How to race Ironman World Championships by Chrissie Wellington

Qualified for Kona or hope to race there one day? Who's better to give you tips for racing on the Big Island than four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington?

Chrissie Wellington after winning in Kona


Triathlon swims don’t get much better than at the Ironman World Championships. The usually calm water in Kailua Bay, the sunrise over Mt. Hualalai, helicopters overhead, underwater cameras in the coral and fish filled waters below and the enthusiastic spectators lining the pier and beyond: it’s iconic. Confidence building pre-race swims are allowed and advisable, to get a feel for the conditions and identify suitable sighting landmarks.


It’s a deep water start, with the male pros going first at 6.25, followed by the female pros at 6.30. The age group men start at 6.55am and the women at 7.10. Seed yourself on the outside or back of the main pack if you are a slower, weaker swimmer. It’s a one lap, rectangular course, swum clockwise, with a large sailboat marking the furthest point. With water temps a balmy 79 degrees, it’s a non-wetsuit affair. Remember that compression attire isn’t permitted in non-wetsuit swims. Be careful not to get stuck in a swim pack – or on the feet of a swimmer – moving at a faster pace than you can sustain. As you near the swim exit it’s OK to kick that little bit harder to get yourself ready for a run to your bike and the next discipline, but don’t increase your pace significantly as this will waste valuable energy for little gain.


The 112mile cycle starts with a quick circuit in Kailua-Kona. Putting the bike in an easier gear beforehand will prevent overstraining or frantic, uncontrollable spinning in the first few hundred meters. Give yourself time to adjust to being on the bike, and start conservatively and slowly build the pace. You’ll head up Palani Road and onto the long, straight Queen Ka’ahumanu (Queen K) Highway: the main road paralleling the Kona coast, and which cuts through the endless black lava fields.

Don’t let ego or competitiveness get the better of you. Race your race and not your competitors – they might come zooming past at 45km/hr, only to be staggering or DNFing 3km into the run. The turnaround, and special needs station, is in Hawi. There can be strong trade winds that can get up to 60mph, especially on more exposed sections of the course, and disc wheels are banned for that very reason. Remain relaxed and try not to fight the winds, and keep on top of your nutrition and hydration.

The terrain is rolling, with 1772m of elevation gain over the 112miles. Aim to minimise huge variations in effort, and hence energy sapping heart-rate spikes; for example not working overly hard on the climbs, only to completely take your foot off the gas on the downhills. Get out of the saddle if you need to, to give more power, relieve your back and utilise different muscles. There is very little shade and rising temperatures  – and winds  – can make life difficult, especially for the unacclimatised. Increase your cadence as you enter town and prepare to dismount.


After exiting T2, runners wind through town and do an out and back along Ali’i Drive, where the majority of spectators congregate and chalked names and slogans colour the road. Soak up the atmosphere at this point, but try to control the pace. My perception always seems to be a little skewed at the start of the run, largely because I would have been cycling at much faster speeds. Although my legs feel a bit wooden I often run faster than I intend to  – and think I am  – in the first few kilometres.

Ali’i Drive parallels the coast, and with a little more shade and a sea breeze can be cooler than the second half of the run. Once back in town athletes go up Palani Road to the Queen K, heading north on an out and back to the Natural Energy Laboratory Hawaii Authority (NELHA), aka the Energy Lab – where the special needs aid station is located. The Queen K is very exposed, and unless you get some cloud cover or are running after dusk it can be incredibly hot and humid, with heat radiating off the tarmac. Ironman have banned spectators from most of the Queen K and in the Energy Lab, so it can get a little lonely with only the aid stations, other competitors and the lava field for company.

Focus on your rhythm and cadence, opting for shorter, faster strides if you can and lean slightly forward. Aside from Palani Road there are no significant hills, but the road is rolling, with the uphill out of the Energy Lab being particularly energy sapping. Like two-time Ironman world champion and Olympic Gold medallist, Jan Frodeno, you may wish to adopt a run/walk strategy. The final mile or so takes athletes down Palani Road, and after a quick loop in town the hallowed finish line, and Mike Reilly’s voice, awaits.


