Chrissie Wellington, four-time World Ironman Champion, knows a thing or two about nutrition and mental-preparedness when it comes to going long. In conversation at the launch of 33Shake’s brand-new (and Chrissie Wellington approved) Chia Energy Gels she shared her wealth of knowledge with TriGear…
You do the best you can in the context of your life. That’s what people forget: you are the best athlete that you can possibly be in the context of your life. I was a professional athlete and I saw training in a totally holistic sense, so for me I was training my body to be the best it could be. It was swim, bike, and running, it was strength and conditioning, it was massage, it was physio, it was nutrition and hydration, it was getting enough sleep. You can log as many hours or miles as you like swim, bike and running, but unless you take care of the minutia you will never ever achieve your true potential.
As a professional I could train four or six hours a day, but I had 18 hours a day to rest. 18 hours to rest! So I could take care of myself in its entirety. Amateur athletes just don’t have that luxury, so you have to fit triathlon into the context of your life rather than your life into the context of triathlon.
People compartmentalise our sport. People come to me and say: ‘Chrissie I want to be a faster runner, can you tell me what I need to do on my run training?’ And I say, ‘Well what’s your position on the bike? What do you eat on the bike? What equipment are you using on the bike? What’s the set-up like?’ They say, ‘No, you don’t understand, I want to be a faster runner!’ But I do understand and that’s why I’m talking about the bike.
I was a faster runner not only because of what I was doing in terms of running, but because of what I did on the bike. Why didn’t I wear an aero helmet? It would of made me go faster on the bike, of course it would, but I get really claustrophobic, it makes me anxious and I get dehydrated because I dissipate a lot of heat from my head. So when does that dehydration kick in? Not on the bike when I’ve gone five minutes faster, it hits you at 30k on the marathon when you’re walking… Taking water then is too late, you’re walking in the marathon because of the decisions you made on the bike.
We are triathletes. We’re not swimmers, we’re not bikers and we’re not runners and I think that’s really important to remember. You need to see it in its entirety.
Nutrition has evolved and my concept of nutrition had changed from when I was a non-athlete and started running to lose weight, developed an eating disorder and had a very distorted view of nutrition and fuelling and body image. Running was my saviour because it enabled me to get a better handle on fuelling for performance.
That has evolved into my sports nutrition strategy that exists today: my sports nutrition strategy is my daily diet. People talk about sports nutrition and they think of energy drinks, gels and a few bars, your sports nutrition and your race day performance depends on what you eat every day.
My daily diet is wholesome, natural, close to the source as possible. I’m fortunate that I don’t have any intolerances; I eat complex carbs, quinoa, spelt, wild rice… not a lot of white stuff, which is essentially carbs with all the good stuff taken out. So, not a lot of white rice, white pasta, white bread; just lots of unrefined carbs. I eat a lot of lean meat, fish, poultry, chicken, loads of nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs… I eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. It’s not rocket science.
As an athlete I supplemented that with what’s better known as ‘sports nutrition’ and I say that carefully; it was a supplement and I think people overuse these products and people think that professional athletes are sucking on energy drinks and gels every day in training. We’re not. We use them, but we use them really sparingly. My long runs – up to about 32k – I didn’t do on anything – I did it on a couple of (pre-run) rice cakes with peanut butter and honey and a cup of coffee.
People wonder why I’m fuel-efficient, well it’s about training your body to be so. In a race I used energy drinks and I used gels, but I used them so sparingly and it wasn’t the foundation for my nutritional strategy. I believe that race day nutrition starts long before race day. People use these products as a crutch to lean on and trust that they are going to give them the sustenance that you need. But they are addictive and the more you take them the more you need. So for example if I was to go out on a ride and every 30minutes I took a gel, that’s what the body is always going to need when you go for that ride, because you’re not training your body to know any different and your body is trainable.
I trained mine to be very fuel-efficient…
I started using these products and I wanted to team up with a company that thought the same way as me… our philosophies matched. I was sick and tired of reading a list of ingredients that I didn’t understand, and that goes for sports nutrition and in my daily life. You make Bakewell tart at home – butter, ground almonds, bit of raspberry jam, sugar and eggs; you buy a Bakewell tart and it hasn’t got any eggs in it – just reconstituted egg white – it hasn’t got any butter, it’s never seen an almond or a piece of fruit but it’s still called a Bakewell tart!
I started to read a lot more about the research that had been undertaken to justify the sports nutrition that people where using and I found it to be somewhat hollow. I also became increasingly concerned about the number of people who have had to go to the toilet in the bushes, how many people have had cramps, how many people have vomited… That’s not natural, it’s not normal and it’s not part and parcel of sport.
I think the psychological side of sport is one that’s often over looked. People have their logbooks for swim, bike, run. Tick, tick, tick. But they don’t have a logbook for mental training and then they panic or worry when things don’t go to plan because they haven’t practised the strategy and tools.
But you can develop mental strength and going into a race I utilised a lot of psychological techniques that I practiced in training. I got through the last race in Kona not because of the latent physical strength but because of the psychological tools that I had developed. Whether that’s the ability to disassociate my mind from my body and take my mind into a very happy place, whether it’s breaking the session down…
I used to train 40-times 100 at race pace and I hated those sessions but I used to go in thinking I’d do 5 and then think ‘okay I’ve done that, now I’ll get to 10’ and then it’s 15 and 20 and suddenly you’re half way. So I never thought about a race in its entirety… you break it down and when the going gets really tough you break it down into the person in front or the aid stations.
Dealing with Pressure
We all feel pressure. I felt it in every race I did and that’s the beautiful thing about sport: we are all challenging ourselves. If it’s not a challenge you don’t feel pressure and it’s not worth doing it. But you manage it.
Everyone gets nervous, everyone suffers from lapses in motivation and everyone feels the pressure, but you develop the skills to cope with it, like leaning on other people, watching videos of people that have overcome adversity… Before Kona 2011 I read Steve Redgrave’s book and I realised what he had been through to get to his five gold medals and I thought, ‘Wow! If you can do it, I can do it too.’
It’s perspective too. You know triathlon is important, but the world is not going to end and millions of people in this world don’t care if I win a world championship or not. At the end of the day it’s sport and it’s meant to be fun and the world is not going to fall apart if I don’t win. Of course it matters and I want to do justice to myself, but I think we all need to keep it in perspective and I think that helps you deal with the pressure.
Next month we’ll have more from Chrissie Wellington as she unpicks training, tapering and the importance of rest…
More on Chrissie Wellington at chrissiewellington.org and follow her on Twitter at @chrissiesmiles
33Shake produces 100% natural sports nutrition to provide sustained, natural energy and nutrition for endurance athletes, visit them at 33shake.com and get social with them on Facebook and Twitter. Read our review of 33Shake’s All-in-One Endurance Shake here.