For help qualifying for the world championships in Kona, please visit our sister article here: https://phazontriathlon.com/2022/10/18/how-to-qualify-for-kona/
For only the second time in its history, the Ironman World Championship is moving out of its traditional home in Kona. The men’s race and women’s race will rotate between Nice and Kona each year, starting with the men racing in Nice in 2023. This decision has resulted in a lot of discussion, but regardless of how you sit on the issue, the fact is that the worlds are moving to Nice, and this will have an effect on how we qualify for the World Championships.
My name is Simon Olney, I’m a British Triathlon High Performing Coach who has experience helping athletes qualify for Kona, and wanted to help share some tips and insights into how to qualify and race in the World Championships. As I write this in spring 2023 there is a large amount of unknown over how exactly the change of venue will affect the qualification process so there will be some assumptions and guesswork on how qualification will be affected, if at all. we’ll probably have a clearer picture for next year when I’ll update this article appropriately.
Qualifying for an Ironman world championship is hard. There are a few things you probably need in place before you can start to think seriously about qualifying in most cases. You don’t need to hit every single one of these as we all have our weaknesses, but if you don’t hit at least a few of these points, you may want to reassess whether this is the right time for you to think about qualifying.
A few Ironman finishes under your belt
These don’t have to be official Ironman events, but it’s extremely rare that someone turns up to their first Ironman and punches their ticket to the worlds. It happens, but if you are an Ironman virgin you should focus instead on enjoying your first race and soaking up the moment. Most athletes who have qualified for Kona in the past have around 3-5 iron distance finishes under their belts, although there are always outliers.
The ability to swim 3800M in around an hour without exhaustion
Some athletes will want to be looking at closer to 55 minutes, while some female and older athletes can afford to be close to 1:05, but for the most part you can’t afford to be swimming much slower than 1:10 in good conditions. To qualify you need to be a well rounded triathlete, you can’t really afford to hand your rivals 10-15 minutes in the first hour.
One of the main differences between Nice and Kona is that in Nice there is a chance that wetsuits could be legal for age group athletes, as the cutoff for wetsuits is 24.6, and the average water temperature for Nice in June is 25. The Worlds will be in September, so it’s not out of the question that the water will be wetsuit legal, but I wouldn’t count on it. As such, if you don’t feel you could swim 3800M in the sea without a wetsuit, you probably need to ask yourself whether this is the right event for you.
A good quality bike
I’m not sure how many people have qualified for the worlds on a road bike with clip on aero bars and stock wheels over the years, but I don’t think it’s many. If you want to race on the Cote d’Azur in September you need to invest some cash on your rig. This isn’t to say that you need to drop £10,000 on the latest superbike, but a £1500 TT bike and around £1000 on wheels are probably a good starting point. You can buy speed in triathlon, especially on the bike, so you may want to put some money aside here if you’re serious about qualifying. Money spent on a bike fit, aero helmet and fast tyres is also money well spent.
You of course need to be able to ride the bike very fast, but it’s generally easier to improve cycling speed than swimming or running speed, so I’m not giving any time/fitness benchmarks here.
The ability to run a good for age marathon time and no injuries
Good for age (or GFA) is a time used by some larger marathons to guarantee entrants a place. For a male under 40 this is usually around the three hour mark to give you a ballpark idea. While you don’t need to hit this time exactly, if you are unable to come close to this time you’ll need a really special swim and bike ride to put yourself in contention.
Athletes don’t generally run GFA times during Ironman marathons, and you don’t even need to run that time in training (I’d actively discourage it in the run-up to a qualifying event), but knowing that kind of time is technically achievable by you is important. For example, if a 30 something athlete run a 3:10 a few years ago, and a 1:20 half marathon last year, they know that a 3 hour marathon is probably in their wheelhouse, which will suffice.
Additionally, you want to make sure you aren’t starting your training with any notable injuries. As we get older we will likely be managing a minor chronic issue of some sort which flares up if we’re not on top of the stretching and strength work, but you can’t afford to start your training without being able to run a half marathon pain free.
