How to train for a faster Ironman with Dave Scott

Want to go long for the first time? Or hoping to beat your Ironman PB? Dave Scott shares his go-long, go-faster, training tips


Triathlon guru, Iron War legend and the small matter of his six world Ironman championship titles – there’s a reason why we think Dave Scott’s the greatest Kona athlete of all time. Who better then, to reveal the top tips to help you improve your Iron performance, than ‘The Man’ himself? 


Whether you’re preparing to pop your long-distance cherry in 2019, are on the hunt for a PB or have your eyes on a ticket to the Big Island, Dave Scott is here to help you get there. Get ready to swim, bike and run your way to victory.

Train to swim faster

Pick up the pace and learn to breathe to both sides! Well-designed pool sessions will help you hold good form long after you leave T1.

Structure your workouts

You can become a faster, more efficient swimmer by properly structuring your swim workouts. Remember: swim sessions are not for recovery, they’re for building your speed and endurance.

A well-designed pool session should include a 10min warm-up set with mixed strokes (such as backstroke) and a focus on proper mechanics; a set of shorter intervals with progressive intensity; a main set of longer intervals appropriate for Ironman athletes (1,300-2,400m); and a kicking set of vigorous effort.

Workouts like this will teach you how to continue to hold good form even when you start to get tired, as on race day.

Swim more often

I recommend a minimum of three sessions, but four per week are better. Even if you just have 20 minutes, getting into the pool will help you develop a ‘feel for the water’, which is expressed through better body position, a sense of holding more water and a sensation of effortless speed.

Even though the swim is proportionally the shortest segment of the triathlon, investing in your swimming will help you become more economical and efficient overall, which will pay dividends later in the race.

Do swimming HIIT

Slow race splits are usually the result of long, slow training. Faster swimming speed is achieved through consistent high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Just like in cycling and running, HIIT enhances muscle recruitment, trains your body to spare muscle glycogen and builds strength – all vital during a race.

At least 20% of your swim training should be allocated to higher-intensity efforts (even more for advanced swimmers).

Try double-arm backstroke

Include double-arm backstroke in your training, and even consider swimming short segments of backstroke during the race!

Tight shoulders, lats and upper back are common in long swims, like in an Ironman event. Backstroke provides a super-stretch for typically inflexible triathletes and, when performed regularly, can help prevent injuries caused by poor mobility.

In a race, a few strokes on the back can provide a reprieve from freestyle and can often alleviate some of the race-day stress.

Practise breathing to the side

Swimming fast can be taxing, so I’m an advocate of breathing on every stroke. However you should be adept at breathing from both sides.

Learning how to breathe from your ‘funny side’ will allow you to escape waves or avoid the thrashing swimmer beside you.

Mastering off-side breathing also helps prevent imbalances in flexibility and mobility that can develop if you only breathe one-sided. It will also help you be adaptive on race day.

How to nail the long bike leg

There’s more to the bike than simply pedalling! The key to a quicker iron distance could lie in your posture and cadence – and beware the bent banana.

Increase pedal cadence

Consider elevating your pedalling cadence to improve your run. Many triathletes adopt an RPM that’s too slow (i.e. in the high 70s).

Why is this a problem? Slower cadences require more force per revolution than faster RPMs, so they recruit fast-twitch muscle fibres that burn through glycogen at a ferocious rate. B

y learning how to pedal at a faster cadence in the low-to-mid 90s, you’ll require less force per revolution, reduce the recruitment of glycogen-hogging fast-twitch fibres and preserve fuel… which will lead to a better run!

Relax in the wind

Relax your grip on the bike, even when it’s windy. Tri bikes and wheels are aero head-on, but can act like sails in crosswinds.

Triathletes often oversteer and over-grip in windy conditions, which creates unnecessary muscle tension in the back and shoulders and elevates energy-draining anxiety.

Try to wiggle your fingers as if you’re typing on your handlebars, and continually monitor your grip to ensure that you’re not activating muscles that should be calm. Relax in the wind and let your bike flow!

How to cycle in a headwind

Stand early and often

Your lower back and hip flexors will be tight from the swim (and you’ll need them on the run!), so stand up early and often.

Aero position on the bike is important, but standing on the pedals for 8-10secs every 10 minutes will engage a wider range of muscles and help keep you limber. This will work wonders for you later in the race.

Keep a long torso

Visualise yourself staying ‘long in the midsection’ and don’t ride like a bent banana! Don’t hunch over your bars with a rounded back or, conversely, don’t ride with an arched or ‘lordotic’ low back.

These two common (but non-functional)positions will compromise your performance by inhibiting your glutes and forcing your quads to take on most of the load (which you’ll pay for during the run).

In training, practise drawing in your beltline muscle (called the transverse abdominus). Narrowing your waist is the trick; do so and your power will soar!

How to keep your torso steady when working hard on the bike  

Drop your heels

Your Achilles tendons have shortened during the swim, where your foot has been constantly flexed for an effective kick.

Now on the bike, you need to stretch that lower leg in order to engage the calves and big gluteal muscles (which should be your major source of power).

A pointed-toe pedal stroke cannot engage the glutes. Try dropping your heel slightly to attain a more horizontal foot position near the bottom of the pedal stroke and feel your power increase.

Here’s more on how to keep your torso steady on the bike.

Speed through transitions 

Keep it simple

Be a minimalist in transition! Don’t eat or drink (see my nutrition tips), change your clothes more than you need to, wave to fans or comb your hair… you’re in a race, so be fast!

Your transition area should not look like a Himalayan base camp, either. Minimise the amount of gear and clutter by practising what can be eliminated and laying out the stuff you really need in a way that makes it easy to find and use.

