Answer these eight questions to dial in the training program that works for you.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
After a decade as a professional triathlete and with ITU world championship wins at both the short- and long-course distances, Leanda Cave seemed to have her training dialed in. Then two years ago, she slipped and cracked her ribs while pulling a pool tarp during a spring training camp in Borrego Springs, Calif. So her coach, Siri Lindley, limited Cave’s running to uphill treadmill intervals because running any other way proved too jarring and painful. The result?
A month later, Cave surprised herself by winning the Wildflower Long Course Triathlon, covering the half-marathon distance in 1:25, her fastest showing ever over the extremely hilly course. Realizing that uphill running could help with her long-course weakness, the marathon, she and Lindley soon made it a regular part of her program, which enabled Cave to run her way to a podium finish in Kona in 2011 and two world championship long-course wins in Vegas and Kona last year. “Uphill running helps every athlete,” says Cave. “But until then I never really had the time to hone in on uphill running to see the effect that it had on me.”
The point of Cave’s story is not that uphill running should be a component of your Ironman training (although it does help those who, like Cave, lack natural leg strength). It’s that people respond differently to training. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. And developing your own training recipe for long-course success, as Cave herself discovered, can take years of trial and error to figure out.
Over the past decade, I’ve talked to enough pro and age-group winners at Kona about their training to realize that Ironman athletes prepare themselves for the performances of their lives in vastly different and sometimes contradictory ways. Some find that high-volume, low-heart-rate training works best, while others have discovered that frequent doses of quality and speed are far more important for a solid performance on race day. So instead of presenting another cookie-cutter, long-course training program for the “average” athlete that may or may not work for your next 70.3 or iron-distance race, here instead are some key questions to ask yourself before embarking on (and hopefully modifying) your training plan to achieve a peak performance in your next long-course triathlon.
Did you do enough volume last year to train for an Ironman this year?
That’s the first question Jesse Kropelnicki, the founder and head coach of QT2 Systems in Boston, asks prospective clients who inquire about his Ironman training program. To him, the primary mistake of people who aspire to do an Ironman—even those willing to devote themselves to a full year of long-course training—is their lack of “sustainable volume” the year before. “What I call sustainable volume is the volume they were able to turn over year after year without getting injured or burned out,” he says. “At the end of the day, if you want to have a good experience in an Ironman, you need to get the volume into the 18- to 19-hour [a week] range. For someone who has a 12- to 13-hour training history the prior year, there’s no way you can jump up to 18 or 19 hours the next year without getting injured or burned out.”
To prepare adequately for an Ironman, Kropelnicki recommends that triathletes spend at least a year doing 70.3 races while gradually building their total swim, bike and run training to at least 18 to 19 hours per week, with their peak training weeks reaching 22 hours. “That’s the minimum we recommend in order to have a nice experience. I mean, sure, you may be able to finish with less, but the risk of injury goes up so much, so why not have some patience and wait? We try to instill patience in athletes because most of the time they’re not patient. People decide to do an Ironman and it doesn’t matter what they’ve done in the past; they want to do it next year. A lot of people rush it and in the end they don’t get to start the race; or if they do start the race they get injured along the way. You need to take it in small chunks year after year so your body is prepared to complete the distance comfortably.”