Episode 20 – Tragic Accident to Ironman with Raya Hubbell
01:14 – Raya’s backstory: from Olympic skier to living an unhealthy lifestyle
05:40 – How she caught the triathlon bug
11:30 – Key attributes you need to be a successful triathlete
17:10 – Get started by creating routines and integrating short sessions
23:57 – Diet and sports nutrition
33:35 – Recommended kit and shopping advice
38:03 – Building up to Ironman and understanding the demands placed on your body
43:00 – The importance of rest and recovery
46:06 – Tips for improving your performance
50:47 – Brick sessions are fundamental to triathletes
53:21 – Key actions to help you either get started or improve in triathlon training
Welcome to the Fitter Healthier Dad podcast, where you can learn how to improve your diet, lose fat and get fitter in a sustainable and fun way, without spending hours in the gym. Here’s your host, Darren Kirby.
Darren: This is Episode 20 of the Fitter Healthier Dad podcast. In today’s show, we’re going to be discussing using the disciplines of triathlon and using them in your fitness routines to achieve an all-round fitness. Joining me on the show is Raya Hubbell. Raya is a former Olympic skier. In 2001, Raya had a tragic accident which left her in a wheelchair for a year and took her 10 years to recover, and that’s when she found the multi disciplines of triathlon. Fast forward to today and Raya now coaches other like-minded athletes and has a goal of qualifying for the Ironman World Champs in Kona. Hi Raya, thanks very much for joining me on today’s show.
Raya: Hey, buddy, how’s it going?
Darren: Yes, very well, thank you and I’m super excited for today’s interview. I’ve read a lot about you and your background and history. So, with that in mind, can you give us an introduction into yourself and the journey that you’ve come from, from skiing right up to today?
Raya: Yeah, sure. I mean, you’ve explained it so succinctly. I feel like my waffling chat is going to be totally failed in trying to replicate this amazing introduction. So I’m Canadian originally. I was born with skis on. It was either going to be skis or skates and I chose skis and I had them in the end. Skied for a decade representing Canada, was really fortunate to travel the world, had qualified for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics and then again for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
Eight weeks before the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, I had a pretty big ski accident which resulted in a big crash. Let’s just leave it at that. Dozens of broken bones, some head injuries, some serious traumas and some spinal damage which left me, as you said, in a wheelchair for quite some time. I guess the 10 years that proceeded that were all about rebuilding my body, rebuilding my mental state, but also finding my new footing in life because I think we’re… Most athletes, especially childhood athletes, it’s all you know, and when you find yourself 20 out in the big bad world and all you really did was do exactly as you were told by coaches and trainers and educators, and suddenly you’re left going, “Oh my god, what do I do now?”
And so I found myself living in the UK because my parents, whilst I was skiing, had immigrated to the UK and I came to live here to be cared for and for them to help me out. In the meantime, I got into university here in the UK which meant I studied here and fell in love with the country. I fell in love with the access to Europe and did a business degree and so went into finance for loads of time.
And over the last 10 years, I guess 15 years now, as I recovered from my injury, I also sort of fell into this horrible trap that can easily be done when you live in the UK, which is overworking, drinking too much and falling into this really strange British social etiquette which revolves around alcohol, no matter what sort of social engagement you’re in.
And I found, ultimately, it was a bit of an unhealthy lifestyle for me. Mentally, I wasn’t where I used to be and I wasn’t happy and actually I found work a bit of a drag. And that’s when I sort of said… I woke up one day and said, “God, I’m overweight and I feel like crap. I don’t even know where to get started.” And so I started talking to a couple of friends. The other issue that I had was that I had used my back injury and my history of sport almost as a crux and said, “I can’t do that because my back will flare up and I can’t do this because my back will flare up.” And I sort of used it as an excuse.
So a friend of mine finally said, “Well, listen, get into the pool. You can’t complain. The water is not going to kill you.” So I started to swim and just started to get into a routine again. I was nearly 12 or 13 kilos heavier than I am now which is a huge amount of weight when you’re only 5’3”. And this person was right: swimming was brilliant. It got me back into a habit, it got into routine but actually it didn’t give me any sort of satisfaction when it came to training. It just didn’t sort of hit those highs and so someone suggested I start running again and I did start running but of course the pains and the back started to flare up.
And so coupled with swimming and running, someone said, “Well, listen, you should just get a bike. I bet with your ex-skiing legs like you’d be a wicked cyclist.” And so of course, when someone gives you a bit of a compliment, you run with it, right? So I got myself a bike and there you go. I was suddenly doing the three disciplines independently of each other and decided to have a go at triathlon. And that’s kind of where I got to about three or four years ago. Actually, probably four years ago now. Started doing triathlons, I started really at the very beginning, again, still massively overweight, doing it for enjoyment and then caught the bug. And then the last few years have gone from… My sort of triathlon story was really getting fit. Like from wheelchair and almost mental illness to fit, fast, healthy and competitive.
