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Can I Train for an Ironman in Six Months?

Part Two: Foundation to Performance

Last time, we talked about a couch to Ironman plan, and boy are we glad that’s over with. Although going from a sedentary state to an ultra-distance endurance event in 180 days is possible, we don’t recommend the attempt. If you’re reading this piece, we’ll assume you’ve been:


  • A triathlete for a season or two
  • You’ve completed a half-ironman or a few Olympic-distance races
  • You’ve been consistently training around five to seven hours a week for at least six months.

If you meet all of those criteria, great: now buckle up for a strong six months of training.

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Goals

Any endurance endeavor begins by defining success. If you read the couch-to-Ironman plan, you know that the only goal in that context is to finish the event. An Ironman is simply too long, and six months too short, for an untrained athlete to develop the necessary aerobic conditioning (fitness) to consider performance goals. But if you have a foundation of training established, and you have six months to give us, you can think about some time goals. If you’ve done a 70.3, a not-bad goal is to double your finish time for that distance and then add 60-120 minutes. So you’ve put up a 6 hour 70.3? You can consider a 13-14 hour range as a good goal for your Ironman.

If this is your first Ironman, please, trust us. You can’t simply double your half-ironman time, no matter how much you’ve trained. An Ironman isn’t twice as hard as a 70.3: it’s much closer to four times as hard. Being humble and conservative with your goals will make this whole experience more fun, more rewarding, and less stressful. Shelve that ego and approach this project with curiosity instead of expectation.

A Note About Recovery Weeks

We hate to say it, but you really need to focus on training. Sure, recovery is very, very important, but you’re already a little behind the eight-ball, so here’s what we’d suggest: when you begin to feel incredibly tired, incredibly grumpy, incredibly hungry, or incredibly insomniac, then you’re overdue for an easier week.

Use those four categories (diet, sleep, mood, stress), and any time two out of the four are out of whack take an easy week: cut your volume in half, and don’t do any intervals longer than a minute or more intense than 7/10 effort.
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It’s Still All About the Bike

The bike gives you a bunch of advantages when doing endurance training. The bike is low impact, unlike running, and more stimulating/exciting than the pool (sorry, swimming—we love you, but it’s true: you’re kinda bland). Also, Ironman success happens during your bike training. If you can get as fit as possible on the bike, you’ll better insulate your run fitness, allowing you to keep running late in the race.

Although we wouldn’t normally suggest the following, you’re a little pressed for time, so we’ll use this approach. You’re going to ride your bike three times a week: one short(ish) high-intensity session, one medium-length race pace effort, and one long ride on the weekend. The bike will comprise about 50-60% of your weekly volume during your journey to Ironman. We’re going to use rate of perceived exertion (RPE) for this plan, but here is a helpful table to cross-reference your efforts:
RPE HEART RATE POWER
1-2/10 or “very easy to easy” Below 70% of threshold HR Below 55% of FTP
3-5/10 or “easy/moderate to moderate” 81-90% of threshold HR 56-80% of FTP
5.5-6.5/10 or “moderate/hard”to “hard” 91-95% of threshold HR 81-88% of FTP
7-8/10 or “hard” to “very hard” 95-100% of threshold HR 89-100% of FTP
9-10/10 or “extremely hard” to “maximal effort” 101-105% of threshold HR 103-150% of FTP

Weeks 1-8

  • Short ride (60-90 minutes): get in about 20-30’ of high-cadence or low-cadence intervals in this ride, with effort in the intervals hanging out around 6-7 out of 10 (moderate-hard to hard).
  • Medium ride (90-150 minutes): warm up for 10-15 minutes, and then spend the rest of the time riding at 5-6/10 (moderate to moderate-hard) effort; get used to this effort, as it’s the intensity you’ll ride during the race.
  • Long ride (150-300 minutes): just go ride, but try to keep effort in the 3-5/10 (easy to moderate).

Weeks 9-16

  • Short ride (60-90 minutes): get in about 30-60’ of riding at 7-8/10 or “hard to very hard” broken into intervals within the ride. Start with 3x10’ and 5’ recovery and see if you can buld to 60’ straight by progressively lengthening the interval while dropping the number of intervals (for example, you may move to 2x15’ after the 3x10’, and then move to 3x12’, then 2x18, then 3x15’, then 2x20’, then 3x17’, then 2x25,’ then 4x15’, 3x20’, 2x30’, and finally 1x60’.
  • Medium ride (90-180 minutes): warm up for 10-15 minutes, and then spend the rest of time riding at 6/10 (moderate-hard) effort, broken into long intervals of 30-45’
  • Long ride (180-360 minutes): spend these rides trying to hold your effort at 5/10 effort for as long as possible.

Weeks 17-20

  • Short ride (60-90 minutes): get in 15-25’ of riding at 9/10 effort or “extremely hard,” broken into intervals. Give yourself equal rest to the intervals. For example, you might try 5x(3’ on, 3’ recover). As you did with the intervals in the previous block, progress the time you spend in the 9/10 zone over the four weeks.
  • Medium ride (90-180 minutes): warm up for 10-15 minutes, and then spend the rest of time riding at 6/10 (moderate-hard) effort, broken into long intervals of 60-90.’
  • Long ride (180-360 minutes): spend these rides trying to hold your effort at 5/10 effort for as long as possible.

Weeks 21-23

  • Short ride (60-90 minutes): return to the intensity of the 9-16 week block, but keep the intervals no longer than 3x20’.
  • Medium ride (90-150 minutes): warm up for 10-15 minutes, and then spend the rest of time riding at 6/10 (moderate-hard) effort, broken into long intervals of 60-90.’
  • Long ride: 180-300 minutes): volume comes down a little bit, but continue to get in one long ride each week where you spend as long as possible at that 5/10 effort.

