Behind the Body: How to train like Ironman champion Sebastian Kienle
When Germany’s Sebastian Kienle crossed the finish line of the 2014 Ironman World Championship, en route to his first title on Hawaii’s vicious Big Island, he may have been a bit shocked by what he originally perceived as ill preparation for one of the most difficult endurance races in the world.
“I was a little bit surprised by my performance to be honest,” Kienle tells SI.com. “I had a very weak result at the 70.3 Worlds five weeks earlier and did not feel very well [prepared] leading up to [Kona]. Just the last two or three hard sessions went very well. And then, I just had a close to perfect day.”
But in preparation for this year’s world championship on Oct. 10, Kienle has taken to a solid training regimen which is sure to help rocket the 5'11" triathlete toward another opportunity at conquering the race’s draining 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.
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“I feel that I’m still gaining shape toward the race,” Kienle explains. “It’s a good feeling to get better and fitter every week. I will be a contender again.”
Before the big race, Kienle gave SI.com a look inside what it takes to be at the apex of what’s arguably the world’s toughest single-day endurance event.
31 years old
Body fat percentage: 6.5%
Training regimen during the year, in preparation for the IWC: “After a three-week break, I started back with training in the end of December. [During] the first three months, the focus is on technique, speed and endurance in swimming. … On the bike, it’s a lot of base and strength work. … In running, I had to be a little bit careful because of an Achilles injury. Also, I'm in the weight room two to three times a week. In total, the volume in this phase is about 30 hours a week.
“At the end of April, I did my first race. The training gets more intense and there’s more variation in the weeks—a hard week is now up to 40 hours training and an easy week is 15 hours. The training is getting more specific, with more intervals and race intensity. Also, there are more brick sessions where you combine a bike with a run session to adapt the muscles.
“In July, I had my first ‘A’ race—Ironman European Championship. After that, I had a break of two weeks of just easy training. Then, we repeated the whole preparation again, just with shorter phases.
“I arrived five weeks prior to the [IWC] to adapt to the climate and give my body some time to get in the time zone.”
On training for a percentage of maximum heart rate: “I did not train with a heart rate monitor in the last 10 years. I like to use a GPS watch and power meter—for short intervals your heart rate reacts too slow. But I think if you’re new to the sport, heart rate is a good thing to set up—your feeling for intensity with data. You learn more about your body, faster.”
On tapering training before the IWC: “The tapering starts about 12 days before the race, after a last hard block of three to four days. I have a day off followed by two to three days of very easy training and another rest day. Then, the intensity gets higher again but the volume remains relatively low—40-50% of the [previous] week. … Then, one or two last hard sessions three to four days before the race to wake up the system, again.”
Nutritional intake before the IWC: “Of course you want to watch your electrolytes and fluid intake, but you’re not a camel—you cannot save water. A lot of people seem to behave like they are camels in Kona.
“My rule [for dieting] is: in everyday training, as diversified as possible; before the race, as simple as possible—not too much fiber [and] nothing you haven’t tried before. … The night before the race I eat pasta with chicken.”
On Kona’s physical demands: “You need to be adapted to the heat. You need to be ready to handle the winds on the bike. This could be hard on the legs but also on the upper body as you try to stay on your aerobars.
“In the run, the pace is not very high compared to a lot of runs you do in training, but your legs are [in] pure pain. The muscular fatigue is very high and you often struggle mentally because of the heat.”
Nutrition/hydration during the IWC: “You need to start drinking and eating right after you get on the bike. It’s very difficult to digest a lot of calories during the run, so I try to get about 75 grams of carbohydrates per hour on the bike—at the beginning, some pieces of PowerBar; later, gels, which I have in a bike bottle. … In total, I drink about six to seven liters on the bike—at the beginning, two bottles of electrolyte drink and water [later on]. … On the run, I have a small handheld bottle on every special need station with a liquid gel taped on it. After the half-marathon, I also drink coke.”
Nuttiest thing his body has been through during an Ironman: “In Ironman Arizona, I had a pretty good day on the bike—I was super fast and super excited, I just forgot to eat and drink enough. After a flat tire, I was very aggressive to catch the lead group, again. Then, I ran out of fuel—I went from 45 km per hour to 20. I stopped at an aid station and was ready to quit. I thought I [was] about to pass out, [and] after a five-minute break I went back on the bike and still finished [in the] top 10. The best engine is nothing without fuel.”
On mental health and the IWC: “Indeed, the best advice is to never think about the distance, not in training, not in racing—just one step after another. If it’s getting really tough, you need to remember that this is exactly the moment you trained for, and if you’re able to stay strong in these moments, that’s what it’s all about in the end. You want to challenge yourself—don’t be afraid of the moment the race will challenge you.”
Guilty pleasure: “I often forget that I’m an athlete when I see the dessert menu.”
Favorite drink to celebrate with: “It depends on the race venue. There is nothing better than a blueberry lavender mojito on a beach in Hawaii. At home, we have a very good Champagne beer. To celebrate a good day of training, I like a glass of good red [wine].”
Active rest and recreation: “All things car-racing, go-kart, and watching others [participate] in sports, especially the NFL, college football and MTB. But the thing which is getting more and more important if you travel a lot—and probably if you’re over 30—is friends and family.”