Lessons from Kona 2016

For the first time in many years I had the opportunity to watch the race from the sidelines.  It is surely a different perspective, but it also reminded me how many mistakes we make when so caught up in the world of racing.  Standing on the sidelines gives you a perspective of what we overlook when it the midst of the race.

I was able to narrow the race in Kona down to four key factors that great determine the race outcome and the individual results.

All about the run

Kona is all about the right pacing on the bike.  Whether a Pro or Elite Age Grouper (aren’t they all in Kona?), your ability to effectively run off the bike is the entire goal.  It is a delicate balance between biking strong, but not too hard.  It is an understanding that the bike leg is tiring, demanding, but there is an extra tank of fitness awaiting you in T2 in order to run an effective marathon.  It is your maturity and confidence to allow others to push harder than you, knowing that you are looking to race the full 140.6, not just 130-135 miles of it.  Many in the pro field as well as the AG field can bike faster/stronger, but they choose not to since they know their patience on the bike allows them to shine on the run.  Besides the demoralizing effect of going backwards in your placing off the bike, you are also feeding your competitors ability to run better since they recognize your struggles.

This year had an extreme example of this.  Look at 3rd place Patrick Lange running himself from 23rd with a 2:39 marathon.  What kind of confidence must he have had in his run while seeing the gap and his placing grow on the bike?  What kind of math was he doing while seeing the 12 minute deficit coming out of T2?   It was not just a few racers ahead of him, it was 20+ each one he passed he grew more confident and his competitors more nervous about him approaching.  Could he have ridden faster?  I am quite certain he could have.  But instead, in his first full IM race, he chose the humility to have the best possible 140.6 result, and that meant running to his potential.  How confident is he now going into any IM in the world?  Knowing that against the best in the world he can run himself to the front.  He swims well (48) and runs faster than anyone has ever in Kona (!), so now he can gradually, strategically work on his bike strength, approach and pacing.  A textbook approach to joining the world’s best in Kona in your first IM ever!

Even this past weekend in IM 70.3 Hefei China: once again both winners ran themselves to victory.  It is all about the run…

Take a look at the Age Group results:  all show a similar approach.  They could all run.  Despite many of the frustrations in the sport regarding drafting, the best runners still win.  And if you think its that much easier to draft a 112 miles, then try it some time in training: almost always are you riding faster than your fitness, hence the draft is needed, and that effect still drains you, leaves you fatigued etc.  While drafting might save you watts here and there, it is mentally draining, still requires a fair amount of work, and has you pushing at times way harder than you would usually ride on a steady, controlled, efficient 112 miles.  So, you are back to needing to have the best possible run.

Which brings me back to the overall triathlon training & coaching principle:  until you teach yourself in racing how fast you can run, there is no point in riding the bike fast, or nearly as fast as you can.  Until you are seeing the run pacing and splits you see in training, the ones you know you are capable of holding, then any faster AG bike split is a waste of your IM racing progression.  Knowing what you can run, whether a 3:30, 3:15 or even 3:00, is well worth it when it comes to the next IM:  riding the bike with that confidence in your mind.  The performance benefits of moving well at the end of a race are significant – most importantly in your ability to tolerate pain and displaying mental toughness.

How does this apply to your training and racing?  Knowing it is all about the run, means…you need to run… a lot. But this is also a big misconception in the sport:  the need to run a lot of miles or the need to run fast miles.  No – the key to successful IM and Half IM running is:

  • Frequency: gradually, safely and it might take a few seasons to get there. But each season you get faster.  And more importantly:  focus on the running frequency vs. biking and swimming.  If you can only do one, run.
  • Nutritional quality: high quality food = superior performance. There is no other way, especially for handling the running volume.
  • Hills: perform the bulk of your runs in rolling hills to build all around leg strength, especially at this time of year (trails!)
  • Steady State flat running – 1-2x a week we insert steady paced flat running. Leg turnover, economy of motion, technique and mental focus.
  • The proper fatigue:  remember the keys to a superior run leg: we want the majority of our fatigue to come from sessions that directly impact overall race performance. This means outstanding race specific cycling muscular endurance.  You want to access your existing run fitness.

Since most athlete are running so far below their existing run fitness, our goal is to improve overall endurance (best trained on the bike) and durability (best trained with run frequency)…

Know your strategy

It’s your 140.6, so don’t let anyone take your strategy from you.  In Kona you can see the best athletes are focused on their own race.  Frodeno?  Never sniffed too much wind on the bike, he knew what the others can do, what he needs to do, and stuck with it.  Rinny?  No panic – just run when the time comes – get to T2 well, and then go!  Elite AGers? Race your splits/wattages/paces/efforts and then see what needs to be done with 10 miles to go on the run.  “If I stick my plan until 130.6, I’ll be having a great day.  Then, I will evaluate the situation and see placing vs. effort vs. current body scan”.  You are almost guaranteed success at this point.

