We get to share another incredible story on this edition of The Kona Edge. Owain Matthews joins Brad Brown from Sydney, Australia to talk about his journey from racing cross country as a kid to becoming an Ironman 70.3 Age Group World Champion.
BRAD BROWN: You’re listening to The Kona Edge and we head to Sydney in Australia now and it’s an absolute pleasure to welcome Owain Matthews onto the podcast.
Owain, welcome onto The Kona Edge.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Thank you for having me.
BRAD BROWN: No worries at all. Owain, you live in Sydney but you’re not originally from Australia, you’re originally from the UK, what took you to Australia?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, I kind of grew up being quite active and was always a bit itchy in terms of wanting to travel around a lot and I grew up being a runner for about 10-15 years. Went to university in America for a while on a running scholarship and just wanted to kind of spread my wings and live somewhere with a lifestyle that suited me a bit better. Something outdoorsy and with better weather, so my wife and I upped and moved to Sydney in 2011.
BRAD BROWN: And you haven’t looked back since? Sydney is an incredible city isn’t it?
Ironman community motivates training
OWAIN MATTHEWS: It’s fantastic. For somebody who is active and especially into triathlon, it has everything you need here. Yeah, we’re very blessed to be able to live here and we don’t go back to the UK too much. Our family generally comes over here to see us.
BRAD BROWN: Sydney is an incredible city, there’s quite a bit triathlon scene in Sydney. You talk about the lifestyle and how conducive it is to being outdoors. But from a big city perspective, it’s incredible how many triathletes are based there.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, it’s kind of still a growing sport I think. When I was in the UK running with such a big scene. Triathlon wasn’t really conducive to the weather there, but in Sydney it’s just huge. There’s triathlon clubs everywhere. There’s races. You’ve obviously got the fantastic training landscape, so it’s easy to swim, bike and run. And it just keeps growing and growing and it’s a fantastic community to be part of here.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Owain, you mentioned you came from a running background, let’s go back to that, where it all started. Were you always an active kid growing up?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, I was really into team sports when I was really young. I joined a local football team when I was 5/6 years old and I always grew up dreaming that I was going to be a football player playing in the Premier League and that’s kind of all I wanted to do. When I was in high school my PE teacher got us football guys to go and do some run races as part of our training. And I ended up being pretty good at it and decided that I was going to stick with that, once I started getting a bit of success.
BRAD BROWN: Awesome and distance-wise as a youngster, were you good on the short, faster stuff or was it the slightly longer middle distance stuff as a kid?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: I kind of started to excel at cross country more than anything. I was definitely not very quick over a short distance and I was lucky that I got hooked up with a really good coach when I was young who was very much looking after us in terms of the amount of training we did and had us doing lots of drills, doing real short races, even though it was obvious that we were more endurance based and yeah, I was definitely running a lot of 800’s and 1500m, even though when I eventually matured, I did a lot more running over the 5000 and 10000 distance.
BRAD BROWN: Do you miss the dynamics of team sport? I was rubbish when it came to team sports, I also played a bit of football and rugby growing up, but I just loved being in that team environment, is that something you miss?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: I kind of do but I had that when I was running and doing triathlon. We’ve got a really good training community and stuff here. So I still find I get that and although I enjoyed that growing up, I didn’t really enjoy, I guess, giving up some of the control of what I wanted to do on other people. I really enjoyed taking responsibility for what I was doing and being independent and that drew me to running more than anything else.
BRAD BROWN: You talk about realizing you had some potential and that as well, as a youngster, were you always competitive or does that come with competing? Did you hate losing from an early age?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: No, I think even if you talk to anybody now, even at the level I compete at in triathlon, I’m a very relaxed laid-back guy and I’m not overtly competitive or outgoing in that sense. But I’m very competitive with myself and I like to challenge myself. Growing up it was all about doing better and moving to the next thing, was always the thing I was looking for and not necessarily to be competitive with anyone else, but to set myself goals and achieve something.
BRAD BROWN: The decision to go and run in the States on a scholarship, tell us a bit about how that came about and what the thinking behind it and some of the aspirations around it were.
