Advanced, Case study, Podcast

Case study: How David qualified for Kona by training smarter and getting the details right | EP#130

 May 28, 2018

By  Mikael Eriksson

Case study: How David qualified for Kona by training smarter and getting the details right | EP#130 

David Nicholls is an age-group triathlete from the UK who recently qualified for Kona. He shares how he achieved this goal by being smarter, paying more attention to detail, and therefore getting the most out of his crunched-for-time training budget.

Discuss this episode!

  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • How David changed his approach to nutrition completely, which he attributes as the main reason for his success.
  • Improving your knowledge base and becoming smarter in all aspects of the sport through dedicated research. 
  • How David structured his training in general, and his swim, bike and run training specifically. 
  • The importance strength training and sleep and recovery had for him. 
  • How he managed to get his training done around a busy job and having a baby in the family. 
  • David's top tip for age-groupers in general, and those wanting to qualify for Kona. 

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About David Nicholls

0:40 - 

  • David is a 30-year-old from the UK, but now lives in Moscow. 
  • He qualified for the 2018 Ironman World Champs at Ironman South Africa earlier this spring. 

David's triathlon background

3:50 -

  • I've lived in Moscow for the past 4 years, and I live with my wife and our 1-year-old child.
  • I started triathlon after getting bored of rowing which I'd done for a few years before.
  • My first triathlon was at University well over 10 years ago.
    • I did Ironman Nice at a relaxed enjoyable pace, and finished in 11:50. 
  • After that I joined the finance world and was working 60-80 hour weeks. 
  • Only recently have I had a bit more free time and decided to come back to triathlon. 
    • Then over the last few years I decided to have a crack at Kona. 
    • This has now been achieved, qualifying for Kona at Ironman South Africa.

Targeting Kona

4:32 -

  • I've had the feeling that I would be able to give it a go over the past couple of years. 
  • I'd done some local races and managed to achieve top 20 results.
    • The same with ultra marathons and other racing I've done. 
  • When I found out I was going to have my first child, that was the incentive to get it done sooner rather than later! 
  • In 2017 I had some intermediate targets:
    • Sub-4:30 half Ironman and 3-hour marathon. 
    • I managed to achieve both of these. 
  • I then picked the race that I thought would suit me best, then went for it really hard. 

Changes to training over time

5:31 - 

  • Initially my training was really volatile, I was like any standard middle of the pack age-grouper.
    • Basically just training based on how much free time you had and what your social plans were.
  • In the winter I'd be doing 8-10 hours a week at best, and in the summer it would go down due to holidays and travelling. 
  • 2 months leading up to a big race I'd train more, and then do almost nothing for a couple of months after. 
  • In 2017, I started to find some consistency but it was a slow process.
  • My first goal was the half Ironman, which was the start of getting consistency. 
    • The volume was still low, I was doing max 10 hours a week. 
  • In December 2017 it kicked off.
    • From December to April I averaged 16 hours a week. 
    • Thanks to a few 20-22 hour weeks when my wife was away and my parents helped looking after the baby. 
  • One of my main learning points was that it's a lot more than just your training hours.
    • It's the core work, stretching, making sure your nutrition is on point. 
    • Making sure you sleep enough. 
    • Obsessing about your bike. 
  • It's doable for most people but the question is how much you can commit over time, depending on your fitness. 
  • A typical mid-week day:
    • Always early starts, and my son helped this by waking up early! 
    • I'd always do one training session before work, sometimes two.
      • e.g. Early swim at 7, with a masters group until 8.30.
      • Then I'd do an hour run.
    • I get home from work about 7, have an hour with my kid eating and giving him a bath. 
    • Then I'd do an hour and a half bike. 

Structure of bike training

8:59 -

  • I did a lot of my bike training on the indoor trainer - living in Moscow there wasn't much choice. 
    • Even without that I would have done all my training on the indoor trainer.
    • I think it's spectacularly effective. 
    • Particularly as I did the Trainer Road programme pretty religiously.
    • The gains I've seen were incredible, especially compared to my friends who were doing a lot of riding but not structured. 
    • You can also work on the aero position more indoors.

