Seven world champions share their Kona conquering Ironman lessons

Ironman World Championships Kona 2013 (Photo: *christopher*)

Ironman world champions Leanda Cave, Mark Allen, Chrissie Wellington, Dave Scott, Mirinda Carfrae, Pete Jacobs and Faris Al-Sultan share their Ironman training lessons

This year, the original Ironman race is celebrating its 35th birthday. The venue has changed since the race started in 1978, the finish times have gone down and the participation level has skyrocketed, but there are some things about racing 140.6 miles of swim/bike/run that will always remain true.

When the first Ironman participants set off from the sandy shores of Waikiki, Hawaii in February 1978, the race was open to all comers – though only 15 madmen took up that challenge.

Today, though tens of thousands race the distance all over the world, it’s still true that anyone with the will (and the money) can enter, and anyone with the time, dedication and fitness can qualify to race at the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii – known affectionately and respectfully by triathletes as simply ‘Kona’.

Athletes’ approaches to training for the big day differ, but if you’re planning an attempt at this long-course classic, you could do worse than listen to some of triathlon’s true legends – men and women who’ve taken on the lava fields and won the greatest title in triathlon. We’ve gathered these pearls of wisdom from Ironman world champions past and present, so whether you hope to race Kona yourself or just to finish an Ironman one day, you’ll find plenty to help you here.

Start Speed Work Simply

Doing one key speed workout per sport, per week is a good starting point. Some people can handle a little more but the reality is that most athletes have not only their training but at least one job that’s more than full-time, and they have a family and a lot of other commitments, too. Your training should be something that reduces the stress in your life, not adds to it. If you put too many workouts in your schedule then suddenly you’re trying to juggle everything and it all gets cut short and becomes a big headache. So be realistic about the number of workouts you can do consistently each week when you put a training programme together. You can always adapt to do more or less as you go.

Mark Allen, Ironman world champion (1989–1993, 1995)

Get A Feel For Fast

Learning how to race by ‘feel’ is important. Your body can tell you if you need more nutrition, you’re going too fast or you can push a little bit harder. All that comes back to training – your lead-up to Kona and doing practice brick sessions. I can’t stress how important these are.

Mirinda Carfrae, Ironman world champion (2010)

RPete Jacobs' Guide to Ironman Triathlon Plusun By Time, Not Distance

Going by time is important – anything over three hours is a very, very long run. That’s further than most people should run, because they’re not going to hold their form. They’ll be pushing themselves when they’re tired, and you have to focus on form and technique in order to stay strong.

Pete Jacobs, Ironman world champion (2012)

Get Comfortable With The Swim

It’s good to build up to being able to swim the total distance of the Ironman swim (3.8km), if not more, in one workout. You don’t have to, but it’ll really help in your race. You’ll feel fresh coming out of the water and that sets you up for a good bike ride. And when you have a good bike ride, that sets you up for a good marathon. Everything starts from the beginning and builds on itself.

Mark Allen, Ironman world champion (1989–1993, 1995)

Take A Mental Break

Go out for a run or a ride and leave the watch or bike computer at home. Take some money with you and find a destination on a map and make that your goal. Treat yourself with a coffee and/or a bite to eat, and sit around for a bit and think to yourself how amazing it is that you have the ability to do such a wonderful thing. Being grateful every now and then can keep you more motivated than anything anyone can say or do.

Leanda Cave, Ironman world champion (2012)

Take Time Out Once A Year

If training for triathlon is a casual thing you do just to feel good, you won’t have been pushing your body to the limit, so you won’t need a lot of downtime at the end of the season. However, if you’re somebody who puts a lot of energy into your training and racing, you’ll need to walk away from it for a month, six weeks or even longer. Keep active but don’t do what you’d consider training. The biggest mistake people make is they do their last race of the year, take two weeks easy and then they’re back training at full speed. In two weeks you’re not able to put back all the energy that you took out during 10 months of training hard. When I was racing, after Ironman Hawaii I wouldn’t do anything structured from that point in October through to the new year. But I stayed active. I’d run a couple of days a week – it’s good to keep a little base of running because if you don’t your joints, ligaments and tendons can get soft and it’s hard to get fitness back in them. It’s also a super time-efficient way to maintain a lot of your fitness.

Mark Allen, Ironman world champion (1989–1993, 1995)

Dave ScottIf In Doubt, Try It Out

There are times when you should take a day off, but this isn’t usually for physical reasons. Often you’re able to handle the load physically, but psychologically and emotionally it’s a good idea. I have a steadfast rule: always give it your workout a try for 20 or 30 minutes. You may programme yourself; ‘I’m going to have a bad day, I didn’t get any sleep, I feel stressed, I’ve done 20 hard workouts in a row…’. You know what? You may be able to do 21.

Dave Scott, Ironman world champion (1980, 1982-4, 1986-7)

Play Mind Games With Yourself

To keep going during long swims, I tell myself that I’m an islander and to get from one tribe to the next I have to swim. I pretend I’m between two islands and there’s no question of stopping – I have to get to the next island to eat. I play little games like that when I need to just get some miles done. At other times, I’ll keep track of my times every 100m – I’ll have a quick look so I’m getting feedback, which keeps me motivated.

