It’s why I love Ironman, There aren’t many sports that an average athlete can work hard and improve enough to get to the World Championships without having a massive Vo2 or some other physiological difference that makes them the best. Regardless of how many hours I trained I could never go from being a 2:57 marathoner to 2:15. I have neither the 10,000 hours done that might enable me to run at that level but more importantly I don’t have the required engine.  Read on for more

I remember having my first lab test on the bike and my results indicated that I could make a good Cat.2 rider or I could struggle around as a poor Cat.1
Because Ironman is predominately an aerobic sport it is possible for someone with an average size “engine” to improve massively just by doing an awful lot of the correct training. It meant I could go from the back of the pack to qualifying for the World Champs in Kona.
My list of crucial things needed to qualify for Kona looks something like this.
1. Lifestyle: The average Kona qualifier trains on average 18-25 hours a week for most of the year for several years. You can’t fit this in without having an unusual lifestyle and sacrificing things that the rest of the normal population does. Myself and Ais are both heavily involved in sport and Ais coaches me so I’m lucky in so far as I don’t have to explain why I’m going out for another 6 hour bike ride, she’s normally kicking me out the door to get the session done. We also own our own business so although our work hours can be long they’re flexible.
2. Training volume: This was one of the biggest surprises for me. Just how much it was possible to improve with a huge increase in training. I found that it’s possible to increase your “engine” size by doing big volumes of aerobic and strength training. My typical weeks training went from 6-10 to 18-25 when I started to train to qualify for a Kona slot.
I’ve written about volume already here
3. Consistency: Doing the volume is one thing but being able to do it week in, week out and not burn out, get injured or quit when you realise just how long it takes. This seems easy at the start but was increasingly difficult as fatigue and the reality of what was required sunk in.
4. Self control when it’s going well: Not frying yourself when you start to go well is one of the hardest aspects. It’s so hard to back off training or racing just when you really start to fly but it’s often when you are approaching a peak that you are at the most danger of tipping over the edge and cooking yourself. I made this mistake in 2011 while training for Ironman Florida and it took me months to recover from it fully and it cost me dearly on race day.
5. Training Intensity: This is another part of the volume and consistency balance. If you go too hard in a session it will affect your ability to train again later that day or tomorrow or next week. Going too hard in training is a common mistake and one that I made a lot in the beginning (and still do occasionally now) particularly while training with others there can be the temptation to either keep up with stronger athletes or show them how strong you are. I find guys tend to do this much more than women, too much testosterone and not enough self control.
6. Pacing: Poor pacing judgement is I think the single biggest mistake made in Ironman racing and another really big reason that talent isn’t necessary. If you start too fast on the bike you will pay for it on the run. Starting easy enough that you don’t slow down over the course of an 9-15 hour race is very, very difficult to do. Putting away ego and ignoring testosterone particularly at the start of the bike has been one of the biggest secrets of both my qualifying races. My trick at the start of the bike when I’m getting passed by people is to realise that they are either stronger than me in which case I shouldn’t race them. Or the other possibility is that they are going too fast, if that’s the case then I still shouldn’t race them but I will see them again shortly. In all races except Kona I see almost all of them them again shortly as they realise that they have started a little too fast.
7. Nutrition: Eating correctly so as to optimize body composition. In my case being too skinny was as bad as being overweight, getting the balance right is very important. But learning how to eat during the race was critical and the learning has to happen in training. Most of us only race Ironman once or maybe twice a year so we don’t have the luxury of learning during the races themselves. I do a couple of key sessions which teach how to get your nutrition right.
8. Strong not Fast: I believe that being strong and not breaking down late in the race is critical. Again similar to race pacing not breaking down means not slowing down and in Ironman racing it’s often a race of attrition. Being the last man racing is often enough to keep moving up the field. This suits me perfectly as I’m not fast, I just don’t slow down too much.
9. A fire in your belly: It takes a long time to qualify even for those lucky enough to be able to do it first time it’s probably a 6-12 month commitment but for most of us its more like 12-36 months and keeping going at something that seems at times impossible is probably the hardest thing to do. Hours spent alone on the bike in the rain for months on end can really eat away at your desire for an outcome. Not giving up on your dream is critical. I had the dream of getting to Kona for years before I had the courage to try and at that stage the desire was very strong.
10. Guidance: Knowing how to do it is critical. I had no clue what was required when I first set out to qualify so for me getting a coach who knew how to get there was one of the best moves I made and short circuited my learning massively. He loaded more volume than I would have had the nerve to add and then managed my fatigue levels to keep me on the limit of what I could sustain.
You’ll notice that talent isn’t on the list and I’m a firm believer that it’s not needed. I’m not talented, I don’t win shorter races or even podium unless everyone else falls off their bikes or trips over their shoelaces but I’ve qualified twice by ticking as many of the boxes above as possible.
If you made it this far thanks for reading. Feel free to check out more posts and follow my blog by clicking on the “follow” tab for updates whenever I post a new training article.
I have written a report based on interviews with 6 of the most successful Ironman triathletes in Ireland with over 80 Ironman, several Irish records and titles and an incredible 29 Kona qualifications between them. You can check it out here
Rob