The Kona Qualifier's Basic Year.
Alan Couzens, M.Sc. (Sports Science)
Oct 19th, 2017
It’s that time again – #DreamingSeason. Another Ironman World Championship is in the books and whether you watched the live stream or you’re waiting for the drama-enriched NBC version of the race, chances are you’ll get that little tingle down your spine as you share in the emotions of those who cross the Kona finish line. These emotions are the real deal. Pure joy bred from the sacrifice that it took to achieve a really tough, ambitious, audacious(!) goal. Maybe sacrifice isn’t the right word. At the level of training required to qualify for the “big dance”, pure joy in the daily process is an absolute prerequisite. However, it is fair to say that those crossing the finish line on Alii Drive lived the previous year of their lives a little ‘differently’ to most :-)
I know this from a decade’s experience working side by side with these fine folks towards their goal. Over the past 10 years, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of almost 40 age-groupers' journeys towards Kona Qualification. And, while there are varying levels in all of the numbers involved, one commonality holds true – none were easy. All required an unwavering commitment to a goal over a long period of time. A period of time long enough that ‘on paper’ plans had to be modified time and again after unforeseen ‘bumps in the road’ and commitment to the goal had to be tested and reaffirmed time and again.
While no 2 journeys to the Big Island are the same, when we pull enough data, certain ‘trends’ become apparent as to “what it takes”. And that is what this post is about, pulling in the numbers from those 40 or so successful qualifications to come up with a general idea as to ‘what it takes’ in the 12 months preceding that finish chute down Alii
In a previous post, I looked at what a Kona Qualifier’s ‘Basic Week’ looks like – how they fit the biggest weeks of training into their greater life. In this one, I want to zoom out a little as to how we get to those ‘bigger weeks’. Getting to a 25hr training week doesn’t just happen. There is a progression that begins many months in advance. This post will pull some numbers on just what that ‘average progression’ looks like.
To get these averages, I wrote a Python script to go into my database and pull volume and intensity by month for all athletes who have qualified and download those to a csv file. I then went into the csv file and pulled the averages for each month. Below is what I found…
A few thoughts on the general pattern of the year for the Kona Qualifiers
- It may, actually, be best to look to the end of the chart as the true starting point of a successful KQ season – qualifiers back way off for ~2 months (Oct/Nov) after the key race each year, with a reduction in load of almost 50% compared to the peak month and a reduction in overall intensity of training to an 'active recovery' intensity of ~0.6 I.F. This is a great block to really dial up the mobility work with the emphasis on active recovery - yoga, SMR & core/stabilizer work tend to feature heavily
- Following those 2 recovery months, volume and intensity begin to ramp in December starting with a good 'honest' base month of ~60hrs at an average intensity right around AeT (I.F. of 0.7). I will sometimes plan a strength emphasis period in this block, while overall volume is still pretty moderate, for athletes with a strength limiter
- When I looked at the averages, I found a little intensity peak in January. The best explanation I can give of this is that, I often plan a swim emphasis period during the winter months where the intensity factor is a little higher.
- February and March are typically solid base months, generally with a run emphasis, especially if the athlete has a true winter & often with a ‘getaway bike camp’ that demands a little more recovery following.
- April is frequently that ‘gather the mojo’ mid-season recovery month before the final push towards the key late season peak. Often this will take the form of recovery from the bike camp, then a C race (maybe a half marathon or Du), then recovery before starting some more specific Ironman work
- The biggest months (an average of 80-90+hrs) of the year occur from May to August, initially at a base level of intensity for May and then with progressively more & more race pace intensity & harder, more specific race quality workouts (along with an increase in volume) through June and July
- August tends to be the biggest month (90-100hrs) with another big week/camp planned. The best explanation I can offer for the slight drop in intensity observed here, is that often the camp is also a heat (&/or altitude) camp as we begin the final lead in to the specific environmental demands of Kona
- September tends to be a significant reduction in volume (to ~70hrs) with continued heat acclimation work during taper followed by travel.
- October is race month and then Finnegan begin-again… :-)
I was also asked if I could translate the above into a typical ‘PMC’ (Performance Management Chart) to show how this may translate in CTL, ATL & TSB terms and yes, with just a little more Python, we can do that too! You’ll find that below…
You’ll see that same pattern from above – the impact of a camp/big week in early year (resulting in low TSB), the mid year peak/recovery period – with high TSB and fitness maintenance (at a relatively safe base camp' level of ~125CTL) before making the final push from the mid year to the season peak CTL of ~160, where TSB is again negative but not so negative as to compromise race pace quality work, followed by a maintenance period for heat work and then a taper/peak where the TSB rises to ~+30 before the event
The above ‘blueprint’, while, in my experience, a pretty accurate representation of ‘what it takes’ numerically, doesn’t convey the richness of ‘what it takes’ from a life perspective. From December on, the prospective KQer is training ~2-3 hrs each and every day through to October. Sure, there may be some days that are bigger, and some that are a little smaller, but that’s the ‘meat and potatoes’ reality of it. Additionally, if you exercise for 2-3hrs every day, you’re likely to get a bit tired so you *have to* find time for a level of sleep that is appropriate to that training load (~8-10hrs/night). In the words of my buddy Gordo, the math of making the thing happen may be “simple but not easy”.
So how do they do it? It takes some creativity & a willingness to live a little differently. Consistent bike commuting across the seasons, making a habit of eating at your desk so you can fit your daily lunch swim or run in, ‘adventurous’ family trips & weekends :-), foregoing the couch each evening for the floor and a lacrosse ball for your daily mobility work, a commitment to a healthy lifestyle (nutrition, sleep etc), being organized & assertive with your scheduling (treating appointments with yourself with the same importance you treat appointments with others) & a little bit of work flexibility in the key months - the ability to take a day off mid-week for a second long ride (or getaway for a week for a training camp with a bunch of other 'different' folk :-) In short, a willingness to spend a year or more living a little ‘differently’ to the norm coupled with a dogged determination to make it happen.
Is it worth it to you? Are the above ‘trade-offs’, worthy of that momentous feeling of accomplishment, of setting a huge goal and seeing it through as you cross the finish line on Alii? That’s up to you. All I can do is share 'my truth’ in spending more than a decade working with folks who made that commitment. I’m not sure if they were already great people who decided on a challenging goal or if the journey of pursuing that goal shaped them a little more that way but I can honestly say, above and beyond their athletic accomplishments, the select ranks of those age-groupers who truly make a commitment to go after the Kona dream are some of the greatest, most inspiring, people that I’ve had the good fortune to get to know.
Follow your passion,
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