Scholarship creates opportunity for greater success
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Back in the time when I was still getting, I guess kind of big, I finished school and was preparing to go around 2000 and a few athletes in the UK had been out and gone through the experience and there was lots of mixed messages that if you go out to America they really smash you and make you do loads of volume and all this sort of stuff. But I was just keen to really do something different, to get an education while I was able to focus on my running as well. And I was lucky that the two years before I went to university I started to get some really good success in the UK at the National Championship races and I was getting noticed a little bit more. I had a few offers to go out and I just thought I had to give it a go. And at the end of the day I could always come back if things didn’t work out.
BRAD BROWN: You talk about getting some success, I’m looking at some of your PB’s with regards to the different distances. You’ve got a 30:29 10km time, 3km of 8:16, 3000 steeple chase 8:49. You’re pretty quick!
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, I guess I got my scholarship more off the back of my cross country running. I’d excelled more and got more success in the cross country. And in the UK cross country was pretty competitive and quite a well-respected thing and when you go out to the States in the US, it’s a really big competition out there. The NCAA’s and there’s a big team focus as well, so they really like you to be quite good at cross country. I think that really helped me get out there. But it was definitely a period of just lots and lots of time to put into the speed stuff, to get quicker over things like 5000 and 3000 steeple chase because I wasn’t naturally very quick, so I had to work at that quite a bit.
BRAD BROWN: Do you think having that background has really helped your triathlon career now? Often you’ll hear people say that you can’t run a fast marathon unless you can run a fast 10km. Do you think that’s true in your case?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: I’m a massive fan of that and I also do some triathlon coaching now and a big part of the thing I think people focus on is they’re not necessarily looking across the whole board of stuff. I do believe that if you want to run a quick half marathon, you need to be fast at 10km and that translates differently into the efficiency of running for a longer period of time. I was definitely, I knew that I was never going to be a 1500m or 3000m runner, but I always did them to make me faster for the longer events.
BRAD BROWN: Owain, talk to me about the switch over to triathlon, that transition. How did that come about, when did you start thinking triathlon might be a viable option?
Introducing triathlon is great for renewed motivation
OWAIN MATTHEWS: When we decided to move to Australia I definitely knew it was time for a different challenge. I’d run for about 15 years and to quite a high level. And it was taking up a lot of my time and I just got a little bit stagnant with the challenges and I felt like I needed something new to challenge myself. And that’s when I started thinking about triathlon.
I had a few friends in the running community in the UK who did a bit themselves and had done a few Ironman’s and stuff, so I just, once or twice a week, in the 6 months leading up to, before I moved to Australia, just jumped in then with some training sessions. Bought a bike and rode to work and just started to dip my feet in it a little bit so that when I got out here I could maybe transition into it and give that a go. The first week I moved to Australia I joined the local triathlon club and I’ve been there ever since.
BRAD BROWN: Wow, the transition has been pretty smooth for you. Have you struggled or have you found it quite easy to adapt to three sports as opposed to one?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: It was difficult to start with. I was clearly a runner. I’m 6:1 and when I was coming over to Australia I was 64kg and I was not a swimmer and I wasn’t strong, so the bike was quite difficult. I really had to flip everything I was doing and decide that I had to put the running on a back seat and really focus on using my time to swim and bike and not worry about how much running training I was doing and just keep that ticking over as best I could while I tried to make some gains in the other areas.
BRAD BROWN: Has been almost like a renewal for you? How have you coped with, when you compete at the top level of a certain sport for a long time it’s easy to get burnt out, has this really just reignited your love for sport and being active again? Did you get to that point just in the running where you thought, I’ve had enough of this, I don’t know if I want to keep doing this?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Completely and I think if I stayed in the UK, I’m not sure what I would be doing now. I got to the point where running 120km a week was really putting a toll on my body and I didn’t think that my body was going to be able to handle that too much longer. Introducing triathlon was great for a renewal of motivation but also the training is a lot more conducive to my body because I run a lot less and I found that I’ve been able to really, I guess, challenge my body a lot more. And I still feel like I’ve got a lot more to give, even 5 years on when I’m a little bit older, I feel a lot stronger and fitter than I was back then five years ago.
