Monthly Triathlon Training Advice
What made Simon Lessing one of the world’s greatest triathletes? I ask the athletes who trained and raced against him...
Note: This blog is based on a magazine feature I did for Triathlon Plus in March 2010. It is about Simon Lessing, who is still one of my triathlon heroes. Back in the day he was virtually unbeatable and in this blog we get some insight into his training methods. They are not what you might think...
Speak to anyone who has trained with multiple World Champion Simon Lessing back in the 90’s, and you will hear a similar story. His arch rival Spencer Smith puts it best when he says “Lessing’s training, like his personality, was to the point, and deadly effective”.
Famed for his daily high intensity sessions, the South African born Brit didn’t waste his time with long slow runs or steady bike rides and his record speaks for itself: Four world Olympic distance titles, three European titles, a World long distance title and race wins at Ironman and Ironman 70.3, among others.
His race record may be impressive, but to those who’ve trained with Lessing it’s his mentality and training strategy that really stand out as the stuff of legend. Here I speak to three of his former training partners, Rich Allen, Julian Jenkinson and Nigel Leighton, to see what lessons we can learn from the great man.
I also speak to Spencer Smith, the man who fought tooth and nail, head to head with Lessing in countless epic triathlon battles, to see what he made of Lessing’s training strategies.
“Only one world title is given out each year, and Simon Lessing and I never had any intention of sharing.”
Spencer Smith: It would be an understatement to say that Simon Lessing and I were fiercely competitive during our years of racing each other. Only one world title is given out each year, and Simon Lessing and I never had any intention of sharing. Simon and I rarely trained together, but I had heard stories of what went on his in his camp. He was as fierce a competitor in training as he was in racing. He subscribed to the philosophy of keeping his friends close but enemies closer. The trail of wounded athletes that he left in his wake was considerable.
Simon Lessing’s personality is consistent with his training philosophy. He trained hard, very hard. He wasted little energy in day-to-day niceties. He has always said what he thought and his training, like his personality, was to the point, and deadly effective. Many people may not have understood Simon Lessing or his training philosophies. If you don’t agree, you just might want to ask yourself, “How many world titles have you won?”
Rich Allen: I think his constant ability to destroy many top triathletes in training built his great mental strength. Beat the competition in training and you will beat them in a race. I think he certainly had that affect on me as I couldn’t beat him in training so believed I probably could not beat him in a race. It’s almost like he was running through the race in his mind in training and this is something we can all learn from. He also used to surge during hard workouts and this was certainly him practicing race tactics during training. This is how he would beat the competition in races.
Julian Jenkinson: Simon didn’t train like other pro triathletes. While all the rest were swimming 5km, Simon would turn up half-way through a session, jump in and swim for about 40 minutes and then go home. During those 40-minutes he swam as hard as he could. He was doing less than half the distance of everyone else, and yet he was the fastest swimmer of the lot. It took a lot of mental strength to buck the trend and swim the way he knew worked best for him, ignoring everyone else’s training.
Nigel Leighton: Simon was definitely the figure head of the swimming group. He seemed to know exactly what he personally needed to be in the best shape for his various target races. He wouldn’t suffer fools gladly in training and even avoided training with women, once saying “train with girls, race like a girl!”
Rich Allen: The problem was he loved to train with other people, but no one could hang with him day in, day out. On the British team camps in South Africa athletes would try to train with him because they wanted to be like him. After a few days they would be worn out in bed and Simon would be fresh as a daisy! I quickly learnt that I had to say no to him every other day and train easy on my own. It allowed me to freshen up a bit and then do my hard training with Simon. Many rooky pros and top age group athletes would show up to train with him. They would all be spat out the back on a bike ride within five minutes. Every time the lesson people quickly learned was that you need to do what’s right for you, not what’s right for Simon Lessing.
Julian Jenkinson: Even though he was a world champion he somehow felt he had to prove himself in every session. People know him as a fast runner and swimmer but often don't realise just how fast he was on the bike. I would ride next to him in training and he would always edge a few inches in front of me. Every time I caught up the gap, he would edge in front again, both of us getting faster and faster until I was completely blown. His cycling prowess helped him win big races like the long distance World Championships in Nice, where it was imperative that you had a super fast bike split. He could really mix it up with the bike specialists, he was that good.
Nigel Leighton: There was genuine specificity to Simon’s training. From what I saw, there was never any junk mileage. When it came to intensity Simon excelled, never showing any weakness during sessions. I remember regular run workouts in which Simon and five time world cross country international Rob Whalley would go head to head along the canal towpath. Others would call this session a two man race, and neither gave an inch as the intensity gradually increased to beyond warp speed. It was the ideal session for Mr Lessing, fitting into his preparation for the Olympics. By pitting himself against the best in each individual sport, whether it was in the pool, on the bike or running, Simon was maximising his potential by constantly challenging himself.
Rich Allen: Simon did all his training at what I would call tempo pace. It may not have been perceived as that hard by him, but it was hard for me! He is the only triathlete I have met that can cope with a high intensity day in day out, with no easy training to speak of.
How To Train Like Lessing:
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Phil Mosley is a triathlon coach and writer.