Coaching Ironman Athletes

Gordo Byrn, November 2004


The purpose of this article is to offer you, the coach, some ideas on how to most effectively assist your athletes in achieving their long course racing goals.  Before we begin, it is worth remembering that there is no “one way” to approach an ultradistance triathlon.  There is no single answer, no magic protocol and no easy way.


By attending this course, you are taking a pro-active step in furthering your knowledge and your ability to effectively coach your clients.  However, keep in mind that there is no faster way to learn about ironman-distance racing than to sign-up, train and race your own event.  If you plan on making a career out of helping athletes go long, then it’s a necessary investment in your further education.


Defining the Event

For all but the fastest elite competitors, an ironman-distance race is a nine- to seventeen-hour aerobic time trial where the average intensity sustained will be 20 beats (or more) below threshold[1] heart rates.


Racing long requires superior endurance, aerobic economy, process management and arousal control.  In seeking to create the optimum training program, these four critical success factors (CSFs) should be foremost in the coach’s mind.


I’ll get into the implications of each of the CSFs later.  First, let’s simply define them in terms of the race.






In short… get fit, get efficient, create a plan and stick with it. 


Getting it right is far more difficult than it seems and a key reason why intelligent athletes often appear to “race above their fitness” on game day.


What’s Optimal?

The word “optimal” comes up a lot when I discuss training protocols for long course racing.  I often speak of the optimal strategy for an athlete.  As coaches, each season, training cycle, and workout provides us with an opportunity to optimize our clients’ training.


But what’s optimal?


I wish I could tell you.  I know that many athletes wish that we could simply hand over a piece of paper that tells them everything that they need to know/do in order to achieve their goals.  However, coaching and the human body don’t really work like that.  There’s a lot of grey in the real world.


I have learned several lessons watching, coaching and participating in our sport. I’ll offer you my personal Top Ten list:


  1. Running fitness is meaningless if an athlete arrives in second transition too tired to use it.  Ironman-distance race performance builds off superior cycling fitness.


  1. There’s nothing “fast” about ironman-distance racing.  The highest intensity sessions are the least specific in an athlete’s program.  Inappropriate intensity is also responsible for most nutritional, recovery and biomechanical breakdowns.


  1. All the fitness in the world is useless if an athlete is sick or injured on race day.  Arriving at the race site fit, fresh and focused is worth a lot when the going gets tough.


  1. Athletic goals need to sit in harmony with life goals and the reality of an athlete’s life situation.  It only takes a little too much (volume, intensity, fatigue) to tip an athlete over the edge.  There is no worse feeling than falling apart two weeks out from a goal race after a whole season of diligent preparation


  1. There is no easy way – the achievement of meaningful goals requires sustained, consistent effort over an extended period of time.


  1. Athletes require constant reassurance that it’s OK to rest.  The single greatest item that most age-group athletes can add to their program is an extra hour of sleep every night.


  1. Intensity cannot substitute for volume.  We are training for a nine to seventeen hour event.


  1. The best indicator of likely race performance is consistency of preparation over the eight months prior to an athlete’s A-priority event.  Continuous progress requires consistent dedication.


  1. An athlete’s year should be based around a straightforward week structure that the athlete can repeat 40 out of 50 weeks without undue stress on his non-triathlon commitments.


  1. When faced with a dilemma between Base or Build – choose Base.


While a thorough understanding of sports science and physiology is an essential part of the coaches training, this must be supplemented by your actual experience of the needs and limiters of your athletes.  In a sport as young as our own, be wary of “experts” that lack direct experience helping athletes achieve the goals they are advising on.


Creating Superior Endurance

There are many different ways to determine training intensity zones (lactate testing – see Hellemans[2], best average time trial average heart rate and/or power – see Friel/Byrn[3]).


For long course training, my view is that the easiest and most effective method is to apply subjective perception.  Start training at an easy pace and slowly increase the intensity of exercises.  The bottom of the steady zone can be determined by noting the heart rate where the first deepening of breath is felt.  This deepening is caused by the body
attempting to rid itself of carbon dioxide caused by the release of hydrogen ions into the blood when lactate first begins to accumulate.  This point is also referred to as aerobic threshold (AeT), ventilatory threshold (VT or VT1), the bottom of the aerobic zone (Friel Heart Rate Zone Two), and a range of other terms. 


