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Spencer Smith on genetics and triathlon
June 24, 2014
Spencer Smith was Britain’s triathlon golden boy in the nineties, winning back-to-back senior Olympic-distance world titles (1993 and ’94) before making the move to iron-distance after a brief spell with the Linda McCartney pro cycling team. He’s now a coach based in Florida. Here we talk genetics and its impact on multisport success…
Was your physique suited to triathlon?
When I first started competing in triathlons back in the late ’80s, I was a attempting to race in a swimmer’s body, yet over the years my body transformed into that of a triathlete. My body type at the start of my career was not conducive to racing triathlon. I was most certainly too top heavy due to 10 years of competitive swimming as a youngster, but as I began concentrating less on the swimming aspect of things and more on the biking and running, my body did transform, albeit slowly.
In regards to whether my body type was more suited to Ironman or Olympic-distance racing, if I had to be 100% honest with you, I would most certainly say I was more suited to the shorter distance. With regards to today’s racing, I think the 70.3 distance would have been perfect for my body make-up.
Do you feel that your character was more suited to the shorter, faster event of Olympic-distance or the longer, slower event of Ironman?
I’m certainly not what you call the most patient of people, so if you looked at my personality I would have to side with the shorter and faster events. That said, I’ve had success at all distances where patience is necessary, the only difference being that the mentality needed for that kind of racing didn’t come as naturally to me as say the psyche needed for the more explosive type events. I raced a lot on emotion and in the Ironman distance that isn’t smart.
What could be perceived as genetic traits that link champions?
I think the biggest trait of a champion is that they know how to hurt themselves – a lot. They have the ability to turn themselves inside out and still ask the body for more. As a coach and dealing with many different types of athletes both physically and mentally, that trait or ability is something that comes from within each athlete and is very difficult to develop. Most champions I know can really put themselves in a very, very uncomfortable place and still require more from themselves.
Were you regularly lab tested?
I most certainly was – both biking and running – though not in the pool, which seems silly now. I was tested after each block of training to monitor my progress. The tests were very similar to today’s process where by a RAMP test was performed on both the bike and the run, and blood drawn as the intensity was increased. Even then I was fascinated by numbers and watts produced. The testing was vital for both Bill Black, who was my coach at the time, and myself to tweak the training from the data gathered.
In your experience of sport at the highest level, have you come across athletes who are significant responders to exercise?
Every athlete is a little different – it’s that simple. I think you can give a general idea to athletes on, let’s say, a training programme that is produced for the masses, but if you want to get the most out of any athlete, I believe you have to look at everyone on a case-to-case basis. Certain athletes respond better or more quickly than others; that’s why I don't believe in a one shoe fits all mentality when it comes to training.
Anything else you’d like to add on the impact of genetics and elite triathlon performance?
All I would like to add is, yes, certain athletes do have a genetic advantage over others BUT if you don't have the heart, passion and desire to win, it doesn't mean a whole lot, no matter how naturally gifted you are.