Podcast, Racing, Training

Kona preparation – best practices of top coaches | EP#309

 October 25, 2021

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Kona preparation - That Triathlon Show

In this episode, coaches Frank Jakobsen, Val Burke and Ryan Bolton and Björn Kafka each give their perspective and recommendations on how to prepare for and race well in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • What should you do differently when preparing for Kona compared to a "regular" Ironman or full distance triathlon event? 
  • What are the most common mistakes athletes make that you should avoid? 
  • Considerations regarding the course
  • Considerations regarding the environmental conditions: wind, heat, and humidity
  • Logistical recommendations, time-zone adjustments, and more

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Frank Jakobsen

Differences between Kona a "regular" Ironman or full distance triathlon event

04:58 -

  • Kona is in a category of races, where you travel far to a place warmer, more humid, and more intense sun radiation than where you live.
  • That is not for everyone (e.g., someone from Malaysia or Indonesia will have a different approach).
  • I had the opportunity to work with some sophisticated equipment to measure core temperature, sweat rates and stuff like that.
  • Therefore, I worked a lot in the field and by talking with a lot of people. One crucial point about Kona has to do with sweating.
  • You want to find out what your sodium content per litre of sweat is. It varies a lot between athletes. You can have 250 mg/L to 1500 mg/L. The lower this number, the better.
  • If you have a high sodium concentration and do not know about it, you will be in trouble.
  • And you want to check your sweat rate. We can do it on a hotter day, where you can go for a training session and train at the specific intensity to measure this parameter.
  • The sweat rate might vary with clothing and fitness, but generally, it stays within a range. When testing, you want to write down the external temperature, the day of testing (sun radiation intensity), humidity, and the efforts during the session. The more intense, the more you sweat. You should weigh yourself before and after and measure what you consume during the session.
  • If you finish a ride 2 kilos lighter, it means you are under-hydrated by 2 litres.
  • My goal is to try to replenish all my sodium and sweat loss all the bike split. It means I want to finish the ride with the same weight. It is the perfect time to execute because it is harder to do it on run or swim splits.
  • You do not need to worry about hydration in the last 5 or 10 km of the run. If you start to feel dehydrated, your performance will go down because of the psychological factor associated. The goal is to keep your brain calm.

Other factors to consider

12:33 -

  • Training methods can improve the ability to sweat and sweat rates. For example, the first time we prepared for Kona, we did some bike sessions on the trainer in the Copenhagen Zoo (place with high humidity).
  • When you train in humid environments, your sweat does not have a cooling effect. The cooling effect comes from the evaporation of liquid on the skin surface. When you sweat, the "sweat holes" expand. By sweating a lot in training, we increase their elasticity. It means you can sweat more and cool yourself better. This type of session you can do at your home (some wet towels and a drier in a small room is enough to increase humidity)

Replenishing fluids on the run

15:03 -

  • Many people say that as soon as you lose 2 % of body weight, your performance declines.
  • The best way to understand the best strategy is to test it. So, do at least once a 1h30 run after a bike session to see the fluid intake you need to take on a hot day.
  • If in races your muscles start to become stiff, it could be because of dehydration.
  • We want to go a bit low because it is hard for the stomach to handle so much fluid intake.
  • In cycling, athletes try to be dehydrated before the last climb to go faster uphill, but they perform only a 20-minute all-out effort. In triathlon, we have a whole marathon to do after the bike split.
  • Until the 30 km mark, I would try to maintain the hydration balance. The rest is willpower.

Common mistakes athletes make

17:33 -

  • Most people have to deal with the time zones. Generally, if you have a 1-hour time difference, you have to come one day before.
  • When flying, you still need to stay hydrated despite the body retaining some liquids. When you arrive, I would advise you to maintain in your time zone. The problem is that Europeans have a 12-hour difference.
  • Therefore, when you are there, focus on having the meals at the right time, avoid your phone, and sleep.
  • Try also to avoid drinking coffee late. It is a period we need to rest and adapt to the new time zone. But be relaxed with it. It is usual that, in the first days, your body will feel awkward because of the time difference.
  • Thus, one mistake is that people are coming late to Kona.

