Healthy for Men, October 2012………..Pic: Keith Meatheringham/Dobson Agency (dobsonagency.co.uk)
TRAINING WITH THE BROWNLEES
They’re the brothers who electrified the nation with their triathlon heroics at London 2012. DUNCAN CRAIG heads to West Yorkshire to be put through his paces by the extraordinary duo
IT’S A view of Jonny Brownlee that will be familiar to the world’s best triathletes. His back. Lean and fresh-faced, the Olympic bronze medalist and world champion elect is easing his way up the hillside in front of me with a silent efficiency that belies both the savage incline and the fact that a trademark West Yorkshire deluge has turned the path into a babbling stream.
I’m also babbling, or I was, my pre-conceived strategy of firing incessant questions at Jonny in the hope of slowing him down having been met only with an irksome fluency. My other trump card has also been used, a furtively loosened shoelace buying me 30 seconds of respite on mile three. So now it’s just me, this darn hill and one of the world’s fittest men.
So incongruous are we that, from a distance, I must look like a particularly determined autograph hunter. Which I suppose I am. We all are. Who could fail to have been moved by Jonny and his older brother Alistair’s Hyde Park heroics this summer. They took on arguably the Olympics’ most exacting event and, with the partisan crowds stacked 10 deep, dominated.
Only a 15-second time penalty for Jonny, and Spanish competitor Javier Gomez having the race of his life, stopped them landing a historic one-two. Gold and bronze – coupled with the boys’ chorister looks and Yorkshire approachability – was more than sufficient for the public to take them to their collective heart.
We reach the top together (Jonny does the final third twice) and run along the rocky spine of the Chevin ridge, the market town of Otley and the Wharfe valley spread out far below. It’s a dramatic scene but neither of us is dwelling on it. I feel like my eyeballs might burst while Jonny is far too focused on the road ahead, literally and metaphorically.
The season finale in Auckland is a just a matter of weeks away and he is favourite to claim the title. The incumbent, Alistair, won’t be there (injury earlier in the season meaning he hasn’t accrued sufficient points to be in with a shout). He’s at home a couple of miles away, wishing he was here.
It’s not just that the brothers’ work ethic is so strong (though it’s Puritanical). More that this is what they love. Alistair will confess to me later that he sometimes feels guilty for getting so much pleasure out of something the rest of the world seems to regard as sadistic self-punishment. “I almost feel like I’ve cheated my way to doing so well.”
Somewhere (lurking in a sock drawer and tossed on a shelf, it turns out) are two of the most coveted things in sport – Olympic medals
Already today Jonny has swum for 90 minutes. An hour on the bike will follow our “light” seven-mile run up and around the 1,000ft Chevin. Then he’ll hit the gym. And this is Friday – their “easy day”. Heaven help us.
We pass a dog walker who shouts out “well done in the Olympics – are you doing Ilkley?” The local triathlon that weekend. “Nope, I’ve got to go to Auckland,” shouts Jonny, his head rotating but pace easing not a jot. “No-one used to recognise us, now it happens all the time,” he tells me.
The innumerable pathways and bridleways of the Chevin Forest Park are the perfect training ground for the boys, who live in the nearby village of Bramhope.
At first glance theirs is a nondescript mews house but drawing near you notice the mound of trainers on the doorstep (I counted more than 25 pairs); the brand-new Mini Countryman (from sponsors BMW); and the aqua-jogging tank – the size of a small swimming pool – in the garden. The garage, meanwhile, is like a Tour de France support truck, with Boardman bikes occupying every available space.
There’s a note on the front door with instructions for those delivering packages. Since August 6, there have been plenty. “The fan mail is mental,” Jonny tells me. Alistair spent three hours the evening before working through one pile.
Inside the house, it’s like any sports-mad student flat though there’s an unmistakable air of transience. Partially packed or unpacked kitbags everywhere, wetsuits, bike parts. Somewhere (lurking in a sock drawer and tossed on a shelf, it turns out) are two of the most coveted things in sport – Olympic medals.
“I always imagined that if I won an Olympic medal I’d have it a presentation box, all untouched,” Jonny tells me as we loop back around the top of the Chevin and begin our descent through the woodland. “To be honest, I need it too much for that. School visits; media stuff; meet and greets.”