So long as we know what we are seeking, I prefer not to debate the appropriate terminology.  For the rest of this section, I’ll define this point simply as “AeT” or “aerobic threshold”.  If you prefer another term for this physiological marker then just follow along making the appropriate adjustment as you read.


I define the point of deepening is the bottom range of an athlete’s aerobic zone (what I like to call steady, what Joe Friel would call Zone Two).  The top of this aerobic zone can be estimated by adding 10 beats per minute to the bottom figure.  Zones can be cross checked using the full range of testing protocols but this method seems to work just fine for long course training.


When I first started training (and coaching) my goal was to constantly drive threshold[4] pace upwards.  My thinking (shared by many) was that increases in threshold pace/power would result in improved long course race performance.  This “top down” approach to fitness is popular as it can be quite time-effective.  However, I believe that it approaches performance backwards.  We’ve all heard the phrase, “train slow, race slow” but I think that many fail to realize that a well-paced ironman-distance race is, in VO2 Max terms, fairly “slow”.


While an appropriate training protocol will lead to improved threshold pace/power, it is a result, not a key target.  Higher intensity training should be structured to enhance race specific power, pace and endurance – in other words – AeT power/pace and AeT endurance.


Implications and ideas:




The Basic Week

Ask your athlete to outline a low stress, harmonious training week that can be completed 40 out of 52 weeks of the year.  The amount of training time that you see in this week is what you’ve got to work with.  In order to maximize consistency, training volume needs to be built bottom up for best results.  To do otherwise, might work for a few weeks but eventually reality (or divorce) will encroach on training performance.


From time-to-time you can insert a stretch week to challenge the athlete but the bulk of the athlete’s training will likely be done within the limits of the Basic Week.  Ideas:



Remind your athletes that getting tired is the point of training and fatigue them with aerobic training.  When they are tired use total rest (best for novices) and active recovery/skills work (best for elites and experienced athletes) for restoration purposes.


Don’t underestimate their recovery needs as they will need to be quite fit to handle a lot of aerobic volume.  It sounds easy but heading out and riding a focused three or four hours in our aerobic zone is one heck of a tough session.  Many athletes will need to start with primarily easy pace and 15-20 minutes blocks of steady work inserted into their endurance sessions.


You’ll get a lot of comment from your athletes wondering… “how am I going to get fast if I only tool around in my aerobic zone”?  My athletes express this all the time during the winter and spring.  One of your jobs will be to (compassionately) break it to them that they aren’t fast.  However, the good news is that neither is an well-paced ironman-distance race. 


I like to use low-priority and shorter distance races for higher intensity training.  With my experienced athletes, I also supplement the steady-steady training with sport-specific muscular endurance work that is done “one gear up” from goal race effort – a half-ironman-distance race being an example of a tough race specific muscular endurance session for an experienced long course athlete.


While a significant amount of high intensity training is not recommended, I recommend that you schedule quickness training. These sessions include strides, spin-ups and other technique focused work that will build quickness/economy while not generating high levels of fatigue (See Friel/Byrn).


The Benefits of Change

While the previous sections discussed the benefits of stability in training approach and structure, inserting “change” into an athlete’s program is necessary for mental freshness and ensuring continuous adaptation. 


Here are some ideas for how you can incorporate change into your athletes’ programs:





Maintaining a Task Orientation[5]

Probably the single greatest mental skill that separates successful athletes for their peers is the ability to maintain a task orientation in their training, racing and everyday lives.  Athletes with strong mental skills spend their time focusing on items that are within their control and relevant to the achievement of their goals.


It is worth remembering that in a long distance race the following are outside of our control:


Encourage your athletes to make every effort to be informed about the uncontrollables but spend no energy in seeking to change them.  Instead have them focus on managing the items that are within their control:


Every race, every session, every day provides us with an opportunity to practice maintaining a task orientation and avoiding the temptation to waste time/energy on the uncontrollables in our lives.