BRAD BROWN: Looking at when you were racing top level running, were you doing much cross training or was everything run specific? Did you do any stuff in the water, did you do anything on the bike back then, whether it’s indoor or outdoor, doesn’t really matter? Was that ever on the radar or not really?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: It kind of went through a transition as I was coached by different people. Initially when I was younger, I didn’t. It was all about running and then when I moved to the States, they were very hot on strength and conditioning. So I started to implement a lot of strength and conditioning into my training and then also when we were in the longer phases of training, we’d have periods where we’d also, he’d get us in the pool as well to do a little bit of either water running or easy swimming to help our bodies recover a little bit as well.
I took all those things and when I left university and went back to the UK to continue running, I kept all those things in my program because I found that the strength and conditioning and alternate methods of training were helping me just as much as all the running.
BRAD BROWN: It’s incredible how much that strength and conditioning can help you in triathlon as well. That’s something that I think a lot of people neglect and it’s vitally important.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, the longer distance you go, you’ve got to look at it from an athlete’s perspective, or as a coach now and say it’s efficiency, over a long period of time and the first thing to go when you’re not strong is your technique and that’s all the efficiency of your whole race. Yeah, implementing the strength and conditioning so you can really get the best out of being efficient the whole day makes such a huge difference to your overall result.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Okay, you’ve arrived in Australia, a week down the line you’ve joined the triathlon club, when did Ironman register as a… you know what, I want to do this.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, in 2012 I guess was my first full triathlon season. I was doing Olympics and sprints, a few of my friends in the club had turned up to Ironman Australia in Port Macquarie to do their first Ironman and we took a road trip to watch them and I thought it was crazy. I’ve never really even enjoyed long distance running, I like the 5km and 10km. I hated doing long runs and stuff like that and the thought of doing a marathon just was ridiculous to me. I saw these guys doing a swim, a bike and then running a marathon and I thought they’re crazy. Then I watched it and I just thought it was the most inspiring thing I’d ever seen and after the race I spoke to Bruce Thomas who was starting to coach me and I just said, I really want to do that next year, what do you think and it kind of went from there.
BRAD BROWN: How funny is that? I’m sure you get it often, you’ll chat to somebody and you talk to them about doing an Ironman and you say you do Ironman, they go ‘you’re crazy, I could never do that’. But like you say, as soon as someone goes to watch a race, I don’t know what happens, it must be something in the atmosphere around an Ironman race that people just get sucked in and that’s where the bug bites. I love that story and I think it happens to so many of us.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, I think that’s why I still love the 70.3 and Ironman because it’s not just about the training and about the race, it’s about the whole community and when you’re at a race you get a real good vibe there because everyone is just enjoying themselves and having a go and trying to challenge themselves.
BRAD BROWN: Talk to me about the difference in preparing for a 70.3 or an Ironman as opposed to 10000m or a 10km where you just want to go and smash it and it’s 30-31 minutes and you’re done. It’s not just different from a training perspective, but very different from a mindset perspective too.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, obviously with the triathlon, especially if you want to achieve at the top level, my frequency of training is a lot more. So I’m obviously training twice a day throughout the week and with work and family and stuff, it’s quite a time commitment, which is one of the biggest things.
I find you really have to have a very good attitude and a mental mindset towards how you’re approaching your training because it’s hard to be switched on 100% for every session, twice a day, 7 days a week, throughout the 4-5 month buildup. Whereas running, because the duration was so much shorter and the training sessions were, you had a lot more time between to recover and refocus for things. Yeah, they both have their challenges, but I guess that’s why people sign up to do it!
BRAD BROWN: Yeah, if it was easy, everyone would have an Ironman medal.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Exactly.
