We are super excited to share today’s Kona Edge interview with you. New Zealand based sports scientist Dr Daniel Plews joins us to talk about his love of triathlon. Dan shares his journey to racing on the big island but he also drops more than just a few knowledge bombs on heart rate training, LCHF nutrition and a whole lot more. If you only ever listen to one episode of The Kona Edge, make it this one.
BRAD BROWN: Well, it’s an absolute pleasure to welcome our next guest onto The Kona Edge and it’s been a bit of a mission, I must tell you, to set this one up because he has been travelling extensively for the last few weeks. Returns from the Rio Olympic games, headed to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships, but back at home in Auckland, New Zealand as we speak before heading off to Kona once again.
And it’s a great pleasure to welcome Dr Daniel Plews onto the podcast. Doc, welcome thanks for joining us today.
DANIEL PLEWS: Thanks for having me Brad, it’s great to be here.
BRAD BROWN: I’m super excited because I get to share some incredible athlete stories and we’re going to touch on yours as well. But I really want to dig into the scientific side of things today and I think I’m going to geek out in a big way and I think a lot of people are going to love this chat. But let’s talk a little bit about your background before we get into what you were doing in Rio and that sort of thing, what you’re doing now, but you come from a very competitive triathlon background, so I mean you were really quick, and not that you aren’t anymore, but at the peak of your performance you were a racing snake of note.
Don’t kill the passion by turning professional
DANIEL PLEWS: No, I was not too bad. My life has been triathlon, pretty much. I did my first swim back when I was just 9 years old, so my dad’s a bit of a keen triathlete and then I went through the British system. I was the British Junior Champion, did some high quality in the 23 level, but then I kind of, I just really, I finished, I was at Auckland University and there I was mostly there as training and doing a sports science degree.
After that finished, I got the opportunity to actually go and have a scholarship at the Leeds Performance Centre, which is where the Alistair and Jonny Brownlee were at that time when they were just juniors and I got the opportunity to do a master’s degree in sports science and also be the assistant coach there and that kind of took me off as an athlete fulltime, really just focusing on myself as an athlete and focus on triathlon from more of a sports science coaching standpoint so yes, I’ve never looked back since really.
BRAD BROWN: Do you think it’s helped you from an athlete’s perspective, having that sports science background that you’ve been able to be really analytical about what you do personally, or has that been a little bit of a hindrance that you almost feel like you’re a hamster or a guinea pig and you’re testing everything out on yourself and it becomes a bit taxing?
DANIEL PLEWS: I say this to a lot of people, is I wish I knew what I know now when I was just 15, 16. When I was in my early teens because I think I would have been a much better athlete as a result, but I reckon, I do think you get into the stage where I agree with you, you can almost have all that, what you call paralysis by analysis, but I think as you learn more and more and more and your knowledge gets good, you can almost separate the shit from the clay, pardon my French and it actually gets you quite, you can actually use it for its advantage without it hindering you.
BRAD BROWN: You’re right, and I find it quite interesting too that you talk about growing up around the sport and a dad who’s quite a keen triathlete. What’s the fascination with triathlon as a sport and we’ll touch on some of the other things you did with regards to rowing and the Rio Olympics, but why for you has it been triathlon?
DANIEL PLEWS: I guess it’s one of those natural things and we always found that I was good at it. And I think that’s always the case is when you’re younger and you try a variety of different sports. And I did try a variety of different sports, but for some reason triathlon was the thing that I was best at.
I love the diversity of three different sports as well and I still love that diversity of three different sports. I think there’s no better way to keep fit and healthy than have that diversity, you know, what are we going to do today? You can swim, you can cycle, you can run and I just fell in love with it and I have a lot of friends who were training with me when we were younger and they carried on going and going and tried to chase a professional dream. But I think I was quite fortunate that I jumped out of trying to chase the dream of being a professional quite early on and I never really lost that passion as a result and I think that passion still sits with me today.
BRAD BROWN: That is a real thing. You talk about burnout in the sport, we see it so often, people who chase, and not necessarily just chase the professional dream, but who chase the age group dream of qualifying for Kona and racing. You see it time and time again that they’ll race hard for a few seasons and then they’re nowhere and they’ve just really burnt themselves out. Do you feel lucky that you’ve almost avoided that?
Keep your flame burning longer
DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, I do for sure and now especially, I actually quite enjoy the fact that when triathlon’s your full time job and that’s all you have, it’s quite different to when it’s just your hobby and when it’s just your hobby, the flame keeps burning for much longer, I think. I was going to say that I now, I can’t wait to get training again, whereas when I was training fulltime there was periods where you actually dread training and now I actually look forward to my alarm going off in the morning so I can get up and go swimming.