Defining Success

As coaches we tend to pass our own filters, biases and “issues” along to our athletes.  Do we maintain a task orientation in our coaching?  Do we provide our athletes with the resources and support they need to focus on the controllables in their lives?  It’s worth considering because the attitude that we bring to our athletes will have a large impact on their approach to the sport.


Athletes will typically quit/fold/crack when their expected outcome strays too far from their primary goals.  For this reason, I’ve found it quite useful to focus them on a primary goal of “executing to the best of my ability given the conditions prevailing at the time”. 


Many athletes that set highly challenging quantitative goals find themselves mentally beaten down by their perceived inability to meet these self (or coach) imposed targets.  In fact, the stress that many athletes experience prior to a key workout or race is directly associated with self imposed targets, which are often based on factors that we cannot control – time splits and relative performance being the most common.


So much energy is wasted during race week by mentally feeding endless what-if scenarios.  For athletes that find themselves caught in this trap, have them write down each concern and develop a plan for addressing it.  In some cases the only course of action might be “accept that it could happen”.


Workout Ideas and Sport Specific Philosophy

This article isn’t intended as a how-to-manual for ironman-distance racing.  However, no coaching presentation would be complete without sharing a few ideas on actual sessions.


For these key workouts, I’ve used race distance efforts to define goal intensity – this enables athletes and coaches of all abilities to automatically adjust for their current fitness level.  If you make an error with these sessions then I would recommend that you do them “too easy” when you start.  Nearly everyone overestimates goal intensity early in a race or training session.


Sport specific skills will be dealt with elsewhere in this manual.  So I’ll focus on a few key concepts and sessions that I’ve found useful.



Triathletes rarely need encouragement to swim 50s and 100s quickly on long rest.  Where they need encouragement is on the challenging, longer main sets.  Here are a few of my favorites[6].


  1. 4K Aerobic Swim
    • swim the entire set using three-stroke breathing
    • depending on skill level, swim the distance continuous or broken
    • note total time to complete the set
    • builds race specific endurance and confidence about ability to complete the swim


  1. 4x 750-1000 on 20-30s RI

§         choose the interval distance based on duration desired and athlete ability

§         pattern is:

o       build by quarters to half-ironman distance race (HIM) effort;

o       negative split with the first half at ironman-distance race (IM) effort and the second half at HIM effort;

o       build by quarters to Olympic Distance (Oly) effort; and

o       build by quarters to best effort[7].

§         athlete should descend the workout with the fastest interval being the final one

§         teaches pace control, pace judgment and builds race specific endurance


  1. 5x 400 on 10s RI

§         start at easy pace and make each swim faster

§         final swim should be best average pace for the distance (very fast effort)

§         teaches pace judgment and assists coach with determining appropriate steady-state swim pacing


  1. 8x 300 or 400

§         send off interval is:

o       1 to 4 – Base; Base -10s; Base -20s; Base -30s;

o       no extra rest before #5;

o       5 to 8 – Base +10s; Base -10s; Base -30s; Base -50s

§         Set the Base so that #4 is a “barely make it” split, a strong effort that results in less than five seconds rest.  That leaves #5 as a recovery swim and #6 as a steady swim.

§         Athletes should swim so that they get no more than 10s rest on the intervals.  The goal is pace management to get through the workout.

§         When the athlete makes interval #8, reduce all send offs by 5s the next time.


All of the above swims are freestyle workouts. 


I encourage all my athletes to work towards learning all four strokes as well as flip turns.  I also discourage the use of swim gear for important and benchmark main sets. 


Finally, I believe that nearly all endurance swimming should be done using three stroke breathing.  It is the fastest way I know to improve a triathlete’s balance, relaxation and swimming economy.


There can be a lot of resistance on these points (no doubt some of you are shaking your heads right now!) but, over time, your athletes will see the benefits of using this approach to swimming.



The most common performance limiter for ironman-distance athletes is steady-state cycling endurance, defined as the ability to sustain goal race intensity in flat terrain.  I’ve been fortunate to train under (and alongside) a number of our sport’s finest athletes and coaches.  While the structure of their favorite workouts is variable, the goals of their key workouts are remarkably consistent. 


Cycling is the (biomechanically) safest place for an athlete to build the endurance required to complete the overall race duration.


