I recently got word that the Half Ironman that I had registered for is actually going ahead this year. After the COVID pandemic hit and everything was cancelled, I just presumed it would have to wait till next year. All the half Ironman training I had been doing all winter would be wasted. Of course, I was really excited at first, however, it was mixed with a little disappointment.
Having decided to take up triathlon last year I’d registered for the xTerra mountain biking triathlon in Canmore at the end of the summer. I had loads of fun training for it. I’d rediscovered training motivation that had been sorely lacking since many years prior when I decided to try and run my first marathon. Not being a runner in any way at the time this was a big ask! In those first few years I discovered a love of distance running that inspired the website you’re currently reading. However, after completing a few marathons (eventually) I didn’t seem to have the same excitement about training. I knew I needed a new challenge and last summer I discovered that it would be triathlons (seems kind of obvious but it still took me a few years to figure it out).
Training for xTerra was awesome and the race itself was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had. In my excitement I registered for the Calgary Half Ironman 2020 and bought myself a triathlon bike. The winter rolled in a couple of weeks later and I was very upset to discover that riding an indoor trainer for 2-4 hours every weekend is about as much fun as it sounds. I wondered if this had been a very expensive mistake. So when the half ironman was cancelled I was actually kind of relieved. I’d get my summer back! I’d be able to spend my weekends camping, hiking and mountain biking the way I like to. When they informed us the race was back on I pictured sacrificing big hiking weekends and mountain bike trips to spend hours hunched over on my triathlon bike riding 2+ hours without needing to turn!
Over the last few weeks I’ve been out on my triathlon bike more and realized I actually do really enjoy it. I rode from Red Deer to Lacombe yesterday. It was a beautiful ride.
This morning I’ve been giving some thought to my plans for the summer. I listen to a lot of triathlon podcasts and watch a bunch of triathlon YouTubers. I love their stuff but they are so focused! I really don’t share their obsession. Not yet at least.
Triathlon training, even for a half ironman, seems to have the capacity to engulf all of your free time in a way that marathon training never did. I find myself drawn into a choice between doing my training or doing the fun stuff I love to do in the summer. I can’t see how I would be able to go for a 3 day hiking weekend and ride 4 hours, run 2 hours and swim 1 hour all in one weekend. If I spend the morning mountain biking, do I then have to also do my hill sprint session in the afternoon?
I’ve been looking at my half ironman training plan this morning and I’m starting to wonder. Can I make it more fun? Is there a way for me to adapt the training plan but still get to do all the fun stuff I enjoy in the summer?
So I’m planning an experiment. I’m going to write my own training plan. It’s going to include all the stuff I enjoy doing and still allow me to achieve my goal of completing my first half ironman. More than that, it’s going to be fun!
Fun Half Ironman Training
That’s where this article comes in. I’m going to start by writing down everything that’s important to me for the summer. Then everything that’s not important so I know what not to worry about. Then I’m going to attempt to write a training program that incorporates all of it. If I finish that half ironman in September, it worked. If I don’t, then it didn’t and you should probably ignore everything you read here. If you’re having similar thoughts about your summer training, you should be able to use this article as a template for your own Fun Half Ironman Training.
So here’s the lists I came up with…
|Very important||Less important|
|Completing the half ironman||Race finish time|
|Lots of time outdoors||Interval sessions|
|Learning about Triathlon||Fitness testing|
|Open water swims||Accurate tracking and numbers|
|Mountain Biking||Indoor training|
|Hiking||Perfect bike fit|
|Camping||Hitting every workout quota|
|Not spending a fortune on triathlon|
|Keep Socks fit (my dog)|
|Run with dogs at Paws & Claws|
(rescue I volunteer at)
|Day Trips on the Road Bike|
I’m going to throw in a major disclaimer here. I’m a physiotherapist, not a triathlon coach. I really have no idea if this is going to work. I’m basing my training plan mostly on what I have learned from reading Joe Friel’s Triathlete’s Training Bible and Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Triathlon. Using the fitness tests described in the Triathlon Training Bible over the last few months I’ve determined my current training zones:
If I’m able to hold a zone 2 pace for the swim, bike and run I can estimate these times:
- Swim: 45 to 52 minutes
- Bike: 3:54 to 4:30 hours
- Run: 1:53 to 2:08 hours
- Total: 6:33 to 7:30 hours
The cut off time is 08:30 hours. Since my goal is just to finish, I’m looking ok right now. This brings me to an important point. I think my favourite S&C coach said it best:
So what are my goals for the summer? Well, I definitely want to finish the half ironman.When I wrote out my new year resolutions a few months back completing a half ironman topped the list. I just don’t want to miss out on a bunch of fun stuff this summer because I’m prioritizing my training. So I have 2 goals to bear in mind while I make my Fun Ironman Training Plan:
- Finish my first ever Half Ironman
- Have fun
If your goal is to beat your PR, this method is not for you. However, if you’re trying to train for your first ever half ironman and you want to have a life, then maybe it is.
