That singular race is one of the most complex to dial in. I thought I had it nabbed early on, but my results and my disappointments showed me otherwise. But leads blown and near victories lost taught me 6 secrets to getting the IRONMAN Hawaii training window right. I want to share those with you. Right here. Right now!
At first I thought that getting ready for the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, Hawaii had to be completely different than everything else I did throughout the year. I tried to make it a doubly hard supreme body thrashing, mind deadening training experience. And, yes, while it’s important to do tough workouts, the basics between now and Kona are the same as every other race. So take a deep breathe and absorb this first of six secrets.
Since the IRONMAN in Kona is likely at the very tail end of your season, you are already in great shape. That is code for you are also very close to potentially being overtrained if you go bananas with training. I did exactly that the first six years I raced in Kona. During the final 8-12 weeks prior to the race I just pummeled myself. I never arrived fresh as a result. And because I was tired, my races were never at their potential.
If you are focusing on Hawaii for much longer than that window the phasing of training can get stretched out too much simply because you are already in good shape. Remember, in January it takes a long time to build base, speed, etc. In July, August, and September that fitness comes quickly.
Yes, it is summer, but go back to base. Nothing fast, just time in the aerobic training zones. You’ll need that fat burning capability in Hawaii to be able to manage the energy expenditure equation. (More on that in a moment).
I went back to pure base work about 12-weeks prior to Hawaii, and would do that until I got to about 8 weeks before the race at which point I would then add back in speedwork. If you are starting your Kona training later, say 6-8 weeks out from the race because of when you qualify, that period will be shortened. But make sure to do it.
That means the other days are still aerobic. But make the speedwork real! Just because the pacing in Hawaii will be significantly slower than a track session, the anaerobic work is what will raise your VO2max, which is your ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles. Increase that and you speed up your fat burning. And that, my friends, is a key to having a great IRONMAN Hawaii.
My speed sessions were all roughly 15-20 minutes total of fast work both cycling and running each week. But I did it really, really fast! I never approached those speeds in the race, but it gave me the physiological advantage I needed to be able to race the entire day aerobically. I was able to get a huge amount of oxygen into the working muscle and never switch into high carb burning anaerobic physiology. Take my word for it, that’s a huge plus!
The last part of this first secret is to incorporate a real taper in the final weeks before the IRONMAN World Championships. The ideal length for this is going to be the final four weeks of training regardless of the first two parts that I just talked about. It’s a gradual reduction in overall weekly volume but keeping up some distance and speed so that you have both on race day.
I didn’t taper down long enough in the first years of my first Ironman racing and paid for it late in the marathon. In 1989 I took a deeper drop in my training toward the end in those final weeks and was fresh enough to put together what ended up being one of the greatest races in Ironman history!
A second secret to getting the IRONMAN Kona training window right has to do with each sport. The swim is where I see most people cutting their bread way short. A key to having a great bike and run in Hawaii is to be able to come out of the water feeling fresh rather than feeling like you barely made it. That requires doing some swims that are at least as long as the race distance if not longer. It may feel like wasted time, but this secret will afford you the ability to step onto your bike feeling like you barely did a thing! That is a key to both having a great ride, but more importantly a great marathon later.
In the early years of my career I just figured do enough swimming to make the swim. That is very different that doing enough swimming to make the swim easy! In 1989 I incorporated a lot of over-distance swim workouts that were longer than the 2.4 miles I’d encounter in Kona. And I can honestly say it was the first year I exited the water excited about the bike.
The third secret as it relates to the bike is about both distance and how you do that distance. Over-distance workouts on the bike will help you to feel fresher going into the marathon for sure. But regardless of what you do in your weekly long rides, the real key is spending a lot of time in the aero position.
The IRONMAN World Championship bike course is not flat, but it is almost completely possible to do the course in the aero position. You will not be able to do that unless you train like that. I am not a great rider on the flats or on rolling courses. I love hills. Sitting up on a climb is my favorite position on the bike. Spending time generating speed on a flat road in the aero position is extremely difficult for me. But in 1989 I did all of my pre-Kona training rides on flat to rolling courses spending as much time as I could in the aero position. This was very different than what I had done getting ready for my first six races in Kona.