The overall cycling program should provide the majority of the athlete’s endurance training as well as prepare the athlete for completion of two to four race simulation rides.  These race simulation rides will take place towards the end of the general preparation phase and during the specific preparation phase of an athlete’s season.


Race simulation rides provide an excellent opportunity to refine the key skills of pace selection, pace control, hydration and nutrition.  Most athletes will find that their perception of an appropriate goal race effort needs to be adjusted downwards.  It is far better to discover this in training than six hours into an ironman-distance race.


These workouts are best completed in the order listed.  Ensure that the athlete has learned the “lessons”, and fully absorbed the training benefit, of each workout before progressing.  These workouts are challenging and most athletes will require recovery on par with a C-priority race following their completion.


When reviewing workout data you will likely find that nearly all athletes significantly over-estimate goal race intensity.  A short run off the bike can be useful to drive home the potential impact on the marathon from improper early bike pacing.


The main sets at the end of the workouts are designed to: challenge the athlete when fatigued; give confidence for early pace control; and provide the athlete with power/pace/RPE information on which they can base their race day efforts.


Workout A

Ride the shorter of: anticipated bike leg duration; and six hours. 

Split the ride into thirds (by time):

§         ride the first third slightly easier than goal race effort;

§         ride the middle third at goal race effort; and

§         ride the final third at slightly higher than goal race effort.


Workout B

Same structure as Workout A, except split the session for distance and ride between 100 and 120 miles.

Middle- and back-of-pack athletes should exercise caution when riding longer than 100 miles.


Workout C

Ride four to five hours

Until the start of the main sets ride easier than goal race effort.

There are three main sets:

§         Three hours prior to workout completion ride 40 minutes aerobars only in flat to rolling terrain;

§         Two hours prior to workout completion ride three cycles of 12 minutes IM effort and 3 minutes HIM effort – do the second cycle standing; and

§         One hour prior to workout completion ride 30-40 minutes just above HIM effort.


Workout D

Ride four to five hours

There are three main sets:

§         After a one hour warm-up ride a measured course at goal race effort – aim for a course that will take approximately 40 minutes to complete (note average HR, power, speed and RPE);

§         Between the first and second main sets ride easier than goal race effort;

§         Two hours prior to workout completion complete 10x5 minutes on 30s RI.  Aim for an effort slightly more intense than goal race effort; and

§         One hour prior to workout completion repeat the measured course at goal race effort – note changes in average HR, power, speed and RPE.


Big Gear Training

Big Gear Training is a safe and effective way for athletes of all abilities to build TT-specific muscular endurance.


Within a long ride, an aerobic ride or as a specific session in itself, athletes can insert this type of training.


Duration – the total main set (work and rest) is typically 20-60 minutes


Intensity – Capped at the average heart rate for the bike leg of a HIM triathlon.  For well trained athletes this will be 5-10 bpm below threshold heart rate.  For novices, typically about 15 bpm below threshold.  These HRs are ceilings, not targets.  The session goal is to generate muscular, rather than aerobic, fatigue.


Power – For athletes with access to power, I don’t prescribe power targets but find that the right workout intensity results from average wattage slightly over HIM average watts.


Work intervals – typically blocks of 5-8 minutes duration.  More experienced athletes can do blocks up to 20 minutes duration but this isn’t required.


Rest intervals – most athletes will perform best with rest intervals equal to about 25% of the work interval.


Position – the bulk of the work intervals should be done in TT position.  However, changing position (standing/climbing) can be useful for variation and if rolling terrain is used.


Cadence – typically 20-25 rpm below normal TT cadence.  This is generally, in the range of 60-65 rpm.  With my elites we will do some work in the <60 rpm range, however, we need to watch this because it can place a significant strain on the knees.


Terrain – flat to slightly upward sloping (1-2% grade) is most effective for athletes that are new to this type of training.  Experienced athletes will benefit from performing this training in rollers as well as up moderate grades (3-5%).


Frequency – depends on the rest of the athletes program.  During the general preparation phase, I’ll schedule one Big Gear workout per week and include a Big Gear set towards the end of most long rides.


