In his new book, Craig Alexander reveals the approach that took his triathlon career to new heights.
This book excerpt appeared in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
Five-time world champion Craig “Crowie” Alexander’s just released his first book, As the Crow Flies, which, in his own words, traces his journey to becoming the first-ever double world champion in 2011 (by winning both the Ironman and 70.3 world championships in the same year) and to his first sub-eight-hour Ironman performance in early 2012. Though he’s well known as a private family man, the book gives readers an intimate look into how Alexander balances his training, traveling, racing and family life through not only the writing but also the stunning black-and-white photography. Here, Inside Triathlon is republishing an exclusive excerpt that highlights his approach to training and his specific workouts that led him to regaining the Kona crown.
I made a commitment to myself from the very beginning to be the best athlete I could be.
When I first took up the sport of triathlon, my approach was a selfish one—it had to be. The sense of invincibility and enthusiasm that comes with being in your early 20s and new to something allowed me to be single-minded about my sport. It was 24/7, 365 days a year. I was in relentless pursuit of improvement. Whatever success I have had was born from this mind-set.
Early on, my obsession with all the little details validated in my own mind my decision to become a professional athlete. It was never about proving others wrong but about proving myself right and eliminating my own doubt. But motivation changes with time. Life experiences shift perspective. What started out as a selfish pursuit evolved into something completely different.
Becoming a parent changed the way I saw everything. It was refreshing. That selfish cocoon in which I had been existing was suddenly gone. When my daughter, Lucy, was born, there was a massive shift in my focus. People would say, “There is more pressure now with another mouth to feed.” This was true; however, I couldn’t get past the fact that I felt there was less pressure. At least one person wasn’t going to judge me on my results. I told myself, “This life-and-death pursuit, this quest you’ve been on, is not quite life-and-death anymore; in fact, it never was.” I now get my motivation from my wife, Nerida, and my children, Lucy and Austin.
My resolve to be the best athlete I can be remains the same, but my mind-set is guided by constant self-evaluation. Life is balanced between my family and my sport. I’m able to turn my focus and intensity on and off without sacrificing the outcome.
In 2010 I hit a career turning point: I went into Kona as the two-time defending champion and didn’t win. It wasn’t a bad performance, but sometimes getting beaten can be a catalyst for change.
If I’m brutally honest, the writing was on the wall in 2009—there were deficiencies in my training. It was determination and mental toughness that got me over the line. The fact that I won Kona that year masked those deficiencies. My race plan was a little one-dimensional as well. I got complacent because I felt it would still ultimately bring me success. It’s natural to resist change when you have had success doing things a certain way. The eternal challenge is to make changes before the beating.
Heading into 2011, I wanted to revise my race schedule, begin a more focused strength and conditioning program, adopt a different mental attitude and strategy in the races, and reexamine my equipment choices.
I raced a lot of big races in 2010. As a world champion you receive a lot of invitations to race, and I accepted many of those invitations because I felt a responsibility to be visible and to be competitive. It was a lot of pressure mentally and physically to maintain the rage all season.
The changes to World Triathlon Corporation’s qualification criteria requiring me to validate my Kona spot meant an early-season Ironman was also now in the cards. Having to do a second Ironman in a season further changed the game.
As a competitor you want to race all of the time, but once you’ve been lucky enough to win a championship or major race, everything changes. As far as everyone else is concerned, only major titles add to your résumé. In 2010 I had a very successful season, winning 7 out of 11 races, but I didn’t win in Kona. For me, the entire season now revolves around these major races and their outcomes.
My days of racing 15 to 20 times a year are over.
Part of my commitment to being the best entails leaving no stone unturned in my training.
My endurance has continued to improve throughout my 30s, but aging has brought about inevitable declines in strength and speed. I knew I had to change my training to remain competitive.
I’m privileged to have access to some of the great triathlon legends, people whom I have long admired. With the help of Dave Scott, I built a strength training program that I began immediately after Kona in 2010. I was training in the gym three times a week, something I hadn’t done since the start of my career.
The strength training sessions were tough, but I noticed big improvements straightaway—that’s exciting when you have been at something for over 15 years. At the highest level of any sport, you can toil for hours to get minuscule improvements.
Once you reach the elite level of competition, the steepest part of your improvement curve is well and truly behind you, and the focus turns to making minor advances.
My strength and conditioning program reinvigorated me mentally and physically for the year ahead. I could see the benefits translating specifically into my running and cycling. It was really paying off.
The time in the gym was also a lot of fun. It took me back to my university days. In the mid-1990s I was studying at the University of Sydney as well as working a part-time job. There was a good gym on campus, and I didn’t have much time to train, so I found myself there three times a week. I wasn’t doing a lot of volume in those days, but I was still competitive and always thought that my fitness was based on a good strength program.
As a triathlete, I was a late starter. In my teenaged years, I was always interested in sports and competed in school athletics, cross-country, and water polo. I was part of a swimming club, but I never formally trained in any of the triathlon disciplines. I took up triathlon in my early 20s while at the University of Sydney.
