A Male Runner On The Road Next To The Ocean During The Ironman World Championships Hawaii 2022

Case Study: Coaching an Ironman and 100-Mile Ultra in One Season

BY Maria Simone

As more athletes get into longer-distance events, they may think about going after a massive goal. See how to navigate an Ironman and an ultramarathon in the same season.

It’s dreaming season, and your athlete has come to you with a fun puzzle to solve: they want to do an Ironman and an ultramarathon in the same season. If you are new to this combination, you might wonder if this is even possible.

The short answer is yes, this dual ultra-race season, in two different sports, is possible. But, it will take thoughtful planning as the coach and a set of realistic expectations about what is possible for performance. To help you see how this scenario might work, we’ll review the case of a 45-year-old woman, who competed in a July Ironman race, and a late Oct. 100-mile ultramarathon.

Athlete Background

At the start of the season we are highlighting, this athlete had successfully completed nine Ironman-distance races, which included three podium finishes and a Kona qualification. She had previously completed two 100-mile ultramarathon races, finishing one sub-24 hours as one of the top 10 females. Additionally, she has over a decade of experience in both sports (triathlon and ultrarunning), having finished multiple shorter distances in each sport. She has a moderately flexible schedule, with the ability to train up to 20-25 hours/week during peak weeks.

This background emphasizes an important point: if your athlete wants to tackle this sort of challenge, consider their history to determine what is realistic and safe. The more experience they have in each sport, the better set up they will be for success. And, if the athlete is going to be doing ultra-distance racing, they need to have the training time to make it happen.

Additionally, the timing between the events matters. You want to ensure there is enough time to prepare specifically for each type of race and time for recovery from the immense effort that is an ultra-distance event. In my experience, it works better when an athlete goes from the triathlon event into the ultramarathon event. If the athlete is doing an iron-distance event, then wants to do an even longer triathlon event, such as Ultraman or a Double+ Anvil, it works best to go from the shorter into the longer event.

If your athlete has never competed in an ultramarathon, starting with the 100-mile distance, in a season when they are also doing an Ironman isn’t the smartest idea. Instead, you may suggest to this athlete that they begin with a 50k or 50-mile race. The reverse is also true. If they have ultramarathon experience but have limited experience in the triathlon, counsel them to select distances that represent a challenge but not an insurmountable obstacle.

Training Approach

Based on your athlete’s experience, your next move is to determine the primary training objectives you want to meet for your athlete.

We took a reverse periodization approach, which works well for experienced athletes with several continuous seasons of endurance development. This ensures they have the foundation to support the speed and strength work.

Our first mesocycle was eight weeks, emphasizing speed and strength, with a mix of VO2 max work and longer, steady-state aerobic endurance work across swim, bike and run. We started with a four-week strength sequence in the gym that focused on adaptation, then developed that into a four-week max strength phase. This cycle took us through the end of Feb.

The next eight-week mesocycle included one threshold-focused session per sport per week. We continued with the volume build for the aerobic endurance training. We included an eight-week muscle development, or hypertrophy phase, for her strength training. Our goal was to make any substantive strength gains before building significant volume for the Ironman.

For the remaining time into the July Ironman, we focused on muscular endurance work, with sub-threshold (e.g., sweet spot and tempo) as our intensity efforts. We built the volume and introduced race-specific efforts throughout each week. The athlete’s peak training volume during this period was 22 hours, with a peak week TSS of 1312. Her CTL topped out at 137 before the taper.

We complemented the swim-bike-run training with strength endurance in the gym, which included paired sets focusing on the same muscle groups, with one weighted exercise and one stability exercise, such as weighted squats and then bodyweight squats on a Bosu. The exercises we selected were sport-specific, so as we changed from triathlon to ultra-running, we adapted the specific exercises as appropriate.

After the Ironman, we had 14 weeks to the 100 miler. We allowed three weeks of recovery/transition time (more on that later) before building her run training load. We maintained the muscular endurance focus with sub-threshold sessions once weekly that included tempo and hill work. Her training in the build to the 100 miler was aerobic, endurance-focused work. Most of which was completed on trails similar to her race. Our primary focus was strength and durability.

We did include minimal swimming and cycling for cross-training and overall conditioning during this time. Swimming works especially well for recovery from long, back-to-back weekend runs.

This is a critical point to emphasize: trail running is not the same as road running. And training for an ultra-marathon isn’t simply a marathon quadrupled. There are many logistics related to running 100 miles that are entirely unlike any other sort of race. Creating training opportunities where your athlete can practice these logistics is essential.

