Getting athletes to Kona… (part 1)

For many triathletes, the “dream goal” is getting to Kona.  That’s not the goal for all triathletes, of course.  But that dream is prevalent enough so that you can assume just about everyone toeing the line at an Ironman has at least thought “Boy… I’d sure like to race at Kona one day”.  And then, if an athlete is serious enough about the sport to hire a personal coach, you can bet your butt that a Kona qualification is something floating around in the back of their mind.  As such, I view getting athletes to Kona as my “mission”… my “meal ticket”.  And honestly, that’s probably 90% of the reason I’ve been successful – I have a clear goal for where I want to get my athletes, and my ability to pay the rent depends on meeting that goal.  Point being: as with most things in life, a genuine desire to succeed, and the willingness to work for it, are the most important factors for finding success.

For the last 5 years, I’ve been working as a coach for QT2 Systems, and I’ve had a fair amount of success.  Each year since 2012, approximately 30-35% of my athletes have qualified for Kona.  Since only 1-2% of athletes at any given Ironman will claim Kona slots, I feel justified in saying it’s not just luck, or coincidence, that so many of my folks have raced on the big island.  I typically carry a load of 15-17 athletes, and have already 3 qualified for Kona 2016 (as of Oct 2015).  At the very least, it means that I’m probably doing some things right, and I feel ok handing out some advice to help coaches looking to improve their practices  ;-). So, here goes…


1)    Keep your athletes healthy.  This matters above all else.  Even if they get screaming mad at you, and are scared that they’re “not training enough”, and think you’re crazy: keep them healthy.  Biking and swimming are generally low-risk with regards to injury, but you have to monitor your athletes closely with running, or when they’re treating/rehabbing an injury, as that’s where the vast majority of issues occur.  I can tolerate an athlete adding on extra swimming or biking, but I will not tolerate an athlete adding in extra running, or pushing too hard during injury treatment/rehab.  There is no single workout, or week of training, or even month of training, that’s worth throwing away a season for.  If I had to boil it down to a single sentence, it’d be this, “Don’t let a 2-week injury turn into a 2-month injury.”

(p.s. Also, make sure your athletes are doing their preventive maintenance, i.e., foam rolling, massage, fish oil, and/or acupuncture.  Don’t just “mention it offhandedly”.  Make sure they are doing it.)


2) Don’t let a race distance force an athlete into building training volume & intensity too quickly.  An athlete’s volume and intensity should be determined by what they can handle physically, mentally, and logistically.  How do you determine what they can handle?  You look at their racing history, their injury history, their training volume history, their working hours, their family situation, their other commitments, and their willingness to maximize recovery.

I’ve seen way too many athletes, and coaches, think that they need to hit some arbitrary number in order to run a marathon, or do an Ironman, or run an ultra (“But I NEED to do a 3-hour run before my Ironman!“).   My general response to that is either “Why?”, or “Says who?”

I refuse to jam an athlete into chasing a number, if they aren’t ready for it.  You want to run an Ironman in 6 months?  Well that’s great.  But maybe your body needs more than 6 months to get ready to cover the distance. Or maybe your body can get through the distance on race day, but it can’t handle the proper training volume/intensity to actually “race” the event (truth be told, 90% of triathletes can’t handle the training to truly “race” an Ironman. This is not meant to be an “insult”, but rather a statement on just how freaking hard it is to build the fitness & durability necessary to truly “race” an Ironman).  So your best bet is just to remind the athlete that they’re training as hard, and as much, as they can currently handle, and you’ll send them to race day in the best possible shape they can be in on that given date.  And honestly, 90% of the people in their division are probably operating with similar constraints on their training, so it ends up being a somewhat level playing field (grading on the curve!).


3) Be strict with race schedules.  For an athlete to make real progress, they need to put in consistent training blocks.  The #1 enemy of this is injury, but the #2 enemy is “over-racing”.  I’ve seen the race schedules of many un-coached athletes, and it can be comical in extreme cases.  They get “addicted” to racing, try to cram every local race into their race calendar, and completely lose sight of any long-term goals, because they feel they need to go “beat so-and-so” at Race X.  Chasing short-term goals ends up sabotaging progress towards long-term goals, and the athlete hits a plateau.

This doesn’t mean that racing is “bad”, obviously, but it does mean that it needs to be closely controlled.  Why? Because the rest needed heading into a race, and the recovery needed after a race, creates a “valley” in an athlete’s training volume, where they’re losing valuable training opportunities.  Also, travel for races introduces significant amounts of life stress (and possibly financial stress), and as they say “Stress is stress.”  One of your major jobs as a coach is to help manage overall stress in an athlete’s life, and you need to take that seriously.  An athlete carrying unsustainable stress levels is bound to crack, eventually…

I found that an athlete racing once per month is the most typical frequency to strike a reasonable balance. But there are a lot of “ins & outs” to this, due to variables introduced by race distance (i.e. an Ironman needs more recovery time than a Sprint), and athlete needs (ex. I have an athlete with a major “top-end speed” limiter, so I’ve given him the green light to race twice per month, as “glorified speed workouts”).  I could go on for pages with several more exceptions/qualifiers, but hopefully you get the point – understand what an athlete’s main goal is for the year, and build the race schedule around the best possible path to reach that goal.  Only include races if they are a part of a logical path to achieving the goals of the season.

This post is getting long, and I feel like I’m only scratching the surface, so I’m gonna go ahead and break it up into 2 or 3 parts.  This ends part 1.  Stay tuned for the rest…

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