For triathletes, the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii is like the Olympics, the Tour de France and World Cup rolled into one. It’s the world’s most iconic endurance event, it’s the original IRONMAN and was first held in 1978 with 15 competitors including founder John Collins. It’s grown a bit since then: 95,000 athletes worldwide have been pushing their limits over the last year to qualify for Kona this October 12; 2,500 will make the start line and Matt Bottrill Performance Coaching is working with seven of them – four top pros and three ambitious age groupers. Whatever level you’re at, the Big Island demands a big performance.
I’ve just got back from a two-week training camp in Kansas City working alongside coach Julie Dibens. This the final block for the athletes I was out there helping – the world record holder Matt Hanson and 2015 Kona bronze medallist Tim O’Donnell. We were doing a lot of training sessions based around the demands of Kona and the hot, rolling, windy terrain of Kansas perfectly replicates what they’ll face on the day.
There are broadly speaking four key elements that you need to get right if you want to ride the perfect bike split at Kona:
1. Heat and humidity adaptation
This is one of the things I discovered being out there last year – just how much the heat takes out of the body. It was mind-boggling. I’ve never been great in the heat and I was surprised at the elevation of core temperature. Once it’s on an upward curve it’s really hard to bring it back down.
So, one of the things that we worked into the athletes’ training this year was trying to work on core temperature and doing heat acclimatisation. That means doing your big rides in the heat and Kansas was perfect for Matt and Tim. For other athletes we’ve done it on the turbo trainer in controlled conditions.
And it’s not just the adaptation to heat but also the nerves that elevate heart rate and for that reason, the amount of heat prep you need to put in shouldn’t be underestimated. If you get there and you’ve done nothing it’s going to be ‘bye bye’ before you’ve even started.
2. Train for the course
Something else I learnt going out to Kona last year was just how hard the course actually is. It’s probably one of the most difficult to pace because you can get it so wrong. I’d say what generally happens for most athletes is the cannon goes off for the swim and you’ve got pre-race nerves. I don’t think anybody really looks forward to that swim except the best swimmers, and even they’re going to get those nerves. Once you get in, control your breathing. Then you’re going to get out into T1 and you’ll have this elevation in heart rate but keep that controlled because as soon as you get out of Ali’i drive you’re going to hit that first climb and heart rate is going to be high. And if you carry that on until you hit the Queen K then it’s really going to have an effect on your overall race. Probably not in the first hour but it will catch you out in the next two. It’s generally when you get to the climb at Hawi that you see it kick in. You start the descent and there’s this massive heat pocket. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It just overcooks you and that’s where you see athletes’ power just dropping off. That’s got to be in your pre-Kona race strategy.
Also, you get these heat pockets throughout, which is the heat coming off the lava and you get different wind directions. One minute it’s a headwind, the next minute it can circulate and it can be a tailwind. Sometimes you can have tailwind sections where you’re going to be doing 50kph+. But other times you’re doing 20-30kph. So you’ve got to train for variation in pace. Being aware of crosswinds – wind is a big factor. That’s why you’ll see our athletes with different ski bends, different poles, different pad positions because we’re trying to keep them in aero positions but also to give them stability in those crosswinds. Don’t underestimate those so don’t do everything on the turbo trainer – get out there in the wind.
Kona is a rolling course so you’re going to have a lot of times when you’re going sub-maximal and you’ve got to be able to back off. We all talk about ‘IRONMAN pace’ but generally speaking I would say for age groupers that can be between 70 and 75 per cent. Lower than that if you don’t want to overcook it, but generally that’s the number you want to be looking at. Pros can ride at between 80 and 85 per cent of their threshold power.
The biggest thing with this is having a heart rate cap. For most athletes you’re looking at the power duration or the heart rate duration to sustain and it’s between 150 and 155bpm. If you burn a match early on your heart rate is going to get elevated really quickly and that’s going to cost you. Don’t burn too many matches at the start.
3. Get your fuelling right
If you have burnt too many matches early on and your heart rate is elevated it will get you later in the race. If you’ve not fuelled effectively – if you’ve not put in enough carbohydrate and if you’re not hydrated enough then you are going to put the stomach under too much stress or just run out of energy. Try to implement fuelling into your training, taking in 90-100g per hour, which is probably what you need for this event. Practise your whole nutrition strategy in training and work out exactly what you need – and don’t try anything new on race day.
4) Taper as well as you can do
Everyone has put in an incredible amount of effort just to get to Kona. The pre-Kona qualifier is an IRONMAN race. So you’ve had to train for that, you’ve got to have a break and then go again. And it’s surprising how often that catches people out. Getting that taper right can be very specific to each individual. So you’ve got to try to understand what that winning formula is. It does take time, and if it’s your first time going to Kona I would say don’t put loads of pressure on yourself. Just learn from the process if you’re thinking of going back.
I’m proud of the amount of hard work and dedication the athletes I’ve worked with have put in and I have no doubts whatsoever that all seven of them are going to absolutely smash it on the day.
If you’d like to learn more about the cycling coaching and triathlon coaching packages we have available at Matt Bottrill Performance Coaching click here.