BRAD BROWN: That’s awesome, but how often is that the case too where you’ll see an athlete who’s promising and is on the verge of turning pro and decides to turn pro and all of a sudden they’re working fulltime, now they’re not and their performance almost goes backwards because now this is all they’re doing and you speak about the analysis or paralysis by analysis, they end up just really over-analysing everything and it’s almost to their detriment. Sometimes you want them to continue working because they’re a better athlete when they’re really busy.
DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, and I think that’s very true. I don’t think it’s just paralysis by analysis, but I also think it’s a lot to do with mind-set and the ability to actually switch your mind off from racing and training and onto something different. I think that’s quite a healthy thing to be able to do. I think that the problem when you’re fulltime and you’re a triathlete, that ability to focus on other things and not think about training and racing can be problematic.
Balancing your time-management – your greatest challenge
BRAD BROWN: One of the things that pops up time and time again here on The Kona Edge is the time management side of things and balancing and keeping all the balls in the air that you need to juggle. You’re extremely busy, you’re a sports scientist, you work with some really good athletes and we’ll touch on some of the people you work with in a moment. And not just in the triathlon sphere, but you’re also a great athlete in your own right. How do you get that balance right? You’re married, you’ve got a domestic life to worry about, it’s tough isn’t it?
DANIEL PLEWS: Oh yes, I think that’s the greatest challenge of, always good triathletes trying to get to get to Kona. I’m quite fortunate in that I do have a lot of sports equipment at my disposal and time, so even when I’m at work I’ve got a gym in the office and a pool. If I’m here in Auckland they’ve got a 50 metre pool in the office as well, so it’s quite easy for me to go down at lunchtime and have a swim, for example, or jump on the treadmill or just jump on a trainer.
So that does make my life a little bit easier, but at the same time when it’s really on, I say it’s really on rowing, those guys, they’re training all day, right, so they’ll be on the water at 07:00 in the morning, which means again getting a session in before they’re actually training like most people would do, is really very difficult. So yes it has it’s challenges, but I think I’ve done it for so long, I’ve just got very good at planning my days and my weeks and I’ll always have the training that I want to do. And the previous day before I’m set out to do it, I’ll make sure that those times are blotted out so I can get that training done and yes, just make sure that the training’s of the right type and quality.
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned planning and I think that’s exactly what it boils down to. You also touched on the rowers. Let’s talk about your trip to Rio with the New Zealand Rowing Team. I think you had 11 boats racing in Rio, it was a pretty successful trip, wasn’t it?
DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, we got two Gold and one Silver medals from the rowers and to be honest with you, we were actually slightly disappointed with that result. We had a target of getting five medals, but we came up a bit short, but that is the beast of the Olympics. It’s a very different game to the World Championships and other competitions, but you’ve got to take the wins where you get them right and two Gold’s and a Silver isn’t too shabby, so yes, it was good, it was a long time away. I was away for four months in total before the Olympics and I’m pretty happy to be back into some normal life now.
BRAD BROWN: I’m sure but it’s incredible to be part of an event like that. The London Games in 2012 was spectacular, Rio, obviously very different. I had friends who went to both and both had their positives, both had their negatives, but it’s just, I mean the Olympics for an athlete to perform, is almost a once in a lifetime, if you get the opportunity you have to go.
Does your mind-set adapt to challenges?
DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, exactly and I was fortunate enough to be. I went to London and I went to Rio, but yes, they were two very different games. But I think that also comes in, I think that’s a part of the skill is the ability for the athletes to have the right mind-set and adapt to the challenges. Because with rowing especially, there was a lot of challenges with events changing and times of day changing with the weather and the situation and the best athletes are the ones who could deal with it in a positive mind-set and not let it affect them and I think that’s quite a skill.
BRAD BROWN: As far as the approach goes to training a rower possibly for Olympic success, to training a triathlete for world championship success, yes they’re two very different sporting codes, but from a mind-set perspective and a sort of scientific thinking behind it, how similar are the two?
DANIEL PLEWS: I think of that winning mind-set. This goes out of my physiology I guess a bit, but I guess it’s more in the realm of psychology in coaching, but the mind-set thing is just with that winning mind-set, I believe is the same whatever sport you’re in and that’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years of just being around guys who were more multiple Olympic Gold Medal winners and multiple world champions. They have a very different mind-set to the people who aren’t winning in that it’s quite hard to explain, but they really do see winning and nothing else and that’s all they can envision.
