Hard at the limit

Justus Nieschlag about final sprints, mental power and arena-triathlon

This man likes to move at the limit. Justus Nieschlag is a two-time German champion over the triathlon sprint distance and has qualified for the Olympic Games in Tokyo—despite an injury misery. Because he always looks ahead. And because he always knows how to push himself to his own limits at the right moment.

Deep in the red zone

Let's start with the end! How does Justus experience a sprint to the finish? “It can hurt, so I try to outsmart myself. I set myself small goals, until the next marker, until the next bend. I feel inside myself: 'Am I already about to explode? No, there's still some energy left' By this, I can go one step further. And so it goes, meter by meter. That's how I manage to really give all I can.”

Is that something you can train? To give “everything”?—“I don't think so,” says the 2017 Military World champion: “Of course, you can also try to go for high intensities in training. But in a hard-hitting sprint, it goes deep into the red zone. I think you have to have that in you. For me, anyway, it's rare that I feel after a race that I could have pushed even more.”

»We even complete intensive units below the lactate threshold.«

To reach the highest level, not only comprehensive training is required, but also a cleverly controlled intensity. A professional triathlete like Justus Nieschlag (resting heart rate between 40 and 44 bpm) does not necessarily train at the performance limit, but primarily in the area of basic endurance.

“For me, a lot of basic training in the low pulse range is on the program, especially in winter and after competitions. Even with the intensive units, we tend to move below the lactate threshold. We rarely train above that, in the anaerobic range. When we do, it's really short, like crisp 200-meter intervals.”

25 kilometers swimming a week

Justus usually sits on the bike for two to four hours. Running takes between 30 minutes and 1:15 hours. In a typical training week, in addition to the more leisurely basic training, there are two more intensive units per discipline on the schedule: swimming five times a week, a total of around 20 to 25 km, plus about 300 km a week on the bike and around 60 km of running.

For someone who invests so much time in order to be in top form at the start of competitions, injuries are not only a physical challenge—but also a psychological one. Wanting to train, but not being able to, is something a triathlete first has to get over.

»During a break due to injury, it's easy to start thinking.«

As he pushes his bike through the transition area at the German championships in August 2019, he accidentally kicks his foot into the 64 high-profile-rim. “The foot was standing at the ground, while the big toe was up in the rim. It hit the flexor and extensor tendon, and the capsule was damaged. Not so nice,” recalls Justus. A cast and a forced break. You could say it went badly.

In 2020, an already difficult year for Corona, there was also an incident in the lumbar spine, the intervertebral disc had slipped out and was pressing on the nerves. Did Justus ever doubt that he was doing the right thing at that time? “In phases like that, you sometimes start to brood. That's why I had a mental coach by my side during the injuries, so I could stay optimistic and focused.”

The desired ticket for Tokyo

After rehab and physio, Justus was late to get the best possible start to the 2021 Olympic season. “But I really wanted to go to Tokyo,” he says, “And if you really want it, you can go all out.” In January, he trained in Fuerteventura, where he felt his form returning. Later on, with his Portuguese colleague Joao Silva, they went to the high-altitude training camp in Spain's Sierra Nevada for three weeks at 2,320 meters.

Then the big day in May 2021: the German Triathlon Union (DTU) elimination race—a super sprint over a 350-meter swim, 6.7-kilometer bike and 1.9-kilometer run with a race duration of just 20 minutes. Justus is right there on the day, wins the competition, and gets the longed-for ticket to the Games in Tokyo.

Perfect time for the long-distance

What are Justus' own ambitious goals for the coming years? “In three years, I would like to be back at the Games in Paris. And then, as a triathlete, the time will slowly come for me to take on even longer distances. That's the beauty of this sport. In your early 30s, you're at the best age to discover a new discipline with long-distance triathlon.”

And if another pandemic comes around the corner and makes triathlon racing impossible? Then there would still be competitions like the Super League in London, where a terrific spectacle took place during Corona on individual swimming lanes, ergometers and treadmills, Justus says.

»I’d appreciate even more events in the arena.«

„An extremely short and tough—but above all exciting format. You drive and run on the spot, staying in the middle of the arena the whole time, like in basketball or handball. It's really innovative and great fun. There can be more events like this in the future. I’d appreciate that. But without Corona. And with thousands of spectators instead …

»My highlight was a 2.40 meter tall Chinese man.«

In Japan, Justus put in a good performance in the relay, finishing sixth, 59 seconds behind Olympic champion Great Britain. In the individual short-distance race he only managed 40th place, partly due to the bumpy preparation. Still, Justus says the trip to the Far East was memorable and rewarding.

“You feel that athletes from all over the world come together here. So many different nations and disciplines. This spirit is already something special. One of my highlights away from the competition was a coach of the Chinese basketball players who stood in the dining hall with a perceived height of 2.40 meters. Everyone who saw him stopped first, put his head back in fascination and looked up at him.”

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