Chrissie Wellington’s top ten lessons for triathletes
Four-time Ironman world champion tells 220 readers how to become better athletes by using equipment you trust, fuelling properly, visualising the course and more
On 2 September 2006, 29-year-old Chrissie Wellington from Norfolk beat Canada’s Chantell Widney by over seven minutes to claim gold in the 25–29 age-group of the World Olympic Distance Championships in Lausanne.
The win stimulated a series of events that saw her turn pro, take on Brett Sutton as coach and win her first-ever Ironman in Korea before becoming the only debutant to win the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. And all within just a little over 13 months of crossing that Swiss finish line.
Britain’s – some argue the world’s – greatest-ever long-course triathlete went on to win a further three Kona titles, set the current long-course world record (8:18:13 at Challenge Roth, 2011) and remain unbeaten in 13 iron-distance events before her retirement in December 2012.
Here Chrissie’s identified 10 triathlon lessons that’ll help all of us become better athletes…
It’s not all about volume
“It’s a misconception that because you’re doing Ironman, you have to significantly increase the volume and hours you spend training,” says Chrissie. “Yes, you have to train more, but not as much as you’d think, especially if you have an endurance background. The base is already in place. Belinda Granger or Hilary Biscay were high-volume athletes, yes, but that doesn’t need to be the norm.
“When I made the move from Olympic-distance to Ironman in 2007 [pictured above winning Ironman Korea], my focus centred on intensity rather than volume. As my career progressed, the intensity of sessions continued to rise, and one of my strengths was handling high-intensity training and what we call ‘back-up’. Basically it meant recovering quickly to withstand the stress of high-intensity training day in, day out without fatigue.
“The main volume change boiled down to increases in the length of the longer run and longer ride, but I still never rode over five hours and never ran over 2:20hrs. In short, don’t become obsessed by kilometres or time; quality is the key in your sessions.”
Gear for purpose, not for show
“Yes, I was fortunate that as a sponsored athlete I had access to some fantastic equipment, but I never had my power measured, never had my heart rate measured, never had my VO2max measured, never went into the wind-tunnel, and any bike set-up sessions were for my lower back rather than aerodynamics… I simply had equipment that I trusted to do the job.
“I’ll give you an example. I bought my first pair of Brooks racing flats just three days before Ironman Hawaii in 2007. They were the ones that fitted; I really liked them; I stuck with them. Brooks didn’t actually sponsor me for another two years.
“As for the bike, originally I rode a Cervélo before signing to Cannondale. But the two bikes – the P2 and Slice – were similar. They weren’t top-of-the-range. They were functional, they worked for me, and I understood them mechanically, which was important.
“I always rode clinchers. Why? Because there’s little difference between tubulars and clinchers, and I train on clinchers. I know how to change a clincher tyre and that gives me peace of mind and confidence.
“It’s all about having equipment that’s fit for purpose and trusting in it. I’m not a weight-weenie and I didn’t start shaving things off to enjoy every single advantage. I focused my efforts on having a body and mind that was as powerful as it could be. At 140km into a bike, it’s your mind that’s telling you to quit – it doesn’t matter what bike’s beneath you.”
“It’s common sense, but I followed a healthy, well-balanced diet which consisted of around 60% complex carbohydrates: slow-burning stuff like quinoa, wild rice, brown pasta and wholegrains. I also ate – and still do – loads of fruit and vegetables, plenty of nuts and seeds, and good fats and oils.
“Poultry and fish were regulars and once a week I’d eat red meat. I never went in for things like weighing food. All in all it wasn’t rocket science. As for how good a cook I am, I’d say I’m functional. My impatience means I want to eat relatively quickly after preparation begins. I certainly don’t have the patience to bake a pie!”
Mini blocks of perfection
“My training looked similar from January to October. After Kona I’d take six weeks as an off-season, which was vital. December would be a month of less-structured stuff before things were formalised in January. As the season went on, I’d increase the intensity and speed, perhaps reducing rest intervals.
“But I didn’t periodise as others may do. You have to remember that I raced three Ironmans a year and I wanted to peak for all of them, so I was training to three-month blocks rather than January to October. I’d have an April Ironman, July and October. Mini blocks of periodisation is something worth looking at with your coach – or discussing with teammates – as you’ll perform more consistently over key races if you actually plan to peak for all of them.
“My training plan also taught me the importance of rest. When I first hooked up with Brett [Sutton], to me rest was tantamount to weakness. I hated it. I couldn’t rest my mind; I couldn’t rest my body. I had to change that. And that was fundamental to my success.
“I’d encourage every amateur Ironman athlete to have a rest day every seven to 10 days. We as pros don’t do that because we rest every day. We may train six hours a day, but then we’d have 18 hours to sit on our arses. Age-groupers don’t have that luxury, so treat rest with the same respect as your training.”
Condition your performance
“My last coach, Dave Scott, integrated strength and conditioning work into my programme and it helped no end, especially towards the end of a race. Dave knew that my drop-off in the marathon wasn’t due to glycogen deficiency or lack of energy – it was because my glutes, core and hamstrings weren’t strong enough, so my form would disappear. So we worked on those by including exercises like lunges, squats, single-legged squats and hip flexion exercises. Simple bodyweight-bearing stuff really.
