Time Ironman Champion
Time Portuguese National Team
Pedro Gomes has been a fixture in triathlon for the last 10 years. From humble beginnings, Pedro has progressed to the top of the sport and has achieved high accolades, including first place at Ironman Sweden 2013, multiple podium finishes and a consistent contender at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii for many years.
We sat down with Gomes and picked his brain, covering topics from learning how to train, to going pro, and everything in between.
PB: Your entrance to the sport is incredibly relatable to many of the age group athletes starting out today. How did you first find the sport of triathlon?
PG: I am different from most pro athletes who seem to start their athletic career while still in the crib. Sport only came into my life when I was about 14 or 15 years old. And it wasn’t love at first sight. Truth be told, my dad was the mastermind behind it all because he was growing concerned about my sedentary teen life.
At the time my expertise was Nintendo playing, so I started taking swimming lessons in exchange for time in front of the computer. Alongside the swimming, my dad also encouraged me to go out for the occasional jog. Then one day the swim club organized an indoor triathlon – swim in the pool, bike on an indoor gym bike and run outside. I had heard about triathlon through some friends and decided to sign up just for fun. To my surprise I wasn’t dead last.
Before I knew it, exercising stopped being a chore and became something I was really excited about.
PB: In 2012, you were selected for the Portuguese National development program. At the time, did you think you had that level of potential in the sport? At any point did you encounter any feelings of imposter syndrome or not feeling like you belonged?
PG: I became part of the Portuguese National development program when I was brought into the National Training Center as a London 2012 Olympic hopeful. That was obviously quite an exciting time for me.
At the time I was young and naïve, and enjoyed the buzz I created in national races. My confidence was at an all time high. Although, being on my early 20’s, I also don’t think I gave it too much thought. It was only a few years later that I started to question myself. First once I started to race internationally and compare myself with the best athletes in the ITU circuit I realized there was a looong way to go. However, and in all honesty, my feelings of not belonging weren’t caused just because of race results, but when I noticed that other athletes that were less committed to the sport were getting better results than I was. I started to become very self-aware of the lack of my natural talent, no matter how much I worked certain achievements seemed to be beyond me. For a long time, I overworked to try to compensate my “lack” of talent. Now I know that’s not the best course of action, but athletes are also humans and sometimes I still struggle with those kinds of thoughts, as if I’m here (in the sport) not because I deserve or belong but because I work hard.
PB: At what point did you know the level of potential you would be able to compete? Was there a specific race or moment that stood out to you as a watershed event?
PG: I started by competing in the short course ITU circuit and for some time I was consistently performing as the best or second best in the group, which gave me validation of my work commitment and discipline. There was one race in Spain, I believe it was a continental championship ITU race, where I finished just a few seconds from Dmitry Gaag who at the time was one of the top performers in the World – and that gave me a lot of confidence and made me believe that, maybe, I could make it to the Olympics. However, looking back I think part of me never truly believed that. Confidence, faith in oneself, and mental toughness are truly the pillar of high performance in endurance sports. And it wasn’t until I moved to long distance that I felt I did have true potential in the sport to make it to the top. Things just came more naturally in long distance racing and there I felt like a true contender. In my first official full distance Ironman, Ironman Florida in 2012, I finished 2nd, went 8h19 and beat some well-established athletes in the World at the time and I knew then that long distance triathlon was my future.
PB: You had mentioned that you “really learned how to train” during that time in the development team, what were some of the core principles you learned that you still carry with you today?
PG: When I moved into the National Training Center I didn’t just train with Olympic athletes or Olympic hopes (from triathlon but also all kinds of sports), I lived with them. I could see firsthand how high achievers and high performers got where they were, and that became an influence in my life. A good influence. In that community environment I learned about resilience, discipline, having the proper mindset and self-care. By self-care I mean that if you want the body and mind to perform you must rest well, eat well, so things like partying all night or being careless about your nutrition were out of the question. The discipline of waking up and going to work every day is key not only to results but also develops an unparalleled self-confidence. I like to think sharing the same values with the people you hang out with is very important and that’s why it truly pays off to find your own group of people. One piece of advice I give to novice triathletes is to find a triathlon group/club and get involved with them, absorb their knowledge, work ethic and try to see what makes them successful. That living experience in the national training center was what made me a professional athlete.
PB: Many age group athletes see being a professional triathlete as a dream job. But even the best jobs in the world have their drawbacks, you know this first hand. From your experiences, what do you see as the hardest part of being a professional triathlete? And what advice would you give to those competitive age groupers or even younger pros?
PG: I think a dream job is the one that we have such passion for that even the less appealing parts of it will not bother us. With that in mind I do have a dream job, but that doesn’t mean it’s all roses. The glamorous part of it, the one we show the most: the traveling, the victories, the social media posts, the smiles for ads and promo videos, the sponsorship deals, etc. are probably only 10% of what my life as a professional athlete entail. The other 90% is hard work, dealing with uncertainty (of results, financial income, etc.), fatigue, recovery from injuries and failures, sacrificing personal and social life, and pressure to perform (even if self-imposed).
