Case Study: The 40% swimming Ironman training plan with Lars Finanger | EP#155
Lars Finanger is another case study showing how when you don't have a lot of available time to train, you need to be very smart and make the most with the time you have. Lars finished Ironman Texas 2017 in a sub-9:30 time, on less than 9 hours of training per week. The most surprising thing about his training is that roughly 40% of it was swimming!
- Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- A big-picture overview of Lars' build to Ironman Texas.
- An example of a typical training week for him (which was always less than 9 hours).
- Factors outside of the actual Ironman training that Lars focused on to achieve a fast time.
- Lars' top tips for time-crunched age-groupers and their Ironman training.
- Swimrun events in the US: Lars is the race director of Casco Bay Island, Boston Harbor Islands, and San Juan Islands.
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Previous case study episodes
A quick note from Mikael
- Case studies with low volume training that produces great results has generated a discussion about whether it is possible and how much is genetics.
- The idea here is not to promote the suggestion that these results will happen to anybody who trains in this same way.
I don't want to give the impression that low volume training is better.
- I'm hoping to show that low volume training is possible, and this is often very applicable to age group athletes who are very time crunched.
- These last few case studies happen to be very fast athletes - which has been a coincidence more than anything!
- I'm not trying to promote quick fixes here.
- In this interview, Lars has a long background in endurance sports, which helps build a base of training.
You can't go from couch to 8 hours a week and expect to do a 9-hour Ironman.
- Training is very individual and should be approached this way. These case studies are meant to give ideas, not provide templates to follow.
About Lars Finanger
- Lars trained for 9-hours per week in the lead up to Ironman Texas.
He completed the race in 9:30.
- I was born in Norway, my parents were both teachers and we moved to Saudi Arabia when I was young.
- I spent most of my childhood growing up in Saudi Arabia, before going to college in Iowa, USA.
I played baseball throughout in college.
- Following graduation I did an internship in Belgium, which is where I fell back in love with endurance sports.
- After returning to the US I moved to Boulder, which was the epicentre of the endurance sports world.
- I began working at Inside Triathlon and VeloNews publication, and eventually worked my way to an advertising role.
- This took me to San Diego, but I left once print magazines began declining.
I moved to the digital company Slow Twitch, which is where I've been for the last 6-7 years.
- I now live in the Woodlands in Texas.
- I grew up swimming as a kid - we had a swim programme starting at 6 years old.
I also ran, because my Father was a cross country runner and track coach.
- I was a quick mile and two mile runner, and I rode my bike everywhere as a kid.
- My Father was a physical education teacher, and he had a triathlon curriculum in his PE class.
You got an A for doing all 3 sports, so in 8th grade it was my first full triathlon!
- I didn't train as much during high school and college as I played baseball, but I returned to it after, around age 21.
- My first triathlon was in Iowa, and that had a canoe instead of a swim!
Overview of Lars' triathlon career
- I caught the competitive bug during my first race.
- I did the Continental Divide bike race from Montana to Mexico, and it was there that I realised I could still be competitive with myself.
- I began researching what I could go after in the triathlon world, and I found Ironman.
- The first year of Ironman Wisconsin in 2003, they had a collegiate championships.
I was still tied to my college so I entered, doing the race on inefficient and ill-advised training methods!
I did the bike on a cyclo-cross bike, and I managed the run based on sheer will and guts.
- I leant that I had a penchant for endurance sports but I needed to refine my training to have longevity.
- When I moved to Belgium I began putting a lot of time into my bike training, mainly on my road bike as this is what the races I was doing preferred.
- I did sportif races such as the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, which really helped my cycling.
- I spent 3-4 years as a C level professional cyclist, which is the kind of professional athlete where you keep your day job to make you money!
- The plan wasn't my idea, it was Sami Inkinen, who invented a real estate website now part of Zillow.com and is currently in the health industry.
He came up with the concept of 12 hours per week of training, as he was a time-crunched CEO level professional.
- He had some phenomenal results at age group level, often winning his age group in high level races such as Wild Flower, and Kona.
- He has a very interesting blog where he drills down the the specifics, and there is an interesting article about him on Slow Twitch.
