An Ironman is an iconic distance in triathlon. Whether competitor or completer, it’s a challenge many aspire to. But what about the training - how many hours do you really need to train for an Ironman? Train smart and the answer's a lot less than you might think
Those who have completed an iron distance triathlon will tell you the difficulty is not so much in completing the event itself – though of course this does require grit, determination and resilience – but in finding the time to get the required training done.
Day after day, week after week, into months and even years. That sort of dedication requires real toughness and, importantly, the hours in the day to get it done.
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For many, that’s the hurdle. “I don’t have enough time to train for an Ironman”.
Well, fear not my aspiring long-course triathlon champ, because in this article we challenge the common misconception that you need 15hpw (hours per week) to finish an Ironman.
You can in fact do it on much less than that. You just need to know how.
How long do you need to train for an Ironman - have you got 10 hours a week? Then you are on
And you can hear those four fantastic words “You Are An Ironman” as you cross the finish line.
You can reach the Ironman blue carpet on fewer hours than you might think
But I hear you scoff,
“Pah, are you kidding?! I don’t have a spare 10 hours each week!”.
As a coach I hear it all the time.
Don’t get me wrong, some people really don’t have that much time spare, but 95% of us do. I’ll bet you do too.
Ok, so where do I find those 10 hours?
They may not be immediately apparent, but I’d hesitate to guess it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to find them. They could be hiding:
- In front of the TV. Worryingly, I’d suspect many of us would free up 10 hours immediately by cutting out time in front of the box
- In your bed. We stand by the 8-hours per night goal, particularly when training, and we even wrote an article on how to improve your sleep. But could you go to bed earlier and get up 90 minutes earlier? Even just three times per week?
- On your commute. Skip the traffic and hop on the bike. Too far? Well, drive to within 7 miles, park and run the rest of the way. No shower at work? Well, what are wet-wipes for?
- In your lunch break. Can you pop out for a jog instead of eating at your desk / propping up the water machine?
- In your phone. Our obsession with mobile devices could be the sole barrier to you completing an Ironman. There are Apps out there that track usage, and it’s equal parts horrifying and revolutionary to discover how much time you could regain by cutting back
Stop staring and put your phone down - you could become an Ironman
How to train for an Ironman on only 10 hours: Go hard or go home
It's an awful motto, but there’s truth in it here and if you’ve read this far, then you’re pondering this. Brilliant!
When it comes to the actual training, there are guidelines to follow in each discipline. They’re a broad-brush approach but employ them and you’ll be well on your way to completing an Ironman.
First, you don’t have time for junk miles.
You need to maximise every minute so, apart from one long ride and one long run, expect the training to be fairly punchy.
It’s quality, not quantity
Coaches have different opinions on which specific sets to include, but for me there are certain sessions which are key if you’re going to finish well on lower-than-usual volume. Strength, endurance and tempo form the cornerstone.
You need endurance in each discipline. That’s obvious. And tempo work is ideal for increasing your lactate threshold, the point at which too much lactic acid is accumulated in the muscles to function properly.
Strength is the third pillar and a huge factor in Ironman. But it’s often overlooked. Who needs to be strong to complete a pure aerobic, endurance event? Well, take a look at Mile 15 of the run at any Ironman and you’ll see what I mean.
No one is one of breath. No one is struggling to finish due to lack of aerobic training. They’re hunched over with sunken shoulders, shuffling along dragging their feet. They've hit the wall.
In other words, they don’t have the strength to run properly.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the key sessions within each discipline.
Lower volume training for success – key sessions
When you start your journey to Ironman, I’d suggest beginning with the following training outline:
- 1 x strength swim
- 1 x endurance set
With limited time and, bearing in mind the swim comprises the smallest part of the race, we’ll keep swim time to a minimum. To make significant gains in the water, you’d need to hit the pool 4+ times per week. You don’t have that luxury and for the time-crunched athlete it doesn’t make sense.
Instead, make sure you cover the bases by incorporating two quality swims each week. Use pull buoys, bands and paddles in your strength swim and focus on technique throughout.
The endurance swim is about slowly building up the mileage until you’re comfortable covering the 3.8km without too much energy expenditure.
Smart swim training will get you through 3.8km
- 1 x endurance ride
- 1 x interval set
- 1 x strength session
An Ironman is all about the bike, and you’ll likely spend ~50% of your Ironman in a saddle. Your training should mimic this balance. Two shorter sessions in the week on the turbo trainer with a longer endurance ride on the weekends will see you straight.
