Jonny and Ali Brownlee talk Rio: pressure and preparation
After a season searching for form, the Brownlees’ heroics in Leeds and Stockholm propelled the duo back into the public imagination ahead of Rio. Tim Heming catches up with GB's favourite tri brothers to talk pressure and preparation
For British triathlon, the men’s race at London 2012 was almost perfect. Almost, but not quite. For when Jonathan Brownlee joined his older brother Alistair for photographs atop the Olympic podium, it was a bronze medal hung around his neck, and to their right, in a familiar red tracksuit, stood the tanned, handsome figure of Javier Gomez.
If Gomez was a Spanish thorn between the white roses of Yorkshire in Hyde Park, he’s since become a thorn in their side. A year on, Gomez would out-sprint Jonny down the same blue carpet in Hyde Park to win the world title by a second. In 2014, with the spoils again on the line in the season finale in Canada, Gomez tracked the younger Brownlee’s every move on the bike and retained his crown.
It wasn’t until Leeds this June that all three would meet again. Out of T1, Jonny failed to slip his feet into his bike shoes first time and, with Gomez for company, lay chase to the trio up front that included Alistair. As the Spaniard caught his breath, Jonny bolted, secured a gap, Alistair laid off the pace, helped his brother bridge up, and, in the briefest of moments, the race was won and lost. By such fine margins medals are decided and with the triumvirate’s evolving narrative making it halcyon days for the sport, perhaps the best is yet to come.
ROLL ON RIO DE JANERIO
If the temperate conditions and vociferous home support in London played to the strengths of the brothers from Bramhope, then the heat and humidity of Copacabana in Rio is more suited to the astute Spaniard who, despite compatriot Mario Mola’s three World Triathlon Series wins in 2016, is still seen by the Brownlees as the biggest challenger.
“Ninety-nine times out of 100 Gomez is going to be there because, unless it’s exceptional circumstances like Leeds, you’re not going to get rid of him,” Alistair says. “If you come on to the run with Mola, he’s a very big threat, but there’s a good chance the race in Rio will split, so I don’t quite see him in the same boat as Gomez.”
Jonny reflects: “Once you recover from the swim, it’s hard to drop people. After messing up T1 in Leeds, I didn’t panic and thought tactically, and maybe I can do it again in Rio on the hill.”
Similar to Leeds, Rio’s hill in question starts almost as soon as you’re on the bike, rises to 66m altitude with enough venom to force triathletes out of the saddle, before dropping sharply and kicking up again. It must be tackled eight times and could be the decisive factor as Alistair strives to become the first triathlete to retain an Olympic title in the sport’s fifth Games.
Other parallels between Brazil and Yorkshire may be hard to find, but the Ali-Jonny one-two in Leeds was still an important marker to put down as it’d been over a year since a Brownlee had won a top-tier race (when Alistair topped the podium in London last May). “It’s not anywhere near a straight comparison to Rio, but it was a bonus to be fit and racing well,” says Alistair.
CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGERS
It’s not just the course and conditions that have changed since London; this time there are core bona fide contenders. Mola, who ran 28:59mins in last year’s Grand Final in Chicago, is a clear and present danger, but so too is the third Spaniard Fernando Alarza, South Africa’s Richard Murray and France’s Vincent Luis. All are World Series winners in the past 18 months.
The key will be who can time their fitness to peak on 18 August without overcooking it because, as history shows, it’s a fine line between battle-hardened and brittle. Jonny suffered a first major injury setback last summer with a stress fracture of the femur. In October, Alistair underwent an operation for the troublesome left ankle that’s plagued him for years. Gomez missed the start of this season with a leg injury. Murray broke a collarbone in a bike crash on Gold Coast. And Luis? He’s not been seen in 2016 at all.
“Alistair hadn’t run pain-free since the middle of 2012,” says British Triathlon’s Emma Deakin, whose physio-athlete relationship with Brownlee dates back to 2009. “We’d decided before the Rio Test Event that we needed to do something as he’d gone from running with pain 50% of the time to just about 100% of the time… and Alistair has a massive pain threshold.
