How fit will the Beginner Ironman Training Plan get you?

I’m using Scott Herrick’s Beginner Ironman Training plan which you can grab from beginnertriathlete.com. I’ve entered all of the sessions into a spreadsheet (yes, that was painful!) and now I can see exactly what fitness his training plan will deliver. The graph below shows, over the full 20 weeks, how fit I will become in the swim, bike and run, and also how fatigued I will get.

The Beginner’s Training Plan – as applied to a Beginner:
Beginner PMC

(NB. In this graph I’ve set the starting CTL values at zero, which means you are coming into the training plan with absolutely no swim, bike or run fitness! Not true in my case.)

This is a PMC chart. Fitness is known as CTL, and fatigue is known as TSB. You can read more about PMC and CTL at Training Peaks if you like – knock yourself out! The key things are: when CTL is higher I am fitter, and when TSB is low (ie. a negative number) I am fatigued.

Looking at the graph, you can see that the run and bike fitness rise steadily to 50 and then drop off in the taper. The bike ends up at 44 and the run at 37. Swim fitness climbs for the first half of the plan and then levels out to finish up at 18. The end result is an combined CTL (fitness) of about 99.

A CTL of 99 means nothing to me. I haven’t done an Ironman before so I don’t know if this is a good number or a bad number. (I do know that it was a good number on “Get Smart”). I don’t know if this is a 9 hour ironman or a 15 hour ironman! Right now, it’s just a number.

BUT, looking at this PMC chart, I can see some pretty interesting things about the training plan and tweak it to suit me better:

  1. Run fitness ends up being almost the same as bike fitness. This lines up with some comments I’ve seen on forums that this is a good first plan but perhaps is a bit light on cycling. I’ve previously determined that I want my bike fitness to be almost double my run fitness. This plan won’t deliver that. So for the six weeks I’ve been on the plan, I’ve taken the bike sessions and increased duration and/or intensity.
  2. Good taper. The taper leaves the swim, bike and run TSB at around +10. Nice and fresh for race day! Perfect!
  3. Looking at the TSB, this plan frequently generates high levels of run fatigue. As I said, way back in the beginning, I’ve come into Ironman in an attempt to build some strength back into my injured calf – via low intensity and increasing volume. So far I’ve found that any time my run TSB gets below -15ish I start having calf issues. Looking at the first 12 weeks of this plan, you can see that the run TSB practically lives below -15! And then at weeks 10, 6 and 4 it gets below -30. Warning, warning, WARNING!!!

I tried to mitigate run fatigue by doing a run block before coming into my Ironman training. My run CTL was 30 before I started the training plan. The PMC graph below shows the training plan applied to my actual starting fitness values:

The Beginner’s Training Plan – as applied to ME:
My PMC

You can see that my run TSB (in red) barely gets below -10 in the first 10 weeks of the plan. So the run block has worked. But boy I’ll still need to take a good, hard look at week 10 of the plan which sees my run TSB plunge to -30! What the heck is going on that week?

This is another real benefit of loading your training plan into the PMC chart – you can see the dangerous days coming (and prepare or avoid)!

Another interesting thing to note on this PMC chart is that, even though I start the training plan with higher fitness levels (a swim CTL of 5, a bike CTL of 20 and a run CTL of 30), the end result is almost exactly the same as someone who starts training with no fitness at all! I end up with a slightly higher run CTL of 39 (up 2) and a combined CTL of 101 (up from 99). Man, I spent months building up that fitness for two lousy CTL points? What’s going on here?!?

This got me thinking. What say I applied to the same Beginner Training Plan to someone who is superfit: a bike CTL of 80, a run CTL of 50 and a swim CTL of 30 – a combined fitness level of 160! And guess what? After 20 weeks on this plan, the superfit dude ends up pretty much the same as everyone else: 19/39/46 for a combined CTL of 104 – only 5 higher than the guy who started from scratch!

The Beginner’s Training Plan – as applied to a Superfit Superfreak:
Superfit PMC

The revelation is that using this training plan will generate roughly the same level of fitness in a person, regardless of what level of fitness they start with!

Sure, if the person is very fit, then the first half of the training plan will feel like a holiday (illustrated by very high TSB levels) as they detrain themselves down to a level where this plan feels like work. Conversely, if the person is very unfit then the first half of this plan will be bloody hard yakka!

This is why you need a training plan that is customised for your own fitness levels!
Those fit dudes need to do some seriously hard work to stay that fit!!

OK, so the first 10 weeks of your training plan don’t have much bearing on your final fitness levels at 20 weeks. Clearly the purpose of the first 10 weeks is to prepare yourself for the next 10 weeks of the plan – to get your fitness to a sufficient level that you can perform the final 10 weeks of race-specific training without dying. This is something that Joe Friel discusses in his series of posts on Base Training. (I’m pretty sure he doesn’t talk about dying though. That’s technical term I’ve invented…)

The upshot?

Loading my training plan into a PMC chart is a bloody useful technique for tweaking the training plan. I can see, in advance, what fitness levels my plan will deliver! Man, that sure beats waiting till the 20 weeks of training are done and retrospectively going “DOH! I should’ve done that different!” I’m still gonna be crap – but I now know that 20 weeks earlier!

Footnote: You can download the spreadsheet from Google Docs here. Once you’ve downloaded it, open it in Excel and ignore the “Some data is lost” message. The Training Plan is on the first tab. Change the first date to one that is 20 weeks out from your race day and the rest will change automatically. As you train, modify the number of minutes and RPE for each session to reflect what you did. The Swim/Bike/Run CTL graphs shown on this page can be found in the 6th tab called “All3 CTL”. Enjoy!

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7 Responses to How fit will the Beginner Ironman Training Plan get you?

  1. Brad says:

    Very good post. I have not tried to link running calf issues to -tsb, seems like a good idea. Would it be possible for you to send me the pmc spread sheet. I would love to dig through the data.

  2. jontsnz says:

    Hi Brad,

    Feel free to have a play with the spreadsheet. It started life as the 30-day CTL predictor from the wattage forum, and I extended it to cover the full 20 weeks of my training plan and go across all three sports. I’ve stuck a copy on Google Docs which you can hopefully grab from here. Let me know how you get on.

    Regarding calf issues and negative TSB, that only works for me with run TSB. Running always stresses my calf. On the bike, I generate TSB from both hills (which hit my calf) or long flat rides (which don’t hit my calf at all) so bike TSB doesn’t line up with calf niggles.

    Been reading your blog. Interesting stuff!

    John Fitz

  3. Rob says:

    Very interesting stuff; am just getting into this way of looking at training load.
    Would you mind sharing the excel sheet you created from SH’s IM plan?
    Am just about to start training using it and it would save me reinventing the wheel!
    Thanks!

    • jontsnz says:

      Hi Rob,

      You can download the spreadsheet from Google Docs here. Once you’ve downloaded it, open it in Excel and ignore the “Some data is lost” message. The Training Plan is on the first tab. Change the first date to one that is 20 weeks out from your race day and the rest will change automatically. As you train, modify the number of minutes and RPE for each session to reflect what you did. The Swim/Bike/Run CTL graphs shown on this page can be found in the 6th tab called “All3 CTL”. Enjoy!

  4. Rob says:

    Just realised that i forgot to say thank – thanks!

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