Last September, spectators witnessed one of the small miracles that make triathlon such an inspirational sport: Sebastian Kienle won his second Ironman 70.3 World Championship title in record time on the challenging Las Vegas course. The miracle, in my opinion, was not that he won or set the record. The miracle was that he won despite battling a ruptured ligament, a month-long bacterial infection and knee inflammation during the five months leading into the race, which left him with a preparation and sense of confidence far below his normal standards. Kienle somehow overcame the odds and triumphed. And despite only running once every three days in the five weeks between Las Vegas and Kona, he also fought his way onto the podium at the Ironman World Championship last October with sheer heart and will.
The rules of training to achieve your peak will tell you that performances such as Kienle’s should not be possible. Those rules say peak performance requires relentless commitment over many months and endless hours of training. If you look at any training book or ask any coach, they will tell you that consistency is the No. 1 rule of peak fitness, and that a high peak requires a big base. How then is it possible to come back stronger than ever in a season that has offered more than a fair share of health issues, setbacks and injuries eroding the base of consistent miles you typically rely on? Is it the body responding to a welcome break? Is it a reinvigorated hunger to win? Or is it a sense of urgency to perform?
Kienle’s stellar comeback after his forced rest was something I experienced in my pro career. In fact, many other high-profile athletes have demonstrated in recent years how forced rest can lead to an all-time best performance. In 2012, Leanda Cave and Pete Jacobs came back from injuries that sidelined them in the first half of their seasons to win Ironman Hawaii. Cave even won the 70.3 world title the month before, becoming the first female athlete to win both titles in the same year. These are useful lessons for every pro triathlete to heed. But as an age grouper, can forced rest help you achieve your own peak performance? And if so, how do you apply it wisely to make a difference in your “A” race this year? Let’s look more deeply into this issue with a few other examples.
Crowie’s Peak Year
To me, the most spectacular example of the positive influence of forced rest came in 2011. During the winter of that year, Craig “Crowie” Alexander prepared for Ironman Australia. Two weeks before the race, he was diagnosed with a respiratory infection that had him coughing constantly for three months. He took three weeks completely off from training, and then eased back into it, one session a day for a week, then two for another week, before trying to resume close to a normal load. A subsequent injury occurred six weeks after the initial diagnosis when he cracked a rib from the incessant and constant coughing. He raced the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in pain and got his broken-rib diagnosis the following week. In late June, off a very limited training schedule, he validated his qualification slot for Kona at Ironman Coeur d’Alene. Despite the limited and disrupted build-up, he managed to break the course record. He then took two weeks off before starting another six-week course of antibiotics to remove the respiratory infection. It was not until the end of July before he could start his preparations for Las Vegas and Kona. Six weeks later, he won his second Ironman 70.3 world title, and in October he had the race of his life, taking the Kona crown in a record that stands today—8:03:56.
I experienced a similar performance boost after injury in 2004, when I tore a ligament in my pelvis at the end of January but still managed to win the ITU Long Distance World Championships in early July. The pelvic injury forced me to rest for almost two months, and it was spring before I could resume training. Despite the many months of rehab, my body responded to the training like never before. Over the following three months I could literally feel the progress day by day.
At the world champs that July, I was well prepared on the swim and bike and hit T2 with a seven-minute lead. On the run I felt the fatigue early on from lack of preparation. By the first lap of four, the chasers had cut my lead in half. When I got the split, I just started sprinting to the next light pole up the road, and I willed my legs to go faster. I picked myself up every few hundred meters, faster and faster. I was hungrier than ever, fighting odds that were not on my side. By the halfway mark, my lead was down to 2:15. By the last 7K lap, Jonas Colting brought it down to a minute, and with 3K to go he cut it to 45 seconds. One kilometer from the finish both my calves cramped up. I tried all the tricks in the book, but nothing worked. If I wanted the world title there was only one thing to do—run the last kilometer with calves in ripping pain. I did and made it to the tape first with my first world title, just 20 seconds before the fiercely chasing Swede.