Crash Coursing The Ironman
Give Me The Fish (GMTF): This is the down and dirty of how I developed my beginners Ironman training plan. While I’m not sure I would recommend it, you can run an Ironman with minimal experience in biking, swimming, or running. And, you can even do it in just 12 weeks. But, if time is a factor, you need to have a solid athletic base, a well-developed plan for training, and be a little nuts.
First Step Is Verbal Commitment
I was sitting in a chow hall in Kuwait most of the way through a deployment with the Marines, and I had just flown in from Bahrain, and I was getting ready to head up to Iraq.
To say that running an Ironman was the farthest thing from my mind is a bit of an understatement. I mean, I didn’t even know how long it was.
Not only was I not focused on an Ironman, I was decidedly distracted thinking about my luggage that was confiscated the day before all because my command decided it would be better to have me fly commercial.
This, of course, resulted in the Bahraini government seizing all of my gear for being military paraphernalia, despite the fact I’m US military and on US military orders. Fun.
So as I sat there eating some surprisingly good food, a couple of Marines I know come over, “Sir, you’ve biked before, right?”
Laughing at the randomness, I tell him “Sure, what’s up?”.
Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Jones proceeds to tell me that he is thinking about buying a bicycle for an Ironman that he wants to run. So, after talking about buying a bicycle, we digressed into him talking about how on the fence he was about a) buying the bicycle and b) running the race.
Mostly because, while he wants to do it, he doesn’t want to do it alone.
So after talking for a little bit and all of the Marines around him were decidedly not going to do it with him, partially because they didn’t want to spend $1000 on an entrance fee (As they said, it is a lot of beer money).
I opened my fat mouth, “Staff Sergeant, if the only reason you’re not going to do it because somebody else isn’t, I’ll do it with you.”
So, there we are in the middle of a desert with no bike and no place to swim and we decided to run an Ironman about 8 months from the day.
3 Months Till Race Day
Throughout the rest of our deployment, and getting back to the United States, I completely forgot about the Ironman I had verbally signed up for.
About 3 months before the race, Staff Sergeant Jones comes to find me in my office (we worked in separate buildings) and asked how my training was going.
I’m sitting there thinking, what training?
Seeing the look on my face he’s like “the ironman”.
That night I immediately start trying to figure out how the f*** I am going to do this. The first step was finding out how long it was.
Turns out, it’s a 2.2-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run.
Developing A Beginners Ironman Training Plan
With all athletic endeavors, it helps to know what you need to achieve.
As the Marines taught me, you always plan backward.
Ironman is an endurance sport. But, it’s not like a marathon with unlimited time and has distinct cutoffs at each phase and distances throughout.
So, what does that mean? It means you have to be faster than the cutoffs
You have 2 hours and 20 minutes for the swim, 8 hours and 10 minutes for the bike, and 6 hours and 30 minutes for the run.
At first glance, you have to not only be good at running, but you need to be decently well prepared for biking and swimming.
But, with limited time, you have 2 options.
- Excel so good at one, you use that to buffer the others.
- Build up your weaknesses.
Unfortunately for me, I have some pretty big weaknesses. Most notably in not even owning a bike, and not remembering the last time I was in a pool.
Those weaknesses were so big, option 1 wasn’t even an option.
It’s Not As Bad As You Think
When you start breaking down the race. It’s not as bad as you think. For the run, you have to hit only 14-15 minutes a mile. And that is assuming you haven’t made up anytime in the previous two exercises.
For the bike, around 14 mph.
And, for the swim, with about 155 lengths in 2.2 miles. That’s about 54 seconds a length.
Unfortunately, there are a bunch of other things you have to account for. With all planning there are things we know, things we don’t know, things we think we know but don’t, and things we know we don’t know. This is especially true when building a beginner Ironman training plan.
So, we have to account for all of that. What does that include? Nutrition, injuries, bicycle breaking, overtraining, undertraining, logistics, weather, mental state, and the list goes on and on.
But, most of this you will naturally just figure out as you go. You can’t overcomplicate it. If you stick to the 5 things below, you will probably be all right.
- Have A Plan: Failing to plan is planning to fail. Most Important.
- Keep Recovery A Priority: You can’t risk injury or setbacks, no time to make it back
- Know Your Nutrition: This not only violates #2, but it will also knock you out of the race.
