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The Faster Vs. Longer Debate

What’s the best way to improve at the iron distance: adding more miles or more intensity?

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What’s the best way to improve at the iron distance: adding more miles or more intensity? Two top coaches, Tim Crowley and Gordo byrn, take sides in the debate over Ironman training philosophy.

This article was originally published in the Sep./Oct. 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

Speed Builds Endurance and Strength

Written by: Tim Crowley

High-intensity training is important for Ironman success, whether you are a pro, age grouper, veteran or first-timer. Because of the distances required of an Ironman, all too often athletes and coaches believe that long, slow distance and training as many hours as possible is all a person needs to do. This often leads to excessive fatigue and is not realistic for many adults who also have jobs and families.

Once an athlete can cover the iron distance, working on the ability to go faster is more important than training for more miles. Quality training has many benefits such as raising threshold speed, building specific strength and power, increasing movement economy, improving aerobic power and building mental toughness. By getting stronger and faster, Ironman race pace will be achieved at a lower percentage of maximal speed, which helps the athlete stay fresh longer into a race.

Over the past 10 years, many major long-course races have been won by athletes who started their professional careers in the ITU, where speed and power are essential. Those abilities transfer to Ironman performance. Long workouts are still important, but are not more important than quality intervals and strength training. Quality Ironman training does not mean short anaerobic sprints, but longer sustained efforts that are close to Olympic-distance race pace. Training at or below Ironman race pace isn’t intense enough to maximize the strength, aerobic fitness and power required to race a successful 140.6. Challenge yourself to train with more quality, and you may find yourself fresher and faster over every distance.

Tim Crowley is a level III USAT coach, and 2009 USAT elite coach of the year. He is the owner of TC2coaching.

RELATED – Going Long: Tackling 70.3 And Ironman

Prepare for the Distance

Written by: Gordo Byrn

Completing the most Ironman-pace training while preparing to race all day is the best way to train for Ironman. To find that balance, I recommend athletes use their average weekly totals in the eight-week span from five months to three months before the race. Reaching a minimum total volume is important before incorporating any training at Olympic-distance intensity.

If average weekly volume is less than 1.5 times Ironman race distances in each sport, add volume by any means necessary without spending energy on more intense workouts. For example, if an athlete runs an average of 20 miles per week split between workouts of 10, 5 and 5 miles, building his long run to 18 miles with 15 miles slightly faster than goal Ironman pace and longest brick to 6 miles should be his priority.

Even after surpassing that training quantity, intense intervals should be used sparingly. Athletes averaging between 1.5 and 2.5 times the race distances in a week can add a little Olympic-distance and 70.3 race pace training, about 10 percent per week at each effort. After building cycling volume to 175 miles per week, for example, adding workouts of 6×3 minutes at Olympic pace to one ride and 30 minutes steady at 70.3 pace to another becomes beneficial. Until reaching this weekly quantity, increases to training should come in the form of added volume.

I have found that completing 2.5 times the race distances per week is the tipping point for many athletes, and training more than this amount is counterproductive. People training beyond this level should consider trading distance for intensity. Focusing on intense training becomes worthwhile only after already completing enough miles to equip the body for the distance.

Gordo Byrn is a past champion of Ultraman Hawaii and the co-author of Going Long. You can find his writing about fitness, family and finances at

RELATED: Olympians Find Success At Long-Course Racing

ITU to Ironman
The best Ironman athletes come from diverse triathlon backgrounds. Here’s a breakdown of the top 10 pro men and pro women finishers from the 2012 Ironman World Championship and their short-course careers:

4 men, 2 women
Came from the top level of the ITU racing scene—they raced in the Olympics and/or podiumed at an ITU World Cup event before switching to Ironman.

6 men, 8 women
Either had less noteworthy short-course careers or skipped the ITU entirely.

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