© Tommy Zaferes

Triathlete Katie Zaferes had a storming 2019 season, winning five out of eight World Triathlon Series races to take the ITU Triathlon World Champion title by a huge 849 point margin. The 30-year-old American athlete, who is also the Super League Triathlon champion, went into 2020 focussed on Tokyo Olympics success, but then came COVID-19 and with it an unknown race calendar.

In this Q&A, Katie chats about the challenges of training in lockdown, the uncertainty of an unknown race schedule, and her thoughts on the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. Plus we dive into the mental aspect of Katie’s elite performance and how the 2016 Rio Olympics led her to focus much more on mental training.

You had an incredible 2019! How did you feel coming into the 2020 season?
Thanks! I was feeling really good, the normal pre-season nerves had arrived as we got closer to Abu Dhabi, but I was feeling really confident as I’d had my most consistent winter training across the board in swimming, biking and running that I’ve ever had. I was also really ready to re-join the squad and start training in person with my coach Joel Filliol.

Since then the world turned upside down with COVID-19. What’s your quarantine situation currently like – are you able to train or are you quite restricted?
Currently, Tommy (Katie’s husband and fellow elite triathlete) and I are staying with my parents in Hampstead, MD in the home that I grew up in. There’s a stay-at-home order here in Maryland, meaning you’re only supposed to go out for essential activities. However, you can still go outside to exercise and are even allowed to drive to local county or state parks. We’ve chosen, however, to do almost all of our training from home, and basically only run outside, though I’ve also ridden outside twice in the past three weeks. There’s no pool access, so no swimming for us at this time. I’ve been visualising swim training and implementing more swim-specific exercises into my strength routine.

This should have been an Olympic year, and you were aiming to qualify. What emotions have you felt since it was postponed, and was the uncertainty of whether it was going ahead stressful?
It’s funny because I feel oddly at peace with the Olympics being postponed. At the beginning of this year, when the coronavirus was just beginning to get media coverage, I would get asked if I thought there would be an Olympics and my response was: “Well if the Olympics doesn’t happen then we have much bigger issues in the world than just the Olympics being cancelled.”

I still feel that this is true. It doesn’t feel like the right time for the Olympics to happen; it’s not safe and not sensible. I also think it is easier for me to accept because the Olympics are being postponed and not outright cancelled, so ultimately my long-term goals remain the same even though the timeline has definitely changed. At the beginning of this year, I wasn’t sure what 2021 was going to look like for me; it was a year I hadn’t decided whether would be dedicated to trying to start a family or continuing with triathlon. Now 2021 has a lot more direction for me as I know exactly what I will be doing… training to prepare myself for Tokyo 2021.

How are you approaching training now that your racing schedule is unknown – does it affect your motivation?
I would say this is the biggest challenge for me right now, trying to find the right balance of engagement in training when we are very unsure of when the first opportunity to race will be. I want to be in a state of readiness while also not burning myself out physically or mentally in these next couple of months. So most of my training is just getting in the time and not doing any real organised efforts. I’ve just started adding some strides back into my runs and I’ve been doing mostly indoor rides on Zwift and having fun going after sprints and QOMs but with no real desire to race at this time.

I approach training in a much more free way in the sense that I’ve asked my coach to put a lot of flexibility in my weekly schedule so I can decide day-to-day what I want to do. And I’m just grateful for the fact that I can still get outside and go for my runs. Sometimes I run fast and feel good and other days I add walks into my runs and go really slow. I have been taking things day by day, but also realise on my grumpiest days [that] as long as I get out the door and start running, I feel better afterwards. I have yet to regret starting a run even when the motivation was really low to start it.

Swimming-wise, we don’t have a pool and so that’s definitely challenging but I’m doing strength and also visualising swim workouts with a guided visualisation that my sports psychologist created for me.

I’d love to talk about the mental side of your performance and preparation. You’ve said that the Rio Olympics led you to really fine-tune your mental strategies. Can you explain this a little?
Before the Olympics, I would reach out to a sports psychologist reactively. It wasn’t part of my daily routine, it wasn’t something I practised, it was trying to ‘quick-fix’ when intense emotions arouse and I felt like I needed to get a handle on them. I thought I was doing everything I needed to do mentally and physically, but I realised afterwards my actions needed more intention and regularity behind them.

How did your mental approach and strategies change following Rio?
After the Olympics, I realised that [this approach] isn’t an effective way to handle my mind. I reached out to the USOPC and basically sent an email saying I wanted to start speaking to a sports psychologist regularly and then I wrote out what I was looking for in a sports psychologist and what I believed my weaknesses were. So basically I took more ownership in creating that aspect of my team. I got connected with Karen Cogan and have been talking to her on a regular basis since then. Often I just have the appointment scheduled and I’m not even sure that I need to talk to her, or what I want to talk to her about, but it’s another thing that I’m always happy I do.

I’ve also really enjoyed reading books like “Let Your Mind Run” and “Mind Gym” as well as others to learn how others approach the mental side of training and racing. Picking up different strategies and implementing them into training and racing to see what concoction works the best for me. I’ve also tried out different strategies of journaling and planning. I really enjoy writing so putting my thoughts or intentions on paper really helps me focus my attention in the correct direction.

