It’s not your aerobic engine or how fast you can run a 5K,” he says. “If you talk to anyone who’s had trouble in an Ironman, it’s usually because they’ve had to walk part of the marathon. It’s not because their heart rate is 170 and they can’t maintain it anymore. It’s because their legs are so shot that they’re walking and their heart rate is 60.”

4. Are you an aerobic or anaerobic athlete?

Do you out-sprint your training partners in 200-meter and 400-meter track intervals, but get left in the dust when it comes to mile repeats and longer races? Or are you a more aerobic athlete who tends to do better at the long distances, but could benefit from more strength and power training? Although it may be counterintuitive, long-course racing places a premium on power. Just look at the differences between the slender body type of last year’s Olympic triathlon gold medalist Alistair Brownlee and the more muscular physiques of 2012 Ironman 70.3 world champion Sebastian Kienle and Kona champion Pete Jacobs. Cave is something of an anomaly for a long-course world champion—a naturally thin athlete who lacks the leg and upper-body musculature of her main competitors. But she’s worked hard to overcome that deficiency. In her transition from ITU to Ironman racing, she’s put a lot of effort on building her leg strength and power. Besides hill running, she does lots of big-gear intervals and hill repeats on the bike, one-legged squats and core and strength training in the gym. “I’m not as strong of an athlete, so for me developing that strength has been very important,” she says. “I have a lot of endurance, but being able to combine the strength-endurance components has really helped me this year.”

If you’re a muscular, primarily anaerobic athlete, consider a different approach to your long-course training—placing more emphasis on developing your aerobic system with more long rides and maybe reducing some of the excess muscle you’ll have to carry for 140.6 miles. Don’t eliminate strength training entirely; just go easy on the heavy stuff. Kropelnicki likes his more naturally muscular athletes to focus their gym work on functional strength, such as exercises using a TRX, to maintain their resilience to injury. “Regardless of the athlete, we’re doing some sort of strength training,” he says. “The magnitude of that strength training really depends on the athlete’s muscle content.”

Cave crosses the line at the 2012 Ironman World Championship. Photo: Paul Phillips/Competitive Image

5. Does your training fit the demands of the race?

Many triathlon coaches who have either won or coached winners of the Hawaii Ironman—Dave Scott, Siri Lindley and Brett Sutton, to name a few—believe it’s essential to inject periodic doses of speed into their long-course athletes’ training programs. “You never want to lose that top end,” says Scott. “A lot of people [who eliminate intensity] say, ‘Well I’m going from Olympic-distance training to Ironman training,’ and, especially with the amateurs, every time I hear that I cringe because they think it’s a license to go slow. They just think, ‘I’ve got to put in more miles and I’m going to be a better athlete.’ And on the contrary, they end up going slower because they don’t innervate those fast-twitch muscle fibers and they lose their top end.”

Keeping those fast-twitch fibers working is important because it helps to delay the fatigue that sets into your slow-twitch fibers during the later stages of a long-course race. But you can’t just do speed work and expect to have a great Ironman. The bulk of your training needs to fit the demands of a long-course race. And the best way to get in that aerobic training without risking injury is with long hours in the saddle and moderately paced runs. Kropelnicki’s athletes, even his fastest Ironman pros, do no running speed work and keep all of their runs in the aerobic range. “Any intensity is applied on the bike or in the water,” he says. “It’s pretty much zero intensity on the run.” Athletes often believe frequent fast running sessions will set them up for a fast run off the bike in an Ironman, contends Kropelnicki, but more often than not that leads to injury. “They’re not patient enough to develop a robust aerobic system, which at the end of the day is the energy system they’re going to use on race day. So they try to rush it with intensity sessions that put them on the couch.”

6. Are your long runs too long?

Most of us who have done stand-alone marathons know how important those 20-mile training runs can be to marathon performance. But resist the temptation to do them when training for an Ironman. It’s a physiologically different event. “The big mistake I see people make is in their long runs,” says Kropelnicki. “They think they need a three-hour run to run well at Ironman.” Caitlin Snow, who consistently runs her Ironman marathons in the 2:50 range and has been the fastest American female runner in Kona for the past two years, never runs continuously for more than two hours at a time and keeps all of her training runs completely aerobic. So does Jessie Donavan, a long-course pro with three children who, in her first year as a professional, won Ironman Lake Placid and Ironman Mont-Tremblant and placed second at Ironman St. George last year. “At the end of the day, all that matters is your weekly total mileage of running,” says Kropelnicki, who coaches Snow and Donavan. He points out that with runs longer than 2.5 hours “the athlete’s mechanics fall apart and the injury rate goes up tremendously, so it doesn’t add much to the athlete’s ability to run off the bike.” Like many top Ironman coaches, Kropelnicki prefers instead to break up his athletes’ long runs into two separate sessions: a 90-minute run in the morning, and then another 90-minute run in the afternoon following a bike session to simulate race demands.

7. Are you practicing your race nutrition plan?

It’s often said that the fourth discipline in a long-course race is nutrition, and it’s true. Those of us who have suffered in an Ironman have learned this lesson the hard way. “You look at age groupers who have had difficulty in long-course racing and at least 60 percent of the time it’s related to fueling and stomach issues,” says Kropelnicki. “So all of that training volume that you’ve put in, all of that time you’ve spent away from the family, is useless. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 15-minute 5K runner if you’re walking on the Queen K [Highway] and throwing up.” Once you’ve developed your fueling plan, Kropelnicki believes it’s critical to practice it in training. His long-course athletes do it daily, no matter how long or short their workout. “Really practice fueling on a daily basis,” he advises. “It doesn’t matter if you have an amazing fueling plan. If you don’t practice it, your body is not going to be able to handle it [on race day]. It needs to be practiced every day, day in and day out, without exception.”

8. Are you mentally prepared for a long race?

Are you doing all of your long training rides with friends or in groups? If so, make sure to do some of your long rides solo. Pushing yourself at Ironman pace for five to six hours requires a lot more mental focus on race day than any group ride. Do you know how you’ll handle the possibility of a flat, leg cramp, dehydration or GI issues? A long-course race can be a miserable experience if you’re not prepared for the physical, mental and mechanical problems that seem to always crop up along the way to the finish line. To mentally prepare his athletes, Kropelnicki and his coaches have them develop “race-day scripts” to practice solving whatever problem comes up. “Our thought is to make sure the athletes have every single tool in their suitcase that they need,” he says. “They just hope a situation doesn’t happen and, inevitably when it does happen, they’re screwed. So instead of just hoping it doesn’t happen, let’s assume it’s going to happen and let’s have a tool to pull out to deal with the situation. I think from a mental aspect on race day, that’s the biggest thing because it can bring a tremendous amount of confidence.”

Last but not least, don’t forget that an Ironman or even a 70.3 is a long event. So don’t start your day like you would in a sprint- or Olympic-distance race and expect to have something at the end. As a short-course pro, Cave said she was conditioned mentally to approach all of her races like they were hard training efforts. But her biggest breakthroughs in long-course events came when she finally realized that she had to consciously slow herself down during the race. “My big mental shift in the last couple of years has been to slow down, and I think that’s really worked,” said Cave. “For anyone racing an Ironman, don’t expect to go as hard in the race as you do in training. It’s a process. Get from one point to the next without exhausting yourself. That’s the lesson that I’ve learned. Be more conservative in the race than you think you need to be.”