Sarah Piampiano-Lord, from 100-hour weeks to the top of Triathlon
Sarah Piampiano-Lord (@spiampiano) is one of the top triathletes in the world, finishing first or second in 7 of the eleven 70.3 and Ironman races she entered in 2019. Ten years ago, she was a 30-year-old, cigarette-smoking investment banker who worked 100+ hour weeks and barely exercised.
A gifted, multi-sport athlete as a kid, Sarah found her love for competition as an eight year-old at Cross Country Nationals and was a Division 1 ski racer and runner in college in Maine.
But Sarah does not credit her rise in triathlon to her athletic gifts. The common thread is hard work, grit and mental strength. She believes in the “curse of the super talented athlete” – the idea that the people who find greatness are the ones who never give up, who feel like they’re at a deficit coming in.
2020 was on-tap to have some fun twists for Sarah. She was scheduled to run the Boston Marathon in April and ride an epic 144-mile gravel bike race, the Belgian Waffle Ride, a few weeks later in May. With all races postponed, she finds joy and motivation in the little things and is taking it one day at a time, chasing Strava QOM’s and suffering through Zwift races in her living room.
Listen to our podcast with Sarah on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. You can read the full interview below for a deep-dive on her learnings and insights on everything from fueling and recovery to sleep and mindset.
From chasing her older brothers to banking and the bet that led to triathlon
David Swain, Prokit (@swain): What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Sarah Piampiano-Lord: I had a smoothie with Greek yogurt, banana, flaxseed, hemp seed, orange juice, and two hard boiled eggs. I try to mix it up. I don’t like to have the same thing every day.
How does your breakfast change based on your training or recovery plan for the day?
Usually, if I have a pretty long day on tap, I will go with a more carb-focused breakfast. I’ll have a big bowl of oatmeal with yogurt, nuts, seeds, and berries, and usually some eggs. I might have a bowl of Cheerios, as well. If I have a day like today, a lighter recovery day, I try to focus less on the carbohydrates and more on protein and fats.
Talk about your journey from a kid in Maine chasing cross country titles to a collegiate athlete to banking and then back to sports.
I grew up in Maine and was quite an athletic little kid. I was skiing by the age of two, water skiing and riding my bike by three. I just loved being outside, running free, and doing everything that I could that was athletic. My parents signed me up for every sport that was available, so I did soccer, swimming, basketball and softball. I ran competitively from a pretty early age, and when I was eight, I qualified for the national cross country championships.
What was that like?
It was in Reno, Nevada. I got to get on a plane, miss school, and fly across the United States. As an eight-year-old kid, I was more into the trip with my parents than the running. I just thought that was really neat.
From there, I got quite into running. I was still ski racing, too, so fall was about running and winter was about skiing. When I got to high school, I had to make a decision. If I wanted to be a serious ski racer, I had to focus 100% on skiing, and if I wanted to be a serious runner, I had to start transitioning my focus more towards running. Cross country running and alpine ski racing don’t really go hand in hand. I love running now, but as a kid, I found it to be a lonely sport. One of the things I loved about skiing was that I was with all my skiing buddies every weekend. So I ended up choosing ski racing.
Initially, I went to Carrabassett Valley Academy (@gocva), which is a ski academy in Maine, but in my junior year, I was caught drinking. It was a big deal because as a sophomore, I went to CVA as a winter term student. I had finally convinced my parents to let me go full-time. It was the first time I ever drank in my life and I got caught. I was kicked out about a month into school.
As you can imagine, my parents were not happy with me, and I was so devastated because I had been so excited to go to CVA full-time. I was home for about a month, and my parents started to take pity on me because they saw how upset I was about the whole experience. They ended up letting me go to Stratton Mountain School in Vermont that November.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Colby College in Maine. It’s a Division 3 school except for skiing, which is Division 1. I actually got recruited for running by a lot of schools, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to go back to running at such a serious level. It was interesting to me that I was getting recruited for running when I hadn’t been running for so long. I decided to go to Colby and when I got there, I decided to start running again. I didn’t run my freshman year, but I ran my sophomore, junior, and senior years.
What did you study?