Technique – athletes should aim for smooth circles and try to feel the full range of their pedal stroke.


With your mid pack and novice athletes, guide them avoid tempo training on these sessions.  It’s very easy for them to generate quite a bit of fatigue if they end up riding tempo, hard tempo or threshold effort with these intervals.  The goal is simply to enhance their TT-specific muscular endurance.  For most of these athletes, training in their steady zone will be sufficient to achieve the desired adaptations.


The Role of Hills

With my athletes, I like to schedule their second longest ride of the week to include longer aerobic climbs.  In a long course triathlon, different from a road race, the goal is to get over the climbs as efficiently as possible.  For this reason, I favor longer steady efforts over shorter threshold and super-threshold efforts.


My favorite structure for longer hill climbing is one that I learned from Dave Scott this past summer.  Within a main set of 30 to 75 minutes, insert continuous three minute cycles of: standing 60 rpm; seated 75 rpm; then seated 90 rpm.


Start with a steady effort (have patience) and build the second half of main set to mod-hard (about 5-12 bpm under threshold).  This is only a moderate intensity.  Don’t ride faster/harder as it will change the nature of the session and prolong recover.  At times, terrain could make the cadence targets difficult.  In that case, seek to modify cadences based on terrain.  The key is variation, not the three-minute cycle.


Advanced riders can (after 3-6 sessions) insert some 90s periods where heart rate is built up to threshold.

Run Training

Training for the run leg of an ironman-distance race is very different from traditional marathon training.  A review of the run splits at any long course race will show that most athletes are operating far, far below their open run fitness.  In fact, most athletes average in-race paces that are slower than their ‘easy’ run pace in training.


Coaches should consider:


What are the key factors that can derail an athlete’s run leg?


The two main reasons for marathon problems are improper early race pacing and an overall endurance limiter.  Outstanding run splits are achieved by a training protocol, and race strategy, that keeps the following in mind:






A well paced ironman-distance race will nearly always be characterized by the athlete reporting that they could have ridden harder. 


Bear in mind that the purpose of the taper/freshening/peak period is to enable the athlete to run a marathon after a sane bike leg, not to enable bike performance above that which was achieved in training.


Given that most our athletes come to us with sufficient ‘speed’ to achieve their run goals, the optimal training protocol will give them the overall endurance, durability and mental toughness to hold an ‘easy’ training pace on race day.


So what’s the optimal protocol?  I like to keep it simple:







Once your athlete is coping with their run frequency and the rest of their training plan, you can creep the overall steady-state running volume up. 


The next step after that is some faster work but that's pretty elite stuff.  Most athletes in our sport are running so far below their existing aerobic run fitness that we are really looking to overall endurance (best trained on the bike) and durability (best trained with frequency).


Big Day Training

Big Day Training is an option for you to consider once your athletes have built the endurance necessary to complete their key swim, bike and run sessions.  For an age-grouper this is the closest simulation to what they will experience on race day.


Workout Structure




Once your athletes get to the point that this is easy then you can insert some steady-state and muscular endurance main sets into the back half of each session.  The run leg should always be easy pace.  If you want to schedule a challenging run then the following day is the earliest that I would recommend.  Even then, that type of scheduling is only appropriate for your most experienced and durable athletes.  This type of workout addresses the key limiters of most IM athletes – base endurance and early workout/race pacing.


A common mistake with this type of training is to schedule a monster day that ends up compromising the key workouts in the following week.  Watch for the trap of massive increases in intensity or volume.  If consistency is compromised then an athlete will fail to get the benefit from their hard work.  The overall goal should be to maintain consistent training on a daily basis for a long time.


Elite and AG Considerations

For your elite and top AG athletes, you can consider a Big Day that is structured with a challenging swim session (4,000 to 6,000 yards or meters) before their usual long ride.  Combining that with an easy run before dinner is how I personally structure my key endurance day each week.


Big Week Training (BWT)

My coach (Scott Molina) and I are reasonably well-known for being willing to extend ourselves in training.  I have logged many high volume (>40 hour) weeks along the way to reducing my IM personal best to 8:29.