The forest paths are ski-slope slippy. I spend plenty of time flailing around off-piste while Jonny displays the sure-footedness of a fell runner. When you spend your days training with the Olympic champion, this must be quite some comedown. Jonny, of course, is far too polite to let that show.
At last, mercifully, Bramhope appears through the drizzle. We pass the townhouse at the top of the village that Jonny has bought and will move into shortly (not a fraternal falling out – the mountains of kit necessitated it). A final stretch of road (a few horn honks) and we’re there. Exhausted, I toss my steaming, sodden trainers on the pile and go in.
Alistair is waiting in his tracksuit bottoms and hoodie, his girlfriend Flick (an Aussie triathlete) playing on the laptop. “Can I get you a water?” he asks.
That customary politeness, certainly, but also, I suspect, a reflection of the desperate state I’m in.
MEET THE BROWNLEES…
DC: So, let’s get one thing cleared up. Jonny, was it you who vandalised Alistair’s gold post box?!
JB: Haha, no. It was spray-painted with ‘time to waste’, I think. I can’t believe people are knocking Royal Mail. They do a really good job.
DC: Have you used the post box yet, Alistair – perhaps to send letters with your stamp on?
AB: I’ve still not been to it, no. My mum has bought thousands of the stamps though. I couldn’t send a letter with one on – it would seem weird.
DC: So what’s it like being the country’s most famous brothers.
AB: It’s that question that keeps coming up. It just seems natural to us. I’m surprised there aren’t more sporting siblings because when you’re young you do things together.
JB: We accept that it makes us different.
AB: The big thing is the motivation and the competition every day in training. When it gets tough you push each other on by racing. For Jonny, it’s more about having someone to follow. For me it’s about having someone pushing me. In the Olympics, it would have been disappointing if I’d won and Jonny hadn’t medalled but I’d definitely be happier if I won in Rio rather than Jonny!
DC: You must be receiving plenty of female attention.
JB: Yes, but most of it seems to be coming from the under-17s and the over-70s.
DC: How did you celebrate your Olympic success?
JB: I didn’t really do much. I was tired, very tired, I’m not really into going out and I’m terrible at spending money. I’m more than happy to let off steam by going to a football match or watching Leeds Rhinos, followed by a meal. I don’t like alcohol.
AB: I like a drink or two and I’d like to think I’m slightly better than Jonny at spending money but I didn’t do anything extravagant in that I didn’t go out and buy stuff, I just enjoyed it. I think I’m different from a lot of athletes in that I’m quite good at closing things off. I woke up the next morning as an Olympic gold medalist and that was like a line under it. It’s done, forgotten about and I can move on now. And moving on for me was to spend a bit of time enjoying myself.
DC: Has gold perhaps come too early for you?
AB: It’s a strange situation to feel like you’ve achieved more than you ever dreamt you would and I’m only 24. I’m very content. I don’t feel like I’ve got anything to prove any more but I’m the kind of person who always wants to achieve.
DC: How are you different?
AB: Jonny is definitely the more obsessive. I’m very focused but Jonny tends to obsess more about daily things.
JB: I like to organise when I sleep, when I train and stick to it. If we’re running for 60 minutes then I need to run for 60 minutes. Alistair is happier to knock off after say 50. Whatever I do has to be to the best of my ability whether it’s the local fellrun or the Olympics.
DC: How important is your diet?
AB: It’s not something we really worry about. When you train a lot you can eat what you want. You tend to find a natural, decent weight. I think the best athletes in the world just look after themselves and train really hard.
JB: It’s one of the best things about training. You come back from a ride when it’s been cold and get some nice food down you. One of our new sponsors is a food company that delivers pre-made meals to your house. Our nutritionist (supplied by British Triathlon) is going to talk to them about what sort of food we should have.
AB: I imagine we’ll get it and we’ll say we need less healthy food!
DC: Are you comfortable banging the drum for triathlon?
AB: One of the best things about the Olympic success is when people tell you that you inspired them to enter this 10km or that fun run, or try a triathlon when they’ve never done any sport before. That’s pretty cool.
JB: Triathlon’s good because you can start off with an Ironman if you want, but that’s a long way, or you can do a 20-minute or half-hour one. It’s pretty easy to do in that you can go out and run anywhere, for swimming you can go to pools around you, cycling you can get a rubbish bike from somewhere and ride that.
AB: Anyone can do triathlon now. You can do it for charity, to meet people, to be healthy.
