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Moving from the Half to the Full Iron Distance Triathlon

“How much more do I need to train for a full iron-distance race compared to what I have done for a half?” This is a question I, and I am sure every coach, gets asked on a regular basis. I must admit that I find it quite difficult to answer because well, there is no definitive response. I don’t believe that there is a formula where we can insert a 70.3 program and resultant performance and then extrapolate out an Ironman schedule. It depends on so many different variables that there is no one answer for everyone. There are however a number of fundamentals that help to narrow things down.

Busting some myths

  1. A half distance race is more than half of the work done – By that I mean, you don’t have to double the training in order to cover double the distance. Unfortunately this doesn’t mean that you can double your 70.3 time, to get your full distance time though.
  2. Overall volume is not as important as the volume of the key sessions – So we don’t need to worry about weekly hours as much as we need to focus on the duration and intensity of the key sessions.
  3. Time is more important than distance – Following on from the previous point where I used the word duration instead of distance, the hours and minutes of your long sessions are the critical numbers, not how many kilometres you covered.
  4. Ride for the run – How you get off the bike in an Ironman will determine how well you complete the marathon. You can be the best marathoner in the World but if you can’t dismount the bike in reasonably good nick, you are not going to run anywhere near your potential.
  5. Do not neglect the swim – Yes, it is only a fraction of your whole day but firstly, you have to finish it before you can move on. Secondly, if you are completely spent in T1, that is going to come back and haunt you later on.
  6. Nutrition is key – Work out what you need to consume. Decide on how you are going to best get those calories down so that they stay down and are absorbed efficiently. Try to use foods and drinks that are palatable and preferably enjoyable and then experiment with these during your training. I would estimate that more than 75% of Ironman tales-of-woe are about nutrition rather than a lack of preparation.
  7. Choose equipment wisely – Fast and aero is not the only consideration over a race this distance. Over the course of an ‘Iron-Day’ the conditions can change dramatically and often the more versatile choices are the safer options. Carry spares and practice how to use them.
  8. Train with your race equipment – Not every session but you definitely want to know how the race-ready bike handles in a crosswind. How hot your head gets in the aero helmet. How much lubrication you need for more than an hour in your wetsuit etc.

The recovery week – So, you have accomplished your 70.3 goal and are ready and motivated to up the ante at a full distance ironman. Where do you start… Well, firstly with some recovery but not as much as you may think. The week after your half distance race should be all about allowing the muscles to recover, rebuild and to replenish your fuel tanks BUT and that is a full-caps BUT, you don’t want to goof-off. You want to preserve your form and not allow the body to go into de-training mode. You also want to sustain your mental momentum. Your 70.3 was a big day both physically and emotionally. There is always a bit of a downer once a goal like that is accomplished. A complete week away from your triathlon persona and it can be difficult to pick up the impetus again. So keep your head in the game and hold the focus.

Depending on how experienced you are, how many of these you have done and how hard the effort on the day was, the number of complete recovery days will vary. If there was some soreness this is normally worse two days later. After that the body recovers quickly but there should still be some latent fatigue. I suggest getting ‘back on the horse’ as soon as possible after a 70.3. Light activity will speed up the recovery process considerably.

The best way to start your recovery week is with a swim. Just some light effort, some drills and a lot of use of fins if your legs are particularly battered. Once you have done your first easy swim you can actually step up the effort in the pool for the rest of the week and almost have a ‘normal’ training week swimming. This is a good way to keep the aerobic engine working without adding any more muscle damage. It will keep the metabolism firing and maintain the aerobic condition that you worked so hard for leading up to the race.

The next session to add to the recovery week is the easy spin. These are most effective on the indoor trainer. Light resistance and heart rates at the bottom end of your aerobic zone. Just turn the legs over at a nice, comfortably high cadence. This helps flush out the waste products from the race and increases the circulation of nutrient rich blood through the muscles, which will be full of micro-tears from the hard work that they had to perform. In my opinion this is better than massage for recovery. The session can be anywhere from thirty minutes upwards but who gets dressed up to ride their bike for less than an hour? Find some old Tour de France clips on You-Tube or watch some triathlon race footage to pass the time. You don’t want to be tempted to push a pedal in anger.

Again, depending on your level and how hard the race was, you will normally be ready to lace up the running shoes on day three or four after the event. Do it. Even if you are still feeling a bit tender. Nothing flashy, 20 minutes are enough. Just a nice gentle trot around the neighbourhood to get the hips, knees and ankles going through their range of motion again. This is the perfect day to wear the race T-shirt for the first time. Strut that bad-boy!

By the weekend all aches and pains should be gone and you should be wondering if you are ready to start upping the training efforts again. A slightly longer ride, preferably outdoors and a run of more than 45 minutes, preferably an hour is good for the Saturday and Sunday. These should be at the same effort as the rest of the week but include a short effort in the last quarter of each where you stretch your body a bit and gauge it’s response. Just a gentle ratcheting up of the pace and effort until you are about 10bpm lower than your race heart rate and hold it there for a few minutes. If the body responds well and holds that without any problems, you are ready to start your serious training again. If the body groans and the perceived effort feels too high, you will need a few more days of the easy stuff.

