U.S. Olympian and Collins Cup Star Taylor Knibb’s Workouts

Taylor Knibb has had a breakaway season with a silver medal in Tokyo and huge performances at the Collins Cup and Boulder 70.3. Her coach shares a swim and bike session.

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On the evening of Friday, March 13, 2020, Taylor Knibb—then a 22-year-old senior at Cornell University—filled her car with just about everything she brought to college, save a bike box and a mini fridge, and drove some 350 miles south to Washington, D.C. As the world became paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Knibb felt like she had no choice but to leave the house she shared with several of her track teammates and head home to quarantine with her family.

Knibb wasn’t sure what the next few weeks or months would look like. She didn’t know that this sudden and unexpected pandemic would completely alter the course of her life. She didn’t know that it would give her more time with her close-knit family, including her parents Robert and Leslie and her younger brother Jack. More time to heal an injury. More time to connect with an old coach and bond with a new training partner. And, perhaps most importantly, more time to qualify for the Olympic games.

RELATED: Taylor Knibb Upsets Favorites for Yokohama Win and Olympic Team

In the year since then, Knibb completed her senior thesis and successfully defended it over Zoom, graduated from Cornell with a psychology degree (another virtual event), took a full six weeks off of training to heal a torn tendon in her foot, moved to Boulder, Colorado and joined back up with former coach Ian O’Brien, and, yes, earned an automatic berth on to the U.S. Olympic team with a breakthrough win at the World Triathlon Championship Series in Yokohama, Japan.

That last one was a shock not just for the triathlon world, but for Knibb too—and it’s something she’s still getting used to. (“It’s been a whirlwind,” she said a few days after landing back in Boulder from Japan.) While she went to Yokohama feeling fresh and excited and in excellent shape, she hadn’t raced a triathlon since November 2019. And she had never raced with such high stakes on the line. Sure, Knibb had won world titles as a junior and in the Under-23 division. But this time, the single objective was the Olympics—and, more precisely, that automatic spot that came with placing on the podium in Yokohama.

From there, Knibb’s trajectory only continued upward—she took 16th in the individual women’s event in Tokyo, earned silver in the mixed team relay, than a week later took second at the Boulder 70.3 (her first-ever attempt at the distance). She then captivated viewers at the Collins Cup when she rode away from Ironman world champion Daniela Ryf—on a road bike.

Related: Triathlon Twitter Stans Taylor Knibb, Forever

Though Knibb’s background and ascension in the sport forecasted success, no one expected her to do it all in one year. Looking back at the beginning of the season, however, the writing was on the wall when she popped up on the world’s radar with her gutsy ride in Yokohama.

"There’s no way she would have been to Tokyo if the Games happened in 2020, not the way things were looking at the time. This year, she has just gone to the next level. It’s given her a second chance.”

Staging a Breakaway

Well, no one thought she could break away from the best in the world—except her coach. Knibb and O’Brien first began working together in 2016, back when she was balancing triathlon with a full plate at the prestigious Sidwell Friends school, where she was the D.C. Gatorade cross-country runner of the year (and where Malia Obama was a classmate). O’Brien had seen how much she’s developed since then, even when they parted ways for four years while she worked with coach Neal Henderson. And he’s seen how she’d been pushing the envelope even more since they reconnected this January.

“I know it sounds brash, but yeah, I did think she’d take it in Yokohama,” said O’Brien, who came into coaching after 16 years in the British Army as a recon commander. This was the plan ever since he welcomed Knibb to his Boulder-based Origin Performance Squad after she approached him to help her make the Tokyo Games while coming off of a foot injury.

“The thing about Taylor is that she leads the way,” said O’Brien. “That’s her style in everything she does. She’s the first in the pool, she’s the first to arrive to all of the training sessions. She asks all the questions and wants to know the reason for everything we do. That helps her believe in the process.”

O’Brien said she has displayed recent improvement across the board as an athlete, including “insane” power numbers in her cycling, which told him that Knibb could stage a successful breakaway on the bike and build a big enough gap to win the race—something she’d already done successfully with Flora Duffy at the Edmonton WTS back in 2017. And that’s what ended up happening when she and the Netherlands’ Maya Kingma put almost two minutes on the chase group going into T2. Plus, O’Brien trusted she had the chops on run. After all, Knibb has been training with another one of O’Brien’s athletes, Ironman star Jeanni Metzler, 29, one of the sport’s fastest runners off the bike in long-distance racing—who herself just came off a big second-place breakthrough at 70.3 St. George a few weeks ago.

“Jeanni has helped elevate my run, for sure,” said Knibb, who set a personal best 10K split of 35:09 in Yokohama. “We’ll go for runs together and try to sync up our workouts. Her half-marathon pace is similar to my 10K pace, so in a workout, I might do two rounds and she’ll do three or four, and we’ll try to make it work. And we’re on the same wavelength. She’s a great training partner and she has become one of my mentors. She looks out for me.”

Knibb and her coach Ian O'Brien after her surprise win. Photo: Tommy Zaferes/World Triathlon

A Second Chance

O’Brien doesn’t mince words when he reflects on how much the pandemic year boosted Knibb’s career. “There’s no way she would have been to Tokyo if the Games happened in 2020, not the way things were looking at the time,” he said. “This year, she has just gone to the next level. It’s given her a second chance.”

Knibb says she was well aware that she couldn’t simply let her 2021 Olympic chances fall to a discretionary selection committee, which is what happens for those who didn’t earn automatic selection with a podium spot in Yokohama. It’s this acknowledgement that propelled her to make such an aggressive move on the bike last week.

“I’m not naive: My 2019 results weren’t good enough to get a spot based on selection,” said Knibb, who added that the year away made her even more grateful and motivated to compete. “The breakaway in Yokohama wasn’t a choice. It’s what I had to do. If I wanted to get on the podium and go to Tokyo, I had to earn an automatic selection.”

As for Knibb’s chances in Tokyo? O’Brien is certainly confident in her podium potential given her recent workouts—and her work ethic. “When Taylor believes in something, she can do anything. That’s just the way she is,” he said.

Below, O’Brien has shared two of Knibb’s key workouts: one that’s a quintessential ITU “get-out” swim to help with fast starts and settling in; the second is the type of bike session that helped her grind away from the field at Yokohama.

Knibb’s Sessions To Help Make The U.S. Olympic Team

Session 1

Race Swim Simulation

Main Set
3 x the following:

4 x 50 start speed on :50, :45, :40, dropping each round
3 x 100 @ 1500 race speed with 5-10 sec. rest (on 1:10 for Knibb)
4 x 50 on 1:00 easy flush out

Knibb said: “The warm-up didn’t feel great and neither did the first round of 50s and 100s, but felt a little better on the second round and felt good by the third.” This workout mimics an ITU swim, where you have to get out fast and then settle into a hard race pace and hold it. This is also a great prep for any distance swim where your heart rate is high at the start and you need to settle into the pace after those hectic moments after the gun. 

Session 2

Threshold Development Bike Ride

30 minute warmup, finishing at the base of a long climb
10 min. slightly harder aerobic, 3:30 recovery, then right into
6 x (6 minutes at just under threshold pace either in the drops or aerobars, 4 minutes easy flush)

For Knibb, the goal was to do these around 280 watts, but she was able to hold more like 290 watts for all of them. Additionally, doing these on a long climb meant that the last repeats were at significant elevation, which can affect power and should be taken into account.

On the descent after the efforts, Knibb focuses on handling and applying pressure through the turns—in the TT position as much as possible. It’s a good chance to practice bike skills when tired, before cooling down back home.