Training article: Challenge Days

Alun “Woody” Woodward, Coach, ironguides.net

Triathlon and especially ironman is a major challenge and its this challenge that draws us to the sport! At ironguides our training method is all about consistent training and building fitness with a brick by brick approach, however we have to remember the nature of the sport and the athletes drawn into it and challenge days are a great way to spice things up once a while without compromising the overall goal of our training plan.

Challenge days should have meaning and placing them at special times of the year such as Christmas or birthdays works well and also a surprise challenge day thrown in at the last minute can be very rewarding not only for the challenge but as a boost for an athletes confidence as they can really show true fitness levels which many athletes doubt when in regular training.

When setting up a challenge day we need to pay attention to what has been done training wise in the days before and look at what we are planning in the days after to make sure we do not loose track in our general training plan. A challenge day also needs to look at any potential injury risk that could arise, setting up a big run day when an athlete is suffering with tired legs is not a good idea as overly fatigued muscles will mean your playing more stress on your joints.

With ironman a lot of athletes have insecurities about being able to run at a set pace for prolonged periods of time as we very rarely need to do this in training, some athletes will worry about being able to complete the 180km on the bike and a challenge day addressing these insecure in a safe manner can be a huge boost for the athlete. Lets look at some ways we can set up these sessions


When setting up a run challenge day as i mentioned above we need to ensure the athlete is not overly fatigued leading in, by this i mean tight and sore muscles not general training fatigue. A big run day is also best set into 2 sessions rather than one big session, this is a great way to get volume and minimise injury risk – also ensuring that the challenge day is followed by at least 2 days off running will mean the athlete will not be increasing injury risk.

For a run challenge day i like to set long intervals at goal ironman pace, 3km intervals work very well as this is a sustained period of running at goal place without being too long to cause too much muscle break down, the following set works very well

MAIN SET – 5x3km at goal ironman pace with 1km run at 1min per km slower than goal pace between

It is important the km between efforts is at least 1min slower that the goal pace to allow adequate recovery between intervals. This session would normally have a long warm up of 30min and 20min warm down.

While this session will be enough for most athletes as we look at more seasoned top end athletes a second run would be placed around 5 hours after the first run session and would be active recovery. For less experienced athlete i would place a bike session as the second session of the day.


These days are great to do as an event such as a 100 mile granfondo style event or an epic ride with friends, the low impact nature of biking means we do not need to worry to much with planning around this as the recovery will be very quick and will have very little impact on overall training. I like to try and organise for athletes to travel to a new area they would not normally ride and search for some special challenges such as a long mountain pass or a scenic loop that has no short cuts – so once you start you have to finish. As an example out in Austria while preparing athletes for ironman i had a loop i would have athletes ride that was 160km long but at 120km there was a 20km steep mountain climb, once you reached the base of the climb there was no way back and no matter the fatigue you had to get over the climb, this was great for developing strength and mental toughness!


Swim challenge days are one of my favourite to add to programs at special times of the year and i tend to give my athletes a Christmas or New year special swim set and my pro athletes know to expect a 10km special!

As with the run we need to look at any underlying fatigue or possible injury risk when designing a big swim session, for example any history of rotator cuff pain would suggest a big swim set should be light on pull and paddles work or if the athlete is carrying heavy fatigue such as pro athletes then the set should be heavily loaded with pull work to ensure we still have good technique maintained through the swim and do not overly stress the shoulder joints.

A classic swim set for these challenge days is the 100x100m set that is feared even amongst club swimmers, this set will take a top swimmer in the region of 2.5 hours to complete and you can add another hour onto this for most triathletes, 3.5 hours in the water is a long time and i would advise you bring food!!

As with biking swimming is low impact and the fatigue from a challenge swim session will pass quickly and have little effect on your general training program.


So if your feeling like you need a challenge and your training is feeling a little monotonous right now then maybe its time to add a challenge day to push your comfort zone a little and see what you can really do if you put your mind to it. So my New years challenge to you is the classic 10km swim set, get to your pool and make sure you have 3-4 hours pool available for the session and take plenty of water and food – you will get incredibly hungry in this session and eating as you would on a long bike ride will allow you to get through the session in one piece.


25x400m swum as
  • 5x400m @ 100m free / 100 back / 100 free / 100 back + 30s rest
  • 5x400m pull @ 25m hard / 75min easy


  • 10×400 paddles @ 4 easy / 3 moderate / 2 hard / 1 all out
  • these should be of a set time – so your rest should be max 10-20s for the easy 400’s.
  • if your heavily fatigued pre session add pull buoy to this set.
  • 3×400 @ pull / band + 30s rest
  • 2x400m @ 100 free/ 100 backstroke
Enjoy your training and Happy New Year!


See also:  Gain Weight for Improved Performance

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