10 Ways Ironman Triathletes Can Avoid Chronic Cardio Self-Destruction

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Written by Ben Greenfield

At the recent Ancestral Health Symposium, Dr. James O’Keefe, a cardiologist from the Mid America Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Hospital reported on findings that exercise can be harmful, especially when performed as chronic cardio training and racing for extreme endurance events such as Ironman triathlon.

O’Keefe reviewed studies of physically active people, including those who trained for and raced in endurance events, such as marathons, triathlons, ultramarathons or long cycling events. The people who exercised regularly experienced significant benefits, including the ability to live seven years longer than those who were not physically active.

Why This Stuff Is Important

But when the data of extreme endurance athletes was isolated, it was found that the health effects of regular physical activity became less pronounced, and were instead replaced by significant risk of heart damage.

Specifically, completion of an event such as an Ironman triathlon (or even a relatively shorter marathon) was shown to cause structural heart changes and elevations of cardiac inflammatory biomarkers. Although most of these health issues return to normal within one week, an individual who is frequently competing in such events (as most triathletes and runners do) can experience months and years of repetitive cardiac injury, and this can lead to development of atrial fibrosis, myocardial scarring, interventricular septum, and increased susceptibility to atrial and ventricular arrhythmias.

For example, earlier this year, distance-running legend Micah True- better known for his role as Caballo Blanco in the book “Born To Run” – died while on a trail run from cardiomyopathy due to an enlarged heart. True was just one example of seasoned endurance athletes who have experienced sudden cardiac events during exercise. Marathoner Ryan Shay and Ironman triathlete Steve Larsen are others, and most recently professional Ironman triathlete Torbjorn Sindalle was forced into unexpected retirement due to premature wearing of his bicuspid valve.

Based on the data from O’ Keefe, it appears that the cardiac remodeling induced by excessive exercise can lead to rhythm abnormalities, and in extreme endurance sports, this has been associated with as much as a 5-fold increase in the prevalence of serious heart problems – especially when the cardiac damage is repeated year-after-year as a habitual occurrence.

For those of us wanting to be around to see our grandkids, this is important information to consider.

How Much Do Ironman Triathletes Normally Train?

Don’t get me wrong – this article isn’t meant to scare you from endurance exercise altogether. As a multiple Ironman triathlon and marathon finisher, I’ll be among the first to acknowledge that in order to “climb your personal Mt. Everest”, build self-esteem or self-realization through completing a grueling event, or achieving your dream of crossing the Ironman finish line, you may need to exercise slightly more than Dr. O’Keefe’s recommendation of 30-60 minutes per day (after which it is suggested that you may reach a point of diminishing health returns).

But most Ironman triathletes overdo exercise, big time. Based on the research at Ironman.com:

“Triathletes train an average of seven months for the Ford Ironman World Championship. The average hours per week devoted to training for the World Championship generally fall between 18 and 22. Average training distances for the three events are: Miles per week swimming: 7 (11.3 km), miles per week biking: 232 (373.3 km), miles per week running: 48 (77.2 km).”

That’s right: the majority of Ironman triathletes training for Kona are averaging close to 3 hours per day, and as an Ironman coach and competitor, I can tell you that the training programs of other Ironman triathletes aren’t far behind – and professional triathletes train up to 4-6 hours per day with chronic cardio!

What this all means is that an Ironman triathlete falls quite perfectly into Dr. O’ Keefe’s category of high potential for cardiac abnormalities.

Exceptions To The Rule

But there are exceptions to the rule.

Take Sami Inkinen for instance.

Sami is just coming off an amateur Ironman winning time of 8:24 at Ironman Sweden a couple weeks ago, and last year, his finishes included:

  • Overall amateur champion at Wildflower Triathlon Long Course
  • Overall amateur champion at Hawaii 70.3. Ironman
  • Age group world champion at Ironman 70.3. distance in Las Vegas
  • Age group world champion runner up at Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, with an 8:58:59 Kona performance

Here’s the kicker: despite kicking the butts of the 20-30 hour per week athletes, and beating many of the professional Ironman triathletes, Sami trains a maximum of about 12 hours per week using many of the methods you’re about to learn in this article.

At that same Ironman Hawaii last year, I was about a half hour behind Sami, completing the race in 9:36 – but on a training schedule of strictly 10 hours per week (which I detailed in a LAVA magazine article entitled “Unconventional Triathlon Training”).

