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Sophie Coldwell is a short-course athlete from Great Britain, currently ranked 4th in the world and 5th in the World Triathlon Championship Series (WTCS) standings. She has her sights set on qualifying for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, and her strong start to the 2023 season could also see her battling it out for the World Triathlon Championship Series title. In this interview we learn more about Sophie's training, her background, and goals for the future.
In this episode you'll learn about:
- Sophie's background in triathlon, goals for the 2023 season, and the Paris 2024 Olympic cycle
- The Olympic selection process, and what Sophie needs to do to qualify for Paris
- Sophie's training structure overall, and details about her swim, bike and run training
- A detailed breakdown of a full week of training
- How Sophie has improved her running
- The training environment in Loughborough, and the importance it has had in Sophie's development
- Life after Paris
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- I am a British triathlete based in Loughborough.
- This year has been fantastic as I won my first World Series gold medal. I secured second place in Abu Dhabi and followed it up with a convincing victory in Yokohama, despite not participating in Koliari.
- While I am no longer in the lead for the World Triathlon Championship Series, I am in a good position.
- My primary focus is qualifying for the Olympics, so the series plays a significant role in my goals.
- The start of this year has exceeded my expectations. The success in Abu Dhabi and Yokohama was more than I could have hoped.
- Although winning in Yokohama was not initially part of my plan, I always aim to perform at my best.
- However, my main objective this year is to qualify for the Olympics. The test event in August and the grand final in Pontevedra are the two qualification events I am targeting.
- While they are not automatic selection races, they hold importance in the discretionary policy for British Triathlon's selection process. Achieving good results in these races will strengthen my chances.
- In addition to Olympic qualification, I would love to finish on the overall podium in the World Series. I will be participating in four races plus the grand finals.
- Unlike previous seasons, there is no race to drop, so each event is crucial. I anticipated this challenge when planning my season, and I am delighted with the positive start to my campaign.
Olympic Games qualification process
- In terms of Olympic qualification, each nation aims to secure a maximum of three athletes for both male and female races.
- The introduction of the relay event has made it easier for more nations to qualify two men and two women.
- In the World Championship relay held in Montreal, our team came second to France, who already had their relay qualified as the host nation. As the second-place finishers, we secured two men and two women for the relay.
- The Olympic ranking system determines the third spot once a nation has secured its relay team.
- This system is divided into May 2022 to 2023 and May 2023 to 2024.
- In each period, a maximum of six races count towards the ranking. If a nation has three athletes ranked in the top 30, they will qualify for three athletes of the corresponding gender.
- Fortunately, our women's team has three athletes ranked within the top four or five, ensuring we have three spots secured. However, it is more challenging for our men's team, and they are working towards qualifying for their third spot.
- We currently have three male athletes who must improve their rankings to secure the spot.
- Once World Triathlon has set the quotas, each nation has its selection policy. Some nations base their selection on rankings, while others consider overall positions in world series races or specific events.
- In our case, returning Olympic medalists Alex and Georgia automatically qualify with a podium finish at the test event.
- For non-returning medalists, a podium finish at both the test event and the grand final is required for automatic selection. We also have a discretionary list that considers performances in Olympic and sprint World Series races and relays. While not guaranteed, strong performances in these races can strengthen an athlete's case for selection.
- The test event and the grand final are crucial for many nations, including ours, as they hold significant weight in the selection process.
- Nations like the United States and Australia also focus on these events. The test event, in particular, is important as it is held on the actual Olympic course, making it a key race of the year for us.
Sophie's start in triathlon
- I have been actively involved in triathlon for an extensive period, spanning 20 years since I was eight.
- It all started when my mother noticed a local advertisement for a triathlon held at a nearby centre. The initial distances were a 50-meter swim, a 2-kilometre bike, and a 500-meter run.
- At that time, I struggled to swim 50 meters using front crawl and alternated between front crawl and backstroke. This introductory experience in a swimming pool sparked my passion for the sport from a young age.
- From there, my journey in triathlon progressed steadily and linearly. I participated in various children's events in the UK, then advanced to regional events, national series events, junior European cups, junior championships, under-23 championships, European cups, and world cups, and now compete in the World Series.
- I have confidently navigated through all the stepping stones and milestones.
- Throughout my triathlon career, I have accumulated many race starts.
- The count stands at 58 starts, encompassing continental cups, world cups, and the World Triathlon Championship Series.
Sophie's training environment
- British Triathlon is primarily centred around two main hubs: Leeds and Loughborough.
