From The Archives: Why The Best Are The Best

A look at the genetics, mentality, training, and other aspects of the best triathletes in the world. Plus, how you can emulate them.


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This article was originally published in the November/December 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

We all know that in 1989 one of the most epic duels in the history of Kona’s lava fields took place—Dave Scott and Mark Allen competed head to head for eight straight hours, running side by side almost the entire marathon of the Ironman World Championship, with Allen finally breaking away in the last few miles to win his first of six Kona titles. After five years of succumbing to Hawaii’s heat and humidity, Allen had finally cracked the Kona code and won the most coveted crown in triathlon. While “The Grip’s” victory has been the dominant theme in the retellings of the 1989 Iron War, Scott’s story should not be overlooked, and he deserves much more credit in this race than he is traditionally given.

Scott risked everything in his attempt to beat Allen, a man who was arguably more suited for triathlon and genetically gifted. He led the entire swim and bike—trying to break a stalking Allen who clung to his wheel—and charged into the marathon at six-minute-per-mile pace.

Side by side during the run, Scott and Allen were a study of contrasts. Scott was struggling, his body falling apart, and his run stride was imperfect next to that of Allen, who ran like an elegant thoroughbred. The difference was striking.

Although only one of them could win the Iron War, both Scott and Allen were champions on that day, and they took the sport to a new level with that race, with both of them bettering the previous best time at Kona—Scott’s 8:28:37—by nearly 20 minutes. And with 12 Kona wins between them, Scott and Allen are two of the greatest triathletes of all time. So what made Scott and Allen so good? Are they champions simply because they are genetically gifted? Or are they better than everyone else because they trained harder and smarter than their competition? And what are the physical, technical and mental characteristics that make a champion a champion?

An analysis of scientific literature and the world’s best triathletes suggests that there isn’t one single factor that makes a triathlete better than everyone else. In fact, it is a combination of an athlete’s physiology, mental tenacity, work ethic and other factors that make him or her great—and if you look at the world’s greatest triathletes, each has a different combination of these skills and gifts. However, while science suggests that the best triathletes are the best for different reasons, there is a common theme that runs through their processes of preparation.

Dave Scott and Mark Allen in the 1989 Ironman World Championship. Photo: Lois Schwartz

The Code To Success

Some 25 years ago American psychologist Benjamin Bloom wrote a book called “Developing Talent in Young People,” in which he investigated the lives of 120 stars in diverse fields such as sports, music, art, medicine, mathematics and others. Surprisingly, no one in his study was a wonderkid who did everything right by nature. Rather, these standouts were people who worked on their crafts, often from early childhood, and most of them had immensely passionate, supportive, knowledgeable and sometimes impatient parents.

This sort of background is also evident in the anecdotes of the lives of golf legend Tiger Woods and composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as analyzed in Geoff Colvin’s book “Talent is Overrated.” Colvin reveals how Mozart—who, many believe, was a wonderkid who was simply born with his musical talent—had very early music training from his father. Leopold Mozart was not only a great composer himself, but also a renowned teacher with a keen interest in how children learn music. Outside of his own training of little Wolfgang, who began studying at age 3, Leopold had his son study with musical greats such as Johann Christian Bach, from which many of Mozart’s earlier works are heavily influenced. In fact, Mozart did not produce a truly original piece—his famous Piano Concerto No. 9—until the age of 21, after 18 years of intense expert training. In the same sense, Tiger Woods’ father, Earl Woods, was a teacher and golf fanatic who gave his son a club to play with before he could even walk. He trained him rigorously from a very young age, which helped Tiger develop into arguably the greatest golfer of all time. (The flip side to Woods’ intensely focused childhood and global fame may, however, be the recent unraveling of his personal life.)

Aside from historical anecdotes, much of Colvin’s book is based on the scientific works of K. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University. After carefully examining successful athletes, artists and professionals in other domains of life, Ericsson is convinced that there is no such thing as natural talent. Instead, he believes that it takes at least 10,000 hours of what he calls “deliberate practice” to reach a world-class level in any domain.