I also focused on long rides with runs off the bike. That is a secret! The brick workouts are key for Kona. Doing a long ride is one thing. Doing a long ride then running off the bike when you are tired is what trains your body to be ready to tackle the marathon. I did a lot of long ride/run combos in 1989 for the first time. That was also the first IRONMAN where I started the marathon thinking I could actually run!
The run course in Kona is basically flat but with some hills. That’s the secret to getting ready for the marathon. It’s a call to do a lot of long runs on flat to rolling terrain. Do a good portion of that on pavement so that your legs get used to managing the impact. Then occasionally do some hilly running to help build up your overall run strength and quad muscle integrity. The quads get torn down more than any other muscle in the IRONMAN in Hawaii and one of the best ways to build them up is by running hills.
Just like the bike, I am not a fan of flat training runs. I love the experience of hills and trails that wind through mountains. That is not what would get me ready for Kona. I eventually adopted this secret to getting the IRONMAN Kona training window right in 1989. When I entered my Ironman window, I did all long runs on flat to rolling terrain. I added in more street running. But I kept a handful of really demanding uphill/downhill runs to help gain strength and improve overall quad integrity. My marathon that year? It became the official record of 2:40:04 that lasted 27 years!
The fifth secret to getting the IRONMAN Kona training window right is to dial in your race day nutrition. This is easiest to figure out by monitoring what you take in per hour on your long rides. You will need at least that much on race day. It should be almost all liquid if you can manage that.
In the race itself it can actually be easy to overdo the nutrition. So heed this warning. Have your plan on how many calories you will need per hour on the bike and in the run to sustain your speed, but try to avoid overdoing the fuel or the liquid.
I didn’t get this secret correct until my final IRONMAN World Championship in 1995. I always had my plan but then tried to cram in more fuel and liquids than that plan. In all of those earlier eleven Ironmans, I got sick to my stomach. Finally in 1995 I just relaxed and took in what my body needed rather than what I thought I needed and had the greatest IRONMAN of my career and I did it without getting sick to my stomach!
Hopefully by reading through the first 5 secrets to getting the IRONMAN Kona training window right you are more relaxed, calm and quiet in your mind. That is the goal overall and the key to the final secret.
A great race at the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona is ultimately all about your internal space on the day. Remind yourself in your moments of angst that it’s just another race. Yes, it’s an amazing race and could easily change your perspective on life forever. But it is just a race! Your result will not change the amount of love your family and friends have for you. It will not affect when the sun rises or how many flowers bloom. Keep the broader perspective about the day.
Look around. See where you are. It’s amazing. The lava is incredible. The race may be difficult, even impossible feeling at times, but that’s what the chemistry of life needs to create a new place within you that is deeper and more resilient than you have ever experienced before.
I worked on that space in 1989 and beyond. Every time in training that year when my voice of doubt started up I’d just take a breath and look around at where I was. I’d focus on my movement more than my time or my pace. I’d try to perfect the way I was going through time and space rather than trying to combat a goal that had no hope of being reached on that day. That’s what ultimately pushed me over another edge in 1989. It was the edge of pure potential being realized, of a great day that unfolded in an amazing fashion that I could have never scripted. This is the secret of mindset.
But you’ll miss that precious gift if all you hear is internal chatter. Yes, you could be getting tired to the point of total exhaustion and feeling like finishing is impossible. The heat may be pushing your body way over the boiling point. Blisters might be demanding your attention and your legs probably stopped cooperating long ago. I know this space, intimately!
Let that all become background sound. Look around, and with a smile on your face just say, “Thank You.”
I hope that gives you some ideas about how to get ready for this year’s IRONMAN World Championship. And of course, if you want more specific guidance in your training for the race become a member and join us at MarkAllenCoaching!
I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.