12-weeks to Ironman race-day: race-specific training

Include more challenging sessions in your training now, and the easier your race day will be, says Joe Friel...


Issue ID: Summer 262

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The last 12 weeks before your iron-distance race is the most important time in your preparation. Research and experience tell us this time frame, called the ‘build’ period, is critical to your success. Get it right and you’ll have a good race; mess it up and
you’ll struggle to finish.

The build period is different from the base period that preceded it. In base the emphasis was on becoming generally fit so you could train hard in build. The build period is the time in the season when your workouts become increasingly like the race. The more challenging and race-like your swim, bike and run sessions are now, the easier your race day will be and
the better your performance.


So what exactly does ‘race-like’ mean? It’s defined primarily by duration and intensity. In other words, how long and fast your swim, bike and run are to be on race day determines how long and fast some of your workouts should be in the build period.

Note that not every workout should be race-like and that you also need recovery days. Without adequate recovery the intensity of your sessions will diminish over time due to fatigue.


Duration is easy to measure in training as you simply need a stopwatch. Intensity, on the other hand, is the hardest thing to get right as it’s more difficult to measure. Contrary to popular opinion, heart rate is not a perfect indicator of how you’re doing in a key workout. You can be going much too slowly at what you consider to be your race-like heart rate due to fatigue, caffeine or pre-workout nutrition. Heart rate is merely a reflection of effort – your workout ‘input.’ What needs to be measured is ‘output’ – what you’re actually accomplishing. This is what determines your race results.

The best measures of output are speed (swim and run) and power (bike). Without measuring these you really don’t know if your workouts are race-like. They may feel like they are, but that’s too subjective; feelings are often wrong. This is where technology can make you a much better iron-athlete.

Speed is easy to measure when swimming in a pool because all you need is a clock. Open water is different, as is speed when running. This is when having a GPS device will greatly improve the race-like intensity of your workouts. And a power meter makes getting race-like intensity right on the bike simple. (Speed is not a good measure of intensity on a bike due to the greater effect of wind and hills on output.)

But you also need to make a few other aspects of your preparation race-like. This includes race nutrition, equipment, terrain and weather.

The latter two can be particularly tricky. Terrain and weather may be difficult if not impossible for you to duplicate exactly in workouts. If the race course is going to be hilly and
you live in the flatlands then you may not be able to prepare adequately. You’ve also got a problem if high temperature, humidity or wind is expected and you don’t have these weather conditions where you live.

Of course, you can always take more time to better select your races. Then again, you might not have had an option – getting into iron-distance races can be as competitive as the race itself. If you’re doing a race that you can’t duplicate terrain- and weather-wise, you simply have to make the best of a difficult situation. There will be a lot of guesswork in deciding what the intensity of your workouts should be.


So exactly how do you make workouts race-like? The starting point is having realistic goals. What will your swim, bike and run splits be in the race? Don’t make these decisions flippantly. Decide based on what you’ve done in the past on similar courses.

It’s also a good idea to see what other triathletes you have raced against have done on the course. Take into consideration how your training is likely to go given your time available. Also consider your performance trends. Have you generally been producing faster race times at longer distances in the last year or so? That bodes well for your next race.


Depending on how much capacity you have for training stress and your race-limiting weaknesses, it’s generally best to do one or two key workouts in each sport. That means a total of three to six sessions in seven days.

This is where base-period volume comes into the picture. Athletes who consistently train for more than 20 hours per week in base can manage more than three key workouts weekly in the build period. If you trained for less than that then only do one key session in each sport weekly. If you think you can manage four sessions then make the fourth a bike workout. The bike has more to do with your race performance than either of the other two sports. See above for a sample of suggested workouts.

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For more on Joe Friel’s training methods, go to joefrielsblog.com.