- I live near Loughborough University, which has outstanding sports facilities.
- Being close to the campus, which includes the pool, track, gym, and various support services like physiotherapy, sports nutrition, and physiology labs, makes it incredibly convenient for training.
- All the practitioners and my coach, Adam Elliott, are also based in and around Loughborough, fostering a strong training environment.
- In terms of training partners, I do most of my training with Olivia Mathias, who is not only a training partner but also one of my closest friends. We often train together and support each other. Additionally, I can swim with the boys, which is beneficial as swimming is one of my strengths.
- Our group also has promising up-and-coming athletes, such as Connor Bentley and Ben Dijkstra, and we have great camaraderie and mutual support. Having someone like Alex, who has achieved impressive results, in the group adds value and allows us to learn from each other.
- The relationships within our training group are fundamental.
- Our respect for one another, whether among athletes or with the practitioners and coaches, creates a tight-knit community. This strong bond contributes to our success as a team.
Sophie's general training overview
Here's a breakdown of the different training components:
- Five swim sessions per week, totalling around 25 kilometres.
- Tuesday sessions focus on steady aerobic repetitions with a strength-based element.
- Wednesday sessions involve long course swims of 6 kilometres with a pull emphasis.
- Thursdays are dedicated to best-pace VO2 swims.
- Fridays are recovery swims of 4 kilometres.
- Sunday is the key swim of the week, consisting of threshold LT2 swims ranging from 2 to 3.3 kilometres with a pull element.
- Four bike sessions per week, amounting to 11-12 hours.
- Monday sessions involve on-off intervals or over-under work.
- Wednesdays are dedicated to long rides, lasting 3-3.5 hours and incorporating tempo work.
- Thursdays are easy mountain bike rides to alleviate pressure and stress on the saddle.
- Saturdays involve long rides of 4.5-5 hours, often heading to the peak district for hill training.
- Weekly mileage ranges from 60 to 65 kilometres.
- Tuesday sessions are track sessions focusing on on-off intervals and fartlek training.
- Mondays and Thursdays consist of steady runs with drills.
- Fridays involve strength-based tempo runs, usually done on hilly terrain.
- Sundays include long runs of 80 minutes.
The training approach has evolved since the COVID-19 pandemic, prioritising consistency and injury prevention. Despite training less overall, I have achieved better consistency by avoiding injury-related setbacks. This approach has provided a solid foundation for building endurance and improving race performance.
Reducing training load
- I was trapped in a cycle of constantly rehabbing and rushing to regain fitness in preparation for upcoming races.
- This meant adding extra training sessions, such as double runs on Mondays and additional mileage around bike sessions. It was a constant struggle to keep up with the demands.
- However, when I realised that I had a longer period of six to eight months, which eventually extended due to the unforeseen duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, I saw an opportunity to build a solid foundation without the pressure of imminent races.
- During the extended COVID period, I focused on establishing a strong base and adhered to the principles we had set. Surprisingly, I performed exceptionally well in my running and cycling, which made me believe this approach change was beneficial.
- In hindsight, COVID is a hidden blessing as it gave me the confidence to step back and prioritise quality over quantity.
- I wouldn't have made that decision if I hadn't faced the reality of not racing for over 12 months. It was a realisation that if my previous approach didn't yield the desired results, it was worth trying something different.
Specific strength training
- I may take it to the extreme compared to others, as I continue doing 40-minute hilly tempos while the rest of the squad transitions to flat terrain in preparation for racing. This approach suits me best, given my athletic characteristics and the balance I find in my training week.
- Surprisingly, my running form in Yokohama exceeded my expectations, considering my training.
- The consistency of my training and the strength-based exercises I incorporate after cycling yield remarkable results.
- This training method aligns particularly well with Olympic distance races, enabling me to perform at my peak.
- In the past, leading up to a race like Yokohama, my running sessions would have involved faster paces and shorter repetitions, such as threshold repetitions. These sessions typically included running off the bike, like 3x2k efforts with static recovery.
- They were more conventional and in line with what you would expect. However, my track sessions differ in their structure and intensity.
- While they may feel somewhat challenged during the session, the work is significant.
- These sessions involve continuous efforts without static recovery. For example, today's track session consisted of a mile at a 10-km pace, a 200-meter jog, and continuous 200-meter efforts. I didn't stop once during the entire 7.5km track session.
- Although running off the bike plays a limited role in my program, I may incorporate it once or twice in the lead-up to a race.
