Training for autism: the specter of success for triathlete Sam Holness


HOKA ONE ONE triathlete Sam Holness completed the IRONMAN in St. George, Utah, a first for an openly autistic athlete. This is another achievement towards his larger goal of going pro.

The London resident arrived in Utah 10 days before the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships acclimatize to desert conditions. On race day, the weather brought rain, lightning and a sandstorm.

HOKA ONE ONE ambassador Sam holness finished on IRONMAN Course in St. George with a time of 5:44:39. It’s a feat for everyone, but for a black spectrum athlete, it certainly marked a few firsts.

The day after his triathlon, Sam spent his morning on the elliptical trainer to rinse off the lactic acid, then swam in the hotel pool.

“This is not a bucket list. That’s what he does, ”said coach and father Tony Holness.

(Photo / HOKA ONE ONE: Pete Santamaria, Rook productions media)

A family matter

Tony’s role is a bit of a balancing act. As he says, he has to push Sam as a coach and then as a dad make sure it’s still something he wants to do.

“When I saw him come in [at St. George] and given his numbers, I know he could have done more. This is the coach’s point of view, ”he said. But as a father, “we were just happy to see him safe and sound.”

Sam’s training and well-being are a family affair. Her mother helps with daily life and the exercises at home. And Tony became an IRONMAN certified trainer to help him train.

It turns out that athletes on the spectrum respond better to coaches who know there can be differences in their approach to sport. Sam used his own comments and that of his fellow athletes to write a thesis on how coaches can work better with them. It was the last hurdle to get his sports science degree.

Communication can be difficult for Sam, especially with new faces, and his dad often acts as a go-between to facilitate quicker conversations during media interviews.

As an adult diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Sam faces strong chances for a full-time job in the UK, where only 22% of adults with autism are employed. Tony said the sport gave Sam confidence, self-esteem and purpose.

“He likes it. I ask him every week because I’m afraid to push him into something he doesn’t want to do. And he does, so we support him. That’s what us parents do. , can do, ”he said.

Autism: the long triathlon

He got the name “Super sam»From his judo sensei.

After staying outside and watching lessons for 4 weeks, Sam decided he wanted to learn judo. Tony explained that Sam got the nickname because he was the first to arrive, the first to raise his hand for a fight (when the time came), and the last to leave because he picked up the rugs. Sam is now a brown belt.

As a neurodiverse athlete, some will point to Sam’s determined tendencies as an advantage. And Tony agrees, up to a point, because his son is always on time and never complains. However, that prospect misses a lot of the little things that come up in training and can disrupt timed races in particular.

Sam learned to ride a bike at the age of 14, then learned the form and energy saving strategy of cycling. He joined a running club at 18, where he learned to relax his shoulders and find a good kick, strides and cadence. Then there was the concept of not overworking yourself, which was helped by setting a goal on a fitness watch and just riding, swimming, or running until then.

Tony focused Sam on the long triathlon, in part because Sam’s meticulous approach to transitions during a race can waste his time. Losing 30 seconds on each transition in a shorter run only exacerbates this problem.

For some on the spectrum, the rain can be uncomfortable – and hard to avoid in London. St. George exposed him to several sensory elements. Some of them were foreigners as he trains in the UK, where nothing compares to the Utah desert.

“I need to improve my cycling because it was a very technical and difficult course, and I also need to practice races without a wetsuit. The water temperature was 78 degrees, ”Sam said.“ I don’t think I could have prepared for lightning, thunder or sandstorm, though. ”

Perhaps the best summary is the word on the back of Sam’s running kit: determined.

Sam Holness and parents
(Photo / HOKA ONE ONE: Pete Santamaria, Rook productions media)

A simple training philosophy

Tony’s approach to training emphasizes cardio and reps. Sam also does yoga every night with his mother to improve his flexibility and promote relaxation. Tony also wants to use Sam’s lack of running and high-impact sports as a reason to accumulate this experience and, perhaps, take advantage of this lack of wear and tear on his body.

“We have a simple philosophy. Triathlon is an aerobic sport, so we get it to go faster for longer, ”Tony said. “We do a lot of trail running, hill reps and rowing.”

Sam met and trained with a rower turned triathlete Nikki bartlett in Saint-Georges. “We swam a few lengths and got some running tips from Nikki,” Sam said. “The best part was Nikki gave me one of her Tokyo swim caps. It was so sweet.

They hiked Snow Canyon together and got some tips for pool work. Sam then rowed for 20 km.

Tony called the race the benchmark world championships and already knows how Sam can improve next time around. “He has to be braver on the bike, and I know he should have gone faster… but this is one of the toughest courses. He did well, ”Tony said.

The HOKA relationship

He ran St. George in HOKA Carbon X2 shoes, and he trains in the Rincons as well as in the new Bondi X. The introduction of a carbon fiber plate in the maximum cushion trainer is part of HOKA’s approach to democratize carbon for more than race days and allow more runners to ‘improve’ their performance. coaching.

It’s a quick change from just 2 years ago, when Tony first approached a HOKA booth during a race and asked if they would give Sam a pair of Carbon shoes. X for the race. Tony explained that he was once a salesperson and has no qualms about asking for things. He didn’t hesitate to point out Sam’s unique position compared to the rest of the all-white triathlon scene.

He didn’t have the shoes at that point, but it did start a conversation and a relationship with the brand that introduced Sam as part of its series celebrating all types of runners.

In 2020 this evolved into an ambassadorial role with HOKA, which helped him compete in the triathlon world championships despite the fact that he did not hold a professional license. HOKA opened a door and Sam didn’t disappoint.

Future goals

sat aims to get a pro license in 2-3 years, with ideas on how to go faster in each discipline and reduce your marathon time to under 3 hours.

“I’m only 28 and will improve my training like a pro next year,” Sam said. “During the winter I will be running, mountain biking and cycling. of gravel to build strength and aerobic capacity. I do this full time; it’s my job and my passion, and it’s awesome.

For 2022, Sam’s main focus is a full list of events after so many events were canceled due to COVID-19. HOKA sponsors the Rotterdam NN Marathon, where Tony expects the flat course to be an early opportunity for Sam to post his best running numbers – and potentially his goal of completing a marathon in under 3 hours.

“Winter is all about strength and doing whatever athletes don’t like to do,” Tony said. “Sam likes him – right now.”

Ideally, a month in Spain to train in drier climates could benefit the whole family, Tony suggested. Otherwise, the windy weather in England will be enough for gravel biking in addition to the treadmill workouts.

Tony explained the upcoming training, “It’s about getting Sam used to more sensory things and making her mudder and harder. It’s all about building character and stamina, so when it comes to fast races, he can do it well. And it’s fun. It must be fun.

HOKA Bondi X Sam Holness Warm-up
(Photo / HOKA ONE ONE: Pete Santamaria, Rook productions media)

This article is sponsored by HOKA ONE ONE. Learn more about his Bondi X Shoes on the brand’s website.


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