© Romilly Locklyer
When GB triathlete and 2 x ITU world champion, Helen Jenkins, lined up for the London 2012 Olympic Games, she was a favourite for a podium. Yet, unbeknownst to most people, she’d been unable to train for weeks – or even walk the day before the race – due to excruciating knee pain derived from an on-going back issue. Incredibly, Helen raced her way to 5th place in London, which is astonishing given the pain she was in.
Since then the three-time Olympian has had spinal surgery and become a mum to Mali (almost 2) and, more recently, Max, who was born in May. Here, Helen talks about the emotional cost of being injured at the peak of your career, her goals for the future, and the challenges (and joys!) of balancing family and training.
Congratulations on the birth of your son, Max! How are you enjoying being a family of four?
It’s a lot of fun being a family of four, but very busy. No one tells you it’s going to be this busy! It’s not just double the work, it seems like triple [laughs] but things have settled down now they’re getting into a routine. We’re very lucky we’ve got a lot of support close by from grandparents which really, really helps.
After your first child, Mali, was born did you have to become innovative with your training?
After Mali was born, I found it quite tough because I went back to training really quickly. I was back going to the gym and seeing people like physios in Cardiff within two weeks, so I did find that quite hard – getting out and leaving her. So when she was old enough to come running with us in the buggy, that was brilliant. It’s just another way of getting your child out with you, and they love it, being outside and seeing what you do. There were a few runs where Marc would join me with Mali on the back of the bike, which was nice.
The challenge is the balance – you have that guilt of leaving them. One of the biggest challenges for me was getting that core strength back after having Mali, so I was having to spend a lot of time making sure my abs were really tight, my core was really strong, so I could return to a good level of training.
Were there any other challenges in getting back your fitness levels?
After Mali, definitely. Your whole body’s changed; you’ve had a long time off, so I think it’s just about being really careful and really cautious. One of my biggest challenges was that I’d had a bad back for years, and we weren’t sure how the pregnancy was going to affect it. Just with the pregnancy, everything loosens and slackens off around the joints and ligaments, and my back did get a lot worse afterwards, so that was the hardest thing to deal with – I ended up having to have surgery on my back to fix the problem. The pregnancy didn’t cause the problem, which was already there, but it did make it worse, so the back [injury] was probably the biggest challenge to getting back to a level of fitness.
Is it true your back was so painful you could only get out of bed a certain way?
Yeah, that’s right. My back’s not been brilliant for years. I had a lot of injury problems early on in my career, around 2006, and I really had to address a lot of my issues like core stability and get really strong just to compensate for my back being bad. I managed to cope with it for a long time, just by being really careful and smart with training, but there were certain things that I got used to as being ‘normal’ – I couldn’t sit down in a car for any length of time without a lot of pain; standing up for any length of time; getting out of bed, I’d have to roll a certain way. If it was a pretty windy day, I probably wouldn’t go out riding, I’d have to do a lot of indoor training. I did a lot of indoor bike and treadmill, just to adapt to problems I was having with my back when it would tighten and spasm. To me, it became normal, and after having my back surgery that did fix a lot of things – like, ‘Oh wow, I can sit in a car now and it doesn’t hurt.’
Since having the surgery have you seen an improvement in the pain or your mobility?
It’s been massive in terms of the pain – the day-to-day, low level pain which I’d perceived as normal was just gone. After the surgery there was a period where I couldn’t do any lifting, but from then on I’ve been able to pick my daughter up no problem and she’s now almost 12 kilos. So it’s been fantastic. I don’t regret having the surgery at all, it was the thing I needed to do.
One of my main questions for the surgeon was, if I stop sport, would I need the surgery at some point? Because I wasn’t thinking about professional sport at that time; it was about am I going to live an active, healthy life with my children. He said, you’re going to need this surgery at some point and you’re really going to struggle doing sport in the future, just recreationally. So I needed to have it done.
Rewinding to the 2012 Olympic Games. You couldn’t walk the day before your triathlon yet you raced your way to 5th place – how did you get through the pain?
Looking back to the whole London Olympics, I don’t know how I got through it. I really don’t. I don’t know how I stood on the start line and dealt with the pressure of going in as one of the favourites. We hadn’t told many people what was going on [with the injury/pain] and how I actually dealt with it and got on, I don’t know [laughs]. You do just get on with it.
The main thing to deal with was that I hadn’t done the training to get the position I wanted to, but a good friend of mine, who was my sport psychologist at the time, said, ‘You’ve got to race the race how you would have raced it anyway. That’s got to be your plan. You’ve got to do what you do and get as far as you can.’ So I think I went in with that mentality and that attitude. One of the biggest things on race day was the crowd support on the run. I get goosebumps thinking about it – I’d never heard anything like that or felt anything like that and you do feel that you’re being pushed on; I couldn’t just quit and jog round, I had to get everything out of myself that day, which was 5th place. I still don’t really like going to Hyde Park, even now. It’s just a bit emotional.
Have you employed mental strategies in racing and training that help you when it gets tough?
You speak to a lot of athletes and they all employ different strategies. For me, I’m quite organised, so I’d always have a plan for a race; a plan of what I was doing the day before, different scenarios of what could happen. I like to have thought about these things, and that makes me a lot less nervous and a lot calmer in the lead-up to a race. It controls a lot of nerves.
Visualisation is another. It’s not something I did so much as my career went on, but when I was young it helped, especially in the swim. Anyone who has started a triathlon knows the swim is the most nerve-wracking part and that goes all the way through to elite level because it’s an unknown; it’s out of your control a lot of the time. Visualising a lot of the swim helped.
Do you use mantras?
