Training > Long distance

Key Ironman training sessions from 3 stars of Kona 2017

Want to swim like Lucy Charles, bike like Lionel Sanders and run like David McNamee? Yes please! Follow their key Ironman training sessions and become the ultimate iron athlete

Okay, so the 2017 Ironman World Champs may already be slipping into the annals of history, but let’s have a quick recap and see what we, the average age-grouper, can learn from that epic race. 

In short, there’s a lot to take from the 2017 Kona event and much can be incorporated into your tri training and beyond. To help you do this, we spoke to three of its fastest athletes. We’ve got swim supremo Lucy Charles, who smashed her way Chrissie Wellington-style into Ironman’s big league with a phenomenal pro debut and a second-place finish. There’s bike demon Lionel Sanders, a late Hawaii entrant who produced the second-fastest bike split in Hawaii history to see him mount the podium in second place. Then finally we’ve got GB’s highest male Kona finisher and run fiend, David McNamee, who finished third overall thanks to a 2:45hr marathon. All three were asked to share their key sessions in their strongest disciplines. 

For those of you who don’t have the luxury of training like a full-time pro (and few of us do!), 220’s training plan expert and tri coach Dermott Hayes has also provided age-group adaptations for each of the sessions that follow overleaf. The goal is to make them easier to slot into the ridiculously busy, long-distance age-group schedule, but that still provide plenty of performance bang for your Ironman-training buck. 

So, while we can’t guarantee you a Kona slot in 2018, we hope the following sessions and expert training advice will help smash (or set, if you’ve been inspired to target your first IM) your 3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42.2km run PBs, and guide you on your way to your own personal long-distance greatness. Good luck.

Lucy Charles swim sessions

Age in Kona'17: 24

Kona ’17 swim split: 48:48mins

Kona ’17 overall time: 8:59:38

Kona ’17 finishing position 2nd Female Overall

A glowing Guardian profile and major partnerships with Red Bull and Specialized… 2017 was the year Lucy Charles became a breakout tri star. If her win at Ironman Lanzarote in May was another major statement of her potential, it was her second place behind Daniela Ryf at the Ironman World Championships on her pro Kona debut in October that truly caught the imagination, with Charles leading the field until late in the bike after coming within touching distance of the women’s swim course record.

Charles’ mind-boggling 100km swim weeks as an ex-pro swimmer soon became the talk of social media, but thankfully there’s plenty of transferable Ironman knowledge we can take from her triathlon swim sets.

“Just like Lucy you should aim to include one technique session per week that has a high percentage of drill work to focus on improving and maintaining good swim form,” says Dermott Hayes, a man who clocked Charles’ talent at RG Active years ago. “But to be ready for Ironman, the endurance swim is the most crucial one to nail. While most of us will need to reduce Lucy’s duration due to time constraints, we can all benefit from the structure and race-pace specific timings.”

THE SESSIONS

  

Technique session

Duration: 1hr (3,350m)
Why? To reinforce good swim form 
Frequency: Once per week
Fuelling: Electrolyte drink during and protein shake afterwards

Warm-up

800m-1km, good technique

Main set

5 x 200m mixed drills; 5 x 100m pull w/paddles; 5 x 50m good technique at speed

Cool-down

200m kick; 200m pull; 200m swim

Age-Group Adaptation

Reduce warm-up and cool-down by 50%, inc. a variety of strokes.  If you’re pushed for time reduce drills to 5 x 150m. 

Endurance session

Duration: 2:30hrs (6km)
Why? To get used to swimming at target race pace for long durations
Frequency: Twice per week
Fuelling: 2 x electrolyte drinks, banana/gel, Red Bull, protein shake

Warm-up

800m-1km, good technique; 4 x 100m descending 1-4 (4th one at race pace); 100m easy swim backstroke

Main set

1.5km at race pace; 1km faster than your 1km split in the 1.5km; 500m faster than your 500m split in the 1km; 5 x 100m at faster than race pace

Cool-down

800m-1km front crawl and backstroke

Age-Group Adaptation

Reduce warm-up and cool-down by 50%; main set as: 1.2km @IM race pace, 600m @3secs/100m faster than 1.2km pace, 300m @3secs/100m faster than 600m pace; 4 x 75m faster than IM race pace. 40secs max recovery. 1 x per week.

Speed session

Duration: 1hr (3,500m)
Why? To make race pace feel easy
Frequency: Once per week
Fuelling: 1 x electrolyte drink, banana/gel, Red Bull, protein shake

Warm-up

400m front crawl; 300m front crawl pull; 200m backstroke; 100m front crawl

Main set

10 x [50m as 25m hard/25m easy; 50m as 35m hard/15m easy; 50m max effort; 40secs rest between reps]

Cool-down

500m-1km steady swim

Age-Group Adaptation

Reduce the warm-up and cool-down by 50%; main set: aim for 12-15 sets and gradually build up to 20. 

Lionel Sanders bike sessions

Age in Kona '17 29

Kona ’17 bike split 4:14:19

Kona ’17 overall time 8:04:07

Kona ’17 finishing position 2nd Male Overall

Back in the summer of 2017, Canada’s Lionel Sanders wasn’t even planning to race in Hawaii. The über-biker had struggled in Kona on each of his two previous attempts. Yet, from multiple Ironman world champions Mark Allen to Chris McCormack, conquering Kona is a true learning curve, and the ability to adapt and improve after painful beginnings on the lava fields is the sign of a formidable athlete. And Sanders proved that in 2017.

After winning the Challenge Championship in early June, Sanders had a change of heart on Hawaii, and began his Kona training block in July. He arrived in Kona under the radar but produced the second-fastest bike split in Hawaii history, riding at 42.5km/h for 180km to clock a 4:14:19 split.

