Just eight months before she became WORLD CHAMPION by winning her age category in the 2015 Duathlon World Championship, Claire Steels had never dipped her running toe into the run-bike-run world of duathlon. That’s right, she had zero duathlon experience, which is totally bonkers. In fact, she’d only bought a bike a few months previously, and when she did eventually compete for the first time, she hated it!
I love a story like this, so I quizzed 30-year-old Claire (who’s also the current ITU Duathlon World Champ in her age group) about training, her journey to world champion, and how she grew to love duathlon.
Your background’s in county hockey. How did duathlon come about?
I was at a local cross country running race and afterwards a girl called Abi came up to me and introduced herself. I recognised her from other running events, and she told me that she’d moved closer to my running club and would like someone to go running with. We exchanged details and met up the following week for a run. Abi competed in triathlons and had just qualified to represent GB, and was telling me all about it. I said that I’d love to try one, but I didn’t have a bike and I’m a terrible swimmer. It was at the point that she introduced me to duathlons!
Had you done much cycling before your first duathlon?
I bought my first bike in October 2014 and then completed my first race in March 2015. I didn’t know anything about bikes, and I only know a little bit now. I‘m trying to learn, though! Don’t get me wrong, I could physically ride a bike. I was always very active as a child and had a bike growing up, but it was never for anything more than whizzing up and down the street or around a campsite on holiday.
When you first started in duathlon what did you find the most challenging?
I found long bike rides quite hard. Even as I runner I hadn’t ever really gone for a long run, so going out on the bike for 3 – 4 hours was both mentally and physically challenging. I worked up to that though, to allow my body time to adjust. Initially, I found the bike really hard work and in my first few races I found myself losing a lot of places on the cycle, which I then had to claw back on the final run.
I wasn’t in a very good place, mentally, when I first started training for duathlons; I’d recently moved back home after leaving an awful relationship (something I’ve never really spoken about before) and I found the training quite comforting in a strange way. I enjoyed the structure of the training, and the pain and suffering I felt during training was a really productive way of working through a lot of issues. In a strange way, duathlons saved me and pulled me back to a better place.
I read that you hated your first duathlon, yet you qualified for the world champs – what didn’t you like?
The bike element without a doubt! It was awful! I just didn’t have the fitness for it. I hadn’t been training for long enough, and racing 40km on a bike after a 10km run was just too much for me. I’d been unwell for a few days leading up to the race and was sick all over myself and my bike with about 10km to go! Quite funny looking back at it now, but at the time I was pretty miserable.
You went from no duathlon experience to being the best in the world in your age group – all within 12 months. How was the journey?
It was a great journey, but it came in stages. The first few months were really hard. My body ached and was tired, but also I was just so sleepy. It made me realise how much I’d been coasting along in my sporting life before this. After about 5/6 months of training, it all started to click and I got my first win; suddenly the bike didn’t seem so daunting.
Do you feel the pressure of competing?
During the opening ceremony of my first World Champs in Adelaide in 2015, I was chatting to people and sharing stories when one guy told me that he knew who I was, and word was that I was going to win my age group. I laughed and probably blushed and didn’t think any more about it until I got to my room. That was the first time that I felt any pressure, but it was also quite reassuring to think that someone out there, who didn’t know me personally, thought that I could do it.
After that first race I think the biggest pressure has come from myself. I feel as though I’ll be judged by other people if I don’t race or perform well. In reality, I doubt anyone really cares. Multisport is an incredibly friendly and supportive community and there’s very little judgement from most people. There’s always a few exceptions, but that’s life.
Going into your first World Championship, did your win come as a surprise?
I was confident I could race well, but it was still a huge surprise! I couldn’t believe that I’d actually done it! I didn’t believe it until I’d seen it online several times, and even then it didn’t feel real. I was scared of celebrating too early and then finding out there’d been an error.
My coach and I had looked at the course profile and he’d looked at previous times and a few of the other competitors. By this time I had a few wins under my belt so I felt confident in my performance, but you can’t control what other people can do. We knew that the bike course was ideal for me, not too technical but with a steepish climb (I’m from Lincolnshire, most hills are steep to me!) that went on for a few hundred metres. My cycling had developed really well, so we knew it would come down to how well I could run and if I could stay in touch with the lead runners. I took the lead on the bike and just kept telling myself, this is yours to lose now, do not cock it up! Haha!
What kind of cycling/running split is your training?
Initially we needed to concentrate on the bike. I had 20 years of running in my legs – admittedly most of it was on a hockey pitch or just messing around – but I didn’t have any real cycling experience. As time has gone on, cycling has become my strength and in races I’m just desperate to get onto my bike. I love it, even when it hurts. In fact, especially when it hurts.
