by: Matt Dixon

For purplepatch professional athlete, Sam Appleton, the 2017 season has got off to a great start, going two wins from three starts so far. Those results come on the back of a highly successful 2016, which included his highest ever finish at the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships in Mooloolaba, placing 5th overall. There’s much more to come from this young Australian athlete so it’s great timing to review his journey to date.

Sam’s swimming pedigree dates back to childhood where he was introduced to swimming pretty much before he could walk. He also played soccer and dabbled with cross-country running and track and field during his school years before being introduced to triathlon in his teens. Having experienced single sport success in both swimming and running, it didn’t take long for Triathlon Australia, the country’s ruling body, to recognize Sam’s abilities: “I entered the National Talent ID program for triathlon after high school and raced ITU for a few years before stepping up to 70.3 racing in 2012.”

Transitioning to longer course, non-drafting racing, Sam enlisted the coaching assistance of purplepatch athlete, Tim Reed, to oversee his training program. Sam’s progression was swift, adapting quickly to the new race format and believing he had “found his calling in triathlon at the 70.3 distance.” That was both good news and bad news for coach, Tim Reed! In Sam’s words, “Tim did his job perhaps a little too well and it started to become a conflict of interest for him to coach someone that he then had to beat!”

The move to purplepatch and being coached directly by myself, Matt Dixon, was a natural option. Tim’s training philosophy and ideals were aligned with the purplepatch program, making the switch to a new coach relatively seamless. “We chatted over the phone,” explains Sam, “and I knew that working with Matt would be a smooth transition and he would be a great fit for me!”

One of the key areas I identified for Sam’s development was on the bike and he’s seen big gains in the past two years since working with purplepatch.

While Sam was a strong biker, I felt the key to unleashing his run potential was to further develop him as a global rider, then allow a greater capacity for his run potential to blossom. He was already strong, but I wanted him to develop a keen sense of awareness of himself as a pure rider, utilizing the right tool, for the right job, at the right time. This took real focus on the art of riding, over simply sticking to X, Y or Z power. Sam appreciates the highly specific and structured workouts on the bike that are tailored to his needs: “I don’t fill my training with junk miles,” he says, “I know the purpose of every single session I complete.” By developing this piece of the puzzle, Sam’s run performances off the bike began to creep toward world-class levels at the end of our first year working together. The objective for 2017 is to further improve his running off the bike over the 70.3 distance, so don’t expect to see Sam on the start line of a full distance IRONMAN race any time soon. While he has interest in Kona and IRONMAN racing in the future, there's no need to rush into the full distance when there continues to be plenty of room to develop at 70.3. 

I emphasize balance within the purplepatch program for all athletes, including the professional squad, to manage the stress of training within the context of their overall life. “Triathlon is my profession,” acknowledges Sam, “but I have interests outside of training and racing which Matt not only supports, but encourages.”

Having misfired at World Championship events in 2014-15, Sam and I worked to develop confidence and help eradicate Sam's doubts about performing well in a high-class field in 2016. While Sam had had two strong seasons, he arrived at the World Champs in 2015 a little flat, and feeling like the end of the season was due. This is mostly down to his eagerness to be ready, and the underdeveloped wisdom to hold back early and truly build across a season, take proper breaks to remain fresh, and aim to ramp performance when it counted. He did a super job in 2016 of this, and arrived at the World Champs confident, with honest preparation that he felt worked for him, and the chance to have his best race.

Another key thing we did for Sam's specific ramp into the IRONMAN 70.3 World Champs was to not change too much. While Sam returned to Australia a couple of weeks prior to the big race, I asked him to hold back arrival to the race site until 3 days prior to the event. Why? This is what worked for every other race he did that season. Just because the race has a title, why change familiarity? He was physically ready, so treating it like any other race allowed his prime performance to bubble up. Finishing 5th at worlds in 2016 changed everything for Sam and the performance was his first realization that he “could be a major player at the 70.3 distance.”

Next up for Sam in 2017 is the IRONMAN 70.3 Santa Rosa, California this coming weekend. He will be attending the pre-race purplepatch meet up on Friday afternoon (May 12, 3-4:30pm) to review the course, so if you want a chance to meet this affable Aussie and learn the finer details of the Santa Rosa 70.3 course, sign up to attend here.