Podcast, Training

Kerry McGawley, PhD (part 1) | EP#408

 September 18, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Kerry McGawley is Associate Professor at Mid Sweden University. She is also a coach, and a very good age group triathlete in her own right. In this interview, we discuss Kerry's own training and racing, as a case study of how a person with all the knowledge that Kerry has about sports science and physiology trains and achieves results like winning her age group in the IM70.3 World Championships. This is part one of a two-part interview, where part two is about the current science on the female athlete.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Kerry's process for planning her season, and her training weeks
  • Her three races and three wins this year: World Triathlon Long Distance Championships, British Middle Distance Championships, and the Ironman 70.3 World Championships
  • Her typical training week leading into 70.3 Worlds
  • Recovery within the training plan
  • Cross-training, social training and managing training during work travel
  • The biopsychosocial performance model

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Kerry's background

03:47 -

  • I'm employed as an associate professor and senior lecturer at Mid Sweden University, although I currently work remotely from Brighton, UK. 
  • My primary research focus has been on winter sports, particularly cross-country skiing and biathlon, working with the Swedish Winter Sports Research Centre for the past decade.
  • Outside my academic work, I'm an avid triathlete, competing as an age grouper. My sporting background initially centred around football (soccer), where I played at a high level. I began with teams like Horsham and Three Bridges, then moved on to Millwall in London. 
  • During my PhD, I played for Brighton. I even played for the Western Australia State Team, known as the Western Waves, during my master's studies in Perth, Australia. 
  • These teams were typically at the Premier League or National League levels.
  • I pursued my undergraduate degree at Loughborough University in the UK, where I studied sports science and mathematics. Mathematics has always been a passion of mine. 
  • After completing my degree, I worked in finance in the city for a while and travelled. It was a few years before I decided to pursue a master's degree. I undertook my master's studies in Australia under the guidance of Professor David Bishop, a renowned physiologist. 
  • My focus during my master's was on repeated sprint ability in team sport athletes, given my background in soccer. I worked with the women's team I was playing for, examining the aerobic contribution to repeated sprint ability and the metabolic and performance aspects of recovery time between sprint bouts.
  • After completing my master's thesis, I obtained a PhD studentship in the UK. However, my PhD research shifted in a completely different direction, focusing on endurance exercise, primarily using cycling as the exercise mode. The title of my PhD thesis was "The Practical Applications of Critical Power." 
  • Interestingly, after completing my PhD, I didn't delve much into critical power research again.
  • Following my doctoral studies, I worked as a teaching fellow at Bath University for two years. Later, I sought a postdoctoral position, which led me to move to Sweden. I was strongly interested in physiology, mainly applied physiology, and keen to work with cross-country skiers. I had some experience with skiing, having lived in ski resorts, and I was proficient in French and German, making me inclined to work in central Europe. 
  • I discovered the Swedish Winter Sport Research Centre, and they were conducting research with cross-country skiers known for their exceptional aerobic capacity. This opportunity aligned with my interests and goals.
  • I was offered a postdoctoral position at a conference in Australia in 2011. I began as a postdoc and later became a senior lecturer. 
  • I also served as the director of the Research Centre for three years before eventually relocating back to the UK, where I now work remotely.
  • My work became highly applied, involving close collaboration with elite athletes. We had strong connections with the Swedish cross-country ski and biathlon federations, working closely with development, high schools, and national teams. 
  • Much of my research over the last decade has been focused on applied research with high-level athletes due to our close ties with elite sports in Sweden.

