5 simple (but not easy) steps to contend for a world championship slot 

by Chris Bagg 

In the early pages of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, one of her students asks “How do we get an agent?” Instead of answering that question, Dillard’s narrator asks the class if they were willing to do what was necessary to become a full-time writer. Every hand in the room goes up. The narrator’s heart sinks, and inwardly she wonders if they know “one has to take a broad-axe to one’s life” in order to make it as a writer. We don’t mean to be discouraging from the start, but we want to be honest: qualifying for Kona will take the bulk of your time, focus, and energy for years, not months. Adding another wrinkle to that cost is the fact that you’re not the only person who will be paying—your family and immediate relationships will pay, too. So, with that caveat out of the way, let’s try to map out a path to the Big Island. We have three big picture considerations, and then six steps to accomplish your moonshot.

Get your family (and job) on board for a two-year endeavor

Qualifying for Kona is a team effort, and you’ll need to have a supportive group around you that understands what you’re about to try to attempt. Even if you’re a triathlete who has completed a few Ironman races, qualifying is a bird of a different feather. You will need to train—on average—around 18-20 hours per week for at least one full season (40-48 weeks), and probably more than one season. For those of you doing math at home, that’s 720 to 960 hours of training a year, most likely for two to three years. So sit down with your family and your close friends and tell them, essentially, that you’re thinking about adding a part time job to your life that will cost tens of thousands of dollars for you to execute. Again, we aren’t trying to be discouraging, but triathlon can damage relationships if you aren’t clear about the stress you are planning on assuming. Everything we just said goes for your job, too. You will likely need some kind of dispensation from your job, but in these post-COVID days that may be a little easier. Talk with your boss or manager, say what you're hoping to do, and remember that every conversation like this is a negotiation.

You are neither advantaged nor disadvantaged

Humans everywhere love to think that society is average but they, themselves, are outside the norm, in either positive or negative directions. Most people tend to keep the “I’m above average” thoughts to themselves, but studies show that a majority of people do believe that they are above average (we’ll let you do the math on that one). If you believe that you are already above average, you’re likely to miss details along the way in your training, and that myopia will come back to haunt you. On the other hand, people do tend to be more forthright about the ways they believe they are below average: “I have a slow metabolism,” “That person is more genetically gifted than I am,” “I didn’t grow up swimming.” We hate to tell you, but the factors that are outside of your control inform your ability less than the factors that are under your control. Odds are that you, like most of the people around you, are an average athlete with average abilities. If you put in the time and effort to reduce the impact of the things that limit you, however, you can rise to meet this challenge. Most athletes, though, aren’t willing to invest the time, say, in fixing their technique faults in the pool, or doing the boring strength exercises to make them a more efficient runner. The biggest issue with thinking that you've got it figured out or that you'll never get there is that you are buying into fixed-mindset thinking. Getting to Kona will definitely require growth-mindset thinking, so ditch your pre-conceived notions of yourself.

Injury will never be far away

One aspect of Kona qualification that frustrates coaches is the fact that training this number of hours puts their athletes at risk for injury. You will need to build up to the volume (again, years, not months) and then assiduously listen to your body. You will take a few detours through sickness and injury on your way to Kona, but more than a few and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to hit the consistency this goal requires.

1. Find a week that works

As we said above, you’re going to have to average 18-20 hour weeks for about two years to accomplish this goal. We aren’t just pulling this number out of the hat—surveys of Kona qualifiers establish that number, and if you really want to play with those athletes, you need to do (mostly) what they have done. So map out a week that allows for two long rides and two to three additional rides, one long run and three to four additional runs, four to five swims, and two strength sessions. Here is a classic model:

Monday: 3-4k easy swim, 30-45’ strength session, 60’ recovery spin (2.5-3 hours)
Tuesday: 3-4k quality swim, 90’ quality bike session, 30’ easy run (3-3.25 hours)
Wednesday: Quality 60-90’ run session, 60’ recovery spin  (2-2.5 hours)
Thursday: 
3-4k quality swim, long ride 2-6 hours (depending on where you are in the season), (4-7 hours)
Friday3-4k quality swim, 30-45’ strength session, 30-45’ easy run (2.5-3 hours)
Saturday: 90-150’ long run, 60’ recovery spin (2.5-3.5)
Sunday: 
2-6 hour long ride, 20-45’ run off bike (3.33-6.75 hours) 

On the low end, that 17.83 hours of training, and on the high end you’re looking at 29 hours. 29 hours is rare air, and few athletes will need (or want) to go that high, but this is a rough schedule that should provide you with a sense of the time needed. 

