How to Qualify for Kona

Written by Jesse. Posted in Coaching Thoughts

With my finish at IM Utah this past Saturday, I’ve done eight Ironman’s with two of those being in Kona. For the six that were not in Kona, I qualified for the event at five of them (I did not qualify at my first…missed by 10 minutes). Given these results as an athlete, and my experience as coach (last year I coached 8 athletes to Kona), I’d like to share what I see as the most important steps in getting you to the big show. Here are my top 6:

#1 – Patience: I waited 8 years after starting the sport to even give IM a go. I wanted to wait until I thought I had a legitimate shot at qualifying. I knew three to four years into the sport that I didn’t have any super talent, so it would take a bit of time and patience to gain the fitness required. I think these days you see too many newbies, rush into it without proper preparation and/or a shot gun approach with overly emphasized intensity during training. This typically leads to injuries/burnout which derail consistency and long-term progress. Now, there are plenty of folks who do qualify with this approach, but it’s mostly due to some really solid god given talent, and if they took a more patient approach could be even faster over the long term.

#2 – Sacrifice – you need to be ready to make some serious sacrifices for 1-5 years depending on your born talent level. In my experience, I’m quite sure I can put any human on the Kona starting line after 5 years of training…..IF they can make the sacrifices it takes. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds with age groupers having a fairly packed schedule. In my experience, many athletes think they have what it takes, but then find out 4 to 9 months into it that its not as easy as they thought.

#3 – Consistency – this one ties #1 and #2 together and is the absolute key to long term progress. You need to be unbelievably consistent in your training. That is, never miss more than 2-3 weeks of training as part of a planned down period each year. Aerobic progress and fitness in general, respond well to continued stimulation. De-training happens pretty darn quick. In order to meet the intent of this one, you really need to avoid injuries. Injuries put you on the couch, undermine consistency, and therefore kill long term progress. In my example, for 5 years of my triathlon career, I couldn’t break 5 hours at the half ironman, however, after 10 years now, I’ve never taken more that 3 weeks totally off at the end of each season, and have pushed my half IM PR to 4:12.

#4 – Expectations and Pacing – Know what you are capable of. This one is extremely important from both a mental and pacing (physical) standpoint. SO many athletes go into their IM races with the hope, or dream that they will qualify for Kona. Although it’s great that they have this hope, they need to be realistic when it comes to race day on what can be expected. Those, for example who WANT to go 10:15 but are only CAPABLE of going 10:45 end up going out too hard, having trouble with their nutrition, being disappointed all day long, and finish in 11:15…..not even close to their actual potential of 10:45. Pacing and expectations aren’t rocket science. Using your training indicators, you should be able to predict quite closely what your finish time, and race execution strategy should look like. This is the primary reason I built the triathloncalculator 4 years ago……it helps manage expectations and set up reasonable pacing strategies.

#5 – Fueling – this one allows everything else to be effective on race day (ie, fitness, durability, equipment, etc). This is one of the most interesting things about IM racing: you can make all of the sacrifices required in training, and still not be able to use your fitness due to a nutrition limiter on race day…..frustrating for many! At QT2, we don’t tolerate nutrition limited races for this reason and due whatever it takes with our athletes to avoid those.

#6 – Body Comp – using day to day nutrition to tweek body composition for race day and improve overall health and recovery. This is about making sacrifices again and requires the removal of the “I’m an athlete and therefore can eat anything I want” attitude that many have. You’ll find many athletes out there who have the fitness required to qualify for Kona, but just carry around too much weight on race day which ultimately slows them down and causes them to miss a qualifying slot. A good rule of thumb is that 1 pound of EXCESS fat on your body is worth about 2 minutes at IM racing. Goal body fat and weight should be established in conjunction with an experienced triathlon coach or registered dietitian. Obviously, too little fat will hurt you, however most are on the other side of the coin.

You’ll notice that god given talent isn’t on the list. I know many, many athletes who have that quality who never qualify because they lack one of the above. Also, given the huge aerobic nature of an IM…..almost anyone can train themselves to the fitness it takes. You’ll also notice that it’s not about the workouts (although this is what everyone talks about)….its more about the big picture (macro level stuff).

What I don’t like very much are those folks who feel they are owed a slot who don’t clear those hurdles I set above. The best thing about IM is that anyone can go to Kona with the proper training, execution, and determination. However, try not to think that you don’t need a world class level of commitment…these are the folks who always say “I was on pace until…”. Get the work done, take care of the execution details, and you’ll get your slot!