Specificities of the racecourse

19:43 -

  • Kona is the World Championships. When you arrive there, every athlete is in top condition. Everyone qualified strongly, meaning the swim is much more competitive. In a regular Ironman race, you see people fighting only for 400 or 500 meters. Then, things settle down, and the peloton stretches out.
  • In Kona, the mass starts are much more chaotic. If you are there and just happy to have qualified, have some sense of why you are in Kona. You need to understand the goal you want to achieve to make the most of that experience.
  • Concerning swimming, it is a non-wetsuit swim. Therefore, it is a bit harder in the swim split, especially for Europeans.
  • On the bike, the bike course is easy. Be sure to maintain your aerodynamic position even when climbing.
  • On the last 30 to 40 km, you have a headwind. Therefore, you should maintain yourself in the TT position for the whole duration. It means you should practice this in training.

Considerations on the Ironman World Championships

24:40 -

  • I think athletes need to focus on enjoying the race. I work with many athletes who qualify for Kona, and after they achieve that, I ask them their goals.
  • For an age grouper, they need to reflect if they will go there to compete seriously or to race, and enjoy that they qualified for the race.
  • If you are not racing for a top position, give yourself and your family a rest from this focus, and train so that you get there fit to have a good time. And go there with that purpose in mind.
  • Be honest with yourself on why you go there. If your goal is to compete, you need to train hard. Make a reflection on how you compare to others to make that decision.

Val Burke

Amateur athletes’ preparation differences for Kona

27:50 –

  • I think they need to consider the environment. Then it depends on where athletes are coming from to understand the specific considerations for the event.
  • Concerning the environment, I do some acclimatisation. We do not do altitude training for age groupers.
  • Athletes should empower themselves to know the course and not expecting the coach to give them details. It allows athletes to prepare mentally, knowing the route is hilly, windy and the weather will be warm and humid.
  • They will have ocean swimming. Therefore, they need the taste of saltwater, how to race or swim with many people around them. (swimming in the washing machine)
  • In my coaching experience, those that are the best planners are the ones who achieve their highest potential. Thus, you need to plan every detail and divide the course into small chunks.

Crucial aspects in the preparation

30:30 -

  • I think you need to look at everything. The bike does get the most attention. After the race, the athletes talk much more about the bike split. The reason is because of the wind, the hills and the heat.
  • But I believe this is because of the time spent on the bike. The run is where it all comes apart. If you do not do everything right on the bike (nutrition or pace), athletes will struggle on the run.
  • The perception of race is also different to everyone. Therefore, you have to go there with the best attitude and plan and look into the three splits to prepare the best you can.
  • The people that perform the best know the course, the heat and weather conditions, and have the right mindset.

Common mistakes that athletes make

32:44 -

  • People get overwhelmed by the fact it is the World Championships and makes them change their training leading into it.
  • When preparing for Kona, they might increase the volume much more than they are used to train. They might get overtrained by the time they get there.
  • Another mistake is around pacing. Athletes probably will not run as fast as they would regularly. Therefore, the ability to judge how they are feeling and change the pacing is crucial.
  • If you do not perform that, you overheat too soon and have worse performance.
    •Another mistake is around acclimatisation. When athletes get to Hawaii, they think they have to do all the sessions in the heat the week or two before the race.
  • That is other stress on top of their training stress. Thus, the taper is not ideal leading into the race. Make sure you do not try to acclimate just before the race. You also do not need to do a 5-hours session to acclimatise.
  • You only need 30 to 45 minutes with your core temperature high to get the results.

Heat preparation

34:39 -

  • The preparation depends on what they have available. If athletes live in a warm place, they might only need to do some sessions during the hotter hours of the day.
  • But I tend to focus on running workouts because the core temperature increases much more. I would try to get ideally ten sessions where the core temperature is the main focus.
  • If you come from a cool place, you can perform this indoors. You can heat the bathroom (and even add humidity) and ride at a comfortable pace. You do not need a lot of intensity because the heat will make you increase the core temperature. These sessions only need to be one hour to 1h15 in duration.
  • You can also run overdressed or run on the treadmill in a hot place.
  • One thing we do is having people train and warm-up and take them to a warm bath. Therefore, you might finish your 45-minute run and immediately have a hot bath for 30 to 40 minutes with the water at your chin. And another 30 minutes with the water at your nipple line.
  • The athletes get hot, and the effects are good with them.
  • The intensity we should do those sessions is not an exact science. It involves trial and error. I had success riding at the ironman pace (I call it e2 or high aerobic zone). An interval session is too much for most people.
  • If you do not get your core temperature up, you have some benefits. But, the results will not be as good as they could be.
  • You should feel hot and sweaty. If you start to feel dizzy, it is because it is too much.
  • You should feel that way to 30 to 40 minutes after the session.
  • In these sessions, we look at heart rate and power. Initially, your heart rate for the 5 to 7 sessions will be higher than usual. What you should find is that it will drop down compared to cold conditions.
  • I tend to do it three to four weeks before the race and maintain it after that. It will depend on what time athletes will go to Kona.