So what kind of Ironman triathlon training strategies are guys like Sami and I doing to avoid (or at least mitigate) the heart damaging effects of chronic cardio, overtraining, and extreme hours spent performing endurance exercise? Here are 10…

10 Minimalist Ironman Training Strategies

1. Do Short Swims

Swimming requires much more efficiency, economy, and “feel for the water” than it requires pure fitness (which is why a 12 year old girl can easily beat me in a 100 meter pool sprint). For this reason, frequency and consistency in swimming is more important than marathon-esque swim workouts of 60-90 minutes, such as a typical Master’s swim class.

So for your Ironman swim training, you only need to swim “long” once per week, and that swim shouldn’t be longer than 60 minutes. Rather than a steady, slow swim, you should structure this workout to include hard, race pace intervals with short rests. Then pepper other brief 15-30 minute swims, such as 20×50 or 10×100 throughout the week, preferably before a strength training session, swim or bike so that you minimize  prep time.

2. Mostly Bike Indoors

Cycling can involve dressing, prepping tires, getting gloves or toe warmers, filling water bottles, meeting with a group and other activities that can take 15-20 minutes before you’re even on the road training. And once you’re finally out there, traffic lights and stop signs can significantly detract from the efficacy of your workout.

So if you want to maximize your cycling bang for your buck, find a room in the house to be your “pain cave”, set up an indoor trainer, and do 1-2 short, intense indoor bike trainer sessions per week. You’ll stay focused and structured with this approach. For these, I like indoor workouts like 40-60 minute Sufferfest, Spinervals or Computrainer sessions.

4. No Early Season Long Bikes

With a minimalist approach, you only need to ride long (or ride outdoors) a maximum of once per week. This one ride can take anywhere from 2-5 hours, depending on how close you are to your race. In contrast to their peers, who are disappearing into the basement during the winter to do 3 hour indoor trainer sessions, and heading outside on 4-5 hour bike rides several months before the actual Ironman, most of my athletes do just two or three such long rides, and only in the final 8 weeks before Ironman.

5. Bike Alone

For both your indoor training session and your outdoor rides, you should try to ride alone as much as possible, and here’s why: group rides not only require lots of time investment to get a group together and head out for the session, but these rides also include lots of drafting, socializing and pace fluctuations – all of which won’t be happening during your actual Ironman. So ride solo and avoid groups during your cycling workouts and you’ll get much more bang for your training buck.

6. No Long Runs

You heard me right. No long runs. While a long bike ride is a session from which you can recover relatively quickly, a long run (2+ hours) can significantly impact your joints and literally keep you inflamed and beat up for up to 2 weeks.

In the same way that anaerobic high intensity interval sessions have been shown to significantly enhance aerobic fitness, short and intense runs of 80-90 minutes are all you really need to get you ready for the Ironman marathon – and some of my best Ironman performance has come from running only once per week for 90 minutes (with elliptical training, basketball or tennis for the other “run” sessions). The trick is that you need to make these 80-90 minute runs high-quality, not long slow death marches like most Ironman athletes treat their long run. Do this session on fresh legs, after a good day’s rest, and you’ll maximize the intensity and efficiency of your one key run training session.

7. Run On Short Courses

If you do opt to run more than once per week, you should stay away from long courses, like 3+ mile loops or lengthy trails, because the longer the course, the more likely it is that you’ll take your time and run it slow. Instead, choose to run on tracks, neighborhood blocks, or short loops, which are far more conducive to brief, high-quality and intense intervals.

For example, if I am running more than once per week, one of my key Ironman training sessions is 12x200m repeats – literally in the cul-de-sac outside my house. Including full recovery between repeats, this workout takes a maximum of 30 minutes, but if it’s performed at maximum intensity, you’ll feel as though you’ve run 2 hours by the time you finish.

8. Lift

Multiple research studies have shown that strength training can improve endurance performance by increasing neuromuscular recruitment, efficiency and economy – especially for cyclists and runners. Anecdotal evidence, particularly from many older endurance athletes, suggest that strength training also plays a significant role in injury prevention.

Compared to short distance triathletes, you’ll notice that the best Ironman triathletes tend to be slightly “beefier” (just do a Google image search for Ironman World Champion Craig Alexander and compare it to Olympic distance World Champion Alistair Brownlee). This added strength and muscle, which you can realistically achieve with 1-2 full body weight training sessions each week, can significantly enhance joint stability, cushioning, and impact during the relatively long and rigorous Ironman event.

9. Recover

If you can do your high intensity interval training sessions and key run workouts on fresh legs, you’re going to get way more bang for your training buck, and this is where recovery logging software can come in handy.