2. Figure out your goal times

For this one, we are indebted to the excellent Coach Cox, a website we use so often that typing “Co…” into our web browsers delivers the necessary website. Its host and creator, Russell Cox, has done a huge amount of work so that you don't have to. Pick the race at which you would like to qualify, and you’ll be able to figure out both average times to qualify and individual results of qualifiers, based on data from hundreds of Ironman races. If, for example, you’re a 25-29 year-old female athlete who wants to qualify at Ironman Florida, you will need to aim for a 63’ swim, a 5:20 bike, and a 3:34 run. Write these down, since they will be important later. As coaches, we have to say that we dislike this approach—starting from an outcome goal can pose risks, since athletes can get obsessive about them, which can lead to faulty thinking and behavior. But Kona qualifying is so specific that we need to be outcome focused, as much as we believe it is a risky way to think about it.

Image courtesy of Dylan Haskin

3. Build a bulletproof chassis that moves well

Something that separates Kona qualifiers from the others around them is that they have managed to stay consistent in their training for years. That consistency, although it is easy from your perspective to identify as luck, is usually due to diligence on the qualifier’s part. Success in triathlon comes from an ability to slow down as little as possible, rather than raw speed. Slowing down as little as possible comes (in part) from movement efficiency—losing as little energy to wasted movement as possible. So get a swim analysis, bike fit, and run gait assessments, and then (please!) use the information the expert provided you. Those people love to help others, and they have spent their professional careers developing the ability to recognize and correct faults. If you don’t follow their advice, however, you have wasted your money. So listen to their suggestions, and then put in the work. Do your drills and your technique sessions, and make sure your body has the proper mobility and stability (so, do your strength workouts!) for swimming, cycling, and running. That person who ran past you in the final 13 miles of your qualifying race? Did they run past you with terrible form? So make an investment, follow that person’s advice, and DO YOUR STRENGTH ROUTINES.

4. Learn to love the pool (and skip Masters)

If you are a woman, you will have to swim faster than 70 minutes for the Ironman swim. If you’re male, you will need to swim faster than 65 minutes. We’re sorry, but that’s the tale of the tape. Some of you can do this already—that’s awesome, but your work isn’t done. You still need to swim a fair bit, since you have the luxury, now, of focusing on economy. So if you can swim these times, start incorporating what Swim Smooth describes as “Red Mist” style workouts. These are quite a bit slower than threshold pace, usually 3-6 seconds per 100 slower, or right around the pace you’ll need to swim for Ironman. Red Mist sets are long, with intervals longer than 300 meters, usually, and you don’t get much rest. They aren’t hard in the way that a set of fast 100s might be, but by the end of these sessions you will certainly feel the strain. If you can’t swim 65-70 minutes for 3.8k, then you need to get there through a combination of technique work (probably your biggest limiter), fitness building (you’ll do some Red Mist sets yourself), and open water skills. You have to swim a lot to improve—usually at least 12,000 yards/meters per week—so go back to step three and make sure your shoulders, back, and hips are all functioning properly. Skip Masters? We’re sorry to say, but it’s the rare Masters group that is Ironman-specific. If there is one day per week where you know they’ll do threshold-style swimming, go to that session, but very often Masters groups never swim an interval longer than 200m, and that’s just not your sport!

Image courtesy of Dylan Haskin

5. A high FTP and lots of threshold work won’t save you (nor will passing cycling fads)

Too many athletes think that the key to success in endurance sport is a high threshold power/pace/speed. If you train effectively, your functional threshold power (FTP) will rise, but focusing on threshold first is putting the cart before the horse. Your goal, as an endurance athlete in general and an Ironman athlete in particular, is to extend your ability to hold a certain power, pace, or effort. Many athletes have seen that Kona qualifiers will hold between 75-80% of FTP (for you nerds out there, that’s normalized power, not average) during their races, and figure that all they need to do is raise their FTP as high as possible, which will result in a higher power at 75-80% of that new, higher FTP. Unfortunately, doing intensity training can raise your FTP (and many of the tests out there are designed to flatter your FTP—looking at you, Trainerroad), but it won’t do anything for your race specific endurance. To ride for a long time at a relatively high power, you need the following physiological traits to be at their best (there are more, but these are the big ones):

Fat oxidation (ability to use fats as fuel instead of carbohydrates)
Capillary density (the amount of tiny blood vessels that deliver oxygen to your working muscles)
Mitochondrial count (the number of “factories” you have in your cells that create the fuel for muscular contraction)

Building those abilities takes time, and it takes, well, riding your bike A LOT, and steadily progressing the “ask” you put on your body. How hard should you do that riding? At a relatively low intensity—much more in the realm of 60-80% of FTP, rather than up near your threshold. You may be surprised, however: if you do spend 10-15 hours a week on your bike, you might find your threshold going up because you’re improving all of the structures that riding at threshold relies upon.