Quality hours can only benefit your Ironman performance
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about the time management side of it, it’s something that pops up very often here on The Kona Edge with people who listen to the podcast. I get emails literally every single day with people struggling with that. I’m sure as a coach you get asked very similar questions as well. What advice would you have for someone with regards to getting that balance right or is it a case of being totally out of kilter is normal in Ironman? What are your thoughts?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: I like to talk to my athletes about two things and it’s kind of the same approach that I take. One, the first thing is you need to realise and have a good perspective on how much training you can physically be capable of and how much you need to devote. Not everybody has the capacity or needs to train 20 hours a week to do an Ironman. You have to get that through to the guys. I would rather my guys train 12 hours and they be quality hours rather than try and fit in 15-18 hours and just be tired and getting sick and injured all the time. That’s the first side of it.
Then the second side of it is producing a schedule that’s not unrealistic for them, something that they can maintain every single week and it’s not going to cut into their family time, their work time and stuff like that. Don’t be unrealistic about the time you can give, sign up for something and then two weeks down the line say you can’t do this and feel really bad about it. It’s getting it right from the start and then just having a good perspective about it.
BRAD BROWN: I guess it also depends on what the goal is. If the goal is just to go and finish an Ironman, the training regime is very different to someone who is possibly talking about winning their age group or qualifying for Kona.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, and sometimes those things kind of work themselves out. You talk to some of the athletes and they realise that and they know that they just want to finish. But they want to do it and they want to do it as well as they can and they want to feel good doing it.
We have a big range of athletes that we work with. We’ve got the ones that work in Sydney city in the CBD in finance and can literally only train once a day and that’s all they can do and you have to find a way to make that work. And then you’ve got the ones who can complete 20 hours a week and they’ve got all the time in the world. You’ve just got to be adaptive and be realistic about what you can do.
BRAD BROWN: Awesome. Let’s go back to your first Ironman. You made the decision to do it, what surprised you about training for your first Ironman that you weren’t really expecting?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: I guess one of the biggest things I found was just how hard it was going to be to doing long training. I’d obviously come from a running background and even when I was training for the shorter triathlons, doing a long run and a long ride and things like that were not too bad when you’re only racing for an hour or so. But when you’re doing an Ironman, being able to commit the time and then physically and mentally go through doing the long rides and the long runs and the longer swims week in and week out was really challenging for me. Physically and mentally. Yeah, that’s the part that really surprised me and I found the most difficult initially.
BRAD BROWN: Your first experience of finishing an Ironman, it was 2013, I think you did Port Macquarie if I’m correct, you ended up finishing 3rd in your age group. You qualified on debut for Kona, that’s not a bad start to your Ironman career.
Stick to your plan and be patient
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, it was good, I mean it was not on the radar initially, like I said I wanted to do it with some friends and we were looking to do well, I’d committed to the training. I wasn’t really thinking about Kona and then one of my good friends qualified at Melbourne earlier in the year and then everyone started jimmying up and saying: We could turn this into a big trip and you’ve got to qualify now.
So I kind of put a little bit of pressure on myself in that sense and yeah, I was quite lucky because I had a pretty good day, but it was a tough day. I kind of did all the things that most people talk about doing wrong in their first Ironman, with nutrition, with pacing and yeah, it was a really tough day and I was lucky to get that 3rd spot in my age group to get there.
BRAD BROWN: I love that, I think we all make those mistakes, some of us make them more often than others, but that first one there’s lots of lessons to be learnt. What are some of the biggest lessons you learnt out of that first one?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: The number one, the biggest thing was pacing. I didn’t stick to my plan, so I’d had a swim and done all right. I went on the bike and did okay, but lost a lot of position and coming off the bike, my friends and my coach were kind of telling me where I was and I knew I was a long way down on the top three in my age group. And instead of sticking to my race plan of how I’d planned to run and being a runner, I went off way too fast and yeah, by the time I got to 25km I was in all sorts of trouble and it was a tough back half of the marathon for sure!
