Overtrained, Undertrained and Ironman Racing

Back in the 80’s, there were some old school pioneers who carved the path for us. They knew this new sport of long distance triathlon was an epic long event, they respected that, and took it seriously. Although they might have took some hits going a tad overboard carving the path for us, they certainly knew what it took to get really good at going very long. 


40-50 hours of training a week was not unheard of; in fact, it was more a norm. These guys did some pretty big stuff week in and week out. 200+km rides, hundreds of km’s running every week, mega milage in the pool, gym routines and a lot of the time at high altitude. Body work and Whole Foods weren’t even on the radar, and often you might even see one of them racing two-three times a week just to earn a pay check. These men and women were tough. 


Then things got more refined, more dialed in. Some would say these guys “over trained.” But did they? Some of the times posted then are very similar to the times now with all the technology, science and refining you can find.


"If you overtrained, it means that you didn't train hard enough to handle that level of training”- Floyd Landis


I was personally coached throughout the best years of my career by one of the pioneers of our sport. I certainly did some pretty big periods of training in my life. I learned first hand what big miles were week in and week out. Nothing like the 80s crew, but I certainly logged many 30-35 hour weeks back then. Did it help me? Did it hurt me? Well, I’d say the proof is often in results.  I do know that those were the years I won an Ironman, was 2nd and 3rd at several other Ironmans and consistently top five in 70.3s. 


I had never done an Ironman any other way. Back then, Ironman racing hurt a lot because I was racing as hard as I could for that given distance, and it’s a pretty long time to be pushing yourself. But I was never facing any distance I hadn’t done many times, for many months in training. There was nothing in the race that was going to happen that I hadn’t experienced in training. Often training was so epic that the races themselves didn’t seem that long at all. Hard, yes, because I was racing, but I had faced more epic in training for sure. This is a long winded way of me saying I was always very well prepared for the distance. I had gone LONG, A LOT!!! 


Fast forward to now and the generation of the idea you can go fast in an ironman off minimal training, as long as it’s high intensity. In fact, any other way is OVER training and hurting you. This sounds pretty good to a time pressed athlete in day to day life,  in addition, who doesn’t love to do less work and go faster. 


With Ironman exploding into a brand where many people are now doing the events as a one-time participation event, and no longer investing into the long-term sport, this idea of minimal training, one event and get out, sounds pretty appealing to a lot of people. 


The problem with that…

These events are really, really long. 


I just recently came back and did my first Ironman after 7 years away. I had to start back from scratch on training endurance and especially running. I not only took 7 years off endurance, but in that time I was training as a strength athlete, which is polar opposite. So I had some work to do. I had to start over as an endurance athlete. In the time I had (8 months) to go from scratch to race day, you can only build so fast before you might be at risk for an injury. So, I slowly and safely built up the best volume that could be done in the time I had. 

When I hit 16 miles on the run on race day (which was the longest run I had done in training), it was glaringly clear where my endurance had been able to be trained to in this time. I HIT A WALL like I have never experienced before. It was different than when I was racing hard and trained for the full marathon distance; it was a complete halt when I hit the distance point I had trained for prior to the race. From that moment on, it was pure mental grit, and smarts, that got me to the finish slowly.

The thing that amazed me was how much MORE painful it was to complete one of these events UNDER TRAINED. I was sick afterwards for hours, I was swollen for two weeks after, and I got a bad infection for a month after. During that final 10 miles of the race, it was MUCH more painful than I’d ever experienced before when I’d be racing hard, but with deeper training. 


So what about these people who ARE successful racing long off minimal training? ALWAYS ASK their background. How many years have they consistently been training endurance, things like this.


There are a lot of different ways to skin a cat. Not every athlete responds to load, training progression and development the same. Everyone responds and recovers differently. However the one thing that does not change is that this event called an Ironman is still consisting of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and a marathon 26.22-mile (42.20 km) run, raced in that order and without a break and It is considered one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world. It’s a long long ways!!!!