JV to Varsity Ironman: Training to Get Faster

author : Rich Strauss
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Pay attention to details! Little things like body composition, bike fit, powermeter use and swim technique become big on the Varsity Team

This summer I’ve coached a solid 12 to 14 athletes to IMCDA and IMLP. I’ve been with several of these folks for multiple seasons, and for the others this was the conclusion of our first season together. It has been great to be a part of the rookies’ evolution across one season, often to their first Ironman, and to coach the veterans across several seasons. For each, the conversation has turned toward, “What’s next,” and, specifically to, “How do I go faster next time?” In short, they’ve been playing JV ball and want to red-shirt the varsity squad. What’s it gonna take?

Let me begin by saying that each person has their own definition of success, and so each person has their own varsity squad requirements. One athlete’s varsity is a Kona slot, another’s is a 2hr PR. The common requirement, however, is very simple: greater attention to detail. This article is largely me telling you how varsity ball is played. But the overarching rule is that we play the game differently here. Little things matter and we (your competition or your goals) require you to make greater sacrifices, exercise greater attention to detail, and focus on the little things.

It Takes Work—There is No Easy Way
You can define your training by frequency, volume, or intensity, but I would group them all into work. Getting faster and moving to the varsity squad requires you to work hard. This is the main separation I see between JV and varsity. JV can get by on happy thoughts, the romance of finishing their first Ironman, etc. But training for varsity is often an unsexy, unromantic, uncomfortable affair. Want to get faster? At its most basic level, faster equals more work. What becomes very clear to my power-training athletes is that if they do the work, they get faster. There is no magic formula. For my local athletes who see me train in season, they see that I just work hard. I do a very good job of creating situations for myself that make the work fun, but it’s still very, very hard work at times.

Make the Hard Work Fun
Know yourself and create situations that make the hard work easier, mentally. Training to red shirt the varsity squad often requires a commitment across several seasons. Finding ways to make thrashing yourself more enjoyable is the key to long term success. In the end, this is all just a game. Make it fun.

Body Composition
Go to any Ironman race and watch the body composition of the finishers change as the clock ticks away the hours. It becomes very clear that excellent body composition is largely a requirement to be at the pointy end of the field. Yes, there are exceptions, but these people are the exceptions, usually former swimmers and/or cyclists who may get away with carrying around a little extra body mass. Red-shirting the varsity squad requires a much greater attention to nutrition and body composition than you may be used to. If you don’t exercise this attention to detail, realize that your competition is.

Get Fast While Your Competition is Getting Fat
One thing I learned very quickly as a self-coached athlete and full-time Ironman coach is that it’s extremely difficult for the self-coached athlete to manage 'get-faster' training along with Ironman training volume. Very simply, the time to get faster is when you are not training for Ironman, in the off-season. Decreasing training volume and frequency increases the intensity and recovery resources available to you.

My off-season training plans are the practical application of this idea. I use the off-season to train my athletes for:

  • 40k TT strength on the bike, or lifting their watts/pace at Functional Threshold Power (FTP)
  • Winter or early spring half marathon, ideally several of them.

And so varsity athletes see getting faster as a year round project that doesn’t end, often for years at a time. It’s very difficult to get faster when you’re rebuilding your fitness every 9 months after a 2-3 month layoff.

Why train to lift FTP?
Very easy: fast is fast. If all you do is ride 19mph, what makes you think you’ll ever be able to ride 21mph for a long time? If you can go from averaging 21mph for an hour to 23mph, it also becomes easier to ride 20mph vs 18mph. Before too long, your bike just idles at a speed that was once a solid pace for you. If you have “fast,” then you only need to put some endurance under it to create “far and fast.” The best time to build fast is when fast can be separated from far, in the off-season.

Why train for an off-season half marathon?
First, see my comments about the separation of far and fast above. This is probably more true for the run than for the bike, as it is extremely hard to simultaneously manage far run training with get-faster run training. Second, the weekly long run required for half marathon training, about 1:45-2hrs, is basically the same distance I prescribe week after week for my Ironman athletes. And so the goal of a late winter/early spring half marathon encourages them to maintain the same run frequency and similar volume I like to see in the IM training season, but with additional resources freed up for the get-faster run training that their Ironman training didn’t leave room for.

Consider Purchasing a Powermeter
How valuable is this tool? I won't coach an athlete unless they have a powermeter or are committed to purchasing one in the VERY near future. Race wheels but no PM? Sell the wheels. I will not let my athletes buy race wheels without having a powermeter first. My race setup is a Hed3 front, Ergomo Pro, ...and a $120 rear wheel with a $65 wheelcover. Priorities. See my notes above about working hard. A powermeter allows you to measure, quantify, track, objectify, analyze and strategize "hard," in both training and racing.

Bike Fit
This one is very simple but often a hard lesson for the JV to understand: Varsity plays ball at a steep seat tube angle and a seat-to-armrest drop usually greater than 10cm. They recognize the free speed to be gained with a more aerodynamic setup and pay attention to the small details. Bike fit exists along a range, with comfort on one side and speed (elbow pad drop) on the other. Varsity slides the scale towards increased drop, with different expectations of comfort. I’m the definition of inflexible. But I ride my P3C at 81 degrees and a 15cm drop.


It is ALL business. When I bring on a new athlete their bike fit is one of the first things I assess. I ask for a series of pictures and measurements. If I see a fit athlete with excellent body composition but a 4-6cm drop and 74-76 degree seat tube angle, I have a 'Come-to-Jesus' Meeting with them about comfort, aerodynamics and the advantage they are giving their competition. Varsity is steep with an aggressive drop, period. If you’re the exception, congrats, you’re exceptional–but not the rule.

Aerobars, bottle cages, bike weight, singlets, helmets and other details matter. It’s all free speed, in that you don’t have to work harder to be faster.

Redefine Far, Fast, and Hard
Create training environments that extend your perspective of what far, fast, and hard are. Twelve to 18 months ago I focused on redefining far. Now we focus on redefining hard, and then combining that with the appropriate length of far, while still retaining hard. My athletes will tell you that the Ironman bike is by far their easiest long ride of the season. With the run, we work on building intensity into the long run, training them to focus and run hard when they are most fatigued.

Swim Technique
Anything slower than about a 1:10-1:15 swim is all free speed. In other words, just focusing on technique and adding some fitness to that will get you about a 1:10-1:15 swim. Refinements and more fitness will get you to about 1:07-08. Breaking 1:05 usually takes some kind of technique breakthrough. I start to look at hand pitch, hand entry, body line—very fine details that people just "get," often in one golden technique session. On the varsity squad, every minute counts, and investing in quality swim instruction offers a huge rate of return.

You've asked me what it’s gonna take. Here it is, straightforward, without much touchy-feely stuff. As a coach, if you tell me you want to take your performance to the next level, your goals have placed you on a different plane and this is what it will take.

Rich Strauss


"Extraordinary goals demand extraordinary commitment, sacrifice, and attention to detail."


Rich is a Joe Friel Ultrafit Associate, an Ironman World Championship Finisher, a USAT certified coach, and the founder of the Pasadena Triathlon Club in Pasadena, CA. Rich has personally trained over 250 Ironman finishers since 2001, and helped thousands more coach themselves more effectively through his training articles and active discussion forum. Since 2005 over 500 athletes have used a Crucible Fitness Half or Full Ironman Training Plan to prepare for successful seasons. Visit www.cruciblefitness.com for a complete list of services, or use promo code mission07 to save $20 on an Off-Season Training Plan today.


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date: February 12, 2007

Rich Strauss