To track my recovery and nail my workouts when I’m most recovered, I personally use A) Restwise software, which tracks resting heart rate, body mass, sleep, oxygen saturation, hydration, appetite, muscle soreness, energy level, mood state, well being and previous day’s performance and B) heart rate variability tracking with a combination of HeartMath emWave2 and Azumio Stress Doctor app.

You’ll find that with minimalist training, you not only recover much more quickly, but you also require a minimal taper for Ironman. Rather than spending 3-5 weeks of “healing” and tapering prior to a race, you can literally begin backing off just a week prior to Ironman.

10. Diet

You may find that you have more difficulty maintaining your racing weight when you aren’t training for an insane number of hours each day, especially if you’ve grown accustomed to eating anything you want, then training your ass off with chronic cardio to burn those calories.

The “Carbohydrate Loading Conundrum” article does a fantastic job teaching you how to maximize glycogen stores while also increasing the body’s reliance on fat for energy. The strategies outlined in that article highlight the importance of choosing slow burning fuel for the majority of your energy needs. To fuel my minimalist training, I personally eat a high fat diet, and use a combination of coconut oil, high molecular weight starches and amino acid capsules during my actual training and racing, rather than the traditional gel and sports drink combo.

Wrapping It Up

Hopefully, these 10 tips give you a very good starting point for minimalist Ironman triathlon training, and help you to avoid chronic cardio self-destruction by training dozens of hours per week.

If you are already an Ironman triathlete, marathoner, or other extreme endurance exerciser who has been doing chronic cardio, I’d recommend you give your adrenal glands a break before jumping into the type of program described above. Check out this previous RobbWolf.com article on adrenal fatigue to get you started…

…and feel free leave any questions, comments or feedback about minimalist Ironman triathlon training below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Greenfield, MS, CSCS, C-ISSN, is a coach, author and speaker. He runs the popular fitness and nutrition blog and podcast at http://www.BenGreenfieldFitness.com, coaches triathletes via http://www.Pacificfit.net, and mentors personal trainers and fitness business owners via http://www.SuperhumanCoach.com.

 

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  1. Kate @ Fit for Real Life
    September 21, 2012 at 5:51 am

    SUPER article! I provide strength coaching for a large number of endurance athletes & I agree-there are smarter ways to train than what many try as they prep for big-distance races. It’s fascinating to me that you recommend only 1 long run a week…and seriously shorter swims…have your athletes felt like, come the real-life moment of being in the race, they were prepared to handle the long distance despite not having gone that far in practice?

    • Ben Greenfield
      September 21, 2012 at 9:46 am

      Kate – mentally, the answer is NO. Athletes actually feel intimidated when they know their friends are running multiple times per week and doing long runs of 2-3 hours. That has been my biggest barrier as a coach – getting my athletes to TRUST that minimal training works.

      But physically, the answer is YES, and once that first Ironman is under their belt and they see that they actually don’t need to train 20-30 hours a week to accomplish their goal, or beat the people who *are* training 20-30 hours a week, it’s a pretty cool switch to see flipped.

      • Lars
        December 20, 2012 at 8:36 am

        Anne, you’ve certainly got those fast, enarudnce running legs and running is a lot more fun than pushing hard intervals on a trainer on the bike. As you know, I on the other hand am optimally built for a 100 yard dash, so working on a plan of developing a crushing bike capacity, so that I can race the bike portion at a relatively low work load, and leave as much of the legs as possible for the run especially those last 6-8 miles at least that’s the plan

    • RobbyJ
      September 21, 2012 at 10:50 pm

      As a swimmer for 16 years I can absolutely tell you this works. My longest event was the 200 fly, and in training with intervals I rarely went over 200 yards. Didn’t matter last summer though when I did my first Tri.. the swim was cake, and I finished among the few fastest. I never trained any interval longer than 100m the whole time (except warm up of 500 once per workout).

      • CJ
        September 20, 2013 at 6:47 pm

        I just happened upon this article. Rob, how did you feel during the full distance (140.6) triathlon? Which full triathlon did you compete (not just complete)?

  2. John Harris
    September 21, 2012 at 6:37 am

    Thanks for this article. Great advice and it gives direction to many of us who want to maximize health but also love to get out for a long run (or bike) once in a while.

  3. Harry
    September 21, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    Wonderful article! very informative, thank you for sharing this. For the tips and advices.