- I'm actually the exact opposite mindset to Sami - I'm a 'fly by the seat of my pants' man, so it was a challenge to try and zone in on quality and remain focused.
- My PB in an Ironman was exactly 9 hours, and this was when I could destroy the bike but hobble through the run.
I wanted to know what would happen if I focused more on pacing, and tried to establish the least amount of volume of training needed to get close to my PB.
- My wife, who is a triathlete as well, basically told me I had 9 hours a week to train! We have a 7 and 5 year old who are very busy, so it limited my time.
Genetics versus training load
- I firmly believe that we are born with a penchant for slower twitch activities.
- My mile time as a 3rd grader was 5:30, which shows I had endurance sports in my genes, which is a good place to start.
- A lot of people take a small amount of talent and stretch it a long way, with time and dedication.
- My theory is that you can get close to your natural ability if you have a reasonable amount of fitness, and you have high motivation and a positive mental approach.
If you're willing to suffer, you can get within 5-10% of your absolute best level.
I think that's a good trade off if you don't want to give up your career or family.
- Age groupers could probably train as much as they wanted and probably never be able to go toe to toe with the giants of the sport like Jan Frodeno and Javier Gomez.
They are genetically gifted in some ways, and then train hard on top of that.
However they may not be able to compete at that level without eeking out the marginal gains.
- We all have our own goals that we are achieving.
Overview of Lars' training
- I had put in many hours into cycling over the years, and had spent very little time swimming.
In the US I was a category 1 cyclist, which gets you into any domestic stage race or road race.
- With Ironman Texas training, I knew that I had a base of cycling in my legs and knew what it felt like to suffer on the bike.
I was less confident with my run because I've never had a good marathon in an Ironman, often because I would over-bike.
- I turned my entire training plan around, and spent the majority of my time (40%) in the swimming pool.
I felt like my biggest fitness gains on the least amount of time spent could be made swimming.
I also felt I could keep my injury risk low if I swam more.
- I only cycled 3 days a week: 1 VO2max effort day, 1 day of 'over and unders' (going above and below FTP), 1 day of an aerobic session.
I often skipped the aerobic day to fit within my 9-hour training load.
- I fit in a couple of runs a week, which were usually hard and snappy runs - 30-40 minutes.
I would try to negatively split the run: 5 min warm up, 5 min at Ironman pace, 5 minutes half Ironman pace, 5 minutes at Olympic pace, 5 minutes at Sprint pace.
- My swim sessions were with Gemma Hollis, who is a Swim Smooth coach.
I did at least one Red Mist intervals session per week, and rarely did any endurance sets..
- I use a Finnis tempo training in the swim.
- I always thought swimming didn't matter in long distance triathlon, but I am completely converted now!
I think it's likely the most important thing you can do regarding cross training.
It builds your aerobic engine, which directly correlates to the bike and run.
Typical training week
- I was doing 4 swims a week, with each around 1 hour long.
- I was doing at least 2 bikes a week, and did a 2-3 hour bike for about half of the 9 weeks when I could fit it in.
- For running I was doing 3-4 sessions a week.
- I was usually between 8-8.5 hours of training a week, I rarely got close to the 9-hour limit.
The process of the training
- It was a 9-week training plan up to Ironman Texas.
- I had access to the course and could train in the heat as I live in Texas, which I think helped.
- I sauna, and how beneficial it is in triathlon training, particularly in hot races.
It seems to have a vast over-arching benefit.
- I had access to really good equipment during my training and a bike I was comfortable on.
- I also worked on my hydration plan with the help of Precision Hydration.
Andy Blow helped me put together a hydration strategy plan because I was very concerned about cramping.
I ended up not having a cramp at all during my race which I think was due to the sodium replacement plan we developed.
- I really worked on my pacing for this race, which involved holding back on the bike and keeping it in check.
I made sure I felt really good for the second half of the bike, and accepted that people would pass me.
- My FTP is around 365 - I'm a big boy so I can produce watts pretty easily.
All of the training was done pretty close to that number.
On race day, I was closer to 60% of my FTP, if not a bit lower than that.
- My goal hinged on having a solid run.
