1. Your win at the Athens Olympic Games was a huge surprise for most of triathlon journalists. Do you think that the hilly course at the bike section was the critical factor in order to beat all the favorites or at this level anyone can win ? Do you think that you could win even in a flat course?
The hilly course was definitely the critical factor in winning this race. I did the trial race the year before (October 2003) and had a terrible race. My legs were finished when it came to the run leg. I had had the best run splits in all races (incl. all World Cups) I did in 2003, but not in this one. I was dead after biking. I had done a bike performance step test (4 minutes, increasing by 40 watts starting at 80 watts until exhaustion) 2 weeks before this trial race in 2003. We analyzed and compared the watts I pushed in the trial race on the bike with the performance test I had done 2 weeks earlier and found out that when I rode up the hill, the average watts the group was pushing were 290-300. I worked a lot with lactate testing in my training and saw that by 6mmol on my performance test that I was only pushing 268 watt. 6 mmol lactate is the cut off point of propper performance for me (& everyone!), so in the race when I went up the hill each time pushing around 290-300 watts. I was possibly sitting on around 8.5 mmol and never recovering below 6 before I came back to have to ride up the hill again. I worked for one year just training on a wind trainer at very specific lactate levels, where the body adapted to a level of being able to push just over 300 watts at 6 mmol/L lactate in a performance test. This allowed me to run the way I did off the bike as I was the most accurately and precisely trained for this course. I was still fresh, most other athletes were dead, just as I was 10 months earlier in that test race. This test race in 2003 was one of the reasons, why I won the Olympic GOLD in 2004!
If it was a flat course I think I would have won also just because of how precise my training was and how well we analyzed everything. The only difference is that athletes can sit a lot easier in the group and do nothing on a flat course, whereas on a hilly course everyone still has to work the hills and Athens was not a hill it was a wall. It was a great course. Only a complete triathlete could win this race Vouliagmeni.
2. Did your win in Athens has helped the growth of Triathlon in Austria? What is the situation today in Austria today as far as the penetration of our sport is concerned? What is the model of growth? Are there well organized triathlon clubs ?
I can only go from what has been told to me from the Austrian Triathlon Federation and that is that my win at the Olympics did spark off a boom in the sport here in Austria. There are a lot more triathlon races which are all at their capacity of numbers and the Ironman Austria is always booked out in just a few minutes. The sport is not being looked at as an extreme sport anymore as it once was. The general opinion is that anyone can do a triathlon and thats great! People watch friends and family or work colleagues complete a triathlon race and then compare themselves to these people and say: “Hey, I am going to try that too. If they can do it, then so can I.” The sport gets a lot more media exposure in the country now. Continuing my sports career for another 5 years after winning the gold medal and going back to the Olympics in 2008, meant that the sport got really a lot of media attention. The way that I won the medal coming from so far behind and no-one knowing in which position I was, put so much more emotion into this medal. A lot of people know exactly where they were when I won. People remember the sport – not just because I won a gold medal, but also because of how I won the medal. It brought an unknown sport into the mainstream media here in Austria and it has remained this way since. Journalists themselves are competing in events which gives added exposure. It is not the side sport that it used to be. Triathlon is seen as a healthy sport in Austria. The combination of swimming, biking and running gives the body such an overall fitness. There are a lot of triathlon clubs, which are well organized around age group athletes needs now, as they offer great training possibilities. Our national federation has tried to set up structures for the elite athletes. However nothing has really worked to date. The athletes still go there separate ways and they are still trying to set up junior structures.
3. What was your training philosophy that has guide you to the gold medal?
We worked very specifically and scientifically. We tested systematically every 4-8 weeks to see that we were getting the adaptation we wanted in certain areas from the specific training we did. If we did not see an improvement in certain areas then we changed the training intensities in certain areas. Most people test rarely and wait to see how a race is to test their shape. We tested and never lost any time. Triathlon training has to be efficient! It is not easy to fit 3 disciplines in. We always went by numbers and reacted on them, not on the race result. We learned to think biologically.
