Advanced, Podcast, Racing, Training

Ultra Triathlon Training and Racing with Keith Rieger | EP#89

 January 1, 2018

By  Mikael Eriksson

Ultra Triathlon Training and Racing with Keith Rieger | EP#89

Ultra Triathlon Training and Racing with Keith Rieger | EP#89

Keith Rieger is the founder and event director of KonaFive - racing the Kona Ironman 5 days in a row, back to back. Tune in for his training and racing tips for ultra triathlons, and to hear what the KonaFive is all about. Plus, as an Xterra Trail Running World Champion, he also shares his best triathlon running advice. 

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. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy! 
  • Have you already done one, or are you thinking of doing an ultra triathlon at some point?
  • Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • KonaFive - training for and racing the Hawaii Ironman five days in a row
  • How you don't need to be super human or even train that much to get into ultra triathlons
  • Keith's typical training week when preparing for KonaFive
  • Ultra triathlon racing tips: pacing, nutrition, and sleep
  • Using eggs in smoothies and oatmeal

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About Keith Rieger

2:57 - 

  • Keith is the founder and event director of KonaFive - an annual 5-day Ultra Triathlon event
  • He is a 3-time XTerra Trail Running World Champion, 3-time Western State 100-mile finisher, World Triathlon Bronze Medalist, World Duathlon Bronze Medalist, 20-time Ironman finisher, and a former NCAA nationally-ranked distance runner
  • He is the founder and head coach of the Surprise Running Club and Surprise Special Olympics Track and Field Team in Surprise, Arizona
  • He wrote a book called “Kona Five: Taking on Life’s Challenges and Kona’s Toughest Ultra-Triathlon
  • Keith, together with Joshua Baker, will be featured in a documentary about the Kona Five produced by Metta Tale Productions, to be released in spring 2018
  • Keith is originally from Georgetown, Ontario, Canada but now lives in Arizona

How did KonaFive come about?

4:28 -

  • KonaFive is mainly a product of Keith's athletic experiences. He started as a hockey player. After high school, he got into running which got him a scholarship at the University of New Mexico where he got into cross country running and steeplechase.
  • After completing his university career, Keith worked on two of his athletic bucket list items: the Western State 100-miler and the Kona Ironman. First, he eventually ended up doing the Western State 100-mile endurance run three times and got sucked into Ultra Running.
  • Next, he worked his way towards the Kona Ironman. Having a background in running, he started to learn how to swim and cycle. He then started doing half triathlons. Eventually he did Ironmans.
  • He found out about and read Rich Roll's book "Finding Ultra" that recounts the author's experience doing 5 Ironmans in 5 consecutive days over 5 Hawaiian Islands - the EPIC5 challenge.
  • In 2014, Keith crewed for a friend who was going to do the EPIC5 triathlon. However, a week prior to the event, his friend got injured and was unable to do the race. As his friend has already paid for the race, for the flights and logistics, the event director reached out to Keith asking if he wanted to do the race in his friend's stead.
  • Despite the fact that he hadn't been swimming or biking in the past few months, Keith said yes. He got a wet suit and rented a bike. He joined the race in his friend's stead. That was his first Ultra Triathlon experience.
  • Keith has since completed 5 days of back-to-back KONA Ironmans twice. Realizing that the kind of event that the EPIC5 is is something that he really wanted to do, he came up with means to simplify the event where it runs 5 days in a row, making the most of involved logistics. And that was how KonaFive started.
  • Keith manned his first KonaFive in 2016. He wrote a book titled "Kona Five - Taking on Life’s Challenges and Kona’s Toughest Ultra-Triathlon" which talks about his experiences of the event. As more and more people got interested in the event, he made it public just this year, doing it together with his friend Joshua Baker.

Keith's main achievements during his running days

8:00 -

  • When he was attending university, Keith specialized in cross country running. He then got into the steeplechase where he did 3000-meter races. Having success in both disciplines, he joined the Penn Relays, Drake Relays, Mount Sac Relays and the Texas Relays.
  • After university, he got into Ultras. His goal was to complete the qualifiers to make it to the Western States.
  • Along the way he did other races including the XTerra Trail Running Championships. He won his age-group in his first attempt. After participating in and winning other XTerra races (including world championships), he started to focus on Ultra Triathlon.

How big of a shock was that for you to join your first 5-day ultra triathlon given that you hadn't really prepared for it? 

10:23 -

Though it was his first time, Keith did very well and completed 3 out of the 5 Ironmans (1st, 2nd and the last). In the other Ironmans he was crewing. He attributes his performance to 3 things:

  • a strong mindset - believing that you can do it
  • being wise about pacing yourself
  • being wise about your hydration and nutrition

Back then, Keith's PR for an Ironman swim was 1:05, his bike was 5:16, and his marathon was 3:09.

How did you train for KonaFive? What surprised you most about the preparation?