Soccer was my first sporting love; I played for 13 years. While it entails a lot of running, soccer is as much about sprinting and agility as endurance. Looking back, I think it built a great foundation of fitness for me.
Greg Rogers was my first real coach in any of the three disciplines. I worked with Greg for over a decade (1994–2005) and learned about more than just swimming. He gave me my first insights into what it takes to become a world-class athlete—what it takes to be successful. He was as much a “mind” coach as he was a swim coach.
My regular regimen was five sessions per week, totaling 20 to 30 kilometers. There were a handful of times we did a “hell week”—10 sessions over five days, 5 kilometers per session. Now I swim three times a week with a local Masters squad. There are a lot of high-caliber swimmers, including Surf Life Savers (volunteer lifeguards), triathletes, and competitive open-water swimmers. I’ve always enjoyed training with single-discipline athletes. It’s a good way to push yourself physically and mentally and concentrate on form and technique.
There are many advantages to training in a group setting. I find it easier to do the weekly volume. Each lane has five or six people who share the lead and the work. We are all on a similar cycle to build fitness and get faster, and the coach tailors the program to help each athlete achieve those goals.
I still value having a coach’s eye above the water, someone who can see things that I don’t feel. I might think I know where my head is or where my arms or hands are, but when I get tired my stroke can get a little rough. I welcome that edge-of-the-pool feedback because I always want to be learning and improving.
I also like to swim on my own for recovery at least once a week. It’s nice not to be at the mercy of the clock or anyone else, and I can swim by feel. But there is no escaping the work.
Early-morning starts are still tough.
I’m not a big fan of riding while it is still dark, but most of the other riders have day jobs, so we get it done early.
For the past 15 years, this has been a staple ride: It’s the same route, same time every Tuesday and Thursday when I’m training in Australia. We roll out at 5 a.m., riding against the peak-hour flow of traffic. It’s safer that way. Ten years ago you wouldn’t see a car for the first hour of this ride. It’s a different story now, with a constant flow of traffic.
The group is normally made up of 15 to 20 people, and most of the riders are of a very high standard. It’s a privilege to have so many good athletes to train with on a regular basis. The caliber of athletes really lifts the pace of the workout, particularly on my harder days.
Indoor workouts are high-intensity speed or strength workouts during which I closely monitor power output.
These sessions are punishing, and by the time I’m finished there is a considerable puddle of sweat on the floor. This sort of intensity work is a necessary evil because it gets me race-ready. During one particular session, I did 20 one-minute efforts averaging 390 watts.
I have been using a power meter since I started competing in the Hawaii Ironman in 2007. Having a power meter on my bike is a good way to monitor my efforts and my fitness during specific workouts, but I also use it to ensure that I don’t overtrain.
I am not really a number-crunching athlete. I don’t use heart rate to monitor my training or fitness. When I started out as a university student, I couldn’t afford a heart rate monitor, so I learned to do a lot of my sessions by feel (using rate of perceived exertion). In hindsight, I’m glad I learned this way because it has made me more attentive and attuned to my body’s cues and my internal feedback. My degree in physiotherapy is helpful in this approach as well. I believe most racing is done by feel, not by a predetermined set of numbers or a formula.
I like to run alone. As with the other disciplines, every training session has a purpose.
It’s important that I keep my focus in training so that I can hit the specific goals of each session. And again, as with the other disciplines, the idea is to develop the ability to maintain speed and technique even when you are starting to fatigue.
At the start of a run I’m specifically concentrating on my posture, leg turnover, and breathing. I used to remind myself to relax, especially when I was running fast. With experience and a lot more core strength, that process of relaxing became more subconscious.
In the preseason my strength runs are either hill repeats or running in the sand dunes near Cronulla Beach. Most of these kilometers are not superfast.
For a speed run, I’ll do fast efforts at or slightly above race pace, with short recoveries. I enjoy playing with the speed. I usually try to get 20 to 30 minutes of quality work in during a speed-focused run. These workouts are affected by variables such as whether the session is done at altitude or sea level, what time of year it is, what my level of fitness is, and a subjective analysis of how I am feeling and coping with the demands of my overall program.
My long run can range anywhere from 1 hour 40 minutes to 2.5 hours and can include efforts as well. The length and intensity of my long run ramps up when I’m preparing for a race. Usually I do these runs the day after a race-simulation session or a brick session. Depending on what time of year it is, my run mileage will be somewhere between 60 and 120 kilometers per week.
When you’re away from home, you work with what you’ve got.
It’s impossible, both logistically and financially, to re-create everything that you’ve built at home elsewhere. It’s great to have access to all of Boulder’s facilities, but I didn’t start my career with all of the bells and whistles, and I’ve learned to do without them. The truth is, I don’t mind an old-school training environment; in fact, I thrive on it. I walk into our rented garage, and I know it’s time to go to work.
All I need is my ’80s music mix, my power meter, and plenty of fluids because it’s hot as hell. If it’s good enough for Rocky Balboa, it’s good enough for me.