15 Ironman training sessions from the pros

15 of the best long-distance triathletes in the world, including Craig Alexander, Daniela Ryf, Lucy Gossage, and Joe Skipper, share their key Ironman training workouts to help you reach your next-season goals…

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Fifteen stars from the world of long-distance triathlon have shared their training secrets to their respective successes. Some, like Chrissie Wellington and Kona icon Mark Allen, no longer race at elite level. Many, like current Ironman world champion Daniela Ryf, fastest Brit ever Joe Skipper and three-time Hawaii victor Mirinda Carfrae, currently light up the world racing circuit.

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For each, we’ve followed the same format to ensure you’re spoon-fed the intensity and duration of session, plus the respective nutritional requirements. The majority are also relevant to the off-season so you can pick and choose the ones that you’d like to apply to your own performance right now. But seeing beyond the doom, gloom and eternal sessions shrouded in darkness, a few sessions are more appropriate as the new season approaches.

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Finally, be warned that, as you’d expect from a breed of human that thrives on digging to the depths, many of these are damn tough. The hardcore out there, whose minds and bodies have built resilience over many years of training, will cope. But don’t fear if things look that bit too long or intense. You can play around with cutting the duration of sessions and reps down to suit your ability, while retaining the basic workout structure.

4 Swim sessions

Whether it’s lake, sea or river, the 3.8km swim can seem daunting. Yet help is at hand from the best in the iron business with their technique and stamina-boosting sets…

1. 90 minute pool swim: the iron VO2

   

Lucy Charles, The fastest female swimmer at Hawaii in 2015, and now pro athlete, gives her essential speed and endurance set.

  

lucy says: “This is a quality session that increases both speed and endurance. It’s a toughie but, if you can do it weekly, you’ll see a notable difference in your swim times.”

Key kit
Swim cap,  goggles, pull buoy,  kickboard

Warm-up
1
00m swim, 100m pull buoy, 100m kick with 30secs rest between each

Main set
50m at near-max effort on 60secs [on is swim time plus rest time before you go
again: in this case, 60secs]

100m at near-max effort on 2mins

150m at near-max effort on 3mins

200m at near-max effort on 4mins

300m relaxed on 6mins

200m at near-max effort on 4mins

150m at near-max effort on 3mins

100m at near-max effort on 2mins

50m at near-max effort on 60secs

300m relaxed

Cool-down 
100m kick, 100m pull, 100m with 30secs rest

Nutrition

“Make sure you’re fully hydrated. I eat a banana 30mins before and top-up on two electrolyte drink bottles by the end of the session.”

2. 5mins on dry land: calm breathing

Andy Potts (USA) The multiple Ironman winner and Kona swim legend serves up his best breathing advice to do on dry land.

  

Andy says: “This isn’t a session as such but a breathing technique I developed to cope with pre-race panic attacks.”

The Session
(No warm-up, main set or cool-down). Start with a few deep breaths, then build breaths faster and faster, before inhaling deeply and holding. Repeat several times. This works!

Nutrition

“Sip on some water or take an energy gel before hitting the swim.”

3. 60min pool swim: strength pull

Stephen Bayliss (GBR): The Brit long-course stalwart and four-time Ironman winner offers up his weekly aquatic essential swim.

  

Stephen says: “I still do this session every week of the year. It’s easy to remember, which is unusual for swim sessions! It’s all about strength and endurance, which is very important in any tri swim. As you improve, challenge yourself by doing the swim and rest off a certain time. For example, 6mins, but work out a time that’ll challenge and give you around 10secs rest.”

Key kit
Pull buoy,  paddles, a swim ankle strap (OR a cut inner tube tied in a knot around the ankles)

Warm-up
400m

Main set
4 x 400m hard with pool buoy and band with 15secs rest after each set
4 x 400m hard with paddles, pool buoy and band with 15secs rest

Cool-down
400m easy

Nutrition

“Ensure you’re fuelled and hydrated before the session, as you don’t drink during the session (in a race you don’t enjoy a drink stop halfway round the 3.8km swim!). Immediately after I consume carbohydrate and protein. I also keep hydrated.

