Athlete’s Corner: Katrina Matthews – From Army Physio to Kona Contender
British triathlete Katrina (Kat) Matthews finished 4th at the Ironman 70.3 World Champs in 2021, competed at The Collins Cup, is ranked 9th in the PTO world rankings and has got two Ironman titles to her name (Florida & Bolton) as well as a 2nd place at Ironman Tulsa where she ran a blistering 2:49 Marathon. When we got the chance to speak to her we thought it would be a great opportunity to speak about her (relatively late) route into the sport, her past in the Army and her goals heading into a bumper 2022 season. Read on below to find out more about Kat, not only is she fast on the course she’s also an interesting character who’s looking to break down barriers for the sport of Triathlon.
Kat grew up playing all sorts of sports before trying her hand at Triathlon. With her father being in the Royal Marines throughout her childhood, Kat was eventually drawn towards a career in the Army, putting her Physio qualification to good use and making the most of the Army base lifestyle to keep fit and pursue sporting goals in the process.
“As a kid I played Field-Hockey, ran Cross-Country, did some Basket-Ball and some Swimming recreationally” explained Kat as we spoke about her active childhood, “and when I took my first job in the Army I had access to a swimming pool, some Wattbikes and the Surrey countryside for running so that’s where I took up Triathlon.”
Kat began her journey in triathlon just like any other triathlete, with the wrong kit! “I’d actually done my first triathlon before going to University, I wore a raincoat and everything, so I was pretty naff.”
Kat quickly learnt the ropes though and figured out the whole race scene in the UK by trawling through Google and the BTF website: “The Army triathlon team was quite closed at the time, (NB. There are only 6 team members, although the overall squad has now been extended) so I was racing triathlons in the UK outside the Army, I was googling what triathlons to do and how to qualify for Europeans and Worlds and after one race went quite well it motivated me to do more training.”
Kat went on to be accepted into the Army team in 2017, took part in some training camps with them and managed to qualify for the Age Group World Championships, “I’d decided I was going to stop playing Hockey since it didn’t fit in with my training, and went on to finish 4th in my Age Group at the World Champs where I was stoked to run under 40 minutes for the 10km run!”
After spending some time in Canada, entering and winning her first Middle-Distance race in Calgary, Kat returned to the UK in 2018 to start a new job at a Trauma hospital where her new boss encouraged her to apply for a new programme within the Army: “I did some more middle-distance races when I got home, including the British Champs at Vitruvian where I finished first. Whilst my husband Mark had been telling me I could be quite good; it wasn’t until my coach at the time told me the same thing that I started considering trying to race professionally.”
“This coincided with my new boss encouraging me to apply for a programme called the Resilience Margin within the Army where they support 10 athletes to go full time. Most athletes on this programme are pursuing Olympic goals in Army sports like Fencing or Modern Pentathlon though so I didn’t expect to get accepted.”
Shortly after integrating the programme Kat raced in Gran Canaria and subsequently qualified for her pro Triathlon licence: “I’d only been full time for a month or so but decided to take the licence immediately so that I could make the most of it, many people were telling me to stay in Age Group racing, but I didn’t listen.” Kat’s decision to go pro was vindicated that season as she finished on three Ironman 70.3 podiums and qualified for the 70.3 World Champs in Nice. Her form was rewarded by a contract with the BMC Pro Tri Team and she hasn’t looked back since.
“I heard that the toughest part of turning Pro in Triathlon is often the financial pressure, as you have to perform to earn money. I’m extremely thankful that thanks to the Army and the BMC Pro Tri Team I’ve been lucky enough not to experience that, I’ve been able to focus wholly on my training and this has paid off in my racing.”
When asked to talk about what her strength is as a Triathlete, Kat reverts to her background and training as a Physio, “Sometimes I take for granted what I know about the human body from my time as a Physio. I’ve been able to avoid too many injuries and understand how the body responds to training thanks to that, putting my understanding of load and recovery to good use.”
Kat is a proponent of what can be coined as the minimum stimulus approach, whereby you do exactly what is required to elicit a training response, and minimal ‘junk miles’. This allows you to train, recover and progress without accumulating excessive fatigue or running a high risk of injury.
