Ironman training: How long is long enough?

I've always been an athlete/coach who favors quality over quantity. Well, maybe not in my first few years of endurance training but through leaning the hard way with many lows in my Ironman journey's, I have learned to appreciate a smarter way to physically preparing my body to race for 140.6 miles. 

As it relates to training the human body for an endurance race (ex. Ironman distance triathlon), there are so many different approaches that I could spend hours and hours discussing all of the different methods that coaches and athletes follow in order to physically prepare the body for race day and dissecting how I prepare my athletes, of all different fitness levels and abilities, for endurance races.

Now I will say that there is a big difference between actually changing the physiology of the body to physically be ready to handle the demands of the upcoming race versus feeling ready as it relates to the mental component of handling the demands of the upcoming race. 

Fear-based training affects many athletes and even coaches too.

While there is a difference of opinion between coaches and their athletes, coaches and coaches and athletes and athletes as to the number and length of key long workouts that are necessary for proper peaking before an Ironman taper, many athletes suffer from fear-based training in that they need to complete (or check-off) a certain number or length (typically in miles) of a long bike, long run or long brick workout in order to feel ready.

Although sometimes this can be appropriate and useful, I often find that the fear-based training or "standard" 2-3 x 100 mile rides, 16, 18 and 20 mile runs and 112 mile ride + 2 mile run that occurs far too often on an athletes Ironman training plan is not actually inducing a physiological adaptation that truly prepares an athlete for race day.

Now don't get me wrong. There are absolutely some major training adaptations happening through accomplishing a long workout and it can be exciting to see your body do something for the first time. But when these long workouts occur, weekend after weekend, I often see far too many endurance athletes put way too much physical and mental energy into the length of completing these long workouts rather than understanding that it is the accumulation of repeated stress that allows for great performance gains.

What happens to the body of these athletes between workouts? Can an athlete actually recover from these long workouts in just 5 days even while training Monday - Friday?
Does an athlete have a life that is stable enough that he/she has consistency in training, week after week to follow this plan?
Does an athlete have good enough daily nutrition to recover and stay well between workouts?
Is an athlete able to recover from these long workouts and still function well in life?
Does an athlete have to make extreme sacrifices in his/her relationship, work, life with family/friends/kids, sleep or diet in order to do these long workouts?
Does this athlete consistently fuel and hydrate well before during and after these long workouts in order to properly absorb this training stress?
Is this athlete strong enough to absorb this training stress without risking injury or burn out?
Does this athlete have the proper skills to translate training in his/her own environment to his/her race course?
Can this athlete put just as much time, energy and focus into his/her weekly workouts as his/her weekend "long" workouts?
How often is an athlete improving in training versus just checking off workouts in order to get them done?
Is there a smarter way to training an endurance athlete instead of putting x-miles on Saturday and Sunday, on an athletes training plan, weekend after weekend for the 2-3 months before a race?

As it relates to the volume that is needed to be race ready, this is an area of conflict for many coaches. There are advocates of massively high volume training throughout the year, high volume in only the 6-8 weeks out from race day, a mix of high volume with short intense sessions and frequency over volume with very low volume all together and just a little intensity. 

If you are reading this blog right now and you are or known an endurance athlete, I think you could easily name an athlete (maybe it's yourself) that has succeeded with high volume training.

Certainly, high volume training is defined differently between athletes (and coaches) but we all know of an athlete who has done very well on Ironman race day by completing many long rides over 100 miles (often up to 120 miles), many long runs (between 18-20 miles) and long bricks (between 7-8 hours of combined cycling/running).

Although I don't consider my training to be super high volume, I could not imagine my body training any more hours over the course of the week, as I did in my Kona prep this year.......without risking injury, health issues or burnt out.

And just like the drug commercials we see on TV, where the happy background is making you ignore the scary list of side effects that may occur when you take this medication, we can not forget that endurance training has it's risks.
But endurance athletes often shove those aside just to check off long workouts.

Sure, endurance training is sexy. It's hard core and it's extreme. This lifestyle appeals to many type-A athletes who have a tendency to get obsessed with a routine and crave physical activity. 

But just like you can name a few athletes who have succeeded very well on race day through high volume training, I'm pretty sure that you could find it much easier to make a list of athletes who have not succeeded with a high volume approach to training.

