Little Big Things
The Evolution of Linsey Corbin from Runner to Ironman Champion
By Lindsey Emery
After swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles, the first, second and third place finishers in the women’s race at last year’s Ironman World Championship in Kona all crossed the line within about two minutes of each other. Two minutes. One hundred-and twenty seconds. Meaning: there’s little room for error. Every single second counts. And even if you’re a finely-tuned athlete, there’s a world of mental work and new ways of training and equipment tweaking you must do in order to reach and maintain elite-status in the sport of triathlon – to go from pretty fast to crushing-it fast.
Linsey Corbin grew up a runner; she ran in high school in Oregon, she ran in college in California. It was after she transferred to go to school in Montana that she started thinking about triathlons. Problem was, swimming and cycling were mostly foreign concepts. When she started training in 2004, she had a considerable learning curve to overcome, which meant countless hours in the pool and out on the road on her bike. Psychologically, it was just as challenging to make it to her first starting line as it was her first finish line (a sprint distance). But that first race stoked a competitive fire insider her (especially since she won it), and she became passionate about her training, and seeing how far she could push herself.
“I grew up as an athlete, ski racing and running, so I had good leg strength. Cycling came really easy to me and running was always natural. But the swim was a complete disaster,” she said. “Thankfully, I was able to make up a bunch of time on the bike and run. I think that’s what I liked most about it. You have all these different pieces of a puzzle that you have to put together and there’s always room for improvement.” While happy with her breakout performance, Linsey, 34, has always lived by the mantra, “Go big or go home,” and she knew that sprint was only the beginning.
She ran further, biked harder and swam longer. She aligned herself with good training partners, excellent coaches and smart trainers. She worked hard, endured the pain and stress and told herself that it was all worth the effort.
Just two years later, in 2006, the Bend, Ore. native turned pro and completed her first Ironman. She is now a five-time Ironman Champion, a four-time 70.3 Champion and a nine-time competitor in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, which take place every October on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Linsey’s success didn’t magically happen overnight. And it hasn’t come without sacrifice or injury. She has had to make both big and small, incremental changes over the years to get to where she is now – stronger (mentally and physically), faster and fitter in all three disciplines. Last year, she set a new American Ironman record (8:42:42) and clocked the fifth fastest time in the history of the sport.
“The more competitive you become, the more you start to look for any little advantage you can get,” she said. “You finish a race, and even if you win, you think, ‘Gosh, I wonder what would’ve happened if I had eaten a little bit more. Or what if I didn’t bike as hard, would I have been able to run faster?’ It becomes very addictive.”
Every pro triathlete has to go through a ridiculous amount of trial and error to figure out the perfect calculus of gear, nutrition, training, coaches, and race schedule that results in the best possible outcome. Linsey is no exception to that rule. Here’s a glimpse at some of the steps (and strides and strokes) she’s taken over the last 10 years.
Linsey swam 738 miles last year. She usually swims about 6 or 7 hours, or 25 kilometers to 35 kilometers (approximately the length of 228 to 319 football fields), each week.
“I probably spend more time swimming than I did before. When I was doing age group races, the swim didn’t matter as much. But now that I’m professional and there are fewer of us racing, more tactics come into play,” Linsey explained. “If you don’t come out of the swim with the main pack, then you’re sort of racing on your own. So the swim all of a sudden becomes a lot more important.”
First, she joined a club team to help her get more comfortable in the water and learn the basics, like how to do flip turns. She's focused on developing her technique and form, trained with the University of Arizona’s Masters Swim Team and worked with elite swim coach Gerry Rodrigues in Los Angeles, practicing her open water swimming and learning how to incorporate various swim tools, like bands and snorkels, into her routine. But the biggest improvements have come from simply spending more and more time in the pool.
Linsey now works out regularly with a group of ex-collegiate swimmers and triathletes, who push her to be faster. “I’m actually one of the slower people there, so I’m forced to keep up with everyone else."
Linsey rode 7,700 miles last year. She usually rides around 15 hours, or 300 to 400 miles (the distance between San Francisco and LA), each week.
“When I first started, I would ride going into a race, then hang my bike up for a month, and then start riding again right before a race," she said. "Now, I basically ride my bike 5 or 6 days per week, year-round. It pays to be consistent.”
