From The Archives: What It Takes To Be A Champion

Ironman 70.3 world champions divulge the keys to their training leading up to the big race.


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What does it take to become one of the best half-Ironman athletes in the world? As they were preparing for the 2013 Ironman 70.3 World Championship at Lake Las Vegas, Nev., 2012 Ironman 70.3 world champion Leanda Cave, and four 2012 age-group world champions shared the training strategies and race tactics that brought them to the top of the sport. This feature originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

Photo: John David Becker

Leanda Cave

Age at time of publication: 35
Occupation: Professional Triathlete
Triathlon highlights: 2012 world champion in both Ironman 70.3 and Ironman; two- time Ironman champion
2013 Vegas Result: 13th pro woman

Cave’s training is structured in four-week cycles geared toward her ultimate goal: the Ironman World Championship. Both the Hy-Vee 5150 Elite Cup and the Ironman 70.3 World Championship serve as stepping stones along the way. Within each cycle are usually two repeating two-week blocks, alternating between 20 and 30 hours per week. “It’s good to have the consistency so you can see improvement, and you can see when you’re tired and need a day off,” Cave says. “Days off aren’t particularly scheduled in my program—I take them when I need them.” Tapering for Hy-Vee and Vegas and the subsequent race days creates a strategic rest period between heavier training blocks, wherein the intensity and volume are all focused on the iron distance. Cave views Hy-Vee as a “sharpen-up race,” a chance to practice skills such as quick transitions and going out hard in the swim, and to get back into the “hungry scene” of racing.“If I have a bad race in Vegas I don’t want to carry that into Kona, and if I have a good race I don’t want to carry that into Kona either, because I don’t want to have an inflated ego. Either way I still have to work hard after Vegas to get on the start line in Kona in great shape.” For Cave, the biggest benefit to racing Vegas is the change to race agains the world’s top 70.3 specialists. “It’s the best possible environment to see where I am at that point in time.”

Race Ready

“Most people die toward the end of the run, so I like to incorporate a build run over the distance of the race into my 70.3 training. I do a 13-mile run where I make a conscious effort to build it—even if just 10–20 seconds faster every 5K. Another good race prep session is getting off my long ride and doing a really short running speed set. I do short intervals—20 or 30 seconds hard—then stop, have a rest and do it again. It’s easy on a treadmill or even down the street, and it’s not too taxing. It’s just about getting my legs used to running fast off the bike.”

Photo: John David Becker

Patrick High

Age at date of publication: 51
Lives in: Lake Placid, Fla.
Occupation: Regional vice president at G&K Services
Triathlon highlights: 2012 age group Ironman 70.3 world champion; third in age group at 2012 Ironman World Championship; 2012 USAT Age Group Men’s Masters Triathlete of the Year Honorable Mention
2013 Vegas result: Second in 50–54 age group

With 55-hour work weeks and at least three days a week on the road, Patrick High compresses his hard training from Friday to Monday, often taking Tuesdays and Wednesdays completely off. “I get it all in in under 10 hours a week,” he says. “I err toward the light side relative to my peers. But every workout has a purpose.” Those workouts often take place on treadmills while traveling, with a swim bungee in a hotel pool or in High’s own backyard Endless Pool. “I rarely, if ever, swim laps,” he says. High also attends twice-weekly group training classes with his family, merging home life with agility, cardiovascular and core work. This year his competition schedule has shifted from long course to sprint and Olympic races (Vegas being the exception) to train and race with his 14-year-old son, Lukas, a recent convert to the sport and clearly an inspiration for High. “He volunteered in Kona last year while I raced,” High says.“After that he said, ‘Dad, I want to do something I can do for the rest of my life. Triathlon is a sport I can do for the rest of my life. And I want to be a world champion, too.’”

Race Ready

“There’s a 0.6-mile loop that incorporates a decent-sized hill in our neighborhood—the hill itself is probably 0.4 miles—so I run that 10 times,” High says. “I work the hill, recover going down and then stride out and repeat. That’s on Friday morning, and then on Saturday I do a high tempo ride/run. I ride two hours solo, stop by the house to pick up Lukas, we ride another hour and then run together. He peels off at the three-mile mark and I continue for six miles. It’s as much of a tempo run as you can manage. Those are two ‘you’re gonna feel ‘em’ back-to-back workouts every weekend leading up to Vegas.”

Photo: John David Becker

Chris Thomas

Age at time of publication: 41
Lives in: Easton, Conn.
Occupation: Triathlon coach for LifeSport Coaching, personal training business owner
Triathlon Highlights: Three-time age group Ironman 70.3 world champion (2012, 2009, 2008); fourth in age group at 2012 Ironman World Championship; 2012 USAT Age Group Triathlete of the Year; 2009 USAT Amateur Athlete of the Year; member, Timex Multi-Sport Team 2013
2013 Vegas result: First in 40–44 age group

Chris Thomas—who juggles 13–14 hours of weekly training, two businesses and family life as a father to three young boys—is a proponent of racing the 70.3 distance five to six weeks before an Ironman. “I think it helps get a good fitness boost. Don’t get me wrong—Vegas is a priority race for me on its own, but at the same time it’s very good training for Kona [where Thomas will also compete in October].” Last year Thomas tackled the Vegas/Kona double, and despite brutal heat in Vegas he recovered well. “I didn’t feel that I held any negative effects—except maybe a little mental scarring!” Most of Thomas’ training takes place midday, in between his morning and evening personal training clients. On weekends he’s out the door by 5:30 a.m. to preserve family time. He’s also a frequent racer—he competed five times in five and a half weeks during June and July, and three weeks before Vegas he took on the sprint and 70.3 at Timberman, followed by a local Olympic race the following weekend. Yet even with his hectic schedule, Thomas keeps his head. “My approach to training is staying healthy, staying consistent and training properly—and also it has to be fun,” he says.