Structure of swim training

10:30 - 

  • I've always been a decent swimmer, my PB before for Ironman was 1:05, and 0:31 for a half Ironman. 
  • I realised there were two things I needed to change:
    • Swim more consistently.
    • Improve my technique. 
  • I think the biggest gains came from getting the best swim coach I could find, and having one lesson with him every two weeks.
  • The lessons were only 45 minutes but he'd give me one specific thing to focus on over the next two weeks.
    • This completely changed my stroke. 
  • I also did a masters group, which was the only way I could do 4K swim sessions with quality intensity. 
    • When you're racing other people you can push yourself so much harder.
  • I found when I went to the pool alone my sessions would be shorter, less quality with longer breaks. 
  • I couldn't emphasise the value of the masters session enough. 
  • In terms of changes to my stroke:
    • The main change was the catch, combined with how you move your hand through the water.
    • We focused a lot on using swim bands for at least 10 minutes before every session. 
      • Elastic bands with a paddle attached to it. 
    • It helps you isolate that early vertical forearm (bit controversial) - pushing water back rather than down. 
    • Being able to get the elbow down and push the water back was the biggest change I felt.
    • This was aided by using a snorkel so I could see what my hands were doing. 
    • This was when I noticed myself going drastically faster in the water. 
  • Before swim sessions, the band work would typically be to isolate the movement.
    • When I started I'd do 2x20 reps just moving the forearm down to the 90 degree position. 
    • Then I'd continue that to move your arm all the way back. 
  • On days I wasn't swimming, I'd use the swim band to do harder work which was also useful. 
    • It helps to build swim specific muscles. 

Structure of run training

14:38 - 

  • My focus on running was two things:
    • The bio-mechanical part, which is making sure you have the right core muscle strength to run properly.
    • And a really high frequency of running.
  • I'd self-diagnosed that I had very weak core, glute med and max.
  • A lot of my work was focused on strengthening those, and doing drills.
    • This really helped my run.
  • Looking at race pictures from now versus before, you can see my whole body is straighter. 
  • For the frequency, it's called the Barry P programme.
    • The idea being, rather than doing a huge amount of intensity you first just run as often as you can. 
    • This builds up resilience in your legs. 
    • Once you've managed this, then you add intensity. 
  • The large majorities of my runs were at easy pace - checked with running calculators. 
    • E.g. I did a 3-hour marathon and I was doing 5 minute/km's. 
  • I found doing drills regularly had a significant benefit. 
  • My running volume wasn't enormous, my biggest week was just over 60km.
    • My biggest constraint was time. 

Weight training

17:49 - 

  • You slow down in an Ironman marathon because your muscles are tired - you don't have the strength to go any faster. 
  • I really believe that weight training is incredibly important.
  • In hindsight I would have done more.
  • With my Kona build, I've already started doing a high quality weights programme from now. 
  • It's super important, and something people don't do enough. 
  • I basically followed the Joe Friel approach in my base phase. 
    • This involved 2x a week weight training, high weight low reps. 
    • 4-5 exercises, not varying much between sessions. 
  • I regret that I stopped weight training when I entered my build phase, largely due to lack of time.
  • I will definitely keep it up during the build phase next time. 
  • Jesse Kropelnicki recommends that hiking is really good training for Ironman. 
    • Being on your feet for long periods of time can be beneficial to train. 

Nutrition day-to-day

20:14 - 

  • I felt I ate quite healthily before. 
    • I didn't have much junk food and I haven't drunk for 4-5 years. 
  • However, looking back I ate a lot of white carbs (e.g. pasta), and relatively little fruit or veg.
  • I couldn't really conceptualise how you could eat enough while not just eating pasta or rice. 
  • The game changer for me was listening to the episode of this podcast with Jesse Kropelnicki, and then getting his book. 
  • A second game changer that I'd recommend to everyone:
    • Go on YouTube and search for a swimmers diet or a day in the life of an Olympic swimmer. 
    • You can see what Olympic athletes eat, it's really high quality food!
    • There's so much fruit and veg, lentils and eggs.
    • They do get by with burning thousands of calories a day with relatively little pasta etc. 
    • I basically then followed this from December pretty religiously. 
  • I really believe it helped. 
    • I was amazed at how much training stress I could take without feeling too bad.
  • I've always slept well so the changes can only be due to the nutrition changes. 

Race day nutrition

22:24 - 

  • Looking back at races I've done, nutrition has been by far the biggest limiter for me.
  • I got my excel spreadsheet and used the ratios dictated in the Jesse Kropelnicki cookbook. 
    • They're super specific on everything (e.g. how many carbs/hour, how much salt etc). 
  • In training, for all my long rides I practiced the nutrition, or slightly above it. 
    • I wanted to train my body to ensure I could take in the right amount of carbs. 
  • It clearly worked because I was having 100g or carbs on the bike, which is a lot, but I was able to manage it. 
  • The only workouts I didn't practice my race nutrition during were my early morning runs. 
    • These were specifically done in a fasted state, particularly in the base phase. 
  • For the bike for example, I'd always have a litre of sports drink in training.
  • Going forward I maybe won't need to be so aggressive in having gels etc during all training rides. 
    • However, I'm so glad I did it because it was the first race when I felt every gram of my fitness was expressed because my nutrition was so on point.
  • Fueling properly during workouts enabled me to fuel properly during the rest of my days too.
    • You're not then really hungry and craving simple sugars.  