- These sessions typically involve a few minutes of hard effort immediately after cycling, followed by a steady run of 20 to 25 minutes to add volume to my training week.
- However, the focus of my confidence and improvement comes from other aspects of training, and these sessions serve more as feel-good sessions rather than essential components of my performance.
Sophie's last week of training
- 50-minute steady run, followed by a bike session consisting of three sets of 10 minutes of over-under intervals with a significant watt difference between the "on" and "off" phases.
- Morning: 5 km swim with long reps, including fly and strength-based exercises using a pull band.
- Afternoon: Track session with a total volume of approximately 7 km, incorporating a mix of on-off intervals, potentially starting with a longer rep at a 10 km pace.
- Morning: Long swim session covering 6 km with long reps and possible pace changes.
- Afternoon: A three-hour bike ride focusing on muscular conditioning and getting accustomed to aero positioning on the road bike, followed by a gym session.
- VO2 swim session conducted in open water, including race pace reps, short reps, and race simulation exercises to improve open water skills.
- Ninety minutes to a two-hour mountain bike ride is usually done with the spouse and includes a lunch break.
- Steady 50-minute run with drills and strides for injury prevention and biomechanics improvement.
- Morning: Tempo run session within a 75-minute run, typically hilly but potentially transitioning to a flatter build tempo.
- Afternoon: Steady swim session covering 4km, incorporating band work, stroke mechanics, and maximum 10-stroke efforts.
- Long rides lasting around 4-5 hours, with variations and occasionally riding with other athletes such as Jodie Simpson or Kat Matthews.
- The second gym session of the week is in the afternoon.
- Long run duration reduced to a maximum of 80 minutes, still hilly, focusing on trail running without paying much attention to pace.
- The last session of the week was a key swim covering 5-5.5 km, with either 2km of threshold or 3 km of LT2 work, consisting of 5-6 hundred-meter reps for muscular conditioning.
Gym strength training
- Before COVID, my gym routine involved heavier weightlifting exercises.
- However, it left me insufficiently conditioned or drained too much energy from my weekly training.
- As a result, my approach shifted towards focusing on real capacity training with low-level bodyweight and leg exercises.
- I avoided heavy squats or leg presses, emphasising injury prevention and establishing a solid foundation for training.
- I maintained this approach for about two and a half years, gradually reintroducing one or two heavyweight exercises per week after my end-of-season break this year.
- I improved my training foundation and prioritised injury prevention by returning the gym routine to a consistent capacity level.
- However, I now view the gym enhancing my swim, bike, and run performance.
- While injury prevention remains important, the focus has shifted towards improving overall performance.
- Typically, I spend around an hour in the gym, although it can vary depending on how much time I spend chatting.
- The specific exercises I incorporate change every six to eight weeks.
- Examples include single-leg, and double-leg leg presses, hip thrusts, push isometric holds, hamstring and calf isometric holds, low box step-ups, and other exercises that are periodically introduced.
- However, I limit heavy-load exercises to one per session as doing too much can hurt my training rather than a positive one.
Additional changes that helped improve Sophie's run performance
- Consistency has been a key factor in my running progress. Unlike some natural runners, I've had to work hard to find the right balance of training without pushing too hard and risking injury. Fortunately, I haven't experienced any injuries since before COVID, allowing me to consistently cover 60-65 kilometres weekly.
- This consistent training has allowed me to make gradual improvements over time.
- My training program has remained the same.
- Instead, we've focused on maintaining consistency and gradually increasing my workload.
- Rather than adding more, I've reduced some aspects' intensity while increasing the overall volume. This approach has proved effective in my training.
- Another important aspect has been my improvement in biking. Over the past few years, my biking performance has significantly improved.
- This means that during races when I transition to the run, I'm not exhausted from pushing my limits on the bike.
- In previous races, my running performance suffered when my biking was closer to my maximum capacity. However, with my progress in cycling, I now have a greater power output, allowing me to approach the run with more freshness.
- Having a strong biking performance also helps in race situations where breakaways are formed.
- While I can ride hard if needed, I've been fortunate to be part of breakaways where everyone contributes, eliminating the need to go all out.
- This approach has allowed me to run better in races and achieve better results.
Benefits of better cycling fitness in racing
- I don't want to give the impression that I find it effortless because that's not the case.
- There are moments in races where everyone pushes themselves and makes valuable contributions. For instance, when Taylor Knibb launches an attack, it becomes a collective effort to reel her back in.
- However, what I find reassuring is knowing that I can push myself to the limit when necessary.
