A Female Athena Triathlete Smiling In Her Wetsuit And Swim Cap On The Shore Of A Great Lake

Insights to Coaching Powerful Athena and Clydesdale Triathletes

BY Phil White

Enhance your coaching strategies for larger triathletes, focusing on mindset, nutrition, strength training and tailored programming.

Over the past few years, the notion that triathlon is just for small, light flyweights who glide over the ground has thankfully started to change. USA Triathlon created a dedicated division for Athenas and Clydesdales (classified as females weighing over 165 pounds and males above 220 pounds) in 2014 and ever since, a combination of strong performances at the elite end and fast-growing participation has left no doubt that powerful athletes belong. We caught up with two champions to get pointers for coaches new to guiding Athenas and Clydesdales.

Overcoming Stereotypes and Avoiding Assumptions

The Athena and Clydesdale division of the USA Triathlon (USAT) National Championships – the 2023 event will be held in Milwaukee from Aug. 4-6 – has featured a lot of exemplary competitors, but few as consistently outstanding as Laura Crower. She garnered seven titles despite two seasons being disrupted due to COVID-19 restrictions. But while elite excellence came later, she had to confront stereotypes and self-limiting beliefs early.

“Society’s ideal image of the best triathlete is someone who’s not very tall, is slender and ripped,” Crower said. “Athena and Clydesdale athletes might think, ‘Can I even do this?’ My reply is, ‘Why not?’”

Crower has seen some encouraging changes for larger athletes in the years since she started competing. “The athlete pool is growing with body positivity, and more people have the confidence to try new things. USAT is offering new events that welcome multisport Athenas and Clydesdales.”

Crower has not only continued competing at a high level but also coaches Athenas and Clydesdales as part of a diverse group at 4:13 Racing (a reference to Philippians 4:13). She uses the same thorough intake process with every athlete. “Clydesdales and Athenas aren’t that different from age groupers, so don’t make assumptions about them,” Crower said. “Listen to their goals and make sure these fit with their life priorities and schedules. You need to balance being realistic and supportive as their coach.”

Crower also believes that to complement your coaching expertise, you’d do well to connect Clydesdales and Athenas to other professionals in your network who can help them go from newbies to racers. These should preferably be people who are used to working with athletes and will support someone’s aims, regardless of their body type.

“Don’t settle for practitioners who discourage you or don’t understand what you’re trying to do,” she said. “I once went to a physician who told me I shouldn’t run a marathon. Find PTs, doctors, and others who know endurance sports.”

Minding Your Mentality and Finding a Why

Jason Zinser’s journey to winning a title at the 2021 USAT Clydesdale & Athena National Championships began humbly when he decided to join his roommate, who was targeting the Olympic track and field trials, on a run. “I wanted to get to know him better, and because he was training all the time, running seemed to be the best way to do that,” Zinser said. “I was struggling to breathe after a mile and had to stop while he still had 12 to go.”

Through sheer persistence, Zinser kept running and then added in cycling and swimming. To get through those early partner sessions with his roommate and get over the hump in the other two disciplines, he had to establish the right mindset. Challenging your Athena and Clydesdale athletes to define what author Simon Sinek calls their “why” will establish a sense of purpose that motivates their training and racing. In Zinser’s case, developing the right mindset got him through the four years it took to go from racers passing him to making his mark at the national level.

“I know how to put in the work, but I made a conscious decision not to attach enjoyment to results,” Zinser said. “That changed everything about my approach, and the performances just started coming. If the only way I can enjoy triathlon is winning nationals or getting on the podium, I’m probably in the wrong sport. I always encourage other athletes to have a strong and intimate understanding of their why.”

If you’re coaching Athena and Clydesdale athletes new to triathlon or endurance sports in general, you’ll need to be patient as their bodies adapt to the physiological demands of training. Also, consider which training partners their abilities might best match up with. “When I started running with my roommate, we were at opposite ends of the athletic spectrum,” Zinser said. “I was big and strong from powerlifting but couldn’t keep up with him because he was in phenomenal aerobic shape. I had to recognize that and get comfortable with slowly building up my running.” So even if you or your Athena and Clydesdale newbies get frustrated by slow progress initially, preach patience and realize that you’re better off playing a long game rather than pushing them too hard too soon and causing injury.