The qualifying race

25:45 - 

  • I don't think there was anything specific that helped me qualify. 
  • Once you've got to the race, it's just about executing exactly what your numbers are.
    • Race your numbers and don't get too excited. 
  • For my bike, the target was around 215 watts but I was very sure that I wasn't going to spike over 270 watts in any situation. 
    • Athletes often, especially when there are hills, go above their FTP and then you're just burning too many matches.
  • I had around 65-66% of my FTP as my target, which is quite conservative.
    • My FTP was slightly inflated, I think I just got too good at doing FTP tests. 
    • I don't think 95% of that was reflective of what my true hour power would be. 
  • I wanted to get a certain time rather than podium.
    • If I was trying to podium I probably would have pushed it a bit more and rolled the dice. 
  • Because I chose a championship race where there were 9 slots on offer, I knew I had to get around 9:25. 
    • I was going for no much more than that really. 
  • For pacing on the run, I was just screaming at myself to not run too hard on the first 10km. 
    • It feels so easy - you're not running your marathon pace, it's your Ironman marathon pace.  
    • I looked at my watch as much as I could and constantly held myself back. 
    • This clearly worked as in the last 10km I put a lot of time into my competitors. 
  • My final race times:
    • 9:26 was my overall finish time. 
    • Swim = 0:57.
    • Bike = 5:06.
    • Run = 3:18. 

Top tips for age groupers

28:50 - 

  • Increase your knowledge base in every aspect of the sport.
    • You have to think about nutrition, biomechanics, core strength, bike aerodynamics and position etc. 
    • It's a multifaceted sport. 
  • I think this especially applies to people who are coached. 
    • I have friends who are coached and they assume that just because they're coached, they'll get to Kona. 
    • The training is actually a small part of it, especially the training prescription - it's about execution of training.
  • I think you need to understand every single aspect and how they interact.
    • Only then can you be sure you're doing every single thing possible to help yourself. 
  • Apply the knowledge and be self-critical. 
    • Every week I'd look back at my training and ask what I could have done better. 
    • E.g. Did I really do my 3x15 minutes of quality core work etc. 
    • This kind of analytical approach really worked for me and I think it's why I managed to qualify on relatively little training. 
  • Time management is the golden question. 
    • The easy answers are training in the morning and doing bike sessions on the turbo. 
    • But it's good to be honest - it's brutal! 
    • Doing 16-20 hour weeks, and all the other stuff, along with a family is really tough. 
    • I think being honest with yourself and your family with how much it will require, and how much you want it.
  • For me, the idea of periodisation means the closer to the race the more hours you do. 
    • The fact that my family understood this, and knew I'd have to be increasingly selfish was helpful. 
    • And they knew that after the race this would completely reverse and I'd be at their mercy in all ways. 
    • This was how I got through it, combined with a very understanding family! 
  • One more thing I wanted to mention, if you look at sports nutrition products, they don't contain nearly enough salt for what a normal body needs.
    • You might think you're having the right amount of gels, but that's not enough. 
    • The biggest change to my nutrition, and one of the biggest reasons for my success is that I significantly increased the amount of salt I took in. 

Plans for Kona

32:30 - 

  • I'm back in training, but I've promised my wife it's not going to be a big one!
  • I was never going to be anywhere near the podium in Kona - I was 9th out of 9 slots for my age group.
  • For Kona the plan is to maintain fitness, do some more strength and conditioning, and some heat acclimation.
  • The plan is to just go and enjoy it - it took an intense amount of work just to get here. 
  • I'll move the swim training to focus more on the core and body position as Kona is an open water swim. 
    • It's a non-wetsuit swim and my pool times are 10 seconds slower than in my wetsuit. 
    • It's clear I have a lot of work to do there! 
  • Other than that it's mainly weights and heat acclimation. 

Rapid fire questions

34:49 -

  • What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to triathlon or endurance sports?
    • This podcast is probably my favourite, and definitely the one that's taught me the most. 
    • Also Trainer Road, Tower26, and The Kona Edge as it's always nice to hear from people in your position. 
  • What's your favourite piece of gear or equipment?
    • Power meter and computer with Trainer Road. 
  • What's a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? 
    • Curiosity combined with the ability to be very self-critical. 

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show. 

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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