12:35 -

  • When you get into Ultras, the greatest challenge is how to block a lot of time for training while keeping the rest of your life in balance.
  • Keith's training regimen includes always keeping himself in decent shape shape. This includes doing up to about 10 hours of training each week. This allows Keith to then take only about 3 months to prepare for KonaFive and really ramp up his training volume.
  • His 20 to 25-hour weekly training regime consists of:
    • Swimming 4 to 5 times each week, with up to around 6000 meters or even more on a few of the longer days. He mixes up drills, intervals and just pure distance swimming.
    • Cycling 3 times per week. He does about 80 miles in two of the workouts. These rides are usually either 1- or 2-mile intervals with e.g. 1 mile on, 1 mile off repeating, at up to threshold intensity. For his long ride he builds up his mileage to 140 miles. In these long rides he may throw in intervals of pushing a really heavy gear for a mile every five miles. Also, some climbing out of the saddle is included.
    • Running 4 times per week. The running training includes 400-meter intervals and 800-meter intervals twice a week. These are not all out interval workouts. Keith may push up to 90% of VO2max (a little bit above threshold). He also does a strength training run where he incorporates lunges, knee lifts, butt kicks and some wind sprints into a run of 12 to 14 miles total. Then his long distance run is done on the trails, and is built up to 22 miles.
  • Keith's advice to those who can't put in that much time into their triathlon training is to just work with the amount of time they can afford to block off. While training with a limited time needs one to scale back his or her pace, an Ironman can still be done.

Sample swim sessions - What would the key swim sets look like for you?

20:40 -

  • For a 5000-meter swim, Keith does:
    • 500-meter warm up
    • 1000 m of 50-meter intervals with 15-second breaks
    • 1000 m of 100-meter intervals, and 1000 m of 200-meter intervals
    • Also includes some drills
  • Swimming insight from Keith: "When you come from a running background, you need to get a swim coach to help you. A swim coach will give you feedback on what you are doing right and what you need to improve on. Your coach will also point out the drills that will help you improve your swimming. "

Ultra Triathlon event recommendations for someone who wants to join for the first time?

24:48 -

There are a lot of up and coming Ultraman events. These events run for 3 days and consists of a swim and a 70-mile bike on the first day, a 200+ mile bike on the second day, and a 50-mile run on the third day. 

Outside of training, what tips do you have for those who are preparing to join an Ultra Triathlon?

25:48 -

  • Start by choosing an event. Ideally, you'll need 3 to 4 months to prepare for an Ultra Triathlon.
  • Follow the 10% rule where you train and build up only up to 10% each week.
  • Consider periodization where you build up for 3 weeks and then recover for 1 week. Repeat that throughout your training phase.
  • Initially, start your training on low intensity and slowly build that up.
  • Regardless of whether you are one to plan out a training program or not, learn to listen to your body.
  • Know when you can increase the volume and intensity of your workouts. Know when you have to slow down and recover.
  • Ideally, however, you need to log your program and your progress. You can also use training programs or better yet, get a coach. 

When preparing for the event, do you have a pace plan? How did you pace the event?

29:35 -

  • Keith mostly uses perceived exertion to pace himself in a race.
  • Since KonaFive runs for 5 consecutive days, you can go easy and just enjoy the experience of the race including the scenery and the camaraderie of the people around you.
  • KonaFive requires a balance between pushing yourself to finish the day's race in the least amount of time and pacing yourself well so you do not burn yourself out.
  • Finishing the race fast allows you to get as much time as you want to rest at night. Pacing yourself helps you make sure that whatever time you have left to rest will be sufficient for you to recover & prepare for next day's rest.

For an Ultra Triathlon, what do you do for nutrition?

39:23 -

  • Keith's meals during a race day:
    • Breakfast: fruit smoothie and a little bit of protein. Breakfast is mainly organic fruits and a smoothie - easy to digest and great for hydration.
    • On the bike: power bars, Gatorade sports drink, and Ensure shakes
    • Lunch (half-way point): Almond butter and jam sandwich with a healthy bread, and iced coffee.
    • Gatorade for energy and S! Caps for salts throughout the day
    • Regroup at KonaFive House after the run: protein smoothie with almond milk, raw egg, almond butter, protein powder, and a banana
  • Keith's advice on nutrition:
    • Do not try to eat so much during the race. The human body can digest only about 300 calories an hour.
    • Eat light to avoid getting sick or nauseous during the race.
    • Take in more liquid calories as these are easier to digest.

What are some common mistakes runners or triathletes do in their run training?

40:39 -

A lot of runners and triathletes ramp up their training too quick, making them prone to injuries. Here is what to do instead:

  • Apply the 10% rule where you only increase training volume by 10% at max each week
  • Allow yourself to have recovery time when you train. Listen to you body. If you feel something is off, stop and get it checked.
  • If you can, train for the other areas first. For instance, if something is off with your running, see if you can switch to train for swimming or biking that day.
  • As much as you can, do your run training on soft surfaces like on the grass or on the trails. Soft surfaces helps you develop good running form, it gets you on the balls of your feet. Try to avoid running on the pavement all the time.

Keith's tips on structuring one's triathlon run training to make it more effective

42:47 -

  • Periodization - don't go hard all the time. For example, if you plan to train for a year, you can build for 5 months and recover for 1 month. The goal is to make sure that in between training, there will be time for the body to rest and recover.
  • Do not run at a medium pace. Instead, always work on something when you run. For instance, you can go at a slow speed over a long distance to build your endurance; or you can do a 400 m or an 800 m interval session to work on your speed.
  • Triathlon run training week example: a triathlete who runs 3 times each week - first run: long run to build endurance; second run: interval runs for speed; third run: strength run (easy pace with 30 to 50 lunges, 50 to 100 knee lifts, 50 butt kicks at each mile; wind sprint at a gradual uphill)

Rapid-fire questions

Favorite book, blog, or resource related to triathlon:

Favorite piece of gear or equipment:

  • Garmin Forerunner 935

What do you wish you had known or done differently in your triathlon journey?

  • Don't put a limit on your goals and on what you can do.

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

Connect with Keith Rieger

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Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


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Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments below. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy!

Have you already done one, or are you thinking of doing an ultra triathlon at some point?

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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