You’ve talked about the bike challenging you the most and of feeling fearful on descents. What helped you overcome your fear on the bike? I heard you used breathing techniques?
There are a lot of different techniques that have been helpful. Definitely my work with Karen has helped on the mental level and just increasing my self-awareness and figuring out strategies that help me handle fear and approach it in a more effective way. Also putting myself in uncomfortable situations and being accepting to small victories of growth and improvement rather than expecting instant confidence on the bike. For instance, when I first started doing group rides in Santa Cruz they weren’t something I looked forward to, but I got out of my comfort zone knowing they would make me better. The exciting thing is that they have, and now it’s fun to look back.

Sometimes I still feel a bit nervous, but I’m more accepting of those feelings and don’t allow them to initiate a downward spiral of emotions but just see them as part of the process now. I’ve done a lot of work with Tommy, my husband, as well. He’s really good technically and I really trust his skills, so he’s helped me, both intentionally and unintentionally, to continue to improve as we practice together and I try and follow his wheel just on regular rides.

Breathing certainly helps, as well as other cues like relaxing my arms, focusing on concrete movements like body positioning, where I am looking, etc. I’m also better at forgiving myself when I make mistakes and not taking it as a reflection of my skills. We’ve done deliberate practise with my coach and teammates in both basic set-ups with cones and water bottles in parking lots at slow speeds, to doing actual workouts on those same technical parking lot courses. This allows me to feel prepared when it comes to races because ultimately preparation equals confidence.

How do you mentally prepare for your races and do you have a pre-race routine or ritual?
I do a lot of specific race preparation leading into races, meaning that I try to make my training very similar to whatever the upcoming or most important race is. I try to visualise during these workouts with the race in mind and then also I do visualisation just while I am relaxing at home.

My pre-race rituals have a lot to do with checking out the course; I like being as familiar with the course as possible whether through looking at Google maps or training on it in the days before the race. I really like writing out my goals and timeline leading into the race as well. Often I write out my whole race in my notebook or type it up on my computer. I get a lot of value with putting down a lot of processes in writing as it sometimes gets more muddled in my head with all the pre-race nerves and concerns. I stay very committed to MY process and MY timeline and particularly [during] race week I may end up doing a lot alone in order to stick to my desired schedule that works best for me.

Do you use any mental strategies during your races or in training?  
All the time! Heck, it’s hard to think of times when I’m not using mental strategies. One of my favourite books is called “Let Your Mind Run” by Deena Kastor and something I really appreciated in her book was how she said you don’t just have one mental strategy but a toolbox full of ones you need to shift through constantly. I completely relate to this. I try to keep building up my mental strategy toolbox so that I can shift through them as the current one in use starts to lose its power/effectiveness during that particular moment.

I would say my go-to strategies during races and training are mantras (‘I am strong, Be ready’), self-talk (‘it hurts because it’s supposed to hurt, you are not the victim here’), segmenting, pre-race preparation, and just awareness of my mental state.

What does a typical week of physical training look like during a non-pandemic race season?
We typically do about 25 hours a week of training, and that ends up being broken down into about 21km of swimming, 12 hours of biking, 80km of running and 2 hours of strength. Our weeks often look pretty similar week-to-week with Mondays being a recovery day, Tuesday being track-focused, Wednesday being an endurance day, Thursday is a day we typically do our Brick workouts, Friday being somewhere between a recovery day and a volume day, Saturday a long run with a workout, and Sunday a long ride day. Those are the primary focuses of each day of the week, but we typically have, on average, three training sessions a day.

Can you talk us through one of your favourite training sessions?
My personal favourite sessions are anything ‘building’ which lucky for me is a pretty regular occurrence in my coach, Joel Filliol’s, training program. On the bike, it’s typically building hill reps, even though they only become my favourite during the workout and it doesn’t usually start out that way. However, I love trying to get further and further up the hills. It also gives me an opportunity to really practice my descending so it’s a workout that I usually complete feeling a great sense of accomplishment and I just feel like it holds a lot of value.

What are your must-have items of kit for racing and training?
Specialized Venge, ROKA Transition Pack, 361 Strata 3 for training and Feisu 2 for racing, ROKA R1 goggles, AfterShokz Xtrainerz, Polar Vantage V with the OH1 Arm Band to monitor my heart rate, ROKA custom SR-1 for racing and training, F2C Glyco-Durance for racing and F2C Vanilla Pharma-Pure and Mango Pharma-Greens for training and recovery, Norma-Tec boots for recovery and a little Gaiam foot massager ball I got from CVS to roll under my feet and hamstrings.

Who are you sponsored by right now?
I have a lot of great sponsors right now: ROKA (swim and eyewear), Specialized (bike), 361 (running shoes), Quorn, NYAC, F2C, Pho3nix, AfterShokz (headphones), and Polar.

You can keep up to date with Katie’s training via her website, www.katiezaferes.com, and social media: www.instagram.com/kzaferes6, www.facebook.com/katiezaferestriathlete and www.twitter.com/KZaferes6.