Happily for UK athletes, over the winter especially, Sanders spends much of his training time indoors on the turbo. And there’s much we can adopt into our own training. 

“The long ride is a must when training for an Ironman,” says Dermott Hayes, “and building strength and stamina on the bike can dictate race-day performance. Lionel’s long 4-5hr rides are fairly straightforward and riding that length of time will really prepare you mentally and physically for Ironman race day.”

THE SESSIONS

  

Technique session

Duration: Approx 1hr and/or incorporated into a long ride
Why? To increase muscle adaptation at both high and low cadences
Frequency: 3-4 x per 10-day block
Fuelling: 2 bottles of hydration formula per hour

Slight warm up, right into steady hour, short cool-down. Cadence variations with key points of your goal race in mind at endurance pace.

Age-Group Adaptation

Try: 4 x 15min blocks as: [3mins @70rpm, 3mins @80rpm, 3mins @90rpm, 3mins @100rpm, 3mins @regular preferred rpm]. The aim is to ride at your estimated IM race pace whatever the cadence. Include a 10min warm-up building in intensity and a 5min cool-down.

Endurance session

Duration: Build up to 5hrs
Why? Neuromuscular adaptation to exercising for 5+hrs – intensity not as important as riding the whole way
Frequency: 1 x per 10-day block
Fuelling: 400-700ml of fluids per hour

Slight warm-up, but basically get right into the ride.

Age-Group Adaptation

Lionel’s long ride is fairly straightforward without any major variations in pace or structure. If you’re new to IM, aim to complete 2-3 rides of estimated race duration in your complete build-up with a 3-week gap between very long rides. Having a batch of 4-5hrs rides will really strengthen your resolve for the 180km. 

Speed session

Duration: 2hrs +
Why? To push the limits of what you can sustain and slowly bring the ceiling of your 70.3 pace up
Frequency: 1 x per 10-day block
Fuelling: 2 bottles of hydration formula per hour

Warm-up

15mins

Main set

10 x 8mins with 3mins rest between reps 

Cool-down

10mins

Age-Group Adaptation

This is a real leg-buster! And most age-groupers will need to build up gradually. But try this: main set as 8 x [6mins threshold/3mins recovery)]; 8 x [7mins threshold/3mins recovery]. Once you feel comfortable, build up to: 10 x [6mins threshold/3mins recovery] and finally 10 x [7mins threshold/3mins recovery]. Don’t compromise on hitting near-threshold levels, if you can do that you will see major improvement in your bike power and speed endurance.

David McNamee run sessions

Age 29

Kona ’17 bike split 2:45:30

Kona ’17 overall time 8:07:11

Kona ’17 finishing position 3rd Male Overall

After a long wait of 9,993,034 minutes (or 19 years), Spencer Smith’s British Kona Ironman record of fifth was finally broken by David McNamee in October, a feat that’s eluded world championship-winning athletes of the calibre of Simon Lessing and Tim Don.

While Lucy Charles was occupying much of the Brit race coverage, the 29-year-old McNamee was running his way onto the podium with a 2:45:30 marathon to see him finish third overall following 11th and 13th placed finishes in his two previous Hawaii ventures. 

If McNamee showed huge improvements on his bike split in 2017, it’s his run speed – developed in his years as an ITU pro – that’s his formidable weapon, with the Scot consistently clocking sub-2:50hr marathon times in Hawaii.

And McNamee’s mix of sessions are once again adaptable into your own long-distance training mix, placing a key emphasis on technique, pacing and running strong when fatigued. 

David also has sound advice for age-groupers on the recovery run session. “The entire session should feel like a warm-up to nothing.  A chance to mentally switch off, just enjoy being outside and doing something you love.”

THE SESSIONS

  

Speed and technique session

Duration: 60mins
Why? Good technique is a key ingredient for run speed, which yes, is still applicable for IM racing 
Frequency: Once per week
Fuelling: Recovery shake afterwards

Warm-up

20mins easy; the last 5mins at race pace

 Drill set

10-15mins stability and control drills, ending with drills that emphasise muscle activation before going straight into 10-15secs of accelerated running

 Main set

2 x 90secs; 4 x 60secs, 4 x 30secs; 4 x 15secs with a slower tempo recovery of the same time between each rep.    

Cool-down

5mins easy jog

Age-Group Adaptation

This speed/technique workout is really useful for the time-poor triathlete. Better technique also leads to stronger running, reduces injury and boosts speed. While the main set will be achievable for many age-groupers, I’d suggest taking 60secs recovery between sets. As you get stronger reduce this by 10secs until you get to 30secs recovery. 

Endurance session

Duration: 120mins
Why? Forces your legs to get used to the sensation of running strong as fatigue builds up
Frequency: Varies throughout the year depending on training phase. It starts with ‘just go and explore somewhere in the hills’ to ‘time to remind the body to run hard on tired legs’   
Fuelling: 1 gel, recovery shake afterwards

The target is to build throughout the run with the last 50-70mins averaging around IM race pace (RP). Starting just above race pace and finishing 10-15secs faster than race pace. 

Warm-up

50mins at around 4:20-4:45 pace depending on freshness

Main set

50-70mins, starting at 4:10 pace and finishing at 3:40 pace 

Cool-down

5mins easy jog

Age-Group Adaptation

The endurance run is the cornerstone of IM run training – without the miles in your legs the last section of the race can be disastrous. Aim to complete a solid endurance run at least every 10 days but preferably every week. I’d reduce the total duration to 90mins as: 30min warm- up at IM marathon pace; 30mins @15secs per km faster than IM marathon pace; 30mins @20-30secs per km faster than IM marathon pace; 5min cool down. Aim to avoid any big fluctuations in pace. 


 
 

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