My duathlon journey

I am often asked how I have managed to improve so much in duathlon since I first started out as a very average athlete at the age of 25 in 2006. The great thing is that I have not done anything particularly special – the key is hard work! In this post I briefly outline the stages in my journey since I started out.

Throughout my life I had always played team sports – mainly rugby and cricket – so whilst keeping fit I was never an endurance athlete. In fact, whilst many of the serious athletes were getting the miles in at university, I was busy developing a reputation as a seriously good drinker….. I could see away a jug of vodka Redbull in a matter of moments (and do that several times a night and still remember it)! It goes without saying that the 3 or 4 binge drinking sessions a week were not a great grounding for an endurance career! However, a few years after university, in 2006, I called a halt to the team stuff (as a result of injury and work commitments) and started taking my first tentative steps into the world of endurance sport. My calorie consumption (both from alcohol and food) decreased significantly and that year I did my first triathlon (Blenheim) and duathlon (London), before a long awaited ACL reconstruction in early 2007.  I was fully recovered a year later and took part in a classically wet and windy duathlon at Castle Combe in May 2008 (at the age of 26) at Castle Combe. Being a competitive guy I knew it was something that I wanted to improve on. From that day on it has been a great journey of discovery: learning about equipment, training, diet, injury, recovery, highs, lows and so on.

These are the stages in my journey (from 2006):

Stage 1 (2006-2008) – significantly affected by 12 months recovery from ACL reconstruction in mid 2006
Bought a road bike (my first was a Trek 1500)
Took part in running and bike races (TTs and sportives) plus triathlons and duathlons
Started running up to 25 miles a week
Learnt a lot about training and racing!

Stage 2 (2009 and 2010)
Decided to focus on duathlon to see how good I could get
Bought a turbo
Started doing 1 hard interval session a week for both running and cycling
Got into road racing (mainly closed circuit but a bit of road)
Gradual improvements in running and cycling and therefore duathlon

Stage 3 (2011-2012)
Joined a running club (Cheltenham Harriers) and started pushing harder!
Upped volume of training to about 8 hours a week (running and cycling) under the guidance of the coach
I made significant improvements at this stage through the harder sessions with the club and raised training volume.
Bought a TT bike once I was hitting fast enough speeds in TTs on road bike to justify it!

Stage 4 (2013)
Upped the mileage to 40 miles running and 5 hours biking
Started integrating double days into training programme (once body had gradually developed the resistance to high training load)

Stage 5 (2014 to present)
Training up to 14 hours a week (usually about 10/11)
Double days with good quality sessions (double days nailed me last year but my body slowly developed its resistance/ability to recover so I can now do two worthwhile sessions, a couple of times a week)
Started being more disciplined with my diet i.e. staying very light (for big events anyway!)
Disc wheel and deep section front wheel
Started using periodised blocks to target specific races (3 weeks of gradually volume increase followed by 1 week reduced) for 8 weeks before the target event
Further marginal gains such as aero bottle, over shoes, skin suit.

The thing I have found is that there is no substitute for mileage in the legs. Top end interval sessions are essential for raising lactate threshold but these need to be done in conjunction with long base miles. The other major factor is body weight. When you look at the guys at the running club, you can pick out the quickest because they are the lightest. To run and bike fast (in the hills) you need to be light!

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You don’t have to be a ‘freak’!

In a previous post (‘No limits’ – see below), I wrote about how we should never set limits on what we believe we can achieve. This post goes a little further to justify that call and looks into athletes’ physiology. I mentioned Lee Piercy in that previous post, a duathlon legend and someone with an incredible natural physiology: he was effectively born to do endurance sports! He has a phenomenally high VO2 Max, as evidenced by a 38 minute 10k which he ran when he was just 10 years old at the Crawley mini marathon….. crazy!! I’ve seen the paper cutting of that result so he’s not making it up either! Something like that cannot be achieved by someone without freaky physiology. Lee has gone on to do incredible things in duathlon and time trialling, often wining events on very little training – in fact, he often takes pleasure in telling me how few hours he’s done in preparation for an event in which he beats me!

However, not all of the very top athletes are natural physiological ‘freaks’ like Lee. My fellow Cheltenham Harrier, Oli Mott has also achieved big things in the world of duathlon. He is multiple British University duathlon champion, Castle Combe duathlon record holder, has represented GB at elite level and came an incredible 11th in the ITU Elite Long Distance World Duathlon Championships on the infamously difficult Zonfingen course in 2013 as well as 5th in the European equivalent in Horst. He has been there and done it, is a GP and also my unofficial nutrition, injury and training advisor! Anyway, I always thought Oli was like Lee: a chap with freaky natural physiology who was born with giant sized heart and lungs. But a few years ago whilst sharing a lift back from Castle Combe to Cheltenham (the day he broke the duathlon course record), I made the most of his inability to escape me and grilled him on all things duathlon! We discussed nutrition, training, equipment etc. etc., but the one thing that stood out from that conversation was that he was a fairly average athlete when he was young.  There was no 38 minute 10k at 10 years old. In fact he was a 40 minute 10k runner in his late teens and not even the fastest guy in his year. I was very surprised by this – I had always assumed he was born with giant lungs and heart – and it gave me hope! Oli has improved steadily over the years through hard graft, bit by bit improving year on year. His body has adapted so his VO2 has increased (by the relatively small amount that it can) but his lactate threshold, economy and other physiology changes (such as body fat, body shape, bone density et.). Obviously, not everyone will respond as well as Oli to training, but his gradual improvement is much more realistic and accessible for athletes with enough commitment to training. Oli proves that you don’t have to be born with a giant heart and run a 38 minute 10k at 10 years old to get to the top of the sport….. If you are highly motivated and committed over a period time you can develop significantly!

No limits

If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt in endurance sport it’s that you should never limit what you believe you can achieve: often it’s a mental barrier that stops us when the body is definitely capable of more. This is very obvious during the event as the going gets tough and the pain and suffering is ratcheting up, but in this case I am thinking more about long term goals and aspirations.

In 2006 I did my first triathlon (Blenheim) and duathlon (London) and really caught the bug. An ACL reconstruction in 2007 put a dent in my progression but I was fully recovered in 2008 and took part in a typically wet and windy duathlon at Castle Combe in May of that year. Despite it being the usual 2 mile 10 mile 2 mile sprint affair, I finished a full 10 minutes behind a certain Lee Piercy. Lee is a living legend in duathlon: multiple age group World champion, British champion and Powerman Arizona winner amongst his triple figure duathlon wins. Lee was so imperious that day in the rain at Castle Combe that my wife took a photo of him coming into transition! I couldn’t believe that a guy could go that fast. I was in awe. However, over the next 5 years with tonnes of training and improvements in equipment I gradually improved my run and bike times, gradually getting closer and closer to Lee. In 2014, for the first time, I actually managed to beat him at Clumber Park in an age group World championship duathlon qualifier. He and I are good friends now having raced each other a fair bit over the years, so as well as reminding me of his significantly greater age, he also assures me that he wasn’t well that day… but a wins a win in my book! Ill or not, for me to be in that kind of company is amazing when I think back to 2008. It just goes to show that it is possible to do amazing things with commitment, discipline, time, and as importantly, belief.