In terms of triathlon, deliberate practice is not about easy Sunday rides—it is purposeful, dedicated work meant to develop every single aspect of performance. It is hard, sometimes mentally draining, yet satisfying, work. Think lung-busting intervals and leg-burning TTs, and you’ve got the picture. Deliberate practice involves a circle of assessment, practice and evaluation that is applied continuously to improve performance. This circle can be applied to a single training session or over longer periods of time, such as a full training cycle or a season.

To practice this circle, first you need to assess your current situation relative to your goals. What kind of training will help you most effectively reach your goal at this point in time? Once you have established your focus points, you need to draw up a plan so that every session has a purpose relative to these points and then execute your training (practice) to the absolute best of your ability. After each single session and after every training cycle, you must evaluate whether you reached the goals you wanted and use this input to continuously improve your performance. While many athletes use such a cycle in their approach to the sport, the difference between the good and the great is in the level of detail they address in this cycle. If you want to excel in triathlon by being the best that you can be—or if you want to excel in any area of your life—Ericsson’s work suggests you must be brutally honest with yourself and committed to overcoming every single weakness you have. When each and every session is completed with excellence and a razor-sharp focus on what will most effectively catapult your performance, your practice is deliberate.

It should be noted, however, that Ericsson mostly studied professions that are based on mental skills and coordination, and the theory of deliberate practice cannot fully explain superior performance in a more physical sport such as triathlon. Genetics that influence height, weight, heart size, muscle fiber composition and body type still create the playing field on which triathletes compete. As people come in all shapes and sizes, there is not a fixed set of genes that make up a great talent. Rather, there are literally limitless combinations of genes that can produce a talented triathlete. One triathlete may have a subpar engine but can still deliver world-class results because he is genetically predisposed to having highly efficient technique that compensates for his smaller engine. Another athlete may have a body type that is a bit too muscular for triathlon, but he compensates with the biggest engine of them all. The most successful triathletes thus have a combination of genes that are closest to optimal, and this may be one of the phenomena that explains three-time Ironman world champ Chrissie Wellington’s dominance—all her genetic gifts combine to form an unparalleled set.

To put it simply, the code to success is both genetic and environmental in nature, especially when it comes to triathlon and other endurance sports. The best triathletes have a superior combination of genes and a long history of deliberate practice that together combine for superior physiology, technique, psychology and an understanding of tactics.

As a real life example, I reached a recorded VO2max of 86.8 in my peak years as a professional triathlete on the Ironman circuit. (The highest VO2max ever recorded is 96.0, in a Norwegian cross-country skier, and the average VO2max for a young male is about 45. Women have naturally lower VO2maxes, with the highest ever recorded being 78.6, in Olympic marathon gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson.) Only a very, very small percentage of the population can ever reach a VO2max of 86.8, even after years of training. Indeed, out of 10,000 or perhaps even 100,000 potential male triathletes, only one will ever be able to break 80 for a VO2max. This is because of genetics—his heart is simply bigger and more responsive to training than almost anyone else’s.

Knowing that I had “the ticket” to success in triathlon—at least genetically—made me willing to pursue a career in the sport. I strongly believed, which Ericsson’s research to some extent supports, that I could develop the other critical sides of performance such as endurance, technique and mental skills over the years. Speaking to how my body was built, I had big quads made for cycling and relatively smaller calves that enabled me to run well whenever I made it through a training buildup without getting injured—giving me the muscle distribution apparent in the majority of the fastest triathletes.

On the flip side, my upper body was relatively puny compared to my lower body, which was optimal in terms of a reduced overall body weight, but it meant I lacked power in the swim. I was also tall and not predisposed to having an extremely low body fat percentage, which made me a relative “heavyweight” in the sport and put me at a significant disadvantage when I raced in the heat of Hawaii. I also had several biomechanical trouble areas that made me injury prone and made it difficult to become technically proficient as a swimmer, biker and runner.

Torbjørn Sindballe at the 2008 Wildflower Triathlon.

