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Season Plan for Triathlete Leveling Up to Ironman

Athletes often underestimate the amount of fitness that they lose in tapering for, and recovery from, excessively frequent racing. This is especially true in Mary’s case where she is looking to make a significant jump in training load in order to properly prepare for the Ironman distance.

Coach Alan Couzens teaches a swimmer

To learn more about Mary’s story, read her letter to Alan Couzens and check out their interview during the onboarding process.

The first thing that I always do is outline how much time we have to work with until the A-Race and then work back from there. In this case, Mary’s race is almost 12 months into the future, so we have a nice full annual cycle to work with. Frankly, it’s uncommon for athletes to come to me with this much lead time before a target event. More often than not, I find it is something that I am pushing for.

So, having the year to work with, how do we break it up? A good rule of thumb is to have the General Preparation (“Base”) phase longer than the Specific Preparation (“Build”) phases for developing athletes. Splitting our 52 weeks in half, I want at least 26 weeks devoted to the lead-in “Preparation” block coupled with the long “General Preparation” period.  

See Coach Couzens Training Terminology for more information on specific energy systems and the physiological markers being targeted.

General Preparation Phase 

Goal 1: Increase general fitness 

My aim in the General Preparation period is to increase general fitness (i.e., fitness) that is independent of the distance or event that the athlete is competing in. In other words, this is not the phase where we focus on specificity of training. ALL athletes benefit from basic aerobic fitness, which leads to rich mitochondrial and capillary development in the slow-twitch fibers, a large cardiac volume, and an ability to utilize fat as a substrate and spare glycogen when not engaged in specific training. These qualities bring about two advantages for the athlete:

  1. improved speed of recovery, which leads to
  2. increased capacity for the sport-specific work, namely an improved reliance on aerobic metabolism, which spares limited fuels like glycogen and increases reliance on unlimited fat stores.  

Goal 2: Strength and muscular development 

Additionally, all athletes benefit from a baseline of strength and muscular development. In most sports, an athlete can reach a level where they have insufficient strength to utilize their available aerobic fitness. This is why it’s important to keep coming back to strength and muscular development throughout training—particularly for older athletes and females. This strength work doesn’t need to be limited to the gym. The late General Preparation phase is a great time to work on sport-specific muscular development. These sessions will focus on higher muscular loads—big gear cycling, running hills, paddle work in the pool, etc.—while sticking to aerobic heart rates to give the aerobic muscle fibers a good strength stimulus.   

Goal 3: Movement economy 

Finally, the General Preparation period is a great time to work on movement economy. Most sessions will have a technical focus. Since the athlete is typically training without a lot of intensity, more attention can be directed to the movements. While much of this work is slow and easy, a little “spice”—faster movement under low conditions of fatigue but with high movement quality—is technically beneficial. This work also serves as a good maintenance stimulus for those higher-threshold, fast glycolytic muscle fibers.  

Given Mary’s relatively weak swim, this technical work will factor heavily in her time in the pool. The ability to swim well slowly is uncommon in triathletes. Only after Mary can swim well slowly will she be able to swim well at race speed. This will be our emphasis in this phase.  

A key metric that we are tracking and looking to improve in this phase is the Efficiency Factor, i.e., how physically and technically efficient the athlete is in transferring each heart beat to forward movement.   

Specific Preparation Phase 

The objectives of the Specific Preparation phase are, unsurprisingly then, to tackle the abilities that are specific to the event that the athlete is preparing for. In Mary’s case, that will be specific endurance.  

The phase is divided into Early Specific Prep and Late Specific Prep (or Race Prep) phases. The difference between these two blocks is that the Early Specific Prep is largely focused on gradually building specific endurance (increasing aerobic threshold) in each individual sport, while the late Specific Prep or Race Prep phase focuses on integrating the three disciplines into race-specific workouts and focusing on execution.  

Extending AeT endurance to achieve Mary’s goal time of 11:35 will be a challenging task. She will need to gradually push out the duration of those key Zone 2 sets. While the General Prep phase will give Mary competitive AeT power numbers, the Specific Prep phase will ensure that she can hold those numbers for the duration of the event.     

Race Preparation Phase 

Once Mary’s specific endurance is established, the Race Preparation phase will put the proverbial icing on the cake by focusing on long-event, specific “simulations” coupled with recovery and maintenance of her other capacities. The Race Preparation phase is focused on practicing the physical, psychological, and tactical skills of the race. Emphasis is on the key sessions, with particular attention to the tactical aspects of racing well at an Ironman-distance event—notably, proper pacing and a proven nutrition/hydration plan.  

  • Metric Ironman: 2.4K swim/112K bike/26K run at target race pace 
  • 6-hour progressive ride: 2 hours easy, 2 hours at IM pace, 2 hours above IM pace 
  • 9-hour BIG day: Get as close to race duration as possible, but at a lower intensity and with less impact—a very long ride, a combination swim/ride/hike, etc. This is primarily a task in fueling and psychologically being “out there” for a very long time. (To reduce intensity, I recommend hiking as a great alternative to a long run on these days.) 

Peak/Competition Phase 

Finally, in the Peak/Comp phase, the emphasis will shift to stabilizing freshness prior to the race. The Race Prep phase was characterized by wide swings in the freshness of the athlete—from very challenging sessions that necessitated longer periods of recovery to multiple days of very easy work that brought the athlete back to a high level of freshness before hitting them again with a very challenging workout. In this phase the taper will seek to stabilize freshness as much as possible. We don’t necessarily want the athlete jumping out of their skin with energy; we want them to feel generally good and ideally a little better each day. 

