You CAN Train less to achieve Iron Distance Success: Here's How

by Troy Jacobson

“Time is what we want most, but... what we use worst.” 

~Willaim Penn

Long bike rides, runs and swim workouts blend together week after week as the training hours add up. You review your training log notes and suddenly realize that, combining preparation and travel to and from workout venues, you’ve committed over 20 hours per week of your precious time to your training for your upcoming Ironman. This happens week after week… after week. Have you ever asked yourself if you can train less and still accomplish your Ironman triathlon goals? 

I used to ask myself this question frequently in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when Ironman racing was considered extreme, even among endurance sports junkies. I consumed article after article on long distance training and read about what the top pros were doing. High volume was in vogue and the stars of our sport at the time were reportedly spending 40 hour (and more) weeks on the roads and in the water, swimming, cycling and running. 25,000 yds. of swimming, 400 miles of cycling and 60 miles of running were common weekly totals. The more, the better... you had to pay the price.

And the truth is, in order to be successful at events like Ironman, it does require boatloads of training and consistency… don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I discovered this first hand when I ramped up my cycling workloads in my late 20’s to see “what I could do” on the bike and it paid off… I finally cracked the 4:45 bike split barrier on a couple of occasions. Higher volume works when it comes to Ironman training, but how much volume is ideal for you and what are the sacrifices you'll need to make?

The issue is time for the age grouper. I don’t know about you, but nowadays as a father, business owner and generally all-around busy guy in my early 40’s, the luxury of “training lots” is out the window. And honestly, even if I had the desire to “train lots”, I probably wouldn’t out of fear of getting injured, an inability to recover well due to age and just plain old guilt! I mean, let’s face it…. your 7-hour long day of training could be spent doing much more rewarding and productive activities like: a. playing with your kids, b. volunteering to help others or working on your next business project or c. “smelling the roses” and relaxing after a hard week of work.  I hear rumors of top amateurs who train 25+ hours per week and I can't help to wonder if the sacrifices they make to go a little bit faster is worth it. I need more results out of a lesser time commitment… and I bet you do too.

As a coach and long time athlete with lots of personal experience, I’m convinced that you can get pretty darn close to your athletic potential, within a few percent, with lower volume and more focused and consistent training, certainly in shorter races and even for distances as long as Ironman. I just proved it to myself again in Kona this year as I posted a 9:22, only three minutes slower than I did exactly 20 years ago with just around half of the weekly training volume! Even my best time in Kona, an 8:54 in 1993, required a huge jump in weekly workloads to eclipse my time of 9:19 in 1991. An increase in weekly training time of 30-40% yielded a result that was only about 3-5% faster on race day. If I was racing as a full-time pro to put food on the table, that sacrifice might be worth it. However, if you’re an age grouper training and racing for personal satisfaction, it makes less sense in the all important "time / pay back" equation. How much is YOUR time worth on an hourly basis and what is the “cost” of training more than you need to?

I have compiled a list of a few “nuggets of Ironman Wisdom” on the topic of training less and getting more out of it that you may wish to consider. And if you find these compelling and thought provoking, you might want to consider some personal coaching down the road to help you execute them in your program.

Determine: What size Engine is under your Hood?

Top Ironman Pros in the 8 hr 15 – 30 min. range have an 8-Cylinder with a Turbo. Those from 8:30 – 9 hours have an 8 Cylinder without the turbo. Elite Amateurs have an inline 6 with a supercharger and mid-pack athletes are sporting a nice, steady 4 cylinder. We are all born with a certain number of cylinders and it’s our goal as endurance athletes to maximize the horsepower they can generate. Come to grips with the size of your engine and do your best with it. After a few years of consistent and steady Ironman training and racing, you’ll get a good sense of your time at the distance, or where you rank. I've found it takes around 5 Ironman races to discover it. At that point, if you’ve been training properly for Ironman all along, It’ll likely take huge increases in volume and intensity (or other extraordinary changes to your training plan, and lifestyle) to realize relatively small gains in performance. Is it worth it?

Frequency Frequency Frequency Frequency…..

The best runners in the world, the Kenyans, run 3 times a day. The best swimmers do doubles daily and the best cyclists spend 4-6 hours per day on the bike during key build phases. Frequency is the key. Swim, bike and run…. In small doses each and almost everyday. 

