Long-course triathlete, Nikki Bartlett, was a medal-winning GB University rower before an injury led her to join a friend in a half-IRONMAN triathlon. Despite having little to no swimming, cycling or running experience, she caught the bug and switched from rowing to age group triathlon in 2012. Within three years, Nikki had turned pro and in 2019 she won her first full distance pro title at the notoriously hard IRONMAN Lanzarote, winning by a four-minute margin. Although most of the 2020 race reason was cancelled, in a small window of opportunity last year, the Helvellyn Triathlon was able to go ahead and Nikki added the win to the long list of podium spots she has amassed.
Alongside competing as a professional triathlete, Nikki is also a guide for visually impaired GB para-triathlete, Alison Peasgood, and is looking to compete in this year’s Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
In this Q&A, Nikki chats through a typical training week, the challenges of being a professional athlete in the pandemic, and the mental side of her training, amongst other things.
You were a successful GB university rower. What led you to triathlon?
As a brief introduction, I took up rowing at University. At the time, it was without a doubt the best option and ticked so many boxes. The environment, people, atmosphere and balance was just what I was looking for. Okay, admittedly, the balance was definitely tipped towards the partying side than training side in my first year at Uni, but as we developed, learned how to row (literally from scratch – the first time I went in the boat I started rowing it backwards/blade the wrong way around), we took the sport more seriously and the drinking calmed down a bit!
I then tested at the Girls 4 Gold initiative in 2008, which tested females over a few sports to see if they were gold medal potential at London 2012. After being fast-tracked onto the GB Rowing System, I spent so many of my years injured. A friend who I used to row with at Uni said, ‘Oh, I’m doing this Half IRONMAN, you should come and join’. After she described what it was (I literally didn’t know what a triathlon was), I was like well, that’s impossible for me to come and do, I can’t swim a length in the pool, don’t own a bike and have no long-running history. But once that seed is planted and there’s the challenge of the unknown… you suddenly want to give it a go. I admittedly got the bug, and after trying a few triathlons (yes, a Half IRONMAN was my first), I switched from rowing to start from an AG in 2012.
Fast-forward to 2019 and you won IRONMAN Lanzarote and the Dun Laoghaire 70.3. But then the pandemic hit. What has the last year been like for you as a pro athlete?
It has been extremely difficult. Anyone who knows me will know I’m a positive individual, but of course, this period of time has challenged me in more ways than one. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to control the situation and pandemic, but, as the cheesy line goes, I can control the controllable and ultimately, however difficult the situation gets, you have to ride the emotion (it’s important to let it out, cry, etc.!), but always go back to the drawing board of: ‘What can I do in this situation? Let’s simplify it, and live right here, right now, in the moment.’
The difficulties have included the constant cancellation of races – I’m now into the second year of this. I’m also a Guide, aiming to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics with Alison Peasgood. Last year, on the ITU Para side, everything was cancelled so it was ‘just’ my wave to ride. Now there are both sides to ride and it’s extremely difficult to plan, in fact impossible. For instance, over the last two weeks, I’ve had three [different] race plans.
Other difficulties include [lost] earnings, learning different ways to represent sponsors, not seeing family and friends, not travelling, missing the love of competing, feeling trapped, seeing loved ones sad and in difficult places, watching people being challenged, death rates in the UK, not knowing when this will end. Honestly, this list is so long and I’m slightly touching on a few here.
But, looking at things we have been able to control, I’ve raised money for a charity, built fantastic relationships with sponsors, made new sponsors, I’m in a strong and happy relationship, living in a beautiful location in a fantastic house, I’ve made new friends, I ride with the Choppers TTT, run in the Peaks, I ran most of 2020 dressed up [in fancy dress] to make others smile and laugh, I have a new coach, new training methods, and I’ve had the most consistent training ever and I’m at my fittest I’ve ever been from consistency and not travelling. My sponsors and British Triathlon have been epic. Again, I could go on here, these are just a few.
Have you had to adapt your training in any way? And are there any upsides to not racing?
This is a really interesting topic that we discussed a lot earlier this week. At the moment, for instance, I’m keeping a solid base, but ready for a 6-8 week specific block to be ‘race ready’. As we don’t know when the races are happening, it’s so hard to plan. I’ve found being able to be in 70.3 shape easier, but that IRONMAN-specific stuff you cannot get away with not doing going into a race. So I guess I’m in a 70.3 block of training, then I will adapt when an IM might look likely to happen.
What does your current weekly training schedule look like?
This is changeable weekly, but a standard weekly block would look something like this:
Monday: Easy hour-run, 90-minute strength/tech swim, 2-hour bike session – either VO2 or IM (Ironman pace).
Tuesday: 90-minute VO2 swim, gym, track or LT2 (lactate threshold 2) 75-minute session.
Wednesday: Endurance day – 90-minute run, 4-hour bike.
Thursday: CSS (critical swim speed) 90-minute swim, 75-minute run, 90-minute Choppers TTT (team time trial).
Friday: Easy run, 90-minute mixed based swim, gym.
Saturday: Long ride and run LT1 (lactate threshold 1) session, sometimes separate, building towards a brick style.
