Last year I took on my first full Ironman at Ironman Santa Rosa. Circumstances were not ideal, given that I was fully immersed in an accelerated Doctor of Physical Therapy program. However, with some friends putting together a group trip to the race, I couldn’t pass up a chance to tackle the distance with a good crew.
A “proper” base build was totally out of the question. Rather than pass on the race, I took the attitude of “Do my best given whatever resources I have available.” If time is a limitation, then we make the most of the time we have (note: this doesn’t mean hammer every session…more on that below…)
Long training history and high training age help a lot. I did my first triathlon in 2001. Minimalism probably isn’t for anyone attempting a couch-to-Ironman program. But it can be done with a large fitness, base even if it comes from a single sport. Based more than 15 years of base, finishing this “long training day” was not an issue. It was simply how much can I sneak into the “zone of performance” without a high risk of complete blow up
Although I said not every day should be a hammer session, your training will definitely shift more toward the “quality” end of the quality vs quantity continuum. Let’s start with swimming (in full disclosure my swim was a disaster, but I largely blame that on a poor wetsuit fit rather than fitness). Swim people may be familiar with USRPT, or Ultra Short Race Pace Training. If you want the details of this approach, there are plenty of resources HERE
Sample USRPT workout
Repeat 50s on an interval giving approximately 20 seconds rest. Select a target time for each rep (say 40 seconds for example). Keep swimming until you swim a rep slower than 40 seconds. Once that happens, you sit out the next rep. Continue this pattern until you miss three reps.
Here’s the bottom line for swimming: quality rules. Don’t get sucked into the long slow distance approach that can be effective for bike and running. You don’t have to follow USRPT but you shouldn’t forget that swimming is a strength and technique sport.
That said, and this may sound contradictory, If there’s one thing I wish I would have done differently it is implement one weekly long continuous swim.
You might be wondering, why bother swimming if it is by far the shortest portion of the event? In my opinion, swimming has the greatest fitness carryover to other events and is also the one least likely to cause injury.
Another key component of swim training was pulling with paddles/buoy/band. Technically this is not pure USRPT (which forbids the use of “toys”) but because paddles/buoy/band is the most effective way to simulate wetsuit swimming, it deserves a place. Also, if you follow the philosophy of Brett Sutton, which I do to an extent, you’ll also realize the paddles/buoy/band combo is simply a good way to get good at swimming.
Run training. Two to three key runs per week. All other runs 30-60 minutes of easy running. The key runs included:
a) Short fartlek such as 15 x minute hard/minute easy
b) Longer fartlek such as 6 x 3 minutes hard/90 seconds easy
c) Easy to moderate paced long run of 10-12 miles (longest single run of the prep was 12 miles)
Ideally, run your long runs on hilly, soft terrain. This will protect your legs and also build run specific strength
There were times during travel during which I was time crunched. Sometimes the whole workout was 8-10 x 50-100m running sprints at 95% effort. If you can’t get in volume, be sure to get in some quality. But again, quality does not mean thrashing yourself with puke-fest HIIT workouts day after day…
Speaking of strength. I’ve often said that kettlebell swings have been a secret to maintaining bike fitness without actually biking lol.. My strength program was relatively informal, but was a mix of low rep kettlebell lifts (mainly the bent press) along with bodyweight (one arm one leg push up and pull ups). In my opinion, carving out some time for strength can be beneficial for health and injury prevention. The key is to find ways to limit the footprint that strength training has on the overall week.
Unless you live very near a gym, driving any significant distance for strength training during a minimalist Ironman approach is simply a waste of time because there is so much you can accomplish away from the gym
I wouldn’t use strength as a way to replace workouts, other than occasionally on the bike, but that was many weeks before the race. Using the grease-the-groove approach is effective if you have the latitude to make it work. That’s probably the most time and resource efficient way to accomplish what you need without borrowing time from swim/bike/run training. We often use “minimal effective dose” as a worn out cliché, but it really is the best philosophy in this context for strength
Biking was mostly Spinervals videos under one hour. Occasionally for shorter rides I’d pull something on youtube that seemed to fit the session objective (recovery, intensity, etc). Only once did I go over two hours indoors.
One of the keys to indoor riding was also the opportunity to spend time in the aerobars. Watch any Ironman and halfway through the bike, hundreds of athletes are seated up, out of the aerobars (quite the irony whenever you see an athlete on a $8,000 bike riding as unaerodynamically as possible). Despite low mileage, spending such a high percentage of my bike time in the aerobars was an example of “free speed.”
Longest ride outdoors was 75 miles, but done at a moderately intense effort on a bike path with minimal stops. You hear a lot about the magic century ride for Ironman, but how often are these done with traffic stops and even coffee stops, not to mention when in a group where you can’t safely hang out in the aerobars for long stretches.
Nutrition...This is one area where experience is especially valuable. With limited opportunities to truly rehearse race day fueling, you’ll have to rely upon what worked in previous races. This might scare some people but I also believe that many nutrition problems are really pacing problems. In other words, when people say “I didn’t get my nutrition right,” what really happened is they went out too hard on the bike and their stomach couldn’t adequately fuel a pace that was unsustainable from the outset
This part is hard to quantify, but I was especially attentive to fatigue from travel or other life events. Since the volume was low to begin with, there was no need to force anything. I’ve trained myself out of plenty of races over the years and I wasn’t going to make that same mistake for my first Ironman
Overall, it’s really not that complicated. Key points are mindset and expectation management. And then sticking to the race day plan. Having limited training volume simply reduces your margin for error but does not preclude a successful outcome. There’s an old saying that being 10 percent undertrained (and healthy) is better than being 5 percent overtrained. A minimalist Ironman prep is a perfect way to put this concept into practice. You may surprise yourself when you give yourself the chance to arrive at the start line fresh and chomping at the bit to go race.
Allan Phillips, PT, DPT
Oro Valley Physical Therapist, USA Triathlon Certified Coach
Allan Phillips, PT, DPT is owner of Ventana Physiotherapy