Jan Frodeno’s key Ironman training sessions and advice
Survival is often the name of the game in Ironman. But don’t resign yourself to scraping through just yet... Smash it instead with world record holder Jan Frodeno’s go-faster advice
1. Focus your swim sets on sprints
Frodeno’s key advice
Whether you’re training for your first Ironman or getting your PB down, it’s a mistake to neglect the swim leg — even though it counts for just 10% of the race, says Jan.
“The key to Ironman preparation isn’t to lose all your speed. It’s not all about doing long repetitions or long intervals. I have some sprint work in every session, especially in the warm-up.
“It’s in the winter that I’ll actually do proper speed work with other swimmers,” Jan adds. “I swim five times most weeks. And probably two of these are really hard, but there’s intensity in all of
them as well.”
On his transition from Olympic to Ironman distance, Frodeno says he’s been doing more “short rest intervals where you don’t focus as much on the high intensity or quality, but it’s about short repetitions and a lot of work done at race pace, which is slower. And I do quite a bit of work at race pace”.
Frodeno’s key intensity sessions are still around 4km long, so they include a good amount of volume (more than an Ironman’s 3.8km swim length), but as he points out:
“I think it’s short, but of course it’s all relative.”
Frodeno’s key swim session
400m easy (front crawl/backstroke)
16 x 50m drills,
4-8 x 100m front crawl as: 15m sprint/85m easy
3 x [8 x 50m (off 1min, 1:10, 1:20)]
Increase speed on each length
3 x 200m front crawl with pull buoy
200m easy freesyle/backstroke
If you look at the overall volume of the key swim session and think you can just replicate it in the pool tomorrow, think twice.
For Frodeno, this is a short set and the main one performed at high intensity, while for most of us 4km is still a medium to long-distance swim in one single session.
To make it a better fit, shorten the long warm-up (but still do at least 400 or 600m) and don’t forget drills and lengths done at a faster pace to get you ready for the big effort.
You can keep Frodeno’s block 3 x [X x 50m], but start with less reps (4) and then build up at your own speed. The key is to get a bit more rest in the second and third blocks, but it’s there that you need to swim faster.
If in three weeks you can get to 3 x [6 x 50m] that’ll be a really good, but steady, volume increase. In the fourth week of your monthly plan, do one rep less to give yourself a week of ‘recovery’.
So, start fast – but finish faster. And never skip the cool-down!
2. Don’t forget the bike speed session
Frodeno’s key advice
Since his transition from ITU races to Ironman events, Frodo’s cycling volume is the one that has increased the most out of the three disciplines (his running has actually decreased).
If in the Olympic-distance days he was putting in around 350-400km a week, he now rides around 650-700km.
But that doesn’t mean forgetting speed and high-intensity sessions.
“For me, riding is about five to six times a week. In these six times, there’s one easy session, and always some
kind of interval. Twice a week I do some VO2 max work, which is short and hard stuff, with a short rest, where you go 30secs hard and 10secs easy, or you go 90secs really hard and 30secs easy. They’re generally short intervals with not enough rest to recover fully. So you do a set of 10 to 15mins and repeat that several times. That for me is high intensity if you want ‘sprint work’ – it’s not really a sprint, but it’s still high intensity.
“The biggest change [from the ITU years] is the amount of km on the bike and the volume of long intervals.”
Like many triathletes, Frodeno’s not a big fan of indoor trainers/turbos. And as triathlon also combines swimming and running, he says, “you can’t train at maximum effort on the bike every day”.
His main high-intensity set doesn’t change much during the season, although “in the beginning of the season I slowly build it up and I have about four weeks early on where I don’t do any intervals at all. But then it’s the same objective (as the swim), to make sure you don’t get too slow and too comfortable with the long stuff.”
