Ironman Maastricht was a good race for PH athletes. Not only did we have Brooke Brown and Kate Comber on the Pro podium but age-grouper Alex Bradley became the sixth member of Kona-focused Team Freespeed to secure his place on the start line at the big dance in October when he won the 18-24 age group and placed 13th Overall. As the World Champs draws nearer, we wanted to chat to Alex to get some insight into what helps him perform at his best, from his training and nutrition plans to the kit he chooses to race in...
So, Alex, your first Kona qualification attempt this year didn't go to plan, can you tell us about that and how it impacted you mentally before Maastricht?
The plan was to qualify at IM South Africa in April, which would allow plenty of time to recover and have a long build up to Kona. I chose SA because it's a championship race; 75 slots typically means 2 in 18-24, (it’s always only 1 in 40 slot races), so I'd hoped for a bit of security in case anything went slightly wrong.
Turned out that quite a few fast guys had the same idea, which meant that I couldn't get away with my sub-par performance on the day. I had been struggling with a couple of niggly injuries in the build up, nothing serious but the kind which means you can't do the long runs required for Ironman training.
As a result, my coach and I decided to make the ride easier in order to give me the best chance of an at least 'ok' run, so neither my bike or run times were where I'd have liked them to be. There were positives, however, and I tried to focus on these post race, rather than dwelling on the missed opportunity.
I tried not to think about it too much, but obviously my whole season is built around Kona and really Maastricht was my last chance. I think focussing on what I could control helped. Rather than going crazy thinking 'I must get this result’, I just tried to focus on getting the work done.
Talk us through your race at Maastricht. You were second out of the swim but then smashed the bike and run. When did you take the lead? When did you know you had the win in the bag?
My race at Maastricht went pretty much according to plan. I knew going in that I was in good shape and I could pull out a good performance as long as I made good decisions on the day. When it comes to an Ironman race I think if it's uneventful then you've had a good day out - and that's what happened.
I found some good feet to swim on upstream, before opening up a little on the faster section back down river, rode to my watts, was careful to avoid putting out any spikes (surprisingly hard on a couple of steep Belgian climbs when all around you people are smashing it up the hills! (I saw a couple of those guys walking the marathon!) and I ran conservatively without going out too hard.
To be honest, I'm not sure when I took the lead. With the rolling starts it's very hard to tell exactly where you are, but I didn't see anyone in my age group on the bike (and no-one at all, except the female pros, on the second lap!) and had ridden well, so was confident I was leading off the bike. My girlfriend told me I was 20 minutes up after lap one of the run, so that helped me relax a bit.
I knew that - barring a huge explosion - I couldn't lose that amount of time, so just focussed on ticking off the miles. There are always dark patches in an Ironman run, but I only started to hurt on the last lap and didn't absolutely bury myself because part of me thought better of it if I'm gonna have to go again soon(ish).
What wetsuit do you swim in?
I swim in the Orca Predator. It's a really great suit for people who want some buoyancy in the legs, without feeling like you're drowning in wetsuit. Having not come from a swimming background, my body position isn't perfect, but the Predator goes a long way to correct that.
I was lucky enough to try a range of the Orca suits (the Alpha, the Predator and the 3.8). If you have a really great technique, the Alpha is fantastic...but unfortunately that's not me! So I went for a little more support that the Predator gives.
What are you riding and how is it set up?
I'm on a Trek Speed Concept (plug - I'm using a Flo disc at the minute so if any kind soul wants to lend me a non-disc rear wheel for Kona, I'd be eternally grateful!).
As a maths PhD student, I get to spend a lot of time talking to people who work in aerodynamics and appreciate how much of an impact it has, so I'm a bit of a nerd for equipment. That said, I appreciate that being super aero means nothing if you finish the ride and can barely walk, let alone run, so there's a compromise to be made.
Richard Melik at Freespeed did my bike fit, and I think we've got a pretty good balance.
What shoes do you run in?
Skechers! For Ironman races I use the Go Run 5, but for anything shorter it's the Go Meb or Go Meb Razor models. I like to think the Go Run are the 'workhorse' shoe in their range, but that extra comfort makes a lot of difference at mile 20 of the marathon.
What do you eat/drink the day before and morning of a race?
I try to keep it pretty normal, but reduce my fibre intake in the days before, which can be hard because I typically get a lot of my calories from fruits and veggies. The night before is always pizza (Florentine if it's on the menu!) and a sachet of PH 1500 to get my blood plasma volume up.
Race day morning is always porridge with peanut butter and some dark chocolate and a PH 500 to get rid of that pre-race ‘dry mouth’.