You want a little more guidance? OK, sit tight, this will take some math. This next calculation assumes you use a power meter. Let’s go back to our athlete who needs to ride 5:20 at Florida to qualify. She’s a strong rider with an FTP of 215w. We know that she’ll need to normalize 75-78% of that, so let’s aim for 77.5%, or a normalized power of 167w. We can calculate the work necessary to pull this off by multiplying the time in seconds (5:20 = 320 minutes or 19,200 seconds) by the normalized power and then dividing by 1000, or 3206 kilojoules, or kJ. Our rider needs to be able to do that amount of work and still run effectively, so you should structure your long rides to get closer and closer to that 3200 kJ, eventually passing that number in the final months before the race. And yes, you can always spend kJ more quickly, by riding harder, but training harder always equals more fatigue, which can lead to a drop in consistency.

Many training fads out there in the triathlon and cycling world try to subvert this necessary developing, looking for a “minimum effective dose,” or a shortcut, or a “hack.” We’re sorry to say that shortcuts are very unlikely to work. A quick summary of them are:

“Reverse” periodization: harder work first, then endurance later—doesn’t work as effectively because low intensity work first allows you to do better high intensity work later.
High fat, low carbohydrate eating: this diet tries to improve metabolic efficiency, but as a coach that’s better than we are once said, ”metabolic efficiency is just a cute word for getting fit.” Guess what? Doing a lot of low intensity training will also improve your metabolic efficiency, and it will actually stick around. Low intensity training improves your ability to oxidize fat, which is...metabolic efficiency! If you use fewer carbohydrates, your gas tank will last longer. The other downside of this approach is that when you stop eating high fat, low carb the developments vanish, and you will certainly need carbohydrates for your race.
“Sweet Spot” focused training: probably the most effective of this bunch, but too often sweet spot training (doing A LOT of work at 85-95% of FTP, give or take a few watts) leaves you deeply fatigued instead of deeply fit. Similar to reverse periodization, you end up trading short term gains for long term gains.
HIIT (high intensity interval training): we weren’t even sure to include this. Avoid it. You’ll see short term gains, but it’s only from an uptick in blood volume, and then your improvements will plateau. High intensity interval training has a place in Ironman training, but it is a very small place.

 

6. The Ironman run is about pacing and economy, not speed

Let’s return, once more, to our example athlete. She needs to run a 3:33 to qualify. To put that number into perspective, we went and looked at the Boston Marathon results from 2015 (arbitrarily picked). If you ran a 3:33 at the Boston Marathon, in the women’s 18-39 age group (sure, a bigger age group than what we’re discussing today), you would have come in...2265th in your division. So we can set aside any notion that the Ironman run is “fast.” A truly great Ironman athlete is economical: she has an amazing ability to stave off slowing down. How is that ability arrived at? Well, since the run comes last, your ability to run in an Ironman is more about how little energy you expended in the swim and bike (see the points above). Does this mean you can skip run training? Of course not. You still need to train to achieve your best possible marathon, but the run training probably just looks like...effective marathon training, albeit at a lower volume because you’re getting a lot of aerobic conditioning from the bike and swim. What does effective marathon training look like? A good program will focus on the following: 

Staying injury-free through proper mechanics
SLOWLY progressing weekly distance until you hit peak weekly running volume four-to-six weeks before your race (somewhere in the vicinity of six to eight total hours of running per week)
Hitting an array of intensities, with the vast majority at “just go run” pace, in order to stimulate speed and endurance development
Patience, where you build your running economy over years, not months

Why are you doing this?

Well, that’s it. It only took us in the neighborhood of 3000 words to sum this up. We want to leave you with yet another cautionary note: why are you doing this? That isn’t intended to dissuade you—it’s a real question. Is it for glory, rewards, the Grams, assuaging your ego? We hate to say it, but we don’t think those are good reasons to try and go to Kona. As with many things in our world these days, race results have become commodities, things to get, and the results are very often not worth the effort. Those extrinsic motivations, too, usually don’t fuel an athlete well over the long haul. On the other hand, if you just absolutely love this shit, can’t get enough of it, are interested in seeing what your body can do, and your family are in it along with you, then by all means jump in. Qualifying for Kona really is like a moon shot—it requires a huge amount of planning, timing, execution, luck, and support. If you’re stoked for the journey, then start small: pick a place for your launch pad.