Kerry's training process

11:30 -

  • In the past season, I had a highly successful year in terms of results. I made a conscious decision to focus more on my triathlon performance. 
  • Before the season, I planned out my races and goals. I had a 70.3 slot since 2019 and aimed to podium at that race at the end of August. I also scheduled the British champs, an Outlaw race at Holcomb, which I wanted to do, about six or seven weeks before the 70.3.
  • I included the Ibiza long-distance race in early May to challenge myself and push beyond my comfort zone. I was particularly apprehensive about the 30K run portion because of a previous challenging experience at the long-distance world championships in Sweden. Preparing for this race motivated me to train hard through the winter.
  • To optimize my performance, I chose not to participate in too many races, especially what I call "junk races" that drain me mentally and physically. I prefer to taper and recover for races where I can win. I limited my schedule to three primary races: Ibiza, the British champs, and the 70.3 world championship.
  • In terms of training, I assess the specific demands of each race and tailor my training accordingly. I don't need to do many warm-up races or shorter distances because of my extensive experience in triathlon.
  • I don't do much formal testing like threshold, critical power, or FTP testing. While I've participated in a few FTP tests during group training sessions, I don't base my training solely on those metrics. 
  • My approach is less scientific but works because I can intuitively assess my progress.
  • When it comes to planning, I consider a biopsychosocial model. This means I focus on physical and, physiological and psychological goals. 
  • Sometimes, the mental side of training is overlooked, and it's crucial for overall success.
  • I'm an age grouper and do triathlons for fun as a hobby. So, social aspects are important to me as well. Balancing training with a busy job and frequent travel can be challenging. I often have to adjust my schedule to accommodate conferences and overseas travel, which disrupts my routine. Planning around these commitments is essential to maintain consistency in my training.

Travelling and training

17:54 -

  • I'll start by emphasizing that my situation differs from many others because I live alone and don't have kids. This gives me more flexibility in managing my time, which was a deliberate life choice. 
  • My main commitments are my job, occasional travel, and relationships with friends and family.
  • To effectively balance training with work and life, I plan. For example, when I travel to Sweden for teaching commitments in December, I take advantage of the opportunity to engage in cross-country skiing as part of my training. 
  • Sweden offers excellent skiing conditions during that time. I also use the local swimming pool and coordinate with friends who live in Östersund for swim sessions. 
  • I don't run much during this period because of the cold weather, but cross-country skiing is a valuable alternative.
  • It's crucial to recognize that there isn't a one-size-fits-all training approach. What works best varies from person to person. We have training principles and concepts, but the ideal regimen is individualized. 
  • For instance, dedicating a week to cross-country skiing can serve as cross-training and recovery from intense running. Planning is essential; it might involve focusing on running for a month, participating in a 10K race before a skiing trip, and then preparing for a half marathon when I'm back home.
  • Adapting to training while travelling is essential. I've had several trips this year, including conferences in Sweden and Austria. During these trips, I integrated alternative training methods. 
  • For instance, I engaged in ski mountaineering, ran in the mountains, and learned from more experienced athletes like Oven Sandback. It's important to understand that cross-training and variation are perfectly acceptable. 
  • Don't get too fixated on the number of training hours or specific swim, bike, or run distances because there's no universal formula. Ski mountaineering or cross-country skiing can be just as effective for overall fitness, if not more so.
  • The key is to plan these variations into your training schedule. Recognize that there will be periods of lower training volume, such as during a skiing trip, but these serve as mini-breaks within your training plan. 
  • Train intensively before and after such breaks, and you'll be rejuvenated and motivated to continue your training journey.