For her strength work, we added a four-week block of plyometrics (along with the ongoing strength endurance work) to prepare her body for the typical movements in trail ultra-running.

We also included a three-week heat acclimation protocol in the month leading to her race since she was training in cooler temperatures and the race would be in 80-90 degrees.

Her peak training week during this cycle was 15 hours, with a peak TSS of 828. Her peak CTL before the taper came in at 101.

By The Metrics

We used a mix of volume and TSS projections to arrive at a CTL for each event. We targeted a peak CTL of 130 for the Ironman and 100 for the 100 miler. Below is an image of her PMC for the entire year – Jan. through Dec.

Maria Im Ultra One Season Pmc for all sports for the year
PMC for All Sports for the year.

This PMC shows a steady build through the July Ironman, with peak training occurring through June and early July. She peaked at 137 CTL before the ironman. She raced a 70.3 event in April and another one in June.

Following the ironman, we allowed for recovery (discussed more in the next section) before beginning the build for the 100 miler. The lower CTL and daily TSS for the ultra account for the drop in swims and bikes. In this case, it can be helpful to review the run-specific CTL, as the overall PMC will hide the rise in training load specific to the ultramarathon. For this athlete, her run-only CTL increased by 37 points in the 14 weeks we had between the Ironman and the 100 miler. Below is the image of her run-only PMC for the year. As you will see, the run training ratcheted up post-Ironman. She peaked at 101 CTL before the taper for the 100 miler, a build that included a 50-mile race in early Sept. . Following this season, this athlete enjoyed a well-earned postseason, which you can see reflected in the drop in CTL and the rise in TSB for Nov. You’ll note at the very tail end of Dec., there was a slight rise in CTL as she began her preseason period for the following season.

Maria Im Ultra One Season Run only chart
PMC for run only for the year.

In addition to the overall PMC metrics, we kept an eye on her performance metrics. As a competitive athlete, she wanted to maintain her position toward the front end of her age group, even though she was realistic about the impact the dual season could have on her outcomes. For an overview of the metrics we assessed, you can see this post I wrote previously about build phase metrics or this post that discusses some postseason trend metrics (most of which you can also keep track of throughout the season).

Making a Successful Transition

Between the primary events, planning for the sufficient recovery time is vital. Since this athlete had extensive experience at the Ironman distance, we used previous recovery times to get a sense of how long we’d need before building the run again. Week one post-ironman was very easy with minimal training. We returned to some structure in week two while keeping the volume low. In week three, we increased the weekly run volume. At the end of that third week, we assessed she was feeling recovered and in a position to begin the 100-mile build.

This assessment for return to training was based on a review of the athlete’s subjective comments, RPE and heart rate response relative to both pace and RPE. We could also see that her Pa:HR scores had returned to a normal range, and her EF (efficiency factor) was back to her pre-Ironman output ranges. HRV and resting heart rate are also helpful in determining when the athlete returns to baseline numbers, demonstrating recovery.

It’s worth noting that if your athlete does the ultramarathon first, you may need more time than three weeks in this transition period, especially for the 100-mile distance, when it is not uncommon to need six to eight weeks — especially for a first attempt at that distance. In this case, you may start with a swim and bike build until the athlete is ready to run again. Your primary concerns in balancing this recovery period are injury and burnout. Use all available metrics, including the athlete’s subjective feel, to determine when it is appropriate to begin building again.

I hope this case study provides insight into how you put together this sort of season for an age-group athlete. As with any case, there will be variables that won’t fully account for the unique context of your athlete as an N=1. If you’d like to discuss the specific details of your athlete, I offer mentorship sessions to support coaches in this way. Please feel free to contact me for more information at maria @nolimitsendurance.com.

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About Maria Simone

Maria Simone is the owner and head coach of No Limits Endurance Coaching. She manages a staff of eight coaches and a team of 140 athletes. She is a USA Triathlon Level 2 long course, USA Cycling Level 2, and US Masters Swimming Level 1 certified coach. She was the 2021 Coach of the Year, awarded by Outspoken Women in Triathlon.

Maria offers mentoring for newer and intermediate coaches to support growth in coaching and business development. She takes a holistic approach to training that cultivates her athlete’s goals, physical ability and mental strength while managing a life-work-training balance. She is an active endurance athlete, enjoying long weekends in the pain cave, races with lots of hills, and hard runs through meandering singletrack trails with her husband John and her two dogs, Pace and Kea.

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