In her first few races, Crower vividly remembers being passed by a lot of athletes, some of whom were several decades older than her. Like Zinser, she soon realized that to get the most out of triathlon, she needed to find pleasure in the process and not only focus on results. “The mental aspect is just as important as the physical,” she said. “And the longer the distances you’re covering, the stronger your why needs to be.”

Fueling for Performance

Once he chose to give sprint triathlon a try, Zinser’s biggest barrier was the comparison trap. “I’m six foot six and a half, and I looked for the closest comp by height,” he said. “It was when Jan Frodeno, who’s six foot four, was at the peak of his career. But I was around 260 pounds at the time, and he was 170, and I made the wrong assumptions about what I needed to be doing differently.”

This led to Zinser believing that he had to cut his weight to be competitive, which would require eating less. Though he did get down to 240 pounds, Zinser soon realized that as a taller athlete with a background in power sports, he was never going to look like Frodeno. But he didn’t need to in order to progress in triathlon or be healthy.

“When I talked to my high-performance friends – whether they’re Clydesdales, Athenas, or regular age groupers – they all mentioned the importance of executing workouts successfully,” Zinser said. “A big part of that is fueling your body right. If you do that, you’ll be able to train more consistently, have more energy and feel good. That will lead to accumulating greater volume and reaching higher goals. If the weight wants to come off, it will. If it doesn’t, then that’s just your body type, so embrace it.”

Good coaching soon complemented his own research when Zinser teamed up with Conrad Goeringer and Derek Stone from Working Triathlete. “Conrad and Derek educated me about what proper nutrition can really do. It used to be detrimental, but they helped me change the narrative about what adequate fueling meant to me.”

One of the assumptions that Crower advises fellow coaches to avoid making with Athenas and Clydesdales is thinking that they want to lose weight. However, if this is one of their goals, alongside improving performance, you might want to seek a specialist for advice.

“When I was trying to train hard while changing my body composition, I reached out to a friend who’s a registered dietician,” Crower said. “If you treat food as fuel and eat at the right times to power your workouts, you can dovetail these two goals. But realize that Clydesdales and Athenas typically need more daily calories based on their BMR and that if someone puts their body into starvation mode, it will lock onto every calorie.”

Prioritizing Joint and Connective Tissue Health

Another element of nutrition that taller, heavier endurance athletes might need to pay attention to relates to a crucial consideration for long-term durability: joint and connective tissue health. “In my early conversations with Conrad from Working Triathlete, he shared that I needed to be mindful of the extra load on my joints,” Zinser said. To work on this from the inside out, he takes an omega-3 supplement daily.

Your Clydesdale and Athena athletes could also take a collagen supplement containing at least 50 milligrams of vitamin C 30 to 60 minutes before strength and high-intensity interval training.  A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that plyometrics increased collagen production twofold, and ingesting collagen before the workout caused it to double again.[1] The role of collagen in joint health and recovery from chronic conditions like ‘runner’s knee’ and Achilles tendinopathy is well documented, and as Athenas and Clydesdales are placing greater loads on these tendons, making them more resilient is a must for any responsible coach.

Identifying Strengths and Weaknesses

When welcoming Athenas and Clydesdales into your training group, a key component of personalizing their programming is finding out their training age in endurance disciplines and learning about their history in other sports. This will reveal which sessions they enjoy and are initially good at, so they can build self-efficacy that transfers to other, more challenging workouts.

“Having played college softball, I love power, speed and strength training,” Crower said. “I’d rather endure a lot of 400-meter repeats than do longer sessions.”

Coming from a similar bat and ball sport – baseball – Zinser also naturally gravitated to certain types of training early in his triathlon journey.