I was a biology major with an environmental science concentration. Colby is a liberal arts school, and students are required to take a range of different classes. I ended up taking an economics class, and I completely fell in love with it. Biology is very enigmatic. On a day-to-day basis, there’s not a real world application. I was taking my economics courses and reading the paper and watching the news. I was able to relate what I was learning in my econ course to what I was seeing everywhere around me, and I was very inspired by that. I ended up picking up a economics major, as well. I decided at that point that I didn’t really want to become a doctor. I wanted to go down the finance route.
What did the next few years look like?
I spent the summer after my junior year in San Francisco. I had just wanted to do something different. I was not somebody that pursued internships in college. I just wanted to enjoy myself. I worked at Kenneth Cole, babysat and did a whole range of things, but pretty much decided that I wanted to come back after school. There were not any firms from San Francisco that were recruiting at Colby College in Maine. So after I graduated, I packed up my car and drove across the country. My parents said, “We’ll give you two months of rent. After two months, you’re on your own.” I just started pounding the pavement. I ended up getting a job at Thomas Weisel Partners, a small boutique investment bank based in San Francisco. It has since been acquired by Stifel Financial.
What were your banker years like?
I started out initially on the trading floor and then eventually moved to investment banking doing mergers and acquisitions. It was a lot of long hours. People think I’m lying when I say I worked 120-hour weeks, but I really did work that much, here and there. I was definitely working over 100 hours a week on a regular basis. I didn’t take very good care of my body. I never worked out. All of my athletic capabilities just went out the door. I was part of a ski house in Tahoe, so at least I was still skiing on the weekends.
After three years in San Francisco, I moved to New York City in 2005. I lived on the Upper West Side and bought an apartment. Triathlon was not in my job plan. Then one night, I was out at a bar with some Colby friends. A guy friend and I ended up making a bet to see who could beat the other person at a triathlon.
I smoked a cigarette on my way to the race, but I beat him. It was a life changing moment for me. I just loved the experience. I think I had forgotten what that feeling of competing was like and as soon as I did that triathlon, even though I was in terrible shape, it brought back all of the memories. I just fell in love with it. I bought a bike and started training.
How much longer were you working before you fully went all in on triathlon?
That first triathlon was in June of 2009. I started taking it pretty seriously in 2010. That was my first year racing. At that point, I thought that I might have the potential to maybe go to the Olympics or race professionally. In 2011, I was working at HSBC, and I asked them if I could take a leave of absence. They gave me a year to pursue triathlon more seriously. I ended up winning the age group level of almost every race I entered, and then I finished fourth overall in my age group at the World Championships in Kona.
How did that happen in such a short period of time?
I grew up with two older brothers, and I always wanted to play with them. There was this unspoken rule that if I wanted to play with them, I had to toughen up. If I fell down, I had to get up and keep going. As a kid, I believed that I could do whatever they were doing. I never took no for an answer. I just kept trying and trying until I was able to do what they were doing. I feel like that has translated to my life as an athlete.
Also in banking, you never say, “That’s not possible.” If your boss wants some information, you go to the ends of the earth to find the information. I took what I picked up in banking mixed with my experience as a kid and applied it to triathlon. I was like, “Alright, this is where I want to go and, that’s just how it’s gonna be.”
How did your intense banking job impact your success as an athlete and your ability to build a career around it?
I learned that if you dig hard enough and work hard enough, you’re gonna figure it out. I think that’s translated really well to triathlon. If you just keep on plugging away and trying different things, you figure out how to get there. You don’t say no or can’t. You say, “Next time, I’m going to try this and see if it works.”
The other side of triathlon is sponsorship. When I decided that I wanted to race professionally, my PowerPoint, writing, and general business skills went to good use in trying to get sponsorships. I put together an athlete profile that was just perfect. It had great pictures, and from a formatting perspective, it was really well presented. I wrote cover letters to all of the sponsors I wanted to work with and highlighted what value I could bring to them individually. Unless you have a business background, that’s not necessarily something you would intuitively think to do. That helped me really get my career off the ground. My first year as a pro, I was sponsored by Shimano and got a deal with Cervelo, Clif Bar and Saucony. My sponsorships weren’t huge from a dollar perspective, but simply getting in the door was an important thing for me.