Load development 

I asked Mary to give an estimate of her chronic and acute volume during my initial questions. I use that information to get a “ballpark” of starting CTL numbers. Mary reported that she has been training consistently at 12–14 hours a week for the past 2 years. Because she has been recording her data for the past 2 years in TrainingPeaks, I could estimate her starting CTL more accurately.  

12 hours per week averages to be 1.7 hours per day.  

At a guesstimate of 50 TSS/hr., this would put her starting CTL in the 85 range (1.7 * 50).   

The other thing that this comment about training consistently for the past 2 years tells me is that she may not have had a major unload during that time. So for the first 6 weeks, I will be OK seeing that CTL drop a little in exchange for some freshness. To do this, I will plan the initial 6 weeks with slightly under that 85 TSS/d—closer to 70/day or 500 TSS for the week. I will do this primarily through a conscious drop in intensity of the sessions, with more of a focus on technique.  

Ramp rate for training

I also asked Mary to give me some information with regards to her overall health, life stress, and injury history. I use this information to help determine how initially aggressive I want to be with her ramp rates. Compared to a lot of athletes, Mary’s life sounds on the low-stress side. She also has no recent injury issues. Her sleep schedule is decent (10 p.m. – 5 a.m. = 7 hr. on Mon./Wed./Fri. and presumably more on the days that she doesn’t swim masters at 5:30 a.m.). But sleep is something that we can probably improve on by encouraging her to drop some of those early morning masters swims when tired. Nutrition doesn’t sound optimal, but she does sound like she is fueling the sessions well and we can work on adding a little more good protein throughout the day. Based on all of the above, I’d put Mary in the average category for load ramp. Low would be <5 CTL/month, average would be 5–10 CTL/month, and high would be 10–15 CTL/month. With 6 months of General Prep to work with, we should be able to put on ~50 CTL in that time (8 CTL/month x 6 months).  

The above, of course, depends on Mary having sufficient space within her life/week to accommodate those key 1000 TSS (20+ hr.) weeks that will get her Chronic Load to that level without compromising recovery. To assess this, I tried to get a really good sense of what Mary’s days look like and what additional responsibilities she has. This is absolutely key in determining the maximal load that an athlete can handle. It is no good planning a 20-hour training week if the athlete has to sacrifice sleep in order to reach it.   

While it’s good to have a general guideline, all of the above is completely hypothetical. I will use Mary’s Heart Rate Variability and wellness scores to determine how much load and, more specifically, how many loading sessions I give her on a weekly basis. For example, if Mary’s CTL is 100 in the late General Prep phase and her HRV/wellness metrics are looking good, I might plan a loading day of 130 TSS with a key muscular endurance set on the bike. If she is at the same CTL but her HRV is in the toilet, I might plan a recovery day of only 70 TSS with a low muscular load (high cadence) and a firm heart rate cap at her Aerobic Threshold. An average of 3 loading days and 1 long day per week coupled with 3 recovery days will keep us on track for our 8 CTL/month goal. However, if Mary has periods where her HRV and wellness metrics are low for 5 days of the week rather than the guesstimate of 3, I will defer to what her body is telling us for that week and let the ramp rate slide as needed.    

If we’re able to keep recovery in a good spot, we should arrive out of the General Prep phase with a significantly elevated aerobic fitness (Efficiency Factor numbers, significantly improved efficiency especially in the water) and a CTL in the 130 range, a number that puts a good, strong Ironman performance within reach. Importantly, a key principle that I try to follow is not to raise both volume and intensity at the same time. While General Prep is the time for building the training load through increased volume, in Specific Prep we will focus more on the intensity side of the equation (primarily through increasing the percentage of Z2 work in the week). Because of this, the ramp in CTL will be significantly slower as we have more recovery days in the week between the very tough key workouts.For example, after a 6-hour, ~300 TSS Z2 workout, we expect to see a few days with low readiness metrics. For this reason, I only project half the CTL ramp of the General Prep phase—only 4 CTL per month. And, to be frank, if no ramp occurs during this time but the athlete maintains CTL while pushing out her AeT endurance in those key workouts to approach race duration, I will be 100% OK with that. The focus in Specific Prep is, first and foremost, on those key workouts.      

Fit, fresh, and race-ready

Finally, in the Peak/Comp phase, the emphasis will shift to stabilizing freshness prior to the race. We will happily give up some CTL to do this. Stable + Fresh + Fit + Proven AeT endurance is what we want to rock up to the start line with. In this phase, we will keep the same routine as the Race Prep phase, but sessions will reduce in volume. Our number one goal is stability—of HRV, energy, and generally feeling good each day. To do this, we’ll keep the engine ticking over but ensure we only add just enough fatigue to keep the body (and the mind) remembering what it does as an athlete. While the training content, intensity, and frequency will remain similar to the Race Prep phase, we will increase Training Stress Balance (TSB) to a positive number during this phase—on average, in the range of +20. We will do this by reducing the daily load below Mary’s CTL (~140 TSS/day) to an average of only ~110/day (~750 TSS/week). 

Coach’s Note: While Mary’s season plan might come across as quite definitive and quantitative, in practice, I take Eisenhower’s viewpoint: “While plans are useless, planning is indispensable.” Things will crop up over the course of the year that alter the plan—both life stuff and things that we learn about the athlete. For example, maybe we find out that Mary is greatly limited by her muscular development and so we place more attention on that during the key workouts of the base phase. Maybe we learn that Mary’s job is actually far more stressful than she is letting on and she demands a more gentle ramp than initially thought, etc. This attentiveness and flexibility is the art of coaching. That said, hopefully the above offers some insight into my general thought process when it comes to deciding what to program for a given athlete.