Every athlete faces physical challenges. For Zach Josie, these challenges were just another obstacle to overcome, and his story as a triathlete with dwarfism can serve as an example to anyone looking to get faster.

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A Familiar Beginning and an Unusual Challenge

Zach Josie’s journey in triathlon follows a path taken by many athletes. It began in local races with a borrowed bike, and over the course of several years led to better equipment and serious training. It’s had highs and lows, with the encouraging results and disappointing setbacks that any racer experiences along the way. However, this 32 year-old’s story is a little different from most, as Zach has a rare form of dwarfism called Ellis-Van Creveld syndrome.

Back in college, Zach took a few spin classes and started running with his older brother. After graduating and moving home, a triathlete neighbor noticed his interest in endurance sports and encouraged him to try a race. Though only a casual runner and cyclist at the time, Zach decided to go for it and entered the Spudman Triathlon, a local event in Idaho known for its easy swim. With little specific training, no swimming experience, and riding a borrowed and oversized bike, Zach easily met his goal of finishing the olympic distance event in under 3 hours. After one successful race, Zach was hooked.  He invested in a new bike and began planning for future events.

A Challenging Schedule

As a person with Dwarfism, Zach deals with a unique set of physical obstacles, but he still faces a challenge that confronts every athlete: scheduling his training.

Zach runs a crew for a residential concrete construction company owned by his father and uncle. The work begins at 6:00am and is hard physical labor, which means training after a day on the job is not a good option. Instead, Zach gets up every day at 3:00 am and trains before work, eating a bar or small carbohydrate meal before his ride and a large breakfast immediately after. Because he is training for multiple sports, there are some instances where Zach can’t avoid a second workout after work, but he only does this for short recovery rides and runs. This arrangement allows him to enter his hard workouts as fresh as possible, and also allows him to be present in the evenings with his wife. It’s a challenging and demanding routine, but it’s the optimal arrangement both for Zach’s fitness and his well-being outside of sport.

Due to this schedule, Zach completes most of his training indoors on a smart trainer. TrainerRoad allows him to maintain this structure and efficiently utilize his limited training time. Prior to discovering the TrainerRoad podcast, Zach didn’t even know what an indoor trainer was, but he quickly became an avid listener and purchased his first trainer. After his initial season of structured training on TrainerRoad he increased his FTP by more than 20 watts.  

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Bike Fit

Dwarfism is often associated with small stature, but Ellis Van-Creveld syndrome has not caused Zach to be exceptionally short overall. Instead, the condition most noticeably affects his proportions. Zach stands about five feet tall, but his arms and legs are short relative to his torso, which is comparable to that of a five foot nine inch man. This offers some unique challenges for bike fit.

Early on in his cycling career Zach didn’t put too much thought into how his proportions affected his fit. He’d simply seek out the smallest bike he could find, lower the saddle all the way, and deal with the results. For his first dedicated triathlon bike, Zach purchased a 48cm frame, pushed the saddle as far forward as he could, and swapped the stock wheels with a smaller pair of 650c wheels. While this was an improvement over the borrowed 56cm frame he used in his first race it still wasn’t optimal, and resulted in discomfort on longer rides.

In late 2017 Zach upgraded to a 45cm Cervelo P5, the smallest frame available at the time. Eventually he sought out a professional fit, which took almost 5 hours and several follow-up sessions. Unsurprisingly, the bike required some major adjustments: saddle fully lowered, hard-to-find 140mm cranks, a proportionately long reach, and a special handlebar/ elbow pad position.

The performance results of the fit were enormous, allowing for a flatter back, a dramatically faster and smoother pedal stroke, and much improved comfort over long rides. While many of Zach’s specific fit needs are a result of his dwarfism, every athlete is physically unique, and the benefits of a bike fit can be equally profound for all of us.

Running and Swimming

Zach’s proportions have implications for his running and swimming technique as well. Due to his leg length he runs most efficiently at a high cadence. This naturally drives up a runner’s heart rate, but through specific training he’s learned to sustainably maintain a high pace. Zach has also found that his body is poorly suited to running uphill. To compensate, he now does most of his runs on an inclined treadmill to build muscular strength.

Swimming has been Zach’s biggest challenge in triathlon, owing both to physical limitations and a simple lack of experience. Working with a swimming coach, Zach adjusted his technique to work around his body’s challenges. The first goal was learning to efficiently breathe, a process that seemed almost silly at first. However, after practice he was able to integrate the new techniques into his race-pace swimming, and the improvements of this simple change were huge.

The second lesson focused on using his hips and core to drive himself in the water. Zach is naturally limited in how powerfully he can pull and kick himself forward in the water, but studying the movements of olympic swimmers revealed that shoulder and torso motion is crucial. Improving his form added to his breathing efficiency, and in combination with open water drills and some adjustments to the fit of his wetsuit Zach’s swim got markedly better. Through specific training and attention to detail, Zach was able to turn his greatest weakness into a significant improvement.

Lessons for Everyone

The specific challenges Zach Josie faces might be uncommon amongst triathletes, but when it really boils down to it no athlete is “average.” Physical obstacles and weaknesses are something we all face, and all of our bodies possess strengths, weaknesses, and quirks that affect our ability to perform. The key to success is to follow Zach’s lead- identify what you can improve, understand your own limitations, and work within your abilities to reach your potential.

Tell us your story. Success isn’t always a race win. It can be life-changing health improvements, reaching a personal goal, or more. 

For more cycling training knowledge, listen to Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.