Your process clearly worked. How do you set aside the time to do it properly?
When I started racing professionally, I don’t even know if Instagram was a thing. Today, social media has become such an important part of what it means to be a sponsored athlete. These days, it’s really not just about the performance. It’s not just about getting up every morning and training, and then going to a race and performing. There’s a whole marketing and social media component of a sponsored athlete. My actual training time varies between 28 to 40 hours a week, and then I usually spend about 25 hours a week doing sponsorship stuff. I write blogs, do photo shoots, have calls to come up with activation ideas, plan video shoots or go to tri clubs and speak. There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s really not just training and racing.
Piampiano’s KIT: Triathlon, Training, and Trends
How has the coverage of triathlon, and endurance sports in general, changed?
Several years ago, I was working with a sports agent who mostly represented MLB, NBA, and NFL players. I wanted to work with her because I was interested in getting some non-endemic sponsors and getting publicity outside of the triathlon world. She couldn’t believe the triathlon event organizers weren’t spending marketing dollars on creating rivalries between the players, getting TV rights, and creating drama around triathlon events and the athletes. She said that all other professional sports spend money on marketing the players. That’s something that hasn’t really evolved in triathlon. Since then, I’m part of an organization called the Professional Triathletes Organization. We’re currently focused on bringing triathlon to the mainstream, because for the sport to evolve, and continue to evolve, it has to be brought to the mainstream. As a sport, that’s something we haven’t really done a good job doing so far.
If you don’t see it, you can’t believe it, and you can’t aspire to do it.
Every year the Ironman Kona is shown on TV. They do a mix of showing the pros and other inspirational stories, but it’s the only triathlon event that’s mainstream. People are very aware of the Hawaii Ironman, but they’re not aware of everything else that goes on. People spend hours watching poker games on TV, because they’ve done a really good job of bringing it to the mainstream, putting on television, and having commentary that people are really interested in. Same thing with golf. Twenty years ago, people weren’t watching golf in the way that they watch it now. It’s been brought to the mainstream. It’s become a household event that people want to follow and participate in. There’s a lot of room to do that within our sport.
Over the past decade, what have you learned about training, sleep, and recovery for you personally?
The one thing I probably noticed the most when I made the transition from working in a corporate environment to training and racing full time was the recovery component. When I was in the corporate world, I would work 16-20 hours a day and then get on my trainer at two o’clock in the morning so I could get my workout in. I was never getting enough sleep, and I was constantly getting sick and injured.
When I turned pro, suddenly my whole life was about training and recovery. I went from getting four hours of sleep a night to getting eight to 11 hours of sleep. The recovery practices I took up became really productive to my results, and I saw a huge upward trajectory in my training. People ask me what I would have done differently. Looking back, I definitely would have trained less and focused more on recovery. Recovery is king. That’s definitely one thing I’ve learned.
For me, the keys to performance are hydration, recovery, and fueling. Make sure you’re eating enough, eating at the right time, hydrating really well, and getting enough sleep. People are spending thousands of dollars on recovery devices, and then they’re only getting four hours of sleep or starving themselves and they’re wondering why they’re not performing well. Those are the three biggest influencers on your performance.
There are new kinds of trends for how people can monitor their health, overall stress on their bodies, and recovery. What have you found that works? How do you figure out if you’ve recovered?
You have to become acutely aware of how your body’s feeling. I think sometimes people sell themselves short. For example, this morning I had a pretty hard bike session. When I got on the bike before the session started, I was just dying. I said to my husband, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” I was just feeling terrible, but the session went fine. I think sometimes it’s just that your body is waking up.
I use a Cercacor Ember device that takes a whole range of measurements. I use it first thing in the morning and in the evening before I go to bed. It measures things like resting pulse rate, heart rate variability, my hydration levels, and my oxygen saturation. All of those give me really good information, but I also don’t take them as gospel. My heart rate variability one morning may tell me that I’m recovered and ready to go, but that does not necessarily mean that I’m really recovered and ready to go. I could still go out that day and have an absolutely terrible workout. I could have a great workout on a day when my heart rate variability says that I’m under recovered.