Biopsychosocial approach

23:15 -

  • I would describe the biopsychosocial model as a comprehensive framework for understanding the various factors influencing an athlete's performance. 
  • This model considers biological, psychological, and social elements holistically. It's worth noting that this model didn't originate in sports science; it was initially developed in fields like medicine and psychiatry to assess how these factors affect patients. 
  • In sports, it's primarily used in sports medicine, injury management, and pain management.
  • However, I find it somewhat surprising that this model hasn't gained prominence in sports science, especially when dealing with complex athletes and performance situations. 
  • Sports science has often been more focused on the physical and biological aspects of training and performance, neglecting the psychological and social factors.
  • There seems to be more integration of these factors in sports coaching, recognizing that athletes deal with physical training and psychological and social pressures. However, from a sports science perspective, research tends to be siloed. 
  • Physiologists and psychologists often don't collaborate much, and sociologists seem to belong to a different world entirely. 
  • Additionally, there's often a lack of suitable research methods to effectively integrate these biopsychosocial factors into performance research.
  • I view the biopsychosocial model as a valuable way to approach research, particularly in applied settings. While traditional sports science tends to heavily emphasize training parameters, like hours, kilometres, and power levels, I believe there's much more to consider for optimal performance. 
  • As an athlete, I understand that I may not pay close attention to specific training metrics, like Vo2max percentages or training zones. Yet, I intuitively understand the other crucial factors contributing to a strong performance.
  • In a sport as complex as triathlon, there are even more variables to consider beyond the biopsychosocial model. Technical skills, such as bike maintenance, logistics, and efficient transitions, play vital roles in an athlete's success. 
  • For example, I had a close race with a German competitor in my age group. 
  • Coming off the bike, there were only about two seconds between us, and we didn't know this in real-time due to the non-mass start. 
  • However, in the transition from bike to run, I gained a lead of about one minute and 35 seconds. In a post, the other racer shared her experience, mentioning some difficulties she faced.
  • While I won by a few minutes, the point is that every second counts in these races. 
  • Training hard to gain a few seconds on the swim throughout the season is essential, but it's equally crucial not to lose valuable time in transition. 
  • I don't mean to single out any specific individual, but it highlights a broader principle. Sometimes, we can get overly fixated on specific metrics that might not significantly impact performance as other aspects we could improve.
  • For those who might not have all the expertise or resources, it's easy to overlook these finer points. But it's important to realize that neglecting these details could cost you dearly. 
  • Whether your critical power is 233 or 236, the key is not to squander a minute in transition. It's all part of the holistic approach to performance.

Social factors that impact performance

29:39 -

  • In terms of my social approach to training and racing, it's all about doing it with friends. Training with friends helps me maintain my motivation and inspires me. 
  • For instance, I have a great group of female friends that I ride with in the mornings. One used to be a pro cyclist, and the other was an exceptional runner. 
  • They're versatile athletes, and we typically ride together on Wednesdays, Fridays, and weekends. 
  • These sessions are fantastic, and I prioritize riding with them. I don't obsessively monitor my power or heart rate, but I've built this camaraderie over time and identified like-minded individuals who share my mindset.
  • We also socialize outside of training; I consider them my cycling crew. Training with them will push me to improve because they are better cyclists than I am. 
  • It's not just this group; I've created training groups with people who excel in their respective disciplines. I've formed a swim squad with skilled swimmers; the same goes for my running group.
  • This approach has been about finding people I enjoy spending time with because triathlon training takes up a significant part of my spare time. Triathlon is a demanding sport that requires a substantial time commitment. 
  • I don't engage in it to be isolated because, as I mentioned earlier, I live alone. Some people use triathlon as an escape, and that's perfectly valid, but I'm different. I don't have a dedicated "pain cave," and I never use a turbo trainer. I prefer to be out and about, whether it's mountain biking, cross biking, gravel biking, or predominantly road biking and time trialling with friends.

Psychological factors that impact performance

32:02 -

  • The focus of my training varies throughout the year, becoming more race-specific as the season approaches.
  • I utilize a closed-loop motor racing track for key training sessions, cycling around it for 120km in different conditions, which helps me mentally prepare for challenging race scenarios.
  • I sometimes train with music or podcasts in the winter, using headphones to stay motivated during tough sessions.
  • As the race season approaches, I transition to mental imagery exercises, mentally rehearsing the race and considering various scenarios.
  • I analyze race courses extensively to prepare for specific challenges and situations.
  • I incorporate swim, bike, and run sessions on certain days, simulating race conditions and transitions.
  • The use of mental imagery is a crucial part of my psychological preparation.
  • I also train at a local velodrome in a race-specific scenario, even though it's not an advanced Olympic velodrome.
  • Occasionally, I participate in Parkrun, a 5k run event, to further simulate race conditions.
  • I balance social and performance-oriented training, choosing when to be in my "own world" for psychological preparation.
  • Pacing is a critical psychological aspect of training, relying on thinking and feeling rather than being data-driven.

