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Raise your fitness game: Tips from a top triathlete

From running with the dog to winning gold with team GB – local athlete Louella O’Herlihy tells Muddy what it takes to go the extra mile

Team GB Triathlete Louella O'Herlihy

Have you always been into sport?

Yes. Hockey at school, then women’s rugby at Uni, which I carried on playing throughout my twenties and early thirties [Louella competed for Clifton Ladies (now Bristol), Saracens, England South, among others]. After that, it was running with the dog, then a marathon and a few off-road races. Then I joined Poole Athletic Club and got into running properly.

How did you get into triathlons?

I decided to try triathlon in 2012 as I wanted more of a challenge – I knew I could run and I’d done some cycling in the alps on holiday. I thought I was a strong swimmer too, but after training with real triathletes and real swimmers I realised I was only a strong recreational swimmer – this was really different!

I put the time in and, after a couple of years, I went from finishing the swim in the bottom third of the race to finishing in the top third. This meant less of a catch up to do on the bike and run and got me on the podium more often.

Swimming triathlete Team GB Louella O'Herlihy

What’s in the trophy cabinet?

In my second season in triathlon I made it into the Team GB Age Group team, initially at the Duathlon World Championships in 2014 and then in the triathlon European championships at Middle Distance (1.9k swim, 90k bike, 21k run). Since then, I’ve represented Team GB 14 times, won two gold medals, three silvers and two bronze and always finished in the top 10. I am also the current Long Course World Champion in the Female 50 – 54 category.

What motivates you to succeed?

The result doesn’t motivate me that much because it can’t be controlled: when you race with bikes as well as swimming and running, there is always the chance of a mechanical failure for yourself or your opponent, so it’s difficult to truly be motivated to win outright. Instead, I try and focus on each discipline within my race and push myself to what I know I can do – and then add some! It’s a bit of a risk in the longer events as it means you have to be in the hurt locker for a lot longer.

At Ironman UK (Bolton) 2019, I didn’t want to do the marathon after I’d finished the tough 112 miles on the bike until some supporters told me I was in first place. Then I had to continue. If I won, there was a chance to race at the World Championships in Kona, which is the pinnacle when you start triathlon. In that respect, I guess Kona was always a motivation for me, as well as knowing I couldn’t have raced any harder on the day.

Triathlete Louella O'Herlihy Team GB

What recent setbacks have you experienced?

The pandemic hit hard in 2020 in terms of races being cancelled. I had a European and World championships cancelled and the local races I wanted to take part in to get race fit have been rolled over to next year. So now I have the local Swashbuckler Middle Distance, the European Middle Distance Championships in Austria, the Outlaw Full Distance in Nottingham, Ironman Copenhagen and finally, the Long Distance World Championships – that’s going to be a lot of hard work in a five-month period…

What advice do you have for budding triathletes?

I would advise anyone getting into triathlon for the first time to pick a local event. We’re lucky to have some great ones in Dorset and Hampshire – I did my first one in Swanage and loved it. The advantage of a local race is you can practice the route beforehand so it’s all familiar on race day, which will take away some of the nerves. I’d also recommend training with the race fuel you’re going to use on the day – I use energy drinks on the bike and gels. By training with what you’re going to use, you’re less likely to get gut issues.

Anything other tips for a top performance?

Think holistically about your training programme – those that are already competing will know the benefits of a good diet and sufficient rest to help avoid injury. Be as consistent as you can with your training, too, this makes race day just another training day. The other thing is belief: getting into the right mindset is important. I knew someone had to win – so why not me if I’d put all the work in consistently beforehand? Lastly, it’s really important to enjoy it – the race is why we train so hard, so go out there with a smile.

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