Simply the idea of training for an Ironman® triathlon, could leave any sane person in awe. The thought of doing one yourself, none the less having considered that thought long enough to be looking for a 1 year triathlon training plan, boarders on the heroic.
To many, it’s impossible. A feat so difficult and unimaginable, 99%+ of the world’s population dare not even consider trying.
But a long course triathlon, like an Ironman®, isn’t for the world’s population. It’s for a select few who possess the mental and physical toughness not only to show up on race day, but to persevere through to the finish.
There are a bunch of training plans out there. Some that are 4 weeks long, others 16, but none that are truly focused on athletes looking to tackle a full triathlon for the first time.
A training plan that doubles as both a half triathlon training plan, and a full triathlon training plan for beginners, and seasoned triathletes of the olympic & half distances, has long been overdue, and it’s time you had access to one unique to your situation. For those wondering how to train for an Ironman® triathlon, this training plan is your answer.
This training plan covers the phases:
Preparing your body for training
Building an endurance baseline in all 3 sports
Steadily increasing training volume & distance
Safely hitting maximum mileage ahead of the full race
Helping your body recover to be primed for race day
Each of the details surrounding these phases are also accompanied by advice on training mentality, time management, nutrition & diet, and an often overlooked category of strength training.
Before diving into the details of a triathlon training schedule, there are a few mental checks you must make.
To say that someone considering such an endeavor needs to be mentally tough, would be a gross and dramatic understatement. Anyone who has made it this far in the consideration phase of such an event, clearly exhibits some above-average level of mental fortitude. The ability to push through pain, the ability to convince your body it’s capable of something it firmly believes it’s not, and so on. That type of mental toughness isn’t going to send you to the Ironman® World Championship in Kona, though it may help you get to the starting line of your first race.
A full distance triathlon like an Ironman® triathlon can last up to 17 hours. That’ll take enough of a toll on you mentally, but it’s the 12 months prior to that day where the test really takes place.
It’ll take 6-12 months to train for a full triathlon, like an Ironman® Triathlon. Your training during that time period will consist anywhere from 10-25 hours per week, depending on where you are in your training phases.
Add those hours to your already existing 40 hour work week, commute, errands, chores, time with your family and that little thing we call sleep, it adds up fast.
There are a few things you can do, however, to lessen the burden on your every day life:
There will be a lot of 4am alarms during your year of training. With most training sessions lasting 1-1.5 hours during the week, in order to get your first of 2 sessions in before work, chances are you’ll have to wake up earlier than you’re used to.
If you work in a place that allows some flexibility during lunch, utilize this time for something other than food! You can easily squeeze in an hour run (+ shower), and then eat at your desk later on.
After work is one of the hardest times to get a workout in. You’ve got all sorts of things happening after work on any given day, so having a detailed routine where you can park your car and within 20 minutes be out the door on a bike ride or a run will be a life saver.
Weekends will be almost tougher than weekdays. Mainly because your sessions become much longer in time. In the peak training weeks, you are looking at 5+ hour bike rides and 2-3+ hour runs. If you can tell your family things like “I’m all yours after 11am”, and get up early enough to make that happen, making plans & keeping a social life will be easier on you, and them.
The reality of a 1 year triathlon training schedule, is that you’ll have to say no to a lot. No to happy hours, staying out late, brunch, vacations where you can’t swim or bike, etc. Getting buy-in from friends and family will go a long way to being able to focus on your training.
Instead of having to set aside separate time to stretch and strengthen your muscles, try to incorporate a standard warm-up and cool-down into your routines. Throughout a year of training, you’ll need to play defense against injury, and a 15 minute injury prevention routine tacked on to your main workouts can go a long way both in consolidating effort, but also keeping you healthy for training.
One thing that will almost 100% happen when you’re training for something like an Ironman® triathlon, is you’ll learn just how much you can actually eat in a day.
It won’t be uncommon to burn 4-5,000(!) calories in one day, and in order to maintain strength, speed and avoid injury, you’ll have to intake more than that.
The reality is that most people have no idea how many calories of what macros they consume on a daily basis. In preparation for this type of training, spend a few weeks meticulously tracking your food intake using something like MyFitnessPal to get a sense of where you currently stand.