It’s like the world doesn’t exist, there’s no world after the Olympic Games. Everything goes towards the Olympic Games and after that it’s just a black hole and everything is around winning on the day and putting yourself in the position where winning is everything. And that’s kind of what the real winners tend to do. And they can’t understand, we have one rower and we have a men’s pad and they’ve never lost a race in 69 races, five times of what I think was 5 or 7 times world champion double Olympic Gold Medal winners and world record holders, and the guys in the stroke seat of that boat is quite incredible. And when you speak to him he literally can’t understand losing and it’s a funny thing to speak to someone like that and it’s quite hard to explain. But you speak to him about it and he can’t fathom how anyone can possibly do it. It’s quite remarkable.
BRAD BROWN: That is incredible. Dan, you did a PhD on heartrate variability and we chat lots about heartrate and Power and the numbers. I love the fact that, I mean a lot of people are moving, I don’t want to say away from heartrate, but there’s still so much that you can glean out of that information and it’s obviously something you’re quite passionate about.
DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, I guess there’s differences between why I did it for my PhD, heartrate variability, and heartrate. I mean, my PhD concentrated on heartrate variability and that was more looking at morning resting heartrate variability to look at adaptation to training. To know whenever you need to do more or less training basically. To get that idea of overreaching what you might call overtraining to see if you can pick it up. Which obviously is really good for when you’re training very hard and you do a very heavy training load. Or you have a lot of life stresses and yes, and I use that a lot with my athletes and with myself. But yes, people have moved away from training with heartrate, but I really think it’s an absolute mistake for people not to train with a heartrate monitor.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. I know a lot of people are saying that they get tied up in the numbers and they almost forget what their body feels like. But that heartrate variability particularly, like you say, the morning one, there’s so much information you can pull out of that.
Using heartrate variability to benefit in your daily training plan
DANIEL PLEWS: Yes you can and you could almost guide your training on a daily basis on what your morning resting heartrates say. And there’s lots of apps and things now that you can just buy online that will give you that kind of information. So yes I think people who are really interested in the area should definitely experiment with the possibility of using heartrate variability as part of the training. Especially once they’re… you know some people are trying to go to Kona, especially age groupers, they have… The good thing about heartrate variability is that it measures your autonomic nervous system, so it’s a measure of overall stress, so sympathetic stress being am I fight or flight. And then the parasympathetic system, which is kind of the rest and digest which is your more relaxation and that sympathetic system where you can get wrapped up by a variety of life stresses. Lack of sleep and too much poor food and just generally stressful meetings or being around any stressful situations and that would show up in the heartrate variability as well as the training and I think for age group athletes, that’s a key consideration.
Is science an uncertainty?
BRAD BROWN: You’ve also been quoted as saying the difference between you and a lot of coaches is when they think of science, they think of certainty. For you, you don’t think the role is to give certainty, but it’s to reduce uncertainty. It’s quite an interesting take on things, I like it. Can you delve into that a little bit more?
DANIEL PLEWS: Oh yes, for sure. When it comes to, especially as a sports practitioner and we’re helping athletes or coaches make decisions, there’s no such thing as a certain decision, I don’t think. Say an athlete comes to me or a coach comes to me and they say: This person’s not looking that great, I’m considering doing X and then you can look at the data and you can inform their decision and you can give them more certainty. So their decision becomes less uncertain, it’s not just a feeling of “Maybe I should, maybe I shouldn’t”.
It reduces the uncertainty in the decision that they might already be making and that’s what good sports science is. You might wake up in the morning, you might not be feeling that great, you might look at it, and then you can put up your heartrate variability and that just confirms a decision that you were already thinking of making. So it reduces the uncertainty in that decision and that’s what sports science is. It’s not about this is definitely the answer and it’s fact or fiction, it’s about reducing the uncertainty in a decision that might be made.
BRAD BROWN: So often people get caught up on the, because it says so in science, that’s it, it’s the be-all and end-all and they don’t move from it and that is a huge mistake, isn’t it?
DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, and especially in sport because we’re all individual and we all respond differently and yes, we often get caught up in studies. Like that doesn’t work, this is best, but it’s all means and standard deviations, right and you can rest assured that some things that have no effect is because it’s just a wide variation in the response. So that means the average is not your [inaudible 0.16.41] but then the standard deviation is really high. Which means that you don’t get an effect but in some people it actually might have an effect, so altitude would be a prime example.
