Issue ID: Summer 2012
She gave up her job to pursue Ironman glory, and now she’s moved to Boulder in search of that Kona title. Rachel Joyce tells Andy Blow how she’s improving her run…
It’s hardly a secret that becoming world class in any sport requires a rare level of determination, sacrifice and commitment.
Stories of champion boxers from the slums and distance runners from the developing world grafting their way from poverty to sporting success are so common as to be clichéd.
In contrast, tales of middle-class professionals putting their careers to one side to pursue an uncertain future in a niche endurance sport are less typical. For most people the trappings of a comfortable existence are far too cosy to risk for what is, at best, a slim chance of success. But Rachel Joyce isn’t most people.
As recently as 2006, Joyce was still putting in the long hours required to work at a busy London law firm; switching her business suit for a tri-suit at the weekend to win her F25-29 age-group at Ironman 70.3 events, including the World Championships in Clearwater.
In 2007 she was racing in the pro field while still clocking 30hrs a week in the office. And even though she spent most of summer 2008 injured, she kept chipping away, turning in a 9:37hr at Ironman Florida later that winter for a fifth-place finish. This was the impetus she needed as, soon after, Rachel Joyce, the lawyer, stuck her briefcase into storage to make way for Rachel Joyce, the professional long-distance athlete.
Fast forward to 2012 and it’s clear that Joyce made the right decision. She’s now chalked up a sub-9hr Ironman (Melbourne earlier this year), an M-dot win in Lanzarote, an ITU elite world title (Long Course 2011), victory at Challenge Roth 2012 and, perhaps most impressive of all, a run of sixth-, fifth- and fourth-place finishes in the Lava fields of Kona. Her stated long-term goal is a win on the Big Island, admitting that she feels like “one of the contenders”, if not a favourite, when the gun goes off on 13 October this year.
Rachel is under the tutelage of Matt Dixon, a San Francisco-based British triathlon coach, and since landing stateside the main topic of conversation over the phone has been about how to get used to the altitude in Boulder.
“Planning my training programme is very much a two-way process,” she says. “We discuss a lot, as I really need to understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. Once I understand it fully, it’s easier to give it 100%.”
Moving from age-grouper to pro brought about a whole new set of challenges, not least a new approach to recovery.
“Rachel’s an extremely resilient athlete, so far as dealing with and absorbing training load,” says Matt. “But the goal is to maximise the training load while remaining in a positive state of adaptation. We utilise RestWise as a daily monitoring tool, to ensure that we can stay in front of accumulating fatigue.”
Despite training for long-distance events, when it comes to the run Rachel steers clear of the purely high-mileage approach. “I was something of a rabbit for the others to chase off the bike,” she says, hinting at the fearsome swim/bike performance that often gets her into T2 at the front. “This is changing, though, and I feel like I receive a lot of benefit from running frequently and from the quality of my sessions these days.”
This means Rachel pulls on her Newtons for up to six days per week, with four quality sets and a couple of very light efforts in between. The main sessions are typically broken down as follows: a long run of 90mins-2hrs; a brick run after a long ride; a hill session; and a speedwork session.
The long run, despite not being super-long by Ironman standards, usually contains some quality work.
“It tends to be progressive in pace or finishes with some faster intervals at the end, which helps to challenge me to run more quickly even when I’m tiring.”
The brick run is relatively short (40-50min) but comes off the back of a 3-5hr bike ride, which itself has periods of Ironman pace built into it. “I tend to run progressively faster through the run off the bike,” she adds. Again, this ensures that, even at the end of what could be a 6hr session, the quality of work remains high.
The hill set can be anything from 20sec steep-gradient power-based reps, to longer efforts at just 3-4% on the treadmill. These build strength, power and top-end aerobic conditioning, which all help provide Rachel with headroom when running at Ironman pace and with specific preparation for hilly courses.
The speedwork can be anything from 1km to 1-mile reps on the treadmill or outdoors, at well above Ironman race pace, to improve running mechanics and boost VO2 max.
So far, 2012 has been a great year for Rachel – although she was second in Melbourne, Caroline Steffen had to go close to 8:30hrs to beat her, and a run course record in Abu Dhabi was a first for someone previously thought of as ‘a swim/biker’. Over the summer she’s sharpened her run speed with a few 70.3 events and victory at Challenge Roth then, all being well, heading to Kona to try to become, to the best of our knowledge, the first lawyer to win Hawaii.
1. Don’t underestimate the need for recovery. Rachel’s aware that, with a lot of training, there’s a need for a lot of rest, good nutrition and recovery time to avoid injuries and fatigue.
2. Find a good coach and build a relationship. Rachel’s coach, Matt Dixon, has been working with her for almost three years now and they communicate regularly, so that he’s in a position to advise her on what to do based on up-to-date and honest feedback.
3. Don’t think that you have to put in lots of really long runs to race Ironman. Rachel values frequency and quality of her runs, rather than knocking out many super-long efforts. She feels speed comes with consistency, not big, one-off sessions.
4. Don’t neglect run technique. Rachel incorporates run drills and works on maintaining good form even towards the end of her longer sessions.
5. Don’t be afraid to dream big. It took a huge amount of courage for Rachel to give up a great career for a shot at Ironman success.
RACHEL'S TRAINING WEEK
Monday: Pre-breakfast run. 90min-2hr ride (light effort, no interval). Afternoon: 4-5km swim session focusing on endurance.
Tuesday: 2-2.5hr bike, including hill reps (4/5 x 10mins). Afternoon: 45min very light run. 4km swim (plenty of pull/band work).
Wednesday: Up to 5.5hrs long ride, which includes Ironman race-pace intervals. Afternoon: treadmill or outdoor speed session to work on leg turnover.
Thursday: 5km endurance swim (10 x 400m or 40 x 100m). Afternoon: long run between 90mins-2hrs.
Friday: TRX (gym) work. Afternoon: 90min-2hrs recovery spin session.
Saturday: Run, hill reps. Afternoon: swim speed work in the pool.
Sunday: Long ride with Ironman interval and a short brick run. Afternoon: 3km swim.
Images: Don Karle