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Can I Train for an Ironman in Six Months?

Part One: Couch to Ironman

The short answer is…it depends. As with so many elements of endurance training, preparing for an Ironman isn’t a simple or straightforward endeavor. So much depends upon your training history, the time you have available, and (most importantly) your goals. We’re guessing, though, that since you asked us a direct question, you’d like a direct answer, so we’ll do our best.

We can’t boil the project down completely, though, so we’re going to break our answer into two parts, focusing on untrained athletes (the “couch to Ironman” cadre) and trained athletes, who have put in a few years of endurance training, but may not have been working out consistently in the last few months. First, however, we need to talk about the biggest limiting factor for both groups: the heart.

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Why Focus on the Heart?

The heart can tell us a lot about training

As we talked about over here, training with power gives us a quick and fairly accurate way to quantify effort. What power doesn’t give us, though, is an idea of what’s happening in your body during exercise. Looking into your anatomy doesn’t require an X-ray machine, though—we can use your heart rate monitor (HRM). With the rise of power meters, heart rate monitors have fallen away somewhat as a must-have tool for tracking training, but we believe they are crucial. A heart rate monitor can give you insight into not only effort, but fatigue, hydration, sickness, response to heat, and the adequacy of your workout fueling.

It will help make your journey as effective as possible

Whoa! That is one powerful device, so avoid the HRM at your own peril. The reason we want you to use a heart rate monitor is that it will really help you track your journey from couch to Ironman effectively, and if you’re in the second more highly-trained group, it can help optimize your training.
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Couch to Ironman

We applaud you!

We have to hand it to you: you’re the enthusiastic type. Deciding to eschew the normal buildup to long-distance Ironman, you’ve said “I’ve got this” and signed up for your first Ironman (maybe you’re one of those whose first Ironman is also her first triathlon?). Fear or overconfidence may have followed that registration, but either way, we’re here for you. In many ways, going couch to Ironman is the simpler of the two groups, as long as you’re willing to flex a bit with your goals.

The goal is to finish

We’re sorry to tell you this, but you aren’t going to be setting any kind of records in your first Ironman, especially if you’re coming at this project with little sport in your background. Your goal has to be “finish,” and not much more. Many athletes say “I’d like to run the whole marathon,” and while this is possible, it’s unlikely, given the time you’ve allotted to prepare for the race. But don’t despair! We have some ideas that could get you there.

Training: More of Less

Start at a lower intensity

What? What in the world does that mean? Yeah, it’s an odd idea, but here’s the gist of it: you need to stimulate your heart as much as possible, consistently as possible, over the next 23 weeks (we’ll give you a week to sharpen up for the event), at a lower intensity than you may think you need. The untrained heart, even as its stroke rate (the number of beats per minute) climbs, doesn’t pump more blood above a certain plateau. We could get into the science weeds on this one, so you’re going to have to take our word for it a bit.

Your heart needs to be trained

The takeaway, though? You need to change your heart from an untrained heart to a trained heart, plain and simple. How do we do this? We accomplish this goal by getting you as much time as is possible with a somewhat elevated heart rate. On the other hand, we need to make sure you don’t get injured or burnt out, and we know that you’re very enthusiastic about Ironman. Patience, young Jedi. Improving at long-distance endurance events takes years, not months, but the goal here isn’t improvement, it’s completion, so we hope you’re OK with that. What is “somewhat elevated?” That’s a great question, and you’ll notice the terms we’re using are somewhat vague. Heart rates vary between individuals, so we can’t give you exact numbers, but we can give you some guidelines based on your own sense of effort.

The “time-crunched athlete” approach doesn’t work

Many new endurance athletes figure that higher intensities are better, imagining that if we want to accumulate heart beats, the best way to do that is to cram more of them into the units of time we have available. That way of thinking has given rise to the “time-crunched athlete” approach, and we’re sorry to say that it ignores a crucial component: fatigue and injury. Simply training hard all the time will have excellent results…for a few weeks.

After that, you may see your heart rates drop at intensities that were previously doable, and injury on the running side is certainly possible (probable, actually). So what’s the best way to condition your heart for this event without getting hurt? Training at low-to-moderate intensities and building your volume over time. We’re sorry to say there are no shortcuts, and since you signed up for a race only six months out we know you’d love a shortcut! Don’t despair, though, this whole thing is still possible.
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Build a Robust Base

Training for three sports

Triathlon’s multi-sport nature poses its biggest challenge and biggest gift. On the other hand, though, the difference in training type (swimming versus cycling versus running) allows different tissues to work while others “rest.” So for the first four months (yup, you read that right) your goal is simply to accrue as much time as you can at low-to-moderate intensities.

What is low-to-moderate? You should, while training, be able to hear your breathing, and you could hold a conversation with someone. Remember that a conversation means the other person gets to talk (an important thing to remember for athletes!), so we don’t mean you should be able to recite The Gettysburg Address while riding. On a scale of 1-10, moderate is right around a five, and if you’re using the better 6-20 scale of perceived exertion (RPE), moderate hangs out in the 12-14 out of 20 range.

Training breakdown

We suggest breaking your training into the following rough percentages:

  • Swim 20%
  • Bike 50%
  • Run 25%
  • Strength (mostly core work, stability work, and mobility work) 5%

If you’re truly untrained, you really need to start slowly but build consistently. That means being careful with any “high intensity” sessions. If you enjoy going quickly, go ahead and let loose for one session per discipline per week, but make sure it’s an interval session, and not a long and hard bike, run, or swim. At this point in your training, you’re going to see a large increase in ability through moderate training, and intensity can easily leave you fatigued (or worse, injured).