I’ve had a lot of injuries, a lot of hard times, and one thing that helped is the mantra, ‘This too shall pass’, because if you have an injury and you can’t do what you want, it feels like the biggest thing in the world. But you know that in a week, in a month, in a year, when you do your next race, it will be gone and you’ll be on to the next thing. That really helped me when I was struggling with my worst times: this is going to pass, it’s not going to last forever, this injury, this pain will be gone soon and you’ll be able to go on to the next goal or challenge.
Did you get nervous before a race and did you have a race routine or pre-race rituals?
I did get nervous, but in a way, I got used to liking those nerves. In ITU races you always had the briefing two days before, so from that briefing time it almost felt like you were on an unstoppable forward motion towards the race and it was horrible, but you get comfortable with being uncomfortable with those nerves and that helped.
Different pre-race rituals were just silly things like painting my nails or using the same hair bobbles I’d had for the same race – little superstitious things that always would help. And then I would try and read the night before the race, or the morning before if it was in the afternoon, as a distraction. Because at that point you’ve done all you need to do – there’s no point going over plans or thinking, it’s just trying to keep my mind distracted before it’s time to go down to the race.
You’ve said that during your career the emotional cost of dealing with injury has made you want to quit…
Definitely, dealing with injury has been the hardest part of my career. To me, the training is easy – you train hard, no problem. People have to tell me to do less because I always want to do more, so that’s not a problem. It’s dealing with it when you can’t do the training, because I know if I train hard I’m pretty much going to race well and that all takes care of itself. Injuries are the hard times and I think it’s the same for anyone in any walk of life; if you really want to do something and you’re working hard towards something and you’re stopped from achieving that, it’s really tough.
I’ve learnt a lot about myself during those times about what keeps me happy. I’d be unhappy because I couldn’t compete and was injured, so I had to figure out what I could do [outside of sport] that makes me happy. You realise that as an athlete, you’re outside a lot of the time and then when you’re injured, you’re suddenly indoors the whole time, not able to go out. So it’s about making sure I go out and do things – go to the beach, get some fresh air, that kind of thing. You really have to know yourself and what makes you tick to be able to get through those hard times.
Your husband, Marc, is your coach. Has that partnership helped during your injuries?
I think it’s very tough being husband and wife, partner and coach, and all of those rolled into one when you’re injured, because if your partner’s not involved you can go home and put it aside, but there were some points in my career when I was injured when we were both so invested in it, it was really tough. We got so much better as time went on, particularly after 2012 – we had to get better at it otherwise we wouldn’t have survived as me competing and being married, being as emotionally involved as we were.
We got very good at coming home and just putting it aside, where triathlon wasn’t what we talked about. It was a part of our lives; it wasn’t all of our lives. In our house we have hardly any triathlon stuff or memorabilia around. There’s actually one medal hanging up and my little girl the other day wanted to look at it and she said, ‘It’s mummy’s’. I don’t know how she knew that but she must have been aware from some point. But that’s pretty much all we have; it’s just not really part of our everyday life – it’s what we do, but it’s not everything. But that’s how we’ve managed to get through it and still be married, I think! [laughs]
Max is only a few months old now. Are you back training with a plan or are you relaxed about it?
I didn’t do anything for a couple of weeks after the birth, just hung out with Max and got used to dealing with two children [laughs]. But yeah, I’ve got back into exercising to begin with. There hasn’t been a specific plan yet because we haven’t managed to get that going but that will come soon. We’ve just enjoyed [getting back into] doing the training, whereas the first time, after Mali, I felt like I had to get back into it and almost resented it because I was going out and leaving her.
This time it’s more on my terms and it’s like escaping to go on a bike for an hour to get back into that routine. I come back refreshed and ready for that family time, so it’s been really relaxed until now. It’s getting back to that point where we’re ready to start putting together a proper training plan and start moving forward now. My tendency is to do too much too soon so it’s been good to take it easy and ease my way back in.
Have you set any goals – either for races or physical achievements – for this year?
Not goals, but as a physical achievement, I’ve entered the Cardiff half-marathon. I’ve never done a mass race. I’ve done elite triathlon for years, so it’s something different that I entered when I was pregnant as something to aim for. I’m really excited about that. And then my other goal is to try and get my fitness up, follow a training plan and see what level my fitness gets to.
What are your thoughts about your career – will you return to elite racing?
I’d love to return to elite racing – it’s what I love to do. It’s a bit of an unknown at the moment, with two children and [not knowing] how my back is going to take the training. The aim is to either get back to ITU racing, and if that doesn’t work to maybe try some longer racing, some 70.3 triathlon, and if that doesn’t work, I just want to do some different sort of challenges – just to do a few different races, stay fit and active, that’s what I’d love to be doing.
What are your favourite items of kit for training?
I’m a little bit addicted to training on Zwift at the moment, so that’s a big one – I’d describe it as virtual reality racing cycling, if you don’t know what it is… I don’t know if I’m right! So I’m loving Zwift.
I’m quite geeky, I like to know what I’ve done and the distance, so I like good watch so I know how many kilometres I’ve done, what time I’ve done and get a bit obsessive over those numbers. That keeps me happy.
Are you working with any partners or sponsors at the moment?
I’m still working with HUUB wetsuits, they’ve been brilliant through both pregnancies and back surgery, really supportive. I’m at the stage where I’m getting back into racing after being away for a few years, so I’m looking to team-up with some partners to support me on the journey moving forward which could end up in a couple of ways – it could end up in ITU racing, the longer distance [triathlons] or different challenges and adventure racing.
You can follow Helen on social media via www.instagram.com/heljinx