I go through phases with running, it’s like a love affair. Sometimes I hate it and consider throwing the towel in and just concentrating on the bike. Sometimes I love it though, and those days make me forget all of the awful days!
Do you do any strength training alongside your bike and running?
Yes I try to get two gym sessions in per week, although this doesn’t always happen. I swear by squats, although I don’t do them enough. I try to do a lot of core work, yoga and foam rolling.
What kind of bike sessions do you do in race season?
I tend to have a mix, although I try to get out at least once a week. It’s important to get out on the road and train in all weathers. I have the mentality that if I’d race in it, I’ll train in it. I’m fortunate enough to be sponsored by Sealskinz so going out to train in the wet and cold isn’t really too much of an issue as I can stay dry and warm.
I do weekly turbo sessions using power as a guideline and then from the spring I try to do time trials once a week.
What type of run sessions do you do?
Running is similar in that it’s a bit of a mix; some hill work, one long run a week and some interval sessions.
Is it difficult to motivate yourself to cycle when training dictates it, but you really want to run?
Ha, I never really want to run these days! Seriously, though, it can be difficult but the training sessions are just part of my weekly routine now – I’d kind of be lost without them. I have one easier week per month, so when it’s getting tough I just try to focus on that! If I’m really tired or feeling off then I skip the session or reduce the duration or intensity. This has taken me a long time to get my head around, but seasons aren’t decided with one training session, however you can easily injure yourself or make yourself poorly by pushing too hard.
What does a typical training week look like for you?
Monday – Running intervals or turbo session and a gym session.
Tuesday – Running Interval or turbo (whichever I didn’t do Monday.)
Wednesday – Bike outside tempo. In race season, this becomes a brick session where I run either before or after the bike session. I do this at work and can often be seen having a quick change in the car park – glamorous huh!
Thursday – Easy run and gym.
Friday – Long ride
Saturday – Long run
Sunday – Rest
How do you fit training in with a life and your PT business?
I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. Reduced my working hours and clients. Luckily my friends and family are very understanding and supportive!
When you’re tired or feeling ‘meh’ what inspires you to get out and train?
The feeling that I want to stand on the start line knowing that I’ve done everything I can to be as ready as possible. As long as I know that I’ve done everything that I can, then I can come away from the race proud of myself, regardless of the result. My coach dedicates a lot of his time to training me, so the least I can do is drag myself out for an hour or so and do the training.
Do you ever use techniques such as visualisation?
Occasionally, mainly for transition practice. I also try to imagine what I look like when I’m running and on the bike. I think about how I want my body to look and what position it needs to be in and then try to move into that position during a race or training. I studied sports psychology at university so I try to use it a little bit!
What are your goals for 2017?
I have big goals and smaller goals. The Duathlon World Championship in Canada is a big goal and will be my third World Champs. I just want to go there and do my best and enjoy the experience.
I also make smaller goals for throughout the season and weekly goals too. Weekly goals can be something as simple as making sure I stretch every day etc. I set goals for running and cycling individually, as well as duathlon goals.
Are there any female athletes that you admire?
So many. The obvious ones, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Laura Trott, Lizzie Armistead, but also the women who I race against week in, week out. Everyone has their own story and journey and I have met some fantastic people and made some wonderful friends.
Do you follow a nutrition plan?
I try to eat a varied and well balanced diet and make sure I’m fuelling my body with good quality nutrients. But I also love a glass of red wine or a gin and tonic, will happily have a chocolate bar if I’m hungry and want one, and really enjoy a Chinese takeaway! I could definitely be ‘better’ with my nutrition and cut out the ‘bad’ stuff, but I love food and I work hard so I doubt I’ll ever stop eating what I want, within reason.
Tell us about your kit – what items can’t you live without for training and for racing?
I always race in compression socks, I’m pretty sure it’s psychological because I rarely train in them, but they’re the first thing I pack for a race!
For training in the rain, sealskinz Halo overshoes are my go to essential piece of kit. I couldn’t cope with wet feet for 3 hours, and they have a bright pink pair of overshoes that I wear when it’s not as wet but cold. If my feet go numb, it’s pretty much game over and good luck running off the bike with numb feet!
Competing internationally is expensive – do you have sponsors?
I’m very fortunate to have some great sponsors such as sealskinz, Alphawoolf, Kinesio Tape and Sundried. All of these companies support me by providing either essential kit (tape) or some financial support. In the past I’ve been sponsored by Vivacity Premier Fitness, Vital Recruitment and British Sugar, all of whom provided me with financial support to travel to major championships.