Interview with Emma Pallant: Runner to World Duathlon Champion

The middle distance runner turned Half Ironman triathlete tells us how she did it, and shares training and racing advice...

Athlete, coach, physiotherapist – World Duathlon Champion Emma Pallant wears multiple caps. Having emerged, hobbling slightly from a career in middle distance running into the sport of triathlon in 2012, she’s racked up some pretty notable results, too.  These include First in the British National Triathlon in 2014, a World Triathlon top ten in Cape Town at the end of 2015, plus of course her Duathlon crowning glory.

The journey hasn’t been easy – gunning for Olympic selection in 2012 it was a knee injury that first prompted Pallant to give tri a shot. The plan was to simply put her mountains of cross training to good use – but thanks to the belief and support of an excellent coach, former Olympian Michelle Dillon of Team Dillon Coaching, and her own sheer determination, it’s become so much more.

Pallant explains: “I ran through a knee injury that I probably shouldn’t have – and I ended up having to have surgery. That meant I did a lot of cross training – biking a lot, swimming a lot – I was being mentored by [Dame] Kelly Holmes, and she got me a charity spot in the London Triathlon. I thought ‘I might as well have a goal for all this cross training’. People would say ‘ah, you’re a really good swimmer’ and I thought I was handy on the bike… but nothing compared! It was a bit of a baptism of fire, the first triathlon.”

“I just thought it was all water, so I put my head down and just assumed I’d swim in a straight line! I came way back, then pretty much held my place on the bike, then ran to sixth [place].”

Her running pedigree meant that Pallant earned herself a place in the Elite wave – a draft legal race where she’d have to ride wheel-to-wheel to have a chance at success – something she’d only done once before at a practice duathlon. Oh, and she’d not spent much time swimming in open water either.

Pallant says: “I just thought it was all water, so I put my head down and assumed I’d swim in a straight line! I came way back, pretty much held my place on the bike, then ran to sixth [place].”

Sixth place considering two of the three sports were almost unpractised was, and is, of course phenomenal. Coach Dillon had been working with Pallant or two weeks by this point, and had already placed a great deal of confidence in her – lending a bike and wetsuit.

Dillon passed on some advice on the bike leg – which in an Elite or Age Group World Championship race is much like a cycling criterium – Pallant says: “Michelle sort of threw me in the deep end there! She showed me how to track a wheel… I had a practice run at a duathlon a week before – riding in this pack I kept just thinking ‘this feels really easy’ so I’d go to the front, thinking ‘I have to work really hard’, then we’d get to this technical bit at the end of each lap where I’d get spat out the back.

“My mentality was ‘it’s a race, I should be maxed out, all the time’ – but drafting is so much more tactical.”

“My mentality was ‘it’s a race, I should be maxed out, all the time’ – but drafting is so much more tactical. And I didn’t have any idea why people were talking, and encouraging others to come through… I was like ‘We’re in a race, I don’t even know you! We’re not meant to be helping each other…’. It was a big eye opener – I look back at what I was thinking in that race now – and yea, you just learn so much.”

Pallant did pick up a few tips before the race – and shares them with us: “It’s important to have the inside leg up when you go round a corner, and also not to look at the wheel in front – always have you vision ahead – because if something happens in front, you can’t respond if you’re staring at the hub. It’s having that awareness and vision to look ahead.”

The 2012 London Triathlon over, Pallant was hooked – so much so that she used savings from her running career to quit her job as a physiotherapist, and go full time – moving to Australia to stay with [Coach and Olympic Athlete] Michelle Dillon and husband [Olympic Athlete] Stuart Hayes. Training was full on – she tells us: “I did 3 months that were probably the toughest 3 months of my life. But I loved it. I came back and the first race I did was Blenheim – I had a sprint finish with [Olympic Triathlete and former Commonwealth Gold Medallist] Vicky Holland.”

“My first couple of rides I went out with people with food in their back pockets – I thought they were just really greedy!”

Pallant was clearly talented and had a lot to give to the sport, and she was fully invested in it. Moving sports was quite a culture shock – at first the middle distance runner thought this cycling lark was all a bit odd – she says: “My first couple of rides I went out with people with food in their back pockets – I thought they were just really greedy! Then I realised that when you’re biking for four hours it’s different to a 90 minute run. Cycling is a whole different mentality.

“There’s so much training that you need the steady stuff or you can’t push the limits the next day. I think that social side [was hard at first] – I wasn’t that chatty to begin with and I’d be thinking ‘Why’s someone pulling up next to me and starting a conversation?! We should be hustling with each other!’ It took a bit of time for me to relax, and actually enjoy the training as well.”

You’d be forgiven for expecting that with the added cycling and running, Pallant might have lost some of her running speed. Not so – she’s running PBs. She says: “I never thought I’d be doing PBs whilst doing triathlon – I’d accepted that I wouldn’t ever run as fast again. But actually if you cycle properly, you have the right cadence, have the right fitness, you don’t bulk up in the quads and you can do so much more training. Swim sessions are great too, you can train your heart and lungs without stressing your legs to let them recover.”

Swimming was just as eye opening as running in the early days – Pallant says: “With the bike and the run, the more I put in – the more effort, the more I hurt myself, the faster I go. With the swim, it’s so much more about technique. I did find that a bit frustrating.”

With 2016 now in full swing, Pallant has her goals clearly set out. She hopes to defend her World Duathlon title, but also to collect points on the Ironman 70.3 scene [1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run].

The Rio Olympics, run over a spint distance, might have been a target, but Pallant’s determination to work with her coach seems to clash with the wants of the British Triathlon Federation. They prefer sponsored athletes to train with them in Loughborough or Leeds. She says: “I believe that you need a strong team [to succeed] – you are where you are not just because of what you’ve done, but who got you there. All the years I ran I never left my coach, we built up a strong relationship and the same with Michelle. She took me from nothing… [to World Duathlon Champion and more!]”

“I’m never going to write off the Olympics – it’s definitely a massive goal of mine and I’d like to believe in four years time I’ll race at Tokyo. You just look at it and remember that these people won’t be in power forever, there will be another Olympic cycle, then hopefully someone fresh and new will come in and we can build a good relationship.”

Aside from the funding and Olympic selection battle with the British Triathlon Federation, Pallant also enjoys the long courses and training required, preferring the rewards reaped by hard work over tactics. We have to ask if she ever finds herself losing concentration over what is a 113 mile course – she says: “Mental strength is important on longer distances. Paula Radcliffe always said if you ever find your mind slipping, you’re thinking about something else or you’re not keeping pace, always start counting in your head. I do find that helpful.

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“I trained with Rachel Joyce [Twice Silver Medallist at Ironman World Champs] last year, and what she said was the trick is to be almost mindless – without being unfocused. You don’t want any other thoughts – almost in a zone where you’re numb, you’re just driving your legs, but you just keep that pattern. You don’t want to be thinking about ‘this is a long time’/’how much further have I got’, you just have to get into that zone… where not a lot goes through your brain but you’re keeping that rhythm. You’ve got to train for it – do those sessions where you just have to get into that zone and hold it.”

Pallant is clearly in the zone – and we look forward to watching her progress over the next year. Find out more about Team Dillon Coaching here, and keep track of Emma via Twitter

More triathlon advice: 

Essential Gear for Your First Triathlon

Winter Off Season Training for Triathlete’s 

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