Maybe ITU/Olympic racing is a different sport—but train like an ITU pro and you’ll become a better long-course racer.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
This year, like every other leading up to the Summer Olympic Games, the triathlon spotlight will train upon the top ITU athletes in the world, who are battling for the right to represent their countries in the Olympic Triathlon, which will take place Aug. 4 and 7 in London’s Hyde Park.
While many of us are familiar with this style of racing, having watched countless videos of ITU competitors performing lightning fast transitions and hurling themselves across the finish line, the fact remains the training and racing tactics of a draft-legal race are far removed from anything we’ve personally experienced as age groupers.
“It’s definitely different,” said 2008 U.S. Olympian Jarrod Shoemaker. “I would even go as far as to say that it’s a different sport. There are different energy demands across the race compared to a non-draft race. You have to train totally differently for a non-draft and a draft-legal race.”
But if there is a lesson for age-group triathletes who want a leg up on their competition, it’s that many aspects of this take-no-prisoners style of ITU racing and training are worth emulating. Not only is this discipline the pinnacle of speed, but it’s been the driving force in making the pro field faster and more competitive in every distance of triathlon.
“When you’re doing Olympic-distance racing, having to hurt like you’ve never hurt before for two hours, that really helps the threshold that you can hold at Ironman pace,” said 2010 Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae, who believes that incorporating elements of ITU-style training into her program helped her to win her world title. “And generally the best Ironman athletes are the athletes who have come from Olympic and 70.3 distances and who have that top-end speed and bring it into Ironman racing.”
So what can we learn from the premier ITU athletes and coaches about their training methods and racing tactics to make us faster age groupers? We only need to look to two-time Ironman world champion Chris McCormack to find out, as last year he became the only pro long-course athlete in history to switch to short-course, which he did as part of his bid to qualify for his country’s Olympic team. At 38 years of age, competing for an Olympic berth against athletes half his age hasn’t been easy. His best placing at a 2011 World Triathlon Series race, which is the pinnacle of ITU racing, was 26th. And while he knows that as a strong cyclist, the draft-legal ITU races of today don’t give him the same advantage as the non-draft ITU races he competed in back in the 1990s (he won the 1997 ITU World Championship), he nevertheless loves the challenge of having to regain his swimming and running speed and learning how to train for a totally different kind of triathlon.
“When you are in your late 30s, finding speed is not as simple as going to the track and running, or adding a few more swim sessions to improve your swim speed,” McCormack said. “It is about being more delicate and specific with your workloads. Injury is what will ultimately end the entire thing, so you have to be careful.”
To avoid injury, McCormack is doing a lower volume of training but is more specific about what he wants to get out of his workouts. This training, in turn, has helped him develop a kind of speed and fitness that could prove invaluable to him once he returns to long-course.
“My body shape is different now,” McCormack said. “I am much lighter, and I have developed a much higher anaerobic power position than I had previously. Endurance for me will not be an issue. If I add that now to a rebuilt engine that is a lot more high octane, I think my Ironman racing could be very, very dangerous upon return.”
[Editor’s note: Since this article was published, McCormack was left off the Australian Olympic team. He’s now switched his focus back to racing at the Ironman World Championship this October.]
Draft-legal racing in triathlon began in the mid-1990s and became the standard for the ITU in the years before triathlon’s debut as an Olympic sport at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. The switch was made to make the race more exciting for spectators and to prevent an Olympic gold medal from ever being decided by a drafting violation. (That the ITU has implemented time penalties for other violations is a whole other topic of conversation.) The change meant that super cyclists with weak swims and runs could no longer hope to ride away from the field, and it also meant that the sport slowly evolved into one where the winners had no weaknesses. Indeed, to win a men’s World Triathlon Series race today—especially in the era of Great Britain’s Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee and Spain’s Javier Gomez, who dominate the circuit—you need to be able to swim with the front pack, ride well enough to stay with a peloton prone to dangerous attacks by fierce runners (Gomez and the Brownlees) and run a sub-30-minute 10K off the bike.
But getting into that first swim pack is no easy feat. Two-time ITU world champion Javier Gomez, a compact, muscular athlete best known for running away from his competition, swims 15:42 for 1500 meters, and yet even he generally doesn’t come out of the water first. And while the bike portion of draft-legal races may seem inconsequential to spectators, given the large number of riders who stay together, Gomez and other ITU athletes say that’s hardly the case.
“You need to be a good cyclist to perform well consistently in ITU,” Gomez said, adding that the only way to run under 30 minutes off the bike is to be a strong cyclist, so you don’t pay for the constant maximum-power efforts necessary to close gaps and stay in the peloton. “Some people might think differently. But watching the races from the inside, I’m pretty sure about it.”
As the ITU has evolved, athletes have attempted to minimize any weaknesses in their swim, bike and run—something we all know we should do as age-group athletes but rarely seem to find the time or will to.
“In the past, most of us came from other sports,” said Gomez, who started out as a swimmer. “But now there are pure triathletes from the beginning, so there are less weak points and the best athletes of the new generation are fast in all three sports.”
In many European countries, in fact, fast swimmers who show promise at an early age are being trained specifically for triathlon by well-funded sports federations before they can develop the broad shoulders and upper bodies typical of swimmers.
“They’re picking up swimmers when they’ve developed skills and turning them into swim, bike and run specialists,” said Gavin Noble, one of Ireland’s top ITU athletes. “That makes a big difference, because when you have guys that are lighter, but faster swimmers, it just corresponds to an overall faster time.”
Training these younger athletes to develop the motor skills required to practice triathlon as a single sport rather than three different sports also gives them a huge advantage when it comes to transitions and other technical aspects of the race.
“If you go to a European junior champs, it’s scary to see how fast those guys can do transitions,” said Noble. “The speed at which a 15-year-old is able to transition from swim to bike now is unreal.”
In fact, 10- or 15-second transitions no longer cut it in the ITU because the top athletes are out of their wetsuits in T1 in six seconds and through T2 in four seconds, said Justin Trolle, a New Zealand ITU coach based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Trolle also says the extreme competition within the ITU has created a rapid evolution of triathlon training and racing techniques that have essentially weeded out the less efficient through natural selection.