  4. Catherine
    September 22, 2012 at 9:24 am

    I’m a little confused about the swimming recommendation. Many triathletes need to work on their stroke technique (because as you said, efficiency is crucial). If someone is just spending 15 to 20 minutes in the pool they are not going to have much time to do stroke drills which lead to the sought for efficiency and improved feel for the water. Intervals, as you have said, are also critical in swimming but they aren’t going to lead to much improvement in swimming unless they are paired with technique work. Also, if 15 to 20 minutes of swimming is all that is necessary to improve speed why is it that Olympic swimmers train 2 to 4 hours a day (and some more) in the pool (they do other types of exercise also)?

    That 12 year old girl who beats you in the 100 meters is probably on a swim team that practices 3 to 6 times a week for 1 or more hours per session. Much of the team’s practice is also focused on learning good technique. Unfortunately Masters teams don’t often have a coach on deck that is critically analyzing the stroke technique of its swimmers and providing them with feedback – they just write up the workouts. I think that the mind set of triathletes with respect to swimming that can be problematic is that they just get in the pool and do a lot of laps as if they were going for a long run or bike ride – they don’t like to do intervals or technique work.

    • Ben Greenfield
      September 22, 2012 at 4:27 pm

      That’s the difference between triathletes and “swimmers”. Triathletes are notorious for not being quite as fast. But when it comes to feel for the water and limited time available to train, *frequency* trumps *volume* when it comes to swimming…

  5. Geoff
    September 23, 2012 at 4:53 am

    Great article! Thank you. Any recommendations for how these principles might be tweaked for running the marathon?

  6. Ben Greenfield
    September 23, 2012 at 7:52 am

    Yes, Geoff. It can be done. I’m a fan of this weekly approach: 1 track/speed run, 1 hill run, 1 “long-ish” run, one cross-training day (i.e. elliptical) and 2 strength sessions per week.

    • Jessica
      April 7, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      In reference to the marathon training, you’ve listed 3 days of running, 1 cross training and 2 strength training days, is this a seven day training program or 4 day with the strength training days in addition to a running or cross training day?

  7. Dawn
    September 23, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    I’m in agreement with most of what you’re saying. But my main concern is for those who aren’t ‘athletically gifted’. How does this work for those who are out there for 16-17 hours? Who take a full 8 hours to ride that hilly IM bike course, to run that 6 hour marathon. Everyone seems to focus on those who fly thru these courses, and win their age groups, if not the race. Do you have any different recommendations for those who are proficient/efficient, but not speedy (due to genetics, or what have you)? Thank you

    • Ben Greenfield
      September 24, 2012 at 11:21 am

      Yes, Dawn. I coach many 13-15 hour Ironman athletes, and the primary consideration for them is that they may be going slower and thus remaining more aerobic during the event. Aerobic capacity and the ability to be on your feet for a long period of time are both significantly improved through A) high intensity interval training; B) strength training and C) mobility and fascia work (such as deep tissue massage and foam rolling).

      I used to take athletes like this and send them out on 6 hour bike rides or 4 hour runs, until it became apparent that this didn’t offer any significant performance gains, and actually increased risk of injury and burnout, especially compared to A, B and C above.

  8. Al
    September 24, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Ben, nice article. I have to agree with nearly all of your recommendations, and in fact, have coached many AGers to very successful ironman finishes, including a 3x AG Ironman World Champion (Lisbeth Kenyon, reigning 45-49 champ) using a very similar philosophy. Specifically, I emphasize movement quality and functional strength as the platform for true high quality training that enhances fitness without leaving the athlete exhausted. Speed skills, true core stability, adequate mobility, and optimal recovery, are so overlooked in the endurance community! Thanks for sharing your experiences and expertise! Keep up the great work!

  9. Conor
    September 24, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    Great article Ben. I recently completed my first half iron in 6 hours and 51 mins. I followed a minimalist training regime (10 – 12 hours per week) and the Crossfit Endurance programming. I had to learn how to front crawl properly so that took up a lot of time.

    have you any tips on taking time of the bike and run? Thats where i really fell down, would love to take an hour off my bike over the next 6 months

    • Ben Greenfield
      September 25, 2012 at 10:09 pm

      Go to the pain cave for that bike. I personally use Sufferfest indoor training videos. I’m also a big fan of the treadmill for run intervals. You set a speed and you have to be honest if you’re going to stay on the belt.

      • Conor
        October 1, 2012 at 11:30 am

        Great, thanks for the reply Ben. Yep that works for me, I love and hate the pain cave but it has to be done!! Thanks for the tip.