“Three times a week, each for about an hour, I’d undertake a strength and conditioning session. That’s not realistic for the amateur athlete, but even doing 2 x 20mins will have an effect. And you can always incorporate the exercises into your everyday life. For instance, when brushing your teeth or making porridge, do it while standing on one leg and squatting. Just take care to do the exercises correctly or your time will be wasted.”
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“The key to becoming a good triathlete is consistency across all three disciplines. I didn’t have to be the best swimmer, biker or runner – I had to be the best Ironman athlete. There are no prizes for the fastest bike split if you’re then walking at 30km. So my aim was to become as consistent as I could across all three disciplines without fatigue.
“The one I found most difficult was the swim. But I didn’t have to be a Jodie Swallow. I simply had to be efficient and come out within shooting distance of the lead girls, and that meant heavy technique and interval work.
“To improve across all three, I did a brick session every Wednesday, which usually began with a three-hour ride. It included a warm-up (30mins), an hour of hill repeats, into a block of time-trial efforts, and then straight out for a 14–17km run. That run always featured variable pace, comprising 10–12km worth of effort. So I might do 500m repeats with a rest interval. That brick session annihilated me, but was incredibly important. It’s also worth noting that I did that session in race flats. To me it made sense to acclimatise to race gear in training.”
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Power of the mind
“For me visualising the course was key, including how to cope if things went wrong. I’d also have personal mantras to inspire me and motivate myself by recalling past victories, watching videos of me racing and tapping into a bank of positive images. Poems helped too, including Rudyard Kipling’s If. I’d also break sessions and races down into manageable sections and, of course, learning to hurt in training was vital so that I could reach those depths come the races.
“I needed all the psychological weapons in my armoury in 2011 [Chrissie crashed a couple weeks before winning Ironman Hawaii and nearly didn’t start]. I read Sir Steve Redgrave’s autobiography beforehand and that gave me a boost because I realised how much he’d gone through to win five Olympic gold medals.”
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Peaking to perfection
“My taper always started eight days out, but I’d still go for a four-hour ride on the Saturday [eight days out]; I’d still do a 90–110min on the Sunday; and on the Wednesday I’d still ride for two hours followed by a 35min run with 5 x 3min efforts. The penultimate day was always a rest day; you don’t want to have a rest day a day before the race because you’ll wake up sluggish. That worked well because, especially in Kona, Friday is when you’d have the most obligations, like the pro briefing and media commitments.
“The day before the race, I’d swim for 2km before swiftly moving onto the bike where I’d ride for an hour. I always treated this as a brick because if I had a mechanical, I’d have time to fix it before racking.
“I’d recommend that. Around 5pm-ish I’d go for a run, which usually came in at 30mins and included strides. Broadly speaking, for the taper I’d reduce volume but retain intensity. So a 12km run would drop to a 2km run, but at the same speed.
“My nutritional needs didn’t change much either. I know some athletes drop the calorie count to match the reduced expenditure during a taper, but I kept it similar to normal, acting a bit like carbo-loading. Mind you, I’m a huge salad fan and that contains plenty of fibre, so I cut that down a couple of days before the race. Instead I’d consume white processed carbs to lessen the risk of GI distress.”
Data vs instincts
“You can race without technology; you can’t race without intuition. That’s not to say technology is bad. But people need to trust their bodies more, recognise the signals and respond to them. Over-emphasis on gadgetry detracts from that. That said, I used a Garmin to hone my swim and run pace. After a while, if you asked me what pace I was running at I wouldn’t have to look at my clock – I knew instinctively what pace I could sustain.
“My finest run came at Challenge Roth in 2011. How did I do it? I’d trained my body to race that quickly – though perhaps for a 2:46 or 2:47hr run rather than the 2:44hr I registered. I actually negative split at Roth and that’s because I knew I could sustain the pace of the first half.”
“My race nutrition strategy rarely changed from that first Ironman victory in Korea, apart from breakfast – that changed to Cream of Rice for my last six wins. It’s finely granulated rice and is a bit like polenta. It’s an American product, but you can buy it in the baby food department of British supermarkets. You simply add hot water, though I topped it up with nut butter [for protein and good fats] – something like tahini or peanut butter – and honey. That’d be followed by a cup of coffee and half a banana, and then I didn’t have anything until I hit the bike apart from sipping some water.
“On the bike I had two bottles of Cytomax with about 400 calories in each. First bottle for the first half, second bottle for the second half, plus a spare bottle in special needs in case I dropped one. I’d also consume a gel at halfway on the bike and another at the 150km mark. And that biking buffet was finished off with a bar of dark chocolate, where I’d have one square per hour. It didn’t melt and tasted great. I’d then have one more gel in T2 and another gel every 25mins on the run. Overall it worked out at around one gramme of carbohydrate for each kilogramme of bodyweight, which came in at 61g of carbs per hour. I know some athletes go for more than that, but that was the limit of what my body could digest.
“You also need to train your body to work in calorie deficit. Strategically I did many fasted sessions, though I’m not promoting them for everyone. You can’t do it all the time because it impedes recovery. But for me, fasted sessions were vital; your body is in glycogen deficit when you race so you need to know how to cope with that. I’m amazed people go out on training rides with sandwiches and flapjacks in their back pockets. You just can’t have that in a race if you’re going at it hard.”
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(Images: Remy Whiting / Delly Carr / Getty Images)
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