And then last year that is when I decided to leave the big bad world of finance in London and do it full time because I just had so much better job satisfaction enjoyment and love for sport and life and everything in general. And then I guess that is my story. See, I told you did it better than me.
Darren: No, it’s amazing because what you just described there is pretty much–without the horrific ski injuries–is pretty much similar to my journey and the way that I feel. So there’s a few things I want to pick out there particularly the overworking the drinking heavily and this kind of, like you said, the English culture. And I’ve never thought about it like that before, but it’s very interesting. So I was exactly like you: I worked in the city, I was overworking, I was overeating, over drinking but I would also exercise. But I was still 28 kilos overweight.
And I think the thing for me, Raya, and it’s probably the same from you what you said around the mental side of things, is once you start to lose the weight, once you get fitter and healthier and you dial in on your nutrition, it’s like this cloud or the curtains open on your clarity, your energy, and it’s just incredible, isn’t it? And it’s exactly like you. When we use this cliché term of, “oh I caught the bug,” what it actually means–and you can kind of correct me on this if I’m wrong–but it’s that sense of achievement. It’s that sense of you realizing how capable you are and how capable your body is.
And literally, it is your mind that hold you back on this side of things. So I just think, yeah, I can resonate with that so much. You know, the weight side of things and, yes, the other thing is the excuses, isn’t it? Humans are classic for that. We can’t do this because of X. Or I can’t do this because I don’t have enough time, or I work in the city, so I can’t do it. It’s all nonsense. It’s all the stories we’re telling ourselves.
Raya: Exactly. And we inherently miscommunicate even to ourselves. Like we tell ourselves something enough, we start to believe it, even though it’s a blatant lie in certain cases. Of course, we can find the time if we really want to. 90% of the time, we don’t necessarily want to. I liken the bug with another saying and some people will really get this and other people won’t. A lot of the world population have addictive personalities, especially in the Western world. We have got access to absolutely everything. You can be addicted to anything, you could be addicted to sport, you can be addicted to drugs, you can be addicted to socializing, to alcohol, to whatever it may be.
But actually, in a world where we have access to absolutely everything, those addictions can be fed so easily. So I had that. Like, I am quite a social butterfly and I had a group of friends that actually our addiction was spending time together and drinking. Going to clubs and there’s doing this, and actually because I like this group of people so much–and by the way, I still do, I just choose not to socialise with them in that setting–I was addicted to that lifestyle.
And I think that is why when people say they catch the bug with triathlon, it’s very easily for certain A type personality characteristics. That those of us who work in the city, that work crazy hours, that feel like we want to be the best in our job, as a member of our family and therefore in sport; it’s very, very easy to make this a new level of addiction. And that’s actually possibly one of the healthiest addictions you can have, is being addicted to being fit, to being healthy and being happy.
Darren: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And I think it’s very important for us to recognise that, like you’ve just said, around addictions. And it’s important to have that balance because I know when I first started and I had this kind of cloud lifted, that was all I wanted to do. You know, at the detriment of other stuff, at the detriment of the career, at the detriment of the family, and I had to re-address that balance quite quickly, otherwise you feel like you’ll end up kind of losing all of the other stuff as well. So yeah, I think that’s really important.
Obviously, you said you got the bug and everything else and we talked a little bit about the mental aspect of it. But what do you think that you need mentally in order to kind of start doing triathlon and things like that? What would you say (is) one of the key elements, or even do you need it once you get fit and healthy or is it just natural?
Raya: I think that’s really a great question in terms of what are the key attributes you need to be a successful triathlete and do you need those? And that is a really interesting point. So there are some really great attributes that make a fantastic triathlete. Having a bit of a screw loose is one. I mean, why be perfect at one sport when you could try and master three? But I think it is taking the positive attributes that you have as a person and applying them to sport, which is what you need to harness.
For a triathlete, I think you need to be honest. You need to be honest with yourself then you need to be accountable with yourself. So do you really want to commit the time to do that? And are you going to be able to be honest with yourself about going to the gym, about going to swim, going for a run when it’s pouring down with rain? And that level of accountability is incredibly important because triathlon is a multi-discipline sport. A runner who’s training for a marathon will do a lot less sessions than someone training for a sprint triathlon, because there’s three sports that you have to account for.
So honesty is the best policy and utilizing some of the key attributes that you have. Some person might be super brave and having that sort of bravery to take on challenges you need to harness. And someone else might be on the total other end of the spectrum: they might be petrified but they might have incredible patience. And actually being patient in a multi-discipline sport is an incredible attribute because you have to walk before you can run or you need to breaststroke before you can front crawl, and there’s lots of different levels of development in multi-discipline sport and you need to have patience for that. So actually, it is about taking the attributes and traits that you have and turning them into a positive for a multi-discipline sport. Anyone can do it. It’s harnessing your best traits to make that happen.
