My first attempt at qualifying for Kona saw an eye watering jump in training volume. It was also the first time I went sub 10 for an Ironman, although that wasn’t even a target at the time. I wasn’t as concerned with the time as I was with just ticking the Kona box. I’ve always maintained that I’m not particularly talented and that in reality it was just an awful lot of training that got me in qualifying shape. Most people think I’m being modest when I say that so for those who doubt that Ironman is predominately an aerobic sport, one that you can build a big engine for as opposed to having to be born with it. I will do a series of posts covering the sort of training I put in for the first couple of years training at a level to get up to Kona qualifying standard. I maintain that for me and a lot of other athletes I know getting to Kona has a lot more to do with having a life that allows you fit in a massive volume of training and the desire and motivation to do it consistently for a long time as opposed to the size of engine you start off with.
Kona Secrets book available
Kona Secrets: Lessons learned from over 50 Kona Qualifications.
Knowledge doesn’t produce results, action does. Just knowing how to do something doesn’t guarantee success, especially something as difficult as qualifying for Kona; you have to put in the hours. In this book I share some of the lessons I learnt between being a back-of-the-pack beginner to qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
The first big change in my training was a massive jump in volume which I’ve talked about before here. I started specific Ironman and chasing Kona training very late in 2011. It was March before I started with a coach and subsequently ramped up the volume. In January and February I only averaged 6-8 hours a week training. It was mid March when we started with the coach and he ramped up the volume very drastically. I hit 30 hours in the first 8 days of his plan. I could never figure out if he was trying to prove I couldn’t handle it or if that was just what he thought I needed. The fact that I only had just over 5 months to go from back of the pack in my first 2 Ironman races to the top 50 maybe added a level of urgency.
Related: Ironman training volume
Anyway March saw me clock 50 hours training. Not an exceptionally high number except for the fact that it mostly all came in the last 12 days of the month. It was split between the three sports like this.
Total 49:50 (37)
Swim 8:40 23,300m
Bike 29:15 796k
Run 11:55 135k
Looking back at the sessions the things that stand out most were the fact that I swam a total of 12 times but only clocked up 23,000m and only swam 3000m once. A lot of the swims were below 1500m which I would consider a waste of time now because the time cost of getting to the pool is so high. I find it’s much more beneficial to swim longer every time and I rarely ever swim less than 3k now, more often than not hitting 4000-5000m.
On the bike I averaged 27kph for the month and the session notes I kept often are for hard intervals which is also the opposite of what I would do now, aiming for big volume but without the added stress of very hard anaerobic intervals. I have found that if I combine very hard sessions early in my training with big hours I fry myself and end up missing sessions.
On the run the hours were pretty good and looking at some of the sessions it seems like I was running fairly well at that stage already but again a good few of the runs are hard intervals or hard brick runs.
April was a monster month. By a long way it was the biggest months training I’d ever done. More than double the hours in fact. It’s probably important to remember that sub 10 wasn’t the target, Kona was so this isn’t necessarily the best prescription for a sub 10. It just happened to deliver it.
Total hours 91:10
Swim 18:25 (14) 35,600m
Bike 52:00 (19) 1359k
Run 20:45 (16) 226k
This is the first month of what I would consider to be a Kona qualifying training programme. It was a massive risk to ramp up hours so drastically but the goal was a bit crazy. The things that stand out during the month are that I started swimming long. Only once a week at this stage but there is a 4k, 5k and a 5.2k swim.
The bike had a massive jump in volume and a big part of this was a focused block of 4 days a week for 3 weeks in the month. Some of the stand out numbers even this early in the training was a 5:15 bike in the mountains with long big gear intervals followed by a 10k run at just over 4/min/km pace which would have been very fast for me back then (actually I would be happy with that now)
It’s the first time I do split run days and I’ve always found they work well for me although I find them tough. I even had a 4 run weekend that I had completely forgotten about clocking up over 50k for the two days. I also did a 2+ hour run each week which I think is a key aspect of Ironman, maintaining the ability to knock out a two hour run almost all year round.
Total hours/sessions 80:15 (30)
Swim 6:45 19800 (9)
Bike 68:10 1707k (14)
Run 5:40 63k (7)
The stand out thing here is the bike volume. It almost all happened doing an 8 day sportive ride. We covered 150-180k a day for eight days. I did it again the following two years and found it has had the biggest training effect of anything I’ve ever done. Although that’s probably to be expected from something as extreme as this.
Swim and run volume are greatly reduced as a result. The other thing I notice looking back is the two weeks early in the month are very low hours. Even at this stage I’m finding the massive volume difficult to maintain consistently. This should come as no surprise. It would probably be more of a shock if I could handle such a savage increase comfortably.
Training hours/sessions 65:00 (38)
Swim 12:55 43,550m (17)
Bike 40:20 1094k (17)
Run 12:55 145.5k (12)
Things were starting to unravel a little here. I missed sessions, cut them short or couldn’t do them as prescribed and often just put in the time but couldn’t do the efforts or intervals. I constantly talk about being exhausted at the start of sessions, runs in particular but also note that towards the end of some runs I start to feel good. I think this was a very instructional month. I learned to push through exhaustion both mental and physical and running on tired legs and realising that I could recover “on my feet” was invaluable for racing Ironman.
Training hours/sessions 73:05 (47)
Swim 13:55 43900 (17)
Bike 33:40 1070k (11)
Run 25:25 273.5 (19)
This was the month of the race IMUK fell on the 31st and the first 3 weeks still saw fairly big weeks of about 17 hours and I was hanging on by my fingernails at this stage. The fear of failure constant in my notes, fear that I hadn’t done enough, that I wasn’t good enough. But that fear kept driving me on through extreme tiredness and the fact that I was sick of the training, the discipline and how hard it was. One of the notable sessions was a week out from IMUK when I had a run session to do. It was an hour at 4:25/km and I did it on a local run track. I hit every single split withion a second or two and felt like I was flying. It was the first glimpse of what was to come the following week. The splits are below and I still rate it as one of the races I’m most proud of despite the fact that I missed the Kona slot. It was a credit to Ais and the coach that they held me together and pushed me so far and so hard that I had the race of my life. Catching and passing male pro’s on the run almost had me loose control of my emotions I was on such an incredible high that I could actually race at a level I’d previously only dreamed of.
Total 9:49 36th overall 7th in ag
Obviously this is a very extreme example of how to get in qualifying shape and not one I’d recommend for anyone. It’s a process that probably should really have been taken on as a two year project but I’m an inherently impatient person and I don’t tend to accept normal wisdom as regards our limits. If I had I never would have attempted something that I had been told I couldn’t do by the experts. I think now I’m a little older and a little more experienced I tend to have slightly more patience and with the knowledge of just how hard it is to get to Kona I am allowing a little more time to get in shape this year. It’s still a one season project but I’m allowing 7-8 months to get back in shape as opposed to the 5 months of my first year.
I have written a report examining how 5 of the most successful Irish Ironman triathletes have qualified for Kona an incredible 29 times. You can access it free here.
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From smoker to back of the pack triathlete to the Ironman World Championships.
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