4. 60-90min pool swim: the truth 

Jan Sibbersen (GER): Former holder of the fastest Ironman swim ever and Sailfish wetsuits founder gives his essential morning session.

    

Jan says: “This set is simple, honest and gives you a good indication of what you’re capable of swimming at an average speed per 100m in an Ironman race (provided you swim in a straight line). You should be ‘fresh’, so this should be your first session of the day.”

Key kit
Swimsuit, pull buoy, goggles

Warm-up
A long one of 1,000m-1,500m in total: 400m swim, 400m pull buoy and kick, and throwing in some 50s and 100s at increasing speed to elevate heart rate for the main set.

Main set
10 x 200m all-out. Rest for 1min after each 200m and try to swim the 10th time as fast as the first 200m. Keep the speed up and not too much variance between first and second 100m. Try to keep your stroke together. You should be completely spent after this set. Repeat it every week for three weeks, starting four weeks out from your race.

Cool-down
500m minimum

Nutrition

“If you want to treat yourself for an amazing performance, wait for at least 2hrs for your first beer as it inhibits regeneration substantially!”

10 off-season triathlon swim sessions

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The 180km bike can make or break your Ironman. Here are the proven sets from the world’s best bikers to have you riding to iron glory…

5. 75min turbo trainer or Wattbike

Lucy Gossage (GBR): Our columnist and six-time Ironman champion deals out a quad burner for building bike strength.

Lucy says “Low-cadence, big-gear work is a great way to build strength on the bike and winter is the perfect time to do this. The high-intensity, low-gear work is designed to improve cycle-specific leg strength and aerobic endurance. The short duration of the intervals means you have to accelerate in a big gear regularly, working your quads and glutes more than you would if you were putting in a constant effort.”

Key kit
Indoor bike trainer (ideally one that gauges power and cadence),  water bottle,  some good tunes!

Warm-up
5mins easy spinning followed by 3 x 30secs in a very easy gear @ very high cadence (>110rpm) with 30secs recovery; 2mins easy spinning.

Main set
3 x 15min blocks with 5mins easy spinning after each one:

Block 1: 15 x 45secs on, 15secs off, in a big gear with cadence @ 50rpm. Increase effort from 1-3 (1 moderate, 2 hard, 3 as hard as you can). Repeat five times.

Block 2: 30 x 20secs on, 10secs off, in a big gear with cadence @ 50rpm. The first 10 should be seated, on hoods. Second 10 seated, on aerobars. Third 10 standing.

Block 3: 30 x 20secs on, 10secs off, in a big gear with cadence @ 50rpm. Do as three very hard, one easy. Do this set on your aerobars if you have them.

Cool-down
 10mins very easy spinning (high cadence, low gear)

Nutrition

“As always you should make sure you’re well fuelled before a training session. This isn’t a long session so you shouldn’t need anything more than a bit of water during it. But since it’ll work your muscles hard, you’d benefit from consuming protein immediately after. The simplest way to do this is via chocolate milk!”

6. Road cycle: 5×20 minute sets

Liz Blatchford (GBR): The ITU star turned Ironman worlds podium finisher delivers a zone-straddling set.

Liz says: “This is an endurance set that gets you familiar with different effort levels/zones.”

Key kit
Bike power meter set up to show average lap power

Warm-up
Anywhere from 40mins-2hrs of steady riding

Main set
5 x [5mins @ Ironman wattage, 5mins @ half-Ironman wattage, 5mins @ Olympic-distance wattage, 5mins super easy]. For each 5mins, looking to hit average power within these pre-established ranges, lapping the power meter at each 5mins.

Cool-down
Variable

Nutrition

“You definitely want to be fuelled for this session and taking on fluid and fuel throughout. I often use this one to test race nutrition – Etixx gels and electrolyte drink.”

7. 45min turbo regular

Daniela Ryf: The mandatory turbo set of the 2015 and 2016 Ironman World Champion and superstar of long-course racing.

Daniela says: “I do this once a week throughout the year, no matter whether I’m racing short or long-distance events. It builds an element of speed and strength, and is quickly ticked off.”

