When it comes to multisport events, Helen Russell has been there, done that and scooped a podium in the process. Currently the British Quadrathlon Champion (swim, kayak, bike, run), Helen also has World and European age group titles in aquathlon, triathlon and duathlon under her belt. On top of that, she’s a fervent fundraiser who has cycled the entire Tour de France route one day ahead of the pros for Cure Leukaemia, and last year cycled up Mt. Ventoux via all three routes in one day for Air Ambulance. All in all, she’s pretty epic!
Here, Helen chats capsizing kayaks, surreal moments cycling with Lance Armstrong and how failing her driving test kick-started her journey as an age group multisport athlete.
You’ve been successful in pretty much every multisport discipline as an adult – were you active growing up?
I was part of an athletics club when I was younger, a teenager, but I kind of gave it up like lots of girls do. When you’re 15-years-old there’s just more interesting things to do than running around a track at night, or so I thought at the time.
I was always active, I did some dance, but I’d never really done any ‘tough’ sports until my mid-twenties, when I started an office job and noticed the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. One of my colleagues entered us into a 5km run and I thought, I’m not sure I want to go back to running. But I trained with them, ran it with them and caught the bug again. I joined the local running club and then things started to escalate from there.
So you were back running and enjoying it. How did the cycling come about?
I focused on just running for a couple of years. When I moved from London back to Worcestershire, which is quite rural in comparison, I was finding it quite difficult to get around because I kept failing my driving tests [laughs]. So I bought a second-hand bike for £30, and I just loved the freedom that the cycling gave me, both in terms of the ability to commute and getting to places, but also just going for rides without a purpose, just seeing the countryside and exploring.
How did you get into triathlon?
I was enjoying cycling more and more, and a friend suggested perhaps trying a triathlon, which sounds easier than it was because I wasn’t a great swimmer – I could do backstroke and one or two lengths of front crawl. So I started to have some swimming lessons, joined a local triathlon club, and did my first triathlon in 2006. It was a bit of disaster! My goggles kept coming off in the swim, my chain came off on the bike, I forgot to take my helmet off in transition, but it was good fun. And although I didn’t really do that well, I thought I’d give it another go and continued to train towards some races in 2007, which is what I would call my first season in triathlon.
That’s how it all started really, the running started because I noticed I was putting on weight in my office job, and then the cycling started because I couldn’t pass my driving test!
You went on to win titles in triathlon, duathlon and aquathlon. Were you working fulltime while training and competing as an age group GB athlete?
At that point, I was. I now work part-time because I had a major life change in 2013 when I gave up work and became a student again. But at the time, I was working fulltime. It’s really hard to maintain the level of fitness to be competitive at that international level, so it was a question of training before and after lunch or at lunchtimes. You have to be a real expert in time management as a triathlete.
I lived close to where I was working at the time and the location of my work was near some really good off-road woods for runs and stuff.
Presumably juggling work and training meant very early starts?
Sometimes I’d have to get up at 5am for a 6am swim group – I still do, in fact. 5am is the earliest. 6am is pretty regular to get up to go swimming or do something before work. That’s actually still the case because although I’m part-time, when I’m working I’m training before and after. It’s the same for all triathletes competing at a high level; it’s difficult to manage the time and you don’t have the luxury of recovery time that the professionals have.
How did your move into quadrathlon come about?
I’d won international medals in duathlon and aquathlon but never triathlon, so my aim was to win a medal in international triathlon in 2013. And when I did that, winning my age group at the European triathlon champs, I then felt that I’d achieved everything I’d wanted in triathlon. After that, I was abroad studying for a year, and did the Day Ahead Tour de France challenge when I came back.
I’m the kind of person that has to be motivated by a challenge – I can’t just do the same things over and over again. I need a new type of challenge to motivate me, and somebody told me about quadrathlon. I’d never kayaked before, but it kept ticking over in my mind, so I thought I’d give it a go.
Can you explain what a quadrathlon involves?
It’s usually swim, kayak, bike, run. It’s always a swim first, then you’re usually spread out by the time you get to the kayak. If the kayaking and swimming are in a smallish lake, they like to split it up so that people aren’t swimming and kayaking at the same time. In that case, it’s swim, bike, kayak and run. The quadrathlons I did this year as part of the national championships kind of reflect the distances in triathlons, so Sprint or Olympic distance. For example, the Sprint distance would be a 750m swim, 4km kayak, 20k kayak and 5k run.
