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‘Composed, dedicated and scientific’ – how Kat Matthews returned to top form for Kona

Working her way back to the top step of the podium from the lowest of low points.

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We caught up with Kat Matthews last week to talk about her debut appearance in Kona at the IRONMAN World Championship and to discuss what’s been a remarkable journey to make it to the start line.

She watched last year’s race from the sidelines and in a neck brace as she was starting the challenging recovery process just two weeks after a person in car drove into her while she was on a training ride, leaving her in hospital with fractures to her skull, two vertebrae, and sternum.

But her results have been so impressive this season that it’s easy to underplay just how arduous the path back to top fitness and form has been.

So we’ve spoken to both her and coach Björn Geesmann to try and gain a better understanding of just what’s been involved in one of the great comebacks.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Less than seven months after lying in that hospital bed, Matthews would return to the Lone Star State and win IRONMAN Texas – so how on earth did she manage to do that in such a relatively short space of time?

She is keen to give Björn much of the credit this year in what has been a superb season for his group of athletes, with the likes of Patrick Lange and Jan Stratmann also making it onto World Championship podiums in the last couple of months in addition to Matthews’ own heroics.

But in the early days late last year it was all about steadily getting back to being able to even swim, bike or run – let alone a structured training plan.

Kat told us: “With regard to my injuries, I think I can take some of the credit or responsibility for my training here.

“I trained as a Physiotherapist and served in the British Army as one for four years before transitioning to Elite Sport.

Katrina Matthews Army Sportswoman of the Year Award 2022
[Photo Credit: Army Sport Control Board]

“For the first few months, I set the parameters of my activity levels. Björn and I kept in communication of course and he was heavily involved in my return to cycling with the Canyon partnership.

In December I messaged him saying ‘Ok, let’s do some training!’ and he started to co-ordinate and direct my programme again.

“And the credit falls totally back to Björn for my fitness – his composure in January through to March was remarkable I think!”

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Activity > Exercising > Training

I ask her to explain aspects of that in more detail and she adds: “Especially with my running, he is always holding run hours to the optimal – but it feels like very little – and he shows no stress when little blips such as a sore neck, sore back and so on cropped up.

“So November to December was ‘activity’ and some aerobic exercise for around an hour, January was ‘exercising’ and then in February with 10 weeks until IRONMAN Texas we started ‘training’.

Their combined efforts – as well as the wider team – helped Kat to cross the line first in Texas, a near-miraculous triumph in the circumstances.

Kat Matthews takes the plaudits at IRONMAN Texas 2023 [Photo credit: Kyle Rivas / Getty Images for IRONMAN]
Kat Matthews takes the plaudits at IRONMAN Texas 2023 [Photo credit: Kyle Rivas / Getty Images for IRONMAN]

And since then it has been all about her next full-distance race – or what she’s termed the ‘fun’ part of the season – the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona.

Matthews adds: “The summer was then about getting ‘fit’! So in summary; composed, dedicated and scientific would be three of many compliments to describe Björn’s training approach.

“I think only Björn would be the person to advise on his approach but from my perspective as his athlete I love the ‘let’s make this as easy as possible’.

“The work ‘to be done’ is completed with the least emotional and mental stress and adequate physical effort.

“I strive to always PB in reps or over-achieve in sessions and Björn is the one to rein that in, he encourages it when it is effortless of course but there is no need or requirement to thrash myself ever. To me, it’s the ultimate approach.”

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‘Kat has done an incredible job’

Keen to find out more from Björn himself, we asked him how the process panned out from his viewpoint and he told us: “It definitely was by far way more challenging for Kat.

“In these extreme situations after such an accident and in the whole rehab time, you can‘t count on the typical metrics as gradients in training like you would normally do. Kat‘s movements, rehab and later training were mainly driven by how her body was feeling – and by pain.

“The very good thing is that she has an enormous self-feedback and knows her body very well. In addition, due to her background as a physio she had lots of knowledge about the whole injury and rehab.

“There were three to four different phases Kat was going through to bring her more and more back to a normal training volume.

In the end there only were little setbacks and every phase was planned before with her.

“In summary, Kat has done such an incredible job, that I attended her best as I could but had definitely a minor role. As always for an athlete, the main work is done in daily life, in every session and in the recovery process.”

I ask Björn about Kat saying he showed great composure at the start of the year but he insisted: “A special patience was honestly not needed – even if she saw it a bit different sometimes. Due to her professional way of working, I was very confident from the beginning that in time – and as a minimum – she would be as good as before the accident.”

Long ‘race pace’ intervals not in the plan

Back to Kat and an aspect of her run training may come as a surprise. For she revealed: “Another key part of my training that I believe is unusual, or different to most long-distance triathletes, is I do not do long ‘race pace’ intervals. Ever.

“I spend a lot of time (based on a five-zone theory) in Zone 2, a chunk at the very top of Zone 3 or just below LT2 [lactate threshold] and a little above the LT2 in Zones 4 and 5.

“I think this also ties into reducing the mental effort of training; who wouldn’t choose three lots of eight minutes higher tempo / Zone 3 over four times 30 minutes of very low tempo / Zone 3 Ironman race pace?”

And when I ask Björn about this, it’s been a clear strategy – and not just with Kat but also another uber-runner in the shape of two-time Kona champion Patrick Lange.

Björn explained: “Kat’s run volume is actually higher than ever but probably not as high as you would expect it to be compared to other pro athletes. That is because my focus is always on the quality of the training and the context of training where running volume is a part of many other ingredients. Most important is that running volume is a main driving factor when it comes to training stress and the necessary management of that.

“As this is in balance for Kat – and also for Patrick Lange – the consistency in training is very high and the outcome [in a race] in the best case is also very high.”

All of which means that Kat goes into Kona in what she says is prime shape, telling us: “I am doing PB sets in swimming, hitting higher power in intervals and my running has been uncompromised since June, with my biggest ever – and consecutive as well – months over the summer.”

As she readily acknowledges “form and fitness is not always what wins races, there is so much more to it” but both herself and her team have given her every chance to go for what would be an epic victory in Hawaii.

  • Click here for more from Björn on Kat’s comeback.
Jonathan Turner
Written by
Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner is News Director for both TRI247 and RUN247, and is accustomed to big-name interviews, breaking news stories and providing unrivalled coverage for endurance sports.  
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