For swimming workouts, lots of above threshold intervals are de rigueur for ITU athletes who need flat-out speed to make it to the first turn buoy either ahead of or with the main pack.
“One of the things that’s overlooked by age groupers is getting out fast,” Shoemaker said. “If you can get out fast in the swim, if you’re one of the top-10 guys around the first buoy, you’re not in that big melee of people coming around, and you’re not expending as much energy because you’ve got clean water. So those people tend to get further ahead and end up coming out of the water feeling not as beat up, feeling a little fresher. I think that’s one of the biggest things that is overlooked—that 200-meter speed to get to the first buoy.”
One key workout many ITU athletes do to test their ability to swim flat out, then continue at a high pace, is an all-out 200-meter free, followed by a minute rest and then an 800-meter free time trial.
“Once positioned,” Bennett said, “the rest of the swim is about holding your position, getting right behind the swimmer in front and getting the best draft possible.”
To get her athletes used to these rough open-water swims—swims that produce carnage similar to what is felt in big Ironman and non-drafting races—former ITU world champion and coach Siri Lindley often forces her athletes to swim distance sets five to a lane, side by side.
“You’ve got to be aggressive,” said Lindley, who coached Susan Williams to a bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics. “With 75 men or women, it gets incredibly aggressive. Just going up and down the pool in your own lane isn’t going to prepare you for what you’re up against in those races.”
With only seconds separating the first five places in most ITU races, Lindley and other top coaches also try to instill mental toughness and aggression in their athletes by regularly putting them in the hurt locker in training.
“You’ve got to experience it in training, because feeling it for the first time in a race is going to freak you out,” Lindley said. “But if you’ve felt this feeling before and you know you’re not going to drop dead, then you know it’s just, ‘This is what it feels like when you’re pushing yourself to the limit.’ Some people panic when they’re hurting that much. So it’s also finding a way to stay calm in your pain, if that makes sense.”
Developing the mental fortitude to push while tolerating the extreme pain of lactate pooling in their muscles is key for ITU athletes who need to train and race at the edge of their aerobic and anaerobic limits.
“The goal is when they cross that finish line, there’s nothing left in the tank, and that’s pretty much why we see those guys collapse at the finish line in the ITU races,” Trolle said. “I mean most of them look worse than the guys finishing Ironman when they get across the line. Any athlete that crosses the finish line and says, ‘Wow I feel great,’ probably didn’t do enough speed. If you cross the finish line and there’s nothing left, you’ve probably got it about right.”
To train for this type of exhaustion, ITU pros such as Shoemaker like to jump into short, extremely painful running and cycling races.
“When I race Carlsbad [the Carlsbad 5000, a 5K race], my goal is to have 14 minutes of pain,” he said. “And in some of the cycling races I jump into it’s the same thing.”
These races allow him to “just to focus on that suffering and speed that you can’t really do in training.”
But there’s more to a successful ITU athlete than mental toughness—there’s also conditioning.
“In terms of how the ITU pros race, the main thing to take away is that it’s indeed a race versus others, as compared to pacing out an effort over the course, and in order to achieve that level requires a tremendous level of conditioning,” Filliol said.
To reach that level of fitness—fitness that also can be put to good use in non-drafting and long-course races—ITU athletes and coaches alike admit that there are no real secrets. It’s just a lot of hard work with the right amount of recovery.
Gomez, for example, builds his engine with intervals such as 6 x 1500 meters at 10K race pace on the track, with two minutes rest in between each interval—a workout that is extremely tough but isn’t anything mysterious or groundbreaking.
“We’re always curious. We always want to know what the other guys are doing. But when we’re training in the same location, we end up realizing we’re all doing the same sort of stuff,” Noble said. “There’s no magic session that some guys do that someone else doesn’t. It comes down to an intelligent coach who knows when to back an athlete off. It comes down to knowing yourself, how many years you’ve been able to put it together without being injured.”
Filliol, who from 2009 to 2011 was the head coach for British Triathlon, where he worked with the Brownlee brothers and ITU superstars Helen Jenkins and Tim Don, agrees: “The essentials to being successful that anyone can take away are believing in oneself, doing the work and backing it up daily, and making good decisions about what is really important along the process. It’s that simple.”