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Hywel Davies Interviewed

Hywel Davies is one of the world’s top athletes. He’s competed at pretty much everything from bending iron bars over his head to double distance Ironmans. His versatility as an athlete and determination to succeed at any challenge that tests mental and physical strength is what makes him so special. Hywel is one of the only athletes to have ever held both the team and individual 100km indoor rowing world records and was part of the first British team to ever hold the record in 1997. Since then he’s taken titles as 2004 World Ultrafit Challenge Champion, 2008; Double Ironman UK Champion, 2011; British Middle Distance Triathlon Champion, and that’s just the shortlist! The guy is a machine, he’s climbed every mountain in the Alps and Pyrenees in his big ring and can do 136 press up in a minute. And all this is fuelled by mostly nuts, eggs and water.


After a short break from competing Hywel is back and is focused on a new goal of pushing the benchmark of what’s possible when competing at pro level triathlons. He’s also packed in his job as a teacher to focus on a career as a personal trainer, helping others meet their goals. This is something he's focused on for a long time but life as a teacher and pro level athlete has previously got in the way. We caught up with Hywel for a quick chat during a recent visit he made to Planet X HQ to collect and get fitted on his new team bike.



Tell us about what you are currently up to?

Well I’ve done a couple of races this year off no training and it’s just been like, hang on if I get back on the bike, get time trailing right, and I’ll be at a competitive level. So I’m going to try and do a few ironmans pro next year. Not in my age group, just across the board. Age group is something I’ll consider at a later date. Looking at what times are getting recorded in terms of races, in pro fields of 20 there are about 8 or 9 quality finishers. I reckon if I get in the region of 8 hours 30minutes I’d be in there. With a 2hour 30 min marathon in me, it’s worth having a go. It’s just going back to what I’ve always really enjoyed doing.



With all the different events that you’ve previously competed in have you found a set way to train or do you specifically focus on the competition you are training towards?

There’s periods of having short term goals. I don’t like to cycle in winter, it’s not because I’m not hard enough, it’s just I find it a bit meaningless to go out and then spend more time cleaning your bike than you do riding it. So the bulk of my winter training is spent running and using the rowing machine or turbo trainer and it’s always eyeballs out high intensity. Then come the summer I normally get all my mileage in when the weather is a bit better and I’ve got a race focus. But while I’m doing those other things, so if I’m running on a treadmill, I look for challenges to aim for. So whatever big targets are out there, if someone has done x distance in 12 hours on a treadmill I think could I have a go at that? That’s how the rowing came about, I just started increasing my rowing distance and then looked at some of the national records, and thought if you give me a focus I can hit that. What I found is that rowing especially and more gym work helped my swimming and cycling even more than training by just swimming and cycling did on their own. So instead of doing junk miles on a bike or in a pool, high intensity sessions on a treadmill or rowing machine helped more. For the last few years I’ve just concentrated on running, because I did a big race in 2011 and I won the European Long distance champs in Finland and I screwed my back up after that. I thought it was just from carrying a bike on my shoulder, but it wasn’t and it turned out to be years of spine twisting from awkward running action and muscle imbalances. So I tried to get back into triathlon the following year, I did the Alp d’Huez triathlon, had a crap swim, ripped both the tubs off the bike in transition because the glue had melted because it was so hot. As a result I also had two flat tyres and had to change both tubs. Doing Alpine descents around Alp d’Huez with two tubs with no glue on them only at 60psi, while descending at 60 mile an hour is a bit hairy! Then after that I got off the bike and couldn’t run, I ended up walking round the whole of the running course. That was the last triathlon I did for a while.

So I took a year out from competing just to focus on getting my back right, during that time I did a lot of rowing. After that I set myself another target of London Marathon to see how quick I could go if I just concentrated on running and I did reasonably ok, hit a time of 2 hours 32 minutes and then of course saw that as a new target and you start thinking well there’s a 2hour 30minutes time to be had there. So you have another year focusing on doing that. But while I was training for that it just highlighted lots of other little niggles that kept me from doing triathlons. I had the dream that when I turned 40 I was going to head to Kona. I entered ironman UK last year in preparation, but then pulled out of London Marathon at the 10 mile mark with a hamstring tear that just wouldn’t go away and kept coming back in training. I thought I am not going to do an ironman on that, there is just no point, it’s going to be crap when I come into the race. So I knocked it on the head.

I did a triathlon, which was the British Middle Distance Champs, last year and came second overall in that. I was reasonably happy about that, especially having not done a lot of training, on the run I was just holding myself together. Again after this I just focused on running, did the London Marathon this year, hit 2hours 30 bang on, I missed my target by 7 seconds. That was a decent benchmark to say well if I’ve improved my run that much if I take that to a triathlon, what will happen. So I entered The Outlaw Half Marathon the week I came back from a training camp in France. I go out every year to the Alps, this year I went out having done no cycling training what so ever. From September last year when I went up to Mont Ventoux for my 40th birthday I then didn’t ride a bike at all until May. There is a couple of reasons for that one of them in terms of injury the other prospects of family planning, so I stayed off the bike. At the Outlaw I had the worst swim I think I’ve ever had I finished 6 or 7 minutes down on the best guys there. My bike ride was ok, about 5 minutes behind the best, the run was the fastest. So I thought all I have to do is get back in the pool, get some miles back into my legs and I’m back to where I was triathlon wise. So the goal for next year is to try and get at least under 8 hours 40minutes and attempt to get the welsh national record. I also want to just see if I can mix it up with the second tier pro athletes. What I notice now is that the bike stuff has kind of moved on so much, people are riding a lot quicker, but they are not running any quicker. So if I can hold myself together for a decent run, I should be able to run 2 hours 40 minutes, I will be able to pull back some of the time. It’s definitely worth a go.

