Author: Matt Dixon
Occasionally, very occasionally, something very special happens from a performance standpoint. Everything aligns and athlete simply…”uncorks” and puts down a performance that the whole team is left aghast. Sarah Piampiano accomplished this feat at the 2019 IRONMAN Brazil. I knew it was special as my initial reaction was less about the win she secured, the ticket punched to the Hawaii IRONMAN World Championships, or even the course records smashed (bike, run, and overall). Instead, it was just a deep satisfaction for her personal performance as an athlete. I knew she had married personal trained potential with performance on the day. I don’t think there could be a more satisfying feeling as a coach or athlete which highlights the real reason driving the best athletes forward. Sarah raced with a freedom I have yet to see and bravery that didn’t get wrapped up in the rest of the competition or paralyzed by an obsession of metrics and data. It was experienced and free-flowing racing without fear of consequence if things didn’t go right.
As with all great performances, there is much to learn from Sarah’s performance, so let’s dig into some of the key elements that I believe shaped such a breakthrough. As we do this, it is important to remember that the race performance wasn’t mystical or otherworldly, it was simply aligned to her potential. We just know that it isn’t easy to crack the code and have a true day of racing that reaches close to that highest potential. Review the below in the mindset of some key details that helped Sarah find her best day on the day.
The Big Rest
Perhaps the most important part of this performance arrived out of what Sarah didn’t do. At the end of last season, I felt that Sarah was tired. She had accumulated fatigue from years of hard training. Getting blood work showed us this also. She was tired. More than any other season, Sarah took a real break from the heavy load that makes up a professional triathlete's training. It is important to realize that this break wasn’t complete inactivity and wasn’t unstructured. Her break wasn’t a case of walking away and embracing random. Instead, it was a true post-season technical approach to the break. We executed a much lower overall weekly duration of training but focused on technical development and speed work. We also gave space for some more “free” sessions of activity that fed the soul and contained less structure. By design, on arriving at the January pro camp in Scottsdale, Sarah was far, far behind the rest of the squad, and, yet, here she is in May.
Shift the Approach
While there is no shortcut to success or breakthrough performances, Sarah needed to be pragmatic even on return. We mapped out two main differences in training. The first was to cluster hard workouts together, but then make the easier sessions and days even easier. We spaced the work apart to ensure healing between the tougher blocks of work. It wasn’t that Sarah was training easier (it was still tough), but we doubled-down on the recovery between tough sessions. We also shifted the run-in to races with a deeper clean out a couple of weeks prior, followed by very hard training 8 days out from the race, followed by very high intensity (but shorter) training five days out from the race. We even had Sarah travel to Brazil a day delayed to allow high-intensity work to happen when we wanted it to.
A Mindset Shift
Sarah owns this one, all the way, with just a little reminder and nudges of encouragement from me in race week. Sarah has always been highly driven and not one to leave any stone unturned in pursuit of best performance. At the end of last season, likely aligned with her fatigue, I mentioned that I felt she took it a little too seriously. It wasn’t that I thought she should resort to random or crazy, but I didn’t see as much fun. I honestly don’t know the catalyst, outside of the challenging months she navigated via rest, but this ramp up has delivered a more emotionally-free Lil Poo. I have seen true inner enjoyment flowing without shackles of expectations or over-focus on others results. As a team, we have endured terrible luck at the start of this season, including three broken clavicles already, but Sarah has kept even-keeled. Even on return from Lima (her first race of the season), when an exploding front wheel left her standing on the side of the road watching the race go by, Sarah managed to find encouragement on how she felt in the early stages of the race. She was patient and unmoved from enjoyment. The race plan for Sarah was simple, go and have fun and execute the parts of the puzzle you know how to. She was smiling, relaxed, and simply excited to race. I believe it was this inner freedom expressed, with little fear of consequence, that allowed her performance potential to be expressed. Of course, now, Sarah must extend this flow and recipe into the rest of the season, but there are lessons for all of us.
Rested, pragmatic, free. With a backbone of consistency and hard work, there is an opportunity to grow and allow good things to happen. She knew that only a win would deliver a coveted podium spot, but instead of focusing on what might happen or what others might do, she kept it simple. Go race the race and go charge. The rest is, well, I guess, it is history.
Photo credit: Wagner Araujo
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