PT on the Net Research

Ironman Triathlon Training Part 3


Now that the athlete’s legs have been thoroughly fatigued with the 112 miles of cycling, they must face running a full marathon to get to the finish line. The 26.2-mile run after cycling for 112 miles is the biggest challenge, both mentally and physically, that the athlete faces. However, before putting on the running shoes, the athlete must first pass through the second transition (T2).

T2 is much simpler than T1 since it does not require taking off a wetsuit and changing the position of the body too much. After the athlete dismounts their bike, it is off to the changing tent/area again to get ready for the run. The athlete will only need to worry about changing shoes, possibly their shirt, and putting on their hat before hitting the pavement.

Since fatigue will be great in the legs from the bike portion, it is important to prescribe some of the athlete’s runs during training on tired legs – often after cycling or after a few days of intense training – so the athlete’s body becomes used to running on fatigued legs. By the time the athlete reaches the run segment in an Ironman race, they are already dehydrated, undernourished, and physically and mentally fatigued. The athlete needs to experience this (somewhat) in training so that they are totally mentally prepared for the run.

After a brief stay in the changing tent, the athlete then runs onto the marathon course for their 26.2-mile journey. It is smart to advise the athlete not to go out too fast on the run no matter how they feel. Most Ironman athletes will be too fatigued to do this anyway but the crowd support and cheering coming out of T2 may lift them to another level and they may run the first 2 miles at a pace that they will most likely regret later. It is best to advise the athlete to try to negative split the run (run the second half with greater intensity and/or speed than the first half) or to gradually build their intensity and/or speed throughout the run.

Going out too fast on the run will also not allow them to get the proper hydration and nutrition that they will need to make it through the run. Advise them to take the time in the first few miles to take in fluids and calories. I will cover more about Ironman nutrition in the next article in this series.

A typical T2 will take an average athlete 2-8 minutes to complete.

The Run

The athlete now faces 26.2 miles of running. This may be a one or two loop course depending on the race. From a mileage perspective, the run comprises 18% of the total mileage that the athlete will take to finish. From a time perspective, the run comprises approximately 33-45% of the total time that the average athlete will take to finish.

Training Program

From a training perspective, the run portion of an IM race is the most difficult to train a client for. Considering the average age-group athlete will finish the run in 4.5-6 hours, the primary goal of the training program should be centered on increasing leg strength so that the legs have the ability to run a full marathon after cycling 112 miles.

Because all Ironman run courses have different terrain, it is important to first learn the terrain in order to prescribe an efficient run training program. However, since leg strength will be paramount no matter the course, hill training should be an integral part of the training program as should core strength in order to sustain proper running mechanics throughout the marathon. Typical speed training (i.e. track workouts) may not be necessary if the athlete’s goal is to finish without a lofty time goal. Lower end speed training such as tempo, fartlek and negative split runs will suffice.

A mixture of standard and undulating periodization should be used when training for the run portion of an Ironman as I detailed in my previous Ironman articles.

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 has been a fitness enthusiast for 4 or more years and that the run course terrain will consist of rolling hills.

Weeks 1-12: Base

Weeks 13-20: Intensity strength

Weeks 21-24: Intensity speed

Weeks 25-27: Taper

Week 28: Race

A standard periodization principle of a 10% increase in volume or mileage per week is safe to use for most athletes. However, since running is a high impact sport, it is important to start the periodization program with a more conservative 6-8% weekly increase in volume or mileage and adapt the percent increase to the athlete’s progress.

Run training for an Ironman race can be very lonely. It is often helpful for Ironman athletes to schedule their long training runs with other athletes of their ability and goals.

Training for a 26.2 mile run is much different that for shorter distances. Athletes should not go over that distance or even too close to that distance since there is a “point of no return” where the physiological benefits from the aerobic, endurance run are reversed and serious damage occurs to the body. Therefore, the longest run needs only to be 20-21 miles in length. Recent recommendations state that the long run doesn’t have to be done all at once. That is, if the total miles are completed within an 18-24 hour period, the physiological benefits are the same. While this does make sense, keep in mind that some athletes simply need to know that they can run that far at one time. So, get to know your athlete first!