Training is the time for experimenting, learning and refinement, especially during bricks and longer sessions (particularly those with longer race pace efforts). This includes practising with the pre-race nutrition, as well as during the event. Select foods and drinks that: are easy to chew, swallow and digest, give you the energy you need: the key being to consume the least amount possible, but without ‘hitting the wall’, contain sufficient electrolytes to replace those lost in sweat and are palatable.

Monitor your intake, performance and response during and after your training sessions. Use lower priority races as testers, but bear in mind requirements may vary depending on the course, race distance and conditions. Remain hydrated, but don’t over-hydrate as this can delete the body’s sodium levels in your blood leading to hyponatremia, which can be incredibly dangerous.

Hyponatremia: causes and symptoms of low sodium levels

Know where aid stations are located and what will be available, but aim for self-sufficiency as far as possible. Don’t forget the time-lag between ingestion and impact. If you do feel stomach discomfort, reduce the intensity, sit up if you are in the aero position on the bike, and let your gut settle. If you also find yourself ‘hitting the wall’ or ‘bonking’, prioritise getting some fuel – but don’t take on more than you are able to digest per hour – stay calm and positive, reduce your pace (stop or walk if you have to) and the fuel should begin take affect after about 20 minutes.

How to stay hydrated in Kona

Heat acclimatisation

Temperatures on race day range from 82 to 95° Fahrenheit, with the humidity hovering around 90%. The best way to acclimatise is to train in locations characterised by similar weather conditions. Maybe spend a few weeks holidaying – preferably a swim, bike, run focused vacation – in hot places. Bear in mind, though, that it takes about 10-14 days to almost fully acclimatise and the benefits start to dissipate after a week or so of returning to cooler climes.

Another option is to simulate the conditions at home – through training on a treadmill or turbo in a warm room, maybe even next to a radiator or heater and/or by overdressing.  Whatever method you chose, take things slowly for the first three to five days, being especially cautious with intensity. Additionally, employ thermoregulation strategies to help keep cool; such as throwing water over your head, wearing a visor or hat, carrying ice in your hands or under a hat/down your top/in your shorts and wearing light colours and/or technical cooling and wicking fabrics.

Mirinda Carfrae on coping with the heat in long-distance triathlons

Beat the heat when going long

How to prepare for racing in hot weather

Training sessions


I love doing the following 2km main set, which essentially comprises 40 x 50m hard efforts, with steadier swims (around 12 on the Borg Scale) as recovery. You can alter the send-off times, recovery intervals or numbers of reps to reflect your ability.

500m warm-up; 40 x 50m main set as: 16 x 50m all off 45secs with every 4th 50m hard (5secs rest after the steady swim, 10secs after the hard 50m), 12 x 50m all off 50secs with every 3rd 50m hard (8-10secs rest after the steady swim, 15secs after the hard 50m), 8 x 50m all off 55secs with every 2nd 50m hard (15secs rest after the steady swim, 20secs after the hard 50m), 4 x 50m off 60secs. All hard (25secs rest after each); 300m cool-down


I really like this pyramid turbo workout, which takes approximately 75 minutes.

10-15min warm-up; 4 x 1min at 60rpm with 60sec rest interval (RI); 3 x 2mins at 70rpm with 60sec RI; 2 x 3mins at 75rpm with 60sec RI; 5mins at 80rpm with 2min RI; 1 x 10mins at race pace with 2mins RI; 5mins at 80rpm with

60sec RI; 2 x 3mins at 75rpm with 60sec RI; 3 x 2mins at 70rpm with 60sec RI; 4 x 1min at 60rpm with 60sec RI; 10min cool-down.


I used to really enjoy, in a masochistic way, this session of Dave Scott’s. It combines flat and hill running and I used to do it most Friday mornings in Boulder.

15min warm-up slowly building the pace and finishing at the bottom of a 5-6% hill; 8 x [2mins hard effort on flat terrain (1min out, 1min back to the bottom of the hill), 4min hard climb and a recovery jog downhill]; 10min cool-down jog.

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Chrissie Wellington’s new book, To the Finish Line: A World Champion Triathlete’s Guide to your Perfect Race, in conjunction with 220 Triathlon magazine, is on sale now, priced £18.99


Found this useful? Then try:

How to qualify for Kona as an age-grouper

How to qualify for Ironman World Championships as a professional triathlete

Jan Frodeno’s key Ironman training sessions and advice