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Ironman Training - Back To Basics

2017 was a very successful year for The Endurance Store coached athletes and this year is promising to be even better if recent results are anything to go by. This blog explains the methods we use and the reasons behind them.  

I’ve always questioned why triathletes train like swimmers, cyclists and runners when many training techniques and methods aren’t applicable to triathlon. I’d followed the teachings of Brett Sutton since the early 1990s and his ideas had always made more sense to me than the more commonly accepted training methods.  I’d generally followed these principles since I started coaching and wanted to develop them further.  

As part of my ongoing professional development I enrolled on the Trisutto coaching certification course and part of the course requirement was to shadow Brett on two training camps as he coached a mixture of alite and age group athletes. 

I completed my first training camp in St Moritz last year where age groupers were training alongside his elite squad. Nicola Spirig was three weeks away from winning silver at the Olympics and Daniela Ryf had just won Ironman Switzerland and was preparing for her second win at Ironman Hawaii. The second week was in Fuerteventura where Brett was coaching age groupers. 

The experiences validated the training methods I’ve been using with people for years and made me realise I’d been too conservative and could take my training principles several steps further.  

There are several key points I took from the experience which should be of interest to all athletes and coaches. There will be some who raise the point that the requirements of pro athletes differ to that of age groupers but it must be noted that Brett applies his training philosophy to everyone, regardless of ability. The only real difference is the volume of training completed: a pro athlete completes more training than most age groupers as they have the available time.   

Brett trains his athletes as triathletes, not swimmers, cyclists or runners. The reason for this is he doesn’t believe any of his athletes have the required skill level to be specifically trained in any individual sport. To put this into perspective his athletes include a former Olympic champion and the current Ironman world champion.  

I’ve split the training principles into the following categories:  

Swimming: 

Brett isn’t interested in developing ‘feel’ for the water as he believes it’s a losing battle unless technique has been developed as an elite swimmer having risen through the junior ranks. The aim is to therefore develop ‘fit and ugly’ swimmers where improved fitness - not perfect technique - leads to faster swim times with less effort.  

Swimming is focussed on relaxation, momentum, balance and timing, not stroke mechanics. The ethos is that unless you’re an elite swimmer there is little point in training people in the finer points of stroke improvement: the skill level isn’t there to benefit from the drills. This applies to all Brett’s athletes, whether they’re age groupers or Olympic champions. 

All swimming is designed to improve upper body strength endurance with the legs playing almost no part at all. The reasons for this are as follows: 

  • Kicking raises heart rate and expends more calories leading to unnecessary fatigue in training and compromised bike and run splits when racing 
  • Saving the legs means they’re able to bike faster as lactate levels are lower at the end of the swim (Note: his athletes are noted for their strong cycling but Brett attributes this to the swim training, not bike training) 
  • Training the upper body in the pool means the athletes can bike or run hard as necessary later in the day 

During the entire week every main set consisted of pull, band, or paddles work throughout. I didn’t see one interval completed without at least one swimming aid and this was often the case during the warm up. This is a sample hour session when someone is short of time: 

40 x 100m (1:30 turnaround) with pull buoy, band and paddles 

No warm up, no drills and no cool down.  

Other points of note: 

  • Warm ups were short 
  • There was virtually no IM at all, often only if the athlete chose it during the cool down 
  • Breaststroke was completed with a fly kick to reduce the risk of adductor injury 
  • There were no kick sets  
  • No conventional drills were completed  
  • High elbow recoveries actively avoided 
  • There was no chatting
  • Everyone listened and knew what they were doing   

The people who I’ve had the most success with in the pool are well conditioned with strokes appropriate to them. High volume, high resistance training with the occasional change to the stroke results in improved swim times. Fannying around with drills does not.  

Cycling: 

There’s a strong emphasis on high resistance work. This can be sustained 60-70 rpm work on gradual inclines or turbo work with resistance high enough to drop cadence to 40-50 rpm. The reason for this is to increase force production with a reduced heart rate so the athlete is less fatigued for the run. The greater the strength developed in training the lower the most efficient racing cadence will be over longer distances. 

Brett’s very much against high cadence work as almost nobody has the skill level to pedal fast without excessively raising heart rate. By working at a low cadence the legs are fresh and the athlete can then maintain running cadence off the bike.  

With months of progressive high resistance work I’ve seen people reduce their racing cadence for 70.3 and Ironman from 90 rpm down to 75 rpm. They’re faster cyclists and they then run faster off the bike.  

