Podcast, Training

Training Talk with Jodie Swallow Cunnama | EP#332

 April 4, 2022

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


That Triathlon Show - Jodie Swallow Cunnama

Jodie Swallow Cunnama is a triathlon coach and retired professional triathlete. As an athlete, Jodie went to the Olympics in Athens 2004, and she has three World Championship titles to her name (one 70.3 world title, two ITU Long Distance titles). As a coach, Jodie now coaches a mix of amateur and professional athletes, including for example Jodie Stimpson.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Jodie's coaching philosophy
  • Influences from previous coaches and from her own career as a professional triathlete
  • Differences between coaching age-groupers and professionals
  • Specific tips for improving your swim, bike and run training, respectively
  • How to prepare for and execute in races
  • Why there is a lack of female coaches in endurance sports, and what can be done about it

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Jodie's Background

03:52 -

  • I have been in the world of triathlon since 2000. I was a junior athlete in the British Triathlon System, and I did the ITU circuit until the Beijing Olympics.
  • Leading up to Athens, I was one of the athletes selected, but I got injured.
  • The four years after that, I had personal problems, and I was thinking of quitting triathlon. Then, after a personal email from a friend, I moved on and took on long-distance triathlon.
  • I won some World titles, and by 2014, I was one of the best 70.3 athletes in the world until I fell pregnant in 2017, having married my long time partner James Cunnama. (also a pro triathlete)
  • We had three children, and I went into the world of coaching.
  • I have been coaching since 2015, and it got more professional after having twins.
  • Now, I coach several age groupers and professional athletes.
  • We predominantly meet online with some occasional meetups.
  • I am looking to develop an elite squad and focus on Kona World Championships.
  • I was 4th in 2014 in Kona, but it is not a race built for me. That year was my best shot to have a good result in that race.
  • However, as a coach, I believe the race could have improved. 
  • Kona is a unique race that suits some people, but it does not suit me.

Jodie's coaching methodology

06:56 -

  • I would coach intuitively in the past, and I did not have a word to describe it. It is an individual approach, and none of my athletes has the same plans. It varies daily.
  • I prescribe training day by day. I base all my decisions based on science, as I have a sports science degree, but I also create personal relationships with my athletes and enjoy the art of coaching.
  • The program foundation is on scientific principles, but the adaptions come from conversations and feedback from the athletes.

Jodie's coaching influences

08:29 -

  • I have had many coaches throughout my career, and most were good in different ways. I did not have a bad coach because I would have moved on if I had had it.
  • My running coach was fundamental, kind, and intuitive in my early career as a swimmer. And he was probably the best coach I have ever had, concerning motivation and keeping me in the sport.
  • My swim coaches were like "dictators" (too much prescriptive), which worked for someone who was over the place in school. It worked well in some circumstances, and then when I moved into triathlon, my coaches varied greatly.
  • They were different people, so they had different approaches to training. Some were better concerning psychological management, where I had more motivation and a positive mindset to train.
  • Taking positives from negative is something hard to do in some situations.
  • I had a coach named Bret Sutton, and I remain in contact with him. I learned with him that athletes are physical specimens, and you can learn much from how they talk and communicate with you.
  • While I am not physically in contact with athletes, I can pick up some concerning their feedback or lack of it on their training program.
  • Looking at athletes' behaviour instead of performance metrics gives you another dimension when analysing their data.
  • And that approach is a natural talent I am developing and applying to my coaching.

Things Jodie would have done differently in the past

11:29 -

  • When you are an athlete, you think you have the world on your shoulders and that everything is essential concerning the bigger picture.
  • However, as a coach, sometimes I want to grab them by the neck because, most often, you do not need to progress as fast as you think you do.
  • You can work on things progressively and get to the top in a few years. I believe this happens because there is not much money in pro triathlon, and when money comes in, people want to rush to that money and prove themselves.
  • They are not motivated by external goals, but money reflects the success you can achieve.
  • I only wished I had more patience. I would not get injured as much if I did that, and I would have been calmer during the races. Moreover, I would have planned them better.
  • I would keep the passion, but I would take out some of the athletes' emotions.
  • I try to keep my athletes more relaxed than I was back then.