Darren: Yeah, I totally agree. And I think the other thing is that I kind of use the phrase “we live in an Amazon type world” in the sense that we are not patient enough now because we have everything within 24 hours. It’s on our phones, it’s delivered to our door and all the rest of it. And therefore, when you translate that over to improving your nutrition, improving your fitness and also starting triathlon, you want everything now, right? Your natural instinct is to just keep moving forward.
I remember the first time I crossed the finish line at Blenheim Palace when I did my first triathlon, that was it. All I wanted to do that day was finish. I then had finished and I was like, right, what’s next? How can I go faster? It’s like you say, it’s knowing yourself, to kind of dial that back. And like you said as well, be honest with yourself as to what you can achieve. Yes, you can achieve whatever you want to achieve, but you have to be realistic on how you get that.
Raya: Absolutely. And again, the “patience is a virtue” is so super important especially with, like you said, the Amazon theory of this world. We want something in 24 hours but actually the guys who are getting to Kona, it’s very rare that they’ve qualified in their first Ironman. Kona, obviously for those who don’t know, being the World Championships of long distance triathlon. You might start with Blenheim Palace Sprint Triathlon which is a beautifully run event and it gets that enticement into it.
And of course, you want to then go and do an Olympic triathlon and you then upgrade to middle distance and then obviously on to full distance. And that can take some people as little as a year but some people it will take three, four or five years because those distances are no easy feat. So, yeah, having that accountability and having that ability to manage yourself and your aspirations and your goals is really key to developing as a multi-discipline athlete.
Darren: Yeah, and I think that’s really important you know, and that kind of leads me quite nicely on to the next point really, is how people can get started in this discipline. People listening to this might not want to do a triathlon, but part of what I do with Fitter Healthier Dad is I use the four disciplines–so swim, bike, run, and then strength training–to get kind of an all-round fitness. But if people listening to this are thinking, yeah, actually I really hate the gym, I quite like swimming, and I quite like running, and maybe I could like cycling, what would you say for people that are maybe sitting at their desks or on their commute listening to this and thinking, yeah, I’d quite like to have a little go at this–how do they get started? They don’t obviously just go out and start jumping in the pool and start swimming, then do a biking and a run, do they? They’ve kind of got to build up to that.
Raya: Yeah. So if we focus on outside of kit, because I think we can come on to what you actually need, it’s integration and it’s routine. So you have to manage your time and work out what your strengths and weaknesses are. If you’re listening to this podcast and you swam county swimming as a kid, you know that actually your swimming is probably quite good. So you can start out with a couple of easy swim sessions a week, maybe even one swimming session a week, just to get that feel for the water back. And you might actually then need to integrate a couple of bikes and a couple of runs.
If you’ve never done a triathlon before and you’re thinking “I want to have a crack at this,” I would say the rule of thumb would be to try and do two swims, two bikes, and two runs a week. Depending on what sort of distance, if you’re crazy enough to start out longer distances, then this is totally out of the window, but you don’t need anything more than 20 or 30 minutes of doing each session, just to dabble your toe in it. Which also then helps you with your work life balance. Because most of us have kids, we’ve got to take them to school, we inevitably get sick because they’ve got the flu, and then we get the flu. And so it’s managing all of that sort of stuff.
Getting into the pool for no more than 30 minutes is totally fine for the first couple of sessions. Now if you’re a newbie, as in you’ve never really swam, you don’t have any experience, I would probably not just do continuous swimming. I would start with short sharp bursts to get you to swimming certain distances over that 30 minutes. So doing something like, you know, 10 X 25 metres with five to 10 seconds rest in between.
Because actually, you might remember, Darren, going back to the very first swims that you ever did when you decided to sign up for a triathlon. I remember swimming 25 metres and like coughing at the water in the pool, going “oh my God, how many lengths do I have to do again for this triathlon?” Take everything in bite sized chunks when you first start because if you hit the ground running too fast, you will totally and utterly wipe yourself out. So manageable bite-sized chunks over multiple sessions a week will help you build into it and ease your way into it.
Darren: I agree wholeheartedly. And the other part about that is that if you go too hard too soon, you’ll end up hating it because you won’t be at the level that you want to be at and you cannot rush it. I think swimming, from my perspective, more than anything, is something you can’t rush. And it’s exactly that: I couldn’t swim more than two lengths of a 20 metre pool when I first started.
Raya: I’m with you.
Darren: Yeah, it’s absolutely right. And kind of fitting it in around the family, which is obviously the big element of which I approach it from and that is, the 20 to 30 minutes is absolutely perfect and you’re so right, that’s all you need to do. You just need to get in there and start doing it and not make it a big kind of grind session–we have to grind away the lengths. The other thing about doing the 20 to 30 minute session is it’s really good when you have young kids because more often than not they’ve got swimming lessons. So you can do that whilst they’re having their swimming lessons.
Raya: Yeah, totally.
