250. That’s the sum total of iron-distance race finishes logged by three of triathlon’s most prolific racers: Petr Vabrousek (138), Hillary Biscay (63) and Belinda Granger (49).
All three of these endurance phenoms are gearing up to increase their tallies with Saturday’s Challenge Taiwan, and I jumped at the opportunity to learn the tips and tools they employ for longevity in the sport.
Petr Vabrousek: Draw boundaries, prioritize family time and don’t overtrain.
“My kids are my recovery [Vabrousek has a 14-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter]. Whenever I’m not racing or at a race, I’m completely disconnected from triathlon. I do my two to three hours of training a day, and other than those two or three hours nobody’s discussing triathlon with me. Nobody in my family is interested whether I had a good session or a bad session or whether I had a puncture on the bike or whatever, including what happens at the races. So for me, to disconnect from triathlon is a very quick thing. I even have trouble when I do have a small mechanical thing on the bike–by the end of my training session I come home and I immediately forget about it, and I only remember when I go for another session in two days and find out I didn’t repair it! Ninety per cent of the day I live a normal life with my family. Just a little part of it is training. I get refreshed pretty quick.”
“I’ve been doing sport since I was 10 when I started rowing, and I’m 41 this year, so it’s 30 years of uninterrupted training. I feel like my body has accumulated enough training over the years and it’s not all that exciting anymore just to train. My last training camp was before my son, who is now 14, started school. The thing is, I did my first triathlon in 1989, which was 25 years ago, and I’ve never ever had anything like overtraining or a stress injury or motivational problems. I’m just completely undertrained! All my career I’ve been completely undertrained. I’ve never ever felt like: OK, that’s enough. I need to take a day off. I’ve never had a feeling that I did too much or that my body hurts. I always feel that I should be training and doing more, but with the kids I just don’t have time to do it. I’ve spoiled my family by being home all day. Whenever I say something like, ‘I’m going for a two-hour bike ride,’ I see long faces. They are like: Two hours? Are you kidding? So these things prevent me from doing too much, and that’s probably the major key for me for longevity in the sport. I see what some of my competitors do in training and I think: That would kill me in a week, more than racing a couple of Ironman races in a week.”
“Coming back from an Ironman distance, I’ll have several days completely off. Then before the real training should start I’ll have another race. So especially in the summer season, training never really starts. From May to the end of September usually there’s a major race every weekend for me, either a half or a full Ironman distance. The last two or three years I did eight Ironman races in nine weeks in the summer. And it’s a dream scenario for me. I know that when I do an Ironman on the weekend I need to recover for four days and taper for two, which makes the whole complete week!”
“I also do a lot of strength training–probably two times a week, even in between races. I think that has something to do with it for me, helping to keep my body together.”
“If I would have a desire to stop, I would stop. There’s no desire. I’m always saying I will continue as long as it makes me fun and money. That is talking about professional sport of course–whenever it starts being a matter of money and not being able to support my family with sport, I will have to get another job. But I would still hope to do triathlon and long runs.”
Hillary Biscay: Find your fun and the challenges that fuel your desire.
“Keep it fun! I raced as an age grouper for four years before turning pro. It was a hobby I enjoyed for fun. Ultimately, when I gave up my day job to make a go of this full-time, one of my main requirements (besides the practical ones) for my timeframe in this sport was that I would keep doing this as long as it was still fun. The way I saw it, I could make a heck of a lot more money doing plenty of other things. Being able to race for a living was a compromise in that area in order to turn my passion into my job. But once it ceases to be fun, that equation no longer makes sense.”
“Furthermore, you have to go so deep into the well on so many occasions in order to be successful in this sport that I just think you’ve got to love it. This is why I’ve often done things that aren’t necessarily advisable from the standpoint of the best physical preparation. I’ll go do an Ironman just for kicks, or I’ll do a 50-mile fun run just because I love that stuff. These are the things I have to do to keep the joy in it!”
Belinda Granger: Keep a balance, listen to your body and embrace the passion.
“I think my biggest strength in my 22 years of being in the sport is my longevity. I’ve been able to stay injury free, sickness free and mentally loving it. That’s been my biggest asset. And part of the reason I’ve had that is that I think biomechanically I’m built well for triathlon, but apart from that I’ve always had balance. This is my profession and it’s how I make a living, but I’ve always remained passionate about having balance in my life. I’ve never disallowed myself certain foods if I’ve felt for them. I’ve never restricted myself from going out to dinner and socializing on the weekends with family and friends. I think that’s so important–I can’t reiterate that enough. Because even though your sport’s important to you, if you keep taking things out for the love of the sport, sooner or later you’re gong to start disliking the sport, because it’s taking away things that you want to do. If you keep missing birthdays or anniversaries or weddings or special occasions, pretty soon you’ll start to resent the sport. So I’ve always allowed myself that balance. That’s probably one of the major reasons that I’ve had such longevity.”
“The second reason is that I listen to my body. We all get those little warning signs–maybe a little ulcer on your tongue or a bit of a rasp in your throat. Everyone gets different telltale signs but we all have them if we’re willing to listen. And when I get those I know it’s time to back it off and have a night where I get 12 hours of sleep. Obviously I learned that the hard way when I was younger and would ignore my body and all of a sudden I’d be sick. So I learned that early on and now I respect my body. I also eat really well. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy red wine or chocolate or things that maybe are not great for me, but I allow myself to have them in moderation. I don’t on any crazy diets and I don’t deny myself anything. And the reason I’ve gotten to that stage is because back when I was in high school and university and I was a gymnast, I wouldn’t say I had an eating disorder, but I was like every other young girl growing up. I was body conscious and I didn’t always like what I looked at in the mirror. So I did have a bit of an issue with eating and trying to diet. And I swore that I would never let myself get to that stage again. Since I’ve been in the sport of triathlon, which I started quite late in life, I’ve never allowed myself to fall into that routine again.”
“Another important thing is recovery. I get massage once a week, every week, never fail–and sometimes more. I see a chiropractor regularly and a physio if I get a little niggle. I never allow things to evolve into an injury, because I get them sorted before that happens.”
“Lastly, I truly love the sport. I didn’t decide this was going to be my career–it sort of found me. I raced age group first and I realized I was actually quite good–and when I say good I don’t mean that I think I have a lot of natural talent, but I think I have the mental aptitude for this sport and I’m tough. So I got my start in the sport because I love it, and then it just grew from there. For me it’s the perfect combination of doing something that I love and being able to make a career of it. I think Macca is in the same boat. Both of us can sit and talk triathlon for hours! You ‘d think that would be the last thing we’d want to talk about, seeing as we do it 24/7, but when Justin and Macca and I have dinner together all we talk is triathlon. It’s so much a part of my life and also my family’s life. My mum and dad live and breathe it. They’ve already booked their tickets to Challenge Roth this year and I’m not even racing! It’s just been a real family love affair for us with the sport of triathlon. It’s just such a terrific way of life.”