Training professionals vs age-groupers

13:23 -

  • I relate better with professional athletes because the absolute necessity to get it right is there. Their livelihoods depend on the training you give them.
  • More feedback is needed, and they have more time to do it. 
  • Many age-groupers I coach have families and full-time jobs. 
  • When you put training on top of it, you have to make each training session count.
  • Age-groupers have to do their best in each session and move on, and I tolerate many adaptations.
  • Although triathlon is a critical part of their lives, it does not dictate their lives. And I think age-groupers should practice triathlon to enhance their lives. (family, work and health)
  • Professional athletes will sacrifice much more things to achieve the best results possible.
  • Professionals have a much broader base in terms of aerobic time.
  • They have more time to do that type of training. 
  • While the sessions are predominantly aerobic for age groupers, they have to concentrate on technique, maintaining power at the threshold and doing some speed.
  • I always focus on the primary things that will improve more performance. I coach more long-distance athletes, so I focus more on cycling and running.
  • Swimming for professionals is an essential part of a triathlon because if you are not in the front after the swim split, it is complicated to get there.
  • Age-groupers do not take so many advantages of having a more robust swim split, so I focus less on the swim part.
  • If they only have seven hours to train per week, I would prescribe a couple of swim sessions to maintain some swim fitness.
  • Moreover, I cannot coach them in swimming because there is much more to do.

Jodie's approach when coaching a new athlete

16:56 -

  • I always have an interview. We do a video call and get more knowledge of their background.
  • We reflect if we could work well together. We talk about the training the athletes are doing now, and I set some easy aerobic weeks and monitor the data on TrainingPeaks so I can start on areas we can work on quickly.
  • It is an organic process, and I do not set fitness tests most of the time. However, there is a push and trend to do more testing because knowing your FTP is "more fashionable". 
  • I adopt that trend somewhat, but it will depend on the athlete.
  • It is excellent if the athlete wants a figure to quantify it, but we will work on those areas whether we know the exact numbers.
  • It will depend on if the athletes are statistical people or only feel people.
  • Some athletes reach out to me coming from a break, so I might not have a record of what they were doing before.
  • It is a new start for them, and they do not tell me much about what they were doing in the past. Moreover, I do not want to be influenced by what athletes have done in the past.
  • However, athletes tend to neglect consistent training blocks. Regularly, they have three weeks of passion and two weeks off.
  • For age groupers, consistency is crucial, even if it is only half of the session prescribed. By going out, you can carry that momentum over days, which is fundamental for long-distance races training.
  • For professional athletes, we might have to change some things. For example, with Jodie Simpson, we changed the bike volume because of its importance in long-distance triathlons.
  • In these races, we cannot hide a worse bike split.
  • However, these athletes have an insane passion for getting better. So, we often do not need to change much in their training. We focus on nailing down what makes you better: rest and recovery.
  • We can do a lot of training, but our goal is to progress over time and avoid plateaus and overtraining. You want to get to a race and perform. If you break down before an event, performance will not be optimal.

Balancing recovery and training in professional athletes

22:48 -

  • There are different periodisation cycles. The girls will do a more extended four-week block and one week easier, and they will be begging for the recovery week. (and in these more manageable blocks, they ask for more training)
  • It is managing these different messages you get. As soon as you give an athlete rest, they want to train.
  • I do three weeks of higher training intensity with the men and one week easier because, from experience, they could not sustain the blocks as well as I could. It depends on the athletes, nevertheless.
  • I also have an athlete that likes to quiz me about the latest physiological research data. And it means I also have to do some research to answer his questions.
  • If you listen to something, there will always be a point related to your personal opinion or situation.
  • However, you have to judge whether to implement it or not, and that is the coach's job. You should always have an image of the bigger picture and the long term development of an athlete.

Jodie's Training Tips

Swim training tips for age group athletes

26:31 -

  • For age groupers, do not neglect the technique. If you cannot catch the water properly, it will cause you not to improve.
  • Therefore, you need to talk with someone that knows what they are doing that can help solve these technique issues.
  • However, it is a demanding task because many people might give you advice, but much of it is not correct.