4. What was your warm up at that day? What warm up do you think triathletes should do in a sprint or Olympic distance race
I took my bike for a quick ride for maybe 5 minutes, just to check the gears and wheels that everything was perfect. I then checked it in.
I then followed by doing a 5 minute easy run, followed by 4 x 50m build up sprints. I jogged around for maybe 15 seconds in between doing the next. I did a few running drills, and then ran for a few more minutes easy.
The swim warm up was always very important to me especially as I was such a bad swimmer. I swam easy for 10 minutes (freestyle), then did 6×20 strokes sprinting with 20 strokes easy inbetween. I then did a few start jumps from the pontoon followed by some short sprints (about 50 meters) to simulate the race start.
We always had quite a bit of time in between warming up and the race start, so I always made sure that I kept my arms moving doing exercises, not to get cold.
It is a very personal thing. Some people like to warm up on the bike, doing 10-15minutes with a few sprints.
Some do a 5-10 minute run with a few sprints.
Some do a 10-20 minute swim warm up with sprints, others prefer not to get in the water at all so as not to get cold. They do a dry warm up with swim bands.
You have to try different ways out to see what suites you the best.
5. What did you eat prior to the race and was your strategy in order not to get exhausted from high temperatures? What kind and in which volume did you receive fluids during the race?
I had 3 pieces of toast with butter and jam, a glass of orange juice and then had a bottle of electrolyte drink with me, that I kept drinking all the time before race start. I then ate half an energy bar 1hr before the start. I kept drinking electrolyte drinks and did my warm up, then sat in the shade on the grass out of the direct sun until we got called to the start. About 10 minutes out of the race I would have about 100ml Red Bull. During the race I used 700ml of electrolyte drink on the bike as well as 150ml of Red Bull which I drank at km 35. In the run I used water from the drink stations.
Before and after the opening ceremony, I went to Crete to acclimatize, where I trained in the heat for short periods every day. This worked really well. It was very very hot on the race day, but my body and mind were well adjusted to the heat. I cannot remember exactly how much I drank. It was electrolyte with a mixture of carbohydrates. I think I drank about a litre on the bike and then on the run maybe 300mls. I poured more water over myself, than I drank to keep me cool.
6. As triathletes adore to read the training schedules of the elite athletes could you please give us a typical week – at the base period- of you at that time?
I always went to Australia for the European winter to do my base training. I went from the beginning of January until the end of April.
Swimming 7-9 times a week in the last few years of my career. For Athens I trained 6 times a week. Early career 30-40km/week. Later career 40-60km per week. I did between 5-8km 2x a day. Most often it was 6km. 2 sessions a week were 10-12x 400m at 3mmol/l lactate with 30 sec pauses; 1 session was 5-6x 200m at 5mmol/l lactate, 10 minutes pause in between the 200´s – the rest of the sessions were endurance swims, 500´s, 800´s, 1000´s and 1500´s. I also did a 30×100 meter set once a week.
Biking 4 times a week. Usually 10-12 hrs a week. Aprox. 300km/week. 2x 2-2,5h sessions plus 2x 3hr sessions. 1 session 6x 10-15min at 3mmol/l lactate, 7-10 min easy in between plus 1 session 6x 5 min at 5mmol/l lactate with 10-15 min easy. I did all sessions with intensity on the windtrainer. Endurance rides I did outside.
Running was 4-5 times a week. Between 60-80km. 2x endurance of 1 1/2h – 2h. 1 session 4-5x 6 minutes intensity with 5-10 minutes in between. (total approx. 15km) 1x 5km at 5 mmol/l lactate. For this I would do a 5km race somewhere, then do 45minutes to 1h cool down run afterwards. No pause between finishing the race and doing cool down.
7. You run very fast, even faster than many men. You are a strong runner or you were a very strong cyclist that saved her legs for the run?
