© Magnes AG/Styx Powermeter
British multi-sport athlete, Flora Colledge competes in long distance triathlon and duathlon. Earlier this year, the Team GB athlete had great success in the Xtri series of iron distance triathlon events, taking a win at the Swissman Xtreme Triathlon (which includes riding the Furkapass!) and a third place podium at the brutal Norseman Xtreme Triathlon.
Flora, who is based in Switzerland, gives us an insider look into her swim-bike-run training and shares her plans for 2019, which include the Xtri World Champs! Enjoy the read.
Rewinding a bit, how did you come to get into triathlon? Were you sporty growing up?
Not really! I was reasonably active as a child and teenager, but my main focus was dance. Once I went to university, I would go to the gym and run just to keep fit, but I never had any thoughts about competition or racing. One day, for some reason, I just knew that I wanted to take running more seriously, and I really focussed on that for a few years, but never at a very high level as I often got injured. Since I was swimming and biking as cross-training, I decided to try a small local triathlon and was hooked straight away; I loved combining the three disciplines.
You’ve represented GB on numerous occasions both in duathlon and triathlon. Do you have a preference in terms of discipline or distance?
I certainly prefer the long distances and I’m naturally better at them – I won my age group in the middle distance duathlon and long distance triathlon world championships – but I love duathlon because the races are so tough and often very fair for women. There doesn’t seem to be this situation that’s so common in many triathlons of getting stuck in the middle of the men’s race, and having that impact on the bike. Powerman Zofingen, the long distance duathlon world championships, is one of my favourite races for that reason; an extremely tough and fair women’s race.
Earlier this year you won the Swissman Xtreme Triathlon. Can you explain a little about what the event involves?
Swissman is one of the Xtri World Tour races, which are iron-distance races (swim 3.8km, cycle 180km and run 42.2km) that go point-to-point, and typically involve a lot of uphill – Swissman involves about 3000m of climbing on the bike, and another 1500m or so on the run, with the finish at Kleine Scheidegg about 2000m above sea level. There is no support on the bike course, and only two aid stations on the run, so your support crew accompanies you in a car, supplying you with everything – food, but often also clothing when the temperature drops. On the run, your crew can bike with you, and everyone in the crew generally tackles the final climb together – at that point most athletes are just power-hiking, and it is incredible to be able to be in this race but have friends around you making it all possible!
With start fields limited to 250 athletes, and rough terrain and weather conditions, the Xtri Races are very special and I would recommend them to any triathlete!
What were the high points of your race? And did you have any low moments?
Honestly, the whole day was really wonderful. Physically, I never had any low points. I had told my crew not to tell me what position I was in until I asked, and I was on my own, barely seeing other athletes, for the whole of the bike course… I thought I must either be doing very well or very badly!
When I arrived in T2 the organisers told me I was leading the women’s race, and my boyfriend let me know that my time gap was pretty big, and also that I was about 13th overall. So I wanted to push to get into the top ten, but knowing that I could afford to pace the race according to how I felt helped a lot, as well as the fact that a lot of close friends were there supporting me. Also, Swissman has a very special place in my heart, it’s a race I truly love, so to do well and really be able to enjoy the race for the whole day is a memory that will stay with me forever. That said, anything can happen in a race like this, and though we tried to plan everything in advance, my boyfriend’s mountain bike chain broke on the run course, and he had to jog by me for a few kilometres pushing it along, valiantly trying to convince me that “It’s easier than running without!”
Last year you had a stressful incident where you got to transition and your running shoes hadn’t turned up! That must have been tough, mentally?
At Swissman in 2017, there was an unrelated accident that led to a road closure on the race course. This meant that many support cars were stuck about 30km away from T2, although bikes were let through for a while. In the moment, none of us realised the extent of the issue, but when I arrived in T2, I called my boyfriend to discover that they weren’t going anywhere for the next three hours! For a while, I didn’t know what to do, but at some point I just thought, I’m physically healthy, so there has got to be a way for me to keep going. As I was negotiating with a crew member about using his old tennis shoes, a gentleman in the crowd stopped me and gave me a great pair of trail shoes right off his own feet, in my size no less! I grabbed a bottle off my bike and set off.
The Swissman crew did a phenomenal job of helping us all keep going, setting up extra aid stations. One crew member who must have been standing in the heat for hours even gave me his own drink. My crew found me at around 25km, and we crossed the finish line together. Up until that point, I’d been fully focussed on doing as well as possible, but as soon as it was over I was so disappointed; it made me even more determined to come back and have a good race at Swissman, so the win in 2018 was even more special. And in 2018 I had a friend in T2 with an extra pair of shoes, which luckily we didn’t need to use!
You also came third at the brutal Norseman triathlon, one of the toughest iron distance races out there. How did this compare to the Swissman?
Norseman, in my view, is the iron distance race. I love cold and challenging races that are really fair, and with such a small starting field, Norseman and races like it really ensure that you are racing the whole distance – no sitting in barely draft-legal packs. Just getting into Norseman in 2018 was a dream come true, and to be able to podium was really incredible. The Norseman course, especially the run, is truly brutal, going unrelentingly uphill for the final 18km… if you watch the footage, you can see everyone really fighting to keep going.
Norseman was far harder than Swissman, and I had a real fight to hold onto the podium, but that was also special as it forced me to race at a level I wouldn`t have thought possible. At Swissman I could really control my effort on the run; at Norseman I learned that I was able to keep pushing way beyond what I thought was possible.
Do you follow a structured training plan, and what does a typical training week look like for you?
