© Ryan Sosna Bowd
What’s it like to plan your racing comeback, take fourth at your first race in three years and then see your race plans crumble around you? Olympian and former triathlon world champion Helen Jenkins gives me the lowdown, as we discuss her fourth-place finish at Ironman Dubai in February, and the subsequent worldwide race cancellations that followed.
Helen, who is mum to one-year-old Max and 2.5-year-old Mali with husband and coach, Marc, is now juggling the demands of being a fulltime ‘lockdown’ parent alongside her elite athlete training. We caught up over the phone to discuss Dubai, future racing, lockdown training challenges and the realities of parenting two small kids while working.
Since our last chat, you’ve had your first race in three years – Ironman Dubai. How was it?
Yes, that was the start of Feb. I wasn’t really ready to race with my fitness, but I was like, ‘You’ve got to race at some point’, and now I’m so glad I did because there have been hardly any races since. I was really lucky I got one in!
How did you find travelling and racing again after three years away, spinal surgery and two babies?
I’d had a hard January – we were in Lanzarote, which was lovely, but Marc was back and forth to London because he was doing some coaching on the set of a film, so I was on my own a lot with the kids. My parents were around, so I had support there, but day-to-day the little things – like bottles and tidying – all fell to me. So by the time I had the prospect of three days away, sitting on an aeroplane and not having anything to do, able to watch a film for a few hours, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t wait!’
I wasn’t nervous at all until the night before, and then I was really nervous. It was nerve-wracking to be back, but I loved it and I really enjoyed the race. It was a good performance for what I’ve been through the past few years, but it wasn’t a good performance compared to where I’ve been. I think I was just happy to be out there just doing it again.
Did it feel natural to be back competing?
It was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I used to do’. I love being a mum, I really, really love it. I enjoy it and I like playing with the kids. But it was lovely doing something that was just me again. It was like, this is what I used to do, week-in, week-out – the travelling, even the stuff like building the bike. It was really nice to be doing something just for me again.
Since then races have been cancelled – have any of your race plans been affected?
Yeah, initially I was hoping to race at the beginning of April, but I got back from Dubai and got sick. Just a virus, but I wasn’t very well for a few weeks and the kids both got chickenpox. I was unfit, so we then planned on the end of April [to race again].
My dad said to me a few weeks ago, “You’ve picked the wrong year for a comeback, haven’t you!”
It’s taken a bit of an adjustment – what to do with no goals or races coming up, and more and more stuff getting cancelled. They haven’t cancelled races at the end of the year yet, but it just seems so unlikely. How are they going to social distance athletes in a triathlon?!
With a lot of uncertainty do you find yourself losing motivation and feeling your way along?
It has been really up and down. Like I said, it was quite unfit anyway, but I had a really rough March, and [since then] I’ve had a few bad patches thinking, ‘What’s really the point?’ But I’m having a good patch at the moment, I’ve got into a bit of a rhythm. I wasn’t really training with many goals, but I’ve set myself some small goals like I’ve got a bike session I’m trying to hit once a week and a harder run. I think that’s actually helped me – choosing the stuff I love to do and focusing on that.
In the back of my mind, I’m thinking if nothing happens this year at least I’m building [fitness]. It’s like a really long winter: I’m putting stuff in the bank for the future. I try not to think too far ahead – I think that’s when I get a bit demotivated. But I think it’s also accepting that I’m going to have ups and downs, and when I do have those downs, well, I’ve got the kids which is a massive distraction, and I’m able to spend a bit more time with them for a few days and then refocus.
My friend is a sports psych and she does a lot of work with Olympic sports, helping support the athletes through so many different emotions at the moment. Some athletes just don’t have any access to their training facilities, so in a way, we’re quite lucky in triathlon. I can do a lot from home. It’s a hard situation for athletes, but I think in the back of your mind you’re thinking, it’s not hard for me in general. So many people are putting themselves and their lives at risk, so you need to keep that perspective. People are going out having to do a lot harder things than I’m doing.
What’s the reality of having to juggle training with looking after two young kids?
We’ve had to change a few things, just balancing the day and parenting, really. It’s not perfect, it’s just ‘managing’. Because Marc works from home most of the time – he coaches and has other things going on – he has a few hours of the day when he needs to be at the computer, so we work around that. He also wants to train in the day too – both of us are better parents and people when we’ve exercised! So it’s balancing that.
How does it work – do you schedule your training around the kids?
We kind of make a schedule the night before – who’s going to train when, who will have the kids when, when marc is going to work, what we’re going to eat, any ideas for activities we’re going to do with the kids that day – just so we don’t get stuck in a rut of the same thing over and over again. We had a delivery the other day which came in a great big cardboard box, so that was on the list for the next day with the kids – painting the cardboard box!
I would normally swim at 5.30am-7am every morning, so I’ve been getting up at that time to do something indoors or on the bike like Zwift. Then I’ll train that evening during the kids’ dinner and wind-down time. Having the kids in the middle of the day on your own is pretty full-on, so we try and work it out that when Max naps, Mark will train. We just kind of divide it up, but yeah, it’s tiring!