Frodeno’s key bike session
60min base pace, normal cadence of about 95rpm
3 x 10mins as 30secs VO2 max, 30secs base power
30mins easy (normal cadence 90-95)
If you want to squeeze Frodeno’s high-intensity session set into an hour set, you can keep a good warm-up (10-15mins, increasing your heart rate every 5mins up to Zone 3), then add a 10min single-leg drill (30secs right, 30secs both and then change) and follow with a VO2 max focus in the main set.
Start with 2 x 5mins as: 30secs max and 30secs easy with a 5min easy spin in between; then 10-15min cool-down (total 50-5 mins).
Throughout the month, you can progressively increase the reps: 2 x 6, 7, 8mins as 30secs hard and 30secs easy, or reduce the rest to 2 x 5mins as: 30secs hard, 20secs easy; 30secs hard, 15secs easy and so on. Whether you decide to increase the reps or reduce the rest, make sure to do it progressively, without exaggeration and again by giving yourself a week with less volume every 3 or 4 weeks.
3. Do your steady runs on the dirt and your speed on the road
Frodeno’s key advice
Compared to his bike volumes, Frodeno’s weekly run mileage has actually decreased since his debut in 70.3 and later in Ironman events.
“On the ITU circuit, especially in my generation, the focus was very much on running. At that time we believed that the runner would win the race. So, there was a lot of mileage and I did a lot of sprint work on the track, like 20m, 30m, 50m, up to 150m sprint work, all-out,” says Jan. “I’d do something like that in the morning and then another track session or hard session in the afternoon.
“These days I rarely do intervals that are shorter than 1,000m; very seldom, but almost never. The speed session that I would do in certain phases, not in key phases, would be something like 20 x 400m in about 70secs, but really I don’t need much more than this for long distance as it’s more about consistency and long runs. I’d do some drills, technique and 5 or 3 sprints just to get the engine rolling before the set. But for sure, my run lost a lot of speed.”
Depending on the time of the year, Frodeno still runs one hour at a steady pace — mostly on trails around Girona, where he lives. His running volume, even for an Ironman training schedule, is still less than it used to be when training for ITU events. And 60% of his total weekly volume (which is now 100km instead of 120-130km in his ITU years) is done on trails, while the high intensity and speed (making up 40%) is on the road.
Frodeno’s key run session
3km; 10min drills (e.g. high knees, butt-kicks/hip flexibility)
2-4 x 60m acceleration run/Fartlek
1-2min easy jog recovery
15 x 1km, consistent pace with 90sec rest in between reps
3km easy cadence (90-95)
Following the warm-up (10-15mins) with 10mins of running drills is always a good routine and should be a weekly part of your schedule.
You can also do some strides (4 x 50-60m) to get the engine rolling before the main set.
Instead of the Ironman World Champion’s 15 x 1km set, begin with a 5 x 1min moderate-hard pace into 1min easy. You can repeat this twice, but make sure you have a good rest in between the blocks (2-4mins) and that you always finish with a good cool-down. You can either progressively reduce the rest or increase the repetitions.
Jan Frodeno’s sub-1hr session: 1km run reps
4. Fight the bad times to find a winning mindset
Frodeno’s key advice
Frodeno’s coach, Dan Lorang, still remembers when Jan approached him in 2012 after the Olympics. “I have two questions,” said Frodo to Lorang. “Do you think you can coach me? If you think you can do it, please think that I want to win Hawaii in the future. Can you do it?”
“We can do it,” replied Lorang, “and I think you can win Hawaii in 2015.”
Mindset (a goal, a vision, a dream) probably makes up 80% of the equation, both for the athlete and the coach. But “the biggest help in terms of mindset is that it doesn’t get easier. So it doesn’t get easier if you’re fitter. You still have to work just as hard because you’re faster,” says Jan.
“In the end, these are very long days and it really helps to have this in the back of your mind. Because, for sure, there will be low points and high times, and that’s when you need to have the perseverance to endure and to fight hard from the bad point to get to the next good point.
