Every athlete has a different and equally incredible story, but Andy’s desire to step out of his comfort zone and push limits is something worth sharing. Andy approached The JK Journey to be coached after a recommendation from Mindset Mentor and friend Rosie Mead, and it was an opportunity for coach-development and practical application of theory not to be missed. Having trained athletes for ironmen, multi-day events, and international competition, a world record of such scale with Andy was a new challenge. This blog post is a short reflection on the challenges we faced, and all being well in just over a weeks time, an insight in to how a dream manifested.
Andy set out with the intent to raise money for his chosen charities of Mind, Alcohol Change UK, and Humankind (donation links at the bottom of the post), with an event that wouldn’t just challenge him, but would build him. Having completed 15 sprint triathlons in 15 days, and 32 olympic distance triathlons in 32 days, the next leap was to undertake 70 70.3 (half-ironman) triathlons in 70 days. An event considerably larger than previous, and gaining two Guinness World Records: the most back to back 70.3 triathlons, and the most 70.3 triathlons in a year. An experienced athlete, yet having a relatively unstructured training history meant that getting the fundamentals was paramount, and this was where we picked up from.
Andy and I’s initial phone call was a positive one where we established the scale of his event, his training history, as well as his thoughts, ideas and expectations around what his training might look like. With a big goal in mind, and with already at this point in January a wealth of support behind him, it seemed too good to be true. A start date set on the 4th of April set, ready to finish on the 12th of June at the 70.3 Ironman Staffordshire event – it was go time.
We initially set pointers around how we would structure training to minimise injury risk (which may sound quite silly when building from several hours a week to an event of 50 hour activity weeks), consistent engaging sessions to help alleviate any monotony of endurance sport training, and a focus on some the controllable aspects – sleep, nutrition, recovery and mindset. 4 months to prepare your body for 10 weeks of ultra-endurance activity is no mean feat!
Andy took to it well, a change to his usual training patterns but one embraced. A continuation of strength work and prehab, alongside support from other health and fitness professionals kept him in good state throughout the majority of training. We initially set out to build up to a couple of regular 35+ hour weeks but regularly revisited this and our final volume didn't reach this - instead focussing on robustness and event readiness in light of progression...
As we developed through the schedule these are some hurdles we encountered:
- The monotony of endurance sport training, particularly when alone.
- Nutrition strategies to meet daily calorie requirements.
- Adequate sleep and rest opportunity with significant outside-event tasks, PR and commitments.
- COVID infection and return to training protocol management.
- Mental fatigue and stress of event pressures.
Now near entering his final 10 half ironmen of the challenge, it’s clear that our methodology was somewhat successful. It could never be perfect and that’s the joys of coaching and the need for constant learning and development. But in this case I was happy with Andy’s development and physical readiness for the event. Whilst definitely having some difficult days it’s been a thrill and honour to see his progress. Ups and downs are a natural part of such a long event, and the unforeseeable can always come in to play.
These are a couple of further pointers from the event that I would consider on a similar event approach next time:
- Emphasising on more than intra-event nutrition and recovery. But the need to stay healthy and engage in a daily coaching feedback / health questionnaire.
- Andy picked up a cellulitis from an unknown athlete’s foot infection, and shortly after an ear infection. Again not necessarily foreseeable, but better precautionary measures may have helped mitigate the risk.
- It is important to mention here however as a coach the need to stay within your qualification remits.
- Ensuring more race-day simulations kit wise. Something we did, but still felt cut short on and this created a feeling of rush and pressure building up to the event.
So what did we learn from this? How can you use our experience to manage your own training or event planning. Well it goes without saying that a coach is beneficial, somebody to share ideas with, take some of the pressure off, liaise with, and to be backing you with evidence based strategies to meet your goal. But more than that it needs to be someone understanding of your situation, goals for the event and values behind what you’re doing. As a medical student, I feel privileged for Andy to have looked to be as a coach. Now 7 years sober, Andy was an alcoholic and hence the support of such incredible charities, but my background and study gives me insight in to how to build rapport with Andy and the limitations of an authoritative figure. The goal was to work dynamically and give space where needed for Andy to work through challenges and grow mentally as well as physically. Yes there were some challenging days and needs to take an extra day off, but knowing Andy was happy to make these decisions reinforced that the coaching style was what this event needed.
Second to this, managing COVID return to training protocols, doing so safely and effectively given our time constraints was important. Compounded by the mental fatigue endured with such a training regime, created an immense pressure around making time for film crews, sponsors, supporters and publicity. But all of which are necessary to pull off a challenge like this. As a coach, having an appreciation for this and knowing when to push through fatigue or to back off was a learning curve, but one again that was struck well through working synergistically with Andy.
Further reflection on the final points of our training hurdles demonstrates how all of which are somewhat foreseeable, and all of which are therefore amenable. Planning for sleep opportunity, nutrition and extra-event commitments are all within the bounds of realism, and having alternative options or fall-backs is a must. Any multi-day event should be analysed regarding previous experience, athlete ability, strengths and weaknesses as expected. But building in training insight in relation to character traits or athlete personal history is a deeper approach for such a significant event. A difficult point to dwell on, but one worth considering.
Finally, the two points regarding health questionnaires and athlete-coach interaction during the event. Seeing Andy go through some tough points and decisions was an interesting position to be in. It was decided that for the event I would take a step back from actively coaching and be available as a sound board when needed, and whilst not being points we’d actively talked about before this stage, they were problems that could have been risk-reduced with more careful planning. Closer attention to diet and sleep regimes as well as kit choice could have helped recovery, and immune function. Health questionnaires throughout the event and HRV tracking (stopped for the event), glucose monitoring, salt intake management and further small parts of the puzzle were left after the event started. Which is where the benefits of being able to see Andy in person as a coach would have become 10-fold. Instead more attention could have been paid through JK Journey health questionnaires and check ins. Possibly picking up infection or systemic disruption indicators earlier and being able to get it seen prior to catastrophe. But all lessons learnt ready for next time.
The above statements are fairly critical and insightful to our specific training journey, and don’t correlate to every athletes journey. Nor do they mean to reflect any negative attitudes to Andy or the event. He is an inspirational individual that has achieved already a feat near super-human in resilience, character and imagination. But hopefully in sharing some of my personal reflections, those coached by me can see some of the methodology to the (evidence based) madness. They can take confidence in some of the lessons learnt, and for those considering equally world record events, or even a short bike packing trip for example, some things to consider pre-training and event planning.
Happy training J
The JK Journey