That will help you understand how much more you’ll likely have to start consuming once training begins.
There are dozens of articles that you can find from dietitians and nutritionists on exactly what ratios you should have for carbs vs protein vs fats, but regardless of what your percentage works out to be, the key to this is to eat real food.
Real food consists of nuts, seeds, meat, vegetables, and fruit (mainly). It absolutely does not consist of anything containing processed sugar. A good rule of thumb, is to shop around the outside of the grocery store and avoid the aisles. If it has an expiration date of it that’s more than a few weeks away, chances are you can afford to stay away from it.
Processed foods will do nothing but slow you down (both physically and in recovery). The only exception to this would be a high quality protein powder to incorporate into shakes before bed, or immediately following intense training days.
Also, it’s time to get used to meal prepping. Using a Sunday after a long run to prep your breakfasts, lunches & dinners for the upcoming week, will be several hours well spent. During the week when you’re rushing home from work only to immediately train, the last thing you’ll want to do after that is cook. It’s much easier to grab a pre-measured tupperware from the fridge and chow-down, then it is to cook through hunger. Plus, food prep will help you spend more time with your family, hobbies, or simply relaxing during the week. Something you’ll greatly appreciate, even if it does eat up a weekend afternoon.
Ok, now that we’ve covered how much time this might take, as well as general changes you’ll need to make to your routine and diet, it’s time to discuss what a 1 year training schedule for a full triathlon looks like physically.
This triathlon training plan is split into 4 distinct phases:
Each phase will contain swimming, biking, running, and strength training. You’ll also take note that all of these activities (with the exception of swimming and weight training) are measured in time, not distances. This is to help keep yourself from A.) over training, and B.) help you keep to a schedule so you can maintain some form of a normal social life.
The running specifically, will come with a volume cap. You’ll often see things written as 1:00/8 miles, meaning you’ll run for 1 hour, or 8 miles, whichever comes first. That way, if you’re someone running sub-7:30 mile pace, you don’t overtrain on distance, and if you run over a 7:30 mile pace, you don’t over train on time. The exception to this, will be the acclimation phase, since the distances are considerably shorter.
There are even practice races programmed into the plan. For example, in the middle phases, you’ll do an Olympic triathlon and a Half triathlon (such as an Ironman® 70.3®), which effectively means this training plan contains an Olympic triathlon training plan, and a half triathlon training plan. Both perfectly positioned so that you’re A.) properly trained for them, and B.) you can go into those races focusing on gaining good experience to even better prepare you for your race.
Having practice races at different distances can make a huge difference in your level of preparedness for the real thing. During your olympic distance triathlon, you’ll learn what it’s like to race through transition, toe the line full of adrenaline, and feel the burn of adding all 3 sports together.
Spending what feels like the first 6 months training for a half triathlon obviously requires some added distance/time, and mental fortitude, but it also takes your olympic experiences to the next level. More adrenaline, often a bigger (more people) race, more mental challenges, and even further validation that your triathlon training to this point has dramatically improved your fitness.
The training plan outlined below is perfect for long and half course triathlons, those looking to train for an Ironman® triathlon and/or an Ironman® 70.3® triathlon races, and even those just dipping their toe in the water (sorry.. pun) of triathlon training. The first step of the plan starts with, acclimating.
This phase is designed, simply to get your body used to what this training schedule will feel like. If you’re on the fence on whether or not signing up for a full distance tri, like an Ironman® triathlon, is something you can commit to, you can start here. This will show you what training 10 times per week will do to your schedule, but it will do it at low volume time commitments as to ease you in.
This phase will also vary in length from person to person. This phase is designed to take you from your current level of endurance fitness, to a baseline level of fitness that will serve as a great foundation as volume increases for the last 30 weeks of your journey.
Your volume for the 4 activity categories in the Acclimation Phase, will look like this:
Now, how will all of this break down by day? In the below table, you’ll be able to see where “X marks the spot”.
Mondays will be your rest and recovery from your longer workouts on Saturday and Sunday. You can also consider this helpful for scheduling during the day. The first X (closest to the top) should be attempted before work, the second X in a day (closer to the bottom) should be attempted after work. Saturday and Sunday, you can pick and choose the time best for you (though morning will almost always be better, particularly if training in the hot summer months).