The interval session is about raising your heart rate, developing your VO2 max and improving cadence efficiency. It’ll also push your mental and physical boundaries. There are many ways to structure an interval session - too many to go into here – but you’ll find plenty online (alternatively, drop us a message on social media for some ideas).
The strength session – ie low cadence work – is a superb way to boost your Ironman performance on minimal training. Work at tempo / threshold effort in a big gear and you’ll develop the strength needed to ensure you get through the big day with as little muscular damage as possible, leaving you (relatively) fresh to run your socks off.
Big gear, low cadence work is ideal for time-crunched cyclists.
- 1 x long run
- 1 x tempo effort
- 1 x short brick run
Three runs may not seem like much, particularly considering one is a short run, but do these consistently week in, week out and you’ll make huge gains.
Tempo sessions are run at an “uncomfortably comfortable” pace, but the long run should be at conversational pace. As fitness progresses, incorporate race-pace intervals into your long run to promote adaptations.
A brick run is a run executed immediately after a bike session. You could do it after any of the bike sessions, but make sure your brick runs are short to begin with – 10 minutes is all it needs.
Over time, increase speed and distance of your brick run until you’re hitting target race pace for an extended period. This will acclimatise your body to the demands of running long on jelly-legs.
Smart run training will get you that Ironman medal
Indoor training pays big dividends when training smart
You train outdoors but not only is it more time consuming, it also often reduces the quality of work.
Mount your bike on the turbo and you’re already getting more bang for your buck. Experts suggest a 60-minute ride on the turbo is worth 90 on the road once you factor in traffic lights, stop signs and teens wandering into the road with their eyes glued to their phones.
Make friends with the treadmill too. For tempo efforts, they’re brilliant. Holding tempo outdoors takes a lot of practice, but on the treadmill you know you’re hitting the zone from the off.
Of course, you’ll mostly swim indoors, but do head to open water when you get the chance.
You don't need to spend too long here to complete an Ironman swim
Ok, I’m seriously pondering this now. How do I fit these hours into my week?
Aim to get 50% of your hours done at the weekend.
Weekends are usually better for longer sessions, which focus on endurance training in the saddle. Time will gradually increase, but assuming your endurance rides start at 90 minutes, build to a consistent three to four hours each Saturday.
Sunday lends itself to the long run. Not only is it likely the second longest session of the week (and therefore harder to squeeze into a work day) but running the day after your long ride will mean running on tired legs. Perfect Ironman prep.
Assuming most Saturday rides will be 3 hours, and your long run 1.5 – 2 hours, that leaves between 5 and 6 hours to complete during the week.
I’d always encourage keeping a full day off per week.
Training smart - an Ironman training schedule on 10 hours per week
- Monday: Recovery day
- Tuesday: Bike – intervals 1:15 hour. Run – intervals 45 minutes
- Wednesday: Swim – endurance 1:15 hours
- Thursday: Bike – strength. 1 hour. Brick run – 15 minutes
- Friday: Swim – strength 1 hour
- Saturday: Bike – endurance 3 hours
- Sunday: Run – long 1.5 hours
10 hours total. Bingo
Use a diary to plan each week's training
I know this still looks like a lot of training but:
- Start out at 6-7 hours per week and build up to this
- Plan your week in advance and you will find time to get it done
- Get family and friends involved and it’ll become more manageable
Complete this schedule consistently and you will get to hear those four brilliant words as you run down the blue carpet to the finish line
But before you hit that ‘Enter’ button, there’s one final – very significant – factor that must be incorporated into this equation…
Nutrition is king
Good nutrition means optimal health consistent training, optimised recovery and improved performance.
The importance of correct nutrition cannot be understated, even moreso when you’re condensing training hours.
We’re not pooh-poohing the fact that 10 hours per week is still a lot of training. It definitely is. But you can go a long way to compromising for a lower volume approach by absolutely nailing your nutrition.
So much so that I’d even posit a 10hpw athlete with brilliant nutrition will outperform a 15hpw athlete with poor nutrition.
Getting your nutrition right will:
- Keep energy levels high so you’re ready to hit each session with real quality
- Give your body the vitamins and minerals it needs for optimal health
- Reduce the likelihood of injury and common colds
- Help you shed fat
- Mean you recover quicker
- Improve sleep quality
Bottom line is, if you’re going to ask your body to max out like this, then wholesome, nutrient dense fuel is absolutely imperative. Just as you can't afford junk miles in training, you can't afford empty calories in your nutrition.
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