How is two-time Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee finding success at both ITU and half-iron racing in the same season?

How is two-time Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee finding success at both ITU and half-iron racing in the same season? 

Most age-group triathletes make drastic changes to their training plans when making the move from the Olympic-distance to half-Ironman. There’s typically the introduction of a long ride on Saturday morning, followed by a long run on Sundays, and maybe even one longer brick session during the week. There’s a massive increase in weekly training hours to get the body prepared for an event that is basically double the distance.

When two-time Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee decided to make the same leap up to the half-Ironman distance this season, he didn’t have to make nearly as many changes to his training program. In fact, he hardly had to make any changes at all. A few years ago he told Shortlist.com that he trains upwards of 35 hours per week. That’s a massive amount of volume and already more than most top Ironman athletes. After so many years of putting in that kind of mileage, he’s developed the endurance needed to race longer without sacrificing the top-end speed that has made him the fastest short-course racer of all-time.

“This is pure speculation, but I don’t think he’s adjusted too much,” says elite triathlon coach Cliff English. “It’s been fairly well known that the foundation for his training has always been a lot of volume, so I believe his transition to 70.3s is fairly straightforward and a quite natural one. It’s similar to Terenzo Bozzone—he was always a high-volume short-course athlete who transitioned very well and very quickly to 70.3 racing.”

There’s also some evidence that he is perhaps better suited to racing longer. Shortly after winning gold at the 2012 London Olympics, he raced a 10K on the track at the Stanford Invitational, clocking 28:32. It’s a ridiculously fast time for a triathlete, but not that fast considering he ran 29:08 for the 10K in the triathlon at the London Games. When you factor in the added speed of running on a track versus the road, that means hammering a 1.5K swim and 40K bike only took about 30 seconds of speed out of his legs. That suggests that, as fast as he is, his greatest natural gift may be that he just doesn’t slow down as much as his competitors as the race goes on—something that’ll suit him very well in long-course racing.

“Speed is still the key at the 70.3 distance,” says former ITU and Ironman world champ Chris McCormack. “It’ll be a while until he taps out of that speed—not until he starts looking at Ironman racing. You’ve seen it with guys like Frodeno when he first moved up, and with Javier Gómez. What they’re already doing in training is very close to what you need to be doing for 70.3, so they’re able to jump back and forth between the two.”

The day after he won his first Kona title in 2015, I asked Jan Frodeno what he thought was the most significant change he made to his training in order to make the transition from Olympic champion to Ironman world champion. He told me the most important thing he and coach Dan Lorang did was to change as little as possible. Like Brownlee, he was already putting in substantial volume. According to Frodeno, introducing more would only leave him vulnerable to injury and sap some of the speed out of his legs that had made him an Olympic champion. Both Frodeno and Lorang said that the two most essential things they had to figure out was getting comfortable on a TT bike and the nutritional puzzle that comes with racing for more than two hours.

“If anything he needs to learn to be more patient on the bike at this distance,” McCormack says. “He doesn’t need to be as aggressive. We saw that at the Challenge Championship in Slovakia a few weeks ago. He sat off the front with guys like [Sebastian] Kienle and [Lionel] Sanders to prove he can ride a bike with them. He doesn’t need to do that. If need be, he can drop a sub-70-minute half-marathon any day of the week.”

Brownlee took the ITU win in his hometown of Leeds. Photo: Janos Schmidt/Triathlon.org

Long story short, it should come as no surprise that Brownlee still has the speed to beat a world-class ITU field at a race like WTS Leeds only a month after having the endurance to beat an equally stellar field at his Ironman 70.3 debut in St. George. Until Brownlee becomes fully committed to winning Kona, he will still be a force to be reckoned with when he jumps in the occasional ITU event. Given the added motivation of trying not to lose to his younger brother, Brownlee will have to be the favorite at every ITU race he lines up for over the next few seasons.

As for his future chances on the Big Island of Hawaii? McCormack is optimistic, but also hopeful that he remains patient.

“I think we’re going to have some time of Brownlee dominating at the 70.3 distance,” he says. “I don’t think there should be any rush to doing Ironman. I think especially with the addition of the team event in Tokyo, he can win a couple of Ironman 70.3 world titles and then go take the team gold in 2020 because the Brits should have that event wrapped up. As long as he’s patient, he’s not going to lose his speed for a while.”