- Learn Required Skills: If you don’t know how to play, you can’t be in the game.
- Find a mentor, or 2 or 3 or 5: You don’t know what you don’t know.
Principle #1: Have A Plan
Building Out The Plan
If you’re a wannabe amateur Ironman and you have a limited time to prepare, you have to make sure that you cater training to you. In my case that was definitely a beginners Ironman training plan, emphasis on beginner. But to do this, you have to understand the basics.
How hard you push determines how much damage is done. Controlled damage heals faster and stronger. Essentially, the “hardness” is what forces your body to adapt, but it can’t be so hard where it eventually says screw it and just breaks down.
The “hardness”, is made by a combination of volume and intensity.
But volume in endurance sports like an Ironman is based around need. So, the intensity is what you play with, the volume is what the race determines.
Starting with an athletic base and knowing my work capacity. I know I only have about three hard days (70-80% effort) of sustainable training in me weekly, but I can alternate a fourth in every other week. Ex. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I can train hard, but the rest have to be rest days.
An easy way to think about this is using what is called RPE or Rate of perceived exertion. Similar to a doctor asking you want kind of pain do you feel on a scale out of 10. This is a scale of sitting on the couch to barfing on the track.
*Side Note: Effort is a combination of both volume and intensity
There are a lot of ways of determining what you have “in you” in terms of how long you need to recover, but at this point in my life, I just know. Knowing this is key to not violating #2 above (importance of recovery).
I can normally substitute two medium workouts (50-60% effort) for a hard one or 4 easy ones (Less than 30-40% effort).
To make it easier to train I break this down into a point system. If 4 easy days = a hard day. And, I can train 3 hard days in a week before I start looking like I got hit by a bus.
I essentially have 12 points to “spend” in a week. 4 points for a hard day, 2 points for a medium, and 1 point for an easy day.
Easy days are for skills and help with active recovery, but they are mentally exhausting. So, they detract from your ability to train. But they are essential to develop skills you will need for the race (see principle #4).
The reason I break these down like this is that a) I’m simple-minded and b) because my body still has to recover from each event, so every-time I break it down, regardless of if it’s swimming, running, biking, or jumping off a bridge. I have to recover from it. Mentally and physically.
So, how far do we need to run anyway? To figure that out, you have to work backwards.
Working backward from race day, which is a 2.2-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run.
I do volume as percentages of what the distance of the race is. So a week at 20% volume of 112 miles is 22.4 miles for the bike. So if a week is prescribed for 100% then across the entire week I will do 2.2-mile swim, 112-mile run, and 26.2 miles of running and divvy those up across the workouts that week.
For a lot of endurance plans, tapers are typically 3-4 weeks, but for such a short training period, instead, I do what I call a pyramid taper. 4 weeks from race day I did ¾ of an Ironman on a Sunday, with the week coming out to 120% total volume.
I took the next week at 20%, then the next week 60% volume, and then back down to 40% and then nothing besides easy stuff to keep blood flowing the week before.
The percentage of volume by week is based around each event. I then back off from that ¾ Ironman by 5-10% each week, skipping deload weeks (50% of previous total volume). Climbing each week by closer to 10% in the early weeks.
But That’s Impossible
You will probably have noticed that this is not all possible in a week and way more then what I said my body could handle. Enter the transition days.
You can cheat the numbers games by merging workouts.
… wait doesn’t that make it the equivalent of a “very hard” day?
The answer is no.
Putting a medium biking day and medium swimming day or a medium biking day and medium running into one workout, makes the first event behave on your body like a medium day but the second trained like a hard day, with the recovery of just a hard day. The same effect for medium and easy days, except they still recover as medium days (why? I don’t know, it just works).
Same with Lifting and combining it with the others.
This is because the muscle groups used vary enough, that you can cheat a little.
This helps you because you can get an extra workout in, but also because transitioning is a skill in itself that has to be trained.
Principle #2: Recovery
Recovery Is Essential
Now, you are probably wondering how you fit your rest days in. I always separate hard workouts by at least 36 hours. Very hard by 48 hours and preferably 60.
This means, that what time you work out in the day matters just as much as what days you train what.
Easy days can be seen as rest days, even if there are two in the same day. But, they need at least a 12-hour difference.
In my third weeks when I add an extra hard work out in. I need at least 60 hours rest after and I typically don’t lift.
There is one more caveat. Stress still builds up over time. Even with the rules above.