The Acclimation Phase is admittedly optional for some athletes. If you can already easily run 8-10 miles and bike 30-40 miles, you can skip straight to the Baseline Phase. If you’re not quite there yet, then the Acclimation Phase is where you should begin.
If you’re just getting into distance running or biking though, this phase will last as long as it takes you to build up to 8 miles of running.
To determine how long that will be, consider that you’ll require 2 weeks per mile increase. That means if you can run 3-4 miles right now, you’ll train for 2 weeks running 4 miles on Sunday, 2 weeks at 5 miles, etc. until you end with 2 weeks at 8 miles. This would put your Acclimation Phase at 10 weeks (4, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6, 7, 7, 8,8 miles).
As noted above, you’ll be running Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. On Thursday and Saturday, you’ll be biking. In the same way that you’ll be building up milage on the run, we’ll measure the bike in time, and build up there as well.
The running and biking schedule during the Acclimation Phase, will look just like this:
In regard to swimming, you’ll be looking to get used to being in the pool. Limiting your sets during this phase to around 1,500 meters or yards (depending on the pool you have access to), will be enough in the early going.
If you have access to a masters swim team, or triathlon club that swims consistently with someone running the program, that is preferred. You’ll not only get quality coaching, but the group accountability can go a long way to getting up early to get in the pool.
If you don’t have access to such a thing, using an app such as Swim Workout Roulette to generate swim sets will be a great resource to have.
Remember, this isn’t “swim 1,500 m/y straight”. Instead you should be breaking your swim into sets of 50s, 100s, etc. This will help you get to 1,500m/y, while also incorporating rest & recovery.
All lifting/weight training during this and subsequent phases will be heavily focused on lower body and core strength. Short of the swimming portion, triathlon is predominantly a lower body sport, so the strength and durability of such muscles will be critical to your success.
For the Acclimation Phase, you’ll be focusing on 3 exercises:
The squats will also be based off of a 1 rep max. If you’re accustom to squatting and know your 1 rep max, you can use the percentages in the chart below to calculate your working sets. If you’re relatively new to the movement, avoid doing a 1 rep max and instead, use a perceived rate of exertion where by the lower percentages (60%, etc.) should take little-moderate effort, and each week, you can increase by 5-10 lbs (as necessary)to increase the challenge.
On Wednesdays during this phase, you’ll be front squatting, Fridays you’ll be back squatting. Rule of thumb is that your back squat should be 10-20% heavier than your front squat when determining weights.
Following each workout, you should perform 50-100 AbMat sit-ups (building over time) to help increase your core strength. You can also add in progressively longer and longer plank holds if you feel up to it.
For your Acclimation Phase, your squat schedule will look like this:
After getting a handle on the schedule during the Acclimation Phase, and deciding you’re committed to 30 weeks of triathlon training for a full distance race like an Ironman® triathlon, it’s time to explore the next phase of your 1 year triathlon training plan, the Baseline Phase.
This phase is designed to increase your baseline of fitness to that of the volume where you peaked in the Acclimation Phase. By the end of this phase, running 8 miles, biking 2-3 hours and swimming upwards of 2,500m/y will be routine. From there, during the Build & Peak phases, you can rest assured your body is ready to handle the increased volume, with a decreased chance of injury.
The schedule of training for the Baseline, Build and Peak phases will remain the same, but will differ slightly from that of the Acclimation Phase. Your weekly schedule will look like this:
The major difference here, is the introduction of a “brick” workout on Wednesdays. A combined bike and run, designed to help train your body for the transition between the two exercises. The other major difference, is the switch between weight training (a structured squat program in the Acclimation Phase) and CrossFit.
The introduction of CrossFit is to keep some form of anaerobic weight/gymnastic training incorporated in your training, while spreading the load of such training to the full body, not just the lower body. You can pick up any daily CrossFit workout of the day (WOD) from their website CrossFit.com. If you’re new to this type of training, focus on the “beginner” version of the workout posted. That will keep it accessible to you, and reduce the risk of any injury due to inexperience.
The baseline phase looks like this:
For more, download the full plan below.