Giving it a Tri
Already a legend in draft-legal triathlon, Alistair Brownlee sets sights on long-course success and, eventually, Kona.
Alistair Brownlee is low maintenance but high performance. He doesn’t even shave his legs, never has. He’s not a fussy eater. He loves to relax by simply reading. Yet on the racecourse he revs up the intensity to become one of the world’s most accomplished triathletes. Specializing in ITU draft-legal racing, the 29-year-old Brit has won gold in the past two Olympic games. (His brother, Jonathan, won silver in Rio and Bronze in London.)
Now, Alistair is looking to make waves in long-course Ironman® triathlon, with a crucial early test at this weekend’s St. George 70.3 in Utah. He follows other notable ITU athletes such as Jan Frodeno who have successfully transitioned from ITU to Ironman. We caught up with the Yorkshire native to talk about his low-key style, his training, and his transition to a different kind of tri:
How has the adjustment been so far to non-draft triathlon?
I’ve done that one race and that went well. I wanted to get that one race under my belt knowing that I had this bigger race coming up this weekend. I think this weekend will be the big test.
I’m looking at progressing as we go through the season. After a big year last year and a bit of time off, and learning more about the kind of event, I think hopefully I can get a bit better as we go along.
Top two photos by Richard Baybutt
Have you raced before in the American Southwest in desert conditions?
No, I don’t think so.
What do you make of it?
We went out around one of the canyons this morning. It’s very cool. One of the great things is, for the last so many years really, it’s been so focused about the Olympics. It’s cool I’ve gotten to travel, but you’re so focused on the event. It has been nice just to come and be a little bit more relaxed and look around and explore a bit.
Have you ever seen so much open space with no buildings?
We drove in from Vegas. It’s incredible. Coming from Europe, you don’t get that.
What do you see as the difference in the feel between the ITU draft-legal triathlon circuit and the long-course circuit?
I haven’t really done much yet. I purposely wanted to be fairly low key with this one and not get too involved with the buildup to it. We’ll see after the race. I haven’t done enough to judge yet.
How has your body responded to spending much more time on the tri bike?
So far it’s been good. In terms of my actual health, I’ve literally right now the best I’ve been for years. I think not doing the super high intensity running. My bike has gone from looking to do anywhere from a half an hour to an hour of effort—real max efforts, threshold and then max efforts, training for that crit kind of race, to training for long distances is just a constant kind of power output. So that’s been a very different way of training for me.
People talk about the “pack” in Ironman events where you have to make the front group but there’s no drafting. What do you expect?
That’s one thing I really don’t know. I don’t quite know how it’s going to turn out. I’ve never done a race quite like this before…. This is a top-notch field really. I’ve got a kind of idea of the effort I can do. I’m going to go out and try to stick to that kind of plan.
Are you building toward Kona?
Definitely not this year, but maybe in the next few years. At the moment I’m trying not to think too long term. I definitely want to do Kona at some point, whether that’s in the next two to three years or possibly in the next five or six years, I’m not really sure.
Will you do a full Ironman this year?
There’s a small chance I might do a full, but if I do it will be right at the back end of year. The focus is doing as well as I can in these races and then building for the 70.3 World Championships.
After so many years of intense ITU and Olympic racing, it has to be a nice mental break to do something with different tasks for your mind and body.
Yeah, for sure. I’ve been to three Olympics and the (ITU) World Series for eight years. I’ve been focused on trying to win two Olympic Games. That’s eight years of focusing on the same kind of thing. It’s really, really nice to have a different focus, to travel to different places and just enjoy doing a different discipline, really.
What ways do you look to unwind amid all your training? Do you have certain restaurants or coffee shops you look for while traveling?
I like to read. I guess that’s the only thing that’s constant. I’m not too fussy about food or anything. I like to do a bit of training the day before races but not much else… I drink tea but not coffee.
What sort of genre do you like to read most?
I can read anything… fiction, historical fiction, to factual stuff, economics, politics, biographies. The one thing I don’t read so much anymore is sports biographies (laughs).
What kind of historical fiction do you like best?
I’ve read a lot of historical fiction about Vikings and British history, the Tudors and just after the Tudors.
Photo by Richard Baybutt
How has the dynamic with your brother, Jonathan, changed now that you’re pursuing long-course?
We still do most of our training together. On a normal week, we’re still turning up doing the same swim sessions. We’re still doing easy rides and easy runs together. Just my run and bike sessions have been a bit different. It’s good. I think again probably quite nice to have a change for him as well.
What do you like about eTap on the triathlon bike?
I absolutely love eTap on the aero bike. It’s a game changer being able to change (gears) from both hand positions. Back in the old days, you’re on a hill and down on the bulls (base bar) and you can’t change your gear. It’s revolutionary. The aero integration as well—you’re seeing these cable-less bikes, which is so cool.
Have you always not shaved your legs? That’s kind of rare.
I’ve never shaved my legs.
Is there a reason?
I don’t know…. When I was first starting off in triathlon, all my mates were like, ‘oh, you have to shave your legs.’ But I never got into it. At some point I’m going to have to go into a wind tunnel and really focus on making myself as aero as possible and see if it has an advantage or not (laughs).
Triathletes turn three sports into one as all around athletes. Is there another sport you think really represents the best athletes in the world? What sports requires the most of all-around athletic ability?
I have a lot of respect for a lot of different sports. My natural leaning is toward endurance sports because endurance sports for me is really what sport is about… But, that said, I can’t imagine being able to put everything into a 10 second race. I have a lot of respect for that. I have a lot of respect for people where there’s a real skill aspect to the sport as well. Tennis is an example where there’s some kind of fitness in there, the athletic ability, and the hand-eye coordination… In terms of endurance sports… for pure engine ability you can’t look away from cycling the guys who climb and 10km runners…. Watching cycling is incredible.
You had a good mix of sports there.
It’s not really one question, is it? That’s a difficult one.