Logistical recommendations for going to Kona

40:15 -

  • Most of my athletes come from Western Canada or New Zealand. Therefore, the time changes are not that severe when going to Kona.
  • Jet lag is not as severe as in Europe. If someone had time and money, going there for two weeks would be good. The reason is you could have proper acclimatisation.
  • You could also get familiar with the courses and do the long ride on the bike course. Unfortunately, it is not always logistically possible.

Considerations for the Ironman World Championship itself

41:55 -

  • You need to be creative to realise where you are in your periodisation phase. You have to understand at what point you need a recovery phase before going back into it.
  • The one thing it is crucial to remember is that everyone is in "the same boat". Therefore, you should not feel frustrated. In life, things change many times, and we need to roll with it and start over.
  • Get to the planning phase and evaluate the course, location and use the same strategy for Kona in this situation.

Ryan Bolton

Differences in Kona preparation

43:52 -

  • The course, its exposure and the conditions are unique in Kona. These are unlike any other Ironman race you might have. As the World Championships changed to February, I, as a coach, started looking at the conditions in Kona in February. And the conditions are very similar.
  • I always recommend my athletes go with a specific heat acclimatisation protocol. It can be training outside (hot weather exposure) or indoor ( a protocol that uses a sauna) to get the body ready. This point is fundamental for that race.
  • The Scandinavian research on heat acclimatisation analyses how the body responds and what it takes to respond successfully.
  • If you live in a warm climate, you need to expose yourself five times a week (one hour at a time) to 90+ degrees Fahrenheit. (32 ºC)
  • It is not extreme, and it is all about getting the core temperature elevated for a certain period.
  • We need to understand training in those conditions compromises quality. Studies show you can do aerobic work (1-hour aerobic run) on those, so it does not have to be a hard workout.
  • Triathletes tend to overdo it and try to do more time, but you can cook yourself if you do it. Those hard workouts should not be in those conditions. The reasons are the quality is lower, and it fatigues you more.
  • It can be effective to do that acclimatisation on aerobic work.
  • With heat acclimatisation, you try getting the body used to the heat and allow for physiological adaptations. The primary one is an increase in plasma blood volume. You have more fluid in your system that allows for better cooling.
  • The body performs this adaptation quickly. With only a handful of sessions, your body will start to show adaptations to it.
  • There is also research on long term heat acclimatisation protocols. If you do it correctly and do not cook yourself, it can improve blood values. (red blood cell values)
  • If your blood plasma increases, the volume of your blood increases, and your body adapt to that by increasing the red blood cell number. (to maintain the red blood cell and plasma ratio normal)
  • It is EPO stimulation production, and you can get that increase. (poor man's altitude)
  • That is a five to seven-week process. If you want to have those benefits, you want to do it for long periods.
  • If you want only to be efficient in the heat, three weeks is enough.
  • Going into the week of the race, you can back off the protocol. The body will hold that adaptation for the week. Inevitably, by staying in Kona, you will be in a hot location nevertheless.
  • If you live in a colder place, I use a sauna protocol. The protocol is for three weeks, four to five times a week for 30 minutes. Those 30 minutes should be at 160 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. (70 to 80 ºC)
  • You want to get to those 30 minutes, but in the beginning, you might do blocks of smaller periods. The reason is that you might handle it well.
  • You do this in the leading phase to Kona, and it is good to acclimatise.
  • In this protocol, it is the control of core temperature and the dehydration factor that allow for increased blood plasma.
  • It is crucial to understand that in these sessions (indoor or outdoor), you do not want to overhydrate or cool yourself.
  • After the sessions, it is the period to rehydrate and get the electrolytes back in.
  • I tell my athletes to weigh themselves before and after the sauna sessions and drink electrolytes and water until they get back to the usual weight.
  • Usually, it is more convenient to do them straight after a session.
  • My athletes asked me often if steam room, hot tubes and jacuzzis or hot baths work. It does work, but it takes more time. The heat of a sauna is much more extreme than the heat of a steam room. 

