We've been working with triathlete Sarah Lewis for a few years now, we Sweat Tested her and supported her as a member of Team Freespeed. So we were delighted for her when she took the plunge this year and race the 2017 season professionally. Whether or not to go pro is a daunting decision, for a number of reasons, so we caught up with Sarah recently to give you an insight into the process and to see how the live of a full-time athlete is treating her...
So, Sarah, how did you come to the decision to go pro?
Well, I met the licensing criteria back in 2015 but I didn't go pro then as it was my first 70.3 race and the fantastic opportunity to join Team Freespeed Skechers Performance, a very well supported GB age group team, came up the following season. I used this time to focus on overall female British age group titles, 70.3 podiums, elite ITU short course and French Grand Prix races.
In the 70.3 races I found that I was usually racing within the pro field as I generally started fairly close to them at the front of the AG wave (anywhere from about 5 to 15 minutes behind). It frustrated me that I was mentally and physically in the race but not technically part of it - I love to race and this was a big influence on my decision.
I achieved some decent results in the first half of 2016 and felt I did enough to prove myself, particularly with a challenging full-time working life. But, in the second half of the year, I managed very little training due to the demands of the job, a few illnesses and injuries and I could see that this would continue in 2017. Having spent over 10 years advising on Mergers & Acquisitions this is nothing new, but I’m getting older and the professional triathlon opportunity wasn't going to hang around forever!
So I decided to take up my pro licence in early 2017 and to resign from office life for a period of at least 6-12 months. It will take me a while to get the training back on track and to "injury-proof" myself (as much as you ever can of course!) but I'm really looking forward to the challenge. The decision to “go pro” was really a “now or never” decision and I'm really excited to see how the latter half of 2017 goes.
What will you do differently this year, over and above training more? How will you step up training, coaching?
In the past I’ve been selective and really focused on the bike as I'm definitely not a natural cyclist, it just needed a lot more work! As I progress professionally I’ll pick up the running and swimming more. I’ve also introduced a formal strength session each week and can feel that I am getting more/better quality sleep.
Many things will remain the same, for example I have started back doing a couple of swim sessions with my triathlon club Ful-on Tri and over the summer I'll join another local club, Optima, who focus on elite juniors and kindly let me drop in for summer track sessions, which are very well structured.
I’ve always been self-coached, following a set plan would have been impossible through periods of long/erratic work hours. This may change, however I do enjoy the flexibility that comes with taking each day as it comes. My husband and I cycle and occasionally run together and we talk a lot during the day so he generally knows what I’m up to and I increasingly bounce sessions and ideas off him.
What races are you doing in your first year as a pro and why?
Both the ITU Middle Distance and Ironman 70.3 European Champs will be held in Denmark on consecutive weeks in June and the Challenge series' biggest half ironman race (“The Championship”) will be held in Slovakia around this time too. If selected, I’ll be looking to do two of the three given that there's only a week between each.
I've chosen those events as there will be strong fields and it will be exciting to toe the line with some of the fastest triathletes out there to see where I'm at. Given that my focus is currently on rehabilitation, I’ll be looking to compete in more events in the second half of the year and will confirm which closer to the time.
What are your aims in your first year as a pro and what's are your longer term goals?
My aims in my first year as a pro are to podium in races (in the second half of the year) as I build up point to qualify for the World Champs in South Africa in 2018.
As I'm no longer with Team Freespeed I will also be looking to partner with a couple of sponsors. I get asked when I’ll do the full Ironman – it’s not on the cards just yet but next season may be a different story, I would definitely like to test one out at some stage.
How do you taper for your key events?
My taper is not technical and will vary from race to race depending on my level of fitness and how important the race is. I will typically build my training up until approximately 1 to 2 weeks out from the race and take 3 days or so off, no training whatsoever.
Even light sessions don’t feel good when I hit full recovery mode, so I enjoy the rest and wait until I come out the other side – which for me is generally a few days. I’ll then slowly build the training back up again until I’m doing reasonable but short sessions in the days prior to the race.
If I've had periods where I’ve struggled to fit the training in, I might have a very hard weekend the week before a race to get the body ready followed by a shorter taper as I have not built up much physical fatigue.
Is there a type of session or set you absolutely swear by and try to never miss?
The sessions that I think are most beneficial are longer, fast cycles (2.5-3.5 hours). You can’t do these all the time but they're about as close to 70.3 race practice as you can get. London traffic can make it difficult but the roads from Windsor to Henley are reasonably flat and fast.
When it comes to the running and swimming I mix it up a lot based on where the gaps are. If I’m feeling sloppy when swimming I do sets of 25m until the cadence comes back (e.g. 1 – 2km worth).
Conversely if I’m feeling tight or wound up, I get in the pool and just swim for the duration of the session (the long run equivalent!). I love track sessions but only do them for a few months each year. 400 reps, or sessions where the distance shortens and the speed increases are my favourite!
How did you balance training with other commitments in life when you were an age-grouper?
I made sure that my weekends were free for training and my husband was very good about the weekends revolving around triathlon!
We cycled together both Saturday and Sunday and this was key. Swimming and running were all about efficiency. The majority of my swim sessions were 2km, just enough to maintain things and my runs were generally short and interval-based, again the focus was mainly on fitting them in.
How do you stay hydrated during training and during a race?
I made big changes at the end of last season. Before this I didn't use electrolytes and looking back it's now clear that this derailed a lot of my races! I have an extremely high sweat rate and if I wasn’t suffering severe dehydration, I was getting painful stitches.
I use PH 500 now in both races and training – especially turbos, long rides and if I’m swimming in a hot pool (and know that it will be a hard session).
I don’t follow a set pre-loading plan but do try to look for signs the day before and on race morning. If I feel I probably have a salt deficit, I take a stronger PH dose before the race, usually the 1500s.
What's your day to day 'nutrition plan' and how do you stay fuelled before/during a race?
I take as many gels as I can on the bike and tend not to eat anything during the half marathon, when I drink electrolytes. I stay away from caffeinated gels and coke as I’m sensitive to them.
I think that my day to day nutritional plan is probably quite standard – carbs, fat and protein meals, lots of cycling cake stops and emergency gels in the back pocket!
Thanks Sarah, we'll be following your first pro season with interest!
You can follow Sarah's pro career on Twitter.