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13 Week/13 Hour IM

For: Triathlete; June 1999
Thirteen Weeks, Thirteen Hours to Ironman
Gale Bernhardt ©1999

So you’ve been racing awhile, have you? Doing the same races year after year? Looking for a new challenge? Would like to do an Ironman, but jeeeeeeze, there’s just too much training involved – or is there?

If you are contemplating an Ironman-distance race, don’t have much time and you simply want to complete the event without illness or injury (the world-record performance comes next year) this column is for you. It is certainly not for beginner athletes, but is for beginning Ironwomen and Ironmen. The plan is a 13-week training plan that culminates in completing your first Ironman race, in about 12 to 14 hours. Since you don’t have much time to train, your largest training week will be about 13 hours, other weeks are less.

Profile Athlete
You are an experienced triathlete. You have completed sprint and Olympic-distance races. Life; however, has your clock in a stranglehold and training time is at a premium. Before beginning this plan, you are capable of swimming three times per week, around an hour. You estimate you could hold 1’45”-2’00” pace, per 100 yards, for the 2.4-mile swim (total swim time of 1:14 to 1:25.) Cycling currently includes being able to comfortably go an hour and a half or so. You’re thinking you could average somewhere between 15 and 16 mph for 112 miles (total bike time between 6:15 and 7:30.) Your long run is in the 1:15 to 1:30 range. You think you could manage a marathon pace of 10- to 11-minute miles (total run time between 4:15 and 5:00.) Up to this point, you’ve been training around eight to ten hours each week, which is very comfortable.

Your typical training week is fairly light during the week, due to a long list of commitments; however, weekends are open for long training hours. You need at least one day totally off from training each week, because it keeps you healthy and in good spirits.
If the athlete profile fits you, your estimated completion time for an Ironman-distance race is between 12 and 14 hours. If necessary, you are willing to walk to comfortably complete the race. What this means, is even if you’re on the top end, estimating your finish time at 14 hours, you still have a 3-hour buffer, in order to complete the race under 17 hours.

Plan Description
The plan on page _____ is a 13-week plan to get you ready for your first Ironman, while minimizing injury and training hours. When you look at first week of the training plan, you should be thinking, “Wow, that’s too easy.” If the first week will be a struggle, you need more training time before embarking on this journey.

With that said, let’s look at the plan in general. Notice that the Saturday and Sunday training hours build throughout the 13 weeks. Weekend cycling begins at 1:30 and builds to 5:00, two weeks prior to the race. The long run begins at 1:30, building to 3:00 in week 11. Swimming begins at 1:00 and builds to 1:30 – not as much growth as cycling and running.

In the first four weeks of the plan, mid-week workouts and weekend workouts increase to build overall endurance. Intensity (which we’ll cover later) stays fairly low. In the second four weeks of the plan, the weekend volume continues to grow, not missing a beat after the rest week, number 4. Because weekend workouts will be the main focus, there are more days of rest during week 5, 6 and 7 to allow for recovery. By the end of week seven, you’ll train a total of eight hours over the two weekend days.

The weekend hours continue to build to about nine and a half, by the end of week 11. The long run on Sunday of week 11 will be your last long workout before reducing training volume and resting. Weeks 12 and 13 are designed to allow you to recover and chock your muscles full of glycogen. Short workouts with short accelerations are designed to keep your arms and legs feeling fresh. WARNING, WARNING!! Do not be tempted to increase training volume during weeks 12 and 13. 

Workout Details
Each day of the plan tells you what sport to do, how long to workout and what type of workout to do. For example, the first Tuesday of the plan has you swimming an hour, doing a form workout. You will also complete a thirty-minute run, an “E2”. What is an “E2”? It is an endurance run, keeping your heart rate in a designated zone.

The training and racing zones we’ll use for this plan are on the chart on page ____. We’ll use a heart rate monitor to designate the intensity for cycling and running workouts. This intensity is like the tachometer of your car, it tells you the pace of the engine. Keep in mind that heart rate can be influenced by fatigue, heat, hydration and other factors, so it is not a direct measurement of pace.