In terms of my training history, I didn’t start swimming until I was 12, which meant that I lacked the huge swim foundation that is the cornerstone of the success of many of the greatest triathletes racing today. And while I was blessed with a great training environment and coaches who provided the optimal frame- work to develop my aerobic fitness in cycling and running, it was not until very late in my career that I began to work properly and de- liberately on flexibility and stability and fully understood their importance as the base in developing optimal technique, efficiency and injury resistance.

While genetic talent is one’s ticket to the top of the triathlon heap, it is not a guarantee of success. I know of many naturally talented people who have come up short due to injuries, a lack of mental toughness, burnout and other reasons. It is only the athletes who manage to crack their unique code who make it. Some need more training; others need to hold back. Some respond to higher intensity and some to higher volume. Others need to focus more on technique, flexibility or strength—and others on mastering the mind. Indeed, if you ask the 20 greatest triathletes of all time what the key to their success was, they will all likely respond with a different answer. Some will say it was their focus on intensity in training, some will point to their volume, others will call out technique, some will claim they didn’t train too hard, others believe it was because they trained harder than everyone else, and some will point to their mental toughness. In fact, through trial and error or perhaps luck early on in their careers, each triathlete found what worked training-wise for his or her body type. This discovery, coupled with an unbreakable belief that their training program was better than everyone else’s, catapulted them to the top of the sport.

And while very few have the genetics required or the aspirations to be among the best triathletes in the world, you can use the sport’s stars to help you in your own athletic pursuits and to reach your personal goals, whatever they may be. Just like many of the best pros, you must work to determine which training regimens and techniques work best for your body and mind. While you are experimenting, it helps to keep meticulous training logs that not only map out what you did in training but also note how you felt during a workout and any other pieces of information that are helpful in your assess- ment and evaluation of your progress. In this way you can begin to crack the code to your personal success in triathlon.

Deliberate In Practice

Throughout 1989, the rivalry between Dave Scott and Mark Allen grew in the media, and their rivalry was further fueled by their duel at what was then called the World Cup Triathlon on Australia’s Gold Coast. Scott came off the bike with a solid lead, but Allen ran him down with a 1:38 30K run. (Allen’s 5:15-per-mile pace suggests the course was a little short.) Scott himself ran a 1:42, which actually sparked his confidence, but the media was relentless in its assertion that it was going to be Allen’s year in Kona.

“I felt the previous years in Kona were soft and knew both of us could raise the bar for 1989, but it was not as much of a rivalry as the media hyped it up to be,” Scott said. “We were definitely rivals, but in a respectful way, and the overall goal for me was not necessarily to beat Mark, but to take the race to the level I felt was possible for me.” Throughout the year the pressure and excitement built within Scott, and by August it was almost too much to handle. He felt there was a bull’s eye squarely on his back.

“In early August my first son was born, and I took a full week off training to be with my family,” he said. “Despite being sleep deprived, that week felt like a mental revival where I escaped the usual grind and entered the final short build-up with a sharpened focus.”

Throughout his career, Scott had always adhered to a somewhat monotonous training routine and often did the same workouts on the same courses over and over again out of his home in Davis, Calif. In 1989 he was leaner than ever before and had added more strength training to his regimen, but one of the key elements that helped him make the jump to the next level—what allowed him to lower his own world record in Kona by nearly 20 minutes—was he started to time his efforts on these courses. In past years he had just trained and never measured whether or not he was going any faster.

“I would usually do this hill on bike rides. In past years I had just gone up it at a fast pace, but then I started timing my efforts and competed against myself in every session I did. I also started playing a cat-and-mouse game with one of my good friends who used to train with me. We would go out 35 to 40 miles and he would turn around asking me to continue another 10 to 12 minutes before I set after him. Those rides turned into a 35- to 40-mile race, where I would chase my friend to the end, giving me increasingly more intensive efforts.”