DC: But is it really healthy? We saw you collapse after the London race Jonny and Alistair you did the same in 2010.
AB: We do it massively to the extreme, and doing it that way is probably not that healthy, no. Most people would never in a million years have to worry about that happening.
DC: Do you know the course for Rio yet?
AB: They’re going to have to have a test event pretty soon so I assume in the next year or so we’ll know. We’re hoping for a hill, definitely.
JB: Rio has lots of hills. It seems weird people talking about it already though. It’s like, hold on a minute, we’ve got the Commonwealths to come next, we’ve just finished London and I haven’t even stopped racing this season.
AB: Yep, it’s a conveyor belt, definitely.
DC: Will you always be involved in triathlon?
JB: I love following it. I’d never walk away from it.
AB: I’ll always be involved. I can’t imagine a day when I don’t go cycling or running. But it’s not just about the triathlon for me, it’s about a healthy and active lifestyle.
JB: When I stop racing I quite fancy coaching. I’d make a better coach than Alistair; he’s not very sympathetic to people.
AB: I think I know a lot more about it. The reason why we train as we do is because I’ve thought about it and put it in place.
JB: Alistair is more of a leader being the older brother. If I was to do something completely different, as a younger brother, he’d be like ‘what are you doing that for?’
DC: How do you keep up the intensity in training?
AB: It’s just what we do. I’m constantly testing things out. How far can I push it, how far can I go. It’s a lifestyle thing, just what I love doing. The fact that I can go out and do well in races is a bonus.
DC: You famously don’t believe in rest days. Doesn’t sports science advocate these?
JB: I don’t like stopping completely because the next day I don’t feel as good. I like to keep it going. Friday is nice easy training and then we pick up again on Saturday.
AB: The thing with sports science is that it’s never specific enough to any one situation that anyone can apply it perfectly. The skill with triathlon training is to balance the fact that you have to do a bloody lot of it with the fine details such as using an oxygen tent or a helmet that might make you ride faster.
DC: The one-percenters?
AB: Yes but it’s very easy to get distracted by all the little things and miss the bigger picture. You can do 100 one per-centers if you want but if you miss the fact that 90 per cent is training hard then you’re not going to get very far.
OUR TRIATHLON TIPS…
1) Find a friend to train with or a group. It makes it so much easier. If it’s raining and you’re due to meet someone on your bike at 1.30pm then you can’t say ‘I’ll leave it half an hour or so’.
2) Swimming is one of those sports where you can be as tough as you want but if you haven’t got the technique then you’ll just end up windmilling – going round and round and not really going anywhere. Whereas if your technique is good you’ll just flow through the water.
3): Recognise that there aren’t any shortcuts. You’ve just got to get out there and do it.
4): Having decent working kit that won’t let you down is essential. As you get better, speed is important but 90 per cent of performance is going to be down to the individual.
5): You’ve got to enjoy it and not get too caught up in it. Mix your training up to help in this. Don’t do the same routes every day, maybe run off road. I never run the same route in consecutive days or even weeks. Training can be fun. Go mountain biking, drive somewhere for a run, mix it up.
OUR WEEKLY SCHEDULE…
MONDAY: 75-minute run; one-hour swim; an hour in the gym; and hour of running drills out on the track (“high knees, that kind of thing”); and two hours on the bike.
TUESDAY: An hour-and-a-quarter swim; 45-minute run; an hour on the bike; and a track session in the evening.
WEDNESDAY: An hour-and-a-half swim; three-and-a-half to four hours on the bike; 75-minute run; and maybe another run in the evening depending on the time of year.
THURSDAY: An hour-and-a-quarter swim in the morning; 75-minute run; in the summer a hard bike session with a bit of running off it/easy bit of biking in the winter.
FRIDAY: Our easy day. More crucial in the summer when you’re training really hard. An hour-and-a-half swim; hour run; hour bike; and a bit of gym work too (bodyweight stuff – specfic things for you and any injuries/flexibility; not strength but more working on the stabilizers). We use Leeds Metropolitan University’s Carnegie Centre gym or the John Charles Centre for Sport which has a 50m pool. We have lanes booked for us there.
SATURDAY: A grass running session with around 20-30 minutes effort, a longish ride (3.5hrs), little run in the evening.
SUNDAY: A long ride and long run