Base is the Key

You are always building base. Like bricks stacked one on top of another in strong building foundations, your aerobic base is accumulated through miles in the legs (and in the pool). Year after year, you should focus on changing your physiology to get the most horsepower out of your engine as possible. Athletes I coach, especially newbies, see a focus on base early on... and often times comment how that approach helped them reach higher levels several years into their tri careers.

Point of Diminishing Returns

Every workout has a point of diminishing return where the longer you go, the more fatigue you create and the more open you become to injury. Of course, this is different for everyone, and only through trial and error will you discover that “point of diminishing returns”, but in my experience, most age group athletes go over it regularly. Will a 4-hour aerobic run benefit you any more than a 2.5 hr aerobic run will? How about a 7 hour long ride compared to a 5-hour long ride? Or, will the extra training break you down and reduce the quality of the workouts during the rest of the week? Remember, training adaptations are a result of chronic, cumulative stress/recovery cycles… as an age grouper, mega-workout sessions should be reserved for rare occasions and for race day. For me, 4 hour rides tend to be my maximum “long ride” and 2 hours my maximum long run. I recover just fine and can bounce back to train well for the rest of the week. Find yours. 

Think about the Day before and the Day After

Always think to yourself, “how will this workout today be affected by yesterday’s workout and how will it impact tomorrow’s session.”. Be aware of how one workout fits into your week, relates to the workouts around it and if it’ll set you back, or help move you forward.

Small Daily Doses

Try keeping your volumes lower in each sport while training each sport more regularly throughout the week. Instead of doing three, 3000 yd swim workouts, try doing four or five 2000 yd workouts a week. Or instead of riding your bike 3 days a week, ride 5 days a week for shorter distances while making your quality days even higher quality. I know of these cool indoor workout videos called Spinervals, designed specifically for this purpose. ;)

Intensity Counts… but not Too Much

You don’t have to obliterate yourself every time you do an interval session! In fact, the rule of thumb is to always finish a quality workout feeling as if you could do a little more. Remember… think about how today’s workout will affect tomorrow’s workout (or the workout later in the day!).

Pay Attention to the Details

In addition to training smart, you need to focus on the other areas of your life that have a direct impact on your performance (and overall health) including your nutrition, recovery and your mental well-being. By training with less overall volume and not flogging yourself constantly, you’ll find that your mind is clearer for other important things in your life, and your body won’t be tetering on the edge of breakdown all of the time.

Discipline Yourself to Go Easy

Aerobic training is not hard training, yet it’s probably the most important training sessions you’ll do as an Ironman athlete. As a coach, the hardest part of my job is convincing a serious athlete to slow down! Avoid allowing every aerobic workout becoming a race pace session somewhere in the “gray zone” and don't overdo the hard intervals.  This is counterproductive in developing your aerobic base for long term gains! 

Train Year Round

After your season is over, give yourself a break of a few weeks. When it’s over, jump back on the horse and start building your base again. Focus on technique in the area’s where it’s needed most. Near the start of your season, a training camp where you spend 4-7 days of higher volume training is a good idea to give you a 1-2% boost in aerobic capacity and set the tone for the rest of your season.

Have a well conceived Plan

Your Ironman training cycle should include a block of higher volume training sometime during the 8-weeks leading up to race day. Workouts don't need to be epic, but a little longer than your normal workloads. You'd be amazed of what even 3-4, 2-3 hr days in a row of aerobic paced riding can do for your fitness. Again, consider how one day rolls into the next and impacts recovery.

Know Thyself

Dial in your paces and your zones. Know what makes you tick through using a HR monitor or powermeter to maximize the purpose of each session. In Kona this year, I knew that I had to race within myself to achieve my goals and I leveraged my HR monitor as my personal tachometer as a result of training consistently with it... hitting my splits close to perfection on the bike and the run while staying within my engine size and not needing medical attention at the finish line.

Train Indoors More

Boring, yes. Effective, absolutely! That hour on the trainer or 40 minutes on the treadmill will force you to focus on what needs to be accomplished during that particular workout session. Even here in sunny Tucson, I spend 2-3 days indoors on the bike and/or treadmill doing short, focused workouts. It's amazing how fit you can become with a 45 minute trainer ride followed by a 30 minute treadmill run!

Be clear, if you commit to Ironman training as your second job (or first job) and put in the big work, you will go a little faster... probably about 3-5%, and that might be what you're looking for. However, I'm convinced that you can get pretty darn close to your Ironman potential (and meet your short course potential) while maintaining some balance with an approach that emphasizes smart training that's consistent and that maintains your health and life balance. Good luck and feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.

Train smart,

Coach Troy