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.
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.
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.
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.