Chrissie Wellington, 40, started competing in triathlons on a whim. Though she grew up swimming on her local team, she never took it too seriously — practicing just a few times a week. Her studies always seemed more important than training sessions, after all. But she casually began running in 2000 while earning her master’s degree. And she ran her first marathon post-graduation, finishing in 3:08.
It wasn’t until 2004 that the now four-time Ironman World Champion competed in her first triathlon, at the suggestion of a friend. She took the next year off to live and work for the government in Nepal, where she got stronger in biking just because of the lifestyle there. Then, when Wellington returned to the multisport event in 2006, she snagged a first-place finish — just one day after learning how to properly mount and dismount a road bike. By 2007, she turned pro.
That’s the fascinating thing about Wellington — she almost makes winning an Ironman seem simple (not to be confused with easy).
“I only ever wanted to do Olympic distance [triathlons], because Ironman was for crazy people,” she says. (An Ironman typically involves a two-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon run.) “But then my one coach persuaded me to do it and the rest is history.” Of course, Wellington worked hard to compete, training seven days a week for multiple hours a day — but for her, winning is just that straightforward.
Why Mental Toughness Matters, According to an Ironman
What makes Wellington stand out is her passion for a challenge — one that tests her body and her mental fortitude.
“There are many people with that physical talent [in sports], but you need a combination of psychological strength and physical aptitude,” she says. “So people in triathlons, they might have their log books and check off their sessions. But they don’t realize that they also need to train their minds… to be calm, to cope with discomfort, to cope with adversity and to cope with lapses in motivation.”
For Wellington, this means training through the discomfort of a hard swim, bike or run, visualizing happy times (along with her friends and family) before a race, counting numbers over and over in her mind on long treks, and reciting Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, on repeat in her head. Winning requires a certain headspace, and for Wellington, this is the formula that gets her there.
How to Win: Chrissie Wellington’s Triathlon Training Tips
So what else does this repeat champion do to guarantee success? Before heading off to Kona to cheer on competitors at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii — where she’ll also be indicted into the Ironman Hall of Fame — we scored her essential race day tips. Read on to learn what a triathlete champion eats in a day, how to deal with nerves and more. And snag your own copy of To the Finish Line, which holds a plethora of Wellington’s training tips, here.
On fueling for a race…
These days, Wellington cooks for her entire family, making her favorites like spaghetti bolognese and shepard’s pie. When she was competing, she also used to love making big batches of foods, particularly snacks, for the week ahead. That included energy balls (her favorite, made mostly out of seeds, peanut butter and dried fruit), flapjacks and mini muffins.
Her overall meal plan during training:
- 1st breakfast: Corncakes or rice cakes with nut butter and honey, plus coffee when she wakes up
- 2nd breakfast: Oatmeal with nuts, seeds like chia or flax, coconut and natural yogurt post-workout
- Lunch: A sandwich likely with turkey or chicken and a baked potato and salad for lunch with avocado
- Recovery snack: One smoothie with frozen berries, a banana, molasses for iron and a bit of milk after another workout
- Dinner: Fish, chicken or turkey, veggies in a stir fry or salad and a grain like potatoes, rice, buckwheat or quinoa
On how to face the swim…
“Familiarity breeds confidence, so if you’re familiar with the environment that’s very important,” she says. Translation: Put on your wetsuit and get out in that open water before race day. And of course, keep breathing. “A lot of problems that people encounter come from withholding of breath,” Wellington says. “When you panic, you hyperventilate or you hold your breath. And neither of those are very productive when swimming. So really try, if you’re going to control one thing, control your breathing, because then your whole body will relax.”
On calming race day nerves…
“Accept that everyone gets nervous,” Wellington says. “People are scared when they get nervous and they get worried because they’re nervous, which exacerbates the anxiety.” Instead, embrace it and know that your nerves will subside as soon as you start, she says. Also, adopt her practices of visualization and deep breathing — and have a little perspective. “Knowing your goal is important, but it’s not the be all and end all…Don’t worry about what you can’t control and go out there and race as best you can, with the body and mind that you’ve got on the day. That’s all you can ask yourself. It can be life-impacting when you cross the finish line, but you will still be the same person afterwards. So I think you just also have to keep everything in perspective.”
On what she learned from her first few races…
Looking back, Wellington can admit she realized no race — or even prep for that race — has gone perfectly. “Your perfect race is when you overcome imperfections perfectly,” she says. “Shit happens, right?” she admits. “If you deal with that shit perfectly, then that is what perfection is. [It’s] not to expect that your goggles won’t get knocked off, that you won’t get a cramp, that you will never feel discomfort. Because you will, you just have to deal with it. So I learned that. And I learned not to be scared when things go wrong. That I had to only control the controllable.”
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On what winning Kona means to her…
“It’s a validation of all the hard work that myself and my team have put in. It’s the achievement of a goal that’s so gratifying and so satisfying. It’s an opportunity to inspire other people and it’s a platform. Because sport is selfish. I mean, it is. It’s self-indulgent…You’re just focusing on you and achieving something for you and you alone. But you can make it unselfish, because you can use it as a platform to talk about things you care about. You can use it as a platform to talk about things that inspire other people, to raise awareness about different issues. You have the opportunity to make quite a selfish pursuit less selfish. So for me, winning is very, very important because it gave me a platform to do so much more.”
On why she stopped competing professionally…
Wellington decided to retire in 2012, after earning her final first-place finish at the world championships in Kona. “I crashed my bike two weeks before, and I didn’t know if I could [even compete], and I was in and out of the hospital. I really didn’t think I was ever going to win that race, but I think I got through on my psychological strength, because my physical strength was so depleted. So that really proved to me that I was the champion that I wanted to be. That liberated me. And that’s why I retired at that point, because I had nothing more to prove to myself.”
On why she decided to share her race strategies…
“[To the Finish Line] was a way to share all of the lessons I’d learned over my life journey — not just my triathlon journey, but my life journey — to enable other people to achieve their goals,” she says. “I wanted to speak from my own experiences, but then enable people to draw from my experiences and apply it to themselves…I wanted to inspire people and I wanted to bring some simplicity to an otherwise perceptively quite technical and complicated subject. I just wanted to make training accessible to people.”