Ed. Note—70.3 World Championships, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, are less than two weeks away. We caught up with Sam Appleton, Wattie Ink. pro, and his coach Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness, to discuss their approach to the biggest middle-distance race of the year.
Every morning, Sam Appleton fires up the espresso machine at 6:30 am and sits down to a bowl of oatmeal, berries, almond butter and yogurt. “I go to bed excited about getting up for that first cup of coffee,” he tells me. “That hour or so in the morning before training is one of my favorite parts of the day.” Work calls, though, and soon he’s out the door for a full day of training. “I’ll take some downtime between workouts, play some Xbox or something like that, but the next stop is usually Netflix or reading that evening before bed at 10 pm.” Appleton is a consummate journeyman pro, coming up through the ranks since 2012, and then bursting onto the scene with a dominant 2015 season, during which he finished the season on a four-race tear, winning Busselton 70.3, Cairns 70.3, Vineman 70.3, and Austin 70.3. One result that eluded him, however, was a high finish at 70.3 World Championships. He took 26th in 2015, following up on 28th the previous year. “By the time 70.3 Worlds rolled around in September I was cooked,” he tells me. “I had been racing hard for 9 months and was mentally and physically fatigued going in. My head wasn't in the right place. That taught me a lot about how to prepare and the importance of planning diligently, so in 2016 I structured my whole year around 70.3 Worlds.” That focus, combined with a minor coaching change (Appleton shifted from Tim Reed, who is coached by Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness, to Dixon himself), paid off in 2016, as Appleton rolled in 5th place on home soil in Australia.
Over the phone, Dixon talked to me about Appleton’s development from “hard, nugget-y journeyman to an athlete who can win any race, anywhere.” “Here’s an example,” Dixon leads with, describing that breakthrough performance at 2016 Worlds. “Sam asked me ‘What day should I arrive at the race?’ I told him ‘Same day that you always show up!’ He’d arrived at the race site the same day all year in 2016, with great results. ‘But it’s Worlds!’ he told me. We try not to deviate too much from what’s worked all year. Athletes have a tendency to do too much, try to lose too much weight, try to change your sleep, going into worlds. It’s my job as a coach to make sure that doesn’t happen. We want the athlete to do the training, but not overdo the training. It’s the process that delivers results.”
Unsurprisingly, Appleton echoes these sentiments in our interview. “I think because World Champs is such a big race, you want everything in your lead up to be perfect, so sometimes when a session doesn’t go to plan, or you feel tired, it’s easy to second guess yourself. I try and think back to my training before some of my best races this year, and the reality is that it’s not always going to be perfect. I just try to remain consistent and show up to the race healthy, and I know I will have done all that I can. One thing I have been telling myself is that this race is just the same as any other 70.3 race I have done. I try to treat it the same and keep my training and daily routine similar to what I’ve done all year. I’ve had a great season so far in 2017 and I don’t think there is much I need to change going in. A lot of people make the mistake of training longer and harder, or completely changing their routine because it is a World Champs. I’ve done that in the past and it has not yielded great results for me.”
Dixon’s approach to working with Appleton has been similarly deliberate and focused. “We do ‘pragmatic optimization,’” he tells me. “Life isn’t a spreadsheet. We look at the athlete’s commitments and build a program of availability from that.” With Appleton, Dixon focused on continuing the development that Tim Reed encouraged, refining Sam’s natural gifts by attending to the specific needs of 70.3 racing. “He’s a natural swimmer with a long gliding stroke, and we tried to turn him into a bit more of an open water swimmer with a higher tempo. The sessions got more specific: lead the pack, then get away from that swim pack. We had him swim more, too, bumping up the frequency of his sessions. On the bike, I think we taught him how to ride a bike. Rather than just doing intervals and volume, we really looked at how he could convert wheel speed to any kind of terrain. That meant doing what we call ‘end-of-range’ training: high cadence/high power intervals, and low cadence strength work, too. For running, he’s obviously a gifted runner to begin with. We tried to convert some of the bounciness of his stride into forward movement. He’s got great tensile leg strength, but some of that power was getting directed upwards rather than forward. We put him on a lot of hills, and focused on gathering the ground with his stride, rather than moving up and down.”
But away from the specific training, one of the big changes Dixon made was to the structure of Appleton’s year. “Sam needs to take some breaks during the year, but he was racing year-round, heading back to the Asia-Pacific scene in the winter time. This year he did a few early-season races there, but that was it. Then he did his North American season, and he was so good at Santa Rosa, Eagleman, and Racine. After Racine, though, he took ten days completely off. We really try to let the athlete own their program, and Sam let me know that he was feeling a bit cooked. That left us with just a short build going into worlds, which should be more than sufficient. The goal is for the athlete to show up fit, but fresh, too.”
As 70.3 Worlds rolls into view in the next two weeks, you can bet that Appleton is focused on moving up a few steps on the podium. Dixon, too, is looking at this year and Appleton’s future. “If you think that the bar is Reed and Kienle battling it out at 1:10-1:11 pace for the 70.3 Worlds run, your bar is too low.” The triathlon world turns its eyes towards Chattanooga on September 10th, and Appleton will be doing what he’s done all year in 2017: arriving fit, fresh, and ready to go as fast as necessary to win.