© Ben Cirulis
Former firefighter Jacqui Allen is a British cross triathlon silver medallist who competes in XTERRA triathlon, the ‘off-road’ discipline which sees athletes race on mountain bikes and run off-road. A regular on the XTERRA podium, Jacqui lives with her husband, leading XTERRA athlete, Ben Allen, in Wollongong, Australia, where they have a coaching business.
I caught up with Jacqui, who is an ambassador for running brand, On, over the phone where we chatted about her career in XTERRA triathlon, tough tempo sessions and mid-race mountain bike mechanicals.
You started out in standard ITU triathlon when you were 21. How did you get into it?
I guess I was like any other age-grouper really, I started out doing one of the small ones in the UK and did pretty well at it – I think I finished 2nd or 3rd in my age group. The next year, I won a voucher for a triathlon shop and my mum suggested I get a coach for three months. So I did. That was probably the start of my journey, really. This coach made me see different sides to triathlon, pushed me pretty hard and thought I was good enough to race domestic elite racing. I didn’t do that well really in my first year, finishing 9th out of 13 or something like that [laughs]. But my coach got me to my first age group World Championships.
Competing there, I had no idea who all these elite triathletes were and I ended up watching their race and saw Tim Don win. As soon as I saw the elite triathletes I thought: I want to take this more seriously. That was the first switching point, really.
After a five-month sabbatical training in Australia you came back to win the European Cup in Strathclyde. After that, how did XTERRA come about?
I had another couple of years racing ITU with some good results, but I got injured. The following year I picked up some form of hepatitis in South Africa and never came back to good form, but I did go and do an XTERRA race in Sardinia. It was the European championships, and I thought I’d have a go because I’d done some mountain biking with the boys. I think Melanie McQuaid won the race and I came sixth… I didn’t really like it! I came out of the water first because I was a really good swimmer in those days, and then all the girls came past me so fast on the mountain bike and I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m really not that good!’
You met your husband, Australian XTERRA racer, Ben Allen, during that time. Did he persuade you to give XTERRA another go?
A few months down the line, Ben suggested we do the Asian XTERRA tour the following year. This was racing in places like Guam and the Philippines. At that point I had to make a decision as to whether I was going back to the fire service or try and make it as a professional athlete. Ben persuaded me that everything was going to be all right, so I decided to leave the fire service.
What is it about XTERRA that you enjoy?
It takes you to places that you’d never normally visit. You don’t go to cities, ever – you go off the beaten track to the coast, or the mountains; places you’ve never even heard of and would never visit unless racing there. The thing that really appealed to us was the whole set-up of XTERRA is that you arrive at the location a week ahead of the race and you can train on the course, which could be in the middle of the jungle.
I think that’s what Ben and I love so much about it; that real adventure. It’s such a small community and because of the locations the races are in, you get a homestay with a local family and they take you out on the course. You might get lost a little bit or there might be really technical sections that nobody really rides down. It’s just such a great build-up, just an adventure; finding the course, exploring the new location.
How technical are the mountain bike courses in XTERRA?
The courses really vary. For example, XTERRA New Zealand, which is one of the best races on the circuit, is in a mountain bike park. You’re riding around trails that have been marked forever – everyone can ride on them and it’s a really fun track. But if you go somewhere like the Philippines, where people don’t really ride, the track’s cut out of the landscape just for that particular race. That’s when it becomes quite technical because it’s natural. You might be riding up an old riverbed, or there’s a drop-off or something you can’t physically ride and you have to hike your bike up. You can walk it, but I would say they’re all very tough… super-hard!
You live in Australia – does that mean lots of ocean swims?
We live in Ben’s parents’ granny flat at the moment which is 600m from the one of the nicest beaches in the world [in Wollongong]. When I first came over to meet Ben’s family six years ago, there was a 5km ocean swim and he was like, ‘Do you want to do this swim?’ I was like, yeah, I can swim 5km, that’s no problem. I was so naïve! There were hardly any markers, I can’t believe I went out and back and got round the course. Six years on, I have to admit that I’m a little bit afraid to go in the water because of all the stories I’ve heard about the sharks. The current, the waves, the sharks, the creatures in the sea… now I know a lot more I’m not sure I want to swim so far out!
