Written by Scott Herrick exclusively for Beginner Triathlete, LLC
This free training plan is written to prepare you to finish your first Ironman. While it is just a beginner’s plan, the hours per week start at a significant 8 hours and quickly move up to 15-18. You should already be consistently training 8-10 hours per week before beginning and ideally you should have completed some Olympic distance races in the past season and a half Ironman race would be even better.
While it’s definitely possible to finish an Ironman with fewer hours per week or fewer days per week than what you see here, I wanted to present a plan which emphasizes consistent buildup of hours to make your race day more enjoyable and less of a day of Swim-Bike-Walk.
While this article lists specific daily workouts, I realize that every athlete has specific strengths, weaknesses, available hours, and other restrictions. Hopefully, you can adjust this plan to fit you well enough. If not, you might want to find a local coach to fit a plan to match your specifics.
Weekly Total Volume Training Log Graph
Since there’s no such thing as an optimal plan which fits everyone’s level of fitness and background, I’m going to have to make a few assumptions to create a plan that’s not too generalized. As you look through the workouts each week, make any adjustments in length or intensity to fit your needs. Here’s what I’ve based this plan on:
Significant endurance experience. Even if you are new to triathlon, you shouldn’t have been on the couch for the last year under a pile of pizza boxes before beginning this plan. Your abilities are relatively equal in swimming, cycling, and running. Limiters are swim efficiency, bike endurance, and run endurance/efficiency.
Limited Training Time. You are dedicated to focus your free time towards preparing for Ironman but wish to make the best use of training hours and training week layout.
Maximized Potential. Even if you have a goal “just to finish” and you have limited hours available per week, you would still rather finish in 12 hours instead of 16 and you are willing to make some changes to transform from just training for an event to becoming “The Complete Athlete.”
The Big Picture
This preparation plan covers 20 weeks. It probably won’t fit your race calendar exactly, but it’s long enough that you should be able to adjust. If you currently are not training 8-10 hours per week, I recommend adding endurance weeks onto the beginning of this program to slowly build up to these consistent hours.
The concept of periodization is employed to first develop general endurance and “neuro speed” and then to progress into longer sessions to simulate race day. Most periods are 4-5 weeks long—3-4 weeks of increased training, then 1 week of recovery.
The plans includes 8-18 hours each week of training. Physical training comes from 5-6 days per week with 1-2 workouts per day. There are no secrets in these workouts, just consistent work and a few changeups to keep the training fresh and interesting.
No gym strength sessions are planned. The hours are already quite high for the average working person and most people will benefit with more rest rather than hitting the gym and requiring further recovery.
You do not need to run a marathon before doing an Ironman. While it may seem like a good mental confidence builder, running a marathon race during this 20 week period will leave you requiring too much recovery time. There are plenty of long runs in this plan and I think most people are better off spending more time on the bike to give (sort of) fresh legs at the run start than doing more run training. A better tune up option would be a half-Ironman race during Base 2 or Base 3.
Ironman requires a much more focused practice and plan for nutrition than shorter distance events. What digests well at the 70-mile mark on the bike often does not go down well at 100+ miles. During race day you can do far greater damage with a flawed or impromptu nutrition plan than the actual physical effort.
The efforts during training sessions are based on Rate of Perceived Exertion(RPE). If you’re using a HR Monitor and/or power measuring device, you can match those values with the RPE10 chart at the bottom of this article.
The Complete Athlete. Your ability to cross the finish line depends on much more than just training. For each training period, I’ve included some initiatives in areas in addition to just the workouts:
Race Prep: course knowledge, race day strategy, fueling, equipment
Training: the workouts
Physical Health: nutrition, weight, body composition, fatigue, soreness, injuries
Mental Health: confidence, motivation, stress
Efficiency: flexibility, equipment setup, proper form
The Period Overview
The chart below shows each period and concepts for each. The PDF files show all the detailed workouts for each week.
"Complete Athlete" Preparation
Racing Prep: No racing planned for this period, but since you’ve probably identified race, take a look at the course, predicted weather, swim conditions, articles on last year’s race. Compare all these race components with your own strengths and weaknesses. Use online bulletin boards to get course tips from previous competitors. Know the course.
Training: This period is “preparing to train”--building base endurance through work and recovery. We’ll keep approximately the same schedule to help improve logistics and consistency.
Physical Health: Starting a structured program is probably going to leave you needing a bit more sleep than you’re used to getting. Water too. Don’t skimp on either. Take full advantage of rest days.
Mental Health: Try to get in outdoor workouts in the best and worst weather possible. The more cold, wet, windy, and sweltering conditions you experience while training will carry over to much higher confidence come race day. You can’t prepare much physically on race morning, so confidence and motivation reign supreme.
Efficiency: Form, form, form. If your swim stroke needs work (that’s all of us), find ways to improve technique in these early weeks—hire a local coach to video and give feedback, take lessons, read, watch videos. Form, form, and form are the keys to swimming fast.