“At some point he’d ruptured the anterior talofibular ligament in his ankle – common with fell runners – then, at the beginning of 2015, he completely tore his peroneus longus tendon (also in the ankle), so was going to need surgery because the two main structures stabilising the outside of the ankle were both gone.”
Surgeon Adam Budgen performed a reconstruction of the lateral ligament, washout of the posterior compartment of the ankle and the removal of damaged tissue from one of Alistair’s calf muscles. “Then it was into a cast and a steady rehab programme,” Deakin says.
Yet life is never smooth for Alistair. At his first race back on the Gold Coast, he slipped in transition, took the skin off his foot and jogged in for 36th. “That race was a catalogue of errors,” he says. “I felt terrible, raced badly and cut my foot, which subsequently got infected. It forced me to come home, recover and start my training again. If there’s been a day when I wasn’t sure, I haven’t pushed it, which has been a change, and maybe Leeds was an eye-opener that without the hard training I could still go out and perform.”
“Jonny and Al take full responsibility for their performances,” says Malcolm Brown, the coaching mastermind behind the Brownlees’ success. “If they win, they say: ‘I did the training,’ and if they lose they say: ‘I made a mistake’. They don’t look for excuses. That’s a surprisingly rare quality in athletes.”
NOT JUST A JOB
For Jonny, historically so robust, the past year has been even more of a learning experience. When he took victory on the Gold Coast in April 2015, he was in the shape of his life but it proved too much, too soon. “I learned that to keep thrashing myself week in, week out, wasn’t the best thing,” he says. “Gold Coast was the best race I’ve ever done, but the cost of gaining that fitness was too much. I should’ve paid attention to the warning signs. Because I was so fit I could run a few seconds quicker every kilometre, but the faster you run the more impact there is.”
After a bike puncture that effectively ended his chances in the WTS sprint race in London
in May 2015, Jonny felt tightness around his hamstring ahead of the annual altitude training trip to Switzerland. “It didn’t go away,” he says. “I flew out late to St Moritz, had a scan, and was handed a pair of crutches. I’d planned to go on a five-week training camp and came home after four days and moved back to my parents’ house. It was horrible missing training because it’s not just a job but a passion.”
A stress fracture of the femur was diagnosed just as the Olympic qualifying races became
a focus. First up was Rio, and it was a very different scenario from the Test Event in 2011 that saw Alistair dominate and Jonny out-sprint Gomez for third. This time, Gomez cruised to victory, Alistair struggled with a sore ankle and the heat to finish 10th, and Jonny didn’t even make the trip. A reminder that the creature comforts of home are long gone.
“It’s very different,” Jonny says. “I raced in London three times before the Olympics, stayed in that hotel twice before, caught that train from Leeds and a taxi across town probably 60 times. But I’ve never even been to South America.”
FACING THE HEAT
The course profile and training routes of the holding camp in Sao Paulo have been studied and, although further reconnaissance will be restricted to walking the course the day before the race, the coaches have pointed out hills in Yorkshire of a similar grade. Yet it’s not so much the terrain but conditions that present the bigger potential challenge. Both have stumbled jelly-legged down finish chutes with heat exhaustion, most notably Alistair in Hyde Park in 2010 and Jonny at Gold Coast this year. In contrast, the Iberians seem impervious.
“We’re doing quite a lot of heat preparation stuff,” says Alistair. “It was unusually warm for the Test Event but it’s the Olympics so we have to prepare for every eventuality.” Jonny continues the theme: “If you’re fit in the heat, it doesn’t hurt you as much. At the altitude training camp in St Moritz, we’ll be doing heat chamber work and we fly to Brazil two weeks before.”
“There won’t be much increase in run volume now,” Brown states. “Perhaps 5%, and the first week at altitude the sessions tend not to be as intense because of the adaptation required. We’re conscious of not asking too much of Al, but we’re comfortable he can do speedwork now and it won’t have any negative effects.”
Brown says the Brownlees tend to measure time, not distance, in their training and will be running up to 8hrs per week on a mix of terrain. “It’s hard to find evidence on whether it’s better to run on tarmac or grass,” he says. “So we go by coach and athlete experience. Ours is that if they run on surfaces that are forgiving and varied over a training year it creates good all-round runners who can cope with almost anything.”