  10. Randy
    September 24, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Thanks so much! I’m doing IM Florida in 6 weeks and have been apprehensive about my training. This will be my fourth IM. I am a Clydesdale and have never finished in less than 15 hours. I am looking forward to changing my training to see if I can do a sub-15 hour IM.

  11. Chris
    September 25, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Great stuff; lots of useful information. I don’t mean to sound critical, but the article only provides nine strategies, not ten. Any chance that we could see strategy #3?

    • Ben Greenfield
      September 25, 2012 at 10:08 pm

      That’s because squatchy is a shitty editor. Ha ha! I actually don’t know what happened to #3. I either A) didn’t write it or B) it got lost in the shuffle…

  12. Dewi
    September 27, 2012 at 11:14 am

    My brother (Geraint)completed his first Ironman race last week in Tenby, Wales, UK.
    He did it off minimal training and finished in 13:11. The most impressive thing about the whole Ironman preparation process was watching him have “FAITH” in the crossfit endurance/minimalist training approach. It is a leap of faith into the unknown when you choose not to follow the ‘traditional’ approaches which simply wreck your body! He arrived at the Ironman startline at 7am on a beach, fresh, injury free, and in the best shape of his life! He finished the race with a smile on his face and looked fresh enough to go round the course again! He had never previously ridden 112 miles (longest training ride 60 miles once), he had never run 26.2 mile (longest training run 12 miles), and he completed both comfortably. He has been following a PALEO lifestyle for the last 3 years, and attributes his current fitness, health, and ironman achievment to the paleo/primal/crossfit approach!
    Well done on the article. And long may this revolution in fitness, nutrition and health continue!

    • Adam
      March 1, 2013 at 7:05 am

      Hey Dewi – It’s so encouraging to hear successful first-timers with the CFE minimalist approach (not to mention all the great tips Ben provides in this article). I’m training for my first Ironman (Arizona in Nov.) and would love to learn more about your brother’s experience – as I’ll be following the crossfit minimalist approach as well. If you or he are up for chatting, shoot me an email at adamsfuller at gmail dot com. Thanks for the inspiration!

  13. Jon robins
    September 27, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    Brother, you are right on.
    I am a physician and long course triathlete, and this is pure physiology and common sense.
    Well done

  14. Simon
    October 4, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    It’s an interesting method, but for those athletes completing an ironman in sub9h or even sub 10h, with minimal training, what kind of background do they have? Have they done their miles in several years before trying out the minimalist training?
    I completed my first Ironman 1,5 month ago in 11h 39min and I’m not interested to just complete the next one in 13-15h. Could this method take me under 10h?
    And one more thing, when coaching a complete novice, is it a good idea to start them up with high intensity work outs from the beginning?

  15. andy magness
    October 5, 2012 at 7:16 am

    Ben – awesome stuff. i agree with you on all accounts. i loved one of the things you mentioned following one of the comments – about lower volume not preparing people mentally, until after they had a race under their belt. One of the things i’ve realized in confronting this is that if one remembers that ‘the race’ is not the end of things – that races in a sense are mental training and will help develop confidence for future races, then some of this fear might be alleviated. i’m personally looking at completing a number of ultra endurance events this year (including possibly an IM distance tri) on only 60-70 minutes of weekly training. yeah, i know it sounds crazy but i’m applying very similar principals – 3 x 10 minute HIIT training sessions (one in each discipline) and one 30 minute race pace session in one of the disciplines, plus a couple tabata strength sessions – and the fact that prior to the IM i’ll have done (or tried) the arrowhead 135 on bike, an ultra run, a 27 mile river swim, and at least one 24+ hour adventure race – which helps mentally. I also have a background in mountaineering from 10 years ago where i developed a great sense of confidence and love of suffering, which helps a ton since there are no long efforts in my training.

    one mistake many people make (IMO) when comparing low volume and high volume training programs is to assume that low volume proponents are somehow looking for a shortcut. low volume, high intensity training, as you know, is incredibly demanding and difficult to actually accomplish – you have to do more than just ‘show up’. in fact, it simply doesn’t work for many people because they find the pain cave so inhospitable. But if you can follow through, it does indeed pay off, and alleviate many of the issues associated with high volume endurance training like you mentioned.

    again – awesome article. I’ll likely link to it from my site.

  16. cbszebra
    October 6, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    Thanks for the article – very interesting. What’s the best resource for a minimalist training plan (day by day) for a Full Ironman. Also, are there day by day training plans for the “off” season (can you tell that I’m type A)?

    thanks again,

  17. Livethedream
    October 9, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    Hi Ben, I’m new to the sport and really like the way you have said you approach the training for such a big event is there any way I could get a program from you?

