Chrissie Wellington is one of the UK’s most successful athletes. She won the Ironman World Championship in 2007, 2008 and 2009. In July the 33-year-old shattered the world record for an Ironman-distance race, winning Challenge Roth in Germany in a time of 8:19:13, almost 13 minutes faster than the time set the previous year in the same event by… Chrissie Wellington.
We spoke to Chrissie to pose the questions you submitted earlier this year. These were her replies.
Q. What is your routine during the season, and what are the differences between your base training and your race training?
Little Ninja, London
A. No one day is exactly the same, but I believe that triathlon is a 24/7 job. I devote my life to it. Exercise, resting, sleeping and eating are all part of training. It is not just about when you are in the pool, on the bike or running. If you forget to focus on rest and recovery then you will never fulfil your true potential.
For me, it is crucial to have consistency in my training. That means I don’t ramp up the training just because of the World Championships. I work hard for 11 months of the year, only varying the programme slightly as big races approach. But the structure of the programme won’t change too much in the months and weeks leading into the big events. In terms of the World Championships, I believe the hard work is done by late August. September is about fine-tuning; eating right, incorporating the necessary rest and recovery, and doing the quality training that I know will make me as fast and as strong as I can possibly be on race day.
I balance the physical training – between five and six sessions of each discipline a week with more hours devoted to riding my Cannondale Slice. So, for example, of the five or six run sessions, I do one long run of around 32K (around 2:15), with 8x1K efforts, and a longer tempo run to finish off; then I do two interval sessions – one with 800-1600m (faster than race-pace reps) with shortish recovery and the second interval session is hill repeats. I do a brick (bike/run session) comprising a three-hour bike straight into a hard 10K tempo run, and one (maybe two) steadier, 45-50-min run sessions. Some I do in my Brooks Defyance trainers and others in my Brooks T6 racing flats – which are as light as a feather. I also do three strength-training sessions a week to really focus on my structural and biomechanical weaknesses.
And, of course, getting the body in shape is only half the battle – all the physical strength in the world won’t help you if your mind is not prepared. This is part of training, the part that people don’t put in their log books, the part that all the monitors, gizmos and gadgets in the world can’t help you with. You need determination, drive, perseverance, focus and, most importantly, a passion for the sport. Oh, and masochistic tendencies and a desire to suffer!
Q. What do you think about when it starts to hurt and how much does it hurt?
Katherine O’Hara, Melbourne
A. Racing is like life – you experience highs and lows, ups and downs and how you deal with these determines the level of success that you will have. That perfect day is so rare, so you have to learn to cope with pain, discomfort and other issues, such as a flat tyre.
In the few years I have been an athlete I have developed a few techniques to help me cope with the expected, and unexpected, hurdles. The first thing to point out is that 30K into the marathon is a tad late to be developing these strategies. The work must be done in training. The second thing to point out is the importance of the mind/body connection. It sounds simple but so easy to forget. If you let your head drop, your heart drops with it. Keep your head and your body is capable of amazing feats.
These are some of the ‘train your brain’ strategies I use for motivation:
- Have a mantra and/or a special song to repeat over and over again.
- Keep a bank of positive mental images. This can be of family and friends, of previous races, of beautiful scenery, of big plates of greasy chips. Anything that will make you smile, and lift your spirits – and hence your energy levels.
- Practise visualisation beforehand – in training, when travelling, while in bed, during work meetings. This can be the simple act of closing your eyes, relaxing your mind and then going through each stage of the race one step at a time – imagining yourself performing at your peak, but also successfully overcoming potential problems.
- Break the race up into smaller, more manageable segments. I always think of the marathon as 4x10K with a little bit more. You might even think only about getting to the next aid station, or lamppost or porta potty and from there set yourself another landmark goal. Stay in the moment and don’t think too far ahead.
- Training is about learning to hurt, pushing your physical limits and overcoming them, so that when you
race you know you have successfully endured pain and discomfort.
- Some people thrive on the support from their family and friends, others perceive it as added pressure. Work out what feels right for you and, if necessary, invite friends, family, pets to come and cheer you on, make banners, wear team T-shirts and generally behave in ways that would get them arrested under normal circumstances.
- Last, but most certainly not least, consider racing for a cause that is bigger than you. For me, it is to establish a platform to spread important messages and be a patron for charitable causes. These force me to put the race in perspective and rise to greater heights.
Q. On long-distance races, how do you pace yourself? Do you stick to a predetermined pace or do you have a strategy that depends on what the competition is doing and how you are feeling?
John Corrigan, Crewe
A. This is part of training. I train my body to race a certain predetermined pace that I can sustain for the duration of the event. It is entrenched and ingrained, and that’s why I don’t rely on technology to tell me how fast/slow I should be going – I know deep inside what race pace feels like. Of course it varies according to weather and terrain, but regardless of what the competition is doing I try to stick to my plan and natural pace.
Q. Do you ever tire of being a full-time athlete? It seems like a monastic sort of existence so what do you do for fun?
Luke Bennett, Stockport
A. Like any job you have good and bad days, times where you suffer from a lack of motivation or when you really wish you could roll over and hide under the duvet and count sheep. But ultimately I love what I do. You have to. It is so mentally and physically demanding that the positives have to outweigh the very few negatives. I love the lifestyle I lead, and whenever I become tired (mentally or physically) I remind myself of my varied short- and long-terms goals and all the reasons I have to be so incredibly cheerful.