So is your swim training mostly pool-based?
I train in the pool a lot more. When I’m in a big block of training, I’ll probably swim five or six times a week, but one of those swims will be in the ocean. There’s a Friday morning group swim where we practice in the waves – we call it ‘ins and outs’. We dive under the waves and get out past the break. When I’m with a group, I will swim in the open water, but not as often as I used to do anymore!
Do you work with a coach and have a training plan?
I have a coach based here in Wollongong who I get to see a lot, and I think as an elite athlete that’s important. Generally speaking, he’ll set me a training plan for the week, but when I’m here we do communicate a lot and we’ll sometimes go day-by-day. He rides road bikes with me and has really shown me how to ride well. The sessions have been really tailored to me and making me improve, and since I started working with him two years ago, I felt like I’m not in that plateau anymore and I’ve really improved.
Do you train by heart rate or power or any other training philosophy?
We use heart rate, but mainly we use power on the bike. So I’ll have power set up on my mountain bike and my road bike.
Are you on the MTB bike or road bike more in training?
I spend most of my time on the road bike, actually. We’ve got some really good mountain bike trails here in Wollongong but they’re very challenging. If you’re going to ride out on the mountain bike there’s a lot of steep climbing – which is great – but often you just want to just practice your skills on the mountain bike. So I’ll tend to do probably 90% of my training sessions on the road bike, but I’ll use an indoor trainer if we have a sprint session or something that’s super-intense.
Benny and I will go out on the mountain bike once a week. We’ll just use it to practice skills, do some technical stuff and enjoy riding with our friends. The trails we’ve got here aren’t very well-known unless you’re a local, but they’re super-technical, challenging and loads of fun.
What might a typical road bike session involve?
We’ve got a really good hill close to us which is a 6km climb and we use that a lot for intervals. We might do 20-minute intervals from the bottom to the top, or four-minute intervals. We do that a lot. When I ride with my coach, we work a lot in the zone 3-4, which is like longer sustained effort, and I’ve found that’s really beneficial for my fitness. It’s sort of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. Intervals are great, but I think that anyone can go hard for three minutes and rest for three minutes. That longer, sustained effort – which I think you need before you start really being able to go hard – is really what makes the endurance.
What does a standard training week look like for you?
When I pick-up full training, probably from now until late February/March, I don’t usually train more than 26 hours a week. I rarely have a day off, although I might have one every three weeks or when we feel I need one. On a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I’ll do an early morning swim with a squad – we’ll probably cover between 4-5km. And I’ll probably ride about five times during the week and then include one mountain bike session where we just do skills and have a bit of fun.
Run-wise, I go with a couple of girls here on a Tuesday and a Thursday morning quite early – two hard sessions – and then perhaps a recovery swim in the afternoon. I also do three strength sessions a week during this phase of my training – strength work is really important to keep my body healthy, injury-free and strong in all the right places so I can perform all of my sessions well with the proper technique.
You’re an off-road athlete – do you run on the road or trails?
A bit of both, really. Again, we do a lot of that long, sustained effort. A really great session I was doing earlier this year was a 15km tempo run. That was super-hard for me and I needed a pacer to help. Then with the girls I’ve done a 10km tempo run where we change the pace throughout the run: we might run for 3-minutes at 4m/k pace, 3-minutes at 3.45m/k and then 3-minutes at 3m/k pace and do that for the whole 10km. That really pushes the limits and is a lot easier to do with a training group!
Do you do incorporate any hills into your training?
Being an off-road athlete, hills are really important. I’ll do some hill reps where it might just be a 3-minute hill and a jog back recovery. We’ll also run downhill pretty fast and really practice that. A lot of people use downhill as a bit of a rest; you lean back and your technique’s all wrong, whereas you could really be pushing on downhill and getting some free speed with a little less effort.
You do a variety of gym sessions. Are you training to build overall strength?
It varies. Over the period when I’m not racing we’ll definitely build strength and we’ll do a lot of low repetitions – 4-5 reps – but lifting quite a lot of weight. That’s quite good for triathletes because you don’t need to be working in that aerobic zone where you’re doing 20-30 reps with smaller weight – we already do that in our swimming, riding and running. I’ll do that one session a week, but then the other sessions are functional strength-type sessions.