Drafting and others racing should not influence your race strategy.  The strongest emotions of the day come within seconds of crossing the finish line.  How did I race?  Did I give it my all?  Did I execute my plan?  Did I race to the best of my ability today, given my fitness, the circumstances etc.?  If yes to all this, then you are most always happy with your race result and the progression you are making as an athlete.

Focusing on others, getting sucked into another’s race or being distracted from yours, means you are risking months of training for a race with people you don’t know.  You don’t know what they are capable of, how they race, what their fitness is as well as the mistakes they are currently making.

Training Principle:  Focus on your training plan.  A long training day on the weekends is filled with distractions:  Friends and other riders.  Multiple places to stop.  The terrain might not be ideal.  Training days are great for executing your plan despite adversity & distractions.  Let others come along on your day.  Let others ride along your intervals.  Eat your fuel and drink your hydration on your schedule.  Execute your training on the terrain for your day.  It’s your training day.  Own it.

Control the chaos

In Kona there a so many inputs.  Despite having the best intentions to race your own race, execute your plan, and run well off the bike, it’s a long day of chaos.  Incredibly fast racers, hot temperatures, constantly shifting winds and then throw in nerves, the finality of the race and intentions to do well.

When watching the best in Kona, those with the best results all controlled the chaos around them on the day.  Control the chaos.  Understand things will go wrong.  Brace for things being more difficult than planned.  Realize the your fellow competitors are capable of racing well too, as they are just as focused and prepared as you.  Use temperatures and environment to your advantage since it creates challenges and difficulties for all.  The best in Kona also deconstruct their race prior:  whether via visualization of the race, detachment exercises and segmenting their day in to multiple stages of successful results.

Training principles:  create chaos in your training and simulation days.  Ride too hard, run too hard early off the bike, ride with others that ride too hard for you, have others draft off you & properly annoy you, choose a harder course and then run off the bike, ride into windy conditions on purpose.  Start early when its too cold; start midday when its too hot; practice getting flats; practice being stuck in one gear; race Olympic and half IMs with the intent to blow up yet continue on; create high stakes around a local race so that you can simulate nerves (i.e. post your desired best outcome on social media PRIOR to the race or bet someone a big dinner, wine etc. regarding the result).  Create chaos – internally as well as externally.

The only thing I would avoid practicing chaos?  Nutrition and hydration.  That is not something to create chaos around.  This is something to narrow the focus and perfect.

There are many ways to train chaos.

Bike Setup

This might seem like a no brainer but it is ridiculously clear in Kona.  Not only have I learned from my own mistakes and understanding with this, but the front of the field in Kona has a glaring lesson:  bike setup is critical.

We all know the basic principles of being aero, but it becomes so much more exposed in Kona.  Not only can one observe hundreds (!) of athletes sitting up on their $12,000 aero bike, completely exposed to the wind, but the most important lesson was how relaxed, efficient and focused the best athletes in Kona were on the bike.  Their ability to not only cut through the wind in a superior position & setup, but remaining aero for 95% of the course despite its difficulties, remaining relaxed while still pushing significant wattages at the front, staying focused in their cadence, race positioning all while conserving as much energy as they can.  The ability to ride fast, while conserving energy is the key to a good run.  Only a bike setup that allows you to stay COMFORTABLY in the aero position for 5+ hours, WHILE still maintaining the wattage range you intended will allow you to achieve this.

A good aero position with allow you to ride lower watts but with the same bike split (or faster) in mind.  A good set up will allow you to save even more time/watts as you integrate wheels, clothing, helmet and bottle placement.

The key lesson from Kona here?  The front of the pack is focused meticulously on their set up.

Training Principle:  A great bike fit helps, but you must must must be relaxed and efficient in it.  It might be great in the wind tunnel, but if you can’t hold it for 105 of the 112 miles, fuhgetaboutit. So therefore – we must train it – every so gradually.  It might be frustrating seeing some lower wattage numbers, but without starting aero, relaxed and efficient in your pedal stroke, you will not see the gains of being in an aero position.  Every minute in an IM bike leg where you are not aero costs you 2 minutes vs. had you been aero for that minute.  2 minutes!  String that together over 5 hours, think how many times you sit up.  This takes into account not only the drag by not being aero, but how long it takes to get back to an efficient, relaxed aero position; how sitting up effects cadence, motivation, as well as many times athletes stand up and sort of stretch out their back and legs.  The later in the bike leg this happens, the longer the transition time is to going back to an aero, relaxed, efficient position…

Therefore seeing lower wattage numbers is no big deal since you are staying in the aero position.  Imagine now if you train relaxed, efficient and focused, seeing the wattages gradually increase over your training phase, that is pure speed AND time savings.

This is a great time of year to work on this.  Outside staying aero.  On the trainer indoors staying aero.  Turn off the lights and feel yourself relaxing into your aero position without focusing on watts, only feel and clean, efficient pedaling.

If you can remember these four factors as you go into the next Ironman season, you are certain to have significant race day improvements.  How can you not?  A better run, a better focus on your own race strategy, a better ability to deal with the chaos and adversity of the day and a better bike set up…each one will buy you time.  Put them all together and they might buy you a PR.




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