Linsey also had to practice doing swim workouts, and then immediately hopping onto her bike, so her body would know what it felt like to go from horizontal to vertical, fast, and pushing hard through both.
Her favorite workout (i.e. why she’s a beast on the bike) these days is to tackle hills in a high gear, where she's just grinding it out and pedaling slowly the whole time. “It enforces a really efficient pedal stroke and builds strength and resiliency in your legs,” she said. Doing sprint work, such as 20 x 1-minute intervals at an all-out sprint, with a 2-minute recovery between each, is not uncommon for the speedster either.
Linsey ran 1,300 miles last year (longer than the distance between NYC and Miami). She usually runs around 4 to 7 hours, or 30 to 50 miles, per week. Her average pace during an Ironman is 6:45 min/mile.
“I was a strong runner coming in. The big thing for me was learning how to run off of the bike,” she said. “It’s way different to run a 5K or a marathon without the swim and the bike before it. But obviously if you ride hard in a race, your legs feel like jelly afterward. So you have to teach your mind and your body that this is normal, and figure out how to maintain proper running form even when it doesn’t feel great.” She does a lot of training off of the bike, where she runs immediately after a long ride, usually just long enough – anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes – to find her legs, but sometimes longer.
Linsey and her husband, Chris, were in Missoula, Mont. for 13 years, but they moved to Bend, which has an elevation of 3,623 feet, about a year and a half ago, and with the mountains right there she has the potential for some serious altitude training. Her workouts vary from week to week, but there’s always a long, slow run, a recovery workout and speed workouts (tempos, fartleks, etc.) built in.
“Developing mental strength is huge, too, especially in Ironman racing, because later in the race you might want to quit and you start to wonder what you’re doing out there,” she said.
Linsey often repeats positive words, like “relentless,” “grit,” “grace” and “calm,” to herself to get through tough runs.
Linsey consumes about 6500 calories during an Ironman race.
“Early in my career, I could only consume 150 or 200 calories an hour, which isn’t very much, but through practice and training of my gut, now it’s closer to 300,” she said. The Clif Bar-sponsored athlete sticks to mostly sports nutrition products, like gels and liquids, during her races because they’re easier to digest when pushing it at a super high intensity.
Linsey worked with a nutritionist who did some sweat testing to determine her sodium concentration, then devised a plan that was basically “here’s your body size, here’s the amount of carbs and fat you’re burning per hour, and as a result, here’s what you need to consume per hour.”
“I think everyone needs to find out how many calories he or she can consume," she continued, "without causing GI distress from overeating or increasing the risk of bonking from under-eating."
And her needs change all the time, depending on the weather, intensity and other variables. For example, Linsey had a hot race in Mexico last year, so she did a lot of indoor training leading up, where they would crank up the heat and essentially train her gut to handle 32 ounces of sport drink per hour, compared to the 20 ounces she would consume in normal conditions.
Linsey aims for 9 or 10 hours of sleep per night.
Unfortunately, overcoming injuries and other setbacks is also part of the training process. Linsey suffered a small stress fracture near the top of her femur earlier this year, and for the first time in 10 years, she will not be able to participate in the World Championships in Kona as a result.
“Ultimately, the 4th discipline is letting your body relax, recover and rebuild so you have a good, solid foundation and platform to build upon,” she noted.
In addition to doing Active Release Therapy and other preventative exercises with her physiotherapist, Jay Dicharry, Linsey gets weekly massages, acupuncture, rolls out with a foam roller and uses Normatech recovery boots, which are designed to help flush out lactic acid and massage your legs, regularly.
“Technology has changed a lot in the last 10 years – everything from the fabric we’re running in, or the types of wetsuits we’re swimming in, to the lenses in our sunglasses and goggles,” noted Linsey. “And at this point in my career, when it’s minutes between yourself and the winner, you want to consider every detail, like ‘Is this race kit going to be more aerodynamic, or is it going to transfer heat better?’ I spend a fair amount of time researching and trying new things.”
The key, she says, is finding a balance between being fast and being comfortable.
“To be successful in this sport, it really takes a village, even though it’s just you racing. Ultimately, you can’t go about it on your own. Whether it’s the person who’s giving you massages, or your PT, or your training partners, or your gear sponsors, or a local run club, or your friends and family who support you and keep you mentally fresh and balanced – there are so many important moving parts.”