BRAD BROWN: I’m sure! You talk about that first one not going there really with major aspirations, you did get the qualifying spot, how did you approach Kona? Did you go to Kona with it being a case of, World Champs, I’m just going to go and soak up the atmosphere and enjoy it or did you go there harboring ambitions of doing really well?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, I kind of was really motivated after the first one and then going to Kona I really thought, like I’ve done my first Ironman, but I’ve done so many things wrong. My preparation was my first one, I’ve got so much more to give, physically and stuff like that, that I was really excited going to my first one. And you know, I think, even looking back now, after all the other Ironman’s I’ve done and the achievements I’ve had, that first Kona I did, I trained too hard and did too much and I think that affected my overall result. I think I was too cooked going in and that was a personal thing for me and I don’t think I’ve trained that hard and that much since that one Ironman.
BRAD BROWN: That’s an interesting one too and we can dig into that, but the following year you ended up doing another two again, Port Macquarie and you ended up going to Busselton as well and Busselton is a pretty quick one. It’s pretty fast, it’s flat, is that the sort of course you love? Just looking at what you did there, an 8:47, first in your age group, 9th overall, that time on that course is incredible.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, after Kona and having a little bit of disappointment with where I finished, I was kind of adamant to go back. But I’d spoke to my coach and my wife and said that we’re not going to go back the next year, I’d like to go and do another Ironman and have another year of training before I try it again.
I did Port Macquarie and then decided Busselton would be a nice time of year to go and do one in Australia because then we can get out of the way in December. Do a different course and enjoy Christmas and New Year and have that break and hopefully I’d get a Kona spot and then have all the time the year after to prepare for Kona 2015.
Going there and racing in Busselton was fantastic and it reminded me a lot of the reasons why I like the Port Macquarie race because it’s got a beautiful swim out in the ocean, it’s a very clear and lovely swim. It’s four loop run course, you get lots of support, which is great. I don’t particularly like flat bike courses, but it was just something that me and my friends had decided and decided we want to do something different. Didn’t really fancy going to Melbourne, so yeah, Busselton it was and I ended up having a very solid race and running through a lot of people and yeah, managing to finish in a top ten overall, which was fantastic.
BRAD BROWN: And then went back to Kona in 2015. Tell us about that experience, second time around as opposed to first time around. The lessons you learnt and what you did differently on race day at that second crack at Kona?
Keep trying until you get it right
OWAIN MATTHEWS: I mean this was my fourth Ironman by then, so I’d kind of got to the point where I knew my body a bit more and I figured out in training how I could work to get myself feeling good without risking my health or injury and stuff as well.
Going back to Kona, the last time in 2015, I was super confident. I was in very good shape, I’d raced in Sunshine Coast four weeks before and won my age group and finished I think 12th overall with all the pros as well and I was in really good shape. I was very excited, looking for a podium and again, I kind of just made some poor decisions in the race which affected my overall result and was kind of disappointed in the end.
I finished a lot higher up than I did the first time, but made different mistakes this time! It was a very different experience this time. I thoroughly enjoyed it, it was a different day in terms of the weather conditions as well, but yeah, really looking forward to, hopefully trying it again another time and getting it right.
BRAD BROWN: Isn’t that the frustrating thing about Ironman? It’s one thing if you make mistakes in a 10km or a half marathon, you get more opportunities to fix them whereas in Ironman you don’t. An Ironman, there’s just so many times in a year that you can physically put everything on the line and go for it, that if you do make one or two mistakes, it’s a long time before you get an opportunity to try and rectify and figure out what you did wrong.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, it’s a big build, it’s a lot of money, a lot of time invested in the training to get it right on one day and then after that you’ve got to recover and rebuild and give it another big amount of time before you do another one. Yeah, people invest a lot into these races and it becomes a big thing for them. So, you definitely need to try and get things done on race day, but a lot of the time those little decisions can have big impacts and it’s tough.
BRAD BROWN: Owain, one thing I’ve picked up about your results, is even though you did really well from your first one, you’re obviously a gifted athlete and you’ve done well, but you’ve progressed and you’ve gotten better over the years, over the time that you’ve been involved in the sport. Getting good at this is very much a patience thing, that very seldom does someone just burst on the scene, win everything in sight and they don’t progress. If you really want to get better, it is a long term project, it doesn’t happen overnight.
