Author: Raj Chander • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • May 19, 2021
As the name implies, the Ironman triathlon is one of the most difficult physical accomplishments most athletes will ever attempt. Even the shorter versions of the full Ironman triathlon – which involves a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run – can be a big challenge, depending on how long you’ve been participating in all three activities and your fitness experience.
Before attempting a triathlon, you’ll generally want to have experience with shorter events in each individual activity, such as a half-marathon race or a bike event. Even if you consider yourself relatively fit, you should allow at least 4 months to train – ideally longer. It’s not uncommon for triathlon participants to train for 8 to 12 months, especially if it’s their first Ironman.
This article will provide a basic template to train for the race known as a half Ironman, or a 70.3 – a reference to its length, which is exactly half of the “Full” Ironman race of 140.6 miles. Feel free to adjust for a shorter distance, like an Olympic-distance triathlon, sprint triathlon or standard distance triathlon.
Training for an Ironman involves a good chunk of time, typically between 8 to 12 hours per week. Athletes with the time and dedication may train for over 15 hours per week, depending on how close they are to race day.
Because of the significant time investment, it’s best to break up your training into several phases. The first “baseline” phase consists of workouts intended to help you establish a strong physical foundation for your running, swimming and biking abilities. It’s especially important for a beginner who doesn't have a lot of experience with these three activities, or with endurance exercise in general.
In the “build up” phase, you’ll start to add to the foundation you’ve built in the first phase by upping your intensity with extra time and distance at each activity. Finally, in the “peak” phase, you’ll push yourself hardest, getting close to the actual distances you’ll run during your Ironman competition.
Next to each phase, you’ll see a recommendation for a range of weeks to train in that phase before moving on to the next. Some people also add a “tapering” phase right before race day, to preserve their energy and conditioning so they can enter the Ironman in the best possible shape.
The sample plan presented below is divided up into a weekly format. On every day of the week except Monday, you will either run, cycle or swim – sometimes more than one activity. Each phase’s weekly program should be followed for at least three weeks, but feel free to adjust that number up or down based on the provided range or beyond. For example, if you aren’t very experienced with swimming, or you are coming back from a long fitness break, you may want to add an extra week or two in your build up phase.
You can also feel free to adjust the actual distance or time if you find them to be too easy or too challenging. Remember, this plan is just a template: you can and should alter it based on what works for your individual needs.
Tuesday: Run 3 miles, Cycle 45 minutes
Wednesday: Swim 500 meters, Cycle 45 minutes
Thursday: Run 4.5 miles, Cycle 30 minutes
Friday: Swim 750 meters, Run 3 miles
Saturday: Cycle 1 hour
Sunday: Run 4.5 miles
After two weeks on this plan, add roughly one-third to all times and distances. In other words, 45 minutes becomes an hour, 30 minutes becomes 40 minutes, 3 miles becomes 4 miles, etc. It’s okay to round up or down to an even number if necessary. As you increase time and distance, be mindful of your pace – try to keep it as consistent as possible, but you can always break a long run or long bike ride into multiple intervals.
Tuesday: Run 5 miles, Cycle 75 minutes
Wednesday: Swim 1,000 meters, Cycle 75 minutes
Thursday: Run 7.5 miles, Cycle 40 minutes
Friday: Swim 1,250 meters, Run 5 miles
Saturday: Cycle 2 hours
Sunday: Run 8.5 miles
The building phase is when you start to really work on improving your endurance, tempo and cardiovascular threshold. If you weren't very experienced as a swimmer or cyclist before, you should also be developing consistency in your techniques during this phase. People who are experienced triathletes and may have been able to get away with a more improvisational diet during the base phase will likely find they need to start really dialing in their nutrition needs during this part of their plan.
Tuesday: Run 7.5 miles, Cycle 95 minutes
Wednesday: Swim 1,000 meters, Cycle 95 minutes
Thursday: Run 9.5 miles, Cycle 75 minutes
Friday: Swim 1,500 meters, Run 5 miles
Saturday: Cycle 3 hours
Sunday: Run 10 miles
Now things are getting intense! In this phase, you'll be getting close to the Ironman triathlon distance you will be running on race day. Remember, these distances are programmed for a half Ironman distance of 70.3 miles, which consists of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike and a 13.1-mile run. In the peak phase, your longest workouts in each activity get you close to the full distance in each leg of the event. Note that the cycling workouts are programmed for time and not distance – if possible, check your distance after each cycling workout and try to get a better sense of your pace. If you haven't biked at least 35 to 40 miles after your 3-hour cycling workouts, you may need to schedule extra time on the bike to improve your pace.
Depending on how you feel during the peak phase, how long you have until race day, and your level of experience with triathlons, you can add in a taper phase where you reduce your training intensity 30-40% below the peak phase. However, depending on how your body responds to the peak phase, this may not be necessary. Additionally, if you only have a few months or less to prepare for your Ironman, you may want to skip this phase to maximize training efficiency.
No matter what your experience level is or how many triathlons you've done before, here are a few general tips that will improve your results:
Get enough rest. Even for experienced athletes, training at the level of intensity required for an Ironman triathlon takes a real toll on your body. Everyone's sleep requirements are slightly different, but most people require somewhere between 7 and 9 hours to feel rested. While training for an Ironman, you may want to increase that range up to between 8 and 11 hours, if possible.
Nutrition is key. It's critical to fuel your body properly, especially in the later phases of training. Pay particular attention to your daily intake of protein and carbohydrates. Incorporating sports nutrition supplements before, during, and immediately after your training sessions will help ensure you have nutrients to energize, hydrate, adapt, and recover from the demands on your body
Remember your recovery. While most of your attention will probably be focused on activity, downtime matters too – and not just taking days off. To maximize your recovery as well as your training, think about incorporating things like stretching, massages and acupuncture into your routine. If you feel up to it, you can also engage in active recovery, low-intensity cardio programmed mainly to increase blood flow and help your body heal.
Like any other big, challenging accomplishment, completing an Ironman triathlon is possible if you give yourself enough time to prepare and break each phase down into actionable steps. Now that you have a foundation for successfully preparing for an Ironman, you should continue to research to find ways you can adjust your preparation to better meet your individual needs. This will help ensure race day goes smoothly and you can complete all three legs in a way that aligns with your goals – whether that’s a specific time or simply finishing.
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