Key kit
Bike,  turbo trainer

Warm-up 

10min spin

Main set 

30min hard effort

Cool-down 

5min spin down

Nutrition

“Not vital over such a short session but I like a smoothie. The recipe? Simply blend together the following: one cup of frozen raspberries, one nectarine, one cup vanilla yoghurt, two tablespoons of sesame seeds, two tablespoons of lupine protein, two drops of essential lemon oil plus enough water so it reaches the level of the fruit in the blender.”

8. 150min road cycle: VO2 max session

Joe Skipper (GBR): The first Brit ever to duck under the 8hr mark in long-course racing dispenses a power meter-led set to raise your upper limits.

Joe says: “This is a great VO2max session that’ll raise your upper limits and give you a chance to really see what you’ve got!”

Key kit
Bike, power meter

Warm-up
20-30mins steady riding with a few 15-30sec pick-ups at just above target power output.

Main set
The aim is to do these reps at the highest sustainable power output:

Follow this work pattern: 1min, 3min, 5min, 5min, 3min and 1min. The recovery for the intervals is the same duration as the interval you’ve just done.

After the last 1min rep, ride at endurance power output (60-70% of functional threshold) for the remainder of the ride.

If you want to compare your numbers to mine, for this session I hold the following: 500watts, 465w, 430w, 442w, 467w and 594w. Then I’d ride the last 90mins at around 230-260w.

Cool-down
Last 10mins easy spinning to finish

Nutrition

Pre “If it’s done in the morning, have a good breakfast with a decent amount of carbs.”

During “I use Torq energy drink and gels. I’d take one bottle of energy drink, one bottle of water, two energy bars and a gel. It’s a demanding session so make sure you fuel well.”

Post “Depending on where you are when you finish and how depleted you are would depend on what to have. If you’re meeting around a friend’s house or somewhere other than yours, have a recovery drink. I’d recommend Torq’s cookies and cream flavour. If you finish at home, I’d make something like a chicken salad with lots of greens and have a sweet potato or another good source of carbs with it like quinoa or couscous.”

 Continue reading 15 Ironman Training Sessions (brick sessions 9-11, page 3/4)

  

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9. 270min road or trail weekly brick

Chrissie Wellington (GBR): The certified legend of tri and four-time Kona champion dishes out her weekly bike/run brick…

Chrissie says: “To improve across all three disciplines, I’d do this brick every Wednesday. You can tone it down to suit your available time and ability.”

Key kit
Bike kit,  run kit,  racing flats

Warm-up
30min warm-up on the bike

Main set
Around 2:30hrs as: an hour of hill bike repeats, into a block of time-trial efforts, and then straight out for a 14-17km run. The run features variable pace, comprising 10-12km worth of effort. That might be 500m repeats with a rest interval.

Cool-down
Ease down the running near the end of the 17km effort

Nutrition
“Make sure you’re fully hydrated and fuelled beforehand, and follow a regimented nutrition strategy during as it’s a beast of a session. Protein and carbs post is essential.”

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10. 120min turbo and road or trail

Bella Bayliss (GBR): The multiple Ironman winner and Brit iron trailblazer dispenses some turbo and run power for the winter months.

Bella says: “I love using the turbo and still put in a brick session every seven to 10 days. This brick is perfect for winter, but it’s also a valuable session through summer.”

Key kit
Bike, cadence monitor, turbo trainer,  music, run gear

Warm-up
15mins easy

Main set
8 x 1min, cadence between 50-52rpm and working hard. Go aero if on a TT bike. 1min easy spin after.

6 x 3mins @ 58-60rpm and working hard! Go aero if on a TT bike. 1min easy spin after each.

4 x 5mins @ 70-72rpm and working hard. Go aero if on a TT bike. 2mins easy after each.

6 x 45secs @ 90-100rpm and working hard. Go aero if on a TT bike. 45secs easy after each.

Then run off the bike, moderate for 2.5km, then turn and come home best you can.

Cool-down
10-15mins easy spin on the turbo

Nutrition
“Once finished, have a good snack to refuel!”

11. 225min road or trail: run stimulus

Will Clarke (GBR): Sub-8hr Ironman finisher provides his strength-building set for preparing you for race day.

Will says: “This is a specific session I use to prepare for an Ironman. I wouldn’t usually expect to do this more than once in the build-up for a race, but it’s perfect for building strength and giving you that stimulus of what an Ironman run may feel like. It’s also a good opportunity to practise your nutrition.”