  18. Ryan Thorr
    October 27, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Sure exercise can kill you! Anything in excess can. Though it may seem unbelievable, Ironman Triathletes are not invincible and need a proper nutrition and exercise regimen.

  19. Tim
    November 14, 2012 at 1:38 am

    Just to back Ben up. ‘Minimal’ is the way to go especially if you want to stay married/see your kids. It also makes you all round stronger and faster not just ‘ironfit’ so much better for your health.

    My wife hardly noticed my last ironman and I had much more ‘vitality’ and energy

    Ben’s programmes are right on the button too. Good investment even just to save your hours hunting online let alone having an effective programme to follow plus guidance

    Try it. Once you get over the guilt of not doing hours and hours, you’ll find it THE way to go

  20. Claire
    December 24, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Wow. I am so glad I found this article! I used to race Olympic distance tri and I really put the hours in. 10 years later with a full time job and 2 children I have entered my first half-ironman for next June to celebrate my 40th birthday. But I had more or less decided not to start the race because I just can’t seem to put the hours in. Reading this I feel like maybe it is do-able, and that I don’t have to take a career break just to get to the start line. Even better I am a big fan of the gym and have been unable to find a single programme that advocates keeping up the strength work. So reading your tip 8 has made my week! I feel far more positive now and I will keep the negative thoughts about all the training that everyone else has done at bay. Thanks.

  21. Phillip Langsdon, MD
    December 29, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    Great article. I’m not a marathon runner or triathlete, but believe that moderation is best and that some cycling, light short distance walk/jogging, home based weight lifting and a diet with protein, good quality fats/oils, and no simple carbs (if one can do it) is best for overall health in the average person (non competitive). Could you forward the medical reference articles regarding the cardiac damage from extreme training?

    Thanks and keep up the good work!

    • Ben Greenfield
      December 29, 2012 at 9:07 pm

      James H. O’Keefe et al. Potential Adverse Cardiovascular Effects From Excessive Endurance Exercise. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Volume 87, Issue 6 (June 2012) DOI: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2012.04.005

  22. Simba Ugarte
    January 2, 2013 at 5:05 am

    Hi Ben, I have been following you for awhile online, various podcast etc and also have purchased your ebook on nutrition for triathletes. What you are saying in this article regarding training volume seems logical. My question is two-fold 1)the elephant in the room no one talks about and that is the recovery drugs/performance drugs many athletes professional and amateur take and the damage they cause to one’s body. 2) The mental confidence of having gone the distance or close to it before your big race, especially the swimming portion! As a not so good swimmer, I could not imagine what my first tri would have been like had I not swam the distance beforehand. I was stressed and panicked enough on race day, but the one thing I could hang my hat on was the memories of having gone the distance in training.

    • Ben Greenfield
      January 2, 2013 at 9:53 pm

      Simba, scroll up and check out my response to Kate re: the mental component.

      Regarding drugs, it’s actually a VERY small portion of the competing population that is using anything illegal…but I didn’t actually see a question from you on that…just a statement. Did you have a question about it?

  23. DME-Direct
    January 11, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Thanks for writing this informative article. It is common knowledge that too much exercise could actually be harmful for the heart. There are many Ironman Triathletes who are extreme and will push themselves beyond their limitation. I think your minimalist ironman training strategies are very essential to help people prepare for their big event.

  24. Rebecca
    January 18, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    I am not seeing the number 3 way. Number 2 is “Mostly Bike Indoors” and number 4 is “No Early Season Long Bikes”, but what is the number 3 helpful way to avoid my self destruction?

  25. Oscar
    January 21, 2013 at 11:30 pm

    Great article. Me and my wife are going to compete in Kalmar Ironman, Sweden this summer and are using a minimalist approach. We both finished a Half-Ironman last summer with less than 5 hours training per week. (I finished at 5:01 and Linda at 5:45). We got two kids and full time jobs so there is no way we can put 20+ hours per week in training. Seems like a lot of triatlethes just focus on the miles and hours and not the quality. And most people forgett about the strength-training.

  26. Katie
    February 3, 2013 at 8:01 am

    I have done one IM in the past and just signed up for another. I did “traditional” training for my previous one, but I think my body would react better to a more minimalist approach. I enjoyed your article tremendously but do you have recommendations on where to get actual plans to follow?

    Thanks!

  27. Johnny Mac
    February 4, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Great article! I am mostly an oly and halfer and this methodology fits my body type and most importantly my work/life schedule. I am a former competitive swimmer and strong runner. I am making progress with the bike on speed. Where can I go to get samples of actual workouts for the bike and run?