As you mentioned earlier you are starting to work as a traing coach to other athletes. This is something you’ve always been involved in, you even have a section on your website titled Hywel's Hurt Box, which offers very intense workout advice. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

I’ve just packed in my teaching career to take up doing some coaching and harder training. A Lot of the people I’ve worked with over the years, I’m now formalising the relationship with them, but also picking up a lot of interest even though I’ve not launched as a personal trainer yet. At the moment I’m just going around meeting a handful of people. Come September the plan is to launch with a website and see what happens. I’ll be doing a lot of one to one triathlon training, so that will evolve to picking up  groups of people, looking at training camps and special focused training days. As I say I’ve got 20 years of experience competing at high level in a lot of different sports, not just triathlon, along with my experience as a teacher, motivating people who don’t want to be motivated. There’s a big skillset there and I just want to try and use it a bit differently. Start small, build it up and then look at other things I can do. I want to go into running the club I am attached to eventually, do some writing and a lot more deeper level coaching, maybe managing some teams. But in the next couple of years I’ve just got this window while I’ve still got the fitness and the time to train it’s a chance to get back to ironman.


It’s fairly well documented that you made the decision to cut out the majority of carbs from your diet, an unusual choice for most athletes. How has this effected your performance?

It’s well documented that I used to eat a lot of bread and a high carbs diet, I used to of the mentality ‘throw every energy product down your neck that you can get your hands on.’ But what I was finding was that a lot of the time on long runs carbs weren’t really sitting well and I either got stomach cramps or stiches. You also find yourself always needing to top stuff up. So I did a food allergy test a couple of years ago and it picked up that there were certain foods I didn’t get on with. They said I had a mild intolerance to wheat and that means you get a lot of wind and stomach cramps.  So I just tried for two weeks to see what would happen if I just cut out carbs. My diet is not so much a low carb diet but much more high fat and high protein. I cut out all sugar and all processed food, all kind of white carbs, pasta bread, rice. The difference was amazing when I started training for a fast 5km run or a 10 mile time trial you could instantly just start to see the fuel gauge starting to go down, but running for any length of time upwards of 1 hour there was no drop in pace at all. Everything felt really comfortable, I felt quite light when running, and I never really got dehydrated. I just kept testing how far I could go with very little food. One of the things I did during the Christmas holidays 2 years ago, to prove a point to someone, I said I reckon I could run a marathon and row a marathon on just a handful of nuts. So I went out one Sunday morning, ran 26 miles in under 3 hours and thought well there is a target to beat. So I jumped on a rowing machine had a handful of nuts in between and rowed a marathon in under 3 hours, I actually found it quite easy. There was never a drop in speed or fatigue, so I’ve adopted that fuelling for everything I do. Even in the London Marathon I ran on a breakfast of peanut butter, followed by nothing in the race and I didn’t really slow up. I just found it a bit tough in the last two miles, but that wasn’t down to nutrition. As a result of that and blogging about it I picked up a sponsorship from whole earth peanut butter, they love publicising everything I do, especially with me just using nuts as fuel. I did a fell race Man vs horse in wales, which is a big fell race against horse. Again did quite well in that, no need for fuel, just a few spoonfuls of peanut butter and that was it. So I am kind of hooked on it now and I don’t respond well to anything to any sort of fibrous or wheat based food.


One of the challenges you’ve previously set yourself is to cycle up every climb, including climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees, in your big ring. Did you ever find one that beat you?

No. The challenge goes back to 2009 on a ride when I was actually out with you Planet X guys and there was this famed climb called Chimney Bank and I just said to Dave I can make it up there in my big ring, he instantly said ‘no you can’t a lot of cyclist even pro cyclist walk up there.’ I said I’d give it a go and I did a lot of training for, riding a fixed gear bike up 20% gradient hills on a 72inch gear, which was hard work! I did it and I was weaving across the road, a week later I snapped the cranks on the bike. Since then I’ve been going out to France every year, doing all the classic climbs, the aim has always been to get up them in the big ring, no matter how steep it gets, never come off the big ring. Galibier, Madeleine, Alp d’Huez anything out there. If I’m time trialling the hill it’s always been just put it in the big ring and climb. So yeah its true there is not a hill that has beaten me yet. It’s not the best way to ride, but it’s more about the mental challenge of avoiding the easier option to change down into the little ring. It stops the challenge just being about getting to the top, most people can reach the top of those climbs, but doing it on the big ring the whole way offers a different challenge. The hardest one was Mont Ventoux three times. I did the Cinglés Challenge last year, which is all three accents in a day, off no training with a hire bike, which was something else.


Have you got any training tips for our customers thinking about pushing their training further to attempt more extreme competitions?

It’s just about throwing yourself in really, you’ll learn more by competing than you will training, the great thing about being a multi-sport athlete is that you instantly become one from the off. For someone like me competing in a lot of adventure race stuff, indoor rowing and gym based stuff, obstacle races, ultra-runs, time trial, road racing… the one that’s missing is open water swim racing. If you are competitive and you want to race it doesn’t have to be a triathlon. Nowadays that’s just the pinnacle of bringing it all together, but it’s no different than stringing a couple of different events over a week together. It’s difficult for a pure time trailer to say I’ll do something different to that, but even people like Matt Bottrill and Emma Pooley are looking to get into other things because there is only so far you can go with Time Trialling. My advice would be to compete in as many things as you can to get experience and then triathlon becomes the culmination of all of that experience. The main tip to anyone is just to get out there and start competing because that will show up any weaknesses and where you need to improve.

Hywel will be providing us with a monthly training guide so stay tuned and be prepared to step inside Hywel's Hurt Box! But first off here is a quick round up of what he'd been upto.

You can find out more information about Hywel, training tips and coachig here.

31 July 2015

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