Key kit
Bike kit,  run kit,  Ironman nutrition

Warm-up
Part of main set

Main set
Ride 20km easy in one direction before turning back and riding back home at just above your Ironman pace. Then jump off your bike and into your run kit and run 32km at a steady pace. You don’t need to run hard here – it’s more about making the distance. That coupled with the short bike is enough for one day. I do like to build up the run a bit, though, so the last half is up around Ironman pace.

Cool-down
 10min gentle jog. Also, some good stretching to make sure the soreness from the long run doesn’t last too long.

Nutrition
“Recover well with a good meal and a protein shake or bar.”

 Continue reading 15 Ironman Training Sessions (run sessions 12-15, page 4/4)

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12. 10min park or trail: quick feet

Mark Allen (USA) He’s the six-time Ironman Hawaii champion and a master of the Ironman run. Here’s The Grip’s key quick-feet workout…

Mark says: “This will develop proficient foot strike in the micro muscles that will enable you to get on and off your feet quicker with each stride.”

Key kit
run kit  run shoes

Warm-up
5min gentle jog

Main set
The foot strike drill is easy. Take your shoes off and run barefoot on a track or grassy flat field. It only takes a minute or two of doing this to get the sensation of a perfect midfoot strike. Feel how without your shoes you land perfectly directly on your midfoot. If you’re a heel striker, which slows you down just slightly with every stride, this’ll correct it. Now put your shoes back on and try to recreate that same midfoot strike feel and the lightness that comes with it. You can do this drill a few times a week initially until you start to get the hang of it.

Cool-down
Not necessary

13. 45min track, rail or road: resistance capacity workout

Frederik Van Lierde (BEL): The 2013 Ironman world champ offers up his ‘resistance capacity’ base speed building session.

Freddie says: “I don’t really like this session (named Weerstand capaciteit or resistance capacity) but it’s effective! It’ll build base speed as well as increasing tolerance to lactate production. It’s not too hard on the muscles and the mental side.”

Key kit
run kit,  run shoes,  Calf guards

Warm-up
15min easy run with 3 x 100m climax at the end

Main set
8 x [200m all out followed by 200m very easy]

Cool-down
15min easy run

Nutrition

“I use Trisport Pharma products and I make sure I’m loaded with their energy drink (you need sugars to produce lactate!). During the session I drink little amounts of their Hydra Max. In the first half-hour post-session I drink 500ml of Recupro.”

14. 60min road or trail with incline: quad buster

Mirinda Carfrae (AUS): The three-time Hawaii champ and previous Kona course record holder provides her ultimate winter speed workout.

Mirinda says: “People think the winter months are all about building base miles, but I like to keep some short, hard efforts in the mix to stay on top of my dynamic explosive power and speed. I generally do this type of session every two to three weeks.”

Key kit
Layered run kit

Warm-up
2-3-mile easy-paced

Main set
8-10 x [1min uphill sprints, with easy jog back down to starting point]

Cool-down
1-2-mile tempo-paced

Nutrition

Pre “GU Energy Gel 15mins prior.”

During “GU Brew bottle – keep it at the base of the incline and take sips as needed before the hard efforts”

Post “Chocolate milk!”

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15. 120min road or trail: build run

Craig Alexander (AUS): He’s a three-time Kona world champion and one of the most respected triathletes in history. And here’s Crowie’s key run set for your Ironman schedule..

Craig says: “I used to do this session early in a pre-season training phase. It builds endurance and strength without being too taxing on a body that’s far from race-ready.”

Key kit
Off-road run shoes, weather-appropriate clothing

Warm-up
The warm-up is part of the main set

Main set
Break the run into 20 or 30min blocks. Start very easy and build each segment so that the last is at or close to goal marathon pace in an Ironman. Be careful with pacing. The point is to have discernible increases from one segment to the next. I never use HR as a measure in this run – just Perceived Exertion.

Cool-down
The cool-down is part of the main set

Nutrition

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“Perhaps carry some fuel with you but be sure to rehydrate and start the recovery process with the right nutrition immediately afterwards.”

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