Interview With Multiple Ironman Chaitanya Gharpure

Chaitanya in action during a race.

A PhD in artificial intelligence and robotics, working in Google in California *and* into endurance sports like Ironmans? Surely there are no such people, are there? There are, though not a lot. My good friend Chaitanya Gharpure is one of them. I recently got a chance to pick his brains about his thoughts and philosophy about training for marathons and triathlons. Here is what he had to say:

AG:Tell us a bit about yourself.

CG: I have been living in the US for the past 15 years. I am a Software Engineer and I work of Google Inc. in Mountain View, Calif. Family, work and triathlon are the three pillars of my life 🙂

AG: Since how many years have you being doing running and triathlons?

CG: I was on university’s (Utah State University) waterpolo team for 4 years. One of my teammates introduced me to triathlons in 2004, when I did my first sprint triathlon. For several years I was happy with sprint and olympic distance triathlons.

AG: Do you have any background in sports or athletics as a child or teenager? If yes, do you think that is essential to achieve a goal as Boston/Kona Qualification or do you believe that anybody without a background can get there given enough time and training. If no, when did you get into running/cycling/triathlons.

CG: I did some athletics in school and learned swimming when I was 8. I played a lot of cricket, badminton, soccer while growing up and went on many treks in the Sahyadris and the Himalayas. During engineering (undergrad) I played inter-collegiate waterpolo for 4 years. My active lifestyle while growing up and some background in sports has motivated me to keep up that lifestyle. In fact, I cannot live without it. But I am not sure how much of a role it has played in my triathlon performance. If anything helped at all, I’d say it is swimming. I can get away with little to no swim training and still do decently in a triathlon swim. KQ is super hard. Sure fire way to KQ is to podium at one of the qualifying races. Sometimes you may also win a KQ slot due to roll down, but you still need to be in the top 10 or so in your age-group. There are other ways to get to Kona too, but I think that is “cheating” 🙂 Kona is the holy grail of triathlon for age groupers. Can anyone qualify for Kona given enough time and training? I don’t know. It is a tough goal to chase, but a worthy dream to have. The journey is what counts and I guarantee that this one will change your life.

Chaitanya in action during a race.

AG: How do you manage this training load from the time management point of view. Any tips you can provide?

CG: I believe it is all about consistency. I try my best to follow the training plan my coach has given me. Some days are super busy when I don’t have the time to do the full prescribed workout. But doing something is better than skipping the session altogether. Even if you can go out for a quick 15 min run or hop on the bike for 30 mins, that’s good enough. If nothing, get some strength/core work done in front of the TV. A bike trainer has been the best investment I have made. Especially in India where riding on roads is unsafe and unhealthy, a trainer will be your best friend. Because on a trainer there are no downhills and traffic signals, you don’t get much rest. So 2 hrs on a trainer are equivalent to 2.5-3 hrs outside. If you are not able to hit the pool often, use some elastic bands to do swim exercises at home. Stroke correction and technique needs to be worked upon in the pool though; there’s little substitute for that.

AG: I firmly believe that if you do enough little things right, then eventually BIG things will happen. Do you find this to be true?

CG: It is kind of a philosophical question, but in general I think this is very true. Just don’t take it literally – If you want to do a marathon or an Ironman successfully, the training needs to be commensurate. Ask yourself what you believe in, what your goal is, and keep chipping away at it one day at a time.

Atul & Chaitanya after a workout.

AG: Diet and nutrition plays a big part in fitness improvements. Do you believe or follow a diet such as Ketogenic, Atkins, etc? What is your general diet like?

CG: A big YES for diet and nutrition. The role it plays is very interesting because it does not directly improve your fitness, but allows you to take your training/racing to the next level while keeping you healthy and injury-free. I have never followed a specific diet “by the book”, but I follow two general rules of thumb – 1. Never pig out on any meal, especially the sweet foods. 2. Eat a light dinner. Having said that, diet is a very personalized thing. What works for one may not work for another. Also, every person has their own vice when it comes to food. Mine is sugar! I usually let myself indulge once a week but the rest of the week I try to intake ZERO artificial sugar. Nutrition goes hand-in-hand with diet. I have seen all kinds of athletes – pros/elites who are not all gung-ho about over-analyzing their diet/nutrition but follow some basic rules-of-thumb, or amateurs/age-groupers who are super meticulous and strict about what they eat, recording it, analyzing it and so on. Not that they always get proportional gains by doing it, but for them, it is more about enjoying the process and learning from it. It is important to understand what works for you.

