At the start of the 2020 triathlon season, Matt McElroy was gearing up for what could have been his very first Olympic berth. After all, fresh off a dazzling 2019 campaign—when he became the first American in a decade to land on the podium in a World Triathlon Series (WTS) competition—McElroy was in an excellent position as a top U.S. prospect for Tokyo.
That plan was derailed, of course, by the COVID-19 pandemic and the postponement of the Olympics until 2021. Instead of traveling the world racing and working on his International Triathlon Union (ITU) ranking, McElroy, 28, found himself somewhat stuck, without a roadmap on what to do or where to go.
“Every day, motivation would change,” McElroy said of the early days of quarantine. “Some days I felt like I could train 12 hours straight and I was fired up. Others days, I would sleep in until 10 a.m. and start my first workout at 1 p.m. And I wasn’t even training that much because my coach wanted to make sure our immune systems were strong just in case something happened.”
Though frustrating, the forced break eventually allowed McElroy to enjoy some out-of-the-box training. He ran long and biked long just because he could (even logging a solo half-marathon in 1:09 at 5,500-feet elevation). He explored trails and roads around his new home in Boulder, which he shares with his fiancée Lindsay. Without access to any pools, he spent time on his neighbor’s Vasa trainer. All while keeping his focus trained on the big picture, that is, priming himself for peak fitness for whenever racing returns.
While the Olympic quest has been put on hold, McElroy remains confident in his ability to qualify for the Tokyo team. It would be the fulfillment of a dream initially sparked five years ago when he first dipped his toes into the sport of triathlon after a successful stint running for Northern Arizona University, where he racked up several conference titles on the track. Back then, he was part of a Clermont, Florida-based training group that included 2016 U.S. Olympian Manny Huerta, who eventually became a roommate and mentor to McElroy. Watching Huerta qualify and train for the Rio Games revealed not only the glamorous side of being an Olympian, but the challenges that come along with the journey as well.
“Manny told me exactly what to expect both emotionally and physically,” McElroy said of the Olympic journey. “Any time I got ahead of myself about my potential, Manny would keep me in check. Like in 2015, I probably thought I was ready for a top 10 at a World Cup. But Manny would call me out and remind me I needed to get faster at swimming if I wanted a chance. It really made me respect the sport.”
Since then, the Huntington Beach, Californian native has improved his swim (growing up a competitive surfer, he only started swimming seriously after college) and has put an emphasis on strength work, too. Erin Carson, a strength and conditioning coach in Boulder, Colorado, said McElory displays a level of dedication that’s unique, even among the other elite athletes she works with.
“Matt is the first to arrive and the last to leave the gym,” Carson said. Not only that, but “he is just a wonderful person to be around. I’ve seen him after 48 hours of travel, after great races and after challenging races and his core personality is one of kindness, confidence and positivity.”
While the future race schedules and travel plans still hang in the balance, McElroy remains as motivated as ever to continue his climb in the sport of triathlon.
“My short term and long term goals never changed, which are to continue to get better everyday and stay committed to the process,” he said. “But I do best when I enjoy training and racing. So I just want to stay healthy and have fun.”
Matt’s Go-To Workouts
SWIM: “In the pool, I like to prepare for competition with a race pace specific workout. My favorite set is 4 x 100m on 1:15 at race pace, 3 x 200 on 2:30, and then 2 x 300, 1 x 400. The goal is to hit the 100 at the same pace as the 400.”
BIKE: “On the bike, I like 4 x 10 minutes at race pace with an eight-minute recovery. With warm-up and cooldown, you’re out there for about three hours. I’ll go out with about four or five teammates to dial in my drafting and paceline skills.”
RUN: “I love a good 14-mile run in the middle of the week at steady-state pace. For me, that’s about 90 minutes, or six-minutes-per-mile pace. It builds aerobic capacity and a lot of strength.”
Matt’s Go-To Fuel
7:30 a.m. Wake up, eat overnight oats I prep the night before, with bananas, raspberries, blueberries, chia seed, and flaxseed. I also drink Ataq electrolyte drink to hydrate.
9:30 a.m. After my morning run, I make a smoothie with bananas, dates, coconut milk, chia seeds, and frozen pineapples.
11 a.m. Brunch time! I’ll fuel for a swim with a rice bowl with avocado, vegan chicken strips, hummus, nutritional yeast, amino acids, and beans. I’ve been plant-based for three years, and find that this type of diet is really energizing.
2 p.m. For lunch, it’s potato taquitos on top of white rice, with vegetable won-tons with black beans.
4 p.m. I’ll make another smoothie or grab some rice as a snack in between workouts.
6 p.m. Dinner is usually a Beyond Burger with vegan mac and cheese, or vegan sausage with tomato sauce and tempeh.
9 p.m. Before bed, I snack on these peanut butter, oatmeal, banana, raisin, and walnut bites that my fiancee makes. They’re delicious.