  28. Chris
    February 13, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    A well written article, thanks for sharing!

  29. George
    February 14, 2013 at 12:17 am

    I would love to have this minimalislic approach, but im really struggling with the “no long runs etc” do you not have to know how your body is gonna feel after doing that distance so it is geared up for it when it comes to race time etc?

    • Ben Greenfield
      February 14, 2013 at 10:24 am

      Knowing how you’re going to feel is unfortunately wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Learn to accept the unknown.

  30. Neil
    February 15, 2013 at 2:59 am

    Hello, Ben,
    Well written article and goes along with a recent article in cycling Weekly regarding combating modern day stress and stress related viscral fat. I have a couple of questions I hope you can answer. 1.In terms of race day nutrition, I currenly suffer badly with stomach cramps when pushing the pace running, I have experimented with various gels and non gel options (malt loaf, honey sandwiches)and have found the High 5 range to be best butI always have that cramp feeling loitering. How do I train my stomach to accept food whilst racing? 2.Do you agree with double sessions on one day, eg turbo in the morning and squad swim in the evening?
    In terms of race day nerves if you feel you haven’t done the milage, I accept this as natural flight/fight energy and is the best natural stimulant you would ever want!!!

  31. Martin
    February 15, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    Although I am nowhere close to running ironman, the principleas of limiting cardio exposure to avoid inflammation are applicable to just about everybody.

  32. Adam
    March 1, 2013 at 7:07 am

    Excellent advice, Ben. I’m training for my first Ironman (AZ in Nov. 2013) and your tips are a great resource as I map out my route. Thanks very much

  33. writingprincess
    March 11, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    I’ve been a triathlete for 10 years and I race Athena. I love to swim so I tend to do that more but hate to bike. I know. In my Ironman I missed the bike cut off (by like 2 min…uggghhh) and was told to “bike more.” But I guess I should be “biking faster…” right? :) I’m trying to improve speed on the bike and I’m getting all kinds of advice. But I like your “train smart…” approach. After doing tri’s for so long I feel I’ve cheated if I don’t “train like a beast.” But now that I’m older and actually have a life I find I’m getting faster on the run at least because my runs aren’t longer but more intense. But I also feel guilty because I’m trying to lose weight at the same time. So I feel if I don’t two sports a day I’m not doing enough. Uggghhh…so frustrating. But hoping to figure this out so I can get the IM monkey off my back. :)

  34. Fábio Gebcke
    March 16, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    You’re missing number 3

  35. john
    March 23, 2013 at 11:56 pm

    hello ben,
    I like your article. It does makes sense to do more intense training in a short period of time rather than doing a long exhausting exercise. But my question is, what if you are an obese triathlete like me. I am 5′ 4″ 200pounds, and I cannot handle an intense run because i have a bad knee. I can do spinning intervals but my plantar fasciitis acts up. I had done 3 sprint, 2 olympic and a half ironman triathlons and still the same weight. Imagine if I did not do any execise? My point is, it is hard to lose weight and I think my joints would get injured if i do an intense workout. Do you think if i follow your formula, becoming a minimalist in training 8 to 12 hours a week for an ironman, I would be able to finish a full ironman? Because when I prepared for the half ironman i was exercising 22 to 25 hours a week for 3 weeks 5 weeks before the event. I finished it in 7 hours and 30 minutes. You are probably going to say lose the weight first then become a minimalist. Easier said than done. I am a self coach, self taught triathlete, and I would love to hear from you before I develop my training plan for my second half ironman on September. Please email me your response. Thank you.

    • Ben Greenfield
      March 30, 2013 at 2:04 pm

      John, I train some overweight/obese clients, and the main strategy is to take the runs and move them all into non-weight bearing modes until ideal or close to ideal weight is achieved. For example, we’ll use elliptical, Elliptigo, extra bicycling, aqua running, etc. You still get all the cardiovascular benefits.

  36. Kirk Hopkins
    March 24, 2013 at 7:54 am

    I love your article but still have a quick question? Would you offer a similar training plan for a sprint triathlete? I have race one Season using heart rate training that qualified me for worlds…and in the off season till now I have picked up my training hours and intensity which has just left me tired and injured. I have dropped my intensity and mileage now but not sure on how much I can push without getting injured.

  37. Sad
    April 1, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Everyone loves what you guys tend to be up too. This type of clever work and exposure! Keep up the amazing works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to blogroll.