Getting back to work – Obviously we are assuming, in this article, that we are aiming at a full distance race within a month or two. I am using 70.3 East London and Ironman SA in PE as a reference which are ten weeks apart.

After our recovery week we have an effective eight-week block of training before we use the last week to taper in to the Ironman. The reason we needed to be so focused and disciplined in our recovery week was that we want to hit the pool and tar charging in the next week and we want to carry through the work that we did for the 70.3. The race itself was also an excellent training session for the Ironman to come and we want to bank that.

The first week is the beginning of our interval and tempo progressions in the work-week and moderately long sessions on the weekend. I know we mentioned earlier that overall volume is not what we should focus on but it is a good reference and this first, proper week, should not be more than 80% of your peak-week training volume as you built towards the half distance race.

I have kept you in suspense this far into the piece but now we shall discuss the question I quoted in the first line, what do we need to do to lift our training from half to full distance and these weeks are where we do it. Most of us are putting in the training before and after work, Monday to Friday so there will be very little change to what you were doing there as time is limited. Even though your intensity at an Ironman is down on what you put out in at a 70.3, the quality work should still be done. During the week we can normally do three quality leg sessions (the swim can almost work independently at this stage) and here is where there can be some variation based on your strengths and weaknesses as a triathlete.

The stronger cyclists – During the weekday period you should emphasise the running. So one quality bike session aimed at working around the Functional Power Threshold or Anaerobic Threshold HR. The best place to do this is on the indoor trainer or good quality stationary bike. The quality work should be aimed at an hour, including recovery periods which are short. Less than half of the hard stuff. If you have the time, adding an easy hour before the quality work starts is beneficial to push the whole session up to two hours. If you are able to do this on the road in a group or in a group indoor session, make sure that the effort matches a triathlon and not a road race. We do not need sudden changes of pace and VO2 Max type efforts. Our riding is smooth and controlled throughout with no spikes.

If running is your weaker terrestrial discipline then your should utilise two of the weekday quality slots for running. On those days it is ideal to do an easy hour to an hour-and a-half of active recovery on the bike and preferably but not essentially, in the morning with the running in the evening. One session aimed at pushing up your aerobic threshold speed. So intervals on a track or treadmill or fartlek on the road working up and around your threshold HR with short recoveries. Vary the length, in a progression, in consecutive sessions throughout the 8-week period, so that they build on each other and get more and more challenging.

The other session should alternate between hills and a tempo / time trial. The hills can be done as a ‘free’ session where you just run on a hilly route or as hill reps. Up and down the same hill. The tempo run should vary from week to week between 30-45 minutes of hard work with warm up and cool down periods on either end.

The strong runners – You guys and girls will want to work a bit harder on the bike. So two of your three quality slots in the work-week will be taken up by hard bike sessions. On those days you will want to do an easy run, preferably in the evening with the hard bike in the morning. Again, these are most ideally done on a good quality indoor trainer or stationary bike. The first session of the week, on fresher legs normally after a swim day on Monday, should be like the one for the bike-specialists. An hour of good, hard work, aiming at improving your FTP or speed at AT if you are using heart rate alone. For the run-specialists, this day should be numerous shorter intervals with matching recovery periods. Repetitive intervals of 2:00-4:00 with the same recovery. Over the 8-week period you should build these from week to week. Either making the intervals longer at the same intensity or adding more and more of the same intervals every week. Gradually increasing the load throughout, not the intensity.

In the other session, normally Thursday, your legs will be more fatigued after a hard ride on Tuesday and a hard run the day before. So here we don’t want to aim too high as far as output goes but rather focus on holding a more moderate effort for longer. So the power numbers we will want to aim at are about 80% of what you used in your intervals on the Tuesday but here you want to focus on extended efforts with much shorter recovery periods. This is also a good session to work on your aero discipline. Staying on the tri-bars throughout and holding race cadences. The overall work here should be aimed at an hour and again, try to progress from week to week, squeezing a bit more out of yourself each time.

Your key run will fall on the day between these sessions and should alternate between, in one week, a session working on that anaerobic threshold pace, so the pace that you can hold at your threshold HR, and in the other week, form and strength on the hills. The AT session can be track, treadmill or fartlek on the road or a tempo session or time trial. All the efforts should get your HR up around your threshold and should gradually increase in duration or reduced recovery as you progress through the 8-weeks.

