Triathlon Training–How to Finish a Half Ironman MY Way

NOTE (2.7.2014): I get lots of traffic on this post, but please remember it was written in 2009. I’ve learned a lot since this was written, and have gained some valuable race experience along the way. There’s much more sound advice in the articles listed here.

For example, I talk a lot about bricks in this article, but have since developed the opinion that traditional bricks aren’t that valuable for long distance triathlon training, at least for me.

Most of the text below is probably a lesson in what not to do, so read at your own risk. I leave it posted for two reasons–to give me a way to remember how much I’ve grown and improved, and because it’s probably good for a laugh here and there.

What’s “my” way? The fat and lazy way.

My buddy “Dirty Matt” is training for a half iron distance triathlon in May and was asking me for some advice. Why would he ask me instead of his other friend who does full iron distance races on a whim? Because I’m going to let him off easy. See, my training regimen relies heavily on rest and tapering. In fact, I like to start my taper a couple of months before the actual race. You definitely don’t want to show up tired on race day, right?

I did a half iron distance race in 2006, and I learned quite a bit about training for regular people who are short on time and long on injuries. It doesn’t hurt to be a little lazy and have a propensity for sleeping late either. I used this training guide as my base, but after a few weeks I tweaked it to fit my lifestyle body shape laziness schedule.

I’m making a couple of assumptions here about the person who wants to train my way:

1. You aren’t trying to win the race, but you want to finish with a respectable time
2. You can already run 8-10 miles at an easy pace without much trouble
3. You’re an ok swimmer. My method will NOT improve your swimming much. You don’t have to be fast, just comfortable with swimming 1000 yards.
4. You are fat or lazy by triathlete standards–it helps to be both

Swimming

If you’re like me, when you first hear “1.2 mile swim”, it’s very intimidating. I promise you that when you finish training it will seem like nothing. In fact, my whole training philosophy is based on the premise that the swim is nothing.

Here’s the thing–if you didn’t grow up swimming, chances are you will probably never be great at it. In order to get fast you have to swim A LOT. I’m not really interested in that because (a) it’s boring and (b) planning for a 6 hour 1/2 ironman means you’ll be swimming from 30 to 40 minutes on race day. It’s just a warm up for the rest of the race. Losing or gaining 2 minutes or so in the swim is pretty negligible, and I want to get the maximum race time reduction for each minute spent training.

I went to a master swim class for a few weeks when I first started swimming, and the coach helped me work on stroke efficiency. The first day I swam one lap, and she counted 23 strokes for a length of the pool (25 yards). She stopped me, told me two things to change, and I was immediately down to 19 strokes per length. I kept going back until I was down to 15 strokes, then left with her tips and eventually got down to 12-13 on my own. All the while, my speed was improving. Makes sense, because I was not tiring out as fast.

I also started noticing that swimming “harder” didn’t gain me much time. It gained me a little, but not a lot. But swimming hard was jacking my heart rate up to ~160, while I could swim easy and keep it at ~120. All this work and training for, at best, a 5 minute gain on race day? No thanks. I worked my way up to 2,200 yard (1.2 mile) nonstop swims, and then did one swim a week of the full distance, making sure I kept my heart rate down. This was basically to keep myself mentally prepared to do it.

Cycling

The bike is where you can gain the most time. Again, I was aiming for a six hour race, and that was going to mean around three hours to cover the 56 mile bike ride. Ride your bike! Ride it some more! If I could change one thing about my training, I’d have spent more time on the bike. It’s not just that the bike is the longest leg of the race either. The bike doesn’t tear up your body like the run does, and it isn’t as boring as the swim, so the training is much more enjoyable, at least for me.

I also know that Dirty Matt is coming from the same place I was coming from as well, which is a pretty solid running base, and I think cycling is a great way to build on that. For me, the bike takes weight off too, which helps a lot with the injury issues I can have with training for the run.

I worked on controlling my heart rate on the bike too, due to the way I trained for the run.

Running

I love to run, but it tears me up, mostly because of my weight. And to be honest, these triathlon schedules take up a ton of time. Again, I’m just looking for a way to minimize my time on race day. Instead of doing separate run and bike workouts, I decided to just brick the mid-week bike rides with a 10% run immediately after. So a 30 mile bike ride would be followed by a 3 mile run, a 40 mile bike would be followed by a 4 mile run. It’s actually one thing I’m glad I changed from the training program, I’d done a few sprint tris and thought that those short runs would be no problem after a short bike ride.

I was wrong. Bricking the runs not only help your legs get used to the transition, but they give you a feel for how far into the run you will be before you legs feel normal again, which is a nice thing to have mentally.

Another change I made was to swap the weekend runs and bikes–doing the long bike on Saturday and the long run on Sunday. Sort of a “rested” brick. Maybe not a super smart move, but I was fighting off some injuries the whole time, and they didn’t get any worse, so maybe there’s something to it.

Other Considerations

I didn’t do ANY quality workouts. I think that’s something I would consider if I was going in to training fit enough to do the race, but I was building fitness for the entire duration of training and didn’t want to overdo it.

I don’t go back and pick up missed workouts unless they are the long ones. Missing a short bike ride or a short run isn’t that big of a deal to me, but the long ones have to be done. I probably would have been ok with even less swimming, but it helped mentally to do it at least once a week.

I did a few open water swims, just to practice spotting and going the right direction, which is tough for me. I still probably lost a couple of minutes in the race zigzagging. Dirty Matt lives on Maui, so open water swims are probably more convenient (and fun) for him than pool swims are.

Sorry this was so long. You could have probably already completed the whole damn race along with the training it the time it took you to read this.

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  • Todd

     Great article.  I plan on following this, actually have been, for my Idaho prep in June.

    Thanks for taking the time to write 🙂

    • Thanks for taking the time to read, Todd! And good luck with your race in June!!!

  • christopher pyttlick

    You talked about swim efficiency and your stroke improving down to 12 strokes. Do you have any examples of this? thanks.

    • Hey Christopher…

      I’m no swim coach, but I can tell you that the key for me was a drill where I turned my hips and glided as far as possible with one arm extended. My coach at the time talked about imagining you are reaching up to get something off a high shelf–you always turn your hips to get your body sideways and make yourself longer, and that’s what you want to do in the water with each stroke. Be as long as possible.