My own approach to BWT isn’t relevant to the athletes that you will coaching – they simply don’t have the time or recovery ability to absorb the extreme levels of volume that an experienced elite can handle.  However, we can learn from an elite approach and apply these lessons to athletes that are seeking to jump start their fitness and move through plateaus.


The most important variable for manipulation is workout frequency.  This is the safest way to increase athlete volume as we give their bodies a greater chance to recover from each session. So, within a Big Week, the first goal is to schedule five sessions per week in a sport.  Most athletes will show the greatest benefit from focusing their BWT primarily on the bike.


Once an athlete has been able to safely train 5x per week in a sport then you can start to insert other types of BWT.  Ideas:



Each training cycle should last 4-12 days and you will need to allow at least one easy day for each two BWT days.  Easy doesn’t mean doing nothing.  Easy means a clear recovery focus, low HR training and lots of sleep.


Experienced, time flexible athletes can increase swim and bike volume by up to 100%, however, this is risky and carries a material risk of overuse injuries.  The intelligent athlete pushes their boundaries slowly and consistently.


Maintain workout frequency in all sports.  If a bike-focus cycle is scheduled then keep running and swimming.  It is better to cut back a bit on your BWT sport and maintain your other sports.  This is what I call Big Balanced.


Also remember that when athletes increase training stress, they must increase their recovery focus proportionately.   Sleep, stretching, massage and nutritional quality are key focus areas when athletes extend themselves in training.

BWT Key Benefits

Mental – by making long training sessions routine and by removing the emotional component of training fatigue, an ironman-distance race becomes far more manageable.  Ultimately, for an athlete to perform at their best, they will need to get to the point where a 110-115 mile steady-state ride is simply “a session”.  To have this ability on race day, an athlete needs to develop superior bike stamina in training.


Economy – while speed skills, drills and technique-focused workouts are useful for building economy.  Top athletes need to train their bodies to operate efficiently for 8-12 hours.  Consistent, long hours of training at close to race effort are the most race specific sessions that athletes will undertake.  Athletes need to train the ability to move efficiently, with good form for many hours – there can be no short cuts.


Approaching Higher Intensity

Be very careful with tempo and higher intensities.  Sustained mod-hard efforts result in extended recovery.  My experience is that each hour of mod-hard (tempo) exercise, likely results in at least three hours of steady training being missed.


When extending an athlete with BWT, keep them focused on their goals. Save the majority of sport-specific muscular endurance work for the specific preparation phase of their season.  Excessive fatigue generated from appropriate BWT will tend to clear in 24-48 hours.  Fatigue generated from excessive mod-hard and hard training can take weeks or months to clear.


Group training when an athlete is extending themselves with volume is particularly risky.  Most specifically, for weaker athletes who struggle to keep up with the stronger athletes.  Part of the lessons of BWT is that we have limits, one of the nice things is that we find that they are nearly always further than we expected.


Final Notes

If you follow the above guidelines then you will be able to make material changes in your physiology while building the mental skills required for success.


Treat minor injuries like your A-race is next week – take action early, things rarely get better on their own when training 4-6 hours every day.


Have your athletes stretch at least 10 minutes after all rides.  Remind them that consistency and recovery are the cornerstones of endurance success.  Compromising either of these will quickly lead to plateaus, burnout or injury.


When pushing volume, build up gradually and remember that athletes doing huge volume have typically spent ten or more years preparing themselves for this type of training.

Common Questions and Issues


Should I run a marathon in training?

In short, no.  For the reasons explained above marathon racing is not directly linked to the key variables required for ultradistance run success.  In addition, the strength and bike training costs of preparing/recovering from the event make it counterproductive for long distance success.


What’s the minimum level of training I need to do in order to complete an ironman-distance triathlon?

I often wonder why an athlete would undertake an ultradistance event if they didn’t have the time or desire to commit to appropriate preparation.  I tend to steer time constrained athletes towards a season that targets two well spaced half-ironman distance races.  These can be successfully trained and raced on a lower volume program.  If the athlete enjoys the training and racing experience then they can build towards the longer distance.  That said, I believe that a consistent training volume in the range of 12-16 hours per week is enough to complete an ironman-distance race.  Some higher volume weeks in the range of 15-18 hours could be used to supplement that basic week structure.