How did you get started in quadrathlon?
I joined Worcester Canoe Club near me and did one of their taster courses. I was really, really bad at it! I banged into the sides of the river with the kayak, I fell in, it was freezing… I think the coaches were wondering what on earth I was doing there! But because I had an event in mind that I wanted to do that year, I just persevered at it, improved and my general level of fitness allowed me to progress with the kayak.
Photo Credit: Mike Waring
Is there a technique to kayaking?
Yes, it’s a bit like swimming in that everything happens under the water. My technique is appalling, so I think I can still make some major gains with it. I’ve only really been doing it since 2016. I just thought a kayak was a kayak, but you get more streamlined race kayaks with different types of stability. The less stable the kayak, the more aerodynamic and faster it cuts through the water. I’ve had to progress to learn how to ride increasingly less stable kayaks. So that’s been a challenge as well.
Despite this you became British Champion and went on to win the Quadrathlon series this year!
My strengths in the other three disciplines gave me an advantage over the field who came from more of a kayak background. I think people approach quadrathlon either from a triathlon background or a kayaking background and I was strong enough in the other three disciplines so that although I lost time – and still do lose it – in the kayaking, I was able to make it up quite quickly in the cycling and the running. So it was almost like brute strength really in the kayaking, that got me through, rather than technique.
Where do you feel the effort of kayaking?
At the moment, I feel it in my arms, but people would tell me that’s because I’m not doing it properly. There’s a lot of core work, a lot of rotation involved. I need to learn how to engage my core more and also my lat muscles, more than just my arm muscles. I’ve got a lot to learn!
Is it hard to train for four quadrathlon disciplines?
It’s quite hard for me to do enough kayaking to really improve a lot at it. I’m improving really quickly, but as we continue to kayak through the winter, I can only really train at the weekend because otherwise it’s dark. There are indoor kayak ergo machines, similar to the rowing machines, but there’s not that many of them about. So it’s quite hard to fit the kayaking in. Obviously, training across four disciplines does mean that I do less of some of the other three. It’s meant that my times have gone backwards, certainly in the running, but that’s just inevitable when you’re training for four disciplines – something will give. It’s just about having fairly equal skills across all four. I was fairly lucky in triathlon that there wasn’t necessarily one thing that I was much better at, I was fairly equal and that’s the best way to be for an age-group triathlete in mainly non-drafting races.
Do you do any strength work as part of your training?
I do weights, core work and I do pilates once a week. I’m a real believer in pilates for core strength and for injury prevention. I do strength work that looks at past injuries, so it’s like strength/rehab work. Strength is a mixture of free weights but also machines like the lat pull-down, bicep work for the swimming and then squats and lunge work.
In race season, what would a typical week of training look like?
I do try and train twice a day, six days a week, but it doesn’t always work out because, y’know, life. You can’t always stick to the plan. I’ve probably got a bit more of a relaxed attitude to training than I used to have. When I was doing GB international stuff, I was probably a bit more regimented. I’ve tried to get a bit more balance. And because I’ve ticked the boxes and quadrathlon is new and an unexpected area for me to go in, I try and take a bit more of a relaxed attitude, enjoying it.
Do you log your training?
I do it the old fashioned way, in the diary! I do have a weekly training programme, but I find the training diary is really good for looking back over the years, perhaps repeating some old sessions. Also, it helps me to identify what may have led up to an injury, so it helps looking at what training I was doing. But I’m very old school in terms of tracking and training – I don’t do Strava. I think people can get really obsessed with technology. I’ve seen people in a swim session switch their Garmin on when we’re doing a technique session, and I’m like, why do you need to track the speed or distance when we’re doing technique? I just find it really strange.
Do you train by power and wattage on the bike?
I worked quite closely with the guy that developed the Wattbike as he lives in the same town as me. He used to set me sessions that said: ‘Do this cadence with this resistance and it will generate the wattage I want you to work at.’ We always used to do it that way, rather than focusing on the wattage; it was about hitting the right cadence and the right gearing and that would generate the wattage. I don’t have a power metre on my bike or anything like that – I really am quite old school!