- It's also comforting to know that when we find ourselves in a breakaway situation, all participants are eager for it to succeed and are willing to work together.
- This synergy ultimately benefits everyone, improving our running performance off the bike. It's a situation where everyone involved benefits, creating a mutually advantageous dynamic.
Training environment in Loughborough
- The training environment in Loughborough is exceptionally well-equipped and offers a wide range of accessible routes for cycling and running.
- It boasts abundant variety in terms of terrain, from flat roads to hilly routes and even mountain biking trails.
- The convenience and accessibility of diverse training options make Loughborough stand out among other locations worldwide.
- In contrast, other places, like Australia, may have running options limitations, with fewer off-road routes and predominantly flat terrain.
- The facilities in Loughborough are top-notch, providing athletes with everything they need regarding training resources.
- This, combined with the versatility and accessibility of different training routes, makes it an ideal place for athletes to train. From a facility and versatility standpoint, Loughborough is unrivalled.
- Moreover, Loughborough is personally significant to me.
- I have established a stable life there, with homes, pets, and a sense of belonging. This stability and comfort contribute significantly to their performance and well-being.
- Having a settled and stable home life in Loughborough alleviates the pressures of training and racing, allowing me to focus on their sport without the added stress of being away from home for extended periods.
Differences between Loughborough and Leeds training centres
- Leeds and Loughborough are British Triathlon hubs, offering similar facilities and attracting practitioners in the field. However, there are notable differences between the two locations.
- In Loughborough, everything is more centrally located, with facilities such as swimming pools, gyms, tracks, and bike circuits within proximity.
- This proximity allows athletes to live within a mile or two of these facilities, fostering a sense of community.
- On the other hand, Leeds has a more dispersed layout, with facilities spread out across the area.
- This results in athletes being scattered throughout Leeds rather than concentrated in a specific vicinity. Additionally, the terrain in Leeds offers different riding options compared to Loughborough.
- Our focus during the January-February period is on our Australia camp, which is crucial for our open-water training.
- In the UK, accessing open water is challenging due to the cold weather, allowing only three to four months of the year for proper open water sessions.
- We plan to continue this camp, extending it up to the LA event and possibly beyond, as it aligns perfectly with our needs.
- The warm weather in Australia provides a welcome relief from the freezing conditions in the UK, making training more enjoyable.
- Additionally, participating in bike races during the camp helps us reacquaint ourselves with group racing and intensify our cycling performance.
- I engaged in three bike races in Australia, serving as my primary bike session leading to Abu Dhabi.
- While some athletes opt for altitude training, it's not a method that Alex and I have pursued.
- Therefore, our training centre doesn't prioritise altitude training.
- However, we make good use of the heat chamber in Loughborough, as I respond well to heat, which simulates the benefits of altitude training.
- This preparation, similar to altitude training, aids in optimising blood plasma and enhances my race performance. We typically incorporate a few sessions in the heat chamber before races, regardless of the race's temperature.
- Before the Paris test event in France, we plan to organise a prep camp to test various strategies for participating Olympic team members.
- We select a hot location for this camp, ensuring we are well-prepared in case Paris experiences high temperatures.
- I'm particularly drawn to using heat for training, which has proven beneficial for me in the past.
Bike racing and improving bike performance
- The experience of participating in bike racing, particularly the Tour Series, is a valuable learning opportunity.
- The races were mentally challenging, requiring much thinking and decision-making. Participating in these races helped improve physiological capabilities and overall awareness and confidence. However, the Tour Series did not take place this year due to funding issues.
- One significant factor for improving bike performance was working closely with a physiologist who helped them understand the purpose behind each training session. We focused on maximising training effectiveness by considering the cost-benefit ratio of additional sessions or repetitions. Lactate testing was conducted to determine the optimal training approach, as more training does not always equate to better performance.
- In recent years, we have incorporated two weekly bike sessions into their training routine, focusing on setting limits and avoiding excessive intensity or volume. We view training within the context of multi-week blocks, ensuring that every training component serves a specific purpose.
- Additionally, incorporating mountain biking into training provides skill development off-road and enhances power output due to the challenging terrain. Then, the other three weekly bike rides were also carefully planned to serve specific training goals.
- Consistency is a crucial element in progress, along with the strategic implementation of different training components.
Managing the intensity of the workouts
- In terms of training, there has been a combination of both group sessions and individualised testing.
- The focus has been on optimising each session to ensure maximum benefit.
- This approach has sometimes meant deviating from group training to target desired outcomes specifically. Recent training blocks have included sessions on the turbo, which is not typical, but has allowed for precise and focused training.
