The World Ironman Championships in Kona, Hawaii is the biggest stage in world Triathlon, with most athletes racing between 8 to 17 hours.
This competition is one of the most pressured situations that many Ironman athletes will ever encounter. Conditions in Hawaii can be extremely challenging; stifling humidity, brutally high temperatures and the potential for severe crosswinds. Mirinda Carfrae, current world champion, deems the race “brutal.” Kona is the ultimate race in Ironman, the one where sponsors and media really pay attention. Carfrae describes the race as a pressure-cooker “you can easily get yourself burnt by all the hype and excitement surrounding the event. If you get swept up in it, it will run you over without hesitation.” Craig Alexander, 3 times Kona World Champion, says athletes need to be “physically well prepared and mentally tough.” and that it is a “true test of everyone’s physical and mental capabilities.”
How can triathletes succeed with the pressure that this race induces? Turner & Barker (2014) suggest that being adaptable is crucial; athletes can learn how to prepare for big competitions by choosing to face pressure regularly. It is also important that they take a positive approach to a highly pressured situation. Turner & Barker (2014) believe there are 4 principles that can be applied practically:
Research shows that repeated exposure to stressful activities can help people to adapt to stressful situations more easily, thus becoming better prepared for their performances. All Kona Ironman athletes will have qualified in highly competitive Ironman competitions around the world prior to these World Championships. This should stand them in good stead.
Good evidence indicates that being exposed to a moderate amount of stress can help prevent the Ironman athletes from succumbing to the real pressures of Kona. Creating training environments that are intense and highly evaluative can help you adapt to pressure and adversity. Indeed, Brett Sutton, ex coach to Chrissie Wellington, runs specialised pre Kona Training camps in Jeju Island, South Korea. Here they teach a training philosophy of periodization, psychology and physiology and the use of races within these considerations.
When faced with pressured situations, remain in that situation until you feel comfortable and the situation is over. Staying ‘in there’ mimics actual sport performances more closely, in that it recreates what is really required of you in an actual pressure situation. Ironman triathletes need to have found their limits mentally and physically in training and competition.
Successful people have a very strong and powerful support network behind them. This doesn’t just have to be a wife or partner, but friends, colleagues, teammates or support staff. These networks give athletes a strong foundation to use when situations get tough. Susie Cheetham, a first timer at Kona this year, describes her husband as “my Husband/ Coach/ Bike Bitch/ Physio/ Psychologist.”
So how will the 2015 Ironman athletes fare this year in Hawaii? How many of them will thrive under the pressure and how many will crumble? Adrian Moorhouse, Olympic breastroker and founder of Lane4, credits his performances with telling himself that “it was just another race..I’ve done this a thousand times before, so just enjoy it”. It would appear that some of this years Kona athletes are of similar mind. Lucy Gossage, a strong contender for 2015, says “Last year I put too much emphasis on Kona and had a shocker. So this year I’m going to treat it like any other race and hope to go out there and enjoy it without any real expectations.”
Focusing on the smaller goals and not getting overwhelmed by the enormity of what it is that you’re trying to do will certainly help all the athletes waiting for race day in Kona. As Mary-Beth Ellis, another Kona favourite says “the athlete that can simply execute on the big stage despite the pressure, competition and weather is the one who will win.”