Remember that most races have more aid stations than you will (or should ever) need, so when in doubt, get rid of it! Transitions are opportunities to gain time on your rivals, so take full advantage of them.

Pace the Iron run 

Mix up the bricks, add strength training and say hello to hills to stay strong all the way to the finish line

Vary your pacing

Do not train at your predicted Ironman running pace… it’s too slow. Even if you’re planning to combine some walking in the race (for example, at aid stations), I want you to add higher intensity, faster training into your run workouts.

Speed training will deliver greater physiological benefits than simply plodding through long runs and variable speed workouts will help you develop a sense of pace.

Even on your long runs, I want you to insert brief segments of elevated speed. You can get a taste of my ‘Swing Pacing’ workouts  by trying one of my favourite sessions below for Ironman athletes.

Head to the hills

Include one HIIT hill workout per week (even if your race is on a flat course). Why? Uphill running stimulates muscle recruitment, but this doesn’t occur if you’re only performing long aerobic training runs on flat ground.

Stronger glutes, quads, calves and feet will improve your race-day speed; nothing causes triathletes to walk more than a deterioration of their strength during the run.

Mix up your bricks

Brick workouts are as old as triathlon, but don’t limit yourself to just a bike-run session. Try a run-bike-run for a fast, fresh run at the beginning and a fatigued run at the end.

Also consider a swim-bike-run brick in which the swim is 75% of your race distance, the bike 33% and the run 75% of what you’ll be racing.

Within each segment of any brick workout, always vary your speed! I find that many athletes are riding too long and running too short in their bricks and aren’t deriving the full benefit of the workout.

Do strength training

I’ve always said that to become a faster triathlon runner, you must practise strength training. Lack of strength is one of the primary reasons why so many triathletes are reduced to a walk. There are three areas that all triathletes should focus on: core, glutes and calves.

A weak core leads to a deterioration of technique; weak glutes overload your quads during the bike (which you’ll pay for on the run); and weak calves will reduce your run to that infamous ‘Ironman shuffle’. Two days per week — or, better yet, three — will fortify you for faster running.

Work your hip flexors

One area that always needs work on triathletes are the hip flexors. Hours on the bike, or seated on an office chair, shorten these muscles and can create imbalances. Tight hip flexors can be the true cause of lower back pain or chronic calf problems; gaining just a slight improvement in flexibility of the hip flexors can help you avoid injury and the ‘Ironman shuffle’. A millimetre of improved mobility will lengthen your stride and improve your speed. There are many stretches for the hip flexors (I like the kneeling stretch and the wall stretch) – work on them daily!

Pin down your nutrition

From race weight to taper, iron-distance nutrition starts long before race day. And remember, aid stations aren’t buffet tables!

Hit race weight early

For your A-race, aim to attain your target race weight by three weeks prior to the event. Why? Because you want to avoid a dramatic weight-loss — anything more than 1% per week — in the final weeks prior to the triathlon, as that can cause a loss of lean muscle mass or weaken your immune system.

In the final few days before your event, you may see a slight weight gain due to water retention. That’s normal, but limit it to 1 to 1.5% of bodyweight.

Plan your fuelling

Nutrition is referred to as the ‘fourth event’, and many triathletes get it wrong. The most common mistakes relate to consuming too much, too soon.

I always advise my athletes to consume nothing in T1 and then to wait for 20 minutes into the bike before beginning their fuelling plan.

And you must have a plan… which means that you’ve experimented and trained in like conditions and intensities with your nutrition in mind.

Finally, I’ve heard stories of athletes who’ve consumed 25-60% more calories during the race than they do in training, because it’s a ‘big day’. That’s a guarantee for disaster!

Aid stations aren’t buffet tables. Less is more; follow that philosophy and you’re likely to post faster splits and a strong finish.

Fuel your taper right

Race-day nutrition begins one or two days prior to your triathlon. Begin by eating earlier dinners, to allow 10 hours between your evening meal and race-day breakfast.

Keep it early and light before the event: when I had a 7am start time, my very light breakfast on race morning would be consumed at 4:30am.

Be aware of — and avoid — anxiety eating. You can’t load up on calories and fluids for later in the triathlon!

Marginal race day gains

Do a race-day warm-up

Does your triathlon allow a swim warm-up? Or — as is increasingly common in Ironman events — are you prohibited from entering the water prior to the race?

Warm-ups are critical, so be prepared to conduct a dry-land warm-up prior to entering the water. I always instruct my athletes to arrive at races with a set of stretch cords (light tension is best).

Stretch cords can be anchored anywhere, so you can always execute your favourite 10minute routine, regardless of pre-race circumstances.

Wear a swimskin

If your triathlon swim is too warm for a wetsuit, then be sure to wear a non-buoyant swimskin (pull it on over your normal race apparel for a fast transition).

Swimskins, like the HUUB Albacore, deliver free speed, improving your swimming split by up to 4 seconds per 100 meters.

How? Through a fabric surface that’s more slippery in water than bare skin, and by creating a muscle compression effect that translates into more power.

If you choose to take advantage of a swimskin, be sure to get the proper fit (they’re meant to be worn snug) and practise with it prior to race day!

Don’t number obsess

Don’t be married to your electronic gadgets! Allow yourself 15 minutes into the swim before noting your pace (if you’re inclined to do this) and wait 30 minutes into the bike before checking your speed or power.

A key to successfully racing an Ironman is to have a relaxed mind and constantly obsessing over your metrics will prevent this and will only create anxiety and waste energy.

Develop a feel for speed, pace or power (by occasionally training without the gadgets!) and aim for capturing a ‘flow’ during the race.

If you need to check your gadgets, try to do so as frequently as you take in your nutrition: about every 8-15 minutes. By being relaxed and within yourself you’ll be surprised at how quickly the day will go!