At least 10 hours a week to train
Time is the currency we all wish we had more of, and this is definitely true of athletes. I’m not suggesting you need to train 10 hours every single week, and you will want to be training much more on some weeks (closer to 15-16 hours), but if you look at your schedule and can’t see a way of fitting in 10 hours in a standard week due to other commitments, you’d need to be very genetically gifted to qualify.
Qualifying for and racing the worlds is going to be expensive, but unlikely to be as expensive as Kona. For European athletes at least. To start with you need to enter, travel to and compete in your qualification race, will will likely end up being the best part of £1000. The entry fee for Kona was around £1000, which I doubt they’ll lower for Nice, and you need to be able to pay for the entry fee (card only I believe) at the ceremony. You then have the cost of travel to Nice, and inflated accommodation/food prices. If you are based in Europe or the Middle East this will obviously be a lot cheaper than Kona. Even for athletes in the states, especially those on the East Coast, it may end up being a similar price, or maybe even cheaper than Kona. Hawaii being a small island means there are very limited resources, and as a result a lot of price gouging on race week. Either way, you’re going to want at least £3000 or £4000 put aside between your intent to qualify, and crossing the finish line in Nice.
Choosing a Race
One of the most important choices to make in the run up is picking the race you want to qualify at. This needs to be a race that suits your physiology more than your current ability. For example if you are a very lightweight athlete, it doesn’t matter how good you are on hilly courses currently, you’re unlikely be able to put out the raw power on a flat course to be competitive, so you’ll need to learn to get better on the hills if you want to make the most of your physiological advantage.
Here are a number of factors and considerations you may want to look at when choosing/booking a race.
Are you an athlete who thrives in difficult swim conditions? You may want to choose a late season sea swim to exploit this advantage, in the hope that conditions are sufficiently challenging to give you an advantage over your rivals. Are you a weaker swimmer? In that case a lake swim outside of high summer (to reduce the chance of a non wetsuit swim) is probably a safer bet for you.
Additionally, if you are a stronger swimmer you’ll want to do your research and see if the swim at an event you’re considering has a history of being shortened or even cancelled. I can think of a couple of races which to my knowledge have always had the swim modified in some way, which would be giving away your advantage. Equally, if you swim like a brick, this kind of race might be higher up your list.
The bike course is the biggest variable at any Ironman. A very slow bike course, such as Nice, can add up to an hour relative to a fast course. This is primarily due to elevation, but the road surface, technicality and weather conditions also play a large part.
Rather than picking a bike course which is fast and will get you onto the run faster, focus instead on a course which will allow you to put in the most time on your rivals. If you excel at short punchy climbs, the longer you’re on the bike, the bigger the buffer you can start the run with. Equally, if you used to prop up a rugby scrum in years gone by, you’re unlikely to excel on the steep hills of Wales, so would need to look at a flatter course, regardless of how easy Tenby is to get to or connections you have with the area.
The run really doesn’t change too much between events, but if you are a pocket rocket, a hilly run course could help you make the most of your advantage.
Choosing the right location of your race is pivotal if you want to qualify for Nice. Beyond the course itself you need to think of logistics. How familiar you will be with the local cuisine and the competition you can expect. If you want to qualify in Europe you’ll need to be able to ride a bike well over challenging terrain. If you want to qualify in the US the quality of swimming will generally be higher, and you’ll want to get very used to sitting in aero for hours at a time on their long, straight roads. You will also want to make sure you’re familiar with the local language and culture to avoid finding yourself in a sticky situation, whether this is none of your payment methods being accepted by locals or being dragged down the local police station for indecency after going for a sea swim. Enough can go wrong over the course of an Ironman weekend without additional stress.
What’s the average temperature like? Chance of rain? Humidity? Elevation? Wind? While there is never any guarantee that conditions on the day will hit the average for that time of year, there are normally some givens. Such as Vichy being very hot, Weymouth being wet, Wales being windy and Bahrain being non wetsuit. While wind will slow everyone down, if you’re very aero it may give you an advantage. If you are riding on the coast where gusts are more common however, the crosswinds may run the risk of blowing you off the bike if you are a lighter athlete with deep wheels. There are dozens of factor to consider, which I can’t cover in detail here.
The climate in Nice is a lot more hospitable than Kona, but the real challenge is unlikely to be the worlds themselves, it’s going to be qualifying. So focus on the conditions you know you excel in, rather than trying to replicate the conditions of Nice.
