Craig Alexander: The Technology Behind An Ironman

The public vision of any triathlete is that it's all bulging muscles, seriously hardcore events, sunshine and the occasional dip into a pool of Nutri-Grain for poorly-defined reasons. As world champion Craig Alexander explained yesterday, there's quite a bit of technology that goes into it as well.

Fresh off winning the Melbourne Triathlon over the weekend (and beating athletes more than a decade his junior), Alexander was in Sydney yesterday at the launch of Jabra's range of sports headsets and accessories — Jabra's a key sponsor of Craig's efforts — which gave the assembled journalists a chance to quiz him about the technology that helps him remain successful at a time of life when many athletes are hanging up their boots.

"There's a lot of technology behind me. Technology that I've used includes a wireless power meter on my bike — a sensor in the crank arm of the bike measures how much power you're delivering — the actual torque — and gives you a readout in watts."

"That's very useful feedback on race day, but it's more applicable to training. A lot of shorter races are helter skelter and all over the place, but on longer races you've got to measure out your power. The head unit in the bike has software that can archive that data for comparative purposes to measure fitness and compare to previous years. Technology these days means you don't need a coach on site with you. They have access to your data and can track from a distance. I have a sports scientist coach based in Boulder, Colorado; he can see exactly what I've done, see what I need to tweak moving forward."

"Another piece of tech that I use is a heart rate monitor. A lot of the newer heart rate monitors have the same facility to upload; I bought one 5-6 years ago, when I moved up to altitude to train up in Colorado, which places a different strain on the heart. There's a lot of research that prolonged cardio work can cause heart issues."

"I also use Retül — a bike fitting system. It's very interesting technology. Bike fitting has been around for years, all the way back to using a plumb bob and a weight. It's progressed fairly rapidly; Retül is a 3D camera tech from 2007, and it's instantaneous. You set up from the side on a stationary trainer; it captures you from the side, top and front and comes up wirelessly, like race car telemetry.

It can measure respective joint angles, and it's a great tool, although like a lot of tools it's only as good as the person collecting the data. It's also totally portable. You change bikes 1-2 times a year, and that's quite a painstaking process. As an endurance athlete you don't want to get injured; being able to mimic your posture precisely helps with that. I changed bikes 2 weeks before world championships, and it helped - in the past I never would have done something so foolish. This gave me the confidence to know I was within 1/1000th of a mm correct."

Being a Jabra event, the focus was on music; Craig's been using two sets of Jabra's SPORT stereo Bluetooth headphones since January, and swears by them, noting that in the past he'd wreck headsets simply due to the amount of sweat that leaks into them while he trains. But what kind of music does a world champion endurance athlete listen to?

"I've been working with Jabra since the beginning of the year. I've trained with music for a long time. In a heavy training period, I train 40-45 hour a week. Music's good for company and motivation. I train a lot indoors on a treadmill or stationary bike. There's no contending with wind or traffic lights, and you can hit targets 100 per cent. I never use music when riding on the road, but always on stationary bike, three times a week. Every run I do I have with music, either outdoor or indoor. I find it good company a lot of the time.

For a lot of systems the sound quality wasn't good — Jabra were better; I used to go through MP3 players and equipment quickly. Water doesn't mix well with them. I've been slamming them on the treadmill, been dripping with water, if I'm going for an easy run, I'll case up the phone, if it's harder I don't want to take calls anyway so I'll just clip into an iPod Nano and go.

What do I listen to? Well, I did go to the same high school as AC/DC's Angus Young, although a little later. I listen to uptempo stuff on the bike; a lot of 80s rock and pop. AC/DC, Australian Crawl, a lot of U2, who I love. I've also started listening to some current pop, because my 7 year old daughter listens to it via Just Dance on the Wii."

Technology's obviously a great tool for Craig, but I was curious about the psychological effect that having all those statistics had on him, especially if it showed him decreasing in performance.

"It's like having a deadline, writing an article; I let [my coach] Matt crunch the numbers, but I still predominantly do it by feel. One of the great things you get from being older — if there is one — is experience. Sometimes I feel awful but the numbers are good, or vice versa. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm hopeless with technology. Often I'd forget to calibrate sensors, so I let the people who know what they're doing sort the data. There's always the mental component of sport; sometimes things aren't on track, but you have to lie to yourself that you are. That's hard with technology; if the numbers say you suck, it's hard to put a positive spin on it."

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