Lucy Charles-Barclay shares her Ironman training secrets
Ever wanted to tag along with a top pro triathlete for a day? To find out what really makes them so good at their day job? 220 sure did, so we jumped at the chance to join four-time Kona runner-up Lucy Charles-Barclay on her training camp in Lanzarote. Here’s what we discovered…
Lucy Charles-Barclay laced up her trail shoes and headed out for a wintry 18-mile run through nearby Epping Forest. There’s little unusual about that for a professional triathlete, except just hours earlier, Lucy and her coach and training mate Reece were partying the night away having exchanged nuptials. “That was our honeymoon. That is us,” Lucy acknowledges cheerfully. Come October, when they take a more traditional getaway and explore the islands of the Pacific, they could be celebrating an Ironman World Championship victory, too.
220 has landed at Club La Santa, a haven for triathletes in Lanzarote, to train with Lucy. The weather changes by the hour on this volcanic isle, but the cloud cover rarely lasts, the sun burns through, and it’s a fitting metaphor for her effervescent character. “I’m generally an upbeat person,” she says. “As a swimmer from a young age, I had to find the fun in quite a monotonous sport and not take myself too seriously. That’s always been who I am.”
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It helps when the family is onboard. New husband Reece both coaches Lucy and races professionally. His father’s annex has been transformed into an indoor gym back home in Essex, complete with his ’n’ hers turbo trainers, Wattbikes and treadmills for running – and biking – and even a giant fridge from prime sponsor Red Bull.
Last year, Lucy found time in her schedule to form a formidable relay team with her mum and dad for Ironman 70.3 in Staffordshire. To illustrate the strength of the gene pool, her mum, a recent convert to running, has already cut her 5km Parkrun best to 23mins.
It’s proving a successful formula. Lucy has finished runner-up in the past two (2017 and 2018) Ironman World Championships behind nemesis Daniela Ryf with the contests taking on a now familiar pattern. The Brit, as the foremost swimmer in the sport, builds a buffer and then tries to stave off the Swiss for the rest of the race.
BREAKING NEW BARRIERS
It hasn’t happened yet, but both are still improving, breaking new barriers and building legacies. Ryf set the Kona bike and overall record in 2018; Lucy beat the 19-year-old swim course best. Does she obsess about defeating her foe? “Daniela is my main motivator and I think I’m probably hers,” she admits. “We can take positives that we’re both boosting each other’s performance, but the whole women’s field is also progressing at a massive rate. It’s exciting and it’s getting more coverage for the women’s races.”
Lucy Charles on her Kona performance
It’s easy to overlook that Lucy has been a professional triathlete for just three seasons having switched from open-water swimming. Still just 25 years old, she could also be forgiven for being sucked into an online world showcasing her rivals’ training exploits.
“With social media being so in your face, it can be hard,” she says. “I know I should be having a rest day, yet you see someone post some epic session and think: ‘Maybe I should do that?’ But I’m lucky I have Reece, and we generally stick to the plan, making changes according to how we feel, not what is going on outside of that.”
So far it hasn’t worked out too badly, and wisely this season will see tinkering to the schedule, but no wholesale changes. Lucy will start by attempting to defend her Ironman South Africa title in April, validating her Hawaii spot in the process and clearing the path to race the non-M-dot Challenge Roth in July, a race that draws the biggest crowd in the sport. It will be supplemented by a return to the Challenge Championship race in Slovakia looking for a third straight success. But the Ironman 70.3 Worlds in Nice might be sacrificed in favour of additional Kona prep, depending on how she feels.
What it does mean is that Olympic ambitions for Tokyo 2020 will be shelved. British Triathlon, the governing body, had offered her a spring race to try and stage a late bid for selection, but there remains too much “unfinished business” at Ironman.
“It was a difficult decision,” she admits. “As a swimmer, I was always gunning for the Olympics and I feel the potential could still be there. I wouldn’t rule out 2024, though, in Paris. By then I might have achieved everything I want in Ironman and I still think I’d be young enough, so I don’t want to say it’s dream over.”
With the lure of Ironman still strong, where does she feel the improvement will come from to topple the seemingly indomitable Ryf?
“I hope there’s still natural physical progression,” Lucy says. “And I feel I can improve my bike both aerodynamically and technically. On the run, I’m getting strong enough to run more miles without getting injured. In the early stages, I learnt the hard way of doing too much too soon and became injured. Now I’m more robust.”
As for Lucy’s long-term commitment to the sport? “I’ve always said, I’ll keep going as long as I enjoy it,” she smiles. If that’s the gauge, then don’t expect her to quit any time soon.