What's your hydration strategy during a race? How has that evolved since you met PH?
I think it's important to start the race hydrated, that's why I'm religious about the preload the night before. The great thing about the PH 1500 is that I know I'm getting enough salt with just one bottle the evening before.
I try to avoid hydrating during the swim ;-)
On the bike I take in one 1l bottle of PH (with two sachets of PH 1000) in during the first hour and a half, grab another with a single sachet in a special needs and have a final single sachet bottle during the last hour. I add a little fructose and maltodextrin to the these in order to increase the calorie content of my fluids slightly.
On the run, I take a bottle of flat RedBull with a sachet of PH 1000 in it out of T2 with me - I call this my 'rocket fuel' - and have another one in special needs for halfway through the run. Then I try to take water on at every aid station and maybe some cola if I need a boost.
If I feel a cramp coming, I'll pop a PH SweatSalt capsule.
Typically I used to just drink to thirst on the bike. I'd have a calorie bottle and then take water from the aid stations; problem was that I would find myself super thirsty in the last hour of the bike which water wouldn't quench. PH helped me to realise that was down to my body craving electrolytes and I haven't experienced this since I switched over to PH. I'm not a big cramper, but I haven't experienced any cramps whilst racing with PH.
What's your nutrition strategy?
I take a Clif shot double espresso gel 20 minutes before the start. Over the ride, I take in 2-3 Clif bars (preferably peanut butter flavour...you can see a theme developing here!) as well as 2-3 packets of Clif Shot Bloks and probably a Clif caffeine gel if I need a boost. I can carry pretty much everything I need so don't have to rely on aid stations.
Typically I'll take in 375-400 calories per hour on the bike; this sounds high but I believe it's important to get off the bike without a large calorie deficit. But you have to practice it and you have to get your hydration right so that the osmolality is right for your gut.
On the run, I take a Clif gel every 20-25 mins, alongside my 'rocket fuel' bottles and switch to cola when I can feel my blood sugar start to plummet.
What does a typical training week look like for you in the middle of the season? What one session is most important to you and why?
Like most triathletes, routine is important to me, and I have a pretty standard looking week during a non-racing week. For example, 4 weeks out from Maastricht looked something like...
Monday: swim, aerobic run,
Tuesday: long run + aerobic ride + swim,
Wednesday: hard ride + aerobic run
Thursday: club swim + intervals run
Friday: swim + aerobic run + aerobic ride
Saturday: open water swim + aerobic run + aerobic bike
Sunday: easy run + long hard ride (+ short brick run when close to racing).
(If anyone wants to stalk all my training, it's pretty much all on Strava)
I'm a big believer in frequency and consistency, so you can see that I'll do each of the three sports most days in the week. I also run instead of riding my town bike around Oxford which helps to kill two birds with one stone.
Here’s an example session from each sport from that week…
Swim: 1000 mixed warm up, 4x50 build pre-set, 4x(6x50 build + 400 negative split) + cool down. (Keep it simple!)
Bike: 4 hours as 30 w/u, 4x(4 mins @350w (vo2) + 3easy) + 10 easy + 20 @ tempo.
Run: Treadmill hill session: 15 w/u, 2x(9mins @ 5% gradient, 4 mins @ 6% gradient, 2mins @ 8% gradient - all at slightly below Ironman pace- + 2ez) + c/d.
You hear it all the time in triathlon, but consistency is more important that any session. I try to keep a mindset of 'every session is the most important session' and by that I don't mean that I beat myself up if I miss a session, but rather that there's no point crushing a workout if it leaves you ruined for a few days after. The individual details, whilst they are important, don't mean nearly as much as the overall plan.
How has being part of Team Freespeed helped you improve? Is there pressure given the team's focus on Kona qualification?
The support from Team Freespeed is incredible and has been very important in my development as a triathlete. We get to work with some of the best companies in the sport, and they’re all brands whose products we wholly believe in.
But there's also the fact that I'm able to bounce ideas around with 12 of the best age group triathletes in the country, that experience is absolutely invaluable. I'm very lucky, grateful and proud to be a part of the team.
Of course there's pressure, and an element of imposter syndrome (something many post-graduates are all too familiar with unfortunately) but that's what I put on myself, there's no-one knocking on my door saying 'get that slot or else'!
What's your target at Kona?
I'd love to get on the podium at Kona, but the only thing I can control is having the best race I can. Because there's only one slot per race, there aren't many competitors in my age group, but pretty much everyone is an age group winner so has the potential to go quickly.
As you can probably tell, I’m quite process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented, so I haven’t spent much time thinking about the outcome of the race but rather focussing on what I can do to make myself go as quickly as possible.