Bike training tips for age group athletes

27:08 -

  • Cycling outside in groups maintains a good aerobic base. The long endurance rides are too long to stay alone.
  • Therefore, I would always say to enjoy the safety of others and create a training squad so you do not feel lonely and helps you get out in the rain and wet.

Run training tips for age group athletes

27:52 -

  • It is not all about steady pace training. Even if it is only two-minute blocks, I will implement more challenging efforts.
  • You can start with five of them, and over time, you will see your running improving.
  • It is easy for people to get used to running at the same pace.

Mistakes that athletes should avoid doing

29:02 -

  • When doing a triathlon program, you are not a swimmer, a cyclist or a runner. Therefore, the sessions have to correspond to each other.
  • You need to have a program that considers your effort in the other disciplines in that week.
  • We have to approach triathlon as a single discipline rather than a combination of three modalities.

Race preparation and execution for professional triathletes

30:18 -

  • Professionals are regularly good at racing, but sometimes they make significant changes when approaching the primary goals of the season.
  • They make changes and put themselves vulnerable to injuries. Our primary goal is to get to the start of the race healthy.
  • No one else cares about what you will do on race day. The race will be about you showing every training session you have done.
  • The only thing that can make professionals underperform is pressure. This pressure can be from financial issues, leading to silly mistakes when preparing for races. You forget the crucial things you should do approaching the race. (knowing the course, nutrition plan)
  • All planning can go away with the outside pressure athletes can put on themselves.
  • In my experience, race plans do not work. You think you know what someone will do, and that does not happen, and someone else does something else.
  • You end up making decisions on the spot in the minute. However, it is racing, and that is what makes it exciting.
  • Your ability to adapt to different circumstances is crucial, so do your best in every moment and respond in the next one. 
  • It is good to have a general idea of how the race will unfold.
  • However, all the factors that affect you will affect the other athletes. It would be best if you had a plan on the back of your head, but then you adapt it accordingly.

Race plan for age groupers

34:01 -

  • Age groupers do not react to other people around them. It is complex to know who you are racing against if we do interval starts.
  • I always advise athletes to swim with other people if they are comfortable. (it helps pace and relaxation)
  • You are not winning an age group triathlon on the swim unless you are an incredible swimmer.
  • Therefore, stick to your comfort zones, and on the bike, set power targets or RPE for the first 30 min. Then, forget about it and stick with RPE.
  • I do not want them to look at the power meter, but it is good to do it to calibrate your senses at the beginning of the race.
  • They should have a nutrition plan. And on the run, age groupers should not get carried away by other people. They should aim to run at a negative split. Therefore, sticking to their pacing strategy is crucial.
  • To understand the pacing athletes should run, I analyse the session I set, but it is less evident for age groupers than professional athletes.
  • The race pace from age groupers is regularly far above anything they have done in training. They do not have the stresses of life around them, and they are in a rest-state.
  • I can have a rough estimation of the pacing for the bike in terms of NP or average power. 
  • For the run, I tell them to start running at 7/10 RPE, and as athletes progress, they make the call of speeding up or sticking to the same pace.
  • They might not be as fit as professional athletes, but they regularly do well pacing themselves.

Strength and conditioning within a triathlon program

38:09 -

  • Strength and conditioning are topics to be explored, especially for professional athletes with much load and volume of training.
  • I have seen some complex strength and conditioning programs for my athletes and me.
  • I have not seen a correlation between the time spent in strength and conditioning and decreased injuries.
  • Doing a couple of hours per week is enough, as more will not bring you much more benefits.
  • The problem with strength and conditioning plans is about progression. Every coach wants athletes to increase their load over time.
  • However, once you hit a threshold of strength for running or cycling before getting injured, I think it takes away the energy that athletes could have for other types of training. 
  • When I see a strength and conditioning plan that goes harder and harder to maintain every week sets alarms to me. If it is a steady-state constant maintenance plan, it is something helpful to add to a program.
  • Moreover, triathlon is an aerobic sport, so you want to employ a strength and conditioning program that allows you to implement an aerobic development program without getting injured.
  • Athletes can do their strength and conditioning programs at home.
  • However, if you are used to having people showing what you should do, it is an excellent option to consider if you find a professional to do strength and conditioning.
  • Many endurance athletes hate doing strength and conditioning sessions. However, if you are self-motivated to do it, it only saves time.