Part of it is matching what the metrics are saying with how you’re subjectively feeling, and certainly looking at the trends is very important. If I have a week where my heart rate is really elevated and I’m also feeling fatigued, that probably means I’m under recovered.
How much does mindset fit into this equation?
I think mindset contributes significantly to your success as an athlete. You can be a really talented athlete, but if you’re not mentally strong, it’s only gonna get you so far.
I believe in the curse of the super talented athlete. I find that really talented athletes who have the capacity to crush everybody are not the ones that end up being the most successful in the end because they tend to be mentally weaker. Then there are the athletes who are gifted, but not that gifted, and have to really work for their success. They’re the ones that end up being the grinders, and they never give up. They just push to get themselves to the top. They feel like they’re at a deficit coming in, so they have to make up for it with mindset and work ethic. I think the mental game is more important than what your physical gifts are.
You’ve clearly had a mental game since you were a young kid, chasing your older brothers around. What do you do now to get your head in the game?
My general feeling is that every day I go out to train is an opportunity to train my mind. I truly believe that you never, ever give up. If you’re in a training session and it’s not going well, then adjust your expectations for the day. If I’m supposed to run at a six-minute pace and I can’t hit those numbers, then I’ll do the intervals at 6:10 pace or 6:15 pace. I adjust my expectations to make sure I get the workout in, instead of quitting the workout. I feel good about that. I would feel worse about myself if I just quit.
I view every single session as an opportunity to test myself mentally. I find that if you learn how to adapt in training and learn how to push through the times when things aren’t going well, you take that mental training with you into competition. In Ironman 70.3 races, where you could be racing for four to 14 hours, there is no way that everything is going to go perfectly. The more you practice overcoming adversity, just like practicing fueling, you’re going to be equipped to handle it during a race. I do feel like my mind is my strongest asset and that I get a lot of my mental training from my actual training.
For both races and training, do you practice taking nutrition and hydration? How many people are doing that?
I don’t think a lot of people take fueling and hydration seriously in training. They show up to races, like an Ironman, and everybody’s very serious about nutrition and hydration because you’re out for such a long period of time. But if you haven’t practiced, you end up with a lot of GI distress.
The things that I’ve learned in training have been pretty amazing. For example, when I first started doing Ironmans, I would always bonk about two hours into the bike ride. I couldn’t figure out why. I remember very specifically being in LA and doing an Ironman-specific ride. At about three hours into the ride, I started bonking. I stopped and bought a Coke at a convenience store. I drank the Coke and started riding again and I was back. I felt great for the rest of the ride. I thought, “Wow, that was really interesting.” When I went out on another Ironman ride, the same thing happened and I bought another Coke. I started riding really well. So now, at about two hours into every Ironman race, I have a Coke and it works for me.
I think if you’re willing to be thoughtful and try things in training, you can learn a lot about yourself. When I first started doing Ironmans, I was hard-pressed to eat 150 calories an hour on the bike. Now I eat upwards of 450 calories an hour on the bike, which is a lot.
How much of that is through your drink?
I do a mix. I make these rice bars, and eat one an hour. I usually eat a pack of Clif Bloks an hour, which is 200 calories, or I’ll have a half a pack of Bloks and a gel. I get about 100 calories through my electrolyte mix, and then I add the Coke that I drink halfway through, which is about 275 calories. I have a very detailed eating plan that I go through for Ironman races. You can’t just go out and have 450 calories an hour, Most people’s guts wouldn’t be trained for that. Anytime I ride over two hours, I am actively practicing to eat every 15 minutes.
I used to only eat Clif Bloks and Clif gels at races, but in an Ironman, I would get to a point where my teeth would hurt. You’re literally eating liquid sugar for 10 hours, and as great as they taste, it’s really disgusting after a while. I found what works for me with nutrition is to vary it up. If I get calories from my electrolyte mix and a rice bar, which isn’t too sweet, and then a pack of blocks an hour, I’m able to take in calories much more easily and with more regularity than I was before.
Do you pull from trends in other sports?
