How to train for an Ironman is an eternal question for many triathletes.
Some triathletes who have really perfected the art and science of Ironman training are Mirinda Carfrae, Chrissie Wellington, Pete Jacobs and Jan Frodeno. Training the way they have has led them to 14 Ironman World Championship podium finishes, including nine wins.
Let's uncover what professional triathletes' training schedules and principles are like in the real world.
We'll then finish off with some advice on how to apply this knowledge to your own triathlon training.
(HINT: don't try to follow a Chrissie Wellington or Jan Frodeno training program. Us mortals would break before a week has passed.)
UPDATE June 2016:
Since I first wrote this post I've started following pro triathlete Jesse Thomas' training pretty closely.
When he won the highly competitive Wildflower long-course triathlon in California on 30 April I decided that I just had to look at his training even closer and see how exactly he structures his training.
I extracted all the stats into easy-to-overview charts and highlighted key sessions, and wrote down my thoughts and takeaway messages. And then I compiled it all into a PDF-report that you can access below to get all the goodies of what pro triathletes have to do to stay competitive today!
Common attributes of all professional triathletes' training
Some training elements are so fundamental for Ironman success that it is plain to see that they are common to all professionals. These include
- Big training volume
- Swim, bike, run balance
- Balance of easy and hard sessions
- Nutrition seen as a training component
- Recovery seen as a training component
Training volume is certainly a key component. Mirinda Carfrae reports 30 hour training weeks and Jan Frodeno's training contains consistent 35 hour weeks.
In her racing days, Chrissie Wellington was known for not counting hours or keeping meticulous training logs. That said, the 4-6 hour training days for seven days a week she mentions in her book add up to a similar amount as Carfrae and Frodeno. And her typical week (see below) looks way beyond reach for mere mortals.
Pete Jacobs' training volume, albeit still high, is lower than the rest of the group. When describing his training Jacobs says:
“I train in 8 day cycles, with a rest day every third day. I rarely stick exactly to my training plan, I usually miss a few sessions each week.” -Pete Jacobs on training
That said, as seen in his sample week later the three long rides alone add up to over 14 hours. In other words, he's not exactly looking for Kona wins from the comfort of his armchair.
All four triathletes keep their schedules balanced in terms of the number of swims, bikes and runs they do.
Generally, the number of sessions in the three disciplines differ by no more than one (Jacobs’ experiment with only three very long rides in the schedule below again being an exception).
Intensity is present in each of these athletes’ schedules as well.
The 2015 Ironman World Champion Jan Frodeno mentions “two quality swim and bike sessions as well as 3 hard run sets”.
Wellington and Jacobs both have daily bouts of intervals, hillwork, time trials or long rides or runs in their training schedules.
All of this is interspersed with an even larger volume of low-intensity aerobic training. This not only helps build an incredible aerobic base, but also functions to speed up their recovery from harder sessions.
These athletes all realize the importance of recovery and nutrition.
Chrissie Wellington considers eating, resting and sleeping as part of her training. This makes life as a pro triathlete a 24/7 job. Both Carfrae and Jacobs mention scheduled naps regularly appearing in their training programs to make sure they get enough recovery.
Mirinda Carfrae in particular gets into specific details of her nutrition regimen. It includes as much real food as possible, usually as one or two big meals a day with multiple snacks in between. Eggs, hummus and chocolate milk are all part of her staple foods. Eight weeks out from the World Championships she cuts out alcohol to get to her racing weight.
Jan Frodeno's diet has an interesting an slightly unconventional twist to it. Specifically when it comes to pre-race nutrition:
“I always eat a slab of chocolate the night before a big race.” -The Jan Frodeno diet
Differences in pro triathletes' training
If you thought that there is such a thing as an optimal way to train for an Ironman, you’d be wrong.
The way that the training regimens of so many top Ironman triathletes differ is proof enough. The most important differences between different schedules are
- Big versus enormous training volume
- Swim, bike, run balance
- Strength and conditioning work
- Injury prevention and maintenance work – stretching, massage etc.
All right, so maybe it’s cheating to include the first two bullet points as both a similarity and a difference.
But the fact is, although all professional long course triathletes train a lot, some just put in more training hours in their program than others.
Wellington and Frodeno are good examples of high-volume athletes, Carfrae may well be considered right around the norm, whereas Jacobs is in the low-volume category.
And as for balance between the three disciplines, although the rule of thumb is a fairly even balance as discussed above, this is not set in stone.
Factors like individual strengths and weaknesses, injury history and time of year all play a role. If an athlete is weaker in one discipline, more time is typically prescribed for improving this weakness.
Injury history can result in decreased emphasis on a specific discipline to reduce the risk of that injury returning. And time of year and location may also affect the balance, for example by dropping a couple of bike sessions in the pre-season in cold weather climates and adding some more swimming and running.
Strength and conditioning is becoming more and more prevalent in triathlon and Ironman training for ability levels.
It's undoubtedly a prerequisite both for performance and for injury prevention.
However, the way that it's implemented in professional triathletes' training schedules differs widely. It depends on factors like baseline strength, previous strength and conditioning regimes, injury history and time of year.
Both Frodeno and Jacobs sing the praises of pilates, and Wellington has a targeted and structured strength and conditioning program in place with twice-weekly gym sessions.