“I like to break things down into smaller chunks, so you don’t look at the whole distance left. And I also picture myself a lot on my home loop and I surround myself with familiar things. Try to remember the good sessions that may have started badly but became good.”
Setting a goal and visualising it (whether that’s finishing the race, qualifying for Kona or getting a PB) is crucial at all levels. The road to get there will be hard no matter what.
And if you get injured, he adds, it’s not the end of the world; take those moments as opportunities to work on your weaknesses and try to get as much actual rest as possible.
But his top tip? “A good pair of earplugs and an eye mask always help you to get a little nap when you can.” Well, if the two-time Ironman world champion can pull it off…!
5. Get a proper bike fit
Frodeno’s key advice
“The most important thing is to get a bike fit, because finding your optimum aero position will actually make you go faster. I have one fit a year and the position is the same for 70.3 and Ironman.
“The bike is where you spend most time in a race, and even if you’re not 100% after the performance, comfort is key during. It’s a great investment and you only need one until you get a new bike.”
Since he teamed up with his current coach, Frodeno has started to work more with data and watts. “Dan is never at training, so looking at my data online works really well. He can analyse it and I can write down how I experienced the session to get a better picture.
“If you really enjoy dissecting each session then there’s no reason not to use online coaching and software. But in the end, it’s only you or your body that can say this is good – or not. In the race, if your perceived exertion doesn’t match with your numbers, you can’t lose your head over it. Use the numbers, but remember this is a great outdoor sport to be enjoyed.”
If you’re riding in an aero position that you can’t sustain, then that isn’t going to be your fastest set-up. At the same time, a comfortable position can be improved with a bike fitter in order to get some ‘free speed’. It’s a balance that can be reached. But as with most of things in triathlon, don’t rush it. Do some research and ask your friends and tri mates for recommendations before you just go to the closest bike fit or the first one you find.
6. Find the right fuel for you and race at your best
Frodeno’s key advice
“In the ITU days I was used to reducing my calories intake to be extra light for running, but I don’t do that anymore. Nowadays, I experiment a lot because I think it’s very individual depending on what you like, ” he says. “If you can eat a pie before going running, well, good for you!
“In Kona, it’s always hot, and being light in a marathon still helps, but also on the bike it helps to have less kilos.”
On race nutrition, Frodo’s food doesn’t really change for the temperature. “I drink one bottle per hour and I refuel with whatever’s on the course, but I generally just look for water on the course.
“I only have special needs in Hawaii on the run, where I try to get a gel for every aid station, so normally 5 or 6. I use the very diluted gels so I don’t need a lot of water with them and I don’t use solids.”
The quality of what we eat – and the right amount of macro and micronutrients – is crucial, so it’s worth investing in a nutritionist, even if only for a consultation. The race nutrition plan, on the other hand, is something you have to test in training ahead of the event in order to find the best intake for your body, such as which bars, gels, amount of hydration are needed.
7. Do active recovery to boost post-race repair
Frodeno’s key advice
“In Ironman racing most of the strain is mental, so I try to recover my mind first and have a beer with friends, just to relax. I also have a protein shake straight after the race.”
“The day after, I try to do some active recovery, like a swim, because if you don’t move after an Ironman it’s the worst thing you can do.”
Physiotherapy is also crucial in order to prevent injuries and treat them when they occur. Since moving from ITU, Frodeno works with a personal physio. That, and the less high-intensity workouts, says Frodeno, help him to manage his injuries better.
“The intensity from the shorter distance hurts more and puts a lot more stress on the body, so, all in all, I’m healthier than I’ve ever been.”
Don’t forget to include both the recovery sessions and the actual recovery, i.e. rest days and hours of sleep. In order to get fitter, faster and stronger, your body actually needs to recover from the fatigue. One day of recovery or light activity a week, one week of less load a month, and a month a year dedicated to other activities, can really boost your performance and help you avoid over-training.