I just like the freedom that training without technology gives me. Sometimes on a long bike ride you just want to enjoy the scenery and listen to what’s happening.
Tell me about your epic challenge to cycle the entire Tour de France one day ahead for charity
In 2015, I was approached by former England footballer, Geoff Thomas, to take on the One Day Ahead challenge, where we cycled the entire route of the Tour de France one day ahead of the professionals for Cure Leukaemia. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done – harder than any race I’ve ever done, both mentally and physically! But it made me realise that I could put my hours of training to some use other than winning medals and competing for GB, because I’d done all this training and if it can go towards helping raise lots of money for charities, then why not?
The Tour de France is three seriously tough weeks of cycling. How did you find it?
There were lots of dark periods, I’m not going to lie and say it was brilliant and a wonderful experience because to be honest it was one of the hardest sporting challenges I’ve ever done. I was really pushing my boundaries. We did an average of 100 miles a day. There were dark moments, there were tears… I actually was brought down in the peloton by someone in front of me and I landed on a disk break which sliced my thigh so I had to have ten stitches at the roadside. The team doctor – because we had really good infrastructure around – stitched me up, gave me a paracetamol and then I was back on my bike to finish that stage!
I found I was drained from the very early stages from that because my body was trying to heal itself, which takes a lot of energy and calories. So it was pretty hellish, but then we were doing it for leukaemia, to save people’s lives, people who were going through a lot worse than we were going through, however hard. And that helped motivate us. There was no way I wouldn’t have got back on that bike after the stitches. To keep the money coming in, I had to keep pedalling, so that meant getting back on the bike and carry on cycling.
[N.B the team raised over £1 million for Cure Leukaemia]
Photo Credit: David West
Was it as big a mental challenge as a physical one?
I had to approach it as one day at a time, not the three weeks. So it was about focusing on what the next race day would be. We had massage therapists who would give us massages at the end of the day, so we were really well supported. But yeah, it was a huge physical challenge but it was more of a mental challenge.
We did Alpe d’Huez – that was the last stage before Paris – Col du Glandon in the Pyrenees… It’s all a bit of a blur [laughs]. You’re so focused on survival and keeping going that you forget half of the places you went too.
How did you stay comfortable on the bike for three weeks of intense cycling?
We were provided a team kit by a company called Player Layer. It was comfy. Obviously we all developed niggles, problems, sore bits, but I took two saddles to make sure I could change the pressure points. I took two pairs of shoes. I think one of the problems when cycling day-in, day-out you get the same pressure points, so I tried to avoid that by changing things every couple of days. And then, although we were given team shorts, at times I wore other ones just because that repetition can be your downfall on events like these. But I ate loads, took salt sticks, drank loads.
Lance Armstrong joined us on two days. That was interesting and fun. It was controversial, but obviously the aim of the charity was to get coverage and that got a huge amount of international coverage and awareness of what we were doing. It was really surreal cycling on the Tour de France with Lance Armstrong. How did I get from not being able to pass my driving test and getting on a bike to get from A to B to riding stages of the Tour de France with Lance Armstrong?
What do you eat or use as energy sources before and during your events?
In the morning I always have a cup of tea, porridge and banana. I do use quite a lot of energy gels, that’s how I fuel my races – energy drinks and gels. I use Sweet Peaks energy gels. They’re really nice, especially the Rhubarb and Custard flavour. I could just actually eat them [on their own]!
The gels are my favourite of all the Sweet Peaks products. They taste nice, and you know with some energy gels they can be quite gloopy and thick? These are kind of a thin consistency which make them easy to swallow. You don’t get them stuck in your mouth!
Depending on the gap between breakfast and the race, I’ll maybe have something like a croissant. I’ll have an energy gel about 15 minutes before the race, then on a sprint distance I’d have one on the bike and maybe, depending on how I’m feeling, one just as I’m heading out on the run. I am quite a heavy user of gels, I just find that they work for me and help me avoid cramping up, especially in hot weather.
What does your winter training look like?
I’ll still get outside – it’s my favourite place to train. I’m lucky now that I only work three days a week so I can actually get outside on the bike in the week. Predictably, with the British weather there’ll always be some indoor training. I’m lucky that I’ll always get to do some warm weather training overseas.