“If I had to offer one key tip to age-group athletes to improve their Ironman running it would be to get a stronger core.” - Jan Frodeno on running and strength training
Finally, a very important, but very individual, part of the Ironman training puzzle is injury prevention and maintenance work.
Carfrae jokingly says that in addition to her 30+ hours of swim, bike and run training she does about 15 seconds of stretching per week. She admits to getting regular massages though.
Jacobs on the other hand is big on this aspect of training, and includes different sorts of self-massage, rolling, and trigger point therapy in his training.
Injury prevention is simple in the sense that once you find a structure that keeps you injury-free, it makes a whole lot of sense to just stick to it no matter what anybody else does.
Finding that structure in the first place is a tad bit more complicated of course.
Typical pro triathlete training schedule
Although most triathletes are quick to point out that there is no such thing as a typical training week, some of them do actually give examples of these non-existent typical weeks in temporary moments of weakness.
For example, a sample Chrissie Wellington training week is available in her book “A Life Without Limits”.
It consists of 6 swims, 4 bikes, 4 runs, 1 brick, and two strength sessions. Interestingly, both for the bike and the run, she does double workouts once a week, which means she only does 4 days of biking and 4 of running, including the brick workout.
As for her quality sessions, it is worth noting that not only does she grind out long segments at race pace or half ironman pace, but intervals and hill reps of short duration (3-5 minutes) are also present.
There are at least two reasons for this.
Firstly, even for Ironman athletes VO2max (maximum oxygen utilization capacity) is a requirement for performance. You can only race at a certain percentage of your VO2max, so there comes a point where it may limit you even in Ironman triathlon.
Secondly, such high intensity efforts are excellent for building specific strength of the musculoskeletal system.
“I guess we do about 6 sessions of each a week, varying in length and intensity – from very easy (which I find hard to do) to all out, balls to the wall, eyes popping out of your sockets work.” - Chrissie Wellington describes her training.
A Pete Jacobs training week appeared in Triathlete Europe in 2010, and is shown below. Jacobs describes it as a “normal week, most weeks are very similar” although he adds that his run sessions were short due to working his way back from injury.
There is a remarkable difference in training volume compared to Wellington’s training schedule. It just goes to show that there’s no one size fits all way to train for success.
The workouts in Jacobs’ training schedule are also quite different compared to Wellington’s. For example, while Wellington’s swim sessions consist mostly of long, aerobic efforts, Jacobs includes high-intensity 400 m intervals and time trials in his regimen.
This is turned on its head for the bike sessions, where Jacobs does three long rides, compared to Wellington’s more conventional single long ride added to more intense workouts during the week.
How to apply this knowledge in your Ironman training program
So what actionable points can you take away from learning all this? After all, you likely have a full-time job, a family and maybe a house to take care of. So how could you possibly apply any of this 24/7 training mode mindset that professional Ironman triathletes have?
Well, the main thing to realize is that even the professional athletes adapt their training to their current capacity, rather than blindly focusing on their end goal.
We saw that in the training schedule of Pete Jacobs above. In an interview with Jan Frodeno on training, he emphasizes the importance of individualization of training:
“It’s not about the hours, but it’s mainly about the quality, and the quality is a mixture of the intensity and the time that you put in.” - Jan Frodeno on what really matters.
So it comes back to the balance of your training.
Balance between intense and easy sessions is a must to allow you to perform in training, just as for the professionals.
But it’s not enough.
You, just as the professionals, need to look at recovery and nutrition as training components for optimal performance. This is probably much more difficult for you, not being a full-time athlete.
“You gotta work to try and find your optimum.” - Jan Frodeno
The keyword in this quote is the word "your".
You need to find your optimal balance between swim, bike and run training. Your optimal amount of training that challenges you but is manageable (listen to the rubber band analogy).
Finding your optimum also applies to auxiliary work such as strength and conditioning and stretching and injury prevention.
While some people can get away with a minimal amount of these components, some may need rigorous programs to stay healthy and perform in training and racing. It's all individual.
So to summarize and give you a final take-away message, let’s have a look at a bullet list. Looks quite familiar, doesn’t it?
- Appropriate training volume – adapted for your life, not just training.
- Swim, bike, run balance – find your optimum and your limits and work accordingly.
- Balance of easy and hard sessions.
- Nutrition seen as a training component.
- Recovery seen as a training component.
Unfortunately, there's no one right answer for what will work for you in your Ironman training.
Even for (almost super-human) professionals like Jan Frodeno, training is a constant balancing act and mistakes happen every so often. And these professionals have years of experience and great support teams and coaches.
But you can make small incremental improvements by taking a look at the take-away points above. Critically evaluate whether you check the boxes or not.
And many small incremental improvements can lead to great improvements in race performance down the line.
The name of the game is progress, not perfection!
Business insider – Mirinda Carfrae
Slowtwitch – Mirinda Carfrae
Slowtwitch – Pete Jacobs
Triathlete Europe – Pete Jacobs
“A Life Without Limits” by Chrissie Wellington
Slowtwitch – Chrissie Wellington
Slowtwitch – Jan Frodeno
220 Triathlon – Jan Frodeno
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