For many triathletes, the new year brings old goals—that is, to a return to racing long-course triathlon. But how do you get your Ironman fitness back after a few months, or even a few years, away?
Maybe your break was due to an injury, or perhaps you had to focus on family, work, or school. Or perhaps you’ve been off on other adventures, like ultrarunning or gravel biking. But when the siren call of racing 140.6 miles beckons once more, you can’t ignore it. To rejuvenate your triathlon fitness and get back into Ironman shape after a break, it’s important to follow these six principles from notable coaches in the sport.
1. Make the commitment
The first step in rebuilding your triathlon fitness is making a commitment to the massive undertaking it will require. But that goes well beyond just signing up for a race and posting about it on Instagram. It starts with a keen understanding of your motivation: How hard are you willing to work, and what are you willing to sacrifice to reach your goals?
From there, you need to conduct a realistic assessment of your recent training, your current fitness, and your life/work balance. Training for an Ironman-distance triathlon doesn’t have to consume your life, but no matter what your goals are, it definitely requires a large amount of time to train. That might mean as few as 15 hours per week and as many as 25. To do that, you may need to make sacrifices that will take you away from other activities. How will you prioritize training within other important elements of your life, including family, work, friends and even sleep?
“Understanding how much time someone realistically will have to train relative to the goals they have is an important first step,” said Bill Gleason, a certified triathlon and strength and conditioning coach based in Encinitas, California. “People can set their goal too high and the amount of training time they think they’re going to get in, and that might make that goal just out of reach. When it comes down to the discussion of the lofty goal thing, I tell them what it’s really going to take. But the bottom line is that you have to put in the time and do the work to reach those goals.”
During that kind of discussion, Gleason might suggest that an age-group athlete who is trying to commit to triathlon again should focus on 70.3 for a year, instead of going straight to a full Ironman. Both take a lot of time and hard work, but the volume to train for an Ironman is much greater.
“Raise the bar for 70.3 and get faster, because you can do that in fewer hours per week,” Gleason said. “It’s a good way to get back into shape and focus on a race goal without overcommitting to something bigger and falling short.”
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2. Call in outside help
If consistency in training has been an issue for you in the past, it will likely continue to be an issue for you now—perhaps even more so in trying to rebuild your fitness, when it can be easy to get discouraged and skip workouts.
“You have to have consistency and you have to stay healthy, but you also have to listen to your body and know what you need to make adjustments,” said Joan Scrivanich, a certified triathlon and running coach and exercise physiologist who trains athletes through her New Jersey-based Rise Endurance. “Sometimes it’s hard to gauge for ourselves, so sometimes we need outside advice and feedback from a coach about when to build up or cut back or make other changes in your training.”
A triathlon coach can design a program that fits your reality, help you train as consistently as possible, continually monitor your progress and making adaptations as needed.
“There are so many ways of building a plan based on what we know about physiology and training, but there are no secrets,” Scrivanich said. “We all learn different ways to put together training plans and improving fitness. The key is making that plan work for you, how your fitness progresses and how it fits into the rest of your life.”
You’ll want to find a coach that understands your goals and how triathlon fits into your lifestyle. Do some online research, read coaching reviews and/or try to interview a few coaches to understand who might be best for you. Whether you settle on a coach that provides one-on-one in-person coaching, email or phone interaction or just a training plan and general guidance is up to you (and your budget).
3. Build fitness gradually
But instead of jumping into a rigid swim-bike-run training regimen, the first step in getting your Ironman fitness back is to build a solid foundation of aerobic fitness, advises Brian Stover, a certified triathlon coach with Accelerate3 Coaching in Tucson, Ariz. That means starting slow. Stover sees many returning triathletes overdo it with too much volume or too much intensity too soon.
“For a recreational athlete, where they’re only working out four or five times per week, it’s about getting the consistency back and increasing their ability to tolerate work and increasing their durability without causing them to break,” Stover said. “If you haven’t been consistently training, look back over the previous three or four weeks and start adding time from there.”
If you’ve only been running three times per week and the average run is 20-25 minutes, consider upping that to five times per week and on two of those runs add in 15 more minutes of easy running just go get your volume up a little bit. And if you’ve been riding a little bit, don’t start going out three-hour rides right off the bat. It would be more practical to ride an hour three times a week and then maybe 1:45 on the weekend.
“Let’s get consistent with small increases in frequency and then once you’re pretty consistent with that, start increasing the volume a little in some of those extra sessions,” Stover said. “You never want to dump a ton of volume on someone right off the bat if they haven’t been in the sport for a couple of years or more and don’t have that residual fitness base from multiple seasons of training.”
Also, depending on where your weakness and strengths are, it might be easier to get consistent in two sports instead of trying to force consistent training time in all three. You can either avoid the one you’re the best at, or if you need to reduce wear and tear on your body, focus more on the low-impact activities of swimming and cycling. If you’ve spent the past few years focusing on running, you might reduce the frequency of your runs in order to build up your swim and bike fitness with consistent workouts. The fitness you gain in swimming, biking, and running is marginally different, but each can contribute to the building blocks of a foundation of good fitness that you’ll need to build on later.
