Made of Iron: Q&A With Triathlon World Champ Chrissie Wellington

Photo Courtesy: Earl Basden

By Jamie Kolar, Swimming World College Intern.

Chrissie Wellington is truly made of iron. She is a four-time Ironman Triathlon World Champion and World Record holder. The 40-year old English native is recently retired from her rigorous training regiment, but has still remained active in new ways.  Since retiring and completing a degree in international development from the University of Manchester, as well as being a full time mother to two-year old Esme Grace. She has also jut written a new book, To the Finish Line: A World Champion Triathlete’s Guide to Your Perfect Race. To the Finish Line explores Wellington’s view about training, mental health and nutrition.

While training and physical fitness is important and vital to a world class performance, it is not the only thing that make a world champion. The mental training is also of vital importance. Wellington has experienced her own struggles as an athlete, like an eating disorder and injuries, but has beaten the odds to be one of the best and most accomplished triathletes in the history of the world.

She sat down with Swimming World to discuss the mental side of training, as well as the physical side.

SW: You are extremely competitive, where do you think that spirit comes from?

CW: I think I was born with it, but neither of my parents seem to have that intense competitive drive so I’m not sure where the genetic predisposition came from!

SW: Do you think you could have been as successful as you were, on the stage that you were, if it weren’t for your competitive drive?

CW: I think triathlon enabled me to draw on – but also hone – some of the traits I’ve had since I was a little girl: drive, dogged determination, stubbornness and yes, intense competitiveness. But it also taught me to manage these traits to positive ends, and control them so that they were beneficial rather than detrimental. I think that having a competitive spirit is valuable, but it isn’t enough in itself – there are other qualities that are also important, such as patience, a good work ethic, an ability to listen to others and to learn lessons, and the mental strength to overcome adversity. And it’s not just about your own character and approach either – achieving your goals requires an environment that is conducive to achieving your aims – including support from family and friends, access to necessary facilities and advice from experienced professionals.

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Photo Courtesy: Colin Henderson

SW: What kept you motivated during long training sessions or during a race? 

CW: It’s rare to find someone whose enthusiasm doesn’t wane occasionally. If you find yourself in a bit of a motivational hole there are things you can do and I developed strategies to be able to motivate myself and not let adversity derail me from the pursuit of my goal. I have covered a lot of these strategies in my new book, and they can be used and adapted by anyone – no matter what your background or sporting ability.

I always keep the goal in the fore of my mind, and remember that getting out in the rain to do a run, for example, is a step closer to that goal. And I recall why I set the goal in the first place. For instance, the goal might be to win the World Championships, and the reasons – or motivational carrots to put it another way – are to fulfil my potential, seize every opportunity that comes my way, make my family proud, honour a loved one’s memory, inspire others and raise money for the causes I care about.

A reliable training partner can provide encouragement – whilst wet-blankets and naysayers should be ignored, or avoided altogether. Sports clubs are great places to meet likeminded people and can offer a cocoon of advice, support and encouragement and are open to people of all abilities, from the novice to the elite.

chrissie-wellington-run-sand-triathlon-start-wetsuit

Photo Courtesy: Earl Basden

I sometimes try new things – maybe running on forest trails, instead of pounding the same old roads or swimming open water instead of the pool – as variety and change can help reignite my fire. I chart my progress in a log, ensuring I bank all those positive feelings so that I can draw on them when I self-doubt creeps in.

I also mentally divide training sessions and races into portions, rather than a more daunting whole, and recall all the times I’ve overcome discomfort and adversity in the past. I sing songs in my head and count repetitively in time with my pedal stroke or footsteps. I also replace energy-sapping thoughts of “I’m exhausted. I want to sit down and eat a doughnut. It’s raining and my new shoes will get muddy” with positive words, my personal mantra and images of my family. Before a competition, I write ‘Never Ever Give Up and Smile’ on my race wrist-band and my water bottles, and look at these when I need a boost.

I use music or inspiring training podcasts for a boost, and read Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ which never fails to inspire me.

That’s not to say that I don’t suffer self-doubt. In fact, in every Ironman I’ve done I’ve wanted to quit at some point. There’s that little voice in one ear that says ‘pull to the side, it’s not going to be your day’. But I’ve pushed through this, using the strategies I’ve honed to help me overcome these mental and physical hurdles.

A word of advice …If a lack of motivation lasts for a few weeks and you can’t seem to drag yourself out of the hole, then it could be a sign that you need a change. Perhaps more rest, a different activity, or some time out altogether. It’s hard to acknowledge that something might not be quite right, but always try to listen to your internal voice and let that compass guide you. Prolonged rest or change can be hard, but sometimes we need to it to rejuvenate ourselves and get that mojo back.

