For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
A personal road map for your best iron-distance race. PLUS: Steal pro habits.
Professional triathletes may have more time to train than age-groupers do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take their best ideas and make them our own. You can copy how the pros structure their training using a smart plan with clear-cut goals for your next iron-distance race. Here’s how to do it.
Creating A Plan For Success
When training Ironman champions, I break each training block into three-week portions, or training mesocyles, providing an emphasis and theme for each mesocycle. While the demands of the race course and the developmental needs of each individual dictate the specifics of the weekly program, age-group athletes can benefit from taking a similar general approach to training, starting with a basic outline that also includes some specific goals within each mesocycle. When age-group athletes sign up for an iron-distance event, it tends to be their personal “championship” event in the sense that it is the focal point of their season. Working backward from an iron-distance race, here is an example of creating mesocyles. Note that you can formulate a similar plan for all distances by adjusting volume and intensity.
Key Sessions For 10 Weeks Before An Iron-distance Race
Having a well-thought-out plan and setting timeline goals with emphasis on different energy systems greatly increases your chances for success. Structure your plan in three-week blocks: two “build” weeks of training followed by a planned recovery week. A recovery week should include two days completely off from training as a minimum, and be approximately 50–65 percent of the training volume of the previous build week.
(8–10 weeks before Ironman)
Emphasis: Aerobic capacity
The athlete should be fit before starting this mesocycle, and the focus is on building strength through sport-specific movements (swim, bike and run) and endurance. Limit the intensity of sessions so that you can back up more frequent high-volume training days.
Two weeks of endurance swimming, biking and riding focused on building aerobic capacity and strength, followed by 1 week of recovery.
Key sessions to build endurance and strength:
• Aerobic endurance rides of 4.5–6.5 hours. Include long climbs if possible.
• Aerobic endurance runs of 1.5–2.5 hours. Run on hilly terrain.
• Low cadence bike riding, longer efforts of 10–30 minutes at 55–65 rpm to build strength.
• Swimming pull drills with paddles for strength.
(5–7 weeks before Ironman)
Emphasis: Aerobic capacity and pacing
Continue building endurance, but start to tune into specific goal pace and training on terrain that simulates your Ironman. Having adapted to the longer sessions of the last training block, your goal now is to swim, bike and run a little faster over longer distances. Emphasis is on building efficiency at your goal Ironman pace by interspersing sections of pace work into your long aerobic efforts.
Two weeks of endurance riding and running focused on honing race-specific pace and rhythm, followed by 1 week of recovery.
• Aerobic endurance rides of 4.5–6 hours, including 3–4 intervals of 20–45 minutes at Ironman goal race pace/heart rate in your aerobars. Ride on similar terrain as your goal race.
• Brick runs off the bike at Ironman goal race pace/heart rate for 15–60 minutes. These are on similar terrain as your goal race.
• Aerobic endurance runs of 1.5–2.5 hours, hilly to maintain strength.
• Low cadence bike riding, longer efforts of 10–30 minutes at 55–65 rpm to sustain strength.
• Swimming aerobic power: long sets such as 3×1000 yards or a continuous 3000, which build to goal race swim pace. Join group swims to practice open-water swimming dynamics.
(3–4 weeks before Ironman)
Emphasis: Aerobic power
You are now fine-tuning for your race. The goal of this training block is to peak for your event. Reduce overall training volume by approximately 20 percent and focus your training weeks around one very strong long run on a race-specific course. The goal is not to go long, but rather to challenge your aerobic system and fine-tune your body for race day.
Two weeks of building aerobic power with riding and running focused on moving faster than goal Ironman pace.
• 1 aerobic power ride per week of 4–5 hours, including 3–4 intervals in race-specific scenario (similar terrain and environment) at 1–2 mph faster than Ironman goal race pace (or heart rate 5–10 beats above target Ironman heart rate) in your aerobars.
• Brick runs off the bike in race-specific scenario at goal race pace/heart rate for 15–60 minutes.
• 1 aerobic power run per week of 1.5–2 hours in race-specific scenario (similar terrain and environment), which build by one-third throughout the run to finish at approximately your half-Ironman pace for the final third.
• Swimming lactic threshold sets, such as 20×100 yards with 30 seconds rest, trying to swim 3–5 seconds per 100 yards faster than goal Ironman swim pace. Group swimming that includes multiple short intervals.
(1–2 weeks before Ironman)
Emphasis: Taper and RACE!
The work is done, and the last two weeks are about absorbing your training and sharpening for race day. It is important to stay mentally engaged and focused in your taper sessions.
• Allot the final two weeks before the race to rest (tapering). Start with 3–5 days of rest and light activity.
• The next 4–6 days are for “activation” (shorter training sessions at race-specific speed).
• The final 3–5 days are for more rest and light activity prior to race day.
Steal These Pro Habits
Pre-workout mentality: They decide on their attitude, create process and outcome goals, understand the purpose of the workout and the main set, and visualize efficient movement prior to arriving to their training session.
In-workout attitude: While training is physically difficult, elite athletes typically have fun with that challenge and remain focused. They are on task for drills and intervals, and during recovery portions mentally prepare for the next interval. They control self-talk and choose a positive mindset to boost self-esteem. They capitalize on the good days and put the bad days in perspective. They make time for a post-workout debrief and analysis.
Logistics: They organize their equipment and become systematic about equipment preparation for training. They create workout timelines, arrive early as a habit, and create some time after training as a buffer in case things go longer, so a key set or cool-down isn’t cut short. They log their workouts, with the goal of tracking performance to see patterns—especially ones that work well.
Body preparation and maintenance: They make time for proper stretching and an easy warm-up, and they do a proper cool-down to flush lactic acid from muscles and to facilitate recovery. Massage is scheduled regularly on the night before a recovery day to give the body time to absorb training. They eat a pre-workout meal (finishing at least two hours prior for moderate to high-intensity sessions) and, for post-session nutrition, include carbs within a half-hour of finishing, and carbs plus protein within two hours of workout completion.
Lance Watson is LifeSport head coach (Lifesportcoaching.com).