The nutrition part for me is a little bit of trial and error, but I was also inspired when I read the book, Feed Zone Portables, by Dr. Allen Lim of Skratch Labs. He has a huge section that goes over how your gut is able to absorb energy. For example, rice bars are quite hydrated. If you eat something that’s well hydrated, you stay hydrated and your gut’s able to absorb it more readily. Otherwise, your gut has to pull water out of your cells to hydrate whatever it is you put in, like an energy bar, and that actually dehydrates you. I thought that was really fascinating.
I also read a book called Velochef by Henrik Orre, the nutritionist and chef for Team Sky, now Team Ineos. It encouraged me to try some different things and those things worked for me in training. Then I tried them in races. It was a little bit trial and error, but certainly reading is an incredibly important thing.
I find the same thing with training. I have a good relationship with my coach, Matt Dixon, and we have really evolved my training over the last 10 years. We’re doing a lot more endurance riding and really high intensity stuff. We’ve done a bunch of testing and looked at how I respond to training. We’ve determined that I respond best to high intensity work, but a lot of that’s come from reading and listening to podcasts. We’ve researched fat oxidation, how your body uses carbs and fat as energy, and the different training zones to maximize that. You can actually improve your performance through things like that. So a lot of it is education and then just being willing to try things out.
Do you have any go to podcasts or books for learning or just for fun?
I tend to listen to a lot of podcasts just for fun that have nothing to do with triathlon. I love How I Built This. I listen to The Morning Shakeout with Mario Fraioli (@mariofraioli). And then I just talk to people. My husband is a sports chiropractor, and we tend to have a lot of conversations about what he’s reading. I talk to my strength coach about new research.
Matt Dixon with Purplepatch Fitness has been your coach from the very beginning. What have you learned about working with a coach?
I would definitely say that my relationship with Matt has evolved over the years. When I decided to take triathlon seriously, I wanted to be coached by one of the best coaches in the world. I researched who they were and reached out to a bunch of them. When Matt and I decided to work together, I was so excited to have a coach, and I assumed that he knew all when it came to training. I just aimed to please. I didn’t want to fail on a certain workout, because I was afraid he would think that I wasn’t good enough. If I was tired, I wouldn’t communicate that to him. I wanted him to think that I was always ready to go and that I was always motivated.
In reality, that’s just not the case. You’re not going to feel good on every single workout, and you’re not always going to be motivated. Over time, Matt and I developed a very collaborative relationship. Now if I’m feeling consistently tired over a number of days, I’ll let him know. He’ll either tell me that’s how I’m supposed to feel and to keep pushing, or he’ll have me back off a bit. Because of my background in running, I have a good sense of what I need to do to progress my running, so we work together on that. I think the more you work with a coach, the more they get to know you and you get to know them. You learn how to work well together.
Moving Forward in Uncertain Times
What would you be doing right now, if this coronavirus shelter-in-place wasn’t happening?
I had planned to have a less traditional start to my year. I was asked by Clif Bar, my sponsor, if I was interested in racing the Boston Marathon, and I said yes. My plan was to kick my year off with the Boston Marathon in April, and then do the Belgian Waffle Ride, which is a 135-mile gravel race, with 13,000 feet of climbing. It’s pretty epic. I was going to kick my triathlon year off after that with a 70.3 in Chattanooga in May, and then I was headed to Slovakia for an event with the Pro Triathletes Organization called the Collins Cup. After, I was going to do some racing in Europe, a summer Ironman, and then get ready for Kona.
It’s been fun watching you chase down the QOMs on Strava instead.
Yeah, that’s been fun. When COVID first happened, I felt inclined to take a step back and not do anything with intensity. Then it became apparent that this was going to last a lot longer than a couple weeks. At this point, all triathlon races are canceled at least through July, and my expectation is maybe the whole season is going to be out. I felt like I wanted to have some goals to work towards. Now, I will have a QOM attempt scheduled for a certain day, and that’s my hard session. I’ve really been enjoying it.
It’s cool to see how I compare against these amazing female cyclists. It’s been very motivating, and I’ve actually hit some of my best numbers ever. It’s been really fun.