Time of Year
The Kona qualification cycle generally runs until late summer each year. Any races before this point (which changes from year to year) will help you qualify for this year’s event, while anyone who qualifies after this date will qualify for the next year’s event. If you target an early season event such as Lanzarote you may find the competition much stiffer as everyone wants to qualify for Kona nice and early so they can take a break, then focus on getting fit for Kona itself. The closer you race to Kona itself, the easier you’ll generally find qualification. I can’t see the process being any different for Nice, however as the race is in September, rather than October, I imagine the cutoff for qualification will be around mid July.
Traditionally, the weeks preceding and following the worlds have always been particularly fertile hunting ground, as the fastest athletes are focused on tapering or recovering. As Nice is earlier in the year than Kona, there will still be a good month or two (depending on the climate) of racing left where you can try to capitalise on those who raced in Nice winding their season down.
If you want to qualify for the worlds, you need to forget about the roll down. Yes slots may traditionally roll down into the top 10 at your target event, but you can’t afford to rely on this if everyone ahead of you decides they want their slot. In the past couple of years the Kona slots have actually rolled down pretty deep, as many either couldn’t afford to go, or felt they had ‘done’ the race and wanted to move onto other things. While there has been an outpouring of anguish from many at the decision to move the worlds away from Kona, the fact we have a new world championship course could entice more athletes into attempting to qualify, especially in Europe where it is a lot more accessible and cheaper.
It’s impossible to know how many slots will be made available for each age group when you sign up as it depends on a number of factors, however races with a larger field will have more slots, and races designated as Women for Tri events will have more slots for female competitors. There are also slots available for executive challenge events, and a few other routes, however for the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume you’re looking at the traditional route.
As a general rule, the most popular age groups will have up to 5 slots, while the least popular age groups may only have one. Try to find out how many slots were available the year before, and look at the times the athletes finishing in those positions. If there were 5 slots available in your age group last year, look at the times the athlete who finished in 5th put in.
While overall time is more important than the individual splits, you also need to be realistic. If nobody in the top 5 swam anything over 58 minutes, and nobody in the top 10 swam anything over an hour, you need to get your swim to this level. They may have had a current on the day or the course may have been a bit short due to wandering swim buoys, but you probably can’t afford to swim a 1:15 and expect to be in with a chance. Many athletes tell themselves “It’s just the swim, it doesn’t really matter”, but can you imagine coming out of the water and standing at the swim exit for 15 minutes watching your rivals run past you? It would probably be the longest 15 minutes of your life.
To find your estimated bike time, I recommend heading over to bestbikesplit.com where you can create an account, put in some details on your bike, upload a GPX of the course you’re targeting, input your target power, and see what the model comes out with. You can play around with the sliders to see how much you would need to improve your drag coefficient or target power to hit the times required to qualify.
The saying in professional triathlon is “bike for show, run for dough”. It doesn’t matter how fast you can ride your bike if you can’t put in a solid marathon. As mentioned above, you don’t need to run a good for age time on the day, but you need to be able to run the vast majority of the course at a solid pace. The heat, elevation and wind will affect run times, so do a bit of research on the weather conditions of last year’s race before you get too confident. The winner of your age group may have run slower than your Ironman marathon PB last year, but if it was 40 degrees on the run course, that doesn’t mean you’d necessarily have been able to beat them.
At this point you should be able to put together what your ideal day might like. You may be looking at a 1 hour swim, 5:40 bike and 3:05 run. This gives you a total of 9:45. The winner of your age group last year completed the course in 9:42 and 5th place finished in 9:52. Game on. You don’t need to be able to run these times now, you should have at least nine months between these calculations and race day, but these numbers should at least feel within your reach. If they don’t, have a look at other events, do the same calculations, and see what they come out with.
The slots may well roll down, but by setting ourselves these high targets we are helping ourselves in two ways. Firstly, we may well not hit our target fitness. We may end up with covid a month out, have time off of running with a niggle or not have access to our bike for a fortnight during a warranty claim. Secondly, we may end up with a puncture on race day, another cyclist may crash into us, or you may miss a vital aid station. By setting ourselves targets based on the best case scenario from previous years times, we’re giving ourselves a buffer.