Darren: The other thing around running. I can’t remember now if you just touched on cycling, but around running, all too often, I see people going out and just doing what we call junk miles and just running. And you can see their form is not right, they’re really struggling to breathe. Don’t do that. Just do some sprints first of all. Ease yourself into it, get your aerobic engine building by doing some sprinting, your anaerobic states and there are things that if people listening just don’t know what they are, we could go into on another show. But it’s just easing yourself into it. But I think all too often, particularly men, we’re just like, “No, we’re going to do this. I can do this.” And it’s all the kind of testosterone flowing and you just smash it out of the park. And more often than not, you end up injured.
Raya: 100%. Injured, fatigued and resentful of what you’ve actually… the challenge that you’ve taken on. I like your suggestions on sprints and intervals because actually it breaks the session up, it makes it really comfortable. So it’s the same theory for cycling and running applies to my swim set example that I gave you. If you’re going to do 10 to 25 metre sprints and take a break, the same can apply for cycling. I mean, again, using the example of a time-poor family man/ family woman, if your children are you going to ballet or to the swimming lesson or to wherever it might be, you might find that they’re there for an hour and you can rush off to do a session.
Not everything has to be outside either. In this day and age, technology is such a wonderful tool. I mean, I am nine days out from an Ironman and in the last two months, I haven’t done a single session outside. Everything has been on a turbo trainer, on a treadmill and in the pool, because I am super fearful at this time of year to get sick. Rather than worrying about it raining and having a crash outdoors on the slippery roads, I’ve been on the turbo trainer or the Watt bike or the gym bike, whatever I’ve got access to and got available. And you can do just as good of a set there than on the open roads. Time-poor dads and moms can utilise tech in a great way that you don’t have to spend all the money to get gear to go outside, etc, etc. You can work around your life to actually get really good training sessions in.
Darren: Yeah, a hundred percent and completely agree with that. I think yeah and I think there are so many tools available to us now that if you really want to do this, there are no excuses. One of the things that I do see, Raya, and particularly I see this on training camps. And that is around nutrition and the kinds of diets that potential triathletes use and just people that are doing endurance sports. And that is they unnecessarily eat huge amounts of food and eat huge amounts of carbohydrates. In your opinion, how important is nutrition and what kind of diet would you say that, if someone’s listening to this and they’re going to start, they should be following?
Raya: I mean, the science behind sports nutrition goes deep and it is so, so widespread, so I think it’s really important to simplify it. We need to separate it into distance of triathlon and experience. Most people… and it’s all broken down. Everyone talks about carbohydrates but actually what you really want to talk about as glycogen supplies. Carbohydrates, i.e., fruit, veg, grains, pasta, breads, etc., etc., are an energy source which we eat, which converts to glycogen and glycogen is the energy source that our muscles use to perform. That also can be broken down into different energy sources in terms of fat and anaerobic etc. But for the ease of endurance sports, we are operating at a high enough intensity that we are generally burning glycogen energy stores rather than fat stores or amino acids. Sorry, if I’m getting too technical.
Darren: No, it’s fine. I think you’re keeping it at a high enough level because we could delve really deeper into this stuff.
Raya: I’ll keep it super simple. If you are doing a one hour training session, you should probably understand that you actually don’t need to fuel for that because your body has enough fuel supply to deal with a one-hour session. Generally speaking.
No matter how advanced or experienced my triathletes are, whether they’re newbies or beginners, I don’t necessarily, on our sessions where it’s a one-hour session, ask them to eat any differently in a day. It’s only when we start going into the two, three, four or five hour sessions where nutrition… and two, three, four, five hour races, where nutrition becomes totally important.
When you say unnecessary carbs, I think it’s probably… Our listeners are probably in the right listenership to say, Yeah, you’re right. If you’re training less than 10 hours a week, which most of us are, you actually don’t need to eat any differently. Because 10 hours a week would suggest you’re doing roughly one hour of training a day and maybe two to three on the weekend. Then there’s a couple of different trains of thoughts with fuel sources and it depends whether you need to lose weight or maintain weight. So yeah, if you’re training for…
Sorry, I’m jumping all over the place because I’m trying to keep it super simple. But if you’re training for sprint and Olympic distance triathlons, actually, I believe you don’t have to change your nutrition hugely unless you are a terrible eater. If you’re eating junk food, i.e., trans fats and greasy foods and deep-fried foods and all that sort of stuff which, frankly, all of us in this day and age know that it’s really bad for you. Okay? Like if you’re eating McDonald’s every week and taking takeaway and having stuff with MSG in it, and you’re not eating fresh fruit and vegetables, you’re not eating home cooked meats and veg, then, yeah, okay, your diet is really crappy. Crappy diet equals crappy training and crappy lifestyle.
