Ironman Triathlon Programming Basics

If you’ve recently signed up for an Ironman, or are contemplating it, this is for you.

Finishing this monstrous feat will be a lifetime achievement that you’ll always look back on with a great sense of pride and accomplishment. You might even burst into tears of emotion as you cross the finish line! Signing up and not finishing might hang over you like a dark cloud for many years. Don’t assume you can just rock up and rely on good old guts and determination. Finishing this event will take many months of hard work to build the required level of conditioning. It’s one of the most time-consuming goals you could possibly commit to because in order to build your energy system and endurance you just have to put the hours and miles in every week.

Let’s assume the event is eight months away (because most people sign up to something like this 8 to 11 months in advance). The basic training skeleton would look something like this:

Weekly Training Schedule for Months 1-2

Bare Minimum:

1 x 50 to 60-minute strength and mobility session

1 x 40 to 50-minute swim session

1 x 40 to 50-minute bike session

1 x 40 to 50-minute run session

Also, if you can fit it in:

1 x 40 to 50-minute swim/bike/run session (whichever is your weakest)

Each of these session durations account for pre-workout warm-up and post-workout stretching.

Following this first 7 to 8 week phase would be 7 to 10 days of rest and recovery including yoga/mobility sessions, foam rolling, walking, hiking, massage and lots of sleep. I would ask you to look at your calendar and make this week fall on a natural break where you wouldn’t want to train anyway (vacation, business trip, holidays, etc.).

Weekly Training Schedule for Months 3 to 4

1 x 50 to 60-minute strength and mobility session

1 x 50 to 60-minute block session, swim and bike

1 x 70 to 90-minute block session, bike and run

2 x 50 to 60-minute block sessions working on your two weakest modalities

7 to 10 days of rest and recovery.

Weekly Training Schedule for Months 5-6

1 x 50 to 60-minute strength and mobility session

1 x 50 to 60-minute swim session

1 x 70 to 90-minute bike session

1 x 70 to 90-minute run session

1 x 70 to 90-minute block session, bike and run

7 to 10 days of rest and recovery.

Weekly Training Schedule for Months 7 to 8

1 x 50 to 60-minute strength and mobility session

2 x 30 to 45-minute mobility and foam rolling sessions

1 x 2-hour run session

1 x 2-hour bike session

1 x 3-hour block session, swim-bike-run

During this final phase, there would be two more really long training sessions of up to five or six hours. These serve to build ultra-endurance conditioning, mental endurance and confidence.

12 to 14 days of mobility, foam rolling, massage, transition rehearsal, sleep and tapered training before the big day.

Assessments and Markers

Right at the beginning, it’s necessary to assess movement, walking gait, running gait, swim technique, jump rope assessment and current performance ability. The weekly movement and strength session is vital for avoiding annoying injuries caused by muscular imbalance, instability issues or joint mobility restrictions. I would assign you a full movement assessment that highlights your weak links in terms of mobility, stability and balance. The content of every warm-up and the once-per-week mobility and strength session would be dictated by the results of this assessment and your injury/training case history. The movement assessment would be repeated at the end of each two-month programming phase and the content of the forthcoming movement sessions and warm-ups would adapt accordingly.

The swim technique assessment is obviously very useful because tells me the appropriate stroke improvement drills that should be programmed into each swim session.

The walking gait assessment completes the picture in terms of movement ability. A great deal of information can be gained by watching someone walk barefoot—global stability, hip stability, movement compensations, muscular imbalances, foot mechanics, etc. Again, this information would go toward deciding which components to add to your movement sessions and warm-ups.

The running gait assessment lets me know which running improvement drills to add to your run training sessions. In many cases, incorporating sprint drills into the initial phases helps improve running gait efficiency.

The jump rope assessment—how long can you jump rope without having to take a break? Tripping up is OK as long as you continue immediately. Why is jumping rope important? Because as far as the lower limbs are concerned, it’s very similar to good running gait—you land on, and take from, the forefoot. The only big difference is that good running gait also involves the heel touching down. I encourage runners to modify their jump roping technique to mimic this.

Statistically speaking, running is the most dangerous activity you can partake in (out of all activities and exercises) due to the exceptionally high injury rate. People become injured when they run for several reasons, but a main one is weak lower limbs and feet. I love litmus tests. If any human wants to run any distance (especially on a road surface) I believe they should demonstrate they have the lower limb strength by being able to jump rope non-stop for five minutes. If someone wants to sign up for a 10km run, they should be able to achieve ten minutes of jump roping with no problem. If someone wants to sign up for a marathon (Ironman), 20 minutes is a bare minimum (but I’d lean toward 30). Passing these litmus tests is essential for avoiding injury. Besides, building your jump rope ability to being able to go for 30 minutes is like a magic pill for improving running ability. Jump roping makes you better at running, even more so than running does (for most everyday athletes).

