Performing at Ironman Hawaii

Performing at Ironman Hawaii

ron_kona2One of the most popular articles I’ve written was a piece from 2000 where I explained what I did to qualify for Ironman Hawaii. It’s somewhere in the archives of At the time, I thought that I’d done pretty well. As it turned out, I was only scratching the surface of my potential.

With the results of our team fresh in my mind, and my inbox humming with the Kona Dreams of top triathletes, I thought I’d revisit the topic but focus on what it takes to perform on the Big Island.

I’m going to focus on age group performance because it’s what I know best.

Getting There
If a life best performance is required to qualify then you’re unlikely to be able to perform in Kona. First time qualifiers, typically take close to a year to recover from what-it-takes to qualify. Qualify early if you want to give yourself a shot to perform.

From June onwards, it is really tough to re-up your fitness when recovery is considered and if you seek to hold your fitness post-qualification, you’ll almost certainly go flat by September.

What follows is how I lay out the year for an athlete looking for a great race in Kona. While each athlete is different, the requirements to perform at a tropical ironman are pretty consistent.

Planning Your Year
Most Northern Hemisphere athletes peak somewhere between April and August –- typically two weeks after their biggest training week of the year. It takes uncommon discipline (and scheduled downtime) to avoid peaking far before October.

For our top performers, I break the season into parts.

Ideally we start the year pre-qualified, if that’s not possible then we get-it-done by May. In the winter and spring, the athlete focuses on strength, threshold bike power, shorter course racing, swimming and run frequency. Aside from a spring overload block, I’m cautious on total training load. These athletes train a lot compared to most, but are not hitting it huge compared to their capacity.

Usually in June, I schedule a two-week break. The headline purpose of the break is to shed fatigue from the first part of the season. The secondary benefit of the break is topping up the athlete’s mojo before building race-specific endurance.

We’re back rolling by July and the No. 1 strategic goal is to assemble the pieces required for a high-quality broken ironman weekend. The pieces should come together in mid-September so advanced planning is essential.

Breaking Kona Down
The day starts with a non-wetsuit, crowded, stressful, choppy swim. Similar to Ultraman, you don’t see the effect of the swim until you’re on your bike (and by then it’s often too late!).

The core of the summer swim program is legit-long-course sustained freestyle endurance. I like the long swim to hit 5,500 meters, weekly, and have the final 1,500 meters of the main set be done at best-effort pace. To train the nature of open water swimming, I use a lot of pace change work as well as medley swimming.

Riding Kona well requires two things: knowing what you can do in the heat and the capacity to apply that knowledge while surrounded by the highest field strength in the world. Simple, not easy!

If you want to short cut the learning curve of the long-term Kona vets then get on the course for honest race simulation rides. Rides that follow solid swim workouts, as well as rides that precede benchmarking runs.

Armed with that knowledge you remain likely blow yourself up on race day!

Why is that?

First up, being the fastest athlete back home is a lot different than being the fastest athlete at World Champs. If you’re the local Alpha Wolf then you’re probably going to arrive psychologically unprepared the “feedback” that will be presented to you on race day. In Kona, quite a few people win their age group in every race they do.

Secondly, we assess our environment based on what’s presented around us. It’s no accident that pilots, military officers and CEOs are well represented at World Champs. These athletes are experts at making independent decisions while under duress.

Three tips to build your self-confidence:

  1. During group training, let people swim/ride/run away from you. A Kona Performer will nearly always swim/ride/run them down by the end of the workout. Even if you don’t catch them –- the capacity to execute your own goals is rare in a group situation and will serve you well.
  2. Always be strong at the end. The goal is to perform at the finish line, not T2 and certainly not T1. Cultivate the ability to be strong at the end of everything you do.
  3. Remove sources of “noise” in your life –- you’re trying to do something that’s extremely challenging. People, situations, substances that don’t support you goals… they need to go.

What About That Marathon?
Similar to the bike, it’s essential to understand what you can deliver, in the heat, when fatigued. I’ve done many long runs in the heat to understand how I perform as well as training my mind for what I’m going to face on the marathon.

Here’s how you enhance your ability to perform:

  • Lean, Not Light – Additionally, you want your lean body mass to be absolutely as healthy, strong and durable as you can make it. There are a lot of chronically depleted athletes out there. Give yourself every chance to perform.
  • Aerobic Economy Dominates – The heat, the lumpy swim and the windy bike -– together, they mean that we’re usually more tired than normal leaving T2. In these conditions your moderate aerobic economy will dominate marathon performance. As a high performer, you’ll be tempted to focus on high-intensity aerobic sessions -– make sure you are generating fatigue that’s specific to your needs.

Winter is the best time to focus on improving the quality of our bodies (we shared an entire month of tips) as well as increasing run frequency/mileage to improve the bottom end of our run performance curves.

Wrapping Up
The final piece of the puzzle is “why” and if you think about that question then you need to think about the question!

In reading Tim’s recent interview on Slowtwitch, I nodded my head in agreement with his bucket list of endurance events. Once you know that you’ve done something as well as you’re ever going to do it, it can be tempting to apply the lessons of excellence elsewhere.

November is an appropriate time to step outside the dot and consider your choices in the widest possible view.

Categories: Racing

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