Ironman Training for Busy Athletes

Ironman-Training-for-Busy-AthletesOver the past many years, I have been training athletes seeking to race their first Ironman distance triathlon, as well as athletes aiming at racing faster at that distance.

Many of them had training obstacles and challenging schedules to overcome: business executives traveling the world on a regular basis, entrepreneurs with irregular, demanding schedules, surgeons and ER doctors with unique schedule specificities; not to mention having children to take to soccer practices, swim meets, university visits, and other family activities taking place on weekends and throughout the week.

Simply put, devoting 15 to 18 hours a week, or more, on a regular and consistent basis to train across 3 disciplines during the months leading to an Ironman distance race proved to be somewhat impossible for these time-crunched ironman athletes. Yet, with my support and training regime, they succeeded in achieving their goals.

In this paper, I will highlight what has made my athlete/coach approach and relationship successful, along with some lessons learned. Though some of these considerations would apply to any athletes, they become even more important, and actually critical when it comes to athletes training for ironman distance races, where the training volume and workload can be quite significant and in direct conflict with the athlete’s available time for training. My thoughts include the following:

  • Spend time as a coach to understand your athlete’s lifestyle
    • Athletes may tend to underestimate their career and family constraints.  If this is the case, they will quickly find themselves with too many competing activities.  As a result, training will rapidly become a burden, having fun will become an unknown concept, and training-related stress will increase.  In many, if not most, instances the athlete will drop out of his/her training regime.
  • Our role as coaches is to get very familiar with our time-crunched athletes’ professional schedules and constrains, family constrains, kids’ activities, etc. The more we know about an individual’s “lifestyle”, the more effective our training program will be.
  • Set up realistic expectations
    • Fairly recently, I coached an athlete who was new to the sport of triathlon, and he asked that I coach him so that he could finish an Ironman race during his 1st season.  Though I would typically decline to do such a thing, given his focus and motivation, in this particular situation I accepted the challenge.
  • Time-crunched athletes may not be able to dedicate what would be seem  to be an ideal number of weekly training hours during the last 3 to 4 months leading to an Ironman race. Time limitations may draw a line between finishing a race in good conditions vs. racing a race.  There is nothing wrong with this trade-off as a realistic goal.
  • We, as coaches, should evaluate each situation in detail, and develop clear and realistic expectations and goals, and discuss them with our athletes, making sure that the athlete and coach are on the same page.
  • Become your athletes’ “personal assistant”
    • To be a successful time manager and coach, I know my athletes’ schedules as executives, entrepreneurs, dads/moms almost as well as mine; I know when they are travelling, to what cities, whether they will have enough time to train at home before leaving to the airport, or after getting back home; I know if they can use a pool when travelling; I know how much they can train per day when travelling; I know when they have annual budget meetings that will shut down their entire week; I know when as teachers they have “back-to-school” meetings in the evenings, and I know when as doctors they will be on calls or working night shifts, etc.
  • Why would I ask an athlete for this level of detail and, more, importantly, why do I need to know? Because I need to identify the optimum weekly training plan and detailed workouts that will be fully aligned with their individual, unique, busy schedules. It’s as simple as that.
  • Develop a 3-month plan
    • In addition to the overall annual training plan that includes the various training phases and races, it is critical to develop a more short/mid-term training plan, typically 3 months, that will include the major constrains that you, as an athlete, are already aware of.
  • This 3-month plan should include business trips, family weekends, vacations, family reunions, etc.  Simply put – all events that will impact an athlete’s training plans should be included. By way of example, with prior knowledge of personal and professional activities, we may want to try to take advantage of a heavy traveling week and schedule it as a “recovery” week.  If I, as the athlete’s coach, know this several weeks or couple of months in advance, I can then easily structure a more effective mid-term training plan.
  • Be prepared to be very reactive
    • Schedules of time-crunched people change all the time, sometimes at the last minute. Fixing scheduled workouts 1 week at a time only, without the ability to adapt, may not always be sufficient. Meetings get rescheduled, 1-hour meetings turn into 3-hour meetings, kids get sick, etc.
  • As a coach, I should be prepared to re-adjust workouts within less than 12 hours, be flexible and ready to change, adjust, re-sequence workouts on the spot, while keeping the 3-month plan and annual objectives in mind. Time is the essence. As a “hands on” coach, I can help with adjusting workout plans so as to maximize immediate benefits and long-term results.
  • As each athlete has individual strengths and weaknesses, it is important to get to know your athletes on a personal level.
    • Type-A athletes will tend to minimize or hide their stress and fatigue levels. As a result, they require close monitoring.  In part, their workout data needs to be reviewed in detail.  As their coach, it is also important to listen to their feedback and ask them to share detailed post workout comments. Watch for signs of demotivation and adjust accordingly.
  • One athlete once wrote the following post workout comment: “workout not done. Don’t ask me why!”  I knew he was stressed out and I did not ask why he had not completed his workout… J


  • “working out” vs. “training”
    • Athletes, especially time-crunched ironman athletes, need to understand that there is a critical distinction between “exercising/working out” and “training”. Because their time will be limited, each workout must have a very well defined objective and purpose. A 90-minute bike workout with Functional Threshold Power intervals is not the same as just enjoying a 2-hour bike ride on a sunny Saturday afternoon. They must understand this.
  • As training time will be somewhat / sometimes constrained, specificity and consistency are two important variables that will become very critical in order to maximize the available training time and achieve the most value out of each workout.
  • Intensity vs. Volume
    • This topic would require a dedicated paper by itself, but let’s briefly cover it.
  • Time-crunched ironman athletes also bring some unique benefits, specifically increased recovery time! These athletes have more recovery time than someone able to train 15 to 20 hours a week. As these athletes may not be able to train 6 days/week and may not be able to have double-workout days (at least, not on a regular basis), the result is, by necessity, more recovery time.
  • Many studies have shown that training at higher intensities, such as Vo2Max, are actually increasing performance results at all metabolic levels below it.
  • So, here is the unique proposition available to time-crunched ironman athletes:
    • Less volume
    • Higher ratio of high/higher intensity workouts
    • Same overall required training workload: less volume x higher intensity
    • Increased recovery time
  • This is not to say that some long workouts, performed at targeted race-pace/intensity will not be required and beneficial. Rather, a higher volume component of ironman training can be reduced, without negatively impacted the level of readiness of the time-crunched ironman athlete.

In conclusion, I would emphasize the following 3 key take-aways:

->  Get to know your athletes’ lifestyle and schedule. Be an active coach and « personal assistant ».

->  Be very reactive to the athlete’s ever-changing schedule; more than a day to react, and the opportunity to effectively re-organize and re-balance a given training week is gone.

->  Balance volume vs. intensity vs. recovery in a time-crunched environment and turn the athlete’s schedule constrains into benefits.

Article written by Eric Gauthier,
A WTS network’ Coach,
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