How to Get to Kona
Meredith Kessler, 10-time Ironman champ, shares her prep for triathlon's most iconic race.
What would possess someone to continuously subject her body to a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride followed by a 26.2-mile run is incomprehensible to many. But for Meredith Kessler, one of the world’s most successful triathletes on the Ironman circuit, it’s because of an uncompromising obsession with a sport she fell in love with 16 years ago.
Fresh out of college from Syracuse University in 2000, Kessler used her graduation money to purchase a Quintana Roo triathlon bike and competed in her first full Ironman just two weeks later.
“No one is crazy enough to enter a full Ironman as their first triathlon event—I didn’t know any better. I naively competed in soccer shorts on the bike,” Kessler said. But, “it lured me, and I was hooked after the first one.”
Over the past 16 years, Kessler has competed in more than four dozen full Ironman races worldwide, acquiring 10 titles along the way. As the 38-year-old readies herself for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii on October 8—the 58th long-distance Ironman of her career—she paused to share about the training, recovery and nutrition components necessary to surviving one of the most physically and mentally demanding competitions in the world.
What does a typical day of training entail for you?
Kessler: The life of a triathlete is not overly glamorous on paper, yet to us it’s a real dream. I usually do some form of swimming, biking, running and strength training or a combination of these activities six to seven days a week. A typical day could include waking up at 4:15 a.m. to run 2 to 5 miles. At 5:30 a.m., I do an interval swim of 5 to 8 kilometers. Around 8 a.m., I have an indoor or outdoor cycling session between 2 to 5 hours. In the afternoon, I have an hour of strength training with my coach Kate Ligler. Pre-dinner, I do an aerobic endurance run of 8 to 12 miles.
Do you integrate any gentle activities, such as yoga, as part of your training or for recovery?
Kessler: I’ve had a high hamstring problem for a number of years, which worsened after Ironman New Zealand—I couldn’t race without severely compromising my body. I made the hard choice to put my body in the body shop mid-season and properly recover. Part of this included adding hot Bikram yoga weekly.
What else do you do as part of injury prevention and recovery?
Kessler: Recovery for triathletes is a full-time job. After a heavy training day or race, I massage, use recovery boots and rest. This [also] includes a lot of hydration to push out the lactic acid. My PT performs cup therapy on me once a week in addition to Active Release Therapy.
How do you sustain your energy throughout the day to support your intense training?
Kessler: I consume between 3,000 to 4,500 calories depending on the day, workout routine and training. I start the morning with Greek yogurt, Bungalow Munch granola, raspberries, blueberries, honey and a banana. When lunch rolls around, I fix myself eggs or a turkey sandwich. At night, my husband whips up a dish of brown rice pasta with ground turkey and ZÜPA NOMA yellow pepper habanero. He’s constantly experimenting with ZÜPA NOMA (a ready-to-drink soup made with whole vegetables) by putting different flavors of it over brown rice, in quinoa bowls and as a compliment to pasta and meats.
Fueling around performance is obviously personal preference. What helps keep your energy leveled in training and competition?
Kessler: I use gels during training, and I drink Red Bull during competition to give me that extra mental boost through the marathon. It does contain caffeine and B Vitamins, which is a lot better than the alternative of sugar water. I also put Red Bull in post-workout smoothies. Red Bull often gets a negative connotation, yet a full can of it has no more caffeine than a cup of coffee.
What foods do you always keep on hand?
Kessler: I’ve always had difficulty with the discipline of getting a healthy meal after a training session. On average, I consume ZÜPA NOMA five days a week, about twice a day. I have it on hand in my refrigerator for after my training sessions—I consume a bottle to get a quick, healthy meal. I [also] always have Greek yogurt, Bungalow Munch granola, brown rice pasta and Red Bull.
What’s the role of “cheat foods” in your diet?
Kessler: My husband and I love food and wine. I enjoy a glass of red wine with my dinner. I have also grown to like dark beer like Guinness as well as a new beer company called Sufferfest Beer, which is gluten-free. A couple of pieces of chocolate after dinner helps me unwind.
As someone who has competed in more than four dozen long-distance triathlons, what’s a piece of advice you wish someone would have told you earlier in your athletic career that you think you could have benefited from?
Kessler: Sometimes less is more. It’s great to put the time and effort into your training. However, there’s a tipping point where the body suffers from over activity. As you grow older, you get wiser, and you have to train more efficiently and smarter rather than harder. It’s also really important to remember that it’s more about the journey than the outcome.