My training is very structured; my coach Robin Haywood sends me my sessions every few days, and I enjoy not having to think at all about what training to do – just follow the plan! My weeks vary depending on the time of year, but we often repeat a similar structure and workouts for a block of a few weeks. At the moment we’ve been focusing on the swim, so I have a few days of two swims a day, and the rest with only one swim and some quality running and biking. There are two to three sessions each day, and at the moment they are all quite short and sharp. No real ‘easy’ sessions, but also nothing longer than a three-hour bike or 90 minute run.
You must have battled some challenging moments while competing – do you have any mental strategies for when it gets really tough?
Actually, I don’t think I have any really race-specific strategies, for two reasons; first, I naturally deal quite well with tough situations when under pressure; I somehow feel much calmer than when faced with far smaller issues, such as getting to the pool on time on a normal work day! Second, and perhaps more important, is that I think you are really preparing your mental game for race day during every single day in training. You can’t always control your performance, but you can always put energy and focus into getting the best out of yourself in every training session, and I think if you train that approach, it becomes much easier to deal with challenging race distances or circumstances. When you’re used to working through 50 x 100 metres in the pool even when you don’t feel good, while always telling yourself ‘The next rep is a chance to do better’, you are going to have a solid race-day game.
What kind of running do you do in training?
My run training is almost exclusively based on effort for time; sprint for 10 seconds, fast for 30 seconds, etc. I don’t look at pace or heart rate, and I train on the track, trails, concrete and the treadmill; they all have their benefits! I’m not naturally speedy, so most of my run training is short sharp efforts to get my top speed up. This effort-based approach suits me very well, and I would highly recommend it, at least for some sessions; it’s great to just focus on giving your best effort in the moment, and not getting distracted by thinking you’re ‘too slow’.
With winter approaching will your bike training be mostly indoor or will you still head out?
I will head out when I can, as I think outdoor training helps my biking, but with the days getting shorter it will just be too dark for some sessions, and I don’t want my precious race bike getting rained on! So a fair amount will be indoors. Like my running, my biking is all about perceived effort over time, and again, a lot of three minute reps, 20 minute TTs, shorter high intensity efforts. I don’t use anything like Zwift; I like to listen to music and have a bike race or triathlon on the screen in front of me, though on the tough sessions I don’t see much of it!
What does your swim training involve?
We don’t really do any drills in our swimming; it’s basically all crawl all of the time. In a week I will have sessions with lots of 25- and 50-metre reps, longer intervals (like 400s) with varied efforts, right up to 1500 metre reps; often with paddles, sometimes with a band around the ankles, always with a pullbuoy.
Do you find fitting your training alongside your work tricky or are you able to make it work?
I work as a postdoc at the Department of Sport, Exercise and Health at the University of Basel, Switzerland. I work part-time, so there is a lot of time for training, and my colleagues are extremely supportive; a few of them are my crew for races! I think the tricky thing is to have the discipline to get organised each evening: prepare your food and clothes for the next day when you might just want to go straight to bed. Sometimes I feel ridiculous having two bags of kit and five Tupperware boxes in my giant rucksack, but it pays off. I also enjoy having something that takes my focus right away from training, and I miss that during training camps! I think you sometimes feel more energised after a good work session than if you just lie around in bed thinking about your training, and I certainly don’t believe work automatically means you are limiting yourself athletically.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
I have been trying to think of some particular special piece of kit, and the thing that I am thankful for every day – and which has probably saved me a huge amount of money in my athletic career – is a LifeProof phone cover. Not a day goes by that I’m not dumping my swim kit on my phone, or jamming it into a bike jersey pocket, and in Xtri races you have to have your phone with you. My phone withstands all of this, otherwise I’m sure I´d be replacing it every week or so!
Do you like to set goals in your training?
I don’t have concrete short-term goals such as achieving a certain pace for a certain time, as my training approach doesn’t fit with that; I like to feel like I get stronger from week to week, or that a session from a month ago that felt long feels manageable today, but who doesn’t like that?! I think my short-term goals are to give every single session a good go and never talk myself into the idea that it’ll all be awful just because I feel tired at the start; it can always get better! My long-term goals are to be able to translate my training efforts into races; I don`t ever think in terms of a particular race time – Xtri isn’t really about that, and I find that very liberating.
You’ve qualified for next year’s XTRI World Championships. Can you tell us a bit about this?
The Xtri World Championship is completely new for 2019, and will see the winners of Xtri races around the world battle it out with top Norseman athletes and other elite triathletes. The race is on the same day and course as Norseman, but with a different start time and with a tiny field of maybe 30 or 40, this will be a true test of strength in every single discipline. I have been waiting for a World Championship race like this ever since I started triathlon, so I’m very excited, and hoping we get some tough conditions – I love to race in the rain and the cold, though my boyfriend and race crew are not so excited about that!
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I am currently supported by Lee Sport, a sports nutrition company which makes the only isotonic drink that I take during races; Update Fitness, a chain of gyms in Switzerland; and I have some support from BMC Bikes. I’m excited about two great new partnerships for 2019, but can’t give details yet!
What else is on the horizon for you for 2019?
I’m still planning my season, but no matter what, I’ll be going for those races that aren’t necessarily the most famous, but have fair and challenging courses. Embrunman, Ironman Wales, Helveticman and Celtman are among those on my ‘must-do’ list. I probably won’t manage them all next year but having big dreams keeps it interesting!
You can follow Flora’s journey in triathlon via social media: www.instagram.com/floracolledge.