Pete Jacobs, Ironman world champion (2012)

Do Kona-specific Swim Sessions

If you’ve not swum much in salt water, or you easily get seasick, you need to practise swimming in the sea – and ideally in Kona in the week leading up to the race. I’ve seen people get very sick through swallowing salt water. That’s easy to do when you’re surrounded by flailing arms and legs, and the swell is pushing you around. Remember that it’s a non-wetsuit swim in Hawaii, so if you always swim in a wetsuit you’ll need to get used to swimming without one. Another good piece of advice is to try not to use your legs too much. You’ll need them on the bike and run, so concentrate on pulling yourself through the water with your arms, and drag your legs. If you’re struggling with sighting lines, look out for the two towers of the King Kamehameha’s Hotel. The tower on the land side is the one you should be aiming towards on the way back in.

Faris Al-Sultan, Ironman world champion (2005)

Don’t Let The Doubts Get To You

Everybody’s going to have highs and lows when they ride. During your race, you’ve just got to take it a bit easier when you feel a bit flat and back off for a little while until you come good again. In those moments, all the things you do in training come into play – not getting down on yourself, learning to deal with negative thoughts, etc – so it’s all about practising a positive state of mind and not letting the doubts affect you physically.

Pete Jacobs, Ironman world champion (2012)

Chrissie Wellington

Keep Pushing Yourself

I’ve gone into training sessions that Dave [Scott] and Brett [Sutton] have set me thinking, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to finish that!’ but you break it down, and before you know it you’ve finished it and you’ve done more than you thought you’d be able to achieve. And then you bank that, because during the race when it hurts, those are the sessions you remember. You remember when you didn’t want to go out of the door, but you did and you came home and had a great session. Or you remember that session where you thought you couldn’t do it but you managed it. When it hurts in a race – and it will – that’s what racing’s all about – you draw on that memory.

Chrissie Wellington, Ironman world champion (2007-9, 2011)

Give Your Bricks A Boost

When I’m doing a bike-to-run brick session, I like to pep up the run with a few quick pace efforts. I’ll go hard for 20 or 30 seconds, followed by 40 seconds to one minute very easy. You can repeat this a number of times during the run, in sequence – maybe five times before getting back to your regular pacing. It’s a great way to kill time and an easy way to stay motivated. The effort is hard, but short in terms of time.

Leanda Cave, Ironman world champion (2012)

Don’t Panic About Missed Homework

I’ve heard this statement many times before: ‘If you haven’t done your homework in the last six weeks then there’s no point bothering’, and that’s a lot of baloney. You can make huge gains in the last six weeks. I teach coaches for Team in Training [The Leukaemia & Lymphoma Society’s charity training programme]. I show them several slides on this, looking at muscle changes, looking at cellular changes, looking at how you can increase output of your muscle fibres – in just 10 days. I remind people that there can be huge deterioration in 10 days, but there can also be huge increases in 10 days. So if you have six weeks before your race, you can make huge progress in that time.

Dave Scott, Ironman world champion
(1980, 1982-4, 1986-7)

Mark AllenStart Your Race Day Right

Even if you only get two hours’ sleep, it doesn’t matter – you’re going to race great. Get up in plenty of time so you can be relaxed, and make sure that you take in enough calories at breakfast. It’s much easier to get a meal replacement drink that has some carbohydrate, protein and fat in it than to eat toast and a couple of bowls of cereal. When you go to the start, make sure you have a bottle of water, another of sports drink, and an energy bar with you, so you can keep topping up the tank.

Mark Allen, Ironman world champion (1989–1993, 1995)

Practise Your Race Strategy

I do a couple of Kona-specific brick sessions where I’ll ride for hours, then do a hard run of between 10km and 20km straight off the bike. During the bike I’ll practise my nutrition. That means going through what I’ll take at what hour in the race, using the same number of calories. When I get into the run I’ll see how I feel during 10km or 20km – do I feel bloated? – and how long the fuel I’ve taken on during the bike will sustain me.

Mirinda Carfrae, Ironman world champion (2010)

‘See’ Your Way To Success

What works with one person may not work for another, but I believe there are specific mental strategies that you can learn. The first is to visualise. Before races I lie down, close my eyes and visualise myself as being strong and successful, and then I visualise myself dealing with problems – what happens if your goggles get knocked off in the swim? What happens if you get a flat tyre? What happens if you get cramp? Because when it happens – and it will – you’ve developed that mental strategy to deal with it. Visualisation is an underrated but very important tool.

Chrissie Wellington, Ironman world champion (2007-9, 2011)

Don’t Fuel Like A Fool

Ironman nutrition is not just a matter of rolling dice: eat this, eat that and drink this. Most of the time people forget [how to eat during the Ironman] if they don’t have a plan for it. They get caught up in the race and they either eat too much or not at all. I suggest you eat or drink minute amounts every 12 minutes, with the exception of that first 20 minutes on the bike. You should do workouts at race intensity and practise your early morning fuelling in training so you have a good idea of your body’s response [to your chosen food and drink]. I think everyone has a tendency to take in too many calories. You see people run-walking in a race, sucking huge amounts of gels and drink. Then they get to the run and suddenly they can’t move because they’ve got so many calories inside their stomach.

Dave Scott, Ironman world champion (1980, 1982-4, 1986-7)

See the rest of our 2013 Ironman World Championship coverage here. We’ll be updating regularly in the run up to Kona.