Power meters are not used at all. I see pros and cons for this argument but the main reason is to stop people measuring everything they do and develop their awareness of perceived effort and how they feel when training. I’ve seen the benefits of this as many people race better when their power meter is broken.  

Running: 

Sessions are a mixture of long runs, hill reps and track sessions. There was nothing surprising about the general principles except for the way Brett approaches track sessions. He doesn’t see any justification in doing drills of any kind as his athletes don’t run fast enough or have the skill level to benefit from them. If he trained middle distance athletes he would use them but he believes the correct technique for efficient 10k-marathon running during a triathlon is completely different to that of a runner.  

The warm up all athletes (including the Olympic champion) completed before the track sessions was as follows: 

10-15 min easy run progressing towards the end 

4 laps consisting of fast straights with jogging on the bends 

They then went straight into the main set and had a cool down afterwards with no stretching whatsoever. 

Hill reps are maintained throughout the year and are sometimes used the day before a race. This is something I occasionally do with female athletes: at the recent Outlaw Half Naomi Wright did an open water interval session on the Saturday morning followed by a hill reps session: the next day she finished second in 4:45.  

Strength & conditioning: 

It’s well documented that none of Brett’s athletes do any land training at all. His argument is that if you have time to schedule a dedicated S&C session you can fit another swim, bike or run session into your training instead. His strength training is integrated into swim/bike/run training in the ways described above: 

Swimming: resistance work with pull buoy, band and paddles 

Cycling: high resistance hill climbs and turbo work  

Running: hill reps of varying duration and intensity 

These sessions will be instantly recognisable to our athletes for good reason! 

There were several general training principles which are worth noting:  

Over coaching: 

As a coach it’s tempting to point out fault after fault but it can often be counterproductive. Brett occasionally made observations and offered advice but it was much less than most people would expect. The points were usually very subtle but the improvements in technique were usually immediate. His point was: ‘’It’s not what you say, it’s when to say it’’ which became more obvious as the weeks progressed. If I don’t say anything it’s because I’ve got nothing to say at that time!   

Men and women swim differently: 

The women were encouraged to achieve an even tempo with a relatively high arm cadence whereas the men generally had a longer, loping stroke. This was a generalization and the differences were down to body type and size. Consequently a smaller man might use the ‘female’ stroke and a taller, stronger woman might use the ‘male’ stroke. 

This is a familiar sight at my swim sessions: there are a variety of cadences and styles but they’re appropriate to the person. 

Swimming speed is achieved through acceleration: 

There was a strong emphasis on multiple short reps as Brett believes the greatest gains are achieved during the acceleration phase of an interval. This means sessions could involve 100 x 50 and he’s a fan of sculling starts as the acceleration is greater than when pushing off the wall.  

I regularly use sculling starts on multiple 25s and 50s and this is the main reason why.   

Run for survival, not speed: 

Running technique was addressed but not in the conventional way. Instead of achieving the usual aims during track sessions e.g. high knees, high heel kick, mid/forefoot strike, leaning forward etc the emphasis was to find a technique which the athlete could maintain for the duration of the event. This was often less attractive and resembled more of a shuffle but the reduced effort meant it would be achievable for longer when fatigued.  

This was especially relevant for Ironman as the deterioration during the marathon is often due to mechanical breakdown, not lack of calories. Most people were encouraged to adopt an upright posture, especially the taller, heavier ones: if they lean forwards they tend to lose posture as they fatigue resulting in a flexed, bent over gait which is less effective. 

Ignore the bullshit: 

This was by far the most refreshing message. Triathlon is full of people who obsess over the minutest detail which could gain 5% improvement but continually fail to achieve the basics which will achieve the remaining 95%. Unless you’re doing the basics correctly there’s no point spending time and money on the bullshit: why focus on minimal gains when you’re ignoring the maximal gains? In a world where people spend far more time discussing data, graphing their session and posting it to social media that they actually do training, a lot would benefit from just going back to basics. 

So the take home message for most people was to stop fussing over the finer points and get the basics right. Training must be specific to the requirements of the event and be appropriate to the limitations of the athlete. Training methods commonly aimed at elite athletes are generally unsuitable for 99% of people competing. 

Take home messages: 

  • Training should be logical for the intended event 
  • Training should be appropriate to the skill level of the athlete 
  • Maximise time - specificity with no padding 
  • Easy means easy, hard means hard 

Nick Thomas is The Endurance Store/Coach Head Coach. He is the first and currently only Trisutto accredited coach in the north of England. To discuss coaching options please email nickthomas@theendurancecoach.com 



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