Triathlon Training: Training for Ironman is a 12-month process, not a 12-week training plan

By Lindsay Hyman, CTS Pro Coach

The day after an Ironman race, hundreds – sometimes thousands – of athletes line up or go online to register for the next year's race. That’s right, the race was asking people to commit a year in advance. In today’s last minute, just-in-time world, this is an anomaly. Undoubtedly, many of you don’t even know where you’re going next month, much less next summer. But this advance scheduling is critical to a successful Ironman, because for most competitors—and especially the first-timers—training for Ironman is a 12-month physical and mental challenge.

Over the years of coaching and preparing athletes to be Ironman ready, I’ve seen people take three years to achieve their Ironman dream as they made the steady progression from runner or cyclist to multisport IM finisher. It can be a long haul, people. But that commitment, when it results in success, is also a huge part of the sport’s satisfaction. With that in mind, I wanted to share some of the key, high-level tips I and the other coaches at CTS have gleaned from decades of working with Ironman athletes.  

Step 1: Choose a goal IM race based on your real-world training schedule

During their first year of IM training, my athletes and I look at the entire 12-month calendar and figure out when they’ll have the most time to commit to quality training. Seasonal weather, daylight, family and work commitments and even pool access are all considered into this equation. Once we figure this out, only then will we look at the racing calendar for an IM to enter.

Case in point: The timing of the Coeur d’Alene IM (late June) works well for parents of school-aged children since the most intense and longest training blocks for the race will occur in the spring/late-spring while the kids are in school full-time. And the beginning of summer break will dovetail with the athlete’s tapering period.

For others, summer races with their great weather and long days hold the most appeal. However, others, who live in stifling hot summer climes may choose early spring races to motivate themselves to train through the winter months and then ramp up training during the cool spring months. In the end, figure out when you have the most time to train long and hard for several months first first, then find a race.


Bonus Tip: Give and Learn

If you don’t get into your local Ironman race this year, or the nearest IM’s race date doesn’t jive with your preferred race date, use the race as a learning opportunity. Become a volunteer. It’s a fantastic opportunity for you to scout the race—and if you’ve never done an Ironman, see what you’re in for. You’ll familiarize yourself with the logistics, course and transition layout, and pick up a motivational buzz from seeing the racers pass by.


Step 2: Make your first Ironman a 2-year journey

Before you sign up for the IM of your choice, you’ll want to develop a deep base of experience. And I’m not talking about ripping off an Olympic-distance triathlon and then tackling an Ironman. I’ve found more success in coaching athletes to the finish line of an IM if they work their way up to it over 2-3 years. It takes time for the body to adapt to the new stresses of training without the risk of injury. With a 2-plus year plan, you can set up a steady progression from Olympic to half-Ironman to full Ironman that conditions your body—and your family and work colleagues—to your training regimen and schedule. Of course, some athletes may be able to go from reasonably fit to Ironman-ready in a year. But I urge you to think about your IM as a two-year process at least.

Step 3. Pace your race schedule to grow faster, not just finish

Once you cross the finish line, don’t be surprised at how soon you start thinking about doing another Ironman. The emotional satisfaction is that powerful. My advice, be cautious. One Ironman in a year is difficult, two is very challenging, and three would require a pro-triathlete’s commitment to training and focus (although it can certainly be done, especially by very experienced triathletes). Personally, I’ve found that athletes who strive for balance in their family, career, and training do best by committing to an Ironman every other year. The level of focus required during your Ironman years becomes easier to handle and understand when it’s balanced with a year of reduced training volume. During the alternate years, focus on 70.3 races and work on getting faster. That way, you’ll ideally enter your next Ironman build with the strength and speed to not just finish, but set a new PR.

1 year time line

2 year time line

3 year time line

0 – 6 months

Select and register for your IM race

0 – 6 months

Select your IM race

0 – 6 months

Select your IM race

6 – 12 months

Train and be IM race ready!!

6 – 12 months

Train for a sprint and Olympic race

6 – 12 months

Train for a sprint and Olympic race

 

 

13 – 18 months

Train for a 70.3 race and register for your IM race

13 – 18 months

Train for a 70.3 race

 

 

19 – 24 months

IM race ready!

19 – 24 months

Train and stay focused

 

 

 

 

15 – 30 months

Train for a 70.3 race and register for your IM race

 

 

 

 

31 – 36 months

IM race ready!

Lindsay Hyman is a Pro Level coach with Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. and a certified USAT Coach.  In additional to competing at Ironman distance triathlons, she coaches athletes from first timers to champions in sprint to iron-distance events. 

 

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