She’s the fastest female swimmer in Kona history, so how does Lucy Charles-Barclay ensure she stays at the top of the game? We join her in the pool to find out…
The colours of a spectacular double rainbow shine through to 220’s right. To the left, there’s just a flash of orange – the swimsuit of the world’s best triathlon swimmer completing 200m sets. And to make a lonely Lane 9 of the impressive Club La Santa open-air 50m pool even more intimidating, snapper James Mitchell is clicking away at close quarters. While coach-for-the-day Bella Bayliss, a 12-time Ironman champion and trailblazer for British iron-women everywhere, is calculating whether the number of pull buoys I’ll need to get my body into a functional position will hit double figures.
It’s true that I can just about beat Lucy Charles-Barclay on each rep, except she’s effortlessly covering twice the distance, seemingly with an outboard motor, while I’ve dropped anchor. Bella’s coaching advice is straightforward – spend more time swimming with greater intensity to build strength. Breathe every other stroke. Quicken the stroke rate. And take the pull buoy everywhere. It’s not about aesthetics, but being effective.
The irony of Lucy’s prowess in the water – and one that doesn’t make 220 nor, probably, any of her rivals feel any better – is that she’s actually not the speedster she once was. As an open-water expert attempting to qualify for the
2012 Olympics, she completed 100m efforts in under a minute. Now she’ll settle for a pedestrian 65secs, accepting that it’s part of the balancing act – to focus more on bike and run – that all triathletes need to reconcile to go from gun to tape as fast as possible.
One compromise Charles won’t make is on training partners. While Club La Santa has the sunshine and facilities, the hard work is done with her longstanding squad sessions back home in Essex, where she’ll even cut short her desired 10-12 sleep hours per night to commit to 5:30am starts three times a week
LUCY’S SWIM SET
Aim: Early-season base-building for race distance (either IM or 70.3)
Kit: Pull buoy and paddles
400m steady, throw in a mix of strokes if comfortable
2.2km as: 4 x 50m at race pace,
10 x 200m with 30-60secs rest alternating between free swimming and pull-buoy/paddles
400m as: 4 x 100m decreasing effort
Adapt for beginner
Half the reps to 5 x 200m
Not one to chance riding on UK roads, Lucy relishes her time on two wheels in Lanzarote – the perfect
stand-in location for the Big Island
If it was once a slipping chainring that would concern Charles-Barclay on a long ride over Lanzarote’s rough tarmac and rolling hills, now it’s a glinting wedding ring she has to get used to. “I’ve not taken it off yet, but it’s annoying when I sweat and it spins round,” she says.
However, it’s a minor irritation on an island that has become a second home. Lucy’s first professional Ironman win came here in 2017, replete with a new bike-course record, and it’s on the bike where she really feels it offers performance benefits.
“I don’t bike on the roads in the UK,” she says. “Where I live is too busy, so if I go out, it’ll be on the mountain bike. I also feel I get a massive benefit from training indoors. The only thing that lacks is the bike handling. It took a week to get comfortable when I first came to Lanzarote, but every year that time reduces.”
A break from the dreary British winter offers obvious attraction, but she’ll also be back in August for a pre-Kona training block and while there may not be the humidity of Hawaii, the crosswinds that whip up in a trice and the barren, black lava backdrop is comfortingly familiar to the Big Island.
IMPROVING PEDAL STROKE
Even apparently tiny gains will be amplified over 112 miles, and in her quest to improve a recent breakthrough has come with the purchase of a Wattbike Atom that highlighted inefficiencies in her pedal stroke. Practice is now about pedalling with fluidity rather than stomping down, as she tries to turn the Atom’s display from red to green.
Training in Lanzarote normally covers a far greater distance than our gentle out-and-back from the northern base
of Club La Santa inland to the village of Soo, and it’s where the correct nutrition strategy allows her to complete the session at the desired pace, determine what works (her watch bleeps every 15mins as a reminder to refuel), and be able to recover quickly to go again.
Carbohydrates are the easiest substrate for the body to break down and turn into energy, but caffeine in the form of Red Bull also plays an important role in staying alert in the latter part of a ride where the focus can wane. 220’s concentration could certainly be improved. The island weather extremes take their toll on the road surface and my saddle has been edging south for the past 10km. Maybe I should have been focused enough to bring a multitool to tighten it.
LUCY’S BIKE SET
Aim: Improve muscular endurance for Ironman racing
Location: Indoors/outdoors (preferably with a hill)
Kit: Regular cycling kit, heart rate monitor, sports watch
15mins, easy spinning
20mins as: 5 x [30secs hard effort; 3:30mins recovery spinning]
50mins as: [5 x 5mins in a big gear, i.e. cadence 20rpm lower than normal; effort upper Zone 4/lower Zone 5 for heart rate; 5mins easy spinning between intervals]
10mins, easy spinning
Ever wanted to tag along with a top pro triathlete for a day? To find out what really makes them so good at their day job? 220 sure did, so we jumped at the chance to join two-time Kona runner-up Lucy Charles-Barclay on her training camp in Lanzarote. Here’s what we discovered…
Lucy Charles-Barclay is a few minutes late for lunch and apologises for her tardiness. 220 has just checked in from the flight and she’s just returned from a 32km run – and I’m the one complaining of tight hip flexors. Reece, her husband and coach, got a little carried away and extended the jog to 38km, deciding a marathon was unnecessary in the middle of January.