Now that I’ve determined my goals and identified what is important to me I’m going to look at my current weaknesses. What are the things that may prevent me from completing the half ironman?
- Long Ride
- Race Fuelling
- Open Water Swimming
For a half marathon length race I can expect to spend most of my time in zone 2. I find sustaining a zone 2 heart rate/power/speed for > 2 hours on the bike extremely difficult. After a while I just feel like my legs are lead. There are many reasons this may be the case (muscular endurance, bike fit, aerobic endurance, mental toughness). I can’t be sure which it is but I have a feeling long slow rides are what I need to do. I’m a big fan of Triathlon Taren and he recommended something interesting in a video recently. He suggested those of us training for a half ironman throw in a couple of 120km rides into our training. 30km further than the bike leg of the half ironman.
This could take me as long as 6 hours at my current zone 2 speed. The reason he suggests this is that it allows us to put in a workout on the bike roughly as long as the whole race should take. I’m sure this strategy will help with my troubles on the bike and it will give me more confidence to take on a race that is longer than any I’ve ever done.
Urgh. Race fuelling. I hate race fuelling. I have consistently messed up race fuelling in every single marathon I’ve ever done. A big part of this is that I have dedicated almost no time at all to developing a nutrition strategy for both training and racing. I can easily manage a 3 hour training run with no fuel and barely any water. Since training runs for marathons rarely go longer than that, I never notice the problem.
On race day when I have to sustain my effort for more than 3 hours however, that’s a different story. Cramps and nausea have been a staple of my marathon efforts. One ended in a lengthy post race recovery in the medical tent. Since this half ironman is going to take over 6 hours, this really is something I need to address.
I’ve begun reading quite a bit about it and I’m fuelling all of my workouts that are longer than an hour now. I think I’ll do a dedicated post on this topic in a few weeks as I still need to dial it in.
Open Water Swimming
In my xTerra last year, the swim was an unmitigated disaster. I was second last out of the water narrowly beating the guy swimming with one arm due to a shoulder injury. The problem? I couldn’t keep my head under the water! I’d never swam in a wet suit or in cold water. I’d picked up the rented wetsuit the day prior. As soon as I put my head under the water I started to freak out. I felt like I just couldn’t breathe.
So I kept my head above the water. That resulted in me swinging my head around violently to try and keep up with the other swimmers. This made me so dizzy that I fell over running up on the shore to start the second lap. Needless to say, I do not want to repeat this experience.
At the time I thought the wetsuit was too tight. On reflection however, I think I was just panicking. Good old fashioned exposure therapy should sort this out. I’ll need to get my own wetsuit asap and make sure it fits. Then I’ll try and get into cold open water to swim at least every other week.
My Fun Half Ironman Training Plan
Now I have my goals, I know what is important to me and I know the weakness I need to work on. The next step is to take these things and build a training plan. I have 16 weeks until the race. Having reviewed what is important to me I know that I want my plan to be simple, flexible and allow me to do other activities. I also know that I don’t want to be indoors on a trainer or a treadmill trying to do really specific workouts like this:
- WU: Run 5 minutes @ moderate aerobic intensity
- MS: 8 x 30 seconds @ VO2max intensity with enough active recovery to reach total workout time of 30 minutes (including warm-up and cool-down)
- CD: Run 5 minutes @ moderate aerobic intensity
I pulled that from a Matt Fitzgerald plan. Workouts like this are great for people trying to optimize their training and smash a PR. Right now though, I just want to be outside enjoying the scenery while I workout.