Assuming we get back to racing at some point this winter or early next year, what are your goals on the horizon?
Well, the Boston Marathon is currently rescheduled for September and the Belgian Waffle Rider is rescheduled for November, but to be honest, I’m not even thinking about those.
We should know sometime this month if the World Championship in Kona will take place in October. If it does, that will be my focus. I just think it’s hard to have any type of expectations for 2020. Personally, I’m just assuming that there won’t be any races. I’m going about chasing my QOMs, doing my Zwift races and not getting caught up in whether things are being canceled or not being canceled.
Beyond 2020, I’ll be transitioning out of triathlon. At some point, my husband and I want to start a family. I’m pretty interested in transitioning into more gravel racing, ultra running, and doing some marathoning. Running’s always been my first passion, and I totally love it. I just started getting into gravel biking this year. It’s so fun, and it’s challenged me in new ways.
This is a great place for all kinds of cycling.
I was asked recently where my favorite place to ride is and I said,”Probably here.” When you’re riding on Route One from Mill Valley to Stinson, or up over Seven Sisters to Mount Tam – it doesn’t really get more beautiful than that.
BoFax is a four mile climb with about 1500 feet of elevation gain, and then at the top of it, there’s the Seven Sisters segment, which are like seven big rollers. Seven Sisters is a very challenging segment for me because you need to have that super high, short spurt of power. I am not a high power person, whether it’s running or swimming or cycling. I actually race at roughly 90% of my VO2 max which is pretty crazy. The power I can hold for hours on end is not far below what my VO2 max power is. I just don’t have a big range. So the power I put in to get over the Seven Sisters is the same as a long climb.
You’ve now spent equal parts of your life in Maine and California. How do the two compare?
My heart is with the East Coast. I love it. I hope to move back one day. Although, my husband reminds me that I only visit the East Coast now in the summertime. I forget how awful the winters are. I do have to say that living in California is really special. I love that I can ride and be outside year-round. It’s just incredible, and the trails here are amazing. Whether you’re a road cyclist, a mountain bike rider, you like gravel, or trail running, this place is like heaven. What’s not heaven is the cost of living. It’s very expensive here. I could buy six houses in Maine for the price of one in California.
What about youth sports? What changes have you seen?
When I was a kid, my parents threw me into every sport possible. I skied, played soccer, basketball, softball and hiked. I feel like these days, as soon as kids show promise in a single sport, they’re being pushed into that sport. They’re asked to focus on one sport from a very early age. For kids to be lifelong athletes, I think it’s really important, at least through high school, to try to encourage them to participate in a broad range of sports.
I know that’s a hard thing. I’m sure you’ve read the book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. His whole thing is you need 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything and the sooner you start, the better. I do think that’s true, that you find mastery at 10,000 hours, but I also think there’s a whole mental component. If you’re burning your kids out, and not letting them find their own journey, the likelihood of them actually staying in sports is pretty low.
David Epstein’s book, Range, challenges Gladwell’s theory. It says that the people who are most successful in life are generalists who find what they’re good at through experimentation. You didn’t start triathlon until you were 30 years old. A couple years later, you were able to take that energy and what you’ve learned in other parts of your life and become one of the best.
How much of your success do you attribute to genetics, or your mindset and self-belief, or all the things you do for your body – training, nutrition, hydration, recovery?
Genetics certainly plays a factor. I think that no matter how mentally strong you are, if you’re not somewhat gifted, it’s not going to happen. Personally I think mindset is the most important factor in transitioning from a good age-group athlete to one of the best athletes in the world.
Where did the nickname “Little Red” come from?
When I was younger, my ski coach at Carrabassett Valley Academy called me Little Red because of my red hair. It just stuck and everybody started calling me Little Red.
Where can people find you?
You can find me on my website, on Instagram @spiampiano, and my Facebook Page. I’m also on Prokit @spiampiano.
For more interviews with triathlon and Ironman greats:
- Mark Allen, 6x Ironman World Champion
- Sarah True, 2X Olympian Triathlete; @sbtrue
- Prokit Moms in Sport featuring @meredithkessler, @jackiehering, Beth McKenzie and Hillary Biscay