Road to Kona: Charlie Pennington on how he overcame injury to win at IM Hamburg

By Dave Colley | 6 Minute Read

Charlie Pennington was 2016's 220 Triathlon Awards Mens Age Group Triathlete of the Year. The veteran member of Team Freespeed had a tough few years plagued by injuries but managed to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona despite this. Here's what he had to say about that...


Charlie, good to see you mate. It's been an injury-plagued few years for you, can you remind our readers what problems have hampered your racing recently?

I last raced properly in October 2015 at the Ironman World Championships but even then I had some knee problems that I put up with, having developed symptoms from the London Marathon earlier in the year. I decided that after the race I would get those problems sorted out and spent months not running and getting intensive physio, mostly to no avail until 2017 where, working with a different physio, I started to see positive changes.

This meant I didn’t race much in 2016 and didn't compete at IM Weymouth, which had been my aim, so the plan was to race IM South Africa in May 2017 with the intention of qualifying for Kona. Unfortunately I fell off my bike during training and fractured my right collarbone 7 weeks before the event and so again I didn't race!

The fall-back was to race IM Austria but an injured calf and then a torn hamstring put paid to that and so the only remaining race that I could fit in was IM Hamburg.


What did you do to speed up your recovery? How do you stay mentally fresh when you can't push yourself physically?

I have a great relationship with my coach and trust him implicitly. So, when he devised a plan that concentrated on the things I could do and removed the things that I couldn't, I just stuck to it. I also had plenty of physio and kept up with my strengthening exercises.

That dealt with the physical side but you’re right to mention the mental aspect, it’s very hard to keep the fire burning when injured but seeing friends race kept me motivated.


Did you feel much pressure going into the race in Hamburg given 7 Team Freespeed members already had Kona slots?

I guess it’s difficult not to, especially when you’re unsure of your own ability having not raced for so long. Watching their performances did inspire me to keep at it though so I have them to thank!


Talk us through your race. You overtook your AG rival in T2, have you been working on your transitions?

I knew that I had swum and biked ok but I had no idea where I was overall. To be honest, in a race like this (non-championship) I don't worry about about other people. I focus on my race and the processes involved.

I know that a near-9 hour race will probably put me near the front and so I wanted to give my self the best opportunity to do that by not over-biking and keeping my nutrition dialled-in. I didn't race through T2, in fact I had a can of Coke in my T2 bag and took the opportunity to sip on it as I was putting my running shoes on.


What wetsuit do you swim in?

The team is fortunate to be sponsored by Orca and I use their Alpha wetsuit. I've used lots of different suits in my career but this is the best so far. I don't expect anyone to believe me as they’re a sponsor but I really like it and it seems to be working for me!


What are you riding and how is it set up?

I've been riding a Trek Speed Concept 9.9 for a few years now and love it. It’s a perfect fit for me and rides much faster than I do!

Richard (Melik) at Freespeed has dialled-it in for me over the years. It’s a few years old but I run Shimano Di2 with Zipp 808/disk wheels and a Power2Max power meter.

I generally use 2 water bottles, one on the aerobars and then one on the frame. I've toyed with behind-the-saddle bottles over the years but I find them more hassle than they’re worth despite the potential aero-gains. Being aero is great but if you’ve dropped a bottle and can't hydrate or get your nutrition right, it won't matter as you won't be racing to your full potential anyway.


What do you eat/drink the day before and morning of a race?

I hate the pre-race stuff. I struggle with relaxing anyway and then really struggle to eat and drink on the morning of a race. I tend to look at the build-up as a whole, rather than think the dinner the night before and breakfast on race day are especially key.

This means that I eat healthily all week leading up to a race and focus on keeping myself hydrated throughout using PH 1000 as my go-to drink.

That said, a pizza and a beer the night before are relatively standard for me! I'd rather eat and drink to be relaxed so that I get some sleep that night. Breakfast is usually granola, some bananas and a Clif Bar. Any more than that and I won't digest it.


What's your hydration strategy during a race? How has that evolved since you met PH?

I used to struggle with getting the balance between fuelling through carbohydrates and staying hydrated right and generally overloaded my gut, leading to stomach problems. Since working with PH I have a much neater strategy that has me using one bottle of PH 500 and then another bottle with an energy drink.

I like the segregation and my gut seems to cope with it better. Clearly this only lasts for so long on the bike as I can't then replace the PH once the bottle is empty. So, I use your SweatSalt capsules and water to help keep my fluid/sodium levels up. How much I drink depends on the weather - in Hamburg I went through 3.5 500ml bottles in total but in Kona I was going through 2 bottles every hour.


What's your nutrition strategy?

I have dialled this in over the years and keep to a set plan whilst on the bike. Essentially I’ll eat 2 Clif Bar Shot Blocks every 20 minutes throughout the bike leg.

I don't have a specific plan for the run but will use Clif Bar gels (generally the Mocha flavour as I like the taste and the caffeine kick) and drink Coke at the aid stations. In Hamburg I probably had a bit of everything though, even using the on-course energy bar that they offered as I was hungry and wanted something solid.

Sometimes you just have to listen to your body and go with it.


What does a typical training week look like for you in the middle of the season?

I tend to train around 12 hours a week, swimming 4 times, biking 3 times and running 3 times.

I have a standard week that only varies by intensity and duration, with the focus remaining the same. A key session for me would be a 3 x 5km run with each 5km being faster than the last. I generally start around 4min/km pace, the next around 3:45/km and the final around 3:30/km.

As the season progresses I would expect this to evolve up to 3 x 8km. That’s great for simulating negative split running towards the end of the Ironman marathon.


How has being part of Team Freespeed helped you improve over the years? 

Being part of Team Freespeed has definitely helped me improve. It’s taken away the constant concern that you could be using better kit/nutrition/hydration etc and allows me to just focus on getting the work done.

We've got some great sponsors and with their support I find I can maximise my potential. Having some exceptionally speedy team-mates also helps keeping you focused!


Charlie Pennington drinking some Precision Hydration after being ill
Source: Charlie Pennington Instagram ©


What's your target at Kona? What are your wider goals in the sport over the next few years?

There is only one goal for Kona and that's to win my age group. I came within 7 seconds of achieving that in 2015 and I want to put that right. There'll be plenty of others wanting to do the same but i'll just focus on what I need to do.

As for next year, I have no idea. I would love to see if i can go faster than 8:45 but where and when, I don't yet know.


Well I certainly wouldn’t want to be competing with you for that AG Gold Charlie...

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