Hayley Simmonds: How losing 45kg helped her realise her time trial potential

Since switching from rowing to cycling and losing 45kg, Hayley Simmonds has been making time trial history writes Steve Shrubsall

As a child, riding her second-hand hybrid the six-mile round trip to and from her grandma’s house, Hayley Simmonds neither dreamt of cycling greatness nor even aspired to improve her skills beyond pulling off the odd skid, wheelie or bunny-hop.

Even during her university years, she used her Trek mountain bike solely as a thrifty means of negotiating the busy streets of Cambridge, with nary an inkling that just a few years later she would  be hunkered in an aero tuck position, piloting a Cervélo P5 en route to national time trial honours.

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While Simmonds was somewhat late to the competitive cycling party, she had always — even amid the academic rigours of an undergraduate degree in natural sciences at Cambridge University (she has since obtained a PhD in organic chemistry) — been physically active.

Her first sporting passion, away from the secondary school classics, netball and hockey, was rowing, a pastime she stuck with for nine years.

Key moments

Hayley Simmonds has become a dominant force in women’s time trialling. How did she reach the top?

    • “In 2010, my other half suggested I give cycling a go.”
    • “I raced my first evening 10 on a local course, in about 30 minutes.”
    • “Because I’m very competitive, I realised I’d be able to get a lot faster if I lost weight — and ended up losing 45kg.”
    • “I started to train properly in 2011.”

Simmonds now holds myriad records and titles over a number of distances

Hayley Simmonds, National 25-mile time trial championships 2016

Hayley Simmonds, National 25-mile time trial championships 2016. Phot: Andy Jones

Read more: Hayley Simmonds’s record breaking rides

Demands of study

“Rowing and rugby were the big sports at my school,” Simmonds recalls. “I started sculling [rowing with two oars] in year nine, and then at the age of 15, the girls were allowed to start sweep rowing [using one oar].”

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Having nurtured a natural talent for skimming over glassy rivers, Simmonds continued to row through college, and was only forced to re-evaluate the amount of time she was investing in the sport when training sessions began to clash with her studies: “The way the university rowing team trained back then was a bit insane, to be honest.

“We didn’t have any rest days, and you’d get a train to Ely [where training was held] at 10-to-six in the morning, so I’d have to get up at about five o’clock, have breakfast, cycle to the train station, maybe do just over an hour on the river in Ely, and I’d just about be back for nine o’clock lectures.”

Such a hectic schedule, including another session in the evening, Simmonds learnt, was not conducive to progressing with her studies, and she shelved the oars after competing at the Boat Race in 2009 and hit the books hard for her finals.

Get your pacing right

It was during this year that Simmonds — blinkered by the final furlongs of her studies — became more sedentary than she’d ever been and, consequently, put on a significant amount of weight.

“I’d always been heavier when I was rowing anyway, and I wasn’t doing any sport and I put on quite a bit of weight over that year.”

The following year, 2010, it was an aluminium Joe Waugh bike — a gift from her boyfriend, an established track racer who fortuitously rode the same size frame — that opened up an unexplored avenue for the Redditch-born 28-year-old.

>>> How a bike costing £1,000 won the National 10-Mile Time Trial Championship

Simmonds used the Waugh for training, and soon arrived at a stage where she was able to compete in her first evening ‘10’.

“It was a local course that I still do these days around Bottisham [near Cambridge]. It took me around about half an hour, and my chain came off just after halfway.”

So it began that Simmonds’s focus became unerringly directed towards cycling, specifically time trialling.

“When I first started cycling, the main thing I wanted to do was to get a half-blue or a full-blue from Cambridge [earned by athletes at the university for competition at the highest level], and time trials met the criteria, with the Oxford and Cambridge varsity match being a 25-mile TT.”

Scientific approach

Weight loss has been key to Simmonds's success. Photo: Chris Catchpole

Weight loss has been key to Simmonds’s success. Photo: Chris Catchpole

Simmonds excelled and rode to full university colours but soon realised that to go faster she would have to lose more weight.

“I started making an effort to lose weight and train properly in 2011. When I was rowing I did the classic carb-loading thing the night before the race, but you don’t really need pasta loaded with bacon and cheese for a 10-minute race.

“I got clued-up on nutrition and massively cut down on carbs, especially if I wasn’t doing really heavy training, upped the protein, and I’m gluten-free now.”

>>> Is a gluten-free diet beneficial for cyclists?

With guidance from performance nutritionist Alan Murchison, Simmonds has reached her optimal weight — a full 45 kilos lighter than when at her heaviest — testament to which are two national time trial golds and this year’s national century.

>>> Do cyclists really need to carb-load before a big ride?

Add to that her annihilation of the women’s national 50 record on July 24 by over four minutes, clocking a time of 1-42-20 at an average speed of over 29mph, and an incredible weekend over July 30-31, during which she smashed her own national 10-mile record and the next day became the first women to ride a 25 inside 50 minutes, it seems safe to say that Hayley Simmonds has found her true vocation.

Simmonds lost the national 10 record to Anna Turvey, but took it back after just a week with a stunning time of 18-36 on a course where she’d already set and bettered her own record before.

Eat well, ride better

Fast yet nutritious food

Simmonds drafted in the assistance of sports chef Alan Murchison, who devised a nutritious and flavourful menu to support her time trial training.

“The breakfast I devised for Hayley is a bircher muesli, soaked for 10 minutes in 50g of Greek yoghurt, 100ml of milk, then you can add raisins, nuts, cinnamon and dried fruit.”

Murchison suggests that each meal should be easy to prepare and be tasty enough to look forward to after a hard training session.

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“Hayley often does double days, so for her lunch she’ll be coming in often having done a three-hour training block, so a cracking [lunch] we do at the moment is a really healthy quinoa and chicken salad.

“We make a dressing for the quinoa with some sweet chilli sauce, soya sauce and fish sauce, and then we add fresh mango, pomegranate, lime and mint, mix it all together and serve with spiced chicken.”

As far as evening meals go, Murchison takes account of Simmonds’s schedule the following day: “For lighter days, a great dinner which I cooked for Hayley recently is salmon with a classic French dish called Petit Pois le Français — cooked lettuce, fresh peas, bacon and onion — which is fantastic if you aren’t looking to carb-up.”

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