Be patient and be smart in your Ironman training
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah and I think the longer you race as well, the more that comes into play. You’ve got to be very smart about what you do because most people come into triathlon, may be coming from or having some experience in one of the three events. You’ve got to learn two events. You’ve got to learn nutrition. You’ve got to learn strength and conditioning. And then being able to manage all this, through training and racing, there’s a lot of things to consider.
You’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to listen to the way you’ve done things and be prepared to bite the bullet sometimes and say: This didn’t work last time, I need to do things differently and change and let go of my ego a little bit and not worry about this. Rather than seeing the same people making the same mistakes all the time, it just doesn’t seem very sensible. You’ve got to be patient and especially for me being a runner, you kind of have that in the Ironman because a lot of the time I’m waiting for the run all day and you’ve got to be sensible about what you do.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Let’s touch briefly on your last race, as we record this you’ve just come off the Ironman 70.3 World Champs on the Gold Coast, nice to race in a big championship race like that in Australia, first of all, it must have been pretty cool almost feeling like you’re home.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: It does now. I represent Australia because I’m a citizen here and I went to Mooloolaba last year to do the 70.3 there in preparation for Hawaii and it’s a fantastic part of the country and a beautiful location. And it was so exciting to do it this year, not only because I was racing at home and it was a fairly easy trip, but there were so many Australians who had obviously qualified because they’d set themselves that goal to race at home and so when we were up there we got amazing support. I was up there with lots of my friends and family and stuff, so it was a fantastic event.
BRAD BROWN: It was a great event, but it was a good race for you too. First in your age group, you’re the 70.3 World Champion, how does that sound?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, it’s amazing. Again, it was not something that was necessarily on my radar. A little while back I was looking, I thought my first podium at this sort of level might be in the Ironman, I was looking at Hawaii stuff, but to burst onto the scene with a win there was great because I think this distance, the 70.3 suits me a little better, coming from that running background, working a bit higher intensity and stuff. Whereas I think I still lack a little bit of the strength and stuff required for Ironman. Yeah, I was really pleased and it was a tough race. It was very close, I only won by 6 seconds in the end and one of my friends came in 3rd, so it was a super race in the end.
BRAD BROWN: You look at the front end of the field and the men’s pro race just a couple of seconds separating one and two, it was an incredible race to watch. Congratulations on that one as well. Let’s take a step back for you, if you could go back and talk to yourself when you were starting out in triathlon again, just a handful of years ago, knowing what you know now about the sport and what you’ve done, what would you tell yourself? What advice would you give to yourself?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Wow, first thing I would say is that I was really lucky, because I got connected with a triathlon club straight away. I had a lot of good advice and good people around me early on and because I got into the coaching routine early on and I was coached and I am still coached by Bruce Thomas who started out with me and he was 7th in the Hawaii Ironman in 1994 and he’s just got this wealth of experience and I had a lot of people around me helping me make the decisions.
But I think the biggest thing I would touch on is to be patient and really invest your time in being smart about how you train and how you improve and everybody wants things so quickly and wants to improve so quickly, a lot of the time the focus on how best to do that goes out the window. I definitely spent a lot of time focusing on my weaker areas of the sport and my technique more than just working hard all the time.
BRAD BROWN: Brilliant. Owain, we’re going to dig into those techniques and what you’ve done on the various disciplines, but we’ll save that for the next few episodes that we get you back on for. Thank you so much for your time once again, what’s next on the cards? Obviously you’re going to rest up a bit after 70.3 Worlds, but what’s the next long term goal and when are we going back to Kona?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, I’ve got a 16 month old son at the moment and we’ve got another one on the way in February, so the idea is to do a few shorter races over this period until we have our new baby and the idea is to go back to Busselton at the end of next year and then go to Hawaii in 2018 and hopefully being in this new age group I am, I might have a chance of getting on the podium there as well.
BRAD BROWN: That would be brilliant. Owain, thank you so much for your time today, much appreciated.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Thank you.
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