What does it take to become Ironman world champion? An elusive X factor that only the likes of Daniela Ryf or Jan Frodeno possess? Or can we put a value to the X, root the training in sports science, find the formula, and then tease out the solution?
If anyone can, it might be acclaimed British coach Dan Plews. The Yorkshireman who has made New Zealand his home is now tasked with cracking the Kona code for one of the greatest of all-time—the five-time World Triathlon world champion, Olympic silver medallist, XTERRA world champ, and two-time Ironman 70.3 winner, Javier Gomez.
It’s an intriguing prospect and partnership. Gomez performed under par on his one visit to Hawaii, finishing 11th in 8:11:41 in 2018, and although he’s since won over the full distance in Malaysia, the dominance of Frodeno, and rise of the Norwegians—Kristian Blummenfelt and Gustav Iden —has moved the spotlight away from the redoubtable Spaniard despite a decorated career.
With Olympic gold proving elusive, there was always a sense that Gomez couldn’t resist the lure of short-course racing, but with Tokyo providing a final hurrah last summer, M-Dot success remains the final frontier. The challenge is that Gomez will be 39 by the time we reach St. Gomez. George in May. His form might look as silky as ever, but beating Frodeno is one thing, beating Father Time is another.
Identifying the “Problem”
“I think that’s part of it,” Plews said, when asked why Gomez elected to choose him as coach. “So late in his career, Javier can’t take any chances, and there’s no time for guesswork. We have to look at things in a systematic and scientific manner and do it right.
“I’m more known for my skills in long-distance triathlon and the training required is very different from [WTS racing]. But even from the work so far, his improvement has been massive. I’ve worked with a lot of pros in the past and his training numbers are out of this world – especially swimming and running. It’s crazy how good he is. I’ve seen the numbers of people who have won Hawaii, and he is a lot better.”
The strength of Gomez’s swimming and running has rarely been questioned, but does he have the staying power for 112 miles on the bike? As Plews explains his coaching philosophy, it’s clear how a perceived weakness just represents an opportunity.
“I’m asking, if this person wants to win Hawaii, what does his aerobic threshold have to be in watts/kg? What about his cycling gross efficiency, maximal fat oxidation, fat max, VO2 max, running economy, aerobic and anaerobic threshold, for example? These are all the critical variables that need to be considered, and then the performance gap established.
“I send them to the lab, test it all, and then draw a radar plot and immediately see what needs to be done. Javier is almost tapping out on the running side—100% nearly across the board. But on the cycling part he’s got a lot of things where work is needed. His aerobic threshold wasn’t where it needed to be, nor his fat max or maximal oxidation… That immediately guides the program because we’ve identified the performance gap and are not just blindly going forward.”
The Mind Behind The Master
That Plews’ approach is numbers-based should come as little surprise given his background includes a sports science PhD in exercise physiology, but it’s not the only factor he brings to his coaching. “I think I’ve got a bit of a unique combination,” he explained. “I’ve got the science background, coaching experience, and the experience of competing at a reasonably high level.” (He’s selling himself a little short, but more on that to come.)
Plews’ triathlon coaching started during his Masters degree at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK and evolved to cover several sports including kayak, rowing, and sailing. “It really helps you understand sport and question it properly, rather than just doing what you’ve always done. Kayak and rowing taught me so much about endurance sport, particularly around building sessions that determine success. We had specific sessions that we knew if nailed could almost guarantee an Olympic gold medal. If a rower could do 4 x 1km at 98% of world record time with 2mins recovery, they’d win the world championship. It was almost a guarantee.
“I’ve brought that to triathlon, building sessions that I’m confident will win world championships, although we had loads of rowing and kayaking world champions, I’ve not had an Ironman world champion, so I’m not 100% sure on my numbers.”
Numbers Don’t Lie
Plews has worked with standout athletes including Terenzo Bozzone, Jan van Berkel, Chelsea Sodaro, and Gomez’s compatriot Pablo Dapena Gonzalez. But while the admission that he hasn’t yet coached an Ironman world champion might be true at pro level, he only has to look in the mirror to see an athlete with the biggest of Hawaiian Umeke bowls.
Not only was Plews the overall age-group world champion on the Big Island in 2018— stopping the clock at 8:24:36—he also set the fastest time by an amateur that Kona has ever seen. His coaching website, Endure IQ boasts “We don’t just read the science, we do the science.” When it comes to practicing what he preaches in racing, Plews has a solid case too.
How did he apply his own coaching principles to achieve that success? “There’s high-level thinking at the start. What would my aerobic threshold need to be? Then what would that look like as a session? For example, 4 x 40mins at 280 watts without my heart-rate going over 145bpm, then running 3:50min/km for 20km without going over 150 bpm. That kind of thing. Once I know the session I want to build towards, I’ve got a clear pathway of training. I can start with 4 x 20min and build up.
“One of the big mistakes most coaches make is trying to progress too fast. There’s nothing wrong with doing the same session twice. Take Jan van Berkel, who I’ve been coaching since 2015. His training is very similar but he’s got better and better with small tweaks to a formula that already works. It’s one reason why athletes who switch coaches all the time don’t have great success. Look at the best athletes in the world – a lot of them have long lasting coaching relationships.”
When Plews coaches age-groupers he again targets the performance gap, and much of it will be low hanging fruit—bringing specificity to sessions rather than the tried-and-trusted weekly club swims, rides, and runs and catch-all 30-second interval work: “As someone once said to me: ‘When you’re running the last 10km of an Ironman, the last thing you’ll be thinking is: ‘I wish I’d done more track sessions!'”
Every Detail Matters
While the data remains critical, there also has to be a more holistic outlook than just the numbers. When discussing the Hawaii win in 2018, Plews says consistency and meticulous preparation were key, but also having the right headspace.
“At the time I was training with Terenzo and having good training partners is a big thing. In fact. There is so much more to it than just the training. One of the first blogs I wrote on EndureIQ was about the ‘five gems’ you need for triathlon, and it wasn’t training related but focused on having the right support team and enjoying the process. Of course, getting pacing and nutrition right during the race is important, but enjoying the process of training is half the battle. I look forward to training every day and I still do.”
Plews is also renowned for his “high fat, low carb” approach and it’s the growing interest in this topic that led him to develop his coaching business beyond one-to-one coaching. “After Kona, I had so many questions about low-carb performance, I built a course on it to stop people asking!”
As for Plews’ own racing ambitions, with a two-year-old to raise and an assault on an Ironman crown for Gomez to plot, they’ll have to stay on the backburner for now. It’s all eyes on St. George in May for the Spaniard, as the Ironman World Championship will finally make a return after it’s two-and-a-half year hiatus.
“That’s the only focus for the time being, then whatever happens after that happens.” And will it be the result they hope? “It’s softly, softly. Going to St. George and winning it is not impossible, but a big ask. I do fully believe Javier will win Hawaii at some point. But as you know the standard is just pretty crazy now – especially with those Norwegians!”