  38. Phung
    April 9, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Fantastic site i’m intersted within starting triathlon myself please let me do a great ironman or ironman 60 to 70. 3

  39. SJ
    April 23, 2013 at 10:42 am

    Hi Ben,

    You’re article and approach is very interesting, and if I’m sceptical, sounds too good to be true. I’m 14 weeks away from Ironman UK and struggling to get in the long, traditional sessions each week around my busy job so your plan/approach sounds great. Couple of quick questions – (1) Would this plan be appropriate for me to adopt considering I’m so close to IMUK? (2) I have a half-iron distance race planned for 8 weeks, would this be a problem?

    If the above is OK, where can I get a 14 week program I can follow to the letter?

    Thanks very much in advance, Stuart.

  40. Brian
    April 25, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    Hi Ben,

    Am I happy I found this article to read, I have been training using this approach for my first IM on 9 June. the point you make about “lower volume not preparing people mentally, until after they had a race under their belt” is exactly the point I am at now 6 weeks out. My friend who is also competing is punching out huge volumes in all 3 disiplines and I have been plagued by self doubt as a result. After reading this and the many comments I feel a little more aware than I was and looking forward to the challenge of the day.
    thank you.
    Brian

  41. Joy
    May 5, 2013 at 5:54 am

    Hi Ben,
    On a minimalist principle, how do you suggest breaking that into session during the week? Would you have one longer session per sport?

    Secondly, what ratio would you use to apply this strategy to Olympic distance racing?
    Thanks,
    Joy

  42. Mat
    May 14, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Very refreshing article and I like to think my approach is more minimalist. As a Marathon runner of 10 years my times are still improving and my miles are dropping. Early on I used to run with a high mileage group where we consistantly ran 100km+ per week with very little speed work.

    The first year I trained on my own around 5 years ago I never exceeded 100km p/w and threw in more speed/tempo.

    Now almost every session I do has some form of speed/tempo including track work. I am a lot more comfortable having a rest day or two due to the quality of my runs.

    Those mates of mine who are still doing the miles and not the speed are not doing the times anywhere near me anymore like they used to…. Perhaps it’s catching up to them. My adapted nutrition over the years has certainly assisted the recovery progress and performance 10-fold.

  43. ana
    July 29, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    Hi Ben, do you think the minimalist approach would help someone like me? I’ve qualified for Kona (first timer) and my knee has had some real issues, just getting it sorted now but only really have 9 weeks to train and heal (by way of strengthening the muscles around my knee, keeping the pain at bay) at the same time…you think I can get there if I keep to a lower level of hours…

  44. Alex
    August 9, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    I just turned 60 and have been a marathon runner (times between 2:45 to 3:35)for 38 years. At my last physical, out of the blue, my heart was found to be exactly as Dr O’Keefe predicted. I’m guessing it’s only those of us with 3 or 4 decades of this constant training (a very small group) that end up getting into this trouble, so all you young bucks don’t know what you’re talking about yet.

  45. Jeff C
    August 19, 2013 at 6:27 am

    Thanks for an articulate, well-written and super informative article!

  46. Nick G
    August 21, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    I’ve been looking more and more into this style of training for myself lately (and have taken a similar approach at least to my running), and I was wondering how you feel your more inexperienced athletes’ mental strength and focus were come race time. Did athletes who had rarely (if ever) trained for more than 5 hours consecutively have trouble focussing when they suddenly had to race for 10 hours or more?

  47. Mike Wasserman
    October 17, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Great article! I pretty much follow this regimen, averaging 12-14 hours per week. The swimming part is especially true. I just had my best ironman swim off of less than 2 hours a week of swimming (which did include some VASA work, which I find especially helpful). Thanks for the great tips!

  48. Henric
    January 30, 2014 at 1:58 am

    A very interesting article, but everybody should be carefull about the impressive racing results of Ben and Sami. Beside any kind of training, the genetic VO2max potential plays a crucial role in what you can achieve in endurance sports competition. The best of the best have about 65ml/kg UNTRAINED, a value which most “normal” athletes can’t reach, regardless of how or how long and engaged they are training. A sub 10 Ironman, or a sub 3h Marathon is definitely not reachable for everybody.

  49. Marius
    February 1, 2014 at 12:15 am

    Hi Ben. Just did the 70.3 Half Iron in South Africa. Did long miles and many hours but couldn’t perform on the day. The full IM is coming up in 9 weeks. Where do I get this minimalistic training plan? I don’t have time for the long hours to train for the full IM and would love to try the minimalistic aproach.

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