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For a triathlete, completing an Ironman is the challenge to top all challenges. Your first Ironman is a feat in uncharted territory: it is one big adventure that you strive to complete as best as possible. Several days or weeks later, after a chance to reflect on your accomplishment, the questions inevitably start to creep into your mind: “Can I go faster?” “How fast can I go?” and ultimately, “Can I qualify for the ‘Big Show?’” Pretty soon you’re visualizing yourself running down Ali’i Drive with the crowds and the music at the center of the Ironman world in Kona.
With more races worldwide, each with a limited number of qualifying spots for Hawaii, the competition to get to the Ironman World Championships is getting steeper. While there are a few naturals who will qualify regardless (lucky for them!), there are many athletes who are right in the mix, always fairly close to a sought-after age-group spot, but never quite getting there. They hope to be able to take that next step to their dream, but are missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: dreams are not made from hope, but from planned action! Hard work and a targeted program will make the difference, as Ironman is one race that can reward solid work ethic over natural talent. Well-coached athletes will often outperform more genetically gifted athletes to win those coveted transition spots on the Kona Pier. Through my career I have had some great examples. One athlete I coached missed Kona by a combined 10 minutes in five Ironman attempts over a decade. Once he got on a program and refined his training, he took the next step and finally realized his ambition. Another woman came to me with a long-term goal/dream of qualifying. She lived her dream with 12 weeks of specialized training, knocking almost an hour off her best Ironman finish time to win her age group and qualify for Hawaii. It is possible!
Structure Your Training
It should be noted that evolving an athlete to the highest level is a longer path than just the final 12-15 weeks of training into a goal race. While a great plan may take an athlete to that final step, most need to develop several aspects of their skills over a prolonged period of time with specific targets and planned steps. It entails many layers of individualized development and adaptation in the athlete’s physiology, skill set, psychology, technical knowledge, nutritional regime and racing experience. Ironman is an ultimate challenge for triathletes and gives us the chance to test our abilities and resources in a demanding and stimulating undertaking. A qualified coach helps a potential qualifier by laying out a long term, structured, goal oriented plan.
Athletes who are targeting a full Ironman to qualify for the Hawaii Ironman would train combining pace or power and heart rate targets. Key Ironman workouts will target a qualifying time pace or wattage output for the discipline. Other sessions will be heart-rate oriented so you can let your heart rate dictate the pace for the day rather than trying to push for pace or time.
Assess The Performance Standard
To set goal target paces, spend time researching results of past Ironman age-group winners. You need to assess your competition to understand what level of performance is necessary. I encourage you to look at the winning times for your age group for your chosen race and other Ironman races. When comparing the different races, remember you are not comparing apples to apples. Some courses are much faster. It is still worth evaluating all races as you will likely face off against different athletes in the race of your choice the year you decide to compete. Checking out a few of the other races gives you a sense of what the top athletes in your age bracket are doing, in general.
As for ability, currently, your race performance and fitness should indicate that you are capable of finishing within an hour of the goal qualifying finish time. This would be on a steady day, not on an exceptional or “magical” day! You should be healthy and willing to commit a fair bit of time and energy to prioritize your training. Another good gauge is that you can complete a 70.3 half-Ironman distance in 30 minutes less than half the time of your goal, qualifying full Ironman. If you are exceptional in one of the three sports (i.e. accomplished ex-bike racer) and undertrained in the other two, this could also indicate good potential.
I typically like athletes I coach to refrain from Ironman until after age 25. The early 20s are dedicated to developing threshold (higher output) and biomechanical motor patterns (skill) to maximize long term potential at the longer distances. This can be a part of your overall Ironman World Championship developmental plan.
Alternately, with aging athletes, recovery slows down and staying healthy is key due to increased healing time. The upside is that you have years of training and life experience to tap into which gives you a great foundation. The winner of the senior categories is typically the one slows down the least over the golden years! Emphasis is on more aerobic work helps while staying healthy. Smaller portions of intensity contribute to maintaining cardiovascular and neuromuscular stimuli and fitness responses.
Choosing A Race
Note the number of qualifying spots available at each race. In some bigger races qualifying spots will go to fifth or beyond, and sometimes spots roll down if higher placing athletes pass on their qualifying spot or have already qualified in previous events. You can look further down into the results at your target race online. You may not have to actually win to qualify. August, September and October races tend to have good opportunities as many competitive age groupers have already qualified and are preparing for Hawaii. Newer, remote Ironman races may also have more opportunity. If you like heat, bike or run hills, or a non-wetsuit swim, these can all be distinct advantages. Choose your course carefully.
5 Attributes Of Kona Age-Group Qualifiers
Finally, read this LifeSport article about the common traits of those athletes who qualify for Ironman World Championship.
Qualifying for Kona is a big goal. Taking your dream and turning it into Ironman reality requires combining solid training programs with incredible desire. Consider getting an experienced coach with a track record of excellence to help personalize and refine your program, and who will create a high performance support network for you. The first 90 percent of your potential is much easier to achieve than the last 10 percent. Like an Olympian or professional athlete, it takes a deeper look at the finer details of your training environment, skills and goals to maximize your lifetime potential.
LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 28 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Contact Lance to tackle your first triathlon or to perform at a higher level. Find more tips on Twitter @LifeSportCoach.