In this way Scott started to develop a habit of deliberate practice, where he continuously raised the bar for himself, pushing beyond past boundaries. He also started to keep track of his pace on his runs; the farm fields in Davis were exactly 1 mile by 1 mile, and this unique measurement allowed him to get quantitative feedback on his running speed, sparking further motivation to run faster. Before going into the Ironman in 1989, Scott’s training made him confident he could take the Ironman game up a notch. Indeed, judging by his run speed during training, he was confident that he could hold 6:05 to 5:40 minutes per mile and still be economical in his stride.

“At the press conference I said I felt ready to do a 51-minute swim like many years past, a 4:36 to 4:37 bike and a sub-2:40 run. The room went pretty quiet as I had never put these times together, but I just focused on what I felt was possible in the single disciplines based on my training. The fact that such a race would equal a time far beyond any race ever seen had not crossed my mind.”

That the race actually unfolded at almost exactly those splits is a testament to the experience Scott had accumulated over years of training and racing—through deliberate practice he had cracked his individual training code, knew what worked for him and was confident he could make a quantum leap in triathlon.

“I would have done the same race without Mark,” Scott said. “I led the entire way and never looked back. This was how I liked to race—firing what I had on anybody else. I was known for my ability to push myself among my competitors.”

Dave Scott and Mark Allen hold the finish tape at the 2016 Ironman World Championship. Photo: Oliver Baker

The New Breed

In recent years Scott has advised or coached many of the champions of our sport. Craig Alexander and four-time short-course world champion Simon Lessing sought the guidance of Scott for their Ironman campaigns, and for the last two-and-a-half years he has coached Chrissie Wellington, probably the best iron-distance triathlete of all time. Scott points to Wellington’s incredible economy as the primary reasons for her success.

“What really sets Chrissie apart is her economy and efficiency. She may not be the fastest athlete, but her ability to hold form and speed throughout the race is unmatched,” he said. “I would estimate she could run a 2:31 to 2:32 open marathon and only loses 16 to 17 minutes in an Ironman. Even the guys are not close to this. The best male runners may be able to run a 2:15 to 2:20 open marathon, but they only run 2:41 to 2:42 [in an Ironman].”

While Wellington’s efficiency is most likely a genetic gift, Scott also points to her mentality as one of the ingredients to her success.

“At my swim practice in Boulder, [Colo.,] I see many aspiring athletes, but those who excel have an edge. Often they hold such high expectations of themselves that they compete more against themselves than anybody else. Their inner drive to succeed is unparalleled,” he said. “At the same time they are very tough mentally. At the end of our swim sets I sometimes see athletes give in and take on paddles to ease the effort. The champion athletes never give in. They thrive when they hurt and increase their focus, as they know this is where they make the difference. In this aspect Chrissie is also unique. She is one of the very, very few athletes I have to hold back. She has a mental tenacity that is very rare.”

While there is no doubt that Wellington’s God-given talent is phenomenal and that this is one of the primary reasons why she is lightyears ahead of the rest of the women, her mental strength and continuous focus on deliberate practice are what keep her improving year after year.

So as you attempt to unlock the code to what works for you, think about Wellington the next time you reach for that pull buoy, and perhaps this will help you get through your set without the aid of a crutch, something you’ll remember the next time a race gets particularly tough.

Chrissie Wellington wins the 2011 Ironman World Championship. Photo: Nils Nilsen

Unlocking Your Code

Hone your drive. We all have different goals in triathlon. Perhaps your goal is to finish an Ironman, perhaps it’s to perform well against your training partners and friends at a local race, or perhaps you have high aspirations of winning an age group world championship, going pro or even winning Kona some day. Whatever your goals are in triathlon, one of the keys to accomplishing those goals is to determine what it is that’s motivating you. Are you in the sport as a purely individual pursuit? Are you in it for the pure fun of it and for its social side? Or are you motivated by determining how you measure up against others? Knowing what you want to achieve, what you are willing to sacrifice to achieve it and determining whether there is a balance between the two is crucial in building and maintaining your mental drive. Elite athletes often throw all of their eggs in one basket and go after success in triathlon without any backup plan. Such a commitment can be both liberating and scary, but few age groupers can or should commit such a big part of their lives to triathlon, as they have families and jobs that are much more important than sport. If you are an age grouper, work to find the perfect balance between your triathlon goals and the rest of your life, and before you go after a goal, be honest with yourself in terms of how much time you will have to dedicate to triathlon every week for you to reach it. If you are realistic, you have a much more likely chance of achieving your aspirations and, more importantly, enjoying the sport.