The soft trails around the Club La Santa resort in Lanzarote offer the perfect, forgiving surface to clock up
the miles and if you’re looking for fast-running triathletes, you’ve come to the right place. Patrick Lange, the reigning Ironman champion is here, along with compatriot, Anne Haug. The Germans ran the fastest men’s and women’s marathons in Kona last year.
It’s not all about plodding through base miles, though. As we return to the airport in two days’ time, Lucy will be completing her favourite track session, aiming for a swift 3:15 per/km, a shade under her 5km pace. And she’s still improving. If Lucy was once a pure swimmer, she’s very much a bona fide triathlete now, honing her leg speed in Epping Forest just outside of London and professing a love for cross-country.
PATIENCE AND CONSISTENCY
Our run session the following day starts with a warm-up lap around the resort, before coach Bella Bayliss puts us through some 30sec-90sec efforts, on an incline and into a headwind. Bella emphasises that with two sessions already under our belt, the sensation of running on tired legs is one to become accustomed to, and that run-to-bike ‘bricks’ should be a cornerstone of any triathlete’s schedule.
Such is the calibre of the opposition now, with America’s Sarah True and Australia’s Mirinda Carfrae joining Ryf and Haug as the main challengers – all of whom can run under 3hrs for the Ironman marathon – Lucy’s rate of improvement is necessary to remain a contender. Patience and the ability to train consistently without becoming injured look likely to provide her biggest gains. As for 220’s interval session, she can probably chalk that up as a light recovery run.
LUCY’S RUN SET
Aim: Building towards top-end speed above race pace to make Ironman pace feel easier
Location: Running track
Kit: Running kit (layers), sports watch, heart rate monitor
10mins plus dynamic stretches
8 x 1km repeats with 3mins rest between intervals. At 5km race pace this is a tough session, so can be done at 10km race pace.
10mins easy jogging followed by static stretches
Strength and conditioning
Without adequate strength, the technique Lucy’s honed in training will count for very little come race day. Cue the all-important gym work…
Too often the strength component of Ironman can be overlooked in favour of pure endurance, but if muscles fatigue and form is lost, then so too will the chance of race victories. Any onlooker to the final stages of an Ironman marathon will see stragglers more suited to a Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks sketch as muscle integrity is compromised, and as coach Bella Bayliss outlines as she stands poolside for the first session of the day: “You need to be able to swim 3,800m in an Ironman. If that’s 3,800 strokes, you need to be able to deliver that effectively.” There’s little point having perfect technique if the strength isn’t there to sustain it.
Both Lucy and Reece started work life as personal trainers and haven’t ruled out a return once their triathlon careers end. “I loved it, but there was only going to be one shot at being a professional triathlete, and I couldn’t go through life wondering ‘what if’,” Lucy says.
For now, that focus on strength and conditioning has instead become a staple part of staying injury-free for the rigours of a season that will see her race multiple iron and half-iron distance events and barely a day go by without exercise. In the off-season she devotes two 1hr sessions every week to building general strength endurance through exercises such as squats, deadlifts and bench presses.
When she’s racing the time is halved to 30mins and will be focused on specific weaknesses, whether it’s eccentrically loading a tight calf or monster walks with a theraband to start the glutes firing.
Conditioning can also be more critical for athletes such as Lucy coming from a non-impact swim background. It’s taken time for her to build the strength to cope with marathon running and the early years were dogged with niggling injuries. As she strives to be world No.1, she knows that she needs to up the run mileage and intensity. Much of the stability work is related to the core (see exercises, left) and from the diaphragm to pelvic floor, obliques to abdominals, there needs to be balance through all planes of movement so one muscle group does not become overworked at the expense of another.
LUCY’S STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING EXERCISES
Aim: Endurance-based strength work to retain core stability throughout the season
Kit: Kettlebell, theraband or rubber band that can be looped around the legs, BOSU balance trainer (optional)
Goblet squats, 3 x 15 with kettlebell
Assume a wider stance, holding kettlebell like a goblet with elbows tucked in, back straight, and lower to 90° in a squat. Progress by repeating exercise on the BOSU without weight. To advance further, squat on one leg only, or reintroduce weight.
Monster walks, 3 x 15 strides each side
With theraband looped around thighs, side-step 15 retaining a semi-squat position throughout. Return in the opposite direction. To progress, hold kettlebell in goblet position.
Traditional plank, hold for 60secs
Progress by holding plank for 90ses and lifting and stretching out alternating limbs, ie. right arm and left leg and vice versa.