SW: What do you believe makes a champion? What kind of mindset do you need to have to get to that professional level? 

chrissie-wellington-mediatation

Photo Courtesy: Earl Basden

CW: All the physical strength in the world won’t help you if your mind is not prepared. This is part of training – the part that people don’t put in their log books; the part that all the monitors and gadgets in the world can’t influence or record. And the mind can be trained just like a muscle and becoming mentally strong requires patience and practice.

I realised this during my time in Nepal, and specifically when I cycled 1200km across the Himalayas – encountering the biggest highs (literally – Everest Base Camp at 15,00ft!) and lows in the form of snow storms, sand storms, horrendous wind and sickness. I developed a huge amount of physical strength whilst cycling there, but while this physical strength can be transient and sometimes lost, I believe that the mental strength – including positivity and optimism – from encountering and overcoming challenges and hurdles always stays with you.

Sporting success rests, in part, about having the mental fortitude necessary to motivate ourselves, to focus, to cope with boredom, to be able to relax and switch off, to overcome our fears, hurt, and discomfort. I guess being a champion requires a combination of traits, like the ones I mentioned above. A great work ethic, focus, ambition, calmness under pressure, an ability to endure, a willingness to strive for more, patience, an ability to lean on others and a splash of determination, dedication and competiveness should be thrown in to the mix too. Most importantly we need to demonstrate these traits each and every day, rather than simply on race day. If we let our head drop, our heart drops with it. I believe that if you can keep your head calm, focused and determined then your body can be capable of amazing feats.

SW: Every athlete struggles with injuries and plateauing, what advice would you give to them?

CW: The psychological impact of being injured can be just as debilitating as broken bones, and so healing means addressing both the physical and emotional aspects. I tend to have a brief ‘toys out of the pram’ tantrum and spend a few days wallowing on the sofa watching Pretty Woman for the 100th time, but then look forward and choose the path of positive action.

I try to learn from what has happened, and look at the reasons behind it – to address the cause, rather than simply the injury. I always try to take control by learning about my injury, preparing myself for the road ahead and alleviating the frustration, confusion and fear that come from the unknown. This means seeking expert medical help, getting a clear medical diagnosis and prognosis, discussing various treatment methods, possible complications, duration of recovery and rehabilitation. What foods should I consume? Are there techniques or therapies that expedite healing?

I lean on others for support when the going gets tough; surrounding myself with positive, cup-half-full people. And I try to focus on what is possible – which might require adaptation and adjustment, so that I can still set – and progress towards – measureable, achievable goals. It’s also good to use the injury as a window of opportunity to do something I may not have otherwise made time to do, volunteering at an event, spending more time with family and friends or learning to paint for example.  Of course, any injury is a short-term set-back in the pursuit of specific sporting goals, but I try to be patient and ultimately stay positive.

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Photo Courtesy: Jonny Gawler

SW: What is the biggest lesson you took away from any struggles you had as an athlete?

CW: In overcoming more than I ever thought possible to win my fourth Ironman World Championship in 2011 I realised that we are capable of so much more than we ever think. That race was definitely the most gratifying, satisfying and proudest moment of my career. The icing on an amazing cake. I had a bad bike crash two weeks before, and sustained some serious injuries, both superficial war wounds and also internal damage, which affected me physiologically as well as physically. I dug to the very depths of my soul and truly pushed beyond any limit I thought existed.  It was the hard-fought race I have always dreamed of, and I feel that maybe at this race I proved to myself, and others, that I really was truly worthy of being called a champion. So yes, our limits definitely aren’t where we might think they are.

SW: You’ve also recently written a new book To the Finish Line. What’s the angle of this new book?

CW: It was a totally different experience to writing my autobiography [‘A LIFE WITOUT LIMITS’ – PUBLISHED IN 2012], but no less enjoyable and challenging. I wrote my first book while I was still a professional athlete and the process was extremely cathartic, and quite challenging emotionally as I divulged details of my personal life that I hadn’t really shared before.

This latest book came from a realisation that the autobiography left many questions unanswered, especially around the specifics of training and racing. So I set about creating a more detailed, structured guide, but one that was accessible and readable – not a dry, dull technical manual. It covers an array of subjects – everything from setting goals, nutrition, training for swim, bike and run, race strategies, strengthening your mind, coping with eating disorders, and exercising when pregnant. In many respects it contains lessons that transcend sport, and can be applied to all areas of life. You definitely don’t have to be a triathlete – or even an athlete – to benefit.

Like my autobiography I hoped that by drawing on my own experiences, and sharing aspects of my training that I have never disclosed before, I could bring the subject to life. I really enjoyed writing it, and working with a few of my closest advisors and mentors on certain subjects has hopefully added a bigger splash of colour.

Chrissie’s latest book is available here.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

1 Comment

1 comment

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Author: Jamie Kolar

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Jamie Kolar is a junior at the the University of Illinois studying health sciences. She swims backstroke, freestyle and butterfly and is a 2106 Olympic Trial qualifier in the 100 backstroke as well as a multiple state record holder in Illinois.

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