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Today, it’s a quick-fire Q&A with rising short course triathlon star and Belgian Olympian, Valerie Barthelemy. Valerie grew up in the US and brought the fruits of an early swimming specialism to her newfound triathlon career when she turned pro in 2015.

Since then, she’s been a regular fixture in the World Triathlon Series, Triathlon World Cup, Super League Triathlon and Arena Games circuits, with a notable third-place finish in the Arena Games Rotterdam 2020, a fifth place in the Tokyo Olympics Mixed Relay and a 10th place in the Tokyo Olympics Elite Women’s race.  There’s more to come from the 361° ambassador, so watch this space. In the meantime, have a read of our Q&A.

#1. How and when did you get into triathlon?
I grew up as a competitive swimmer and swam collegiately in the US at the University of Michigan. When I was halfway through college, I spent a summer training for triathlon and realised I might have potential in the sport. 

When I finished college, I was part of the recruitment program organised by USA Triathlon that scouted talent for triathlon from collegiate running and swimming programs. I saw a path forward to become an Olympic athlete, something that was a goal of mine since I was a little girl. As I was born in the US to Belgian parents, I was fortunate enough to have two passports. I ultimately decided to pursue my Olympic dream in Belgium! 

#2. Last year you competed in your first Olympics, securing 5th place in Belgium’s mixed team and 10th place individual – congrats! What was your first Olympic experience like? 
My first Olympic experience was incredible. There’s an aura surrounding the Olympics with respect to the Olympic village, the logistics of holding simultaneous sporting events in a major city, the camaraderie amongst athletes… it was everything I dreamed of and more. Just to be able to qualify and stand on the starting line was a win for me, so to achieve the results I did, was the cherry on top of this whole experience. For sure, I have my eyes on Paris [2024] now. 

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#3. More triathlon events are introducing formats which blend virtual reality racing with real-life racing, such as the Arena Games format. How does racing on a treadmill and on a Tacx bike system compare to standard triathlon racing?
Yes, the e-racing is interesting. As in an outdoor race, it’s important to swim well so that you can find yourself in a good bike group. In this way, virtual racing mirrors outdoor racing. However, the tactical elements and technical portions of the bike such as cornering well and positioning within a pack are neutralized in the virtual platform. Additionally, racing on a human-powered treadmill favours some athletes with a strong running technique. I think e-racing bridged the gap during COVID to provide innovative COVID-safe racing opportunities, but it will still take some time before the two options (virtual, outdoor) are more alike. 

#4. What are the challenges of this type of e-racing format?
Addressing technology glitches, having robust venues to host this format, and creating clear rules for this unique format which aren’t necessary for outdoor racing (weigh-ins etc).

#5. What does a typical week of training look like for you currently? 
I train 25-28 hours a week. I have two hard sessions per sport per week (so that amounts to 6 quality sessions). I swim 6 days a week, 5K per session. I bike 5 days a week, usually amounting to 250 – 300km per week. I run 5 days a week amounting to 50km. 

Mondays and Thursdays are typically pretty easy. Tuesdays, I’ll do a fartlek run – this week was 16 sets of 300m running intervals, targeting between 57 and 59 seconds per interval (aka between 3:10 min/km and 3:17 min/km) with 100m jogging recovery between each one. Saturdays, we will do a tempo run – this week was 25 minutes at 3:55/km. Sunday, we have what we call “Big Bike Sunday” where we do a combination of threshold hills (4 sets of 8-minute hills at approximately 250 watts) and paceline efforts such as 4 x 7 minutes. Paceline efforts simulate riding in a pack at race speed, teaching dynamic positioning and effort to stay in the group. 

#6. Can you share one of your training sessions that you love to hate?
We do some threshold sets in the pool which I find pretty challenging. On Tuesday we did 6 x 500m steady and Friday we did 4 x 300m, x 200m, x 100m solid with short rest. These are really tough but get you very fit!

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#7. How important is mental training to you as an athlete?
Very important! I believe any athlete at any level can benefit from some work with a sports psychologist. 

#8. How do you manage nerves on race day – do you have any strategies for staying focused? 
Yes, I have a warm-up routine which stays unchanged throughout the year. Following this step-by-step routine helps keep my mind task-oriented and the nerves at bay.

#9. What does your race calendar look like this year, and have you any goals you’d be happy to share?
I’ll be racing the World Triathlon Championship Series which begins May 14 in Yokohama, Japan. This is my primary focus this year, but a secondary big goal of mine is the European Games in Munich on August 13.

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#10. What are your favourite items of kit, and who are you sponsored by right now?
I love wearing Santini cycling kit. It’s the best chamois for women, as well as having performance and stylish wear to rock out your long rides in! Can’t recommend it enough. 

I’m also enjoying discovering the line of 361° running shoes. As an athlete that has been injury-prone in the past, I’ve had no niggles in any of the models of running shoes they offer. My current trainers are the Meraki-4 and my racing flats are the bronze medal-winning Flame. Highly recommend giving 361° a go!

Keep up with Valerie’s training and racing via her Instagram: www.instagram.com/vbartho and her website www.valeriebarthelemy.com.