Recovery periods

36:52 -

  • My training approach follows a three-week cycle of harder training followed by a recovery week.
  • Planning involves considering factors like travel and work-related demands.
  • Travel and conferences can affect physical recovery due to sleep disruptions and increased risk of infections.
  • It's essential to differentiate between a proper recovery week and a week that may be physically demanding, like a skiing trip.
  • I monitor my training using Excel, as it allows me to analyze and process my data comprehensively.
  • Training doesn't always follow a textbook pattern; work demands and personal factors can influence it.
  • Weekly training hours vary but average around 12.6 hours per week from November to August.
  • The training hours range can be pretty broad, from as low as three to a maximum of 18 hours a week.
  • Focusing on the highest training load in a week can be misleading; it's essential to consider the overall season's workload.
  • My optimal training sweet spot is around 15.5 to 16 hours per week.
  • Going beyond 16 hours a week can lead to difficulties in recovery, increased fatigue, and a higher risk of illness or overtraining.
  • I've learned to adapt my training based on how my body responds, including taking easier weeks or breaks as needed.
  • While I rarely get sick or injured, I must listen to my body and adjust training accordingly.
  • I've found that an optimal week typically involves around 15 to 16 hours of training. This breaks down to roughly 12 kilometres of swimming, around 200 kilometres of cycling, and about 50 kilometres of running. 
  • Additionally, I allocate approximately an hour and a half for mobility, strength training, and supplementary gym work. Over time, I've accumulated this knowledge, a foundation for my training routine.
  • While this may sound quite scientific, it's essential to maintain flexibility in the plan. Being self-coached and understanding these factors well, I constantly assess and adjust my training. 
  • I'm always internally evaluating and recalculating these variables to make necessary adjustments.
  • I'd like to share a personal example highlighting adaptability's importance in training. A significant life event occurred when my best friend passed away between the British and world championships this past summer. 
  • Naturally, this had a profound impact on my life. However, I mention this not to dwell on the specifics but to emphasize that life can throw unexpected challenges at any time. 
  • Such events don't have to disrupt everything. In my case, I lost a week of training initially because of the emotional toll. But a few weeks later, I still didn't feel entirely back to normal, and it seemed like I had been hit by a bus. 
  • During what was supposed to be a crucial training week, I had to modify my plans and take it easy. I made up for it in the following weeks when I felt better.
  • Furthermore, life isn't always smooth sailing, and I've experienced setbacks like a bike crash where a car knocked me off just a week before a significant event. 
  • The key takeaway here is that despite these challenges, it's possible to work around them. Flexibility and adaptability are crucial in maintaining a training routine, no matter what unexpected events occur.

Structure of training weeks

44:39 -

  • I'm in the 45-49 age category, and I've noticed that recovery becomes longer and harder as I age. My ability to do back-to-back high-intensity workouts or multiple sessions in a week has decreased over the past decade. 
  • It's a slow change that varies among individuals, and more research is needed.
  • My weekly plan involves starting with an easy Monday to recover from weekend training. This includes a short run, mobility exercises, flexibility work, core exercises, and prehab to manage chronic issues like Achilles problems. It's all about staying mobile.
  • Tuesday is a tough day for me. I lead a swim session in the morning, usually 3 to 5 kilometres, followed by a hard run interval session in the evening. 
  • This Tuesday schedule has made me mentally tough because I often haven't fully recovered from the weekend, which used to be easier when I was younger. The Tuesday run consists of intervals ranging from 800 meters to 3 kilometres, totalling 6 to 8 kilometres of intervals within a 12 to 14-kilometer run. 
  • These sessions have significantly improved my performance and mental strength, especially during the latter parts of races. Consistency is critical, and it all pays off in the end.
  • Wednesday: Easy bike spin and mobility exercises
  • Thursday: Longer run (around 15 to 25 kilometres)
  • Friday: Another session, possibly an easy run or active recovery
  • Saturday: A long bike ride lasting from three to five hours, with an optional short run afterwards
  • Sunday: Depending on my fatigue level, I might do either a long run or another bike ride, but I vary this to avoid constantly running on tired legs after a hard bike ride.
  • During the winter, I had a routine of one-hour indoor cycling sessions on Wednesday evenings. I didn't usually train indoors, but my club had these indoor spinning sessions with intervals, so I joined in. 
  • I mixed in outdoor hill repetitions and more challenging rides as summer approached. However, fitting in high-quality bike interval sessions became challenging as race season neared. 
  • My longer workouts were already quite demanding, and I focused on getting more specific in my training.
  • My long bike sessions incorporated harder efforts, like 20-minute intervals, in preparation for races. Balancing hard swims, runs, and bike sessions in the same week was challenging. I typically couldn't manage more than one demanding session per discipline weekly. 
  • The intensity and volume of each session varied depending on my overall training plan. Sometimes, a session was challenging because it was long and somewhat intense, while other times, it was shorter but more intense.

