Swedish ultra-trail athlete, Mimmi Kotka, quickly made a name for herself on the trail running circuit in 2016 when she won the CCC by UTMB (101K, 6100M elevation) by almost half an hour – only a year after entering her first ultra-trail race. Since then, Mimmi has won many of Europe’s most gruelling races, including the TDS by UTMB (121K, 7250M elevation) where she smashed the course record by 46 minutes.
A self-described ‘wild outdoor kid’, Mimmi developed a deep love of the outdoors and wilderness from a young age and hails from a family of foodies and foragers. A qualified nutritionist, she’s also a co-founder of Moonvalley, an organic sports nutrition brand which she founded with fellow trail running legends, Emilie Forsberg and Ida Nilsson.
In this Q&A, Mimmi, who is a Polar ambassador, chats about Moonvalley, ultra-trail nutrition, and her diagnosis of RED-s (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport) last year.
Can you tell us where you are in the world at the moment, and how the pandemic has affected your life, training and travel during the last year?
We are currently in the French Alps and have also spent some time in the north of Sweden. Last spring, we were in strict lockdown in France and only allowed to move within 1 km of our home for 1 hour per day. This affected my training for sure but, in light of a global pandemic, it just felt good to be able to do “something” to help out.
Since we work a lot from home and live in a tiny mountain village, our day-to-day life did not change too much due to the pandemic. Athletes live a quiet life too, so we do not miss bars and restaurants anyway. I train in the mountains, mostly alone, with a couple of friends or my dog, so the impact of the pandemic on my training outside of the lockdown has been minimal I would say.
Being a professional athlete often involves international travel for big races in season; this was not the case last year. The community in ultra- and trail running is one of the things people enjoy the most and races are our way of connecting and sharing our passion. So, I do hope some events can be organized this summer. If not, we will just go out, train and enjoy nature – that is the number one thing after all.
You’re a qualified nutritionist and co-founded Moonvalley with fellow runners, Emelie Forsberg and Ida Nilsson. Tell us about Moonvalley and how it came about?
I have worked within the supplement industry as a nutrition specialist but my passion has always been whole foods for health. Artificial products are often far away from what we were made to consume and many supplements are, at best, quite useless. Real food is the way to go and when sharing these ideas with Ida and Emelie, who are both skilled cooks (besides being impressive athletes), foodies, and very well versed in sustainability and environmental issues, the pieces came together. They were really enthusiastic, and we thought, let’s just do this! We are all professional athletes with busy lives, but some ideas are too good to not pass on.
We decided to create a sports nutrition brand that was based on the idea of real food, and the inspiration came from Emelie’s self-sufficient farm in Norway, Moonvalley. We simply make the things we want to eat ourselves, for health and performance. We are inspired by Nordic food traditions such as the Fika culture (Fika is having coffee, cake and talking about life) and our fantastic local produce. We like using oats and peas, root vegetables and Nordic berries instead of chipping so-called “superfoods” from all corners of the earth. We have such amazing food just outside our door!
It has also been important for us to be organic and plant-based. Keeping it plant-based is environmentally sane and inclusive, and I truly feel like we are not missing anything in terms of nutrition or taste by doing so. All our products are certified organic and I am proud to say that we have one of very few organic sports drinks on the market. It has real berry powder instead of aromas and is a unique product. I also love our oat-based energy bars with pea protein. Of course, we have a ton of ideas about future products; it is just a matter of sourcing organic ingredients and finding the right production solution. Our products are produced on a small scale in Sweden, and we are really happy about this.
Do you have a personal favourite Moonvalley product?
If I had to pick a favourite out of our products it would have to be the cardamom-flavoured energy bar. It is just delicious. Using cardamom in pastries is quite popular in Sweden and to me, it really tastes like a treat, but one I get to have every day!
What has competing in ultra-trail taught you about nutrition and fuelling your body during ultras?