If you’re eating healthy foods like healthy breads and meats and cheeses and fruit and vegetables and all the stuff that’s good for you, as long as you’re not overeating, you really don’t have to change your diet that much. On camp, as you suggested, it’s a slightly different story because you’re probably going to be doing upwards of 16 to 20 hours of training and then of course you need to fuel for that type of training. It’s really only when you step up to middle and long distance triathlon, i.e., the events that last four hours or more, where critically, your training sessions increase in time and your races increase in time and therefore, the amount of calories i.e., “carbohydrates you consume” need to be increased because you’re expending a lot more calories and a lot more energy.
It’s quite funny because you talk about the four disciplines of training as swim, bike, run strength training, but actually, nutrition is the fourth discipline. Strength is the fifth discipline because nutrition is so much more vital to having your body work properly.
Darren: Yeah, I agree. I think the biggest part about what you’ve just said there is taking it back, dialling it back, keep it simple and eat–I keep using this phrase recently–nutrient dense food. That’s food that’s not gone through a manufacturing process, that is either vegetables, meat, fish, a balanced diet, with relevant portion sizes, and that’s literally all you need. And the other thing which I’m really pleased you mentioned there was about fuelling a session for an hour. One of my biggest bugbears is seeing people that are going to the gym for an hour or less with all these pre-workout drinks, all these energy drinks, it’s nonsense. Because your muscles have enough glycogen for an hour and a half’s worth of activity.
Raya: The only thing I would say to you there is I a hundred percent agree: pre-workout and energy drinks are two very different things. Pre-workout, the main two ingredients are normally beta alanine and creatine. Now, those don’t have any calories in them; they are naturally producing amino acids that your body creates, which you’re feeding your body, which allows you more explosive power. But again, totally irrelevant, really, for those doing endurance sports, because creatine and beta alanine are there really for explosive, heavy weight lifting sessions.
I, for example, take beta alanine, and I will sometimes take creatine on really, really heavy lifting sessions. But then again, I train 17 to 19 hours a week, and I only take them for my strength and conditioning sessions.
Darren: Right. That’s a good point. I’m glad you brought that up. So yeah, I think nutrition is a huge topic that we could delve into and we can talk about being fat adapted and all the rest of it, and that’s a whole other kind of topic.
Raya: We can talk about it for hours because also it needs to be broken down, like I said, into probably the distance of triathlon people are choosing, whether or not they are on a weight maintenance diet or a weight loss diet or a weight gain diet. It’s so complicated. But like you said, macro rich nutrient food, i.e., non-processed food. So don’t have an energy bar when you could have a banana.
All of this sports nutrition stuff is great, but people get so obsessed with ordering more gels and doing this. Nine times out of 10, I don’t use… I’m sponsored by an energy company and I use them only for race day practice sessions, training sessions, and race day. The rest of the time, I’m eating real foods to fuel my training sessions and I’ll give you an example. On Wednesday, I did my very last training session, so two days ago. I can’t remember what day this goes out, so two days ago, I did my last training session for my Ironman in 10 days’ time and I did a nine-hour session. So I did 100 miles on the bike, a two and a half kilometre swim, and I did a 12 kilometre run, and I had three gels all day. The rest of my food was actual food to fuel those sessions.
Darren: Yeah, and I think that’s really important because there’s a whole other topic around athletes and diabetes. And I have a massive issue with gels in particular and about how age-grouper athletes are just necking these gels and then they wonder why they get sick, they wonder why they have issues with blood glucose and all the rest of it. And, yeah, that’s another whole kind of topic.
Coming back to the other elements of it. Obviously, kit is a big part of triathlon. And you can look at it one of two ways. Great, I can go out and spend a load of money and get some really cool kit or the other way is, you know, it’s going to cost, and it can be a very expensive sport if you want to let it get that way. But what would you say that the people listening to this who are thinking about doing it, or they might even just be doing the individual disciplines, they might not want to do a triathlon. But what kind of kit would you recommend is the kind of baseline kit?
Raya: Let’s go to the essentials. If you want to swim, the only two things you need are a bathing suit and possibly some goggles, some swimming goggles, and goggles are a whole discussion themselves. Get something that suits your face, not what someone recommends to you. If you then choose to go into triathlon, the one thing that you might need is a wet suit and a tri suit on top of that. Those are your bare minimums for your swim and you’re triathlon element.
Running, all you need is some running shoes to go on top of that. And if you’re looking to bike, key elements are a helmet and a bike. With that, you could actually do a whole triathlon.
Darren: Yeah, I agree. Sorry to interrupt you. One of the things that I advise people to do, particularly if they’re new to it, the bike can be the biggest cost in all of this. If you’re uncertain, then I always recommend going down the second-hand route because there can be some really good bikes that you can pick up second-hand.
Raya: My first bike was a second hand bike. I totally and utterly believe in getting a second-hand kit. However, bikes in particular, you must bike fit before you buy something. So I made a huge mistake: I am 5’3” and I have quite a standardised frame, if you will. So I don’t have particularly long legs, I don’t have particularly long arms, I’m just kind of all in proportion. So didn’t think that a bike size would be that much of an issue and I bought a bike ultimately, that was three sizes too big, which caused huge problems with my back, which caused huge problems.