Zone Percent of Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (Bike) Percent of Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (Run) Rating of Perceived Exertion Borg Scale (RPE) Breathing
1 65-81 65-84 6-9 Hardly noticeable.
2 82-88 85-91 10-12 Slight.
3 89-93 92-95 13-14 Aware of breathing a little harder.
4 94-100 96-100 15-16 Starting to breathe hard.
5a 100-102 100-102 17 Breathing hard.
5b 103-105 103-105 18-19 Heavy, labored breathing.
5c 106+ 106+ 20 Maximal exertion in breathing.

For all three sports, we will stay well below lactate threshold heart rate – the heart rate you’ve held for Olympic-distance races. Since you’re an experienced Olympic-distance racer, you know you’ve produced heart rates in the 4 and low-5 Zones during training and races. You’ll want to avoid those zones during your Ironman race.

One way to estimate lactate threshold heart rate is to use the average heart rate you produce during an hour time trial on the bike, or a running race that takes you near an hour to complete. A second, and probably easier, way to estimate lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR) is to just time trial on your own (not in a race situation). Do a ten-mile, all-out, as fast as you can go time trial on a flat course. Take the average heart rate you achieve and divide it by 1.01. For example, if your average heart rate (not the maximum you saw) was 162, your estimated LTHR is 162/1.01 or 160 beats per minute. Using the bike LTHR, you can estimate your run LTHR by adding 7 to 10 beats. For the example above, the athlete’s bike LTHR is 160 and their run LTHR is 167.

Using the percent-multipliers on the table, the example athlete’s training zones are:
Zone 1: 104-130 109-140
Zone 2: 131-141 141-152
Zone 3: 142-149 153-159

I didn’t determine the higher zones for the example athlete because all of the training and racing for this plan is done in Zones 1-3 or a full ten to 56 beats below lactate threshold. Top-end speed for our journey to Ironman is ten to 16 beats below lactate threshold, or roughly Zone 3.

Since it is difficult to check training heart rate in the pool, we’ll use pace instead. For the pool, Zone 3 pace is in the 1’45” to 2’00” per 100 yard range (your race pace.) . For example, 100 yard repeats with minimal rest (5 – 10 seconds,) shoot for your target race pace. You can swim faster on short work intervals with long rests. I won’t get into lots of detail on specific swim workouts in this column.

Now armed with training zones, you need workout specifics. For all three sports, the descriptions follow. Just remember that your target heart rate for the bike is different than for the run. Target pace in the pool depends on the length of the work and rest interval. For all sports:

Form: In the pool, a form workout includes lots of drills and no concern for the pace clock. Your RPE is in Zone 1. For the bike or on the run, a form workout is one that is done with your heart rate mostly in training zones 1 and 2. After a good warm up, include 4 to 8 x 30-second accelerations with 1’30” to 2’30” easy recoveries. Acceleration means gently building your speed, not gut-busting sprints.

E1: The entire workout is done keeping your heart rate or RPE in Zone 1. In the pool, you can work on technique and do lots of drills. Or you can do an easy workout, including other strokes. On the bike it’s best to do this workout on a flat course. The run is best done on a flat course as well, and even better if you can find a soft surface like grass or dirt trail.

E2: Because there are so many options for pool intervals, use the RPE and the clock to determine your pace. During bike and run workouts, keep your heart rate in Zones 1 and 2. As you gain fitness, you can spend more time in Zone 2. It is not your goal to see how much time you can spend in Zone 2. A rolling course for the bike or run is fine.

E3: In the pool, use the RPE and your goal race pace to determine your training pace. The workout is done in Zones 1 to 3 for all three sports. As you gain fitness, you can spend more time in Zone 3. It is not necessarily your goal to see how much time you can spend in Zone 3. A rolling to moderately hilly course for the bike or run is fine. (Hint: Try not to choose the hilliest Ironman course available, for your first event.)