The swims – In my experience there aren’t too many triathletes that favour this discipline so I haven’t made a separate category for training focus. I am assuming that we all have to work on our swimming and it is definitely not a discipline to neglect. Firstly, 4km in the ocean is a proper challenge but secondly, the aerobic work that you can accumulate in the pool counts in all three disciplines without adding as much load and recovery time as running and riding. Swimming is so technical, so a good proportion of your swimming should be comprised of stroke drills. Most of these are still fantastic workouts anyway and less stressful than watching the clock as we do in an interval set. Areas that most triathletes need to work on are the catch phase and body rotation, so focus your drills on these aspects.

Normally we look at three sessions a week: Monday; Wednesday and Friday and hopefully an additional, open water session on the weekend from to time. You should include a warm up of mixed strokes and a set of drills. Then hit an intensive set working at your critical swim speed. This is basically the swimming equivalent of FTP or Threshold. Again, progress through the 8-week period. In one session hold the same speed week-to-week and increase the length of the intervals. In another session hold speed and length of interval and reduce recovery.

I reserve one session a week as a strength session where we bring out the paddles and focus on a more muscular effort. Still using sets and reps. It is far more beneficial to swim at a higher overall speed with recovery periods than just going up and down the pool at an ever-decreasing speed. This is not good for your form and technique.

The weekends – Here is where the difference comes in. For a half distance race most of our long rides on the weekend are around the three hour mark with one or two nudging four. On the run the two hour mark is the training cap. For the full distance we need to push these up. In the first four weeks of our 8-week block, I suggest you alternate the emphasis of the weekend between the cycle and the run. So one weekend you will push the cycle up from where you are comfortable and then run within your capabilities. Then the next week you hold ground on the bike, repeating what you did the previous weekend, while pushing out the run a bit longer than you have done. Each time keeping it manageable but challenging.

In my opinion everyone but pros and professional age-groupers don’t need to go beyond six hours on the bike. If you can get at least three of these in during the eight-week period that would be perfect. Your last really long ride should be with two weeks to go to race day as the taper actually starts on the weekend before race week.

The longest run should be aimed at four weeks from race day and no more than three hours in duration. Many like to run a marathon in their preparation and this more a psychological than a physical necessity. In the scenario we are dealing with here, with ten weeks between the half and the full, there is no time to do that. It requires too much recovery and this will be extremely negative for the training progression.

As you build the duration of the sessions and your endurance increases, you should start adding some quality periods into these long workouts. Long slow distance is just as much ‘last century’ as LSD. So add in a race-pace period to the second half of your run or build your effort every hour of your long ride. During all these sessions you want your mind firmly focused on the task at hand and at the ultimate goal. How are things going to feel during the ironman? How is what I am doing now going to equip me for that day? Don’t let anything distract you from what you are doing and why you are doing it.

I know that Saturdays are a bit more complicated on the roads as far as traffic goes but I definitely believe that there is advantage in doing the weekend sessions in the triathlon order where at all possible. Getting used to running on tired legs is the fundamental essence of what makes us triathletes. Embrace it.

Brick and split sessions – That brings us on to brick sessions. There is no more triathlete a term than the ‘brick workout’. During the first half of the training block these should be limited to ‘transition runs’ if anything. So just a short run off the bike ride to get the feel for the transition. Nothing more than thirty minutes. In the second half of the period you can step this up considerably as we work to the peak.

I am a firm believer that we don’t need to run for longer than an hour off a long bike ride in training. The biggest brick session should be something like: five hours of cycling followed by an hour of running and should be done about three weeks out. The run covered at Iron man goal pace.

What I do like is what I call ‘Split Sessions’. Here we treat the whole weekend as a session. This is where we need to be disciplined and family and friends need to be on board and supportive. These sessions are limited only by your strength, endurance and imagination. For example: Combining a Saturday long ride with a moderate brick run. Then later in the afternoon another run. Sunday could then have two longer runs, one in the morning and one in the evening. Splitting the runs like that results in the whole equalling more than the sum of the parts and I have found it to be a very effective way to add volume without the potential demands on recovery that doing it all at once would have. The key is actually what happens between the sessions. Just recovery and eating and drinking well. No going to the mall. No gardening and no beers and braais watching the rugby.

These should only be done late in the eight-week phase so it is not long to maintain the discipline.

Pre-race prep – There is no such thing. Everything you do, day in and day out, is pre-race prep. Never find yourself going through the motions. Every session must count and have a goal. Even an easy session has a role – it is active-recovery from yesterday or teeing up for tomorrow. Triathletes cannot afford junk miles. We don’t have the time or the spare energy.

Every weekend is an opportunity to experiment and practice with equipment and nutrition. Training your gut to take in solid food while under load on the bike is pre-race prep. Having a gel every 40 minutes during your three hour long run is pre-race prep. Triathletes are the best at doing multiple things at the same time. Live it!

It is such a cliché but triathlon is most definitely a lifestyle before it is a sport. The races are just where we get to show off what we can do. What we have achieved with our bodies by going out every single day and doing what most would never contemplate doing.

Enjoy every moment of your training. Celebrate the successes and work through the challenges.

Smash it!

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