When is the optimal time for my final race prior to an ironman-distance event?

For an athlete with experience over the half ironman distance, seven weeks prior to an A-priority ironman-distance race is the ideal time for a B- or C-priority half-ironman distance event.  This allows adequate recovery from the event as well as time to complete one or two race simulation workouts between the final event and the A-priority race.  Another way to incorporate a half-ironman event is as the first A-priority race of the season, giving coach and athlete a focus for early season training, a chance to practice race day skills and an opportunity for a dry run of race week.


How best to peak for an ultra-endurance event?

Many athletes find the concept of “sharpening” prior to an ironman-distance race highly appealing.  It can be tempting to insert one, or a series of, very high intensity workouts and/or race(s) into the final four weeks of training leading into an event.  This is a common mistake made by highly motivated athletes.  In the final weeks leading into an event, the goal should be to focus on the athlete’s critical success factors for IM racing.  For nearly all athletes, these are race simulation workouts that are followed with adequate recovery time.



Peaking and Racing Tips

Some key concepts that I emphasize to my athletes in the weeks prior to their key race of the year:









The Basic Week


For beginning and intermediate athletes








Swim & Core Work



Easiest Day



Longer Run – split from longer ride for better recovery and higher quality training performance

1.5 to 2.25

Taking Mon PM and Tues AM off gives more than 24 hours of rest between sessions



Big Gear Bike with short transition run (T Run)


Lots of T Runs are used to achieve run frequency as well as time management.


Easy or Aerobic Ride with T Run



Easier Day – Aerobic ride can be hills or steady depending on time of year and athlete needs.  Workout intensity is adjusted based on the athlete’s recovery needs.


Strong Strength Session

Open Slot – Easy or Aerobic Training (bike or run) depending on athlete needs and ability.

1.0 to 3.0

Open slot most likely used for additional cycling with experience athletes.


Longer Swim

Aerobic Run


Key non-tri day.  Swim can be done first thing and run can be completed prior to dinner.  This leaves ample time for family and non-tri commitments.


Longer Ride with T Run


3.5 to 6.0

Some muscular soreness possible from the Friday strength session but that’s not a big issue given that the key focus for today is cycling endurance.


Total volume in the week above will range from 13.75 to 19.0 hours. 


For novice athletes, the longest ride and the longest run will not be scheduled in the same week.

The Basic Week


For advanced athletes






Compared to Previous Structure


Swim & Strength Training


1.5 to 2.5



Easy Swim, Spin or Off

Longer Run – split from longer ride for better recovery and higher quality training performance

1.5 to 3.75

Increased aerobic volume



Big Gear Bike with transition run (T Run)

2.5 to 4.0

Increased aerobic volume


Easy or Aerobic Ride

Easy Run

1.5 to 3.0

Sessions are split to enable a slightly longer run without compromising recovery.


Strong Strength Session

Aerobic Brick

1.0 to 3.5



Longer Swim

Aerobic Run

2.25 to 2.75

If the athlete was undertaking some faster running then workout order could be reversed with the faster run work done in the morning.


Longer Ride with T Run


3.5 to 6.0

Experienced athletes could utilize Big Day Training here.


Total volume in the week above will range from 13.75 to 25.5 hours. 


Only the strongest and most experienced agegroup athletes, would be able to tolerate the volume towards the top end of the range.  Even then, that would be a stretch week for any athlete holding down a full-time job.

[1] For the purpose of this discussion, assume that I define “threshold intensity” as a maximum steady state effort across a sixty minute time period.

[2] The Training Intensity Handbook, Dr. John Hellemans, KinEli Publishing.

[3] Going Long, Joe Friel and Gordon Byrn, VeloPress.

[4] Also known as lactate threshold, anaerobic threshold and/or the top of Friel Heart Rate Zone Four.

[5] For more on this topic, please refer to Chapter Eight in my book Going Long.

[6] Thanks to my swim coaches over the years.  These are adaptations (or straight descriptions) of their sessions.

[7] When I schedule fast intervals, I avoid the use of the words “hard”, “very hard” or “max”.  I find that these words carry a connotation that often results in an athlete going one gear up from target.