I think it was a success because I didn't walk or have any cramps.
It may have not been the fastest I could run, but it fit in my goal of having a good solid race that was paced well.
- I ran 7:30-8 minute miles, I kept it steady across the race.
- My overall time was around 9:33, with my splits being:
Swim = 1 hour
Bike - 5 hours (but it was a couple of miles short)
Run = 3.20/3.30
- I left some time out on the course, and had I train 10 hours more a week maybe I would have been around 9:15, but I also might not have remained married...
Main learnings from the process
- If you have enough fitness, a fresh mental approach and you're highly motivated I think you can surprise yourself with what you can achieve.
- You have to be ready to potentially suffer on the race day.
- If you have these factors, it's more powerful than just putting in endless hours of 'fluff training' where you're just going slow and steady.
- We have a lot of athletes around here who do Ironman Texas but they're constantly injured - I think this is because they're training 30 hours a week.
I don't see the benefit in this unless you're a professional.
- I wanted to see how close I could get to my PB with limited but highly focused training, and I think I got pretty close.
Tips for time management
- I try to get as much training done in the morning as I can. My evenings are reserved for time with my children.
If I have time over my lunch hour at work I'll also train then.
Everyone is different though, sometimes the mornings do not work for all athletes.
Can this training approach work for everyone?
- I think it can apply if the athlete could synch with a coach who could take an overarching look at where their strengths and weaknesses are.
- It would depend what your goal is; if you just want to finish and feel good about finishing I definitely think it's feasible.
- Having guidance to walk you through a programme that can help you maximise the limited time you have is really important.
- I completely understand that it doesn't work for everyone, and sometimes you just need to have time in the saddle or out on the road.
- Learning technique and building muscle memory takes time.
- If you only have 9-10 hours a week, maybe shorter distances is a good place to start.
I've spent more of my time recently doing this, and I do think it can also help with long distance racing.
Previous Swimrun episodes
- I am an event organisor for Swimrun USA.
- I used to write about Otillo back in 2007, as we'd always put out a tri guide issue with Inside Triathlon magazine.
At that time it was more of an adventure race, rather than a multisport race.
- I was also friendly with Jonas Colting as he raced in the US a lot, and he spoke extremely highly of Otillo Swimrun.
- In 2014 I was going to Eurobike to host a trade show, and I went to Stockholm to check out the Otillo race there.
- The evening before the race, someone's teammate came down with food poisoning to I stepped in and took their place. I became hooked!
- I knew I needed to bring this to the US. I had a tremendous partner who unfortunately passed away in March.
He was from Portland, Maine and he had a brilliant race course near there is the Casco Islands.
- We launched our first event in 2016, so next year will be the 4th run of our Casco Bay race.
- We had the first run of San Juan in Washington State this year, and we had Simon Whitfield team up with Lance Armstrong at that race.
- Our third race will take place in July next year, which is Boston Harbour Islands.
- We want to have epic races in epic places, and we think we've found 3 winning locations.
- You can check these races out at swimrunusa,com.
- Aaron Palin is the race producer for some extreme triathlons such as Alaska Man, the Eastland Extreme (Iceland), and the Aloha Man (Hawaii).
- Aaron is a photographer and he wanted a guinea pig so he could do some photography of the course this week.
He's convinced me to go through the whole course.
- I haven't ridden a bike since a Sprint triathlon in July, and this 120 mile bike has 12,000 feet of climbing in it around one of the big volcanos on Hawaii.
- The run is 28 miles with 3,000 feet of elevation.
- The swim is a well known location for tiger sharks to hang out.
- It's going to be an interesting day!
Rapid Fire Questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to triathlon?
- Anything having to do with Navy Seals.
- What is your favourite piece of gear or equipment?
- What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
- If you win the morning, you win the day - it's a mindset that I use which helps. Also having a flexible mindset which allows me to adapt to challenges.
- Don't disregard swimming, even if you are training for long course racing.
The aerobic benefits carry over to other disciplines and it's a low risk way to increase your aerobic base.
- Pacing is important. A conservative bike in a long race can really help you on the run.
Lars' great result at Texas was partly down to this.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Lars Finanger
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
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