How should I train for a half ironman?

I got an email from a local neighborhood person who wants to do their first triathlon as a half ironman. I wrote a long response, and thought I'd post it here. Comments, feedback?

Hmm a long discussion, starting with who is trying to do the half ironman and why.

Really, anyone can just finish. It's no big deal, even if you walk the half marathon if you put some time and effort into the bike.

Figure swim 1.2-miles, hard to do in more than a hour; 10-minute T1 to completely change, eat etc.; 12+MPH on the bike gets 4 1/2 hours; 10-minute T2; at which point you have to jog/run the half marathon in 2hrs 10mins.

60+10+270+10+130=8hrs - of course you might be quicker on the bike, slower on the run, this is just an example.

8hrs is the cut-off; so if anything goes wrong, or you take 1-second longer anywhere, you have to make it up or you can finish but you'll be dq'd. My view is anyone that approaches a half ironman like this is an a-hole. It's totally unfair to the legions of volunteers and the race organizers who'll have little sleep and will have to wait around on the course, at the finish line and post race until you finish. Not withstanding that, lots of peoples race plan will look something like this.

The way I figure is if your race plan doesn't look realistic to finish in 7:15 or less, you shouldn't be racing. I've had two meltdowns in Half ironman racing, one at Wildflower in 2003 which heavy rain made a course change and we had to do a massive hill on the run twice, instead of once. Walking up the hill cost me an extra 20-mins, I broke a front wheel spoke and we had hail on the bike course. Finish time was 35-mins slower than predicted. Then at Florida 70.3 in 2008(I think), I had an allergic reaction to an injection I'd had, on the bike I didn't feel well, on the run I had a total meltdown and I finished in 7:45 and in the medical tent and was over 75-mins slower than predicted.

My view is that’s what the 8hr cut-off is for. You've done the training, done the race prep. bought the gear, and on race day things go pear-shaped.

So, lets assume that you wouldn't do this and want to do better. Well you can easily do it. The question is how. You suggested three options. Here are my thoughts on each, I'll use this email as a blog post, without your name.

I like the idea of a personal coach for first timers and those who need specific help to improve or reach a specific goal. You need to talk to a few coaches before picking one, we are lucky in Austin, there are many, one being my friend and co- Jack and Adams Shop ride leader, Tammy Metzger from Tempo Multisport and Team Lipstick coach.

In talking to a coach, you need to work out a few things.
1. Do they know what they are talking about? Be specific about your race plans, tell them about your lifestyle, single, married, etc. tell them about your work circumstances, if there are times like year end when you'll be super-busy or unavailable, listen to their feedback. If the coach thinks you don't have time to do the training, then they won't be committed to helping you if you decide to plow-on and do it anyway.
2. Assuming they are supportive, you've got to decide if the way they'll communicate, email, online, in-person etc. is what you want; 3. and if you buy that method you will both be able to review and motivate you to do the training. No point in paying for coaching and then not following their program, or worse lying about what you are doing.
4. Do they have a track record of coaching for the event distance you'll be doing, and do you believe in them to help you?

Many personal coaches get athletes to train together, although many sessions may be alone.

I like clubs, as you know I'm working diligently to try to get Austin Triathletes back on track and hope to have something to announce shortly. However, it’s a club. What training we will offer is really just for individuals who want to train together, rather than a training group. I've never been a member of a training group, so my view is slightly one sided. I'm sure once I post this on and it gets fed onto my facebook page, I'll get lots of feedback.

Training groups offer a great structure, many offer multiple coached sessions per day; its easy to find something that fits your schedule and once you "buy in", the camaraderie of the other members will soon have you making commitments and showing up as much as not to let them down and seen a "wimp" than because you need the training. Training groups are also good because they often have talented coaches and do group race practice events, and you can find out where other members are racing and take part in the same races. So they can be infectious and great motivators.

This is great for someone looking to make big gains in their training and race results. While many triathletes train alone and get great results, all the best and fastest people train with other people who can push them, which in turns pushes each other. Looking back over the early Ironman times, the biggest gains and many of the fastest ever times, especially for the men, were when there were big groups of pro's training together.

The downside of training groups is exactly their strength. Over many years I've witnessed beginners and good athletes get chewed up and spat out as they over train, don't get the feedback and reviews they would from a personal coach, and get injured. It happens a lot more than people believe or admit. After all triathlon is a hard sport, you need to train hard for 3x events, so injury is common. Wrong, it's unfortunate and happens, but it happens more to people who train in big groups. It's nature's way of weeding out the weak from the strong.

Just like personal coaches, go try a few training groups. See what the schedule is like, where they train, what group sessions they have, what races they are supporting. If your focus is cycling and swimming, there is no point of joining them to do once a week group rides because your work location/travel/schedule means you can't get to the locations. Equally if their daily swims are going to take you 30-mins each way commuting to, is that really the best use of your time?

It would be hard to train alone when your first triathlon would be a half Ironman. You'd miss out on so much tribal and anecdotal knowledge, I learned more this way than almost any other. However, Individual Training mostly doesn't mean training alone. This is especially true in Austin where there are so many free, often coached activities, such as the Jack and Adams daily workouts, shop rides etc.

If you are the self-motivated type, which frankly any serious triathlete has to be, then there are lots of training programs online. You can mostly move them around to fit your schedule and what's available. You just link those with free activities, add a few quality sessions either on your own with other people, who you meet on your training journey and you are off.

You need to set yourself some realistic distance, then time goals and measure, measure, measure as you go along. The problem with any training method is junk miles. Everyone does 3x swim sessions per week, so you must have to right? Wrong. You need to work on your weaknesses and endurance, not turning out junk miles. This might translate into a short hard session per week and a long base/endurance session with intervals. It really very much depends on where you are starting from. Then you use your measurements to gage progress, I say even measure sleep, which almost no one does. If over a month you do the training and expect gains and things get worse, how much sleep did you get in comparison? Then there is the quality of sleep. No point in counting 6-hours sleep if you spend the time tossing and turning, half awake, and then in the morning, feel exhausted. Over a month of long training, difficult work, and a few late nights... you missed out on 1/4 of the previous months sleep.

As a seasoned athlete, I never followed a training program, never used a club or training group, never got an online training program and got through Ironman Arizona in 13hrs 26mins, even given I've never run a marathon and my best half marathon time was 2hrs 11-mins. Could have done better yes, did I want to ? No. My target time was 13:30, I felt both motivated and capable of attempting to complete in that time. It was 30-mins slower than 2x my half ironman time +35mins.

I did very little training alone, except my long runs on Sunday evenings.

So, a good personal coach is a great motivator and will give great feedback; a good training group will be a great way to get involved and make commitments you keep; individual training puts you in charge, gives the flexibility. Questions?
Tri-Training 101
Honestly, I think this post could simply be called "How should I train.."

You've shared some finely distilled wisdom that I didn't glean from a year of reading Triathlete & Runner's World combined. Even throwing in some signature Britt w the pear shaped comment. Classic. This post is definitely a keeper!