And, although I got a great deal on this bike, and it was brilliant because I got it on eBay for £400 pounds, and it was brilliant. Maybe even four or five years old, but it was still in excellent condition but it was too big for me, and ultimately caused me more harm than good. So I totally agree. If you’re going to go down the route of second hand and you’re taking the leap of faith of trying the sport, it’s categorically the right thing to do. There are these amazing Facebook groups, there’s amazing eBay, second-hand bike websites globally that are fantastic, but you need to know the size of bike. Therefore, spend the money, it normally costs £200 or $250 to get a bike fit, before you go and do that.
Darren: That’s a really great tip, actually, because, like you say, buying the wrong bike can actually mean that your performance is hindered because you can’t put the power down when it needs to go down and in the right places, you can’t get your cadence right, you’re hunched over the bike, you’re uncomfortable, you can’t be on it for a long period of time.
The other thing about the bike as well is that I remember when I did my first triathlon, I actually didn’t buy my bike until I think it was about six to eight weeks before the event. I actually trained all the previous times on a Watt bike in the gym. So if you’re budgeting, then you can do most of your training on a spin bike or a Watt bike in the gym. I wouldn’t advocate necessarily using the traditional exercise bikes, but you can and I have and do sometimes, if that’s all that’s available. But yeah, so it’s just kind of budgeting and understanding what it is you need to be invested in, really.
Raya: It can be a very expensive sport but also it can be, if planned right, a very affordable sport.
Darren: Yeah, I agree. I think it definitely can be. So for people that are already triathletes that are listening to this, you mentioned earlier about gradually moving up the various different distances up into Ironman. What would you say are some key factors to consider? If somebody is listening to this, they’ve done a few sprint distance ones this year or they’ve even done some super sprint distance ones this year. What would you say if they’re now planning their next season? What would you say? And they even maybe would want to go up to an Ironman, what would you say are the best things or the best ways to tackle that?
Raya: I think the first thing you need to understand is the differences in distances that you are tackling. With a sprint and an Olympic, most people can do it under the three-and-a-half hour mark. A solid, solid Olympic time is probably two and a half or 2 hours 20, which is getting down to the more sort of elite fast end, and you will train considerably less for those events. If you look at middle distance and long distance, your distances are going up considerably. So for a half Ironman, your swim is a 1900 metre swim or 1.2 miles, a 90 kilometre or 56 mile bike, and a half marathon.
If you then decide to take the plunge for a full Ironman, you’re looking at a 2.4 mile-swim or a 3.8 kilometre swim and 180 kilometre or 112 mile bike, followed by a marathon. Though, these are long, long distances and in order to be fit enough to compete in those long, long distances, you need to have enough time to train for those distances.
Each distance that you go up in, you’re looking at nearly a 50% increase in distance. However, the demand on the body is exponentially more than 50% of that increased distance. So an Olympic distance might take a couple of days to recover from. The first time you do a half Ironman, it might take a couple of weeks to recover from. But an Ironman, no matter how fit you are, can take a month or two to recover from because of the demands placed on the body.
Understanding the challenge at hand and the demands on the body is the very first key to understanding what you need to do to upgrade and the hours that it’s going to take. So most people can train… Now this is super generalistic. As a coach, I would never tell someone that they have to train this X amount of hours to a certain race. But if we look at, in general, most people training for a sprint triathlon can do it with around two to four hours of training per week. It’s totally possible to finish a sprint race. Again, upgrading to Olympic distance, you can probably do it under eight hours of training a week without much difficulty.
Once you get into middle distance, those hours increase exponentially because of the distance that needs to be covered. So a 70.3 or a half Ironman, you’re looking at 10 to 12 hours minimum per week, with your heavy weeks being up to 16 hours of training–an Ironman being a little bit more than that.
Now, understanding if you have the commitment of time is number one priority. We’ve covered nutrition but nutrition takes a whole new critical element of training because most of us who are Ironman athletes have children, have day jobs, and have this that and the other, whereas pro athletes can train as much as they want, but they get to sleep in between their training sessions.
We need (fuel) for not only the task at hand, but being able to be awake and function like a human between training sessions after doing an Ironman. The other thing that’s really important to note, I think, when you go up to the long distances is that, critically, it no longer becomes a running race, your bike time. The importance of your bike leg increases exponentially because of the distance that you travel on the bike. Also critically, it is absolutely okay to undertrain your run distances when you go up to those long distances to avoid injury and keep yourself healthy.
Darren: Yeah, I think that’s some great tips. From experience, the jump up from half to full Ironman is a world of difference and the other thing is it’s a world of difference of the impact that it has on your body and, like you say, the recovery. This was something that I struggled with in the early days and that was rest and recovery. And to be honest, I probably still do struggle with it. Because it’s this psychological thing of once you know you can do what you can do, you just want to do more, but actually some of your performance gains–we might be going a little bit too deep in this–but will come from your rest and recovery.