The most important learning is that no matter how much “theoretical” knowledge you have about nutrition it becomes more of an art form alongside ‘trial and error’ in ultra-trail. To finish a race it is important – even conditional – to take in enough fuel. To be able to do this you need to eat things you like, that your body tolerates, and that work practically. This puzzle looks different to everyone and depends on the race conditions, support, aid stations etc. Therefore, you need to test, practice, and even fail a time or two to dial in the nutrition strategy that is best for you. This has been the case for me just as much as anyone else. I also think that being too science-driven and detail-oriented can be of disservice to the runner. Get the basics right, eat as much energy you can, don’t throw up, and don’t get too dehydrated.
You’ve won some of the world’s toughest ultra-trail events. What keeps you going during hard racing moments?
Number one is being fit enough to handle the race. The more you prepare the better you will do in the race. The bad patches will come, for everyone, so it is just easier if you have prepared well. I do not think there is any magic beyond this, everyone entering a tough race probably has the grit to get through the bad patches; humans are endurance animals. We are made for this type of endeavour – both physically and mentally. Training for a race is your way of reminding your body and mind of this. It is part of the human experience to face physical adversity and these types of races are controlled and safe ways to experience it.
Last August you shared that you’d been suffering from RED-S. At what point did you notice something wasn’t right?
I have struggled with bad blood markers since late 2018. After some injuries (broken fingers and a tear in my knee) that never seemed to heal, I had problems bouncing back. I was shut down from racing due to anaemia and low immune response and my training gains were just not there. I also had hormonal imbalances and digestive problems. I tried addressing the issues separately but with no real improvement.
In mid-2020, due to the void that the pandemic left, I sat down and started poring over sports nutrition literature, trying to locate the actual problem. RED-S seemed to be the logical answer. Even though I felt like I was on top of my caloric intake when I sat down and actually did the math – based on my activity level, fat-free body mass etc. – I realised I was falling short of thousands of calories a week.
I also want to stress that it is important to test and work with a healthcare professional when addressing this. This helps rule out other possible diseases, [and allows you to] get a diagnosis and seek help from certified practitioners in getting back. Make sure this person has the knowledge of the specific physical demands of an athlete. That said, RED-S is common among endurance athletes due to the sheer training volume, but there are also good resources out there to fix the problem. If there is an additional element of disordered eating/eating disorder in the picture (not in my case), then it becomes way more complex and the psychological issues around this need to be addressed by someone qualified. So, do not consult Dr Google or fad diet gurus if you have this problem, take your health seriously.
How are you feeling now, and has your experience changed your approach to training and fuelling?
I feel good! Yes, my approach has changed completely. Still, it is a tricky thing balancing training, work, life, stress, food and recovery in a smart way. But I do have some better tools in my toolbox today.
Do you have a particular focus to your day-to-day training at the moment?
I focus on different things during the training year. I like to train according to the season and not fight too hard against nature. The joy of moving in nature is the only constant in my training. This time of year, spring, is about getting the legs used to running more volume again.
What does a typical week of training look like for you, if there is one?
I love running but also other outdoor activities, so it is a mix of running and other types of movement. These change throughout the year, according to the seasons, and so does my running volume.
What are your hopes and dreams for the next 12 months?
Getting the opportunity to race and undertake some epic adventures again, that is what we all want!
What are your favourite items of kit for training and racing?
I keep it simple but use a heart rate monitor every day. It is my way of tracking and monitoring my training. The latest gadget I like is the Polar Verity Sense, an optical HR monitor that you can just wear on your arm. It is super convenient. I have been a Polar athlete for years and also rely on the Polar Grit X outdoor multisport watch. It is perfect for mountain athletes, has a long battery life, barometric altimeter, and options for all types of activities.
High mountains and extreme conditions put a lot of demand on equipment. I am fortunate enough to have awesome sponsors that make shoes and gear specifically for this. I use trail shoes and clothes from La Sportiva, mountaineering eyewear from Julbo, wool socks and base layer from Smartwool, powerful headlamps from SILVA and smart hydration packs from Ultimate Direction. What more could a girl ask for, right!
Who are you sponsored by right now?
My sponsors are Polar (HR/GPS), La Sportiva (Shoes/clothes/gears), Julbo (eyewear), SILVA (headlamp), Smartwool (socks), and Ultimate Direction (hydration).
For more information about the new Polar Verity Sense heart rate sensor click here.