(My) Secret sauce to a Sub 9hr Hawaii Ironman: Unconventional wisdom

Think high-volume training is the only way to snag a podium spot at Kona? Think again. Restwise athlete Sami Inkinen finished second in the highly competitive 35-39 age group on a minimalist diet of training. We thought it worth sharing the reflections about his season that he posted on his own blog. Here goes:

To do very well in – or even just to complete – an Ironman distance triathlon (2.4mile swim, 112mile bike, 26mile run), you would need to do many bike+run brick workouts, complete weekly 2-3 hour long runs, pedal 6+ hour rides and spend at least 20 hours swimining-biking-running per week? Yes or No?

I did none of those and had the best triathlon results of my life in 2011, including a sub 9hr finish at the Hawaii Ironman World Championships. An accident, luck or a secret sauce for endurance success? Read below and let me know what you think.

I met a number of ordinary, yet super-fit, individuals during my recent race trip to the Hawaii Ironman World Championships. With a limited sampling, it seems that many of the even first time Ironman triathletes who qualified to the event train 20hrs or more per week and some consistently 25hrs a week. I was not surprised to hear that there was one common denominator between my and most others’ preparation and training: I had done almost the opposite from everyone else. Since I heard the disbelief and question “..and you did what?” so many times, I thought this topic is worth a brief post for others’ benefit.

I won’t have a scientifically or statistically meaningful sample of individuals to draw conclusions from, but I hope that I can make a point by using my own experiences as a data point to extrapolate from. For context, this year 2011 has been so far (and by far) the most successful year for me in the triathlon adventures. For example, I have become the 2011..

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
Age group world champion runner up at Ironman World Championships (Hawaii) with a sub 9hr finish time

In addition, all objective metrics (such as power measured by “watts” on the bike, running pace) as well as relative metrics (how I’ve performed against my other competitors) are significantly up from the previous two years. So something is working quite well, while many other things have remained constant over the past three years: my overall health, work load, sleep, nutrition/diet and race body weight.

With a 300+ employee company to run and just more than an hour per day to dedicate to workouts, my training has always been “little, but with great quality” thanks to the amazing principles by Matt Dixon of PurplePatch Fitness.

Here’s what 9 out of 10 triathletes and training tips in most magazines tell me about triathlon training (the conventional wisdom), and especially, how to become a superb athlete at the Half- and Ironman distance.

1. It takes 20+ hours a week to qualify to Hawaii Ironman, and certainly that if you aim for a “top” age group performance.
The unconvential wisdom: No – it is possible with about 12hrs/week

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve had 2 weeks with more than 15 hours of training, and one of those weeks included three days (3-4hrs/day) of casual bike touring in Finland during a mini-vacation. An average week is around 12hrs, which also includes warm-ups, cool-downs and some commute bike riding.

Weekly training hours in 2011:

Weekly training hours in 2011

Weekly training hours in 2011:


In comparison to my own previous years, this volume is about the same or 1-2 hrs per week LESS than earlier.

2. You need a massive, fatigue accumulating 2-4 month build-up and then taper 3 weeks to be really fit for a big long distance triathlon race.
The unconventional wisdom: No – it is possible to be race ready almost every week without the need for a long taper, by focusing on intense efforts over a day or two and then recover well during each week without training oneself into the ground.

Even more so than limited training hours, weekly focus on recovery has been the most radical change for my 2011 “season”. Most endurance athletes (from recreational to more serious) seem to purposefully dig a really really deep hole (in terms of fatigue) over several months to barely survive until their taper period, and then start a 2-3 week race-taper and hope for the best to get out of the hole and be fitter and fresher on the race day than when they started the massive build. I’ve seen this ranging from first time marathon runners to experienced triathletes.

In weight lifting this approach would be unheard of: If you don’t get stronger (lift more weight or more repeats on a given weight) after each workout, you’d immediately change something or have a significant recovery period before next lifting session. It is obvious that if you don’t become stronger, your body is doing the opposite: breaking down due to too much or too frequent weight workouts.
Many endurance athletes tend to think that grinding through workouts day in, day out, no matter how tired, makes them stronger eventually at some point.

The approach we applied to my training this year was that of the weightlifters’. I never trained more than 2-3 days before a good rest day. And if my numbers (pace, speed, watts) weren’t up in the next workout, I took another rest day or two. The principle was simple: I should get stronger and faster every week (or day), not just hoping to get there after a 3-4 months of hard work and a 3 week tapering period.

I started using Restwise (which I’d highly recommend to every athlete) to better quantify my recovery (chart from last 3 months below). If my recovery score was too low, I took a rest/easy day until the scores were up (80-100%).

Restwise three-month chart

Restwise three-month chart


Similarly, I used quick 10-15min mini-tests in most workouts to see if I was improving; and sometimes stronger efforts like 20min max effort on the bike with maximum power. If the numbers weren’t up from previous time – time to rest.

I was race ready and well rested with 2-4 days of easier workouts throughout the previous 8 months. My final Hawaii Ironman taper was 4 days, after a 50minute all out (395Watts average; which, again, was a personal all-time record) bike time trial race just 5 days before the Ironman race. Similarly, I decided to race a Leadville 100Mile mountainbike race at 11,000feet altitude and prepare with a 48hour “taper”. These were only possible because I didn’t have 3 months of accumulated fatigue to shake off, but fresh and progressively fitter legs throughout.

3. You need to do big brick workouts (bike+run) to be able to run fast off the bike. You also have to train to run on tired legs by doing massive bike rides a day before a long run.
The unconventional wisdom: No – I’ve had my all-time fastest runs and overall times in triathlon events in 2011 with literally ZERO brick workouts in the last 8 months (except 4 races).