British Triathlon made the automatic qualification criteria of podiums in the Rio Test Event and Chicago so stringent that the Brownlees were the only realistic male candidates and, when injury struck, they were picked at the end of 2015 anyway, with the third spot designated to a pilot athlete. Leeds-local Gordon Benson, 22, received the nod. A winner at the inaugural European Games in Azerbaijan last year, Benson will reprise the role undertaken by Stuart Hayes for London 2012 and it’s a decision that sits well with the Brownlees. “Gordon’s a great character we’ve known for a long time,” Alistair says. “We learnt the importance of preparing and standing together on the start line as a team last time.”
Benson will provide a jovial, calming presence in St Moritz and Sao Paulo, but although it’s his core focus, it’s no given he’ll swim fast enough off the Copacabana to make the front pack out of T1. In reality, it’s the not-so-secret weapon of another training partner, Richard Varga, who’s the main ally to split the race up. Not seeing the Slovakian emerge first from the swim is as rare as hen’s teeth and he provides the perfect foil for the Brownlees’ desire to keep the tempo high at all times. “He’s very important,” Alistair admits. “There’s no one else who can pull the race apart on the swim like he can and I know he’s going to work hard on the first kilometres of his bike in the next couple of months.”
Perhaps more imperative than anything else, Alistair and Jonny have one another; a bond that’s strengthened since Jonny moved into his own home. “We needed more space because we’d more bikes and more shoes,” says Jonny. “It also allows me to concentrate on what I need to do because I’m different from Alistair – I’m organised. But we still do most of our training together and, if anything, it’s brought us closer together because we don’t fall out over the crappy stuff.”
One final factor that will not be lacking is belief. Gomez may have claimed five world titles, but on the biggest of one-off occasions – the Grand Finals in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2014, the Commonwealth Games in 2014, and of course the London Olympics – it’s Alistair who has won out, and often when far from 100% fit.Yet does it concern him that no defending champion has ever retained the crown? “I don’t think it makes a difference. I started London as a massive home favourite and I don’t think anything is quite going to compete with that.”
Continuing the positive vibe emanating from the Brownlee camp is Brown, who can even see improvements from that almost perfect London 2012 performance. “I think Alistair can be a better triathlete,” Brown adds. “Physically fit in every regard and tactically even wiser – he’s always been very good on that score. Jonny too, and if I was competing against them, I wouldn’t expect them to be anything less.”
BROWNLESS WARM-UP EXERCISES
British Triathlon physio Emma Deakin provides five exercises that comprise the brothers’ regular Tuesday morning drill session
Glute activation work
Before you run, you want the right muscles working in the right way, so we always start with this: a) Either drop to all fours then lift a heel to the ceiling, or b) Single-leg bridges.
Duration: 4mins. Each side 30secs continuous alternating a to b.
This is a stability- based drill either with eyes closed or turning head right to left a few times to take away the visual stimulus.
Duration: 2 x 20m slow walkthroughs.
Long-walk lunging with thoracic rotation
Lunge and turn to the right and left (or with arms stretched out above the head in a streamlined position). Many age-groupers are fixed and tight in the upper body when they come off the bike and struggle to run. This exercise uses control muscles around the pelvis and back to help.
2 x 20m.
Step into a high knee position and straighten the leg to lengthen hamstring. Keep the standing leg as tall as possible as the temptation is to drop and flex the spine. Tuck hands behind head to make sure core muscles are engaged.
2 x 20m.
A dynamic and plyometric drill. Quicker tempo. 1, 2, 3, change, 1, 2, 3 hold. Use normal running arms and focus on reactivity off the ground.
BROWNLEE RUN SESSIONS
Three Brownlee run sets from Malcolm Brown, the director of tri at Leeds’ High Performance Centre
3 x 1km, 3 x 800m, 3 x 400m, with 90secs recovery.
2 x 10mins (3min recovery), 4 x 5mins (2min recovery) at lactate threshold pace.
8 laps of a 400m track striding straight and jogging bends focussing on technique, coordination and balance. Running down the white line, not in the lane.