How to train for an ultra triathlon

Is Ironman not enough and thinking about pushing yourself to the limit and doing an ultra triathlon? Here are 11 tips from ultra triathlete Graham Smedley, who was Enduroman 2016 Triple Champion and was one of just five who finished Deca UK

Graham competing at Deca UK, where he was one of just five who finished

1. The American entrepreneur, Jim Rohn once said “If you fail to plan you plan to fail” and I think this is never truer than in the case of preparing for an ultra. I always plan out my weekly training as far in advance of the event as possible so that it includes base (building strength and refining technique), build (raising sustainable power) and speciality phases (fine tuning my fitness to suit the demands of the event I’m training for).  I try to stick to it as closely as possible although realistically life will get in the way, especially if you have a 6, 9 or 12-month training plan.


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2. Be adaptable and a problem solver.  Sometimes niggles might stop you training as you’d like but that doesn’t mean you have to stop training. Find ways around the issues – solving problems is a key part of successful ultra-triathlon races where you will rarely find you have no issues to solve!

3. Be consistent with regular training.  I believe it is far better to have 8 x hard hour-long sessions over a fortnight rather than one 8-hour session followed by a long break. The plan should include a gradual build and plenty of rest to ensure growth and muscle repair. Recovery and growth is the whole point of training, hence regular sessions you can recover and grow from make more sense to me than big block sessions.

4. Recovery and growth rely on great nutrition. I use Herbalife24 throughout training and races. Don’t think nutrition as just something for training and racing only, we always need good nutrition. My one piece of advice would be to practice with whatever nutritional supplements you are going to use during the race to ensure your stomach can deal with what you are sending it. And make sure you have a nutritional plan for your crew (if you have one) so that they can ensure that you continue to take in calories when you get to a point where you don’t feel like eating anymore!  We are in a calorie deficient sport; we cannot eat enough to match what we use so I feed constantly from the start to ensure I am getting in as many calories as I am able to absorb to keep the deficit to a minimum.

5. Multi-tasking to strengthen & motivate the mind.  I use my turbo and treadmill training workouts to watch and listen to powerful motivational videos and recordings.  Having heroic music playing whilst people are screaming about how great I am sounds silly at first but it does start to sink in.  And what is wrong with being told that anything is possible?  Whilst in a sprint finish at the end of the 51:22-hour Triple Enduroman the sound of one of those videos replying in my head “I will win or die trying” helped me pull ahead to win by just 10 seconds! Ultra triathlon is very much a mind game. Whether at the front or back of the race you will at some point doubt yourself and ultimately it is what you tell yourself in those times that will dictate your result.

The coping mechanisms of ultra triathletes

6. Train hard, race easy.  Over time I have changed how I train.  When I set out it was more about time and distance but what I could manage.  Now I train to really push myself.  For me this is easier to do on a turbo and treadmill as I can push myself to a point where I can barely breath.  If I was to do this whilst out on the road I would either get to a point where I simply could not get home or would back off to ensure I could!  For the DECA I followed a 3:00 marathon plan which was incredibly difficult initially – the idea being that backing off from that during the event would seem like a really easy run.

7. Test everything.  Just like nutrition all kit needs to be tested.  With continuous events we are cycling through the night so thought needs to be given to how you hang lights front and back on TT bikes. Front lights need to be VERY good if you are to keep up any speed during night riding. If you haven’t cycled or ran overnight it is worth trying this out, if for no other reason to see how your energy returns to you when the sun comes up in the morning. As well as lights you need to think of bottles, feed and toilet stops and kit. Many people will cycle with two pairs of cycle shorts on longer rides so it’s worth trying this to see if it suits you.  I test out what I intend to wear during the event, but do not overuse it – especially cycle shorts.  Running at night with a good head torch takes a little getting used to so if you have no experience of this then winter is a great time to get comfortable with it.

8. Use Facebook groups or discussion forums to ask questions.  But be aware you will get 360 degrees’ worth of advice! Nothing is wrong with any of the advice, if it works for you and you might get one nugget of info that could be a total game changer.  The only comment, you will regularly see, that I think you should totally ignore is “training is cheating”.

9. Swim gear.  For many of us the idea of swimming 5 or more miles is very daunting and failure in this can lead to a very quick end to the event!  So train hard on your swimming. I now do all my swimming in a lake (which includes swimming through the winter to ensure my body can cope with the temperature, should the event include a cold lake, which invariably it often does!).  Many ultra-events do allow booties and gloves so find out if this is the case and try them out to see if they work for you.  Even if I don’t plan to use them in the race, using them in training, along with a rash vest, can mean I get longer training swims through the winter. When the temp gets down to about 2 degrees getting a 14-minute swim instead of 4 or 5 can be a huge bonus!

Winter open water swimming: 9 essential pieces of kit for chilly temperatures

10. Bike fitting is crucial during the long ride of an ultra and getting it done ahead of hours and hours of training will help avoid any overuse injuries. If possible, consider having it redone if you are greatly improving your cycling during your plan as you may find that your riding position/style changes.  I also use a local running store that offers gait analysis to ensure I am running in shoes that suit my style.

11. Train with the course in mind.  Will it have a hilly ride or run? Is the run off road and does it require night riding/running?  I like to use GPS rides of the actual course on my turbo to allow me to get a feel for the route and elevations.  Whilst it’s not as good as doing a recce of the course it is something you can repeat as often as you like.  I can also do this with my treadmill, although I found going up the real Snowdon to be much harder than doing it on my incline treadmill!

Graham has completed 7 ultra triathlons and has ran 10 ultra marathons including 6 100 milers


You can follow Graham and his adventures on Twitter @GrahamSmedley

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