AG: I see a lot of runners and triathletes wanting fast (nay instant) improvements and getting injured in the process. Any thoughts on that? How important is patience when it comes to endurance sports?

CG:  Who doesn’t want shortcuts? 🙂 In my opinion, two factors contribute toward this mentality. One, being more enamored by the destination than enjoying the journey, and two, wanting to be better/faster than your fellow athletes. Now, don’t get me wrong. Both of these are good things, but only when channeled correctly. They say that visualizing the outcome, be it crossing the finish line, standing on the podium, receiving that KQ certificate, or beating your competition, it gives you a purpose and keeps you headed in the right direction. Ask yourself this question: If there was a perfectly safe, undetectable pill which if taken, would qualify you for Kona or Boston in your next race, would you take it? Some would jump on it, some would be on the fence and some would say no. Your answer will tell a lot about what you are in the sport for!

Chaitanya in action during a race.

AG: I always tell athletes I coach that patience, consistency, the right training protocol, right tactics/strategy, etc are much more important than having the right genes. Thoughts on that?

CG:  I second all of that. But I also think that your genetic makeup plays a big role in how you design your training. Not everyone can handle 100 kms/wk on a consistent basis, some may need more recovery than others, etc. What’s important is to recognize your limitations and work to overcome them. It is always too soon to quit by blaming it on your genes. Studies have shown that long term exercise can change your DNA. So you may not have the genes to get that coveted KQ yet, but you can one day. If nothing else, your kids will probably get that gift – another reason to start in young age 😉

AG: Sometimes I have a hard time getting some novice athletes to record/measure their workouts. Do you record all your workouts? If so, is it helpful?

CG: Yes, I record all my workouts on Strava and TrainingPeaks. For me, the Garmin 920XT has made it super easy to do that. Any fitness device with WiFi or Bluetooth helps a lot! I also have a WiFi-enabled weighing scale that uploads my weight+BMI everyday so I can see a graph and how my weight is changing over a period of time. More than anything, logging your workouts is critical not only to be able to understand how you are progressing/declining, but also to make on-the-fly decisions about recovery. By the way, recovery is extremely underrated. It is probably one of the most effective tools in improving your performance. It is a part of your workout and should also be logged.

AG: What was your best race moment so far?

CG: Believe it or not, my favorite race distances are Olympic and Half Ironman. In 2015, I raced Ironman Boulder in August. A month later, I had Santa Cruz 70.3 coming up. In that one month, I recovered from Boulder and did minimal maintenance work. I ended up getting my personal best at Santa Cruz 70.3 with a time of 4:52. The run leg in that race was probably my best race moment so far. I was passing tons of people and negative split the run with a time of ~1:32. If I have to generalize, all races where I have a super strong run leg, fall into the bucket of memorable races. The formula to guarantee a fun race – swim comfortably, bike conservatively, run like a madman 🙂

AG: What was your worst race moment so far?

CG: I’d have to say, the run on my first Iron-distance race at Vineman in 2013. I was prepared for a hot race but it turned out to be overcast and cool that day. Instead of tweaking my hydration, I stuck to the plan and ended up getting hyponatremic on the run. Hyponatremia is a condition where you level of sodium in your body is very low, often caused by low sodium intake combined with excessive water intake. It is a potentially fatal condition. By mile 10 on the run I was feeling dizzy and difficult to focus. I was smart and courageous enough to pull out at mile 15. I was 2.5 kgs heavier after the race than before! I was feeling terrible and took 2 days to recover. I knew I was prepared to finish that course, so I signed up to do Ironman Louisville 1 month later, which I completed cautiously and conservatively in 13:5x:xx.

AG: What are you plans for 2017?

CG: Santa Rosa 70.3 in May CIT Olympic in June Santa Rosa 140.6 in July Santa Cruz 70.3 in Sept I really want to do my first 50K trail run in Dec, but that’s TBD.

AG: Any other things you want to mention or tips you want to give to the readers?

CG: Just a few things I strongly believe in that I’d like to share:
1. Consistency is the key
2. Do not be afraid to shoot for the moon
3. Don’t let setbacks discourage you
4. Get a coach who believes in you and your goals
5. Worship the sport, not people

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