Pro triathlete Sarah Crowley could reflect on another hugely impressive performance after finishing second at IRONMAN Cairns, where only a very harsh time penalty cost her the race win.

The multiple IM champion's preparations had been far from ideal but Sarah executed a near-perfect performance in her homeland and she's shared her fuelling strategy for a brutally hot race in Cairns with us...

Hi Sarah, it's been an "interesting" year for professional athletes and we wondered how the pandemic had affected your training cycle in the build-up to IRONMAN Cairns?

Most of the pools near me in Australia were closed due to COVID earlier in the year so swimming was the one of the three disciplines that suffered the most. Following COVID restrictions between May and July, we made sure I had a significant swim block.

And then, after our swim block we were left with only around 10 weeks to properly prepare for the race and even then we weren't certain the race was going to go ahead until about four weeks prior.

That meant we had to be very careful with ramping our training up, so we invested heavily in bike training and left the running volume until the final three weeks.

Did you utilise the indoor trainer much during the lockdown and how did it help prepare you for IM Cairns?

Throughout the restriction period I used online racing and got involved with some Zwift events to stay motivated.

However, as the weather in Australia improved and restrictions were lifted, we started doing the main portion of our training outside.

I think we did build some good strength on the indoor trainer though.

Sarah Crowley sweating and drinking from PH bottle  Dale Travers  opt

Image Credit: Dale Travers ©

How did the conditions at this year's IM Cairns vary to previous years? And how did this impact your preparations?

IM Cairns is usually held in June so we knew the conditions were going to be different with the new rescheduled time in September.

Cairns is in tropical north Queensland, so normally the race is held in the warm “dry season”. The new time in September meant we were moving more into the humid “wet season”. Despite this, I normally find the race is overcast in June but this year it was very clear and hot.

Coming out of the Southern Hemisphere winter, we focused on using the sauna in the final few weeks to prepare ourselves for the warmer weather. This involved 30-minute sessions in the sauna at the end of the day, spaced out by a day in between, over two weeks.

For example, we would have a run at the end of the day, weigh ourselves, hit the sauna for 30 minutes (non-stop if possible), then weigh after and rehydrate our sweat losses with PH.

Did you have to change much in terms of your fuelling strategy for this race? Can you give us an insight into what you ate and drank?

After arriving in Cairns, I took the view that the race was going to come down to food and hydration and that I should adopt a similar strategy and schedule to my IM Kona plan. Which generally looks like this:

Time Fuel / fluid intake
Evening before Preload with PH 1500
4.00am (150 minutes before race start) Wake up
Eat pre-prepared carb-based breakfast with an average strength coffee
5.50am Drink PH 1500 in 500ml of water
Take 20g of carbohydrates (gel)
6.30am Race start
7.30am Drink first 90ml of drink (carbohydrate / protein drink)
9.00am Drink water at each bike aid station and cool body with remainder of the bottle
Start consuming carbohydrate every 20 minutes, in the form of:
1 gel every 40 minutes
Alternating with high carbohydrate sports drink every alternate 40 minutes
10.30am Drink PH 500 and continue the strategy as above until end of the bike leg
12.30pm Drink 600ml sports drink (from T2 bag)
Eat a banana in the first 2km of the run (from T2 bag)
1.00pm Ice, water at each aid station
Start on coke and RedBull after 30km
Use a gel every 8km of the run

At IM Cairns we didn't have the luxury of utilising pro fluid stations like we do at the IM World Championships in Kona.

So, I took a frozen carbohydrate drink from my special needs bag on laps 2 and 3 of the 4 laps. It did cost a little time because COVID restrictions meant that athletes had to find and access their special needs for themselves

Was there anything that occurred during the race that you were surprised about?

I was actually very surprised about how burnt I got from this race. I'm not known for burning and so it was interesting to have sunburn after the race despite wearing sunscreen.

I think perhaps this was a legacy of not having my usual preparations in the desert prior to a scorching hot race.

Image Credit: Dale Travers ©

What were the specific COVID safe rules in place?

I feel like the race experience was much the same as a regular event. The key differences were the swim start, where we were required to line up at 1.5-metre intervals marked out by cones.

The end of the race was also very different with no champagne celebration, limited media, no grandstands and COVID safe officers trying to keep the crowd 1.5 metres apart.

Other than that, the on-course experience felt very much like normal. I'm just feeling so lucky to have had this opportunity in 2020 and hoping to fit in at least one more big race before the year is out...

Thanks for giving us such an in-depth look into your fuelling and hydration strategy for Cairns, and best of luck from everyone at Team PH for your next race.