Race Ready

“I’ll do a four-hour ride with 40 minutes at Ironman pace, 30 minutes at half- Ironman pace and 20 minutes at Olympic-distance pace with some recovery in between,” Thomas says. “I’ll do quality run efforts off of that—1K or 800-meter repeats where I try to be at or faster than my goal half-marathon pace. I do that workout throughout the season once racing season starts, and usually three weeks out from Vegas. Also the Olympic race [two weeks out] is a flat, five-loop bike and two-loop run course, so it’s a great chance to dial in my threshold efforts and see where I’m at before Vegas.”

Photo: John David Becker

Ellen Hart

Age at time of publication: 55
Lives in: Denver, Colo.
Occupation: Co-founder of Eating Disorders Foundation; nutrition educator for Share Our Strength and Cooking Matters
Triathlon Highlights: Five-time age group Ironman 70.3 world champion (2008–2012, with course record and fastest amateur female run split in 2012 at age 54); 2011 age group ITU Long Distance world champion; 2010 age group Ironman world champion; 2012 USAT Age Group Triathlete of the Year
2013 Vegas Result: First in 55–59 age group

A competitive Athlete for 47 of her 55 years, Ellen Hart has a less-is-more training philosophy balancing family, work and sport. A flexible schedule allows for decreased work hours when her training volume increases (as of early August, she was logging 15 hours weekly of each). She embraces a holistic approach to triathlon, saying, “There’s a spiritual part of me that is awakened by training and competition. Race morning is like an empty canvas. You get to paint the picture by the choices that you make—whether to ride clean, whether to push past pain, whether to thank a volunteer, whether to smile.” It’s a canvas Hart paints whenever possible—the week after Vegas she’ll tackle the aquathlon, sprint and Olympic events at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in London, then race Kona four weeks later—despite paying very little attention to the minutiae of specific training. Instead, she trusts her coach and pledges a healthy perspective. “This is not the Olympic Trials [Hart twice vied for a spot on Team USA as a runner]. This is not my livelihood. It’s just fun,” she says.

Race Ready

“Neal has me do a couple of things in the 2–4 weeks before Vegas,” Hart says. “One is a long ride, in the 60–70-mile range. In the past I’ve done that as part of a supported ride, like the Gran Fondo. There’s also a progressive run—three times 6K where the first is easy, the second is moderate and the third is race pace. I’ll either do that as a standalone workout or—because I really love to race—in a half-marathon. For the swim I’ll do at least one workout of 5×500, and within that three or four of the 500s might be 100 easy/100 hard, 75 easy/75 hard, 50 easy/50 hard, 25 easy/25 hard.”

Rob Lea

*Not pictured*
Age at the time of publication: 32
Lives in: Park City, Utah
Occupation: Agent for Prudential Utah Real Estate
Triathlon highlights: 2012 age group Ironman 70.3 world champion; top amateur at 2012 Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens
2013 Vegas result: Lea made the difficult decision to withdraw from both Vegas and Kona, instead undergoing knee surgery to address an injury.

Most weeks Rob Lea trains 15–20 hours, though his program is often tweaked to accommodate his professional life—especially in recent months with an improving real-estate market. A relative newcomer to triathlon (Lea only started training seriously in 2012), Lea viewed Vegas as his “A” race and Kona as the “cherry on top” after he qualified at Ironman 70.3 Hawaii. He had planned to add a few longer workouts this year, but was counting on his Vegas-focused fitness to fuel his Big Island debut. Lea favors perceived exertion over high-tech gadgets, saying, “I strive to not be obsessed with the numbers but to be obsessed with enjoying what I’m doing and feeling my body throughout the process. I don’t worry if I swam 30 seconds faster or slower than last year. It’s about putting a full race together and feeling like I controlled the race, rather than the race controlling me.” While adherent to coach Dixon’s training schedule, Lea resists the stereotypical trappings of a type-A triathlete. “If I want to go have a drink, I have a drink, and if I want a cheeseburger, I have a cheeseburger,” Lea says. “I try to watch those things and make sure my body’s feeling good during workouts, but at the same time I try not to limit myself toomuch.”

Race Ready

“You’re not just training your legs; you’re training your mind to push through the difficult times and the heat,” Lea says. “I start this brick workout in the heat of the day to get my head around the heat of Vegas. I spin easy for 30–45 minutes, then do a 30-minute build to 70.3 race pace followed by 3-by-30 minutes at race pace with 10 minutes easy spinning in between. I run off the bike for 15 minutes at race pace followed by a 10-minute easy jog home. Taking lots of liquids and staying on top of fueling is key to get through this and to set myself up to be effective the next day.”