The performance assessments are repeatable markers for each discipline (swim, bike and run), and are re-assigned after each 6 to 8 week programming phase. These serve to let me know how much you’ve responded to my training protocols. They also offer you little confidence boosters so you know we’re heading in the right direction.

Inside the Swim, Bike and Run Sessions

Swimming, cycling and running all fall under the umbrella of cardiovascular capacity training. People often make the mistake of thinking that in order to train for a long-distance swim, bike or run, they should go for long-distance swims, bike rides or runs. Sure, that philosophy might get you there eventually, but there are significantly faster ways to skin the cat. First, consider that endurance training and cardio training are two different components of athleticism and one must be in place for the other to have any real effect.

Cardiovascular capacity: this is your heart, lungs and blood vessels’ ability to supply oxygen to the working muscles.

Endurance: this is your ability to keep going for an extended period.

People tend to jump straight to training endurance without first building their cardiovascular ability. Give yourself an engine upgrade before working for long distance! A body that moves well and has a great engine will respond so much better to endurance training. Mindlessly putting in the miles without paying attention to movement will probably cause injury. Training for endurance without having a good engine will make you hit plateau after plateau.

How do we train the engine then? Seeing as I do this for a living, I can’t give away my programming methods for free. But I essentially use these protocols: blood flow restriction, speed intervals, nasal breathing training, glucose storage capacity training and lactate tolerance training. Each of these deserves its own blog!

I don’t personally use, or care about, heart rate training zones. I respect some world-class endurance coaches who do (with great effect), but I think it’s flawed and inconsistent. I only measure active heart rate as a means of assessing cardiovascular improvements (after a repeatable activity such as two minutes of standardized step-ups). Considering that the goal is competing in an Ironman, if you need a gadget to tell you how hard you’re working, there’s something wrong. Just sayin’!

Outside Training Sessions

There are 168 hours in a week. Let’s assume that you’re an awesome high-compliance client and you manage to spend 5 to 10 of those hours carrying out your planned training sessions. That still leaves 158 hours unaccounted for that will absolutely affect the outcome of your hard training. I usually take this line of questioning:

“How much sleep do you get?”

“What’s your morning routine?”

“What do you do for a living? Are you active? How long do you spend in a chair?”

“How many steps to walk every day (ish)?”

“How’s your level of stress on a scale of one to ten?”

“Where do you think you go wrong with nutrition (if at all)?”

“How much water do you drink per day?”

“How do you feel about incorporating a quick daily joint mobility routine into your morning routine?”

“What do you do on the weekends?”

“What do you do in your spare time?”

“How will you fit training into your schedule?”

As your coach, I need to know if you’re inadvertently doing anything during the other 158 hours that might reduce or eliminate the effect of your amazing training compliance. For instance, not having spare time is a red flag. How are you going to fit in up to ten hours of training per week (in the later stages)? If you’re always tired or live in a perpetual state of dehydration, that’ll throw a massive spanner in the works and needs to be managed. Seriously, these two are as important (if not more) than anytime you spend training. If you’re stressed, your chance of falling off the training wagon due to injury is exponentially higher.


Endurance athletes tend to think that it’s all just about the calories. You may not believe some of the terribly bad food that I’ve caught some high-performing clients eating as means of “getting those calories in.” Bad food causes inflamed joints, low motivation, dehydration, chronic disease and early death. It’s important to eat nutrient dense foods, tons of fresh leafy veggies and complex carbs with most meals (quinoa, sweet potato, buckwheat, whole grain rice, oats).

Here are some more food rules for endurance athletes:

  • Maintain hydration. Your blood is made mostly of water. When you’re dehydrated your blood volume reduces—not good considering we’re trying to improve the function of your circulatory and CV systems

  • Avoid processed foods

  • Avoid foods that could be causing inflammation (gluten, dairy, eggs, corn, soy, peanuts, artificial sweeteners, added sugar)

  • Make meal plans and shopping lists every week. There is a much higher likelihood of making poor food decisions when the meals aren’t planned.

  • Cook mostly at home. Prepare your lunches.

  • No pastries, pizza, donuts, cookies, fries, pasta, fast food

  • Eat a banana (or something else of high GI) 10-20 minutes before training

  • Eat a main meal within an hour of training

In the later phases of the program, when your training sessions last longer than an hour of intense, non-stop exercise, it’ll be time to start experimenting with preparing foods to eat during training sessions. Avoid eating fats during training/competing because they take so long to break down and could cause cramps. A fully hydrated and well-nourished body can produce all the salts it needs. Don’t get sucked in by the clever marketeers trying to sell you their BS powders and gels. They’re completely unnecessary and hugely increase the chance of cramps and inflammation. Making squeezy bags with sweet potato and honey was a favorite of mine.

I wish you the very best for your training. If you’d like me to dive into your programming, hold you accountable and be your coach, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Strength and honor!

Phil McDougall

IG: @Phil.McDougall




Email: contactATphilipmcdougallDOTcom (ROBOT PROOF)
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