Sunday: Long run.
How much of your running and cycling is done outside vs. inside on the treadmill and turbo?
Good question. Sometimes this is down to the weather too, but now we’re in spring I would probably, at a maximum, do 1 x treadmill session and 1 x turbo session a week. If the weather is rubbish, I won’t ride outside, it doesn’t interest me being cold and miserable outside at all. I’d rather put the heating on, all the lights on and switch off to Netflix.
You’re part of The Choppers TTT (time trial) team on Zwift. Can you tell us what this involves?
One of my most fave sessions of the week. It will likely phase out a bit now the weather’s better and the days are longer, but it’s one of the best sessions you can do – it’s fun. We have everyone on a video call, it’s hard, and it’s unstructured and unpredictable just like racing. I think sometimes we can get too wrapped up in a specific structured session.
It’s a Team Time Trial, group style; getting to the finish as a group on the WTRL Zwift platform. This literally can be anything from 35-65 minutes, hills or flat. We don’t know how many of us will turn up or get mechanicals/Zwift mechanicals, and there have been loads, so you don’t know when you’ll be on the front, or for how long. Essentially, we have a group of about 8-10 of us who might be able to ride. Sometimes 6 turn up but 4 will get to the finish for one reason or another. It’s full of banter – so, so funny. We don’t take it seriously, but we work hard and laugh harder.
Would you say you’re a big planner and goal-setter or do you go with the flow?
Yes, I love a plan, so you can imagine this time has been challenging for someone who loves a plan! But I’ve had to adapt, learn to go with the flow and take any opportunities which arise. And sometimes these can be the most magical and memorable moments. Like for instance, entering Helvellyn Triathlon 10 days before (Nikki won the event). We quickly went and did a course recce, and it was stunning. It resulted in one of the best triathlons and experiences I’ve ever done in my life.
Your partner, Bex Milnes, is your coach. Does this help you stay motivated?
Yes, as of July last year, Bex has coached me. We’ve got a great balance of her setting and directing my plan, but allowing flexibility in my programme to do some random unstructured training too. It’s a different kind of plan I’ve been used to, so this challenging situation has allowed me time to adapt and get used to it. I love it.
How important to you is the mental side of training?
Huge. And if this period of time has taught us anything, it’s how to be mentally strong in challenging and unpredictable times. I’ve learnt to adapt this year massively. Luckily, being a part of the World Class Programme through being a Guide, we have access to our psychologist. There’s so much we could delve into here, from day-to-day life to training sessions but also the mental side of getting away from training. Understanding the importance and value of this, away from everything including social media, and learning to live and be present in the moment. The mental side of training a lot from home [was a big aspect] in the initial lockdown stage.
It’s really interesting, say, when we do the Choppers TTT, how others deal with the mental side, how they chunk (segment) the session. I mean, chunking is a whole topic in itself. But even the mental side of chunking sessions, sessions of our life, how people do this, is really interesting. How we have learnt as a team to get the best out of each other. I love learning from other athletes, not just elites/fulltime athletes, but athletes I race the Choppers with who work fulltime too. It’s a really interesting topic and I love learning new ways and understanding how other minds work.
Covid-allowing, what are your hopes for racing this year?
Oh gosh, in a dream world this would include 3 x IRONMANS, 2-3 70.3s, Kona, [and the] Paralympics as a wish list.
What are your favourite items of kit for training and racing?
Oh gosh, well obviously I partner with sponsors who I’m passionate about and relate to, not just product-wise but also their core values and beliefs as a company: ERDINGER, HOKA, Neuff Red, Clif Bar and Santini.
My kit: Santini is unbelievable – comfort, performance, sustainability at its finest.
Nutrition: ERDINGER (non-alcoholic beer) – seriously refreshing after sessions and at the end of a training day, with key vitamins such as B12 which is essential for health, and I’m a vegetarian too so I lack this vitamin in my diet. Also, I’m the sweatiest person you’ll ever meet, so replenishing electrolytes is key.
Nutrition is also through Clif Bar – my fave products are Clif Bloks (strawberry is my fave flavour), Builders 20g protein bar, white choc Macadamia Nut bar, and Peanut Butter Filled bar.
Bike kit: Cervelo P3X, Rolf Prima Wheels and my newly designed KASK Mistral helmet, which Otimo Designs did for me. Check it out.
Shoes: HOKA FOR THE WIN. Seriously, finding shoes that are comfortable, suit your feet, run style, and prevent injury (thus giving us consistency) is king. My Mach 4 is my most all-round shoe for mileage and training sessions, alongside Rincon 2 and Clifton 7. My trail shoe is the Torrent 2 or if it’s bogging (boggy), the Speedgoat 4. My race shoes are the Carbon x 2, Carbon X-SPE.
Products, and all round greatness from Neuff Red. Honestly, you’ve got to check out their website. Not just for products, but blog content and expert information.
You can follow Nikki’s training and racing via her social media: www.instagram.com/nikkibartlett1, www.twitter.com/NikkiBartlett1, and www.facebook.com/nikkibartletttriathlete. You can also visit Nikki’s website, www.nikkibartlett.com.