Raya: Let me correct what you just said. 100% of your gains come from resting. 100% of your gains come from resting. When you are training, you are breaking down your muscular strength and the composition of your muscles to such an extent that the only time they can recover and gain is when you’re recovering.
Darren: Yeah. And I think coming back to the male element of it, we struggle with resting and recovering. Like I said, we just want to do more but it is hugely valuable to recognise that. And I think the other thing I just wanted to mention there is around sleep. It’s scientifically proven that endurance athletes need a lot more sleep than just doing CrossFit or strength and conditioning training. Getting your eight hours of sleep in, good quality sleep in the night time, is very, very important. But that’s also challenging when you have families and the day job and everything else.
Raya: Absolutely. Sleep is vital, rest days are vital. My athletes, even my Kona-qualified athletes, all have one full day of total rest. They are allowed to do stretching on their rest day and that is it. You’re right. People find that really, really difficult to comprehend and work towards.
And it’s interesting. So I took on two guys last year that had been working with other coaches for a really long time and the hours that they were training, I took one look at the hours they were doing and said, “I can get you 25% faster and cut out six hours of training,” and they just didn’t believe me. And it was because I think the theory had been that they had been working so hard towards these goals and it was to qualify for Kona and to qualify for the World Championships and the half iron distance, that they were pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing.
But both of them were family men, have kids, they were getting sick, they were pushing their bodies to such an extreme that actually they were just doing damage. So we took out nearly six hours of training and put in a full rest day and both of them on their next race qualified for the events they wanted to qualify for.
Darren: That’s impressive. Proof of the pudding is obviously in that. So for people that are looking to improve performance, because once you get to a certain level, it then starts to become less about finishing the event and more about improving your time. So like you said, you can qualify for Kona or you can qualify for specific events. Obviously, a big element of… We’ve just covered this actually, and that is resting can improve performance significantly. What other things would you say people can do or look at to improve performance? Again, this is a big topic, but just in general.
Raya: Once you’ve gotten to the point of you’re crossing the finish line, you’re feeling good and you constantly want to improve, there’s a few things that can be tailored to really, really help get your results to the next level. First and foremost is have a solid plan. Once you get to the point where you’re like “I can do a lot better than this.” You need to start strategizing so have a plan.
You start to look for the races that suit your strengths and discount your weaknesses. I’ll give you a perfect example. I am, for want of a better word, especially for a female triathlete, I’m a phenomenal cyclist. I think every single race I have done this season, I’ve either been first or second in the female field off the bike. However, I cannot hill climb compared to the best in the world. So strategically, I pick bike legs that have no more than a certain amount of climbing in it to ensure I get the biggest advantage possible.
So I’m not going to do Ironman Zurich, or Ironman Wales or Bolton, because they don’t suit my advantages. They highlight my weaknesses. However, I am going to do Ironman Argentina because there’s 600 metres of climbing in the bike which I can get into my time trial position, which I am flexible enough to hold for five hours and should be able to beat most of the female field off the bike. Which will leave me in a great position to have a solid run. So strategizing your events are pivotal in performance improvement because you actually don’t have to get any fitter but you will perform infinitely better by racing to your strengths.
So having a plan of action, having a race strategy, and knowing your strengths and weaknesses, will exponentially improve your performance. Setting clear, driven, and almost unattainable goals will help. Now, we’re talking about higher end performance at this point, right? So if you are a beginner, you discount everything I’m saying. Because as a beginner, you don’t want unachievable goals: you need to be able to meet your weekly, monthly, quarterly, annual targets, or else you lose all faith. But if you are super, super competitive, and at that top end, you need to have goals that you almost can’t achieve to continuously keep working towards them.
You need to get creative with your training, you need to try new sessions that don’t work for you or you need to try new sessions if the sessions you are working towards or on, are not improving your performance. You need to start looking at times that you are training, your nutrition, your strengths in the gym, etc., etc., etc. And my biggest, biggest bugbear is, especially those who are not early risers, is getting it done early.
Your race normally starts at 5:30 in the morning, sometimes earlier. I’m normally having breakfast on an Ironman at four o’clock in the morning. And therefore, if you’re not training at those times, your body will not perform on race day unless you have practiced at that time. If you’re an early morning riser, what I’m saying is completely irrelevant to you because you already do that but lots of people aren’t early risers. And if you’re not an early riser, you must train yourself to be so.
Darren: I agree. Fortunate enough for me, I am an early riser and I realise that that is when I perform better. But yeah, I think the other thing as well, particularly on race day, if you have not got up before race day and consumed your breakfast at the odd hours, you will need to get up for race day. You can’t go to an event and do it on the day because your body would just be like, “what the hell is going on here,” you know? And so yeah, that’s a big key thing.