As for fun, triathlon is all glitz and glamour, rock ‘n’ roll, five-star hotels, manservants and dogs in Prada bags… Seriously, as I said in a previous answer, I believe that what I do is a 24/7 job. I devote everything to being the best athlete I can be. That also means knowing when to relax and have fun – but within limits – like my 9pm bedtime. So there are no all-night parties or spontaneous holidays to far-flung places. I do go out for meals with my boyfriend, Tom, and our friends, to the cinema, bowling or pitch and putt if we are really trying to live life on the edge. But post race,and in the November ‘off-season’, I love to do things I don’t normally do much of – late nights, gigs, theatre, holidays without a bike box, mountain biking, hiking, kayaking, anything that takes me outdoors and means I am spending quality time with the people I care about most.
Q. How fast is your flat marathon time and how do you run so fast off the bike? Do you think you can go faster than the 2:48 you ran at Roth in July?
Cath Pye, London
A. I have only ever done one stand-alone marathon, when I first started running (the London Marathon in 2002) – I did 3.08. The 2.48 I ran at Roth is my marathon personal best. I don’t have any plans to do a stand-alone 42K this year, but in the future I will definitely look to be at the start line of a major city marathon – and in that marathon I would hope me and my Brooks racers will go faster than 2.48.
And how do I run so fast off the bike? Well that’s easy. I train myself to run that fast. Pure and simple. Speed work, tempo runs, hill repeats, long runs with hard efforts – it’s not rocket science. But if you want to race fast you need to be prepared to train hard and train smart. And, of course, being able to run fast is determined as much by the swim and (especially) bike training I do as by the run sessions. If you want to run fast you also need to look at how you ride the bike. Plus, of course, there is strength work. Thirty kilometres into the marathon is a bit late to realise you could have done with a few gut-strengthening exercises to enable you to hold your form. I am a slave to the single-leg squat.
Q. How important is diet and the balance of carbs/protein/fat for optimum performance? What is your typical diet when you are training? Are there any foods you swear by? What do you eat during the Kona race?
Catherine Philp, Exeter
A. I love to eat – this is the most important part of training my body. My stomach is a bottomless pit and I am renowned for having one of the biggest appetites among the female pros; this stretches to hoovering up everyone else’s leftovers – when others are full, I always seem to have room for more.
A good daily diet is not rocket science and I think common sense tells us what is good for us. A healthy, balanced diet, with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, good fats (with some saturated ones thrown in too) and I also eat some type of meat once a day, with red meat once a week. For snacks I have a lot of fruit, nuts and seeds, Muscle Milk recovery drink and chocolate.
I haven’t actually given up on any foods. Nothing is ‘naughty’, as such – it is just eaten in moderation. A few pieces of chocolate a day definitely don’t do me any harm, and as for pizza – well, I can always squeeze in one of those.
In the two days before an Ironman I stick to plain, simple food to maximise my energy reserves and limit any possibility of GI distress during the race. I have a bowl of porridge with tahini and honey for breakfast. Lunch is a couple of sandwiches or bagels (white bread), cheese or sliced chicken and olive oil. And dinner is tuna pasta with tomato-based sauce. I keep hydrated with Cytomax energy drink throughout the day, but don’t overhydrate.
The morning of the race I have cream of rice for breakfast and nothing until I am on my Cannondale. On the bike I have two bottles of Cytomax (400 calories in each), two gels and a small chocolate bar. On the run I have one gel every 25 minutes washed down with some water. I try to get one gram of carbs per kilogramme of body weight per hour. Immediately after the race I crave chips, a kebab, pizza or burgers, and tend to indulge in more than one.
Q. You’ve never lost an Ironman. Do you ever think about what it would feel like to lose a race? Who do you see as your greatest competition?
Emma Rand, by email
A. It’s true, I haven’t lost an Ironman (yet), but I have lost races so I do know how it feels not to cross the line first. But I would ask you – what is winning and what is losing? If you have given it everything and crossed the line second (like Mirinda Carfrae at Kona last year) to me, that is not ‘losing’.
So if I have prepared as best I can, and given everything I have in training and the race, then I cannot ask for more. If I cross the line second that doesn’t mean I have ‘lost’. It means I have come second. It is important to stay grounded and keep an objective perspective on what is success and what is failure. I may not have won all the different races I have done over the years, but I have taken lessons from each and every one: I have grown stronger from the experience; I have had the opportunity to visit new places; hung medals around the necks of finishers; promoted the various charities I support; and lived to fight another day. So I know what it feels like not to win, but I would never call it a ‘loss’.
As for my competition, the great thing is that the women’s field is getting deeper and deeper, especially as the shorter course athletes make the step up to Ironman-distance racing. This is great for the sport. Julie Dibens and Mirinda Carfrae are two of the most talented all-round triathletes in the world at the moment. I have an enormous amount of respect for them. Catriona Morrison is also one of the world’s most phenomenally talented athletes, as is another fellow Brit, Rachel Joyce. Then there is Jo Lawn, Caroline Steffen, Tereza Macel, Belinda Granger, Sam McGlone and so many more.
Q. What’s your favourite piece of kit?
Liz Tomlinson, Manchester
A. A copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If and my three different TYR race tankinis, from my Ironman World Championship victories.