Since January 2021 Kat has also been working with a new coach, Björn Geesmann, who has significantly changed the way she trains, “I think in my first years as a professional I was very much training like an Age Grouper but who just had more time on their hands. The approach I’ve taken with Bjorn has been quite different as it’s much more focussed on accumulating load over successive days and then taking recovery days to assimilate the training.”
In just a few months the coaching change seems to have paid dividends as Kat had a standout 2021 season including 2nd at Ironman Tulsa, a win at Ironman UK, the fourth fastest time at the Collins Cup and a 4th place finish at the 70.3 World Champs in St George.
Turning our attention to the bumper 2022 season that awaits, Kat explained her approach to the double Ironman World Championship season: “At the end of the 2021 season I took a good 6 week break and then started working in November towards a big year in 2022.”
“I’m well on my way towards fitness,” explained Kat, “and I’ve been hitting the numbers I want for this season quite early in December and January so it’s a little bit of an awkward place to be slightly ahead of the curve, I know everything can change at any point though if I pick up a niggle.” Kat went on to say that she will be out on the Island of Lanzarote by the time this article comes out, working with her coach and some of his other athletes such as 2x Ironman World Champion Patrick Lange.
“I’d like to hit the ground running at 70.3 Lanzarote early in the season,” continues Kat, “and if I can beat Lucy Charles-Barclay and Anne Haug at that race it would be great even if I know for that to happen, they will most likely have to train through the race un-tapered,” she adds with a laugh.
“I’ve still got a solid 3 or so months of training to do before the first World Champs in St George in May, and then I’d like to race the full PTO season before heading to Kona.” For those who don’t know, the PTO has launched two ‘grand slams’ this year with the Canadian Open & American Open taking place either side of the Collins Cup during the summer.
When asked what an ideal season recap would look like Kat showed quiet confidence and explained why despite her strong performances, she feels very little pressure heading into St George & Kona, “A few people are telling me that I can podium at the World Champs this season, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Whilst my performances have shown that in one world this could indeed be a real possibility, I have to get my training and my racing right to put myself in a position to perform at that level.”
“Right now I don’t feel much pressure for either race, because the reality is St George will be my first Ironman World Championships & well Kona will be my first Kona and no one is expected to do well at their first Kona due to the conditions on the island.”
When asked what result she would be happy with Kat speaks more to the performance than to the ranking that she’s hoping for: “I want to be a part of the race at the front, to ride and run alongside the leaders and see where that takes me. I think that outside of the top 10 would be disappointing, but mostly I want to be proud of the performance I put out and know that I did the best with what I had on the day”
Moving onto her long-term goals and what kind of legacy she would like to leave in the sport, Kat proved quite philosophical and again split the results side from the day-to-day side.
“I’d love to win a World Championships obviously, but there’s work to be done before that. It would be great to be able to show that it’s possible. That you can start out like me and look naff with a raincoat during your first triathlon but work your way through the ranks to get to the highest level in the sport.”
“Beyond that though I’d love to be able to breakdown the barriers to entry and the perception that Triathlon is hard and gruelling. Whilst yes you do have to train a lot, it doesn’t have to be a chore, you can fit it into your lifestyle the way you want to. I get up when I wake up each day, and do my training, I’ve never been one for the harsh 6am alarm clocks in the depths of winter.”
“Some people might say that if I did more maybe I’d be better, but maybe I wouldn’t, and maybe I would be miserable and injured and unhappy. I’m not a superhuman, I just do the work and enjoy the lifestyle.”
“Another topic I want to talk to people more about is body image and body composition. Skinny & lean doesn’t always mean fit and happy. Triathlon is quite a particular sport in that you need to build a body that is good in all three disciplines, and it’s not all about power to weight ratio. I got a lot of engagement when I spoke about this on my Instagram last year, and I realised it’s something that everyone deals with, even the best athletes in the world.”
“For me it’s important to have a healthy relationship with food, to fuel your training correctly and ultimately the best indicator of your fitness and health is your performance on the racecourse, not a number on the scale.”
Keep an eye on Kat throughout the 2022 season, as she heads to Lanzarote before taking on the two Ironman World Championships and the PTO series. You can follow her on Instagram here and track her results on the PTO rankings here.