I think the other thing, Raya, and you may correct me on this. But I think the other big thing that gets missed and something that I missed last season, and that is doing the brick sessions as well. So the brick session is something where you get off the bike and then you do a run, or you might do a swim and then you might do a run, or something like that.
Raya: It’s race simulation training, essentially. Yeah, categorically, brick sessions are fundamental to multi discipline triathletes. For example, the last, I guess… So I competed at Worlds in September, and from September until now, I’ve been in full Ironman training. Only one run a week I do isn’t followed by a bike. All of my sessions are brick sessions when I’m in full season training mode. Why? Because there’s no point in the middle of full season, training with fresh legs. Because in an Ironman, you are going to be buggered, for want of a better word.
There’s no point going out for a three-hour run if you haven’t cycled 100 miles because it’s totally irrelevant to the task at hand. It’s much better… And this is why I said it’s totally fine to undertrain on the run, because the amount of cycling you’re doing when you’re training long distance is cardiovascular, assisting you on your fitness and your endurance, that you can avoid injury and run less. But run off the bike and actually doing an hour and a half run when you’ve been on the bike for five hours or three hours is much more conducive and better training than going out and trying to run a 30K run.
Darren: Yeah. I agree. I think that’s very key.
Raya: Just to put it in perspective, I have not done more than a half marathon this year, unless I’ve been in a race.
Darren: Wow, okay. That says it all, then, doesn’t it really? And I think a lot of it then comes back as well to what I was saying about earlier, is doing junk miles. You don’t need to just keep running and running and running…
Raya: Quality over quantity, especially when it comes to running because running is our number one source of injury as multi-sport triathletes.
Darren: Particularly when you’re fatigued and you’re tired and all the rest of it.
Darren: Okay, so we’ve covered a hell of a lot there, Raya, and gone into some real in depth stuff. To sum up what we talked about today, what are the five key actions that you would say the listeners could take away to help them either get started in triathlon training or improve?
Raya: Key takeaways for beginners are: try it, test it out and see. Don’t go spending money until you know that you absolutely love it and you’re committed because otherwise it’s a total waste of money. But yeah, get started, try it out, see if you like it and build gradually over time. Build gradually in terms of the kit that you collect, in terms of the races that you do, in terms of the different membership clubs that you join, all of that sort of stuff. Take it all in your stride and make sure it fits within your lifestyle.
I would say really focus on structured and quality training over quantity, especially if we’re focusing on the dads of this world. Most, most, most importantly for me, which we haven’t actually covered at all, is this sport is supposed to be a hell of a lot of fun. And if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.
Darren: Yeah, I agree with that a hundred percent. That comes back to actually people being consistent with it, because you need to be consistent. Well, not just in this sport, but just in anything that you do, particularly around fitness and nutrition. And if you don’t like it, you’re punishing yourself. Why punish yourself? So, absolutely, it has to be fun. That’s amazing. Thank you very much for your time, Raya.
Raya: You are more than welcome.
Darren: Before we finish up today, is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you feel like I should have asked you that will benefit the listeners?
Raya: No. I mean, I think we’ve covered off a huge amount. I think we’re good. I guess the biggest question is, if triathlon is a sport that people are listening to and they’ve never done it before, and they want to find out more, then we’re more than happy to help from our perspective. I run a coaching company here in the UK. We focus on the higher end of the market, so most of our athletes are top five to 1% in the world, so it’s a pretty competitive group. That’s not to say we don’t have all levels and abilities in the team. But yeah, anything more that you want to cover, I’d be more than happy to chat to any of your listeners off air and get more information over to them.
Darren: Fantastic. So how can they connect with you, Raya? What kind of social platforms are you on that they can connect with you on?
Raya: You can contact us on our website, which is Precision-Coaching.co.uk. My business partner, Will, and I are both on Instagram. I am @raya_hubbell_precision_coach and Will is @will_usher_precision_coach. You can also find our race team, which is precision_race_team, where you can see a whole bunch of incredibly inspiring athletes that will certainly get you motivated. And Twitter and all the various other platforms, Facebook, etc. Everything is #PrecisionCoaching.
Darren: Fantastic. All right, that’s great, Raya. Thank you very much for your time and good luck with your race. When is your race?
Raya: Thank you. I am doing Ironman Argentina, which is on the 1st of December, so I don’t know if this podcast will have gone out by then. But yeah, it’s really close.
Darren: Yeah, it will go out next Friday so it will be out before that then. And I highly recommend you guys go over and follow both Will and Raya on Instagram to see what they get up to with their crazy stuff. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you today, Raya, so thank you very much for your time again and I’ll look forward to catching up with you soon.
Raya: You too, Darren, and I know that you are also in the hunt for Kona. So please, best of luck to you, too, and let me know if you need any help with your training.
Darren: Thank you very much, Raya. Take care.
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