“Anything quick and punchy was my thing, especially on the bike,” he said. “I also found it easier to get through short, hilly sections of a course, while the high output, long duration sections took time to get used to. I think bigger athletes often put out a lot of initial power, so their ramp test results can be impressive. And anyone with some mass in their lats and shoulders will have an advantage in shorter swims. You’ve got to learn to become biomechanically sound in all three disciplines, no matter what your body type is.”

To help take advantage of the power that her longer levers can generate while cycling, Crower made sure to get her bike custom fitted, as did Zinser. In running, “long levers make a less efficient pendulum,” she said, so her focus was on form to make sure she stayed efficient, avoided overstriding, and kept her feet under her center of mass. To do likewise with your Athenas and Clydesdales, you could record and analyze their current gait and then recommend technique changes that might be needed to address any inefficiencies that you notice in their form.

Bulletproofing the Body with Resistance Training

With a doctorate in physical therapy and CSCS qualification, Crower knows how to build the resilience of her own body and her clients. While she was a college softball player, Crower saw the benefits of regular resistance workouts. While triathlon has different requirements, she believes that strength training can still increase the durability of Athenas, Clydesdales and other athletes. “Weightlifting gives a protective buffer, and research shows that athletes who lift heavy things are stronger and faster,” she said. “As one of my co-workers likes to say, ‘Being strong is never wrong.’”

Crower’s go-to lower body exercise is the squat. She likes a split squat variation, Bulgarian, in which the rear foot is elevated (such as on a bench) because it works on her hip flexors as well as her quads, glutes and other leg muscles. To balance this out, she works in RDLs (Romanian deadlifts) to develop the posterior chain and build eccentric hamstring strength. For upper body lifts, Crower incorporates pullups or lat pulldowns, medicine ball slams, and pushups and kickbacks to build the triceps, as this is associated with swimming faster.

As a former Division I baseball player, Zinser also has a background in strength training and was powerlifting several times a week when he first got into running and then triathlon. Like Crower, he believes that coaches should make resistance workouts part of their programming for Clydesdales, Athenas and all other triathletes, although his focus on this kind of training has changed.

“I do one to two strength workouts a week, and the goal is durability,” he said. “It’s a 20- to 25-minute session focused on core, lower back, hamstring, glute activation, range of motion and functional strength. For triathletes, strength training is in service of smooth repetition of motion. When you’re racing, you’re seeing how many times and at what rate of speed you can perform the same actions over and over, and you need to be strong to do that. It’s the little supporting muscles that you need to pay attention to when you’ve got longer levers, so you’re not placing undue loads on your quads and other big muscle groups as you fatigue.”

Prioritizing Active Recovery

Zinser believes coaches should encourage their Clydesdale and Athena athletes to invest in regular muscle activation and mobility work to complement their endurance and strength training.

“I build in time to warm up properly before workouts and use a massage gun and compression boots afterward,” he said. “It helps me bounce back quicker, and I’ve noticed a huge difference since I added these things into my routine.”

Another consideration as you write out plans for Athenas, Clydesdales and the rest of your athletes is to encourage them to take a break once the competitive season is over and then build in some cross-training variety. “Once the last race is done, I have a strict ‘You shall not work out’ rule,’” Crower said. “I might run a fall half-marathon, and after that, I just do whatever sounds good, like trail running or taking long walks with my husband.”

Crower’s and Zinser’s examples show that Athenas and Clydesdales are a force to be reckoned with on any triathlon course. From a coach’s perspective, guiding such athletes well should initially focus on a comprehensive evaluation of their goals, abilities and purpose. Their training age and history can then inform individualized programming, which is supported by strength training, nutrition and recovery. As Zinser rightly said, this should all be part of a person-first, athlete-second approach because as important as performance is, a successful partnership between an athlete and coach is “all about the relationship.”


[1] Gregory Shaw et al., “Vitamin C–Enriched Gelatin Supplementation Before Intermittent Activity Augments Collagen Synthesis,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 2016, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5183725.

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About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at www.philwhitebooks.com and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

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