Both! I was very specifically trained on the bike for the Athens course that I did not go over my threshold and running was my strength. I was a very strong runner, but if you do not have the metabolism stability on the bike for such a course as in Athens, then you will never be able to run a fast run split, no matter how good a runner you are. I proved this the year before the Olympics (2003), when in every race up until the trial race in Athens, I had the fastest running split. Then in Athens at the test race in 2003 I was well behind the winners time. It was not because my running was bad. It was because I was not trained properly on the bike for this course and I payed for it in the run. I perfected this for the Olympic race one year later.
8. Our magazine has a training orientation that’s why we insist on questions concerning training. Who was your coach and what was/ is his training philosophy?
My husband planned and executed the training for me. He wrote the overall program. He decided and controlled the intensities I needed into execute by my test results. My husband made sure that the training sessions were done accurately. His philosophy was not to waist time. Each session had a physiological purpose, and that was his philosophy to do it as perfectly as possible to get the maximum output out of each training and recovery time. Every session that was not endurance was measured using lactate. We did about 2000 lactate probes in the 10 months before the Olympic race. Efficiency is everything in triathlon.
9. Did you cooperate with experts coaches in swimming, cycling and running?
Only in swimming. Never in the other 2 disciplines. I was a runner as a child from the age of 4 years until 15 years, so I had the technique in running. Cycling is easy to learn. I had a swimming coach who was specialized just in swimming my whole career. That was a very important factor for me as I did not feel the water as well as swimmers do.
10. What kind of brick sessions did you use in order to prepare your body for the triathlon races?
I went for a run quite often after riding for different reasons. I would ride 2h or 3h and – then run for 1-2hrs off that just easy. For Ironman I would often ride 6h and then do a 2h run straight off that.
I used brick sessions to lengthen the time of the total training as well as to increase the endurance effect and to over load the muscles for a better adaptation.
I rarely did brick sessions after the swim in the morning, I usually slept because I always had a better training feeling in the afternoons than in the mornings. I would quite often connect sessions very closely together though in the afternoon with a bike ride-run and then my second swim for the day. I found this to be very regenerative for the legs when I did my afternoon swim after training on my legs in biking and running for hours and hours. They would quite often be really aching before the swim and then afterwards I would feel nothing. The cooling effect of the water and weightless exercise have are great recovery effect on the legs.
Early in my career I did a lot of interval training on the bike for 10 minutes low cadence big gear then I would have my shoes ready and run for 1 km of that very hard. I would do that 5-6 times.
I also occasionally did transition-training with a group, where we would ride around in a circle in an empty car park racing each other or on a velodrome then dismount the bike practice getting the running shoes on and run off that very quickly for 1 km. I did not find this as effective as solid metabolism sessions though.
In swimming we would swim different distances maybe 100m or 200m or longer then jump out of the pool run 50m up the other end and jump back in again and swim another however many meters and repeat that a few times.
I also did training getting out of my wetsuit, where I did a lot of open water training with groups or swimming races in Australia and then would practice taking it off as quickly as possible.
After an interval running session on the track of doing 6-8x 1000m, I would then sit straight on the bike for an hr with a very high cadence but a low watt. It extended the training time for endurance but the muscle input was low after the track session, reducing the risk of injury.
11. Do you think that bike to run sessions are the only brick sessions that triathletes should practice or swim to bike sessions are also important?
I think bike to run sessions are important to extend the training time and to over load the leg muscles. I rarely did swim to bike sessions, but I do think it is sometimes important to practice this when training with wetsuit. Wetsuit is just more complicated in transition and you have undress quickly!
I think both brick sessions are important that you learn to be fast and effective in your transitions.
12. Could you give us some secrets that could help our readers to become better triathletes? e.g what are the key training sessions for an Olympic distance triathlete (interval training, long distance sessions, hill reps ) ? What kind of equipment can offer an advantage (gps at the run, watt counter at the bike)
A power meter is very helpful on the bike. I always trained with wattage to be accurate and not waist time. GPS on the run helps to guide distance and time, it is also a very accurate way of training, however I never had this. I used pulse and my husband measured distances quite often on his bike and I ran for a certain time. If you test a lot of lactate then pulse is quite accurate. If you know your physiological training parameters from tests then these training objects can be very good.