For me the hardest part of the job is staying mentally healthy and grounded. You may feel motivated and superhuman, but it’s important to have someone, a mental health professional or within your personal relationships, with whom you can talk about all your dreams, ambitions, but also doubts and insecurities. Someone that doesn’t get carried away in the emotional turmoil that this life can bring. If you’re like me and feel that the 10% outweighs having to deal with the 90% then this can be a dream job. As hard as it is I take pleasure in going out to train every day in order to push my limits further and further.
My advice to someone that wants to do the sport professionally is to consider all these sacrifices first, if it is something you can deal with, then the rest will follow and take care of itself. Dream big and be naïve! When you are still young (mid 20s) you don’t think about limits and believe you can achieve anything. I believe that staying naïve and “foolishly” believing can be an important piece of success in triathlon.
PB: Now as a coach and still racing pro, you see the sport through multiple lenses. Are there any realizations or lessons you’ve taken from coaching that you wish you knew earlier in your career?
PG: I think my experience as an athlete helps me more on my career as a coach than the other way around, although I probably come to understand better how hard my coach’s job was… Now I know how patient they were with me. Hahah!
The truth is that this is a very demanding sport, and it isn’t just about putting people through high volume and lots of training. Athletes may become stronger using that method but it’s short lived. A lot of attention needs to be given to the mental part of it. It helps to understand it better when you have experienced it as well. That is why you often see pro triathletes going into the coaching career because it takes one to know one.
Regarding things I wish I knew earlier in my career, well, I’m a practical learner, and in my career as an athlete I learned a lot by my own experience, mistakes and successes both and I don’t think I could have done it differently. However, when I do my coaching certifications, I get to learn more in depth and understand better the “why” of things that I just did based on experience. A lot of those things just make much more sense now as a coach.
PB: We’ve seen that most athletes will never come close to their maximum potential due to self imposed/accepted limitations. As a coach, how do you help your athletes break through this mind trap?
PG: That’s a great question. Self-imposed and accepted limitations can, without a doubt, be an obstacle to improvement. Every time we start a sentence with “I can’t” we are already sabotaging ourselves. I do take a lot of care as much in the mental aspect of the sport as the physical one, and that’s why believe in bespoke training plans and not a one size fits all. I do my best to build athletes’ confidence over time, sometimes with baby steps. Depending on the person, a breakthrough performance can be winning their age-group or just taking the chance to believe in themselves and accomplishing something new, no matter how small. However, in my opinion confidence is also related to responsibility and accountability, complying with workouts and training schedules builds self-confidence, because you know you did the work.
It is said “if you your mind can conceive it, your body can achieve it”, I agree with that, but I’ll add that you have to truly believe in it, regardless of the challenges that came your way, just keep on believing.
PB: Racing as a pro vs racing as an age grouper have very different strategies. Especially with long course races, the age group athlete strategy is very individual (Stick to YOUR race, hit YOUR numbers, no ego). Pros on the other hand, are quite different. How do the race dynamics differ and what would your pre-race plan look like?
PG: That’s a very interesting perspective. Well, professionals also have a pre-race game plan and numbers to follow, however a pro’s goal is not just to finish the race, the goal is to win or get as close as possible to that podium, so we do take higher risks and more and more you’ll see tactical choices being made. Mostly in the bike segment where it is so important to be able to keep up with the packs and surges on the bike. For age groupers, especially now with the rolling starts, its hard even to know who’s ahead since no one knows when the others actually started.
It is also easier for pro triathletes to quickly jump into another one the next week or month, so we take more chances in a strategy that can lead to an epic bonk/fail but can also deliver great success. The approach of an age grouper should be different, as for most this is a hobby and racing means a considerable investment of time and money, so the choices are naturally more conservative. If for pro races it matters who comes across the line first, for age groupers triathlon is still about who covers the distance/course fastest. Race within your limits and get to the finish line as fast as possible without compromising the race.
PB: Finally, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received (and from who) that you feel is worth passing on?
PG: My long-time coach Jesse Kropelnicki gave me probably the best career/life advice: control what you can control, meaning control your pace, control your nutrition, control your mind set. Everything else – the weather, mechanical issues, what everyone is doing in the race, etc – is uncontrollable so it’s pointless to even think about it. Just accept it. He also often reminded me that any pressure I felt to perform was self-imposed. I guess the culture we live in, where everything is enhanced by the social media effect, can increase that need of external validation and fear of disappointing others. Every professional athlete has probably had a race where self-imposed pressure affected the result of a race, I for sure, have suffered from that. But just remember those that support you, will still love and admire you even when you have a bad day.