If you look at the literature, altitude shows that it more widely points that it really doesn’t have that great an effect. But clearly a lot of individuals, they swear by it and a lot of the athletes swear by it. So I don’t think you can, I mean you know I am a scientist right, and I believe in papers and publications, but I’m also quite practical. I’m more of a practical scientist, rather than an academic scientist, so yes I think you have to look at the individual as well as the means and the general population.
Beware of delivering abnormal performances on race day
BRAD BROWN: Yes and something we haven’t spoken about much here on the podcast is doping and I’d love to get your thought on it and particularly in the age group ranks. There is obviously more and more testing starting to happen and we’re seeing more and more athletes getting done for doping, your thought on it, should there be more testing? We also know that often the dopers are ahead of the testers. It’s almost like a losing battle we’re fighting, but it’s just something that it’s not cool that is plaguing the sport.
DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, that’s interesting. Even I’ve noticed that I’ve been, in 2015 I was tested twice as an age grouper funnily enough. And I do think it is rife in age group racing, but it’s probably somewhat rifer maybe in the elites. I don’t really know. I’m always wary of, I mean I keep my eye close to the data and results of athletes and I just think there are sometimes abnormal performances come out of the woodwork that are very, very questionable.
BRAD BROWN: Yes, it does raise lots of flags. From an athlete coaching perspective in the world of triathlon, you work with a couple of, I don’t want to say pretty decent, they’re fantastic athletes, Caroline Steffen and Tim Van Berkel as well and you’ve got some pretty decent athletes in your stable.
DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, it’s been great working with those two. I’ve been working with Caroline for nearly a year and Tim for nearly two years now and yes, we have a good relationship. I’m leaving on Tuesday to go to Boulder to be with Tim before we leave to Kona together and then hopefully we’re looking for him to get a real solid performance in Kona this year. So, fingers crossed, he’s in pretty good nick.
BRAD BROWN: More travelling on the horizon.
DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, unfortunately. I don’t really feel like getting on a plane again at the moment, but yes it will be good for Tim and especially these final build-up stages. It’s good to have a companion and someone around to keep him on the straight and narrow so to speak, so no, it’ll be good. I’m really looking forward to it.
BRAD BROWN: How much of difference does it make that you’re able to do some of the work with the athletes? Maybe not all of it, but being a decent athlete itself, does that help as a coach and as a sports scientist?
DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, I think so, especially with some of the rowers. I’ll ride with them and cycle with them and it’s good at building relationships and building a repoire with the athletes and when I’m with Tim I might do some bikes with him and I don’t know if I’ll be doing any running with him, but yes, I’ll just do what I can. It’s good for him to have someone there and it keeps him honest and again it builds a good relationship.
As you probably know, some of the best conversations you have with people are when you’re exercising and I always find that you always have a good brainstorm and some of the best ideas and the best conversations come when two people are exercising, so that’s always a positive as well.
BRAD BROWN: On a personal not, Kona, it’s a special place, what do you love about the Big Island?
DANIEL PLEWS: Well, Kona last year was my first time I’ve ever been there to be honest with you. That’s only my third ever Ironman as well and it was a real eye opener for me how hard it was. Especially as one of the hottest days in Kona’s, I think it was one of the hottest in 23 years. But I just love that it has some kind of magical euphoria that’s almost tangible and when you step down to the pier and you get down to Alii Drive, its’ just quite amazing.
As I speak to you now, actually I have you on my Skype on my left screen and if I look to my right, on my big screen I have a picture of the start line at Kona, which is just kind of my permanent backdrop because it just gives me such good, fond memories of being in Kona, in that magical place.
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned how hot it is. It must be pretty tough coming out of a, I want to say brutal New Zealand winter, because your winters do get quite hectic, going into a race like Kona at the time of the year that it is. It’s tough for the guys, particularly from New Zealand, but from the Southern hemisphere where you have to train through pretty tough winters and going to the almost opposite extreme in a race like Kona.
DANIEL PLEWS: Yes for sure and I was fortunate last year that I was, so I haven’t had a winter in 7 years and people hate me for that because I usually travel to Europe and my wife always says to me, and she goes, “You don’t know what a winter’s like”. And I’m like “Well, I have lived in England for quite a while and they have pretty brutal winters”. But yes, I was fortunate enough that I was with the rowing team in Europe before I did Kona.
