'Super' wetsuits and a closed track - inside Alistair Brownlee's plans to 'game' long distance triathlon record

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Great Britain's Alistair Brownlee in action during The AJ Bell 2021 World Triathlon Championship Series Mens Race during day 2 of the 2021 ITU World Triathlon Series Event in Leeds. - PA
Great Britain's Alistair Brownlee in action during The AJ Bell 2021 World Triathlon Championship Series Mens Race during day 2 of the 2021 ITU World Triathlon Series Event in Leeds. - PA

Jan Frodeno is probably not a name with which the wider sports fan in this country is familiar. But he could become a person of interest in the next 12 months. Earlier this year, at a small, specially-convened event in Burgberg, Bavaria, the German triathlon great lowered his own iron-distance world record in stunning fashion.

In dismal weather hardly conducive to record attempts, Frodeno swam 2.4 miles in a smidgen over 45 minutes, cycled 112 miles in a new iron-distance record of 3hr 55min 22sec, and then finished the day off with a cool 2hr 44min marathon for a total time of 7hr 27min 53sec. It was a whopping 7min 46sec faster than Frodeno’s previous best, which the 40-year-old set in 2016.

Alistair Brownlee reckons he can go another half an hour faster again.

The older Brownlee brother retired from Olympic distance triathlon in June after missing out on selection for this summer’s Tokyo Games. But he hasn't been idle. All of Brownlee's energies are now devoted to the longer form of the sport.

The 33-year-old insists he has no regrets about his decision to return for one final crack at an event he ruled for two Olympic cycles (Brownlee succeeded Frodeno as Olympic champion, the German having won in Beijing in 2008). But the truth is the Briton left his bid for a third straight crown until perilously late, then struggled with an ankle injury as he tried to make up for lost time. If there is one regret from his frantic bid to earn qualification, it must surely be that he may have exacerbated his injury.

The ankle, he admits, is still bothersome. He still cannot run on it – entering just cycling and swimming events for now. But having undergone surgery in the summer, he says he is confident he can recover and still have enough time to prepare for both the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, next February – helpfully postponed from next month – and also his own “Sub-7” long-distance triathlon record attempt, which he announced this year.

“Oh, I definitely still think both are still possible,” he says. “The date we’ve set for Sub-7 is early June. And the date for Kona is early February. So yeah, I don’t see that being a problematic clash at all. It was a very good thing for me that Kona was postponed. Because I was thinking about trying to rush to be in a position to race there. But being postponed gives me quite a bit of time to get ready. Hopefully – and I say hopefully because this injury keeps putting a spanner in the works – I get back and race there to the best of my ability.”

Brownlee is phlegmatic. There are other things he can be getting on with. He may not have been able to race in Tokyo, instead watching on as brother Jonny won his first Olympic gold in the mixed relay, but he did not waste his summer months.

He spent them plotting his assault on Sub-7, brainstorming alongside former Team Sky and British Cycling nutritionist Nigel Mitchell. He says it brought out his inner nerd.

“Everything from trying to develop the fastest wetsuit we possibly can, to working out what’s the best format and number of people to use in the team [of domestiques] on the bike, to looking at nutrition and maximising the number of carbs that I can absorb in a race or looking at aerodynamics on the bike.”

Unlike Frodeno’s effort, ratified by the Deutsche Triathlon Union with accurate race distances, applicable rules and referees, Brownlee’s will not be an official world record attempt. In that respect, his challenge has more in common with Eliud Kipchoge’s “Sub-2” marathon in Vienna in 2019; a bid to find the limits of human endurance when you allow unlimited pacemakers and special footwear and other tricks and gizmos.

Brownlee says he is relishing the chance to delve into technical areas of the sport, areas which have fascinated him for years – nutrition, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics and so on – but which he has never had the opportunity to indulge.

He believes many things the team are discovering could have a trickle-down effect on sport as a whole.

“A good example would be the wetsuit," he says. "Not to get too boring or technical, but normally the standard is five-millimetre neoprene. The thicker the neoprene, the more buoyant you are, the faster you go etc. But the more restrictive it is…

“So, we’re doing a big project to work out how thick we can have the neoprene in certain places, and using different neoprene in different places, and then different types of wetsuit, and we’re going to test different wetsuits eventually for efficiency and oxygen consumption.

“Our wetsuit sponsor is super-excited that what we’re learning will be able to trickle down to making the ultimate legal suit as well.”

Nutrition is another key area, with Mitchell having been recruited to work on things such as Brownlee's fuelling strategy, "working out the maximum carbohydrates I can store in an hour of time".

They also hit upon a food source which Brownlee says has proved a revelation in training: pistachio nuts. "Obviously, it's a natural product that's good for you," says Brownlee who has struck up a partnership with American Pistachio Growers. "Quick to eat, high in protein, high in the right types of energy intensive fats.."

Mitchell is also a big believer in pistachios, extolling the “micronutrients” contained in them, “particularly the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin which are important for macular health. it’s easy for athletes to underestimate macular health”.

Ketones are also being looked at, although Mitchell says the benefits are still not proven. "We've had experience of ketones for over 10 years and we have a much greater understanding around the role of ketones now," he says. "So it's trying to work out exactly where it fits and some of the really interesting work is around the recovery aside.

"But it's still, you know, from an in-race situation, it's still very equivocal, and really quite individual around how effective it is. The data is still under debate. But for sure the use of the deltaG exogenous ketone drinks is becoming more and more popular. And I think in a lot of your long triathlons/Ironman-type races, you'll probably see more and more athletes using them. So for sure, it's one of the things that needs to be considered."

Brownlee says they still have not made a final decision on where the record attempt will take place, but suggests it will likely be at a motor-racing track in Europe. “Somewhere closed and controllable,” he says. “I think there’ll be an announcement soon on that front. We really want to get a date and location locked down."

Will brother Jonny be part of the attempt? He hopes so. After saying he would retire post-Tokyo, and then rowing back on that decision, the 31 year-old now declares himself "50-50" in terms of whether he will try to go for Paris 2024. But in the meantime, he also wants to branch out and try a few different things. "My aim is to have a year of different racing next year," he says. "A bit of longer stuff, some Super League racing, a bit of World Series, and then decide [on Paris].

"If I really want to do it then it would be a two-year project. But yeah, I hope to be involved in Sub-7. Alistair has not actually told me my role yet. But if he needs help on the swim or the run, I’m definitely there to help out. The bike power [needed] is very high so I might not be too much help with that. But the swim and the run definitely. I’m up for helping as much as I can."

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