This month I’m going to La Santa in Lanzarote and will join in some of the group training sessions there, but following my own plan. Each year I go to the Costa Blanca in Spain, so I’m going there in January. That’s where a lot of the professionals ride because it’s in the mountains. I stay in Benidorm because of the mountains. The cycling is fantastic. You can swim in the sea in December/January. There’s a public running track and a public swimming pool, so it’s got everything that I need. I go there most years and it’s nice and cheap in the winter.
Are you a believer in mental strength training?
Yes, definitely. I’ve worked with a mental strength coach called Kim Ingleby from Energised Performance in Bristol, on changing my mental approach to sport and races, goal-setting and also developing mantras for going into races and during races. For example, I’ll have things I say to myself during the different race disciplines. At some points it would be technical things and focusing on what I’m doing at the moment and being in the moment, so in the swim it could be focusing on a certain part of the swim stroke technique. In running it could be focusing on using my arms efficiently. So it’s almost like zoning out by focusing on one specific thing that keeps you in the moment rather than [thinking] ‘Push harder, push harder’, where the body might say, ‘I can’t push harder’.
Have these mental strategies helped you?
Yes, definitely. I also use a motivating mantra as well. The first half of the mantra, which I say to myself pre-race, is something that I know is true, and then the second half is something that I want to be true. So, something like first half ‘I am the most prepared I’ve ever been’ followed by the second half which might be, ‘I am the world duathlon champion’, so the first statement reaffirms the one to come. You’ve done all the work and you’re fully prepared and can almost start to believe it.
Do you use positive mantras in training as well?
I’d start using these strategies months before the race. I had a whole mental strength strategy as well, which identified things I’d done well and what I wanted to achieve next. And then I’d use visualisation, visualising the best race that I’d ever had, and then visualising the next race that I have planned. So it’s almost like that affirmation that you’ve performed well and you’ve done the preparation in the past and that then translates to the next race. I really do believe in visualisation, even just down to getting a plan of the course and the terrain, imagining yourself doing the race, and also even post-race, imaging yourself celebrating or crossing the line. I am a real believer in mental strength strategies, certainly before the race and during to push on.
How do you set your goals?
Last year, I did a Post-it note mental strength/goal-setting strategy. For that, I got a flipchart and split it into four sections: my ‘Aims’ for the year, ‘Process goals’, i.e. things that are going to help me achieve that aim, ‘Sub goals’, which weren’t my main races but things I’d like to achieve in the year, and then the fourth section was ‘Achieved’. I would write the things on the post-it note, then when I’d achieved them, move them to Achieved. At the end of the year, all the post-it notes should be in the Achieved section, which they were this year. It’s a really good way of measuring your progress and an affirmation of how you’re doing. It shows you’re getting closer and closer to your goals.
What are your favourite pieces of kit for training and racing?
This sounds so corny but I couldn’t do any races without my dad, who is my support crew. He supports me, encourages me, comes to my races – we go to the domestic ones in his campervan – he’ll cheer me on, carry things for me. I just couldn’t do it without him.
My favourite piece of kit is my bike for the freedom and enjoyment it gives. My race bike is a Cervelo P3 and then I have a couple of other bikes, but I still use one of the first bikes I had which is an old steel Le Monde 90’s bike. It’s really battered, but has a number of advantages in that it’s really heavy, so it’s really great for winter training and building leg strength. Afterwards, when I get on my summer racing bikes they feel really light, like I’m floating. Again, I think I’m quite old school in that a heavy old bike is all you need for the winter.
Who are you supported or sponsored by?
I don’t receive any financial support but I do get support in kind from lots of nice companies. I’m supported by Sweet Peaks sports nutrition, who supply me with my energy gels and sweets and energy and recovery drinks.
Other supporters include Totally Wonderfuel, a small new nutrition products start-up, run by a fellow female triathlete, Terralta Aparthotel Benidorm, Rivers Fitness, SportsCoverDirect.co.uk, Ciclo Costa Blanca, Bromsgrove Chiropractic Clinic, COOLpilates, MintEase, Elagen Sport, Amphibia, and Lucy Bee Coconut Oil.