Racing Prep: Begin doing your some of your workouts on terrain which simulates race day.
Training: Here in Base 1, we’ll be increasing hours a bit while keeping consistency. We will add 1 hard workout per week—1 workout, not 1 hard day. We will also begin sport-specific strength work by incorporating hills on the bike and run.
Physical Health: Imagine showing up for a marathon in peak fitness. Then imagine having to put on a 20lb backpack at the start line to carry to the finish. I want you to get the most on race day from all the training hours you put in. Running fast is helped greatly by having a high strength-to-weight ratio. You don’t need to be in peak form at this point in the season, but begin to monitor weight and body fat % for later comparison and take a look at your diet for areas to improve—nothing drastic, just little changes at a time with continuous improvement over the entire training period.
Include with your training log a 1-10 scale for daily nutrition with 1 being a weekend in Vegas and a 10 being a nutritional angel. Rank yourself and monitor areas to improve. Most of us know what is good and bad eating so self seed yourself on this one.
Search out sports nutritional information to read during this period. There’s a lot of good stuff out there.
Mental Health: Day after day it’s tough to do all the workouts solo so try to find someone to join you for some of the sessions. A masters group once a week is good (this will be your 1 hard session!), but keep the rest easy. Talk to people in your area in person or via the net to find new routes and training partners.
Efficiency: Aero positioning and power output on the bike oppose each other. Ride lower and your power output will suffer. Begin working this month on flexibility of your back and legs. Come race day, your goal is to be as thin to the wind as possible, for as long as possible without suffering power output. Flexibility is free speed.
Racing Prep: Begin visualizing race morning-how does the course appear, how hard will you work during different segments, where will you seed yourself in the swim start?
Training: Again more increases in hours per week. Here in Base 2, we’ll have theme weeks with increased volume in a single sport with steep reductions in the other two sports. Week 12 is swim focus, Week 11 is run focus, Week 10 is bike focus. Week 9 stays as recovery as usual. We will now have 2 hard workouts per week, this time in the same sport.
Physical Health: Keep an eye on injuries during this period as hours increase. Experiment nutritionally
Mental Health: Do an Olympic-distance race as a confidence builder. Practice calming pre-race nerves.
Efficiency: I’m not a big fan of swim drills even though form is paramount in swimming. I’ve found that with doing drills that I either get good at doing drills but don’t improve as a swimmer or that I’m not doing the drills correctly because nobody is watching to tell me otherwise.
I prefer to have ’concentration’ sets while swimming. For example, if I’m doing 100s, I’ll spend 50 thinking about a particular part of the stroke then the next 50 swimming normally—no matter if I’m swimming fast or slow. These ‘concentrations’ are worked into every single set I swim, effectively drilling through swimming. There are many, many areas to focus on as part of the swim stroke—perhaps I’ll do another article in the future for focus ideas…
Racing Prep: If you live in an area with good hiking possibilities, schedule a 6-8 hour continuous hike in lieu of a long run during the month. This is great low impact endurance work which will leave you surprisingly sore if the terrain is hilly and it a great place to practice nutrition and hydrating with increasing exhaustion.
Training: We’ll now approach a maximum number of training hours per week but now back to a balance in all 3 sports and still 2 hard workouts per week.
Physical Health: These training hours will be long, so keep well fueled and get as much sleep as possible. Ice your knees after every long or hard run—whether you’re injured or not.
Mental Health: With these long hours, don’t worry if you have to skip workouts due to fatigue or schedule conflicts—in the greater scheme, you won’t lose much at all by missing a workout here and there. Just continue on the next day and don’t reschedule missed workouts.
Efficiency: How efficient is your run stride? Are you doing 80-90 footstrikes per minute per foot? Is your foot striking the ground mid-foot (just behind the ball) while already in movement back? Look up photos in books or on the web some illustrations/descriptions of good and bad footstriking.
Swim--only concentrate on navigation and keeping a clean stroke. Decent swim times will come directly from fixating on these two things. Forget these and it won’t matter how hard you’re pulling.
Bike--think even split on the bike, that is ride the 2nd half equal to the first. This means going easy the first half! Overall pace on the bike should not feel exhausting as the goal is to not have to walk any of the run due to exhaustion. A 10 minute faster bike split is killed if you have to walk 40 minutes during the run. Allow 15 minutes of riding before consuming fluids or fuel. After that, follow the hydration plan you’ve been doing for long rides, adjusting for temps and higher intensity of the race.
Run--constantly monitor calories and fluids and try to not push hard during the early miles of the run.
Appendix: RPE Chart
This chart can help with gauging intensities of daily workouts. Combine with your heart monitor ranges if desired.
strong walk, very slow run, easy conversation pace
easy run, begin to sweat, but can hold conversation throughout
still easy, sweating a bit more
breathing very labored, but can still maintain pace for some minutes without slowing.
Cannot hold effort for more than a minute or two
Max. Bike HR=
Max. Run HR=