Triathlon masterclass with James Cunnama
Biogen-backed Pro triathlete James Cunnama has over a decade of racing experience at the highest level.
Over his illustrious career, he has notched up numerous wins at both the half and full Ironman distances, and in the process has learnt a few valuable lessons. We picked James’s brain for his tips and insights to help make you a better athlete.
Triathlon training is intensive, trying to master multiple disciplines. How do you stay motivated to get to every workout?
Often the answer is to not think and just get out the door. Once you’re warmed-up it’s easy to focus on the goal of the session and even the season, but when you’re tired and sore it is hard to get out the door and get moving. The best way to do this is usually to have training partners or a squad who are waiting for you at a set time, which leaves no time to procrastinate or find excuses.
How do you manage your confidence or, possibly, anxiety if you weren’t able to hit every training session in your programme?
No one hits every session in their training program, and I have to remind myself of that often. I try to focus and reflect on my good sessions, and usually what I did leading up to them as I was never as rested and prepared for those sessions as I am for race day. Also, I’m very aware that people only post their big or good sessions on social media, so take it with a big pinch of salt if it is going to affect your confidence.
What have you found to be the best hydration and nutrition approach during races, particularly during ultra-distance events like Ironman?
I have tried it all and find that a simpler approach is always better. Stick to what you know and like, and keep the plan as simple as possible. I throw a lot of Biogen Energy Gels in one concentrated bottle, and supplement that with water or energy drink from the aid stations. I’ll have an ’emergency ration’ of extra caffeine gel, like Biogen’s Real Coffee Energy Gel, or a Biogen Energy Oats Bar, but usually don’t need them. I drink to thirst, conscious that during the craziness of racing, time can fly, so don’t forget to drink!
The swim leg can be daunting for many as it is not easy to take a break or rest. Any tricks for newbies on how to handle a long swim?
Can you even rest when swimming? It is hard to rest while swimming, and it can feel very intense from the start in an Ironman swim. Usually, the whole field will slow considerably after 300-500m, so just try to get there. It is also worth remembering how the marathon unfolds in an Ironman – the fastest way to the finish is often to walk a few times and then get going again. The swim is not so different. It may feel like you’ll get swum over and left behind if you ease up, but 100m of very easy swimming will cost you very little time, but allow you to catch your breath and calm your mind. Try this in a pool and see the difference in time between a straight 500m hard swim, and 200m hard-100m easy-200m hard. You will probably only lose 15-20sec on the rep with an easy 100m, which is not a lot in an Ironman!
The transition can also get tricky for athletes new to the sport. They say practice makes perfect, but are there things you could recommend to make it easier to move from one discipline to the next?
The best advice for transition I can give is to take it slow. Very slow. You will lose very little time moving slowly but deliberately through transition. This approach will keep your heart rate low and will ensure that you don’t forget anything you need before leaving transition. It feels like the race will be made or lost in transition, but it absolutely won’t.
Is it an absolute must for a beginner to use tri-bars?
For an Ironman I would strongly suggest tri-bars. For a 70.3, a road bike will probably not cost you much, but an Ironman is long and comfort is important. Tri-bars give you a whole other position to change to, with the added advantage of being more aerodynamic. I wouldn’t advise a beginner to try stay in the bars all the way, but having the option will make a big difference when the back, neck and arms get tired.
Getting into a wetsuit is hard. How soon before the start should an athlete wiggle their way in to theirs?
The earlier the better for the wetsuit, bearing in mind you can’t go the toilet once it’s on! But if it’s chilly on race morning, this has the added advantage of keeping you warm. Getting it on and off is also something you should practice and, of course, swimming in it multiple times before race day.
What goodies do you keep in your feeder bag?
Nothing. I don’t usually use Special Foods bag. I will sometimes put an emergency ration in case I drop my feed bottle, and something with a strong caffeine kick on the run, but seldom use it. Having said that, though, the average age-grouper should make full use of the Special Foods bag and stock it with anything and everything they think they might crave, and take the time to stop and get it. It is a long day and being prepared never hurts.
When you have just finished a big event, how do you cope with the interim gap in your schedule, or do you go straight into planning the next big thing?
I’m usually so wiped out for a few days after a race that I can barely function and have no interest in exercise or planning! But it doesn’t take long for the mind to start wandering to the next race, and that’s when it’s time to start moving the body too. Also, in the lead up to a big event, lots of admin and chores are neglected, so I seldom have nothing to keep me busy.
What challenges have you experienced mid-race – physical, mental or others like hitting the wall – and how did you overcome them?
In more than 10 years as a Pro I’ve experienced every challenge you can imagine, and sometimes they’ve gotten the better of me and ended a race. But usually the way through any challenge is to slow a bit, remember it is a long race, and focus on the next little bit – getting to the next aid station or next distance marker. Usually, no matter how bleak it seemed, the bad patch passes and you can get back to a good rhythm.
If you could start your career over as a triathlete, what would you do differently, if anything, and why?
I would have started earlier, and started swimming when I was 10! I only found triathlon at the age of 22 and wasn’t able to even really attempt short course racing as my swim so far behind. I wish I could’ve given short-course triathlon a good go, but I was always drawn to longer stuff anyway, so perhaps it all worked out the way it was supposed to.
What are the best lessons you’ve learnt or tips you’ve picked up from other athletes or coaches?
Probably the best lesson from both my coaches and watching other athletes is to stick to your own plan. Have faith in it and don’t ‘change with the wind’ or the next fad. There is far too much information and it can be destructive trying to learn from it all. Trust your coach and do your thing. You can compare others approaches after the race.
What do you consider the non-negotiable items that athletes should invest the most in and why?
Athletes should not scrimp on coaching, nutrition or running shoes. These three things are fundamental and saving money on them will cost you in performance. All other things are ‘whatever you can afford’. But spend money on a coach, look after your nutrition, and don’t run in old (or wrong) shoes and you’ll be on the right track.
What approach to training and/or nutrition did you follow at first that may not have worked, and what was it that finally made you decide to make a change? What did you learn from the experience?
I initially got my nutrition pretty accurate, but as I progressed I fell into the ‘more is better’ idea where I should try take in the maximum calories I could stomach so I had more energy to use. But I soon learned the opposite is better for me – to take in the minimum I can without ‘bonking’. Everyone is different, but unless you are going really slow and can digest everything, more is not usually better!