I’m not going to go into detail about training here, as it’s far too wide a subject to condense into a few paragraphs, however there are a few mistakes I recommend you avoid.
Firstly, Ironman is about building an aerobic engine. If you raced last year and did well, this doesn’t mean you should jump straight in with loads of big tempo rides and mile repeats to get faster for worlds qualification. There is absolutely a time and place for these sessions, but putting in lots of Z1/2 work will make you faster on its own without generating too much fatigue.
On the subject of starting too fast too soon, be mindful of how soon you start your training proper. If you are nine months out and start putting in 15 hour weeks in a fit of enthusiasm, your chances of maintaining that for the next nine months is… limited. Build into your volume sensibly, I recommend only dropping the hammer with 6-7 months to go in most cases. Until then strength work and easier sessions are your friend.
Focus on getting your nutrition as dialled in as you can. The athlete’s gut is a fickle beast and can malfunction on us with very little warning so there’s only so well you can safeguard yourself, but you can’t afford to just grab the nutrition on course and hope for the best. Work with a nutritionist or coach to help create a plan, and practice it in training.
Above all, stay consistent with your training. It sounds easy, but consistency is the hardest part. Make sure those in your support circle are on board, as you’re going to need them.
This is one of the few situations in triathlon where you will be directly racing those around you. Once the start list is finalised you may want to do some research on your competitors. Stick their names into google to see what comes up, or search the results list from previous events to see if their names come up. This will take a bit of time, but if you can identify those you will likely be racing against, this can be a big help.
Once you have their names and numbers, find their bikes in T1 so you can see what they look like. If you can find out what the athlete themselves look like, all the better. While I’m not suggesting you necessarily react to what they’re doing out on the bike course (they could be surging like an idiot, and may not even be looking to go to Nice), you can get an idea of where you are in the race, and more importantly get a look at them in their race suit ahead of the marathon. If you spot that athlete ahead of you in the last 5K of the run you know you’re racing them, and this could be the incentive to put in that extra surge to chase them down. Of course, unless your race or age group was a mass start the athlete up the road from you may technically be behind you, which leads me nicely onto my next point.
The best thing an athlete looking to qualify for the worlds can have is a dedicated spectator with access to the Ironman app. They can use this to keep track of the race within your age group and let you know where you are, which is especially important coming out of the swim when you’ll have no idea of who’s where in relation to you. This is less useful on the bike where you’ll likely be riding to a power target and with limited chances to see your spectator, but on the marathon it can be a huge help. If they can share with you the fact you’re in 3rd place, currently the fastest in your age group on course and the leader is only ten minutes ahead of you, you know to keep doing what you’re doing without pushing any harder and risking blowing up. Equally if you’re slowly dropping down the order on the run, you may want to know this in case you decide it’s better to pull the plug to save your legs, and try again in a couple of months.
Something else you familiarise yourself with is the competition rules. One athlete at Ironman UK qualified for Kona, but was disqualified after the race simply for handing his wetsuit to his wife on his way into T1. The draft busters are also more vigilant at the sharper end of the race, so make sure you familiarise yourself with the letter of the rules.
I cannot emphasis this enough. If you want to go to Nice, you need to be at the ceremony the next day. I saw a story on social media of an athlete who qualified by default (no roll down needed) but his partner went into labour the next morning which meant he couldn’t attend. Ironman refused him a place, even when he provided the birth certificate as evidence.
If your name is read out, you need to decide there and then whether you want to go or not. If you take your slot you will be required to make a payment for your entry fee there and then to secure your slot. You can then focus on eating your bodyweight in whatever you can get your hands on, and putting your feet up for a well earned rest.
There are a number of unknowns going into 2023 of what exactly qualification is going to look like. It may be less competitive than normal, or it may be more competitive. Nice will appeal more to stronger cyclists due to the mountainous nature of the bike course, so you may want to take this into consideration when choosing your qualification race and planning your training. While the race will not hold the same mythical appeal that Kona does, the fact that the race is more accessible and the course very challenging will attract lots of athletes, especially those who were never going to excel in Kona.
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