Ironman training: 14 tips for getting fitter, faster and stronger
Building strength in your sessions and diet will have you hitting the finish line stronger, fitter and faster. Over to Ironman stars Lucy and Reece Charles-Barclay for their proven long-distance advice
How can you use your training to get fitter, faster and stronger for your next Ironman race? Here, recent Ironman 70.3 world champion Lucy Charles-Barclay and fellow pro Reece Charles-Barclay share the key swim sessions, cardio workouts and core strength exercises in the Barclay armoury.
1. Utilise speed surges
Our key swim strength set is a weekly 3.8km with speed surges. This 60-90min session replicates what happens during an Ironman. It works best with two people of a similar swimming ability.
Warm-up 400m building intensity.
Main set 500m Swimmer 1 (S1) leads with Swimmer 2 (S2) drafting on their toes then S2 surges to take the lead for 500m. Repeat this pattern for 400m, twice for 300m, once for 200m, and twice for 100m.
Cool-down 3 x 100m easy.
2. Mix cardio with intensity
Aim for a mix of intensity and steady swimming in your swim sets. We aim to swim 4-5 times per week. Depending on the phase of training, between three and four of these sessions will involve quite a bit of intensity. Then the other one or two sessions will be strictly cardio with some technique and drills. A swim background will provide you with the cardiovascular fitness to succeed in triathlon. But, more than anything, swimming will give you mental strength.
3. Core strength is key
Core strength and shoulder stability are essential to swimming, so this should be a big part of your strength training. Other exercises such as weighted chin-ups, lat pull-downs and bent-over rows are important for building the power of each arm pull through the water. We usually perform chin-ups to failure and repeat x3. This is around 10-15 reps depending on the additional weight added. To get the benefit of lat pull-downs and bent-over rows, we complete 3 rounds of 10-15 reps.
Make bike strength your goal
A big bike strength set will build endurance for Ironman racing. But don’t forget to refuel and build your core, says Lucy
4. Build base endurance
Perform a long bike set with a mix of intensities to build base endurance for Ironman and 70.3 racing, and sharpen up your body in the build-up. My key bike strength set is 2:30hrs. I perform it weekly, but not on race week, and use a turbo.
Warm-up 15mins building intensity.
Main set 5 x [20mins at between Ironman and 70.3 power/intensity (depending on the phase of training you’re in), followed by 5mins recovery easy spinning].
Cool-down 10mins easy spinning.
5. Refuelling focus
Ensure you keep your body fuelled during a long ride. I use gels and bars and, once home, I’ll have a protein shake with frozen berries, milk and peanut butter while preparing my favourite post-training meal of gluten-free toast, two poached eggs, half an avocado and grated cheese. I spend a good 15-20mins foam rolling after a long bike session and then rest and recover in my recovery gear from Compressport.
6. Make S&C bike specific
As well as the basic core exercises such as the plank and sit-ups, free weight leg exercises will build strength for the bike. These challenge the core muscles while working the legs, so it’s more specific to cycling. These exercises include: squats, lunges, deadlifts and single-leg squats using the TRX suspension resistance bands. Also look to do pre-emptive ‘Prehab’ work to prevent you from getting injuries, improve posture and to sort out any muscle
Follow your S&C with informed recovery
Don’t forget the strength and conditioning when training for tri, says Lucy.
7. Aim for sustained strength
Our 2-3 S&C weekly sessions are key for sustained Ironman strength.
Warm-up 5mins of rowing, 3 x 10 kettle bell goblet squats.
Set 1 3 x 15 squats with barbell weight, 45secs rest.
Set 2 3 x 10 (each leg) lunges with barbell weight, 45secs rest.
Set 3 3 x 15 leg press (75kg), 3 x 15 calf raises (75kg), 45secs rest.
Set 4 3 x 15 leg extensions (30kg), 3 x 15 hamstring curl (20kg), 45secs rest.
Set 5 3 x [10 ab wheel roll out, 60secs plank, 45secs flutter kicks].
Cool-down 5mins easy spinning.
8. Supplement your diet
I use a wide range of supplements to complement my diet. These include calcium, iron, glucosamine and CurraNZ (a blackcurrant extract from New Zealand) that promotes blood circulation, oxygen delivery and fat burning. All my supplements are from the batch-tested range at Informed-Sport. Post-session, I use Vanilla Whey protein powder from MyProtein.com. I normally have two protein shakes per day after sessions, both with a 25g scoop of protein powder.
9. Don’t forget to R&R
Rest and recovery is just as important as performing the hard training and gym-based sessions; it’s the glue that holds everything together. I foam roll and stretch at least once a day, especially after a hard bike or run session. I also use compression gear to keep the blood flowing around the body after training. In addition to this, we’re lucky to have a set of Normatec boots, the pulsing compression device that seems to work wonders on our tired legs.
Hills, trails and drills are key for an iron core
Variety in your strength training will pay dividends on the run come Ironman race day, says Reece. Here’s why…
10. Hit the hills
Hill reps are key for building strength and endurance. We perform this 60min run set weekly but it’s reduced in volume on race week and used as a sharpening set.
Warm-up 2-3km of steady running.
Main set 1 5 x 2mins uphill road reps working hard. Recovery is the easy jog back down the hill to your start point. Then do a steady jog of 2-3km steady running to break up the session.
Main set 2 5 x 2mins uphill road reps working hard. Recovery is the easy jog back down the hill to your start point.
Cool-down 1-2 km easy jogging back home.
11. Combine reps and off-road
We’re lucky to have some great trails near us in Epping Forest. We combine our weekly hill reps with off-road running to build strength and make us more resilient.
12. Seek a strong core
Having a strong core will help you maintain good run posture, especially when you’re fatigued on the Ironman marathon run leg. Aim to perform drills such as high knees, lunge rotations and bounding before your run sessions.
13. Don’t suffer alone
It’s easier to hurt your way through a tough set when you know you’re not suffering alone. We’ve had to learn to not always push each other and back off the intensity when the sessions are meant to be easy. Which is easier said then done given our competitive natures!
14. Key Iron fuelling
The essential food and drink supplies in the Reece Barclay and Lucy Charles shopping basket.
- Tomato soup: each bowl of tomato soup contains vitamins E, A, C, K, essential minerals and antioxidants. It tastes great, too.
- Nuts & berries: snacking on nuts and berries in between meals helps us from turning to the treat cupboard, which isn’t always easy!
- Avocado: these provide us with healthy monounsaturated fatty acids and a good dose of natural vitamins and mineral
- Protein powder: quick and easy whey protein powder after workouts kickstarts our recovery so that we’re prepared for our next session(s)
- Chicken: chicken salads for lunch or chicken curry for dinner. Both are quick and easy to prepare and offer a protein boost.
- Coffee: we drink coffee because of its stimulant properties and taste. After 12pm we switch to decaffeinated.
- Eggs: poached eggs with avocado is a great breakfast. They’re a source of protein and vitamins, and keep you feeling full.
- Carbs: we recently switched to gluten-free foods, such as bread and pasta, and instantly felt less bloated and lethargic.
About the impressive duo
In her debut year as a pro Lucy came second at the 2017 Ironman World Championship. Since then, she’s finished second twice more, before winning both the Ironman 70.3 World Championship and her Collins Cup race in 2021.
220 Age-Grouper of the Year Reece made the Kona age-group podium in 2015, clocked a Kona PB in 2016 (9:33:29) and finished top age-grouper at Challenge Gran Canaria.