“It’s just less of a juggling act,” Stover said. “I often tell my athletes to put one sport on the back burner and let’s get consistent in two sports for the next four to six weeks, then we can layer the third one in once you have a little bit of fitness.”
4. Prioritize technique
During the six- to eight-week build-up to a base level of fitness, it’s a good time to also work on your sport-specific technique. That might mean working on your weaknesses or working on aspects of swimming, biking and running you’ve never worked on before or never knew you needed to. If you have poor technique in any of the sports as you start to get fit, it will become more of a weakness as training increases and most likely become a limiting factor in your races.
“Now is the time you can work on all of those aspects you need to work on,” Stover said. “You can spend an inordinate amount of time on it now, for example, to become a much more technically correct swimmer and that will help you become a much fitter, faster swimmer later in the season.”
That might be doing drills in the pools or video analysis of your stroke technique. It could mean getting an updated bike fit to make sure you’re in the right position to be optimally efficient on both your road bike and your tri bike. Or it could be reducing your running mileage and focusing on running drills to improve your running gait.
For someone who has been active in the sport for years, it might just be a little of drill maintenance. For someone who is just returning to the sport, it might require a bit more focus, like re-learning efficient stroke technique in the pool or doing pedal efficiency drills on the bike trainer.
“Skill building should be worked on all the time throughout the year, but it’s especially important for someone who is new to the sport or just coming back to it,” Scrivanich said. “Improving your form and doing drills continually will improve your efficiency and economy in training and improve your performance for the entire season, and it will help with injury prevention, too.”
5. Do more than just swim-bike-run
As your start to build fitness, don’t get too immersed in the swim-bike-run mentality to the point that it’s restricting or stressful. There’s plenty of time for that once you get into tri-specific training in the spring. For now, worry less about your training analytics and more about the frequency, quality and enjoyment factor of whatever you’re doing.
Stover encourages the athletes he coaches to stay off their road bikes and definitely avoid riding their TT bikes this time of year. He’d prefer they ride a mountain bike or a cyclocross bike or engage in some alternative method of cross-training like rollerblading, cross country skiing, or hiking.
“In the off-season, early season and even into the early part of your tri season, doing things that aren’t swim-bike-run focused can be huge,” said Stover. “For example, if you can cross-country ski, then ski to your heart’s content and add a couple of runs and maybe a couple of swims just to maintain that contact and feel for the water, but don’t really worry about too much about cycling. Then at the end of six weeks, add your cycling in, you’re going to be much more fit than you were overall, and you’re not going to have lost any triathlon-specific fitness that can’t be regained in a short amount of time.”
Not only can cross-training help build fitness, it can also help allay the early stages of mental burnout that can start to creep in as fatigue from your early training reboot begins. Nipping that in the bud now with alternate activities will help keep it at bay later in the season when swimming, biking and running are your primary activities and training intensifies.
“You can take a few days off and have a more extended recovery than you would normally do, or you can do some easy cross-training—even if that’s hiking or body surfing or skiing—just to shake things up a bit,” Gleason said. “If you get to a point where there is a dread factor and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I have to ride again for two hours,’ sometimes it’s better to skip the workout that you’re dreading than to force it and get it in. Usually you find the training mummers and metrics start to deteriorate and trend toward overtraining.”
6. Give yourself some wiggle room
If you’ve been away from triathlon for a season or for a few years, you might remember your best workouts, race highlights and high level of fitness more than the grind of training. The two most important aspects of Ironman training are consistency and making sure you’re enjoying it.
“Life and work and everything else, it all gets in the way and takes priority over the sport from time to time,” Scrivanich said. “If you’re not a pro, then you’re looking at triathlon as a hobby or a fun thing to do, so you need to make it all work so it remains enjoyable.”
When an athlete’s training time gets crunch by work, family, holidays or travel, she tells them to scrap a bigger workout if they have to and instead just take it easy and just do 15 minutes of exercise if they can.
“Consistency is the biggest challenge for everyone,” Scrivanich said. “Even if you only have 15 minutes to spare, take that 15 minutes and go for an easy run, go for a short ride or just do something active. You might not feel like you’re getting much out of it, but it’s that time you took to be active, to give you the feeling that you did something. It would be better if you could do 30 minutes or 45 minutes, but 15 minutes is better than nothing. And sometimes, that’s good enough.”
The bottom line
When you’re just getting back into the sport, the key is to stay loose and enjoy what you’re doing. It’s a long road back to Ironman, and you’re bound to have setbacks along the way. Maintain a good attitude and remember that everything you do is a piece of the puzzle you’re building. It’s not going to be perfect, but consistency will help you complete it on your way to race day.