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Three-time rowing world champion Lars Wichert has taken a road less traveled to becoming a triathlete, but his impressive sporting resume has him hopeful that his second athletic career can be as successful as his first. The 36-year-old German specialized in four-and eight-man rowing, winning a pair of world titles in 2010 and a trip to the 2016 Olympics, where his boat finished ninth.
Like Australian Cameron Wurf, Wichert is making the move to Ironman late in his sports career, and, like Wurf, he appears to be making a swift transition. He did his very first triathlon last year at Ironman Hamburg, where he finished as the top amateur in 8:12:46, and he was recently announced as a member of the Zwift Academy Tri Team for 2022, which has developed accomplished athletes in the past like now-pro (and fifth place Ironman World Championship finisher) Ruth Astle. Wichert’s goals are certainly as big.
We sat down with Wichert to learn more about his tri aspirations and how his rowing background may play a role in his multisport fitness.
A Q+A with rowing champion and triathlete Lars Wichert
Triathlete: The first and most obvious question is where did the passion for triathlon come from after all these years of rowing?
Wichert: For me it was clear that after my rowing career I would continue doing sport. I am a very active person and I also like the competition. For example, I have done a 100K cross-country ski race with just a few kilometers of training on cross-country skis, just because I like doing things that take a long time. During my rowing career, a good friend did a couple of long-distance tris, and I thought: OK, once I’m done rowing, I’m doing triathlon next.
The passion for triathlon comes from my good fundamental understanding of endurance training and also having two good disciplines already with cycling and running. I love going long and feeling the interaction with nature. For me, it’s like a time to step out of your normal day and feel the air, wind, and be happy. I do it because I love to move.
Triathlete: Hamburg last year was your first triathlon, but how much time have you spent swimming, cycling and running up until then? Did you do all three sports as a youth?
Wichert: I played handball until I was 12 and I started rowing at the age of 10. After some time, my parents told me that I had to switch to rowing because of the collisions. In my free time I played a lot of [soccer] and rode my bike. For Ironman Hamburg, I was part of a study from a triathlon coach, who was examining whether training was more effective for weekend warriors, or those who do it throughout the week. He saw my stats and offered to give me a structured program for Ironman Hamburg. At that point, I decided I wanted it to be like rowing: A structured plan with someone to coach me and make me feel accountable.
From April until Hamburg (in September), I averaged 11 or 12 hours of training a week. In total I did 119 hours of cycling, 60 hours of running, and just 18 hours of swimming. I was really surprised that I managed to reach the one-hour mark for 3.8K of swimming. My goal was to do it in under 1:10.
Triathlete: Rowers were the original endurance athletes to train indoors, and the erg is a huge part of that training. How do you think those years of indoor training have helped your transition to triathlon?
Wichert: As a rower, I learned to ride the erg like clockwork. There are no distractions: you just drive ahead, listen to music, and see the numbers you produce. There is no such thing as Zwift. It is pure passion and the knowledge that it makes you stronger and brings you closer to your goals. Maybe that’s what gets me into training on the smart trainer—you just train with numbers. But the most important thing, no matter how you’re training, is to think positively while you do it. Enjoy it, and let go of the negative thoughts. If that compulsion prevails, you need to reconsider your training.
Triathlete: What’s one thing that elite rowers do really well that elite triathletes do poorly?
Wichert: I think rowers do one thing really well is the high anaerobic boost, if you compare it to a long-distance triathlete. We have a lactate maximum around 17-22 mmol/l. An Ironman athlete doesn’t need that, but it means rowers can dig really deep at the end of a race. Otherwise, I don’t think rowers and triathletes differ that much. They train a lot, especially when nobody sees it, and they only have a few races a year to show something for it.
Triathlete: Have you followed Cam Wurf’s transition from cycling to triathlon? Obviously he was a better pro cyclist than rower, but do you see any similarities in the way you’re attacking Ironman?
Wichert: I’ve been following Wurf, as he’s been a big topic in triathlon because of his recent performances. I think what I bring to the sport, like him, is a lightness that you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously. He shows his strengths and tries to work on his weaknesses.
Athletes who switch from other sports often bring something with them that is difficult to describe. Maybe it’s something like pressure because you’ve done it before in another sport, but it’s different. I would just like to be as good of a professional triathlete as Cam—that would be nice.
Triathlete: Many people think rowing is great cross-training for swimming, but it’ll really help cycling so much more, especially for triathletes who have never gotten on an erg. What advice would you give amateur triathletes who want to try rowing to supplement their training?
Wichert: First and foremost, learn the technique. It can take a while, but if you have the right technique, it’s so much easier to relax on the erg and stay injury free. Then I think it’s always important to be clear about your goal: Is it just basic endurance work, or do I want to do intense intervals? Very often, beginners have too high of a stroke rate, and the heart rate is too low. If that’s the case, increase the power [resistance] and see if you can maintain the same rate.
Triathlete: Are you still rowing?
Wichert: Sometimes I go rowing for a bit, but only when the weather is nice and the water is smooth. I also still race from time to time, but I switched to coastal rowing in the last few years and am a two-time world championship runner-up. I am a bit of a pioneer of the sport in Germany. The boats are wider and the water is rougher. It’s a “Le Mans” start without everyone in their own lane, and rather a buoy course with each boat finding its own way, like sailing. It’s a lot of fun, especially if you can ride the waves.
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