The schedule and planning are never really stuck to strictly but it does help to have a loose idea. Because there are no races, we hadn’t been formally planning my training, but in the last three weeks Marc’s been putting it into Training Peaks and I’ve found that this is so much better because I’m a bit… ‘obsessive’ is probably the word [laughs], so if we put the training in, I feel like I’ve got to do it. It helps me be more productive. If it’s not down, it’s easy for me to go, ‘Ah, I’m tired, I won’t do it’.
Have you been cycling outside or is it mostly indoors on the turbo?
I haven’t been out riding, no. Because we were only allowed out to exercise once a day, I tended to use that to go for a run or take the kids out for a walk. I don’t mind the indoor bike that much, so I’ve been using my time to exercise outside more for running and stuff. Indoors, I’ve been on Zwift; I kind of like it because it suits my obsessive nature [laughs].
What hard sessions are you doing on the bike?
A swim coach friend of ours who used to compete in triathlon is doing a bike session a week. He asked if I wanted to join and I agreed, not really realising how hard it was! He’s trying to improve his threshold limit so I just tag along and do his session. Because I’m not training for anything specific at the moment, it’s much more enjoyable than doing my own thing. So that’s really helped, just having some company, even if it’s virtual. Someone to message after each rep going, ‘Oh my god, that was horrible!’
You mentioned training on Zwift?
One of the nice things about Zwift is that there are a lot of group sessions, so I tend to join one, as I think it makes the time go quicker and there’s more of a focus [to my training]. I’ve been doing two harder rides in a week for the last few weeks, so that’s keeping me going.
There’s also a [Zwift] Race Series for the pro triathletes, but I haven’t actually felt fit enough to do it yet. They stream the races online and I’ve seen the results afterwards, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I am not fit enough to do that!’, but I’m going to do a couple of weeks more of my sessions and then throw myself in and give it a go. Why not? It will be fun!
What about your running – what does that look like at the moment?
Initially, because I’ve been easing back into fitness a bit, it’s been about easy running. I find running is the best mental headspace; it makes me feel so much clearer when I’m back from my run. I think it’s being outside, being in nature. Running is definitely my therapy, I suppose. We live about 15-minutes’ drive from the beach; I’m really missing that, so I go running near the river.
I do quite a few of my harder runs on the treadmill. In the last few weeks, I’ve put one tempo run in there which I do on the treadmill and I’ve enjoyed starting doing a bit of harder running. Whereas a few weeks ago, I probably wasn’t ready to start it. Now, I’ve found it does give me that little bit of focus during the week.
With pools closed have you been doing any swim-related strength work like stretch cords?
My intention is good – my stretch cords are out, but I haven’t used them that much. The stretch cords literally only take ten minutes a day, but it’s finding that ten minutes around the kids and committing to it that I’m not so good at. So I’m not doing as much as I should, definitely. But I’ve done a little bit. I’m kind of lucky that I’m pretty flexible.
My parents-in-law have actually got a pool in their garden, just a little one, and the last two weeks have been okay to swim – not warm, but warm enough – so I’ve been down there twice a week, staying a good distance from my family. I tie a band around myself and swim for half an hour, just to keep that patterning. I don’t actually think it will provide any fitness for when I do get back in the pool properly, I think it’s more sort of conditioning so hopefully, my body remembers what to do.
You’ve got some new sponsorship partners, is that right?
Yes, Vitus bikes. When I first raced in Dubai, I bought a time trial bike for it and I hadn’t really been on it that much or been set-up on it. I didn’t want to jump straight into a new partnership with a new bike company – I’ve had so many problems working back from my back surgery that I had to make sure the bike was going to be all right for me. We tried the Vitus and it was amazing, it’s been really good for my back.
The real positive of not racing at the moment is that I’ve got lots of time to get used to riding my time trial bike [laughs]. If we get back to racing this year or next year, at least I’ll be practised on it. So that’s been really cool, just to be on a really good TT bike and get into a good position. Hopefully, when I can, I’ll be able to get adjusted on it but at the moment I’m just doing it by feel.
I’ve still got [support from] Huub wetsuits and I’m working with On running as well. I loved the On shoes, I was really surprised as they don’t look like a traditional running shoe but I really got on with them and they do lovely kit too. And [we’re supported by] CLIF Bar too, but the problem is, I’m a bit addicted to their bars. And Marc has definitely got an addiction to their protein bars!
Once races are back on, is your plan to continue racing where you left off in February?
I’d like to unless my body stops me. It’s hard to keep the motivation, but I wasn’t thinking [with this comeback], ‘One more year and I’m done’. At the moment, I can definitely stay motivated to keep coming back. I think having partners and sponsors makes a difference as well; people have given me some great kit so I want to get out there and race in it. I was really motivated after Dubai, I felt like I had lots of room to improve and I was happy with what I’d done. I felt that definitely with a few more weeks of training I could come back and race really well. I think I have to keep focusing on that feeling.
How is your back now? (Helen had back surgery in 2018 following years of pain)
It’s been good. Swimming is sometimes the thing that aggravates it the most. I’m trying to keep everything mobile as part of my daily routine with a bit of foam rolling and stretching, which keeps everything loose. I’m sure carting around a 2.5-year-old and a one-year-old is not the best thing for it, but at least I’m getting some strength training [laughs], although I’m not sure that counts as swim-specific!