Assess your limiters honestly. If you could change one thing over the coming months what would give you the biggest benefit? Are your VO2max numbers a bit low? Are you too heavy and need to commit to a weight management regime? Are you constantly injured and need to seek the advice of a knowledgeable physical therapist on how to strengthen your weak areas? Or is your personal life out of balance and draining you emotionally? Being honest with yourself in terms of what you need to improve and laying out a realistic plan on how to improve your weaknesses can help you move through your limiters one by one, realizing your potential step by step.

Commit to the journey. There are no quick fixes or shortcuts to success in triathlon, so if you have lofty goals in the sport you will need to be totally committed to reaching them. Use the deliberate practice cycle of assessment, training and honest evaluation to leverage your assets in the most efficient way possible. Dig into the details, clarify targets, measure progress and adjust if what you try does not work—and in the process unlock the code to your personal success to triathlon. Mastering three disciplines in one event takes time, and it is no coincidence that many of today’s champions are in their late 30s. To become a champion—however you define the word for yourself in triathlon—you need to engage yourself fully over many years. Are you ready?

Australia's Emma Snowsilll won the Hy-Vee triathlon prize twice. Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org

Lessons From The Best

There is no one skill set or set of gifts that makes the best triathletes the best—they are all on top for different reasons. But studying these reasons can shed light on the areas you need to work on to race faster, whether it’s your engine size, mental toughness, or something else altogether.

Craig Alexander, AUS

The world champ is known for his incredible run efficiency and willingness to prepare for races with Lance Armstrong-like precision. His Kona prep has included using NASA technology to study his ability to hydrate in humidity.

Mark Allen, USA

While incredibly gifted genetically, six-time Ironman world champ Allen is best known for his mental toughness. This wasn’t something he was born with, however, and it took him years to learn how to stay tough when Ironman races got miserable.

Alistair Brownlee, GBR

This baby-faced ITU world champ is renowned for his ferocious will to win. Indeed, he’ll literally pass out before he lets someone beat him. His love of the sport is also fierce, as he would likely train just as hard as he does now even if he didn’t get paid.

Javier Gomez, ESP

Best known for his consistency, this ITU world champ would have easily been ranked No. 1 in the world for the past five years if it weren’t for that thorn in his side called “Brownlee.” That being said, he was still No. 1 in 2007, 2008, and 2010.

Helen Jenkins, GBR

Flat, hilly, hot, rainy, a tactical race, all-out from the gun—any condition you throw at the reigning ITU world champ she takes in stride. Jenkins also has no problem breaking away and leading from start to finish, which is how she won her first world title.

Chris McCormack, AUS

The world champ is probably best known for being a master tactician. He pored over Kona prior to 2010 and mapped the best strategy for him to win, and then executed it in what was one of the most exhilarating races of all time.

Paula Newby-Fraser, ZBW

This Queen of Kona boasts a huge engine, yet her intelligence is what put her over the top. Three-time Ironman world champ Peter Reid said he learned more about winning Kona from her than anyone else, as she studied training and racing fanatically.

Dave Scott

This six-time Ironman world champ will tell you that his running mechanics were wanting, but he got over this weakness with ancillary strength training, whereby he strengthened his stability muscles. He was also known as a diet guru.

Emma Snowsill, AUS

“Clutch” is the best way to describe the 2008 Olympic gold medalist. While she hasn’t been the most consistent of racers, she pulls it out when it matters most, including at Hy-Vee in 2008 and 2010, earning her $400,000 in prize money.

Chrissie Wellington, GBR

While she wouldn’t dominate short-course, this Ironman world champ’s ability to hold a brisk pace over long distances is unparalleled, pointing to her superb efficiency. She also works so hard in practice that her coach often has to hold her back.