What kind of functional strength sessions do you do?
With strength work you’ve got to find what works for you because we all have those little niggles and injuries. For me, initially my hips used to get really sore, so we’ve worked a lot on single leg work and single arm work. Lately, I’ve had an Achilles injury, so I’ve been working specifically on calf work. I’ve found a lot of single leg and single arm stuff works for me because it creates balance instead of having a dominant side doing most of the work.
Is there anything you did in the early days of training that you wouldn’t do now?
Not really. My training hasn’t changed that much. When I first started, I did used to be an all-or-nothing athlete but with one of my first coaches, Ken Matheson, I realised how important zone three training is on the bike and on the run. I learned to work in that middle zone to push myself for a longer period of time. I’ve learned a lot over the years and I feel like I’ve taken all the best bits and have worked out what suits me.
What happens when it gets tough in a race – what gets you through the pain?
I think as athletes a lot of us know how to push through the pain now. Ben and I always used to say that the hard part of racing XTERRA is actually getting to the start line, because you travel overseas with your bike. So, firstly, your bike’s got to make it to there in one piece. If you’re travelling to Asia often there are no bike shops so if you haven’t got everything with you, it’s very unlikely you’re going to get a problem fixed and make it to the race. Again, in Asia you’re dealing with the heat, humidity and the different kinds of foods, so a lot of people get sick.
What about during the race – is it common to have mechanicals and spills?
During the race you’re going to have mechanicals – you have to know how to deal with that. I’ve had four flat tyres and finished an hour behind the winner before, but if you mentally expect that and you say, ‘OK, I’m off the podium, but let’s get something out of this and finish anyway’ you’ve set your mind on getting through it. You have to embrace it and turn any negatives into a positive and that’s part of our sport. It’s easy to crash and fall; it’s how you deal with it and that’s what XTERRA is all about. All the girls I race against, I think we’re all as fit and prepared as each other, but it’s sometimes who’s had that little bit of luck, and who’s had a crash but not given up.
Tell me about your coaching business?
Right now I coach 20 athletes, most of them live in Canberra but I always try to go for athletes who I see at races. I guess my expertise and Ben’s expertise is that we know how to travel to XTERRA races, we know where to train when we get there, we know where to swim leading up to the race. We’ve probably done that for every XTERRA race on the circuit, so we’re the people to prepare you for that event. I think a lot of people have come to us for that reason.
Do you coach remotely or in person?
A little bit of both, but it tends to be mostly remotely. I’m not one of those coaches who restricts their athletes to one email a week and only one phone call a month, and you can’t change your programme. I open it up and say ‘Call me any time, or drop me a text’ and I feel my favourite part of coaching is organising the training around their lives to make them better. Do you have family days? How does it best suit you? I feel that’s where my skills as a coach shine. I like to work it around people’s lives and how we can fit them in. Through coaching I’ve made so many new friends who love doing what Ben and I love doing.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
I love to run in my On running gear. It’s so nice and lightweight, and you feel so professional wearing their running singlets and shorts. When On brought out the [original] Cloudventure Peak, which is their lightweight trail shoe, I thought ‘This is my perfect shoe’; it’s so lightweight, yet it’s got grip on the trails. I just feel so lucky to be sponsored by On – Ben and I have been with them from the start when they only had one pair of shoes! There are so many athletes running with them now, it makes me proud. We have the best clothing and the best gear.
We’ve also been sponsored by Champion Systems for a while. They make custom cycling kit and I’ve always worn their elite race suits. If our sponsors ever change or we want a new look for the championship, or we’ve got a new bike and it’s a different colour, they’ll just make us up a new suit. We’re super-lucky to have them on board.
You lead women’s bike rides with your other sponsor cycling brand, Liv, is that right?
Every month we run mountain bike rides to get more women on bikes, giving them the confidence to have a go and I really enjoy being involved in that as well. We get to hire out bikes for women to try. Liv is the only standalone women’s bike brand and they’re designed to fit women’s strengths and weaknesses. I think my Liv road bike right now weighs around 6kg!