Every triathlete has a discipline that they excel in. For American Heather Jackson it’s always been the bike. The former ice hockey player turned pro triathlete burned up the course at the 70.3 World Championships this year to claim second place in a time of 4:25:19 - 7:13 faster than her third place last year. We talked with Jackson and her coach Cliff English about her race on Sunday, how it compared to last year and how she got so fast on the run.
View Jackson’s 2013 SRM data here - http://tpks.ws/WyvG
View Jackson’s 2012 SRM data here - http://tpks.ws/B7GY
How it Unfolded
Jackson admits that swimming is her Achilles’ heel, and on race day she exited the water two to three minutes back of many favorites. One of the women Jackson was keen to watch was eventual winner Melissa Hauschildt (Australia) who was only 49 seconds up on her. Jackson’s pre-race strategy was to hit the early miles hard to bring back the lead girls. “We looked at the course and picked spots to go for. The first 15 miles up and out of the park has so many steep uphills and downhills I thought I could get some time back,” said Jackson. However, with a lot of women to work through to get to Hauschildt, Jackson had a tough go of it. “It got a little up and down,” she recalled. “Making your way through the field you have to pass 10 people at 280 watts for 10 minutes and then hope to settle down, but then someone comes right back and passes you.” Jackson yo-yoed with her competitors a bit, which you can see in the file - her power drops below 100 watts and her RPM’s drop at spots where she is caught in traffic during the early miles. This would be her only regret of the race. “I wish on the first climb I put my head down for 15 minutes and hit 250 watts like I know I can do and pushed up to Melissa,” recounted Jackson. “At that point she was only 40 seconds up the road.” As it was, with Jackson having to pass the athletes between them, Hauschildt was able to increase her gap with clearer roads ahead.
Fortunately, Jackson teamed up with fellow strong biker Angela Naeth of the US and the two broke away from the group. “We were two minutes back of Melissa at the turn. I knew I had to get rid of the group. It’s the world championships and you have to take a risk,” said Jackson. She pushed hard, holding 234 watts or an amazing 4.4 watts/kg for 15 minutes. When she looked back, no one else was with her.
The final miles are not easy. Last year Jackson was gassed. This year she held 30 watts more in the final 30 minutes over last year. “People don’t take into account how hard those last 10 miles of the course can be,” she said. “I wanted to pull back any more time that I could on that section.”
The Numbers, Training and Execution
The first thing we noticed when comparing her SRM file from this year to last was the difference in pacing. In 2012 she put out 236 average watts for the first 28 miles then fell off to 197 watts in the second half. “Last year I went out too hard,” recalled Jackson. “I had a good average for two hours but the final 30 minutes was 40 watts lower.” Learning from her experience, Jackson paced much better in 2013. She held 236 watts for the first half, and dropped down to 222 watts for the second half, a much better way to load the race. Additionally, English changed up Jackson’s training to get her prepared better for race day. “I’m a big fan of specificity,” he said. “We love those 4 x 45 or 5 x 45 at Ironman watts. You can’t hide with having the power and you can’t hide on race day. You just have to get out there and get the work done.” For her part, Jackson agreed that her training was race specific. “This year I did a lot of 10, 15, 20 and 30 minute intervals at goal wattages,” said Jackson. “Leading up to Vegas I did a workout of 2 x 30 minutes at goal race wattage (230) and then 4 by 10 minutes at 95% effort, like I was climbing of [Lake Mead National Park] on the Vegas course.”
Before the race Jackson told us she wanted to hold around 230 to 235 watts. The file shows she averaged 229 watts with a normalized power of 236, right where she wanted to be. But don’t think that she just stares at her SRM while racing. In training, Jackson familiarizes herself with how the numbers “feel”, constantly looking at her SRM data while making a mental note of how the wattage feels. That way on race day she doesn’t need to focus on her computer as much and can react to what’s happening around her. “I’m looking up the road and I’ll see a girl and just chip away [at the gap]. When I catch her I look for the next girl up the road,” she said. “But on a downhill or flatter section I’ll look at [my SRM] to make sure I keep up the power.” English did give her some guidelines for power, mostly for the downhills and flatter sections. “Heather pushes a bigger gear than most girls which enables her to produce some power on the downhills,” he said.
Looking at her overall stats for the ride one in particular stands out - her watts per kilogram. Most pro men can hold around 4.0 w/kg during the 56 mile bike, and Jackson held an amazing 4.32 watts/kg for the entire ride. She credits her 18 year hockey background with giving her the strength to maintain those watts “We used to do squats three times a week. That background certainly helped coming into the sport,” she said. Additionally, she has worked hard to lower her body weight for triathlon while keeping her strength.
Jackson also changed her nutrition planning, or rather this year she set a plan. “Last year I blew up,” she recalled. “In the last miles I was so thirsty and I didn’t have anything in my bottle because I hadn’t taken anything from the last aid station.” This year she was eating and drinking constantly, even though the weather was cooler than expected. By changing the way she attacked the bike and paying more attention to her nutrition Jackson finished the bike strong and tied for the fourth fastest bike split among the women.
As any triathlete will tell you, the bike is not the end-all. What is every bit as impressive as her bike is her run. In the past Jackson’s bike determined her final position. “In the past wherever I got off on the bike was where I would end up overall. I was hoping girls wouldn’t run me down,” she said. “Now I know what I can run. I use the bike to set myself up for the run.” Her 1:22:55 half-marathon was the fourth fastest among the women and took her from fifth off the bike to her second place finish.
Again, specificity played a role in her progress on the run. “Cliff has me prepare for the course, whether it’s Oceanside or Wildflower, and that’s what the training is,” said Jackson. “Before Vegas I did an 8 x 1 mile uphill and downhill workout just like the course. I knew exactly what I could do. While it’s in progress, I feel more confident in my run and I can use my bike to set up my run.” English backs up her confidence and says it’s a matter of Jackson’s maturing process. “Part of her progression and maturity over the course of this year is really being more confident in the run and making sure that she didn’t crush herself for two hours. It’s finding that sweet spot being consistent throughout the race on the bike and then being able to put down one of the fastest runs of the day,” he said.
For Jackson, the 2013 70.3 World Championships was another step towards the goal of taking the title. She did more race specific training, changed her approach to the bike slightly, gained confidence in her run and had a better nutrition plan which led to a faster time and gaining one more valuable place. She’s certainly not one to race purely by the numbers, but she and her coach use them to continue to improve and get faster. By using the data gained in racing and training to set proper limits and to learn how a specific effort feels, Jackson sets herself up for success on race day.
AJ Johnson's varied background spans coaching, racing triathlon professionally, freelance writing and most recently being the editor of TRI and ROAD Magazines. At TrainingPeaks, AJ helps coaches and athletes as an Education Specialist. Naturally, he also writes for the newsletter, blog and other outlets. He is also a triathlon coach for D3 Multisport. You can reach him at email@example.com.