Do regular performance tests that you can see that the training is correct what you are doing. Make sure that the endurance, intensity ratios in each discipline are correct that you are able to see a performance increase in each discipline.
For me every session was a key session, because it was the total package of all the training sessions coming together that make you a complete athlete. For me training is very simple. You have to do your endurance sessions between 0.8 mmol/l lactate to 2mmol/l lactate, hen you have to “stabilize” at 3mmol/lactate sessions and 5mmol/l lactate sessions. If you do this precisely then you will be a very all round trained athlete, less injured and less sick because you are always training your body at its physiological capabilities and not over.
Your body is a bit like a machine – what you program in it learns and it takes about 3 weeks for the body to know what you want it to. If you do specific training in specific areas you should see the adaptation you wanted.
Endurance – long & easy sessions, especially in winter, are importatnt to get a good base.
Key sessions are:
Biking: I liked to do all my hard sessions on the windtrainer, becauseit allows you to push a certain wattage with a certain cadence without interruption. No head or tail wind, no traffic, no traffic lights. Clean & clear intervals.
For Olympic distance you can do 10 – 15 minute intervals at 3 mmol/l lactate 4-5 times with 10 minutes pause and 5-10 minute intervals at 5 mmol/l lactate 3-6 times with 10 minutes pause. All with 50-60 cadence.
For ironman distance you can do 30-40 minute 2mmol sessions 2-4 times and 15 minute 3 mmol sessions 4-5 times with 10 minutes pause. 50-60 cadence.
I find this much easier than doing hill sessions outside. The training is just so accurate, but of course it is more boring than being outside.
Running: Once a week track work where I did 15 minutes of drill work, then 6-8 x 1000m with 10 minutes pause.
A running race of 5km, does not need to be longer, with a long endurance run off that.
Very long endurance runs throughout the winter 1.5-2 hrs, and long bike rides of 1.5-3 hrs.
I did 6 times 8-10 minute hill intervals on a medium gradient that I still had a good powerful step. I would then run back down the mountain very easy, having about a 7 minute pause.
13. Do you think that women should train with male triathletes or this can lead to overtraining?
I think women can train with males, especially in biking and swimming, they just have to know what their limits are. Sitting in the draft of men is quite dynamic, but you have to know you are not over or under your limits.
The same for the run: You have to know when it is too easy or too hard. I always liked training with people who were slightly better than me, but not another world better because you will be training over your physiological limits all the time. This can be ok for a certain time, but then eventually you will get injured, ill or yes over trained. Also, if you under train, always going easier than you should, you will stagnate and never improve.
14. Do you think that triathletes should train with local swimming/ cycling/ running clubs or this can have negative effects at their training?
I think clubs do make sense because it makes the training more enjoyable, especially in swimming. Again though you have to be careful of the intensities you do with these single disciplines. Because triathlon is 3 disciplines, the intensities have to be very well worked out because you have such limited time in each discipline and you need a very good base because it´s an endurance sport.
If you know what the purpose of each training session is and you use the clubs sessions to make this training possible at the right intensities, then it is ok. However if you just go and train with the groups and do what they do without any real knowledge of what your body requires, then you will initially improve, but after that you will stagnate, get ill, or injured because the sessions will be too intense all the time and your body will not be able to recover properly before the next session. This over and over again ends with a negative training effect.
Training in groups keeps the training interesting and varied that you stay motivated also. Having different training partners and doing as man different sessions as possible like track sessions, running on the beach, hill reps, off road as in forrest runs, treadmill sessions, spinning classes, all add to the excitement of the sport. If you are not a pro and just do the sport to keep fit, then have fun with it.
15. What are your plans for the future in terms of your involvement with triathlon? Do you plan to work as a triathlon coach or as a consultant for your federation/ NOC?
I still have contact with our national federation, however at the moment I devote my entire time to my 4 month old son. We are involved with athletes and their training and we are at the moment involved with developing a training program for coaches.