So, I plan an easy weak after my 3rd week, where I cut everything in half or cut it out.
Overtraining is real and can be caused just as much by mental drain as a physical drain.
You will know if you start getting more and more tired, you can’t sleep, you can’t eat and you can’t seem to improve week to week.
This can largely be predicted by checking your heart rate first thing when you get up in the morning.
If you get to a point where you resting heart rate in the morning starts dramatically increasing. What I mean by this, is that you should know what your average resting heart rate is. If you don’t find out. It’s nothing crazy if it swings up or down a little, for me and most people I know have a range of about 7. During endurance training, mine is about 51 to 58. And sometimes will shoot up to 63 following really hard weeks, which is why I always back off after those.
Principle #3: Nutrition
I trained on Keto for the first two months and then switched to carbs for the last.
I recover a hell of a lot better on Keto. But I feel like a God on carbs.
But, either work.
The key is still at least a gram of protein per lb of bodyweight and eat a lot.
I still count calories, because excess calories still make you fat and running makes you more efficient at burning calories (hence why a lot of endurance athletes are fat), and I would rather not get fat.
For Keto, I bring packets of peanut butter I can squeeze in my mouth and bags of nuts to chew on. And that is pretty much it. I take how many calories I think I will burn (there is a formula, but just google a calorie calculator) and then bring a couple of hundred extra.
For carbs, I go straight to sugar. I still bring nuts, but only because sugar gets gross tasting after a while. But, I go for 300 calories an hour in carbs and take in at least 4 grams of protein. This often is a sweet and salty granola bar and then skittles in training. Race day I eat whatever they are serving.
Salt and electrolytes are a big deal. So, I take salt tabs every 45 minutes of training. I didn’t when I first started training, but I felt like crap. After I started taking these, I was golden.
But, just because that works for me, doesn’t mean it will for you, ensure you put in the time to find out your ideal racing fuel.
As you build out your beginners Ironman Training Plan, ensure you factor in days for practicing your nutrition plan. Race day is not the day to do it.
Principle #4: Learn Required Skills
Ironman Is Skill Based Like All Other Sports
There are a lot of skills you have to know to run an Ironman. And while developing your beginners Ironman Training Plan, you need to factor them in.
I mean like actually have time set aside to learn them. If you were prepping over a year, you will just accidentally learn these things. But in 3 months, you need to actively seek out this stuff.
These skills are not only learning how to shift and when to shift on your bike, getting in and out of clips, conducting maintenance (what’s your plan if your chain breaks?), and knowing how to create minimal drag while riding.
*Side Note: Park Tool Youtube videos are awesome for bicycle repairs (see above link).
This also includes your swimming technique, which matters way more than your athletic ability, your running form which can prevent injury, and the all-important skill of transitioning before events.
While all of these things are too much to cover here, and that is by no means the entire list.
I made lists of everything I needed to learn and either YouTube it, asked a buddy or asked a mentor. For some, I would probably find a coach and just ignore their wild-eyed look when you say you are competing in 12 weeks.
Principle #5: Find A Mentor
As mentioned a few times already, there is an endless amount of things you don’t know. Then there is another endless list of things that you don’t know you don’t know.
This is why you find a mentor or coach.
Someone that not only tells you all the stuff that would make your race day blow if you found out in the middle of it (bring at least three extra tubes, when you are exhausted, you might screw up putting one in).
Or someone to fact-check your training. And to ask if it’s normal if your bike starts rapidly wobbling at high speeds.
Even more important to help keep you mentally sane. None of this is easy. It’s a lot of work and a lot of time and can be mind-numbing.
It’s essential to have someone to lean on when you just need to whine.
For all of these reasons and more, find someone to help you, find someone to confide in, and find some that can give you some insider knowledge.
Bringing It All Together
Making Sense Of It All
A beginners ironman training plan starts looking something like this:
*Each week will increase by the appropriate volume.
The volume will be determined based on how far you are from your race. And you can shift around hard days and medium days and cater this to your needs. But all of that effort to get something so simple.
Simple, yet terrifying. Especially when you get back from a hard bike of around 70 miles and realize that’s not even a third of your race distance.
And mind-numbing when you start feeling that you live your entire life in the ocean, at the pool, or on the road.
But, as long as a solid plan is in place and you stick to the 5 principles above, you can do it.