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What’s Your Triathlon Superpower?

Maximize your strengths (and overcome your kryptonite) to race your best.


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This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Triathlete.

Encompassing three very different disciplines, triathlon attracts all kinds of athletes—each with unique strengths and weaknesses. We considered these pro case studies to glean advice on maximizing ability and managing challenges. What is your triathlon superpower?

The Glutinator

You’re a tri Superman (or Superwoman), but food allergies are your kryptonite

Timothy O’Donnell has an impressive racing resume, highlighted by a ITU Long Course World Champion title, numerous 70.3 victories and a podium finish in Kona last year. As a former swimmer at the U.S. Naval Academy, O’Donnell transformed into a total triathlete—he is a front-pack swimmer, can ride off the front and he has turned his run, formerly a weakness, into a weapon. No doubt, O’Donnell has the talent, work ethic and drive to be a world-class triathlete, but he realized his diet was holding him back from next-level results. In his first try at the Ironman World Championships in 2011, O’Donnell experienced bloating and lethargy, and had a hard time concentrating. “After the race I had a bunch of tests run and discovered my issue,” says O’Donnell, who learned that he was gluten intolerant. “I was a big carbs guy,” he says of his diet before 2011. “Pasta, pastries, breads and especially donuts. I loved them all!” Are you a triathlete who has it all together in training only to be sabotaged by your gut on race day? Tim has tips for you:

Deconstruct your diet.
“I was frequently having gastrointestinal issues during races, and now that I look back, the carbo-loading was self-sabotage! I had serious acid reflux issues going all the way back to high school that would particularly hurt me in the pool. I was taking Zantac for years, but once I went gluten-free I didn’t need it any longer.”

BYOB (bread).
“Travel is definitely the hardest part, especially international travel. I make sure to bring a few loaves of Udi’s gluten-free bread with me in my bike box. I freeze them first so they don’t get smooshed.”

Change your perspective.
“The idea of being gluten-free has shifted. It is not just a performance benefit anymore; it is a healthy lifestyle choice. I’d rather my body feel good than enjoy that few minutes of a glutenous treat.”

The Tetrathlete

Your fourth discipline—parenting—is the toughest one.

A member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team, Sarah Haskins also excelled on the non-draft circuit—winning the now-defunct Lifetime Triathlon Series three times. Haskins was an equal threat on the swim, bike and run. The only interruption of her winning streak came with her greatest blessing: the birth of her daughter. Despite taking the entire 2013 season off from racing, Haskins still wanted to train as much as possible for her return to triathlon. “About nine weeks in, I realized I would not be training during pregnancy, but simply exercising,” said Haskins. Post-pregnancy, she roared back to the scene with six straight wins, but things were different. “What I did not realize at the time was how much energy and minerals were being drained from my body after a year of nursing,” says Haskins. “I developed the first stress fracture of my career.” And of course her recovery changed as well. “When my daughter turned two, she climbed out of her crib and woke up at least five times a night for about 4–5 months,” she says. Are you a busy parent trying to accommodate training in addition to the 24-hour sport of raising a child? Sarah’s suggestions:

Train smart.
“I have to really listen to my body and not push through training sessions when I am really fatigued. Little ones are usually carrying bugs, and I find that one of the biggest challenges is avoiding monthly colds.”

Maximize the time you do have.
“If possible, nap when your kids are napping, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. Try to get in a workout first thing in the morning before the kids wake up, so that you don’t have any distractions.”

Anticipate body changes, moms.
“[Post-pregnancy] I was able to train really hard and have good race results, but I still had several smaller setbacks while my bones were still gaining density post-nursing. Use bone density supplements and back off on running volume and intensity to avoid stress fractures while nursing.”

The Shark

You can outswim the field, but on the run you feel like a fish out of water.

A former All-American swimmer and the school record holder at the University of Nebraska, Lauren Brandon has since morphed from a seemingly gilled animal to a three-sport athlete. “After finishing up my swim career at University of Nebraska with Olympic Trials in 2008, I still felt that I had more to do in my athletic career, but not in the world of swimming,” says Brandon, who watched her husband Barrett compete on the ITU circuit. Her first race, the Triathlon at Pacific Grove in 2009, nearly brought her to tears as she had only ridden a bike three times prior to the event. But after beginning her pro career in 2011, Brandon has clocked numerous top-five finishes at 5150 and 70.3 events and has been the first woman out of the water in every single race she’s started since 2014. Despite her swimming prowess, it’s the third leg that sometimes keeps her off the podium. “The run has been a very slow work in progress,” says Brandon, who has come a long way, but admits she still has room for improvement. Are you a great swimmer who struggles after the bike? Learn from Lauren:

Add mileage slowly.
“I am very prone to injury and really have to be conservative with how much I run. We have slowly built the volume over the past few years, but erred on the side of caution and consistency to help with my long-term progression.”

Try build runs.
“One of my bread-and-butter workouts is the build run. It is 20 minutes easy, 20 minutes medium, 20 minutes fast. Very effective for the time-crunched age grouper.”

Go your own way.
“It’s always easy to look at what other people are doing and want to run as much as them or do their workouts, but it’s important to be patient and make smart decisions. Aim for long-term consistency as opposed to short-term, high-risk training.”

The Kamikaze Racer

When you go out, you go all-out—which sometimes results in a blowup

Known for his brash personality and his all-in style of racing, Andrew Starykowicz exemplifies the strategy of “go big or go home.” Starykowicz is the proud owner of the Iron-distance bike record, a staggering 4:02 split (27.7 mph average) from Ironman Florida in 2013—a race he finished in 2nd. As a former water polo player at Purdue University, Starykowicz’s other strength lies in his swim. Famous for his dominating bike prowess, he’s also known for his legendary blowups. At Challenge Roth in 2015, he took the Roth bike record but ended up walking much of the marathon to finish with a 4:34 run split. However, sometimes Starykowicz’s gamble pays off, and with countless 70.3 podium finishes, it’s a strategy that can work for him. “If you only get six ‘bullets’ over the course of 10–14 hours, you really need to be careful where you pull the trigger,” says Starykowicz of his racing style. Are you a solid swimmer/cyclist who shows your hand too early? Andrew has some advice:

Focus on efficiency.
“[On the run] focus on your training and technique. It’s not about going harder, it’s about being more efficient during your race. [On the bike] make sure that the power isn’t just pushing wind, but pushing you forward.”

Don’t just look aero, be aero.
“One of my favorite things to do is go to the velodrome and do a threshold workout. You learn that by holding a better aero position, you can increase your speed without increasing your effort. There’s being in your aero bars and then there’s snuggling down into a real aero position.”

Don’t force it.
“Don’t overdo it trying to be a good runner—especially if you don’t have the body for it. You’ll just end up getting injured over and over.”