Four secrets: How to break 10 hours in an Ironman on 10 hours per week

There seems to be a fascination with minimal Ironman training recently.  Many triathletes are busy people and, although they love training, they simply can’t invest the time that many boiler-plate training plans call for.  I am consistently baffled at the hours many age group triathletes claim to put in.  Certainly an Ironman race is a difficult event, but I don’t believe it’s possible that normal people with full time jobs can execute consistent weeks of 15+ hours of training.  I also don’t believe dozens of massive high-volume workout sessions can lead to physical adaptations beyond what a smaller number of strategically structured and placed sessions can. There is a limit to what a body can absorb and, beyond a certain point (especially for busy people), there are diminishing or even detrimental returns on time-invested.

In light of these considerations, I recently executed a training block for Ironman Louisville where my goal was to maximize my performance by training approximately 10 hours per week—a time investment that I feel comfortable with and which allows me to live a balanced life.  I ended up going 9:18 at the race, which is fairly close to my potential.  Obviously it’s not a world-beating time.  The winner, Andrew Starkowycz beat me by over an hour, however the performance was sufficient to place in the top 1% of the amateur race and vie for a Kona slot. 

I won’t go into nauseating detail about my training, however I want to convey certain principles I follow and integrate into my coaching philosophy that most can implement to become efficient and approach their potential in an Ironman on fewer than 15 hours per week.  I should preface by emphasizing that this approach is not necessarily ideal for all athletes and that I might have gone faster on a bit more volume--but it does demonstrate that a well-structured low-volume can lead to good results .    

1.     Bike indoors and bike hard: The majority of your high-intensity work (zone 4 and above) should occur on the bike with the ultimate goal of raising your threshold power.  There is no reason to pedal easy.  There isn’t time for that. Get a power meter (I use a Powertap C1), figure out your FTP and do a bunch of threshold work—2x20 min, 3x15 min etc.  If you’re feeling a bit tired, do sweet spot work.  Throw in the occasional VO2 workout (6x4min, 15x1 min etc.).  You can make exceptional gains with 4 rides per week. During the experiment, I never once averaged (including warm up and cool down) under 75% of my FTP for an indoor cycling workout.  It’s just not worth it.  I limited key endurance or “long rides” to 4 hours with most of them being three hours or less----though each of these contained high-intensity work.  With this approach I comfortably went 4:58 on a hilly Louisville course.

 2.     If you are going to sacrifice something, sacrifice the swim--albeit do it intelligently: I would've loved to have swam more leading up to IM Lou, but in this ~10-hour per week experiment, something had to give.  Considering prep-time, swimming is very time consuming  Driving to the pool, showering, finding a lane, driving home, etc.  Fortunately, the IM swim is a tiny part of the race and the potential time loss from a mediocre vs great swim is fairly small.  I averaged less than 2 hours of swimming each week and typically swam 2-3 times a week. I had no recovery swims--all included intensity -- and during each swim I was hyper-focused on form.  When swims are infrequent, you can't afford to do easy recovery swims.  Closer to the race, I made sure to get in longer swims of 4,000 yards for confidence and to ensure the endurance was there.

I do not mean to demean the importance of the swim, but it is important to remember that the delta between your best possible performance (i.e. swimming every day) and your half-assed performance (3 times a week) is alarmingly low.  Once you reach a general level of competency, the ROI on time invested is low relative to the other disciplines.  By focusing on getting in 2-3 good session per week, I was able to swim 66 minutes at Louisville – a by no means great time, but good enough for the time investment.  To have taken off an additional 5 minutes I probably would have had to have swum five times as much. 

 3.     Focus on run frequency: Too many people think it’s not worth running for 20-35 minutes.  This is silly.  Apart from being convenient, more frequent runs allow you to sneak in greater volume with less wear and tear.  You obviously need longer runs to be competitive, but by emphasizing frequency you can achieve superior fitness while minimizing injury risk.  I averaged about 30-35 miles per week spread out over 5-6 runs and typically performed a “long” run every 10 days or so, building up to 16 miles with the middle miles around tempo pace.  To have run further would’ve required too much recovery time and compromised my other training. I also executed a weekly run emphasizing Z4-5 intensity, such as hill work, cruise intervals, or a good old fashioned threshold run. It is notable, however, that I never let this intense run compromise my other sessions, especially the key bike workouts. It was the least imporant of the "key" sessions.  This approach allowed me to run 3:05 on race day. 

 4.     Get your nutrition right: It is absolutely essential that you take in enough calories to avoid bonking.  Do not leave your nutrition strategy to chance.  Figure out how many calories you can consume per hour during your big days (i.e. long bike rides, etc.) without vomiting and meticulously consume calories at that pace during the race.  Aim for 300+ calories per hour and make sure that they sit well in your stomach. A lot of people feel that they need to consume solid foods during the bike leg, which is a load of BS.  You can if you want, but there is no benefit apart from fulfilling your emotional desire to eat solid foods.  Keep it simple by consuming liquids.  Most of the fast people I know subsist on concentrated nutrition bottles.  I personally use Tailwind (1000 calorie bottle behind the saddle and a 300 calorie up front to start) and supplement it with a couple Clif Mocha Gels with caffeine and Gatorade Endurance (my body processes Gatorade fine—make sure yours does too) on the course.  I shoot for 350 calories an hour, which is a good target if you’re planning on liquid nutrition.   I know a number of pros who aim for 500+ calories per hour, so 350 is certainly not a ceiling.

Although by no means exhaustive, these four principles are a good start to developing an approach to Ironman that will get you faster with minimal time investment.  For additional tips, check out the Working Triathlete e-book and other articles.