During the last week of the block, cut total volume by 30-40%, but maintain the structure of the week.

Race week

Three short
    rides, with one 30’ block at 6/10 effort

You’re training for an Ironman, not a marathon

Your biggest limiter in the run is going to be durability and endurance on the run, not speed. Remember that you’re not going to go out and run a PR-marathon in your Ironman! In fact, you’re actually going to run a fairly sub-par marathon from what you could pull off if you were simply running alone. A good goal, if you’ve run an open marathon, is 110-120% of your best marathon time. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it here: you do not need to run a marathon before you run your Ironman! 

Doing so usually ends up removing your focus from the Ironman, which really needs to be a singular focus. Most marathon runners want to run the distance as fast as possible, and that goal would require you to train differently. Say it with us: our only goal in the Ironman run is to stave off slowing down as long as possible.

We are aiming for moderate and continuous effort

So our run training should focus on the outcome we’re looking for, and train the body’s ability to hold a progressively longer continuous period of time at roughly 
race effort (not pace!). The Ironman run should be performed at an effort of around “moderate” to “moderate-hard,” so 5-6/10. 
Please don’t misunderstand us: by the end of the Ironman run you will be cursing us and saying “this is a 10/10 effort, you jerks.” 
By that point, yes, the continuous effort will slowly build as fatigue accrues, but it’s important during your training to understand 
what 5-6/10 feels like, what heart rates you usually see during efforts of that intensity, and what rough paces you’ll tend to see.

You won’t be able to hold the same pace during the race, and your heart rate will be slightly higher or lower, depending on conditions, 
but by the end of six months, if you’ve been paying attention during your runs, you should know what 5-6/10 feels like. 
We’d suggest running 4-5 times per week, since more frequency at a lower duration will help stave off injury (if you run long and/or hard all the time, 
you’ll get hurt, for sure). Whatever your bike volume was for each week, split that in half and aim for that run volume. Use the same table above for RPE 
and HR, ignoring the power column.

Weeks 1-8

  • Two easy runs (no higher than 3/10 effort) of 20-45 minutes • One 40-60’ run where you run continuously at 5-6/10 effort.
  • One 60-90’ long run where you just go run as you feel
  • Optional fifth run of 40-60’ where you either do short hill repeats of 1-2’, or short fartlek-style intervals of 1-2’ where you pick up the pace to a “quick but not hard” effort

Weeks 9-16

  • One easy run (no higher than 3/10 effort) of 20-45 minutes
  • One 50-70’ run where you run continuously at 5-6/10 effort
  • One interval run where you run 8-20’ at 6-7/10 effort
  • One 75-120’ long run where you progress the amount of continuous time spent at 5-6/10

Weeks 17-20

  • One easy run (no higher than 3/10 effort) of 20-45 minutes
  • One 60-80’ run where you run continuously at 5-6/10 effort
  • One interval run where you run at 8-9/10 effort for 3-5’ intervals and take recoveries for the same amount of time
  • One 90-150’ long run where you continue to progress the amount of continuous time spent at 5-6/10 effort

Weeks 21

  • Easy week—cut volume in half and just run as you feel

Weeks 22

  • Moderate week—repeat the pattern from weeks 17-20, but keep total volume at 75% of that week

Weeks 23

  • Easy week—cut volume in half and just run as you feel, but run 90’ seven days out from race

Weeks 24

  • Race week! Run 2-3 times at 15-20’ each

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Do What You Can in the Pool

Oh, we hate writing that heading. You’re a triathlete, not a duathlete, and doing well in this sport means learning to love the pool and spending time there is an important part of your triathlon longevity. But the swim takes a long time to improve, and you don’t have time. What you can use the pool for, though, is to generate more aerobic conditioning and to build some badly needed upper body strength. Swimming is amazing for recovery, too, and will improve your coordination and general athleticism. Do it! 

Weeks 1-19

  • One swim where you focus on your swim technique limiters (get a swim analysis!)
  • One swim where you swim with buoy and paddles, building from 10x100 intervals with :10 rest all the way up to 4x1000 buoy + paddles and :20 rest
  • One optional swim where you amass 1000-2000 at 7/10 effort with :10-20 rest in between

Core and Mobility Work is a Must

We know you don’t like it, but you will have such better outcomes if you spend 30-60 minutes each week focused on your core and on the mobility of your body. Exercises that target the hips, core, shoulders, hamstrings, neck, and ankles will keep you moving effectively throughout the process.

Race Day!

You made it! OK, we’ll address eating during your race in a different post, but you’re probably interested in pacing. Here is a brief and simple guide:

The Swim: treat this as a warmup for the day and enjoy it. Don’t get bent out of shape or stressed. Simply swim at a moderate effort, building to “moderate/hard” by the end of the swim.

The Bike: hold 5/10 effort, building to 6/10 effort in the second half.

The Run:  run the first two miles at an “easy” effort, and then try to build your effort throughout the final leg of the race. You will see your pace speed up a little bit after those first two miles, and then level off, and then start dropping as you get into the final third of the run. As we said above, you will feel as if you are at 10/10 effort from around 16 miles on, but it should still roughly correlate to the heart rates you saw in your training around 6/10 effort.
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Have Fun!

Really, the thing that will govern your day is your perception of what’s going on, and that will be shaped by how you went into the event: if you’ve arrived at your race in a place of expectation, you will probably find yourself frustrated at some point during the day. Try to ditch your expectations of yourself, the race, and your fellow athletes. If you experience the day from a place of appreciation, you will feel your mood improving as the day progresses, as you thank volunteers and express good will to other athletes and the organizers. If your mood improves, you will have fun, and you will have a better race. This is not just our Pollyanna attitude—science backs us up on this. So get out there, say thanks, have fun, and enjoy your day!

#rockthew

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