So I had a summer in Europe and it was actually a heatwave summer and it was very hot. Then when I got back to New Zealand because I’m an associate with Auckland University, I have the ability to use the heat chamber. So I was getting in the heat chamber and I could put that heat chamber to any temperature I wanted and I was keeping my heat acclimation up. And I arrived in Kona on the Tuesday before the race, which is on the Saturday and the heat didn’t really, the heat was hot but I think I actually still covered it pretty well and having lived in Singapore for 4 years, I also think you kind of maintain that plasticity of response and you can actually heat acclimatise quite quickly.
BRAD BROWN: Dan, as far as the bug biting, you said it was only your third Ironman, once you’ve experienced and done it, is it under your skin now? Is it one of those things that you want to keep on doing or do you feel like you’ve got it out of your system, you’ll keep going back and supporting athletes, but you’ve had your share?
DANIEL PLEWS: No, I’ll be back for sure next year, that’s the plan, so I’m hoping to. This year was never going to be on the cards because I was just too busy with Rio and I didn’t’ really manage to get the training in. But 2017, I plan to go back and hopefully I want to win my age group. So that’s the big plan and hopefully I might be able to achieve it, so we will see.
BRAD BROWN: Do you think it’s a bit of a curse being as competitive as you are or do you like having that sort of built into you?
DANIEL PLEWS: No, I love it. I think it probably can be a hindrance in sometimes, you know just not having the ability to switch off, but I think I’m getting better at that. But yes I think you have to be a bit competitive to do, most people who do Ironman are the A type personality, and I would definitely fall into that boat as well.
BRAD BROWN: Yes, it sounds like you definitely have to be to compete at that sort of level. And as far as, other than the heat, what made Kona so tough for you in 2015.
Kona creates magical memories
DANIEL PLEWS: It was my first time in racing that course. I think it’s quite a hard course mentally, especially the bike. It’s straight out and back and then on the run when you get up onto that Queen K and it’s just a straight, you know you’re basically running along a highway. It’s quite tough to keep focused and to keep on your game and I don’t think I was quite mentally prepared for the level of hurt that I had to go through, and I think that was quite evident in my splits as well. So I definitely approached things a little bit differently and kind of be prepared for the pinch points in the race, the really hard bits and be ready for them.
This year, I’m going down in a couple of weeks, so it’ll be a good opportunity to actually relive some of the course. And I’ll definitely do the run out to the Energy Lab and ride out to Hawi. And just relive some of the memories so I’m ready to, so I’ve got it cemented in my mind for 2017.
BRAD BROWN: Do you think you’re going to suffer from FOMO on race day that you’re not out there, but you’re on the side lines.
DANIEL PLEWS: I don’t think so. I would be if I was really fit, but because I’m not all that fit, I think I’ll be pleased I’m not getting amongst it and hurting. I’ll be too busy supporting Tim. I’ll be living vicariously through him.
BRAD BROWN: I love it and then Dan, you mentioned when we first started this chat that you wish you could go back to your 15-year-old self and knowing what you know now. What would you have done differently and I always ask this question and you brought it up, so I think we can wrap it up there. What would you change, what would you do differently to what you’ve done?
DANIEL PLEWS: I guess there’ll be two things really. I guess in my 15’s a bit early, maybe my early 20’s is probably a better way of looking at it and I’d do two things differently. I would definitely monitor myself and my homeostatic state much more carefully to the way that I do it now. So I record every session and I’ll record everything quite meticulously on training piece. But also I would have a radical shift in my diet and I’m a huge advocate of the high fat, low carb diet and for me, that has really changed my life. I was racing for a long time and then last year I did a 3:57 for a half Ironman which is the best time I’ve ever done on very little training. And I really believe that it’s just through being smarter in the way I eat and not just from a fat oxidation standpoint, but also from a recovery standpoint, it gives me the ability to sleep less.
I seem to be able to cope with less sleep and I seem to be able to recover from sessions even when I’m under a heavy workload in terms of actual real academic kind of work. And if I was actually just training I would bounce back and be a lot healthier as a result. I think it’s quite sad that a lot of elite athletes and the athletes are fit but not necessarily healthy and that’s because we’re pushed by sports nutrition and sports nutrition propaganda to believe that a diet high in fibre, carbohydrates and sugar is good for us when it’s really not. So there you go, I’ll get off my soapbox now.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. Well, we’re going to dig deeper into that when we do chat about nutrition later on but we’ll save that for another chat.
Doc, thank you so much for your time today, much appreciated and we look forward to catching up and talking about the individual disciplines in another podcast. Thanks for your time.
DANIEL PLEWS: Thank you.