When Ruth Astle turned pro in the fall of 2019, she didn’t foresee her triathlon career playing out quite the way it has. More than two years on, the 32-year-old also didn’t expect to still be the reigning overall Ironman age-group world champion, a title she’ll at least hold onto until St. George in May.
But despite the pandemic, Astle is making a solid stab at pro life thus far, with her first two Ironman wins at the end of 2021 and a clear path to becoming the latest British long-course star.
It didn’t come out of nowhere. A field hockey player in her youth, Astle was training for the Berlin Marathon when she agreed to be part of a corporate team with Lloyds, the bank where she still works part-time, for the popular London Triathlon.
The multisport seed planted, she joined her local West London club, Ful-on Tri, and qualified for the ITU World Championships in Chicago in 2015, where she finished 16th in the age-group field. A first Ironman experience in Lanzarote in 2017 is remembered for a marathon run that went port-a-potty to port-a-potty, but it was enough to secure her first visit to Hawaii.
A big break then came in 2019, when Astle was selected as one of eight age-group triathletes for the Zwift Academy. With thousands applying, the criteria then included being at least a Zwift Level 12 cyclist and sending a five-minute video explaining why they should be considered.
If that was a good break, a bad one followed, when Astle snapped a collarbone in the build-up to Kona. Undeterred, she finished Kona in 9:20:06—the second fastest time ever recorded by an age-group woman on the Big Island—and a seismic 14 minutes ahead of second place. A lot of credit, she said, goes to the Zwift Academy, which provided equipment, support, and accommodation at Kona, along with mentorship from Zwift pros. Since then, the Zwift cycling version has led winners to pro contracts and international exposure.
“I loved it. It was a brilliant experience,” she said of the project. “We were put up, flown out, had a chef, a bike mechanic, and were driven around for everything. It was unbelievable. There are probably only about five pros who get that kind of treatment out there!”
Under the watchful eye of coach and 2008 Olympian Will Clarke, that overall Kona amateur win also triggered the decision to turn pro (even if the private chef wasn’t going to be as good)—although rather than a clean break from the corporate world of banking and 60-hour weeks in London, she agreed to continue on a part-time basis.
“I weighed up whether I was going to take a sabbatical, and thank God I didn’t! When the pandemic hit it would have been, well, a bit useless.” Astle estimates she lost about $1,350 in her first year as a pro and made around $19,000 profit in 2021.
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“It’s obviously handy getting a salary, given the lack of money in the sport,” she said. “The bank’s been flexible, so it’s 14 hours across the week to fit in with training. I like the balance of something that’s not triathlon-focused. Otherwise, I’d just have too much time. I don’t know what people do who literally just do triathlon. I think my biggest weeks are 30 hours of training. It’s a lot of free time, and I like to be busier. And I’m still sleeping nine hours a night.”
Already confident in her cycling prowess (Astle set bike course records in Ironman Florida in 2020 and in Mallorca in 2021), a marked difference of going pro has been the ability to focus on improving her weakest discipline: the swim. Previously, her working day would start so early that the public pools in London weren’t open yet and swimming had to be crammed in after work. Now she has a comparatively casual wake up at 8 a.m., although the workouts—given the caliber of her training partners—are anything but laid back.
That’s because the other big change in life has been a move north to Leeds, where she trains with a group consisting of some of the U.K.’s brightest triathlon talent, such as Lucy Hall, Beth Potter, and the Brownlee brothers. As of this writing, she is also dating two-time Olympic champion Alistair: “I think when you have someone who understands what you’re doing, it helps, especially on days when you don’t really want to get out of bed, but the other person has to get up to train as well.”
The improvements made in the five-days-a-week, 90-minute swim sessions, plus an extra hour on the weekend, is something the PTO-ranked #30 athlete is most proud of. “I’m swimming with the best swimmers in the sport, and it’s been great. Part of my progress is thanks to coach Coz Tantrum who has helped a lot with technique,” she said, along with a focus on data and metrics. “At the start of 2020, I was going in with the mindset that I’m a terrible swimmer. Now it’s a ‘this could be a good swim’ mindset.”
And no matter what, Astle isn’t afraid to give it a go. Few events expose a swim weakness more than the Super League Arena Games, yet last March at London’s Olympic pool alongside the likes of tri mermaid Lucy Charles-Barclay and World Triathlon superstars, she accepted the challenge.
That attitude combined with the improved swimming and race-best bike splits made for a first-ever Ironman victory in Mallorca in October, and then was backed up a month later by breaking the tape in South Africa.
“I still don’t feel as if I’ve put together a complete race, but I think that’s quite rare in an Ironman. Those wins were a nice confidence booster and I’ve now got to the point where I’ve also been able to get a couple of cash sponsors, which also makes me feel like I’m a pro rather than just someone dabbling around.”
A Day in the Life
“I’ll wake up, have a quick cup of tea and swim at 8 a.m. It’s a very relaxed morning compared to how it used to be. [As an age-grouper, Ruth would often rise at 4.30 a.m. for a trainer ride before work. She points out that she’s always been “100% a morning person.”]
“I’ll swim for 90 minutes with the Leeds squad—I’ve recruited a couple of age-groupers who are more my speed—then come home for breakfast. It’s normally porridge [oatmeal], but has to be made with milk; none of this water rubbish. Sometimes it’s oat milk, but generally full-fat dairy. Then a big dollop of peanut butter and honey. I’d say it’s about a 4:1 porridge to peanut butter ratio.
“Around 10:30/11 a.m., I might have a coffee from my fancy new coffee machine, which I bought as a present to myself. I still can’t do any latte art, though, so it’s generally just a black coffee, sometimes with frothy milk that looks like a splodge. Depending on the day, if I’ve got work stuff, it’ll generally be between 10 a.m. to noon. That’s generally a good time for any meetings. If not, I’ll have an easy run around 11 a.m.
“Lunch is either eggs and avocado on toast, or I’m also getting quite into meal boxes. I was doing Gousto for a while, and have just started trying Mindful Chef. They send a bag of ingredients for one meal and the recipe. There’s less waste, and I think they are priced really reasonably, and make me still feel as if I’m cooking, which I like. They do some Asian stuff, pork with veggies and rice. All quite simple, but I like those flavors.
“I’ll head out on the bike in the afternoon. I might ride with a group, but it depends on timing. If I’ve got a session [set by Will Clarke, Astle’s coach since 2015], then I’ll complete it either on the trainer or by myself, particularly because it’ll often be on the TT bike.
“Dinner will be something simple, some kind of meat and some kind of veg. In the summer there were a lot of barbecues because I got a Big Green Egg. I’ll maybe watch some Netflix and then be in bed by 9.30 p.m. I need to find a new series. I like crime drama, and just watched The Salisbury Poisonings on BBC. Embarrassingly, I got into Selling Sunset, about real estate agents in Hollywood, and watched it all when I was in South Africa. It’s horrendous!”
What Is the Zwift Academy?
Any budding triathletes keen to audition for the Zwift Academy Triathlon team will have to be patient until October, because competition for the 2022 Kona team wrapped up in December last year. The 2022 team was announced in April.
If the protocol follows the same pattern as previous years, you must be an amateur and complete the full Zwift Tri Academy program, with 10 structured workouts from October through December, including the baseline 40K TT on the bike and the 10K run. The top athletes are then selected to be part of the team, with the goal of competing in Kona and all the support Astle received. Previous Zwift Tri Academy team members have hailed from all over the world and have included a number of athletes who stepped up to podiums and pro careers.
From March/April 2022