Data that Kerry monitors in training

52:50 -

  • In my training approach, I combine objective and subjective variables, aligning with the principles of sports science. 
  • At the start of each week, I carefully plan my training regimen, considering both my previous performances and the goals I aim to achieve. This plan includes specific targets for swimming, cycling, running, and gym sessions.
  • I typically measure distance for cycling, but it can become more complex when accounting for mountain biking or gravel riding due to the slower pace on such terrains. Nonetheless, my main data point for cycling revolves around achieving a set distance goal.
  • When it comes to running, I focus on pace and speed, adapting to factors like terrain and weather conditions. I often run in hilly areas and adjust my pace accordingly, considering factors like headwinds and tailwinds. 
  • I prioritize distance accumulation for off-road runs, even if the pace drops significantly due to challenging terrain.
  • Swimming, on the other hand, relies heavily on pace and time. I structure swimming sets based on turnaround times for specific distances, such as hundreds off a 1:45 interval or 200s off a 3:20 interval. 
  • This approach helps me gauge my performance and progress in the water.
  • While I occasionally use power metrics when training on a velodrome or track, I don't have a power meter on my road bike. Instead, I maintain a certain average speed based on the terrain and group dynamics. 
  • This average speed is reliable for gauging my cycling performance during steady or harder rides.
  • I don't extensively monitor heart rate variables, such as heart rate variability or resting heart rate. Over the years, I've developed an intuitive sense of my physical condition and effort levels. 
  • This internal feedback and my accumulated experience offer me sufficient insight into my training and performance. While data can be valuable, it's not always necessary and can have limitations, particularly in providing a holistic understanding of an athlete's state.
  • However, data collection and analysis may be crucial for coaching others who have not developed this internal feedback system.
  • When you're self-coached and have a background in sports science, it's a luxury because you don't need to collect extensive data. 
  • For instance, I understand the importance of sleep, and while some nights might not be great, I prioritize maintaining a solid sleep routine. I don't rely on devices or detailed measurements; I simply recognize the need to improve my sleep habits when necessary.
  • As for subjective data, I don't use specific numbers or record them in an Excel file, but I do value subjective assessments. I find session RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) scores valuable when coaching others. 
  • I tend to keep this information in my mind. I understand the purpose of each session, whether it's for hard work, volume accumulation, or recovery, and I know what the perceived exertion should be accordingly.
  • During group workouts, I adapt based on my goals and how I feel on that particular day. If my training partners push hard and I focus on recovery, I'll adjust accordingly. 
  • Conversely, if it's an easy ride, I might take the opportunity to lead or push the pace to align with my training objectives. I always have a clear goal for each session, and I can gauge my effort and RPE at the moment without needing to document it extensively.

Training mistakes

59:25 -

  • I tend to stick to my plans, making it harder to identify areas for improvement.
  • This year has been exceptional, and I haven't experienced this level of success in previous seasons. I've also been involved in other interests so I wouldn't categorize those pursuits as mistakes.
  • Upon reflection, I recognize that I may have overestimated how hard I was working and what was needed in previous years. This year, I made a conscious effort to prioritize my sport more, sometimes at the expense of other activities.
  • This change in approach has made a substantial difference. I put in more effort and made it a central focus, which paid off.
  • While there's always room to push harder, I've also learned to listen to my body. There have been times when I pushed too far and had to acknowledge the need for rest.
  • Resting can be challenging, especially when there are numerous other responsibilities. There have been instances where I've been so exhausted that I could barely move off the sofa for hours, which can be frustrating when there are other tasks to attend to.
  • I'm impressed by those who manage intense training schedules alongside family responsibilities. It's an actual balancing act.


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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