Course considerations

55:00 -

  • Kona has a hilly course. The most particular part of the course is the wind, and many people underestimate that. The athletes should be technically and mentally ready for the winds.
  • The athletes should consider the wind in their race plan. Your effort will change if you go on a headwind or a tailwind. A mistake many people make is to push too hard on the headwind because they feel too slow.
  • Another point is knowing the most challenging parts of the course. Kona is hard because you have the Hawi climb, and it is only on the half point. I always tell my athletes to keep themselves in control there. If you watch the pros there, they are taking a closer look at their power.
  • The crucial part of the race is after descending from Hawi, at the Kawaihae area. That downhill is tricky because, depending on the wind direction, you might go pretty fast. And it is a perfect place to focus on your nutrition. After you start climbing again and you have strong crosswinds.
  • On the run course, being ready for the heat, the early hills, and the loneliness of the Energy Labs. It is very demotivating being out there on the lava fields. That section is mentally complicated because it is hot and exposed.
  • In all, to perform well in Kona, you need the right mindset leading into it.

Strategies for working on the mental aspect of the race

58:56 -

  • I think visualisation is a crucial component of the mental preparation of the athlete. They have to be ready for those difficult race moments because it is usual to have moments of doubt and trouble in them.
  • There is a benefit in knowing that is going to happen. It can help you prepare your mind for the situation. You do not have a shock when the hard part hits you.
  • It is more mental preparation than a physical one, besides the heat acclimatisation.
  • I always tell my athletes, especially for the race in Kona, to expect the unexpected.

Logistical Considerations

1:01:26 -

  • The further the time zone is from Kona's, the sooner you want to arrive there. (as long you are comfortable being away from home)
  • When planning your stay in Kona, you should check whether your place has air conditioning.
  • Everyone is coming from abroad to race, as very few locals will attend the race. Therefore, all athletes have to deal with some form of jet lag.
  • The best form to deal with it is to start modifying your sleep and eating schedule before travelling.
  • The sooner you start implementing the daily routine of Kona, the better you will deal with jet lag.

Considerations for a World Championship Event

1:04:15 -

  • When preparing for such an event, I would tell an athlete to treat it as another race. But there is something special about it, regardless of the location of the World Championships.
  • The level of competition is much higher. All the athletes that qualified are highly competitive. Because of that, I think it makes the race funnier as you have more people around you.
  • On the other hand, people might feel intimidated by that. So, I would tell those that it is just another race. If they do what they did to get to that race, they will perform well. It is like the Olympics. If the athletes perform as well as they did to qualify for that event, they will be successful.

Mikael Eriksson

Overview on Kona Preparation

1:05:53 -

  • I agree with much that the other coaches mentioned, but I will point out details worth thinking about on the topic.
  • The first consideration is to practice swimming in your swim skin. (Even if that means swimming in a pool)
  • Try to see if you should swim with your tri suit rolled up or down.
  • The second consideration is getting stuck into too aggressive pacing. You are probably used to be in the front pack in your age group. But on this race, you might be on the mid-pack or back-pack. It might feel strange in that situation to not follow or overtake people.
  • Have a well-thought-out race plan that you will stick to no matter what. It applies to any race, but it is easier to make mistakes in events like the World Championships.
  • There are some ways to practice restraining yourself. One would be to train with a group and practice letting the group go off. (Even if you can go with them) Have a pre-plan of how the workout might be, and as soon the group goes faster, practice sticking to your session.
  • You can also sign up for a half marathon and race it at your marathon or ironman pace. The goal is to practice going at a slower speed than the one required for the event.
  • Another point is to avoid training too much different from the usual in the race week. When you are in Kona, it is easy to see athletes out there doing seemingly hard training. And you might be motivated to do it yourself.
  • I am not saying to only train at low intensity on race week. Some athletes need some quality in that period.
  • However, have your plan for the race week before you get to the island and stick to that plan.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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