Brett Sutton: Champion Triathlon Coach Shares Views on Tapering, Nutrition and Mental Strength
Interview by Richard Thompson
From countless Ironman world championships and Ironman 70.3 world championships to Triple Crowns and Olympic Gold Medals, there are only a few professional coaches in any sport throughout the world who could boast the results that Brett Sutton has achieved in triathlon. Brett has a particular coaching style that while doesn’t sit well with some, the likes of Loretta Harrop, Jo King, Chrissie Wellington, Nicola Spirig and Daniela Ryf, have all turned to Sutton and excelled as a result.
T:Zero Multisport Co-head Coach, Richard Thompson, sits down with Brett Sutton to find out what makes him one of the best coaches in the sport and how he goes about his business on a daily basis.
How would you best describe your coaching philosophy?
We try to individualise the program as much is possible. It is our belief that the training needs to be tailored to the athletes every day lives and specific circumstances.
How has coaching triathlon changed over the past 20 years, and how do you see triathlon coaching develop into the future?
When I started triathlon was a non drafting event. We now have two very different sports (drafting and non-drafting) that use the one name. So triathlon and the coaching of both are much more specific. However, our coaching philosophy revolves around creating true triathletes, who can be strong in all three disciplines. While I’m involved with the sport it always will. It is my belief that our training will keep its core of the previous years. We have changed very little while still producing outstanding results. We are of ‘if it is not broken, don’t fix it’ mentality.
With so many world class athletes in your stable, how do you manage competing interests/egos on a day to day basis when you have two or more athletes striving to achieve the one goal?
Our philosophy allows athletes a great deal of originality within their programming. We do not pit them session by session against each other.
In fact, last year Nicola (Spirig) and Dannie (Daniela Ryf) might have run only once or twice together and did no main sets together on the bike. We have a policy that all our athletes will race at World Championships. Everyone embraces that as our philosophy revolves around winning the big titles. However, outside of these races we rarely have our athletes go to the same races and compete with each other.
You are known as the king of tapers – how do you ensure that the athlete hasn’t over-cooked themselves prior to the beginning of the taper and what is your advice regarding tapers generally?
Thank you for your kind words. Our individual approach helps me in this area. We must consider not just the physical, but also the psychological profile must be taken into consideration when handling the taper. The ‘one size fits all’ approach on the taper is no solution at all.
With the likes of Jo King, Loretta, Chrissie and now Daniella (to only name a few), there is little question about your success in the women’s triathlon – why do you think that you haven’t had a similar impact with the men?
The question is only asked by people who have not been around the triathlon world for any length of time. I’ve coached an Olympic male medallist, 2 ITU male world short course champions, 2 male ITU world long course champions, over 12 different individual Ironman male winners and am probably the only coach in triathlon history to fill an entire ITU World Cup male podium more than once (1st Greg Bennet, 2nd Andrew Johns, 3rd Jan Rehula – Sydney 99 from memory I think).
So I really don’t think there is much question about my success in men’s triathlon either. But yes, it is true times change, circumstances change and squad dynamics change. I have trained very few men over the past 5-10 years and at present we have ratio 1-2 pro men for 6-8 women. Though again I’d note last season from the 2 men in my pro squad both won Ironman events and you will see the Captain (Matt Trautman) continue to make big gains over 2016.
Onto nutrition, with a myriad of fad diets and information out there, what is your advice on athlete nutrition – both outside of training/racing and also in competition?
Fad diets is a good way of putting it. We keep it very simple. We believe in 3 meals a day just like grandma told us to. We encourage large amounts of vegetables, fruit and meat for the majority of our back bone for good nutrition practices. Then developing on that with other carbohydrate packing depending on each athletes needs.
Most athletes you coach appear to have incredible resolve and mental strength when racing – is this something that you purposively instill onto them during the season or does each athlete find that strength themselves by getting through the training you have set them?
Yes. We go to work on the thinking process as it pertains to each event. Those pros who join understand from day 1 that we are trying to develop a strong plan to use in races.
Some well known triathlon coaches have speculated that upwards of 30% of the professionals toeing the Kona start line are taking or have taken performance enhancing drugs – citing issues with the WTC doping policy being at odds with the value of its own brand. What is your view on this and do you think that there is an underlying doping problem with professional Ironman athletes?
As we have seen swimming, cycling and now running has been exposed to doping on an unbelievable scale. However people within triathlon think we are immune to dopers. Our sport allows athletes that have proven positive, take part in our sport. It’s crazy. As Ironman is not an Olympic sport, we could have measures in place that federations don’t wish to.
We have a great opportunity to lead the world and we are not taking it. The sport should go back to being the innovative sport it started as and bring in innovative thinking on preventing drug issues by confronting it with a different philosophy.
If you could wish one thing for a coach that may be new to the sport, what would that be?
To go back to the future and before launching straight into their own squads do their coaching apprenticeships. Spend some time on deck with actual coaches who have produced success and have paid their coaching dues so to speak. You can’t replace it.
Finally, what do you see as your greatest achievement, as well as your biggest regret in coaching?
We have too many great memories and great athletes to pick one of the great results and careers. But my achievement in bringing some age groupers through to becoming not just pros, but champion pros makes me very proud.
Regrets are not productive, but I can say I’m sad that through circumstances the world didn’t see Loretta Harrop or Siri Lindley win Olympic gold medals. Two outstanding champions.
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