Nutrition for triathlon

42:00 -

  • I set a nutrition plan for training and racing on carb intake.
  • In training, the post-meal is essential. And these things are topics I would recommend to everyone.
  • Many of my athletes did not succeed because of poor nutrition. For example, I had an eating disorder, and many female athletes have issues around eating.
  • People might want to focus on weight, but they also have the influences of society concerning body image.
  • These issues might be why athletes enter the sport or want to train more.
  • I like to create positive environments around my athletes, but I focus on female athletes' relationships with food.
  • I try to be open about these topics with my athletes and understand the origins of these ideas.
  • The nutrition problem is something I address right away because it has massive implications for the sport.
  • As we do not have many female coaches, nutrition is something put on the side.
  • If we listen to Norwegian coaches, the nutrition aspect is the crucial aspect they attributed to their success in sports.
  • I work with my athletes to understand the differences between weight and performance, health and training metrics.
  • Regularly, the nutrition problems do not come from eating disorders but from being disorganised and not considering this area.
  • People start copying and implementing some strategies from research or media when they might not have complete information about why that approach might be helpful.
  • It is dangerous to have only part of the knowledge but not complete information about something.
  • I would rather athletes have less knowledge but do their best to understand each topic thoroughly.

Lack of female coaches in endurance sports

48:28 -

  • When I was new to coaching, I did not even consider it. 
  • But there are some issues because of being a female coach as we might think slightly different from our counterparts.
  • And I believe this is a systemic problem in any sport.
  • One problem with coaching in developmental programs is that they might ask for a lot of volunteering time. It would be fine if I did not have a family.
  • There are those logistical issues, but also the atmosphere.
  • If women take time out for maternity, the coaching circles become closed when they return.
  • Someone of a different genre with different ideas and approaches is not that welcome to any program.
  • There is a significant difference between being a self-coach or a coach working for a sports federation. And there is a factor that men dominate the sports federation coaching.
  • Therefore, either you are a pioneer woman and enter that realm or do your work.
  • Elite athletes want to be coaches after their careers, but they take time out to have kids.
  • I believe the imposter syndrome is a real problem when you return to the sport.
  • I think it is because sports is primarily a world of men historically, and you feel awkward anyway.
  • As a woman, you can push through and make it work, but people might not do it if it is too complex. Therefore, you have this snowball effect where it seems women are not interested in coaching.
  • We have many pioneer female coaches that had true success both with men and women, so there are no limitations to being coached by a woman.
  • There are some guidelines on how many women should be in a federation, and I am not sure if that happens in every country.
  • It would be a good start because if you have women in a federation based system, they can teach and become qualified coaches in the federations.
  • I did a British Triathlon Qualification Course recently, and there were many women there. However, it was a remote course, and women spoke less.
  • So, I think sports are still a male-dominated arena, even in triathlon, where there is almost equality concerning racing, prize money and sponsorship.
  • I found out that 85 % of girls drop out of the sport in the late teenage years.
  • It might be because they feel uncomfortable training changes in physical attributes alongside boys, where they do not understand how the menstrual cycle influences training.
  • Male coaches are less sensitive to these questions than women, and we have a feedback loop. If we had a female coach helping with these issues, it would help diminish the dropouts, and more athletes would do endurance sports.
  • It is not only a triathlon. It is also how we educate coaches, and there are initiatives to change that.

General questions

57:34 -

What is one thing within coaching or training you are now learning/curious about or fascinated by, and why?

The Norwegian program fascinates me, and I admire the girls in that program. I wonder why the girls fail in that program and how they will address this issue. I also reflect on how that program influenced other federations to change their methodologies.

Rapid fire questions

What is your favourite book, blog or resource?

Healthy Intelligent Training: The Proven Principles of Arthur Lydiard

What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?

Athletically and personally, perseverance is what helped me continue in the sport.

Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?

Flora Duffy is an example of a person in the triathlon world I admire.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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