An Ironman (IM) race covers 140.6 total miles and consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run, performed in consecutive order. Most of the IM races in the world assign a cut-off time of 17 hours for participants to finish. There are several IM distance races around the globe, some as Ironman sanctioned events and some that are not. The Ironman World Championships are held each year in Hawaii and require competitors to qualify for the race or gain a spot through the lottery.
An IM is as grueling as the distances make it out to be. Professional athletes will complete the race in just under 8 hours while the average finish time for non-professional athletes is around 12-13 hours. While professional athletes compete in IM races to win money, the average non-professional athlete competes for the fun and the challenge of finishing a race of this nature.
A typical endurance training program for an athlete participating in an IM race will begin 6-9 months prior to the race. Experienced IM athletes with a good cardiorespiratory base will usually require less time to train while less experienced athletes or first time IM athletes will require more time.
This series of articles will provide a framework for the fitness professional to assist his/her client in preparing for an IM race. This will include addressing key issues of IM training, more specifically the swim, bike, run, transitions, and nutrition disciplines, as well as providing a sample periodization program that can be used as a reference to help design an individual program. This series will focus on the recreational, non-professional IM athlete and will begin with the swim component.
The 2.4 mile swim is usually completed in an ocean or lake and begins with a mass start of 1500-2000 athletes, all battling for position and trying not to get hit or kicked too hard. All IM swims are draft legal, which means that athletes can follow as close as they like to the swimmer in front of them to acquire a draft and encounter less water resistance.
Some IM races are beach starts where the athletes run from the beach into the water, while others are deep water starts where the athletes tread water behind a start line set in the water. There are some IM races that separate the 2.4 mile swim into 2 loops of a course, sometimes with a brief exit from the water such as running on a beach for a few yards and running back into the water to complete a second loop. Most IM races require participants to finish the swim portion in two hours and twenty minutes or less, or they cannot continue with the race. The swim portion of an IM race is essentially a warm-up in preparation for the rest of the day’s activities.
From a mileage perspective, the swim comprises less than 2% of the total mileage that the athlete will complete. From a time perspective, the swim only comprises 8-15% of the total time that the average athlete will take to finish. It does not seem like a significant amount of mileage or time, but the swim can be very physical and can often contribute to an athlete not finishing the race – especially due to the nature of pack swimming and drafting.
Swim Training Program
From a training perspective, the swim portion of an IM race is the easiest to train a client. Considering the average age-group athlete will finish the swim in 1.5 –1.75 hours, the primary goal of the training program should be centered around increasing core strength (to help the athlete remain in the streamline position without sacrificing form and losing efficiency), improving muscular endurance, and improving aerobic efficiency.
A mixture of standard and undulating periodization should be used when training an IM athlete. Standard periodization recommends following build with recovery cycles to allow athletes to stress their bodies and improve their fitness level during the recovery periods. It is important to remember that the recovery periods should be planned with as much attention as the build cycles. Traditional build cycles include a 3 or 4 week build period with a 7-10 day recovery period. An athlete’s lifestyle, career demands, family and social commitments should be taken into consideration when planning the build and recovery periods. Some athletes who are very busy in their family and social lives or in their career paths may not be as successful with a longer build period. It is important to customize the build cycles to allow each athlete to be successful in completing all of the training sessions and still have time for his/her other activities.
The following is a general, 7-month periodized training program for an average recreational athlete with the goal of finishing an Ironman race. We will assume this athlete is not well-experienced in long-distance triathlons but is of sound health and has been a fitness enthusiast for 4 or more years (Remember, this is just a reference point for trainers to use when building programs specific to their individual clients).
Weeks 1-12: Base
- Frequency: 3 times per week
- Intensity: Low, progressing to moderate
- Anatomical adaptation. Developing a strength-training program that provides general and specific muscular conditioning that matches the muscles used in swimming. The use of stretch cords (surgical tubing) is highly recommended. Core strengthening with an emphasis on rotational strength should be a focus.
- Improve cardiorespiratory fitness. Developing a strong aerobic base to prepare the body for future training cycles.
- Swim 3 times per week, allow for one day of rest in between swim training sessions. Periodize each training session within each week (microcycle) to emphasize different training goals such as overdistance training (aerobic), endurance training (high-end aerobic), drill sets (aerobic), and low-end speed sessions of 50-100 yards (high-end aerobic).
- Begin using a wetsuit (in open water, not a pool) late in the base cycle if applicable to allow the athlete to learn the differences that are encountered with the increased buoyancy and different body position.
Weeks 13-20: Intensity Strength
- Frequency: 4 times per week
- Intensity: Moderate, progressing to high
- Improve swim specific muscular strength. Introduce swim paddles, drag suits, and swim cords to daily training sessions.
- Improve cardiorespiratory fitness and low-end anaerobic capacity.
- Increase the distance of each workout for improvement of cardiorespiratory fitness.
- Introduce longer tempo sets at sub-anaerobic, high-end aerobic pace with hand paddles and pull buoys.
- Include sets of 200-400 yards as the main set of the training session.
Weeks 21-24: Intensity speed
- Frequency: 4 times per week
- Intensity: High
- Improve lactate clearing ability of the muscles and improve cardiorespiratory fitness by introducing longer sets at anaerobic pace. nclude sets of 400-1000 yards as the main set of the training session.
Weeks 25-27: Taper
- Frequency: 3-4 times per week
- Intensity: Moderate to high
- Goals: Maintain intensity but decrease volume to allow an athlete’s body to properly recover and improve fitness.
Week 28: Race
- Frequency: 3 times per week
- Intensity: Moderate to high
- Goals: Similar to taper, this week should focus on low-end speed and low volume work to allow the athlete to rest fully before the race. However, it is important that the athlete not lose the “feel” of the water, so frequency is still set at three times per week.
Other Guiding Principles
A standard periodization principle of a 10% increase in volume or mileage per week is safe to use for most athletes.
It is best for new Ironman athletes to join a master’s swim program that provides professional on-deck coaching by a certified coach. Because swimming is so dependent on good technique, it is important for athletes to have a solid foundation of proper swim mechanics. Be careful not to blindly push an athlete into a master’s swim program though, as the coach may not have experience coaching triathletes. Because many triathletes have little swimming background, they must be coached differently than a pure swimmer. Be sure that the coach understands this and that their periodization – especially volume of swim training – is taken into consideration.
When an athlete begins a master’s swim program with little background as a swimmer, the first 1-2 months should be centered around drill work with the coach in order to develop proper mechanics. Therefore, the distance that is done in the pool will be dependent upon the athlete’s history of swimming and swim conditioning.
In the early stages of swimming, fitness should not be the main focus. Improved fitness will happen as a result of increased swim volume. An athlete should focus first on proper swim mechanics in order to have a solid base of body awareness and technique before entering future periodization cycles that are more demanding.
My next IM article will detail the bike portion of the race.
- Triathlete's Training Bible, Joe Friel, Velo Press, 1998