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Jonny Brownlee’s Short and Painful Race Prep

This is how the three-time Olympic medalist gets ready for the mixed relay.

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Later this summer, the Commonwealth countries will celebrate the Commonwealth Games—a 24-sport championship event held every four years. This year, it’ll take place in Birmingham, in the UK, in late July and early August, and for the first time it will include the mixed triathlon relay.

That’s a title you can be sure the British athletes would like to take home on home soil.

“You don’t have many opportunities to do a major games at home, so you want to be ready for it,” said Jonny Brownlee, who helped lead the Brits to the first-ever gold medal in mixed tri relay at the Olympics last summer.

With a 300m swim, 5K bike, and 1.5K run, it can be very intense and very quick. How do you get ready for something so short? With short, hard race efforts.

The Basics

Brownlee (and, of course, his brother Alistair) have put Leeds on the map as an, albeit unexpected, triathlon destination. But for them it’s simply been home for almost two decades, as they join the local running, cycling, and swimming groups. So maybe it’s no surprise that when it comes to race prep, Brownlee often relies on that Thursday evening group ride to simulate the ups and downs of racing. The ride includes a mix of pro cyclists, local riders, and triathletes in town. Of course, then “they all cycle home and I go for a run,” Brownlee joked.

While there’s no one key workout to racing, he said, it is key that you’re ready to go very hard for a very short effort. That’s why either one or two weeks before an upcoming mixed relay event, Brownlee does this workout—typically on Thursday evenings so he can join in that local group ride, if he can’t recruit a few friends to do it with him.

Jonny Brownlee’s Short & Fast Race Prep Workout

The fundamentals of Brownlee’s workout are a 45-minute warmup with a few 45-second pick-ups to get the legs moving, then 15-minutes all-out on his road bike bike. Ideally, this is done with a group or a few training partners. It isn’t a TT, it’s suppose to imitate draft-legal racing with accelerations and skills—the kind of thing that can best be mimicked in a group ride.

Then, he follows it with 2x1km as fast as he can, with a short break in between intervals.

Take 10 minutes easy on the bike to shake it out and regroup, and do it all again.

“Basically I go as hard as I can,” he said, in order to mimic the all-out short hits of mixed relay—especially when the relay comes on the heels of the individual race (like at the Olympics or like it will at the Commonwealth Games) and he needs to turn around quickly from his own race to focus on the short team event.

The Prep

You want to be relatively fresh for this kind of race prep session, with at least one easy day beforehand, said Brownlee. Then, he’ll often do a hard swim in the morning (again, a bit of race prep), and leave this simulation session for 4 or 5 p.m.

He also tries make sure he enters it well-rested, takes a nap in between sessions, and eats a big breakfast. “Just like I would for a race,” he said.

Mental Prep

“You know it’s going to be a big day and it’s going to hurt,” he said, which is why on the one hand he does this session with other people, to help him get more out of himself, and on the other hand it’s also a feeling he tries to embrace, because it too helps him mimic race day. “I get that feeling like I do before a race and you want to feel that,” he said, that combo of a little sick to the stomach and a little bit nervous.

It’s also a good time to practice the focus involved in transitions when you’re tired. It’s one thing to nail a transition at an easy pace in a quiet parking lot, but it’s another to do it when you’re going all-out and tired and there’s the pressure of everyone watching.

In Super League races, which Brownlee also specializes in, and in the recent sprint world championships in Montreal, there are also often many rounds of short races with eliminations and repeat circuits. That first time through transition might be smooth, said Brownlee, but by the second time when everything’s a bit of a mess and more chaotic it can be hard to remember where your shoes are and what to do. “The hardest part about it are the fine details,” he said—because even 2 or 3 seconds in that short of a race can be really hard to make up.

Post-Session Recovery

Afterwards, he tries to make sure to get some protein in right away: a protein shake, recovery bar, or a handful of nuts. Both the Brownlee brothers are now sponsored by American Pistachio Growers and both have started working with nutritionist Nigel Mitchell. Brownlee says he’s not the most organized ever, so having easy to eat recovery food on hand helps.

And then it’s all about the basics of recovery: “sleep a lot, eat well.” The actual mixed relay races almost always come a couple days after the individual races, so it’s important to do some easy recovery in between and then be ready to go again.