- Despite the repetitive nature of training on a closed circuit, the ability to concentrate on specific goals outweighs any perceived monotony.
- The determination to qualify for the Olympics has been a driving force behind this dedicated approach to training.
- The goal takes precedence, even if it means training alone on the circuit. However, there is still a need to strike a balance.
- While some sessions are particular and solitary, there are also moments of camaraderie, such as mountain biking with Tom and enjoying lunch together on Thursdays.
- This balance allows for variety and social interaction while ensuring that the crucial aspects of training remain finely tuned.
- I maintain a consistent pace when swimming, usually around 80-82 seconds per 100 meters. Even on easy swim days or during long training sessions, I prefer not to swim slower than that as it affects my mechanics.
- My ideal pace is 77-78 seconds per 100 meters, which feels the most comfortable.
- Swimming is usually manageable, especially when training in a group where turnarounds are necessary.
- As for cycling, apart from a steady ride on Saturdays, I focus on maintaining a power output of over 150 watts. The power may vary between 155-180 watts depending on the terrain and my energy levels.
- I avoid riding at lower intensities, like 130 watts, because it doesn't provide much training benefit, similar to being in a recovery mode.
- Regarding running, I predominantly train off-road on trails and hills. I never exceed a pace slower than 5-minute kilometres, although it can range from 4:30 to 4:50 per kilometre, depending on the terrain and conditions.
- Over time, I've become more attuned to finding the right balance between effort levels, whether it's due to fatigue, hilly terrain, or the desired training effect.
- I prioritise purposeful training and avoid engaging in low-quality workouts during the week. While each session serves a specific goal, not every session is extremely challenging.
- However, there is always a purpose behind the training, and I avoid doing things just to do them.
- To provide some perspective on my performance, my best in a triathlon 10K run is around 33 minutes and 50 seconds, achieved in Yokohama.
- Regarding cycling, my LT1 is approximately 230 watts, while I aim to push my LT2 up to 285 watts.
Life after triatlhon
- Honestly, I'm unsure about my plans beyond the upcoming Paris game.
- My main focus right now is on qualifying for the Olympics and standing on that start line with a genuine chance of winning a medal.
- Whether or not I achieve that goal remains to be seen, but it's what I'm striving for in the next 18 months.
- The Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO) has recently organised more exciting events.
- I would have said no if you had asked me five years ago if I would be interested in longer-distance races. However, seeing the excitement and competitiveness of the PTO's 70.3 races, I became more intrigued by them.
- Ironman distance is still too far, but I could see myself getting involved in the half-distance events.
- As for whether I'll pursue another Olympic cycle or explore other options, that decision will have to wait until after the Paris Games.
Total training hours in 2022
I don't put my swim into a training piece.
My biking was 350 hours in 2022, and my running was 184 hours.
Best VO2 max ever measured
Best 400 meters swim time
4min24s, but that was a while ago. We do a set swimming three 400s off a decent recovery, and my best pace is about 4min30s.
Best Olympic distance bike power or normalised power
It would have been Leeds World Series at 271.
Best standalone running performance
I ran 10K and 33min22s after Covid.
Typical sleep duration per day, including naps
Probably nine hours overnight and then normally a nap in the day.
First ever triathlon
It was Clifton Triathlon in 2003, and I won.
Three pieces of advice to age group triathletes
- Regarding training, less is more.
- Instead of cramming intense workouts into a single week, spreading them out over consecutive weeks is more efficient. Another crucial aspect is the timing of recovery.
- Having support, like having meals or recovery shakes ready immediately after training, has been instrumental in my ability to bounce back and maintain consistent training throughout the week.
- One important mindset shift I've embraced is not fixating too much on individual sessions.
- Whether a session goes exceptionally well or poorly, I've learned to let it go and focus on the bigger picture.
- Even if one session doesn't meet expectations, I must acknowledge that I still completed it.
- Instead, I evaluated my performance over the entire week, recognising that I accomplished most of my training objectives.
- I can avoid wasting mental energy and maintain a positive mindset by not dwelling on individual setbacks.
What's your favourite book or resource related to endurance sports?
I love the YouTube triathlon documentaries that people put out.
What's an important habit you've benefited from athletically, professionally or personally?
Be prepared, whether for nutrition or recovery or life in general, to make your life easier when you get up.
Who's somebody that you look up to or that has inspired you?
Kelly Holmes. When she won her first gold medal, that was the first sporting thing I remember watching when I was younger.