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Dispatch: Melanie McQuaid’s Path To Paved-Road Success

McQuaid chats about tackling the 70.3 distance and shares a favorite run/strength session.

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For more than a decade, Melanie McQuaid’s name has been synonymous with success at the pinnacle of off-road triathlon, the XTERRA World Championship. She duked it out in the dirt en route to three world titles in Maui (2003, 2005 and 2006), countless XTERRA series wins and the ITU Cross Triathlon World Championship (2011). But McQuaid, always one to court a challenge, also began dabbling in road triathlon, scoring Ironman 70.3 victories in 2010 (Lake Stevens) and 2012 (Oceanside). Turning her focus more fully to the 70.3 distance in 2013 she became a podium regular and, with a pair of decisive wire-to-wire wins thus far in 2014 (Ironman 70.3 Boise and last Sunday’s Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens), McQuaid has proven she’s a committed contender–and a force to be feared–on the pro road circuit. Here, McQuaid shares her experience as an all-around “racer girl” and a favorite strength session that helps her prepare for the demands of running hard. Congratulations on another outstanding race! How did you feel out there, both physically and confidence-wise, during your wire-to-wire performance?

MM: I did a very big block for me during the three weeks leading into the race, and each week I was feeling better and better. This week I needed a rest anyway, so the race fit in really well. With minimal travel I was able to use the race to check in with my fitness leading into Mont-Tremblant and maybe put some confidence in my pocket. Winning two races wire-to-wire in one season is fantastic and overall I am really pleased with how I have been able to maintain consistency in the past couple months. My swim continues to improve, thanks to a great group of athletes training together in Victoria, including Karen Thibodeau, Sara Gross, Steve Kilshaw and James Cook. I also get the chance to ride with Brent McMahon every once in a while, which is great. We are looking to recruit some more strong athletes! We are creating our own long-course town in Canada and I am happy to see my training partners getting results and attention for the hard work they have put in.

For me, to try to work my way up to race at the top tier in Ironman racing, I needed to be better at maintaining volume overall, but also specifically at increasing my run volume without sacrificing a lot of power on the bike. I was confident in the training I had done in this past block and I was looking forward to testing myself. Riding fast bike splits sets you up well in the race, but you have to run well to win races. How are you enjoying the different style and strategy of racing now that the Ironman 70.3 is your main priority? Are there any pros and cons that really stand out in terms of skills that transfer over or, conversely, any areas in which you feel especially challenged?

MM: I really love the new challenge of 70.3, as I know it is making me a better triathlete overall–whether the race is on or off-road. I also feel like my background in mountain biking definitely prepared me more for Olympic and shorter style racing, so Ironman certainly was not my element and that is why I find it so compelling and addictive. I want to be better at something that isn’t my natural skill and I want to be challenged in that way. The satisfaction you get from improving on or succeeding in something that you may not have thought you were capable of is immense.

I think coming from XTERRA, athletes tend to have very good maximum power and really strong speed potential–similar to ITU but more geared towards strength, as so much of XTERRA is climbing. In this, XTERRA athletes have the power to be really strong cyclists and are used to being completely hammered coming off the bike and running on wooden legs. This translates well into Ironman stuff. However, the position in Ironman racing takes awhile to adapt to, as it is the polar opposite of where one might sit on the bike for mountain biking. That took me some time to get accustomed to and to get to where I could really train hard. I think the hours that are required for longer distance take a bit of time to work up to as well, as you first need to be able to absorb that much volume. Then to actually race over the longer distance, rather than just finish at a steady hard pace, requires some hard training in the volume. You need to be patient with development in this sport, as deep endurance takes time and hard work. There is no shortcut to becoming a really great long-distance athlete. I am still working at it!

RELATED: Making The Leap To Off-Road Triathlon Although your focus is predominantly on 70.3s and you plan to race the World Championship in Mont-Tremblant, you’re also slated to race the XTERRA World Championship yet again. How will you approach the Maui race this year?

MM: I have learned that for me to perform my best, I need a good block of training that is finished at least two weeks out. In order to be really ready for Maui, I am not going to do the Utah race this year [the XTERRA USA Championship]. I believe a lot of my lack of success in Maui [in recent years] has been due to the fact that I just couldn’t come around after 70.3 Worlds and Utah because I was without training for too long, and/or I tried to cram too much work in too close to the event. So I am hoping a long block between Mont-Tremblant and Maui will help me to perform closer to my ability at the big show in Maui. Then I am planning another trip to Australia afterward, since that was so much fun last year and I believe the training block I do for Maui will pay off for more than one event [McQuaid finished second at Ironman 70.3 Shepparton in November 2013]. Do you have a favorite session that you’ve added since shifting your focus to road triathlon? 

MM: I am a big, big proponent of building and maintaining hip strength for running. I have a strength session that I personally do and that I ask a bunch of the athletes that I coach to do where we run at “next race pace” for 300m, then do a strength exercise, then run again. The run pace is the race pace for whatever event you have coming next, or, during a big training block, you can use the 300’s for a bit of speed work for economy and run at 5km pace. The strength exercise varies each round. This is the beginner stage of this workout, so as you improve you can increase to four rounds, and then again increase to 5x300m as you continue to improve. We do this maybe once every two weeks during a training block:

Warm up 10-20 minutes and do a couple of strides

Round 1 (4x300m and 4x strength exercises):
300m at race pace on the track, followed immediately by 20 squats
300m at race pace, followed immediately by 20 donkey kicks with each leg
Rest 2 minutes after the full round (there is no rest between each exercise and the next 300m)

Round 2:
300m at race pace on the track, followed immediately by 20 steps of crab walk in each direction
300m at race pace, followed immediately by 20 mountain climbers counting on one leg
Rest 2 minutes after the full round

Round 3:
300m at race pace on the track, followed immediately by 10 hot salsa lunges with each leg
300m at race pace, followed immediately by 10 single leg bridges per leg
Rest 2 minutes after the full round

Cool down

Follow McQuaid’s journey on twitter @racergirlmel and learn more about her career and her coaching program at

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