Weeks one through four: seven to nine hours of training per week, broken into three swims, three rides, three runs, and one strength session.
If we apply the percentages above, that means you’ll be swimming 84-108 minutes over three sessions, running 105-135 minutes over three sessions, and riding 210-270 minutes over three sessions. Your strength session is just 21-27 minutes of core work once per week.

Weeks five through eight: eight to ten hours of training per week, broken into three swims, three rides, three runs, and one strength session.
Apply the same percentages we did for weeks 1-4 to arrive at your training volume per sport per week.

Weeks nine through twelve: nine to eleven hours of training per week, broken into three swims, three rides, three runs, and one strength session.
Apply the same percentages we did for weeks 1-4 to arrive at your training volume per sport per week.

Weeks thirteen through sixteen: ten to twelve hours of training per week, broken into three swims, three rides, three runs, and one strength session.
Apply the same percentages we did for weeks 1-4 to arrive at your training volume per sport per week.

Each week should have one long ride that comprises about half of your weekly volume (so during week one, that long ride should be 105-135 minutes long) and one long run that isn’t more than 40% of your weekly volume (so that first week the long run is 42-54 minutes long).
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Consistency is King

What? You’re saying. That doesn’t look like enough training time. We recognize that if your event is going to be 12-17 hours long, this volume may not look or sound like the hours you’ve heard other athletes tossing around haphazardly. Upon closer inspection, though, you’ll realize we haven’t given you any “recovery weeks.” Since you’re a little time crunched at six months (normally, we’d suggest three years to build up to an Ironman), we’ve traded away high intensity (and the resulting need for rest) for consistent weeks of building volume.

Be as consistent as possible, but don’t take it too far


We’re aiming for a heart adaptation to build your fitness, and that takes time and regular stimulus. We’re sorry to say, but you just don’t have time for dedicated rest weeks! That’s the reason why we told you to be very, very careful with your high intensity work—it’s simply too tiring, and you can’t afford the layoff. Don’t take this too far, though—if you’re feeling totally blasted, and any of the following areas of your life are displaying red flags, you need to rest a bit.

  • Diet — is your appetite normal? If it’s suppressed or out of control, you may need some rest
  • Sleep — are you getting good, regular sleep? If you’re having trouble getting down, staying down, or getting at least 49 hours per week, you may need some rest
  • Mood — as the saying goes, “if everyone you meet is a jerk, then you’re the jerk,” then you may need some rest
  • Stress — are you feeling overwhelmed at work? Home? In your family relationships? In your training? Stress will eat away at your recovery and your ability to absorb your training

The takeaway here? You must avoid anything that is going to challenge your consistency, and if that means taking a few days off in order to save a few weeks (getting sick is not an option), you should do it. Your friends and family will thank you for it.

The Final Approach

It’s time to switch it up

As you approach the race, it is time to differentiate your efforts a bit, while still building volume. In the final eight weeks, you’ll get two rest weeks: one at 20 weeks and one at 24 (race week). You’ll continue to build your volume, but we’ll introduce two new styles of training: the Ironman Tempo workout, and the VO2max Interval. These two will help get your body acclimated to Ironman intensity, and push your fitness even higher, respectively.

It’s also time to add some runs off the bike, if you haven’t done so already. Those can happen any time, and we suggest short runs off the bike. Long runs off the bike may make you think you’re doing a good job, but it usually makes for a dread-heavy ride and a crappy run.

Weeks 17-19: twelve to fourteen hours of training per week, broken into three swims, four rides, three runs, and one strength session.
  • Swim = three sessions of 48-56 minutes each
  • Bike = three sessions of 60-70 minutes each, and one long ride of 180-210 minutes
    • One bike session should include about 15 minutes of “extremely hard work” broken into intervals of at least two minutes in length
    • Your long ride should be done at an intensity that feels like Ironman intensity (moderate building to moderate-hard by the end)
  • Run = two sessions of 48-63 minutes each, and one long run of 72-84 minutes
    • One run session should include 15 minutes of “extremely hard work” broken into intervals of at least two minutes in length
    • Your long run should be done at an intensity that feels like Ironman intensity (moderate building to moderate-hard by the end)
  • Strength = 1-2 sessions of core and mobility work of 25-30 minutes each

Week 20: six to seven hours of training, all done at an easy effort, broken into two swims, two rides, two runs, and one stretching session

Weeks 21-23: ten to twelve hours of training per week, broken into four swims, three rides, three runs, and one strength session
  • Swim volume goes up to 25%, while run volume should come down to 20%
  • Other than that, calculate your training time as we’ve been doing
  • Continue the VO2max and Ironman tempo work in both the bike and run

  • Week 24: RACE WEEK. 3-5 hours of training, all done at an easy effort, broken into two swims, two rides, two runs, and one stretching session
    • Include some race pace work this week, but no more than 30-60 total minutes, primarily on the bike

Race Day

It’s time to show off your training

We hope you’ve read our articles on training and racing nutrition, as well as our piece on recovery nutrition. Those pieces will help you execute in the other areas crucial to triathlon success. On race day, we’d urge you to remember that an Ironman is simply a long workout, and you’ve done a lot of working out over the past six months! Swim, bike, and run well within your abilities—you should never be gasping all day. On the run, we suggest running for nine minutes and walking briskly for one. The run-walk method is a good one that has worked for athletes of all abilities, from beginner to professional. Stay hydrated, wear your sunblock, and don’t forget to have fun!

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