I couldn’t find a single real brick workout from my training log in 2011, except a couple 5 or so minute shake ups and one 10 minutes jog after a bike ride. It certainly takes a few events (or workouts) to get used to the feeling of running after a long and/or hard bike ride, but that feelings will never go away. I still feel crappy for the first 5-15minutes of running off the bike, similar to feeling in my first triathlon 5+ years ago.

Secondly, I’ve avoided doing any major run workouts with tired legs. Running with tired legs and/or bad form is the easiest way to injure oneself. I haven’t found scientific research that would explain why training with tired legs (=lower power) and bad form (=injury risk) would actually make a better runner even if you have to do that after a bike ride in a race.

Instead, I’ve had all my runs in an almost fully recovered state, which has allowed me to run much faster and stronger each time.

4. To be able to run a strong marathon at the end of an ironman or half-ironman, long runs of 2-3hrs are must, maybe even more.
The unconventional wisdom: No – most amazingly, I very rarely ran more than 80minutes and only did one 2h run during entire 2011.

As you can see from the chart below, I rarely hit the trails for more than 80 minutes. I did one 2 hour, mainly for self-confidence as I couldn’t believe that I had to run a marathon in 3 weeks but had not done a single run more than 15 miles.
At the same time, I’ve recorded my fastest ever runs on both half-ironman (13.1mile run) and Ironman (26.2 mile run) distances this year.

Instead of logging miles and spending hours running, risking injury and compromising other workouts 3-4 days following a massive run, I’ve focused on a lot of race pace (below/at/over) running. A typical “marathon” workout could be 3-4 times 15minutes where 5 minute sections are below, at, or slightly above expected race pace. That’s a 75-80minute workout and I’m able to recover in 24-48hrs vs. 3-4 days after a massive 20mile+ run.

More often than not, after people fade at the last half of the run in a triathlon, they say they need more and longer long runs. I would guess that the most common reason for fading at the end is just bad pacing in the beginning (of the bike or run), bad nutrition/hydration or simply not enough race pace running in training – and not that the long run wasn’t long enough in training

2011 runs in minutes

2011 runs in minutes


5. You need to do double sessions, maybe even triples with lunch hour training.
The unconventional wisdom: No – Except one single week in March, I never did more than one workout per day (always morning) in 2011.

I’ve found that is is completely possible to get strong performance gains with a single workout per day and 10-12hrs or so per week. Typically a big week for me looks like this:

Monday: Rest (or 30min easy swim)
Tuesday: Bike intervals on trainer (60-90min)
Wednesday: Run intervals on trails (60-70mins)
Thursday: Bike intervals on trainer (60-90mins)
Friday: Rest / Swim (40-60mins) / easy run (legs recover)
Saturday: Bike “long” (4-5h with no intervals, social time with wife/friends)
Sunday: Run “long” (80-90minutes with intervals and Swim if time)

Accident, luck or a secret sauce?
I realize that I am extrapolating from a single data point, but before you stop spending time with friends and family, reduce nightly sleep to 4hrs and spend all your time logging miles in a quest for improved endurance performance, read this post one more time. It might help you reinvent the conventional wisdom.

For the business readers: Many of these same principles apply to improving performance at the office. For example, unfortunately hours spent at the desk, lots of “hard work” and conventional wisdom are often associated with great performance, when in fact efficiency, true business impact and unconventional wisdom are the things that actually propel individuals, teams and companies to a greater performance these days. And too often the person who gets the promotion is the one who spends the most hours at the office rather than the one who comes up with a real break-through idea and executes it efficiently. Not very different from the mile counting triathlete who still follows the conventional wisdom and finishes at the bottom of the race results despite most hours in her training log?

3 Responses to “(My) Secret sauce to a Sub 9hr Hawaii Ironman: Unconventional wisdom”

  1. Dean Hebert says:

    Great post. Your findings are actually based in sound research and science. I coach primarily runners and a few cyclists, triathletes and duathletes. Quality over quantity approaches have indeed been shown to get as good or better results with fewer injuries. I have found that the fallacy lies in an erroneous correlation between athlete performance and mega-miles. If you ask, you get answers like – “well our Olympic marathoners run 140 miles per week and look at how good they are and therefore if I do that I will be as good”. They assume it is the miles that did it. What they neglect to see is the extensive injury rates on these runners and that almost 40% of their miles are done at 10K race pace or faster! They also are selective and do not consider a few of those Olympic team runners actually run less than 100 mile weeks. For age group runners I have runners who run 30-40 miles a week and do marathons in the 2:40s. I ran 2:36 on an average of 35 miles per week for the 20 weeks preceding. So don’t sell your observation short… it’s not as limited a sampling as you might think. Great work keep it up.

  2. Ryan Mclaughlin says:

    I can back this post up completely. Last year my training regime consisted of an average of around 11-12 hrs per week. I did not go for the much used taper routine but rather monitored my daily speed and power outputs making sure that I was in fact getting quicker/stronger on a weekly/monthly basis. I cracked out an incredibly fast first IM time. I will continue to train like this, its very effective. It does however have a basic requirement to analyse the statistics and figures you’re reading effectively on a daily basis. Its no secret… its just very intelligent and quality training.

  3. Duncan says:

    Great article! I see so many ironman friends train themselves into the ground because they think that’s how they should feel – crazy! You make so many good points.

    Quick question though, I think a lot of people will read this and assume that you accumulated a huge base over the last five years then did some high end training to top up your speed and consequently had the best year of racing of your career. Would you agree with that? You mention you did a couple hours more the year before – what about the years before that?

    Hope 2012 is another great year for you.

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