Some of the workouts need more detailed instructions, specifically the bricks and a bit more on swimming. The total brick workout time is shown in the top row of any week containing a brick. The breakdown of the brick is shown in the bike and run row details.

Brick: Week 4: Ride your bike for an hour, with the first 30 minutes in Zones 1-2 and the last 30 minutes all in Zone 3. Go right to your run, allowing your heart rate to be anywhere in the 1 to 3 zones. If you feel great, spend more time in the Zone 3.

Brick: Week 12: Ride your bike for an hour, with the first 40 minutes in Zones 1-2 and the last 20 minutes all in Zone 3. Go right to your 30-minute run, with the first 15 minutes in Zones 1-2 and the last 15 minutes all in Zone 3.

Swimming Details:
Weeks 1-4: Include at least one 1,000-yard steady swim. On Saturdays, make the main set of the swim workout in the 1,000-1,500 yard range.
Weeks 5-8: Include at least one 1,650-yard steady swim, rest 2-3 minutes and immediately swim another 500-800 yards. On Saturdays, make the main set of the swim workout in the 1,500-2,500 yard range.
Weeks 9-11: Include at least one steady swim, minimal rest, around 45 minutes to 60 minutes. On Saturdays, make the main set of the swim workout in the 2,000-3,000 yard range.

Q: If I find I’m getting tired, what can I do to make some modifications without killing the plan?
A: It is okay to:
· Totally skip an E1 workout and rest instead.
· Reduce the Saturday bike by up to 30 minutes or the Sunday run by 15 minutes.
· Do an entire E2 workout with your heart rate in Zone 1.

Q: If a swim, then a run is shown on a particular day, do they have to be done in that order?
A: No. If your masters swimming group meets in the evening and you run in the morning that’s fine.

Q: If I miss a Thursday run or bike and Friday is shown as a day off, can I move the missed workout to Friday?
A: Yes, just be careful not to start “stacking” workouts on top of each other. Missing several workouts during the week can’t be made up in a couple of days on the weekend.

Q: What is the absolute minimum number of hours I can do and still complete the Ironman race?
A: There is no standard answer for this. The plan shown here, along with the modifiers already suggested, is along the lines of minimum. The absolute answer really depends on each individual athlete. The more you cut training hours, the longer and more torturous the race will be and you put yourself at greater risk for injury.

Q: Can I do some 3-zone intervals on an “E3” day?
A: Yes, try to keep the work to rest ratio at 3 or 4 to 1 and slowly build up your 3-zone work time, beginning at about 20 minutes total.

Q: What will happen to me if I get into Zone 4 heart rate during training and racing, will I flame-out and die?
A: The plan is intended to keep you burning fuel at an aerobic rate. During training, you are trying to teach your body to be an efficient fat-burning machine. When you get into the heart rate zones near lactate threshold, your body prefers to use more glycogen as a fuel as opposed to fat and oxygen. At the same time, short bouts into Zone 4 will not send you into flameout status. Although heart rate monitoring is a good tool, it is not a precise measure of aerobic metabolism. A few beats either side of the zones won’t be a problem.

Going the Distance
As you progress through the training plan, remember to drink fluids at a rate of about one water bottle per hour, for any workout over an hour long. Consume calories at approximately 150-250 per hour, for any workouts over an hour long. Rest, recovery and refueling will go a long way to keep you on track to reach your goal.
On race day, wear your heart rate monitor and stay in Zones 1-3. One of the biggest mistakes beginner-Ironman racers make is to begin the race as though they were doing an Olympic-distance race. Relax, control your speed and be willing to take walking-bouts during long runs and the race. If your heart rate monitor malfunctions, use RPE as you guide for pacing. Most of all, look around, have fun and enjoy your incredible fitness!

Gale Bernhardt was the 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic Coach and the 2003 Pan Am Games Coach for both the men’s and women’s teams. More information can be found at Gale’s website.