Now I'm not just talking about having a bad or off day on race day and that defining a "non-successful race". I feel that if an athlete arrives to the race with a healthy body and she/he can finish the race and feel as if they executed well, they have succeeded better than many with their training plan.

But what about these athletes........
The athlete who gets a stress fracture.
The athlete who breaks a bone.
The athlete who gets burnt out.
The athlete who is always sick. 
The athlete who always feel "flat" when they train.
The athlete who has unintentionally lost a lot of weight.
The athlete who has unintentionally gained a lot of weight.
The athlete who has developed an eating disorder.
The athlete who obsesses about his/her body image. 
The athlete who is obsessed with training to the point that it controls his/her life.
The athlete who has had relationships ruined because of training.
The athlete who has made extreme sacrifices with work, family and friends in order to train. 
The athlete who is always training but is always unable to perform on race day. 

What about these athletes?
What about the many, many athletes who are registered for a long distance event, are handed a training plan and the basic understanding by the athlete is "as long as I do these long workouts, I will be prepared for race day."

I often question some of the methods by coaches and training plans as it relates to longer workouts (typically occurring on the weekend) and how those workouts "fit-in" with an athletes overall training progression, individual development and weekly training load. 

This isn't to say that I am not open to different training approaches but as it relates to my philosophy as to how I train and how I train my athletes, I focus on least amount of training stress that will offer the most physiological benefits. In other words, what is the best systematic yet often flexible and modifiable approach to physically prepar the human body to cover 140.6 miles?

As it relates to each one of my athletes and to myself, what volume of training is too much for each  athlete that he/she will no longer adapt to training without a great risk for injury, illness or burnout?

Have you ever considered what is too much for your body or do you just keep adding on more miles and hope that your body will survive til taper?

There are many roads that an endurance athlete can take to reach the same final destination.
As it relates to endurance training, here are a few roads that I choose to take with my athletes and myself as it relates to training a body to be and feel prepared for 140.6 miles:

-Developing a strong foundation
-Getting stronger before getting faster.
-Get faster before going longer. 
-Understand how to nourish, hydrate and fuel the body at different phases of training.
-Prescribe different, periodized phases of training.  
-Don't over-race.
-Race enough.
-Get good restful sleep.
-Focus on key workouts.
-Train frequently.
-Train smarter in the beginning of your season
-Avoid a long off-season (more than 6-8 weeks)
-Focus on development. Don't rush the process.
-Don't let gadgets control a workout.
-Use gadgets wisely.
-Warm-up well before all workouts.
-Strength train, year-round.
-Hill work - lots of it!
-More key workouts during the week (of longer duration or frequency). 
-Double workouts, if time-permitted
-Double run days, especially on longer run days
-Frequent running
-Learning to keep easy sessions easy
-Having a limit as to how much is too much training load/volume/intensity
-Don't mix volume and intensity in the same workout. It's either long or intense.
-Execute well for the challenging workouts
-Fit training into your life, don't make training your life.
-Make your training hours count.
-Develop strength on the bike, in the pool and on the run with different specific sets
-Learn how to pace yourself better
-Don't compare your training with another athletes training plan
-Don't train for miles
-Every workout should have a focus, a purpose and a main set.
-There is no standard approach to training an athlete because every athlete has a different lifestyle and goals.
-Consistent training outweighs any one or two weekly epic long workouts. 
-Avoid group workouts for several key longer workouts to ensure proper pacing, fueling/hydrating and mental strength
-Run often off the bike.
-Learn how to run easy
-Don't count weekly miles.
-Every athlete is bringing past fitness to a training plan. The more consistently you train, the more fitness you can bring to your future training load.
-Train smarter to train harder.
-Change up the weekly routine to avoid getting burnt out, injured or stale.  
-There is no set standard as to how many hours or miles you need to train to be prepared.
-Strength and form over speed is the way to feel prepared for endurance events. 

-And above all - accept where you are when you start your training plan and focus only on making progress. It's all about development. Come race day, you should be able to look back and feel you are stronger, fitter, smarter and healthier than where you were when you started.

In my next blog I will share my longest training workouts (Saturday/Sunday) for the past 12 weeks of my Ironman World Championship training.