Finally, I need to make sure my training plan addresses those 3 key weaknesses I identified above. While I want my training plan to be fun, I also want it to work! If I have a fun summer but fail to complete the race, I’ll be gutted.
So I’ve taken my original Annual Training Plan that I created a few months back while reading the Triathlete’s Training Bible. I also reviewed some of the training plans in the 80/20 Triathlon book and some random plans I found online. I came up with the Fun Half Ironman Training Program. You can download a Google Sheets template of the plan below.
How to use the Fun & Flexible Half Ironman Training Plan
The most important difference between this plan and others is that I intend to prioritize fun rather than optimize race performance. As I’ve said though, I still want to finish the race. So I’m going to need a structured training plan as I’ve detailed above. The fun will come in the form of rules.
- The total hours of training every week must be hit
- Workouts in bold are key workouts and must be done as prescribed
- Mountain biking can be substituted in for any workout
- Other sports like tennis or soccer can be substituted in for high intensity workouts
- Hiking can be substituted in for any workout. However 2 minutes of hiking only count as 1 minute toward the weekly total
- Total duration of workout per day can be accumulated from 1 or 2 workouts
- Workouts in italics are fitness tests as described in the Triathlon Training Bible
What about the High Intensity Zone Training?
One of the limitations of this kind of plan is the lack of specificity when it comes to higher intensity training. I certainly buy into the theory that 80% of our training should be done at low intensity and only 20% at high intensity. This was popularized by Matt Fitzgerald in his book 80/20 Running and I have written about it previously:
My plan will have plenty of low intensity training to cover that 80%. I have prioritised lots of zone 2 training with a higher volume of weekly hours than is typical in half ironman training plans. As I have said previously the long bike ride is one of my major weaknesses. Lots of long slow rides and runs should help me address this weakness. The high volume of weekly hours should help compensate for the increased flexibility in the plan.
I have not set any specific workouts for intensity zones 3, 4 and 5. This means the 20% high intensity training is not addressed as comprehensively in my plan. My intention here is to avoid having to take little sheets of paper to the pool in a ziploc bag with stuff like this on it:
- Swim: 1200 Yards
- WU: 300 @ low aerobic intensity
- 8 x 25 drills, RI=0:10
- MS: 2 x 100 @ moderate aerobic intensity, RI=0:05
- 8 x 25 kick, RI=0:15
- CD: 300 @ low aerobic intensity
Again, this is a very appropriate workout and very typical in half ironman training plans. However, I’m looking to take a more relaxed approach to my training. That being said, I still need to expose my body to high intensity efforts in zones 3, 4 and 5 for around 20% of my training time. In order to do this I’m going to specify a couple of “high intensity days” on Wednesday and Friday. On those days I’ll do intervals in zones 3, 4 or 5. How many intervals will depend on how I feel, somewhere between 3 and 10. The duration of the interval will depend on the intensity zone:
- Zone 3 intervals are up to 60 minutes
- Zone 4 intervals are up to 20 minutes
- Zone 5 intervals are up to 2 minutes
Other sports like tennis, soccer or hockey have lots of time jogging around in zones 1 and 2 combined with sporadic high intensity running and sprinting in zones 3, 4 and 5. These activities would make excellent substitutions for high intensity workouts.
As you can tell. This plan is not designed with optimal race preperation in mind. I’m hoping to be able to achieve my two goals of finishing the half ironman and having a fun summer. Hopefully I can use the flexibility of this plan to help me.
I’m a bit concerned about the weekly volume. Particularly at the weekends. That being said, the high volume does allow a little room for error. If I don’t stick to the plan as it is outlined, hopefully I’ll still build plenty of fitness to finish the race.
Will it Work?
Well, since starting this post I’ve followed the plan for a week. So far so good. If you’re curious to see how I get on, you can follow me on Strava or check out the spreadsheet below. That’s my copy of the training plan where I’ll be recording all my workouts. Come September, I’ll update this article with a full race report. The good, the bad and the ugly.
If anyone has any feedback on my plan I’d love to hear it. Especially if you actually have experience with Triathon as I do not! Just leave comments below.
Thanks for reading.
Well, the training plan “worked”. It didn’t exactly go to plan. My race was cancelled eventually (3 weeks before the race, thanks Ironman). So I did it solo from Sylvan Lake. If you’d like to read the full tale, click the link below…