At January’s 70.3 Dubai (also the opening race of this years Triple Crown), the Angry Bird, Daniela Ryf flew just high enough to win. Many picked up on a pre-race piece I had written that she was quite ill leading into this race. The question some were asking is ‘If she was sick, why would she start?’

Rather than defend our decision to start, let’s discuss how it may be possible to salvage a race and the loss of possibly quite expensive entry fees, while being advised by others to ‘not risk our health’.

There are several levels and types of sickness that are usually all labelled with the same tag – ‘you are sick so you will not be able to compete‘. However, I have witnessed some of sports great performances produced from athletes who have been deemed sick.

Let’s look a little deeper…
If an athlete is in the middle of a viral infection, or is in need of antibiotics the day before a race, we do not, I repeat DO NOT Start! You will not overcome that infection in a sport that lasts any length of time over 20 seconds and more importantly you will hurt your recovery in doing so. Racing in this condition can have an adverse effect on your race performance later on in the season, and possibly your health, this I’m sure of.

However, it is important to distinguish this from a bout of sickness that can be caused by food poisoning, or cold without a virus. This can be managed in such away that will not hinder performance. At Trisutto if the sickness happens between 2 weeks and 3 days before race day, we assess with medical help if the illness is viral. If it is not, we stop training there and then, and go into race preparation mode.

Depending on the severity of the illness and it’s ability to incapacitate, we can have between 3 and 7 days of absolutely no training at all. None. The key is not to panic, but to mentally believe in the work we have done. As the race draws closer and as we feel better, we gradually build steady work into each day right up to and including the day before the race – but all completed at a low heart rate.

In Daniela’s case, the 4 days before race day we did no training longer than 45 minutes.  Before this virtually nothing as we also had to fly in to Dubai and the added stress of this travel.

A champion athlete I trained in the 90s / 2000s Loretta Harrop suffered from asthma her whole life, which would occasionally lead to hospitalisation if she had a serious asthma attack. During her recovery from this she would train one aerobic training session every 3 days. To keep her bike power this would be one short bike, big gear reps for a workout of no longer than 45 minutes. Her heart rate kept 50 beats below her maximum, with rest between reps to allow her heart rate to drop to 100.

During this period in the pool she would use large paddles and pull bouy, no swimming without, for the purpose of keeping heart rate down and muscle strength up. Many thought she would be out of competition for 6 weeks, yet only 6 days later she had won a World Cup (the equivalent of todays World Triathlon Series), and had lead the race from the start to the finish line.

The Drop Dead Taper
While these cases are rare, age group athletes can also assess the type of illness through their doctor. If it’s not a virus, the key to giving yourself a real chance is to then have the courage to stop what work you are doing. Stop it completely. I see many who keep training for fear they will lose all fitness in this period. By continuing to train, even if slower than normal, they are in the grey zone, they are not allowing their body the chance to fight and get on top of the illness.

We call this the drop dead taper. Initially do no training. Then gradually build into the race, with low heart rate training, producing zero lactate. This will give your body the best chance to fight off your sickness, while also preserving race day power, which is also essential for any sort of performance.


Racing with control and patience after a bout of sickness, Daniela was able to achieve a great result in Dubai.

Very importantly, once in the race, we take great care to build into it. No tearing it up early if we are not 100%, otherwise we have just sabotaged our race right there! If you are able to look back at the Angry Birds race and the race commentary, it was ‘She is not as dominant on the bike as we had thought she would be‘ then on the run, “this is not the Angry Bird we know tearing it up”.

Daniela’s race tactics were developed because of, and for her sickness.

The objectives planned before the race were to complete the swim as easy as possible. On the bike to keep it very very easy and heart rate low, and if at 70km into the bike if traveling ok to apply pressure to break up the competition. On the run to simply negative split if she had anything left to run with.

The Angry Bird followed the game plan like the champion she is, and was repaid with a result!

It doesn’t always workout like this, and also requires great self discipline. However, you too may have an excellent race with the above approach.

You’ve got to be in it to win it!

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