Commissioned by Men's Health, 2011
PE-based Ironman triathlete James Cunnama is the top athlete of the world’s most successful Ironman team, TeamTBB. Cunnama can run the tail off a jack rabbit. In Ohio [and another Ironman title] he ran a 2h43 marathon.
“My ultimate goal,” Cunnama says, “is to win Ironman World Champs in Kona, Hawaii. When I set that goal, a few years ago it was... ambitious! These days it is becoming more realistic.”
The finishing time in Hawaii this year of new world champ Chris McCormack was 8 hours 10 minutes. Cunnama finished Ironman Austria in 8 hours 16 minutes. In Ironman Triathlon Cunnama is one of the world’s best. James shares a few world class insights on how to get into peak physical condition. – by Nick van der Leek
The most important thing for all athletes, of any level, is consistency. Your body will adapt to any regularly imposed stress, and most people far under-estimate what their body is capable of adapting to! But similarly, your body will only maintain a level it needs to, and no higher, so any sustained breaks in training mean you go backwards. You need the occasional mental break, especially training the way I do, but I aim to build, week on week, month on month, year on year, slowly but consistently building up my body's ability to handle what it needs to. And I plan to keep building this until I can handle the training needed to be the best in the world!
Racing in South Africa is always special for me. Obviously knowing the conditions and course helps, but having family and friends around changes the race from 'work' to a special experience. The top race for me is of course Spec-Savers Ironman South Africa. It is in my home town, and it was where it all started for me. In 2005 and 2006 I volunteered at this race and was hooked. This was where I first found out what Ironman was, and the dream was born. Other than that, the shorter Ironman 70.3 Buffalo City is also a great event.
My general day consists of 2-3 sessions, for a total of 4-8hrs of training daily. With triathlon we get to mix it up with three disciplines, so it never gets boring. But sometimes it is hard to get the sessions in when travelling and moving around. Again though, you can always do something, like a run, which you can do anywhere!
There have been many sacrifices to get where I am now, and no doubt there will be many more. Triathlon is not exactly a mainstream sport, so the money, although there for the top guys, does not go very deep in the Pro ranks. The last three years I have been 'in the red' financially and only now I am getting out of that 'living hand-to-mouth' situation. But that is only one side of the sacrifices. I spend 9 or more months away from South Africa every year. While that may seem exciting and glamorous, that amount of time away from home takes its toll on family, friends and makes relationships all but impossible. It is a very unsettled lifestyle. But I think it is all worthwhile. Everyone needs to make sacrifices for their goals. The bigger the goals, the bigger the sacrifices...
My Mom was up at 5am every day, year round, to run with a local group, called The Pukers who trained for everything from cross-country to Comrades. So I decided to join her. But it was up to me. My Mom would pop her head in my room at 5am, say "James, time to run." close the door and go get ready herself. I could, and a few times did, just roll over and go to back sleep. And my Mom would not come wake me again, she would just leave. I soon learned that starting the day with a run was way better than starting it with an extra hour of sleep. To this day I still have no problem getting up immediately my alarm goes off.
To win, to realise his dream of becoming a world Ironman champion, Cunnama needs to shave one or two minutes off his marathon. “My entire family is doing a half-marathon in the Winelands this November.” With running in his genes, that world championship title is looking more and more like natural progression.
Five fitness tips:
1. Consistency - Your body will adapt to any regularly imposed stress.
2. Mix it up - there are an unlimited number of activities which will build fitness, so don't get stuck in the rut of doing the same thing day in and day out. And the body responds well to varied challenges, making you stronger in your goal sport
3. Set goals - 'getting fit' is a terrible goal, because you never get there! Pick an event or challenge to aim for.
4. Train, don't strain - Fitness is not built in one big session, but over lots of smaller sessions. Smashing yourself in one session may feel like it must be helping, but it more than likely meant a long recovery period, which actually decreased your fitness. Save the big efforts for the competitions!
5. Keep it fun - If building your fitness is not fun, you will not be consistent, and that will cost you, as described in tip no.1.
Raynard [5th at 2010 World Ironman Championships] and I are good friends. We don't train together much, but there is no animosity between us. Of course there is also no love lost on race day! We have raced each other a lot, but always seem to have the result decided by external factors, like punctures or such. Last year we both raced back to back Challenge events (half-IM) and he beat me one and I beat him the other. But we haven't both finished the same race since... I look forward to racing him again!