Preparing for an Ironman: group vs solo training

Training for a long-distance triathlon and wondering how much you should train alone and how much with others? Coach, Simon Ward, and four-time Ironman champ, Lucy Gossage explain the pros and cons of both.

Training for an Ironman on your own can be tough. Credit: PeopleImages /Getty Images

Simon Ward says:

There is a time and a place for training in a group and training on your own. Group training works well for the following:


1) Swimming (all year round). You’ll be able to accomplish far more and at a higher intensity in a group (preferably with a coach) than alone.

2) Winter riding. This is about general conditioning and on those damp, cold winter days, cycling partners may be the difference between getting out and staying in.

3) Open-water swimming. Never swim alone in open water. Besides, you need to make sure you’re comfortable swimming in a large group for when you race.

However an Ironman race may be a mass start but it’s essentially a solo event, so you need to learn about swimming, riding, running and pacing on your own. When you’re in a group, you can end up trying to hold the group’s pace and unless you’re very evenly matched that makes it difficult to achieve your personal goals for the session.

The solution is to train solo but on long rides it’s easy for boredom to kick in. To avoid losing interest in your ride, design an intensity profile (based on power or heart rate) to replicate how you intend to pace the 180km on race day.

For instance, this is how a profile for a four-hour ride might look (spend as much time as you can in the aero position but definitely on the 2 x 45mins efforts):

30min warm-up

45mins as: 15mins at 5-10% under IM intensity, 15mins at IM intensity and 15mins at 5-10% above IM intensity

90min steady riding

45mins as above

30min easy riding

Lucy Gossage says:

Try to do as much training as possible with other people. It makes the training routines for each discipline more fun as I find having other people around pushing me along keeps me motivated, especially when I’m tired.

But it’s not only useful when you’re tired. If there are a few of you working through the same session
at the same time, the shared experience makes it much easier to keep going and get the work done. And that’s particularly useful for the sessions that last a long time or require hard efforts. I certainly work much harder if I know someone else is suffering alongside me.

But, while training with other people may make getting the work done easier and more fun, the tricky part is making sure you’re training at the right level of intensity. To do so you need to find friends who are of a similar ability (ideally a little bit quicker to push you) and have similar goals for the session you have in mind.

There are a couple of things to be aware of if you’re going to get the most out of training in a group, particularly when it comes to cycling. The first is not to spend too long drafting. Drafting saves you a lot of energy but you can’t do it in a race. Not only will doing your fair share of work on the front help your fitness it also helps maintain group harmony.

Secondly, if you’re planning on racing on a time-trial bike, you’ll need to do a lot of your training in the time-trial position, which isn’t always wise if you’re in a tightly packed group. Try to spend time riding 10m apart, in the same way you would in a race.

Competing in 50 or 100-mile time trials is a great way to practise pushing yourself on your own but they’re far more fun if a few of you turn up so you can race each other. As for swimming, nearly everyone will swim better with a club and I’d definitely recommend joining one. Remember: you’re doing Ironman for fun so there’s no point making every session a lonely chore.


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