© Remy Whiting/220 Triathlon

When she’s not indulging her passion for open water swimming or running trails, today’s guest, Helen Webster, can be found interviewing the world’s top triathletes and testing the latest, greatest gear through her job as editor of 220 Triathlon, the UK’s biggest triathlon magazine.

With plenty of impressive open water swimming events under her belt (not to mention marathons, triathlons and some of the world’s toughest swimruns) you’d be forgiven for thinking that Helen’s enjoyed a life-long passion for endurance sport, but this couldn’t be further from the truth as she reveals in our Q&A. Plus, find out which kit she rates and what’s on her event bucket list.

What does a typical day in your life as 220 Triathlon editor look like?
It varies so much depending on where we are in the year and within an issue of the magazine – I’m often away a lot at races, on press launches or photoshoots, so there’s no average day! If I’m in the 220 office though I’ll probably be up at 5:30am to train, which will be a run in the local woods or a swim session (in the lake in summer, in the pool in winter!) before commuting into the office.

During the day I work closely with the amazing 220 editorial team (shout out to Liz, Matt, Debbie and Nathaniel!) and we’ll be writing pages for the magazine or website, planning future issues or looking at other projects to do with the 220 brand. The magazine is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and we’re planning some amazing surprises around that – they’re top secret at the moment, but issue 368 on sale in August is the one to look out for!

My evenings are a bit more relaxed as I’m up so early. I’ll often go for a walk, or just cook some nice food and chill with a book. I’m a sucker for sports biographies and am usually in bed by 10pm.

Tell me about your sports background – have you always been fit and active?
Not at all! Believe it or not, I was the kid at school who would do anything to get out of PE. Running seemed lung-bustingly impossible, I couldn’t swim and I had no team sports ability. What I did love though was being out in the countryside hiking, I was lucky enough to grow up in Yorkshire and my family were outdoors a lot. I think that’s why I enjoy the wilder races out in nature now!

It wasn’t until my early 20s when I was working as a motoring journalist (cars are my other passion) and leading a pretty sedentary lifestyle that I realised I had to do something. I’d put a lot of weight on, topping out at 15 stone at my heaviest, and so started running and learning about nutrition to get fit again. My first race was a 5k in 2001 and I progressed to marathons and then to triathlon, swimrun, all the other crazy stuff… When people look at photos of me 20 years ago, they can’t believe what I do now.

You’re a keen swimmer with 5K open water swim races under your belt, is that right?
Yes, put me in open water and I’m happy! There’s just something magical about being in a lake, or the sea and knowing you have no boundaries. I find you can really lose yourself in open water and just enjoy the journey, which makes longer swims and races achievable – plus it’s another way to enjoy being outdoors.

It’s been a steep learning curve though! I learnt to swim as an adult purely to take part in triathlon and I can remember being really scared in some of my earlier open water races! I think having gone through that journey as an adult helps me relate to many of our 220 Triathlon readers, though.

You’re also a bit of a swimrun convert. What do you enjoy about the sport and which events have you completed so far?
Swimming and running are my strengths in triathlon, so it seemed a natural fit for me! I also loved the fact that you’re out experiencing such amazing locations. Most swimruns are held in remote forests and woods, taking in places you may never otherwise see. They’re often technical, but I like a challenge, so that suits me. The other thing I love about swimrun is racing as a team. It’s a very different dynamic to triathlon, but you can push each other and achieve more than you might otherwise be able to you on your own.

I’ve competed in ÖtillÖ races in Sweden, Germany and the Isles of Scilly, as well as Breca Buttermere in the UK and a couple of smaller local-level swimruns. I do live race commentary too and have been lucky enough to report from the ÖtillÖ World Championships in the last couple of years. It’s amazing being part of such an iconic event and seeing what the competitors go through over 75km of racing. They have my respect!

Swimrun is no walk in the park – which has been the toughest swimrun you’ve done?
Without a doubt the ÖtillÖ 1000 Lakes event in Germany in 2016. It was a very cold, misty oppressive weekend and the course had a lot of swimming in the earlier stages, which meant we were in the water a lot of the time with very little running in between to get warm again. The water was about 11°C and the air only 4°C at the start of the race, which is tough by anyone’s standards! Myself and my partner actually made the first cut-off with plenty of time to spare, but made the decision to pull out as I was struggling so badly with the cold and in the early stages of hypothermia. I’ll be honest, seeing fairies in the water was probably a bad sign… I ended up wrapped in a foil blanket and learnt some valuable lessons about cold water acclimatisation.

ÖtillÖ have moved that race to earlier in the year now and the course is slightly different though, so it’s still on my bucket list. The forests in that part of Germany are so beautiful and I’m determined to go back and conquer it one day!

When you’re experiencing tough moments during a race or training, do you use any mental strategies to get you through?
In training or if it’s allowed in a race, music is my great motivator. I usually have a kick-ass playlist I can stick on if I’m struggling and it can completely transform my mood. To be honest I’m usually pretty happy when training and racing though – and I really believe smiling can help motivate you through anything! Let’s face it, if you’re fit and uninjured and you’ve made it as far as race day, life is pretty amazing – right?

© Jakob Edholm

You’ve raced a solo swimrun. Did racing solo change your experience or enjoyment?
You know what, I did struggle in that race. It was a small local swimrun and the sea conditions were treacherous, plus there were a few mistakes with the run course marking which made getting lost inevitable. There was one moment I was struggling getting off some rocks into the sea and I automatically reached to take my race partner’s hand – only there was no-one there! It definitely made me appreciate the power of racing as a team.

Going back to triathlon, you covered the Norseman last year, a pretty brutal iron distance event. Would you ever consider racing it?
I get asked that a lot… But luckily they’ve booked me to commentate again this year, so I can’t take part haha! The Norseman really is another level when it comes to triathlon and if I’m honest? No, I don’t think I have what it takes at the moment, though I would really love to race it one year, it’s such a bucket list event.  For now I’ll stick to talking about it and be there ready to high-five the people brave enough to take it on! What legends!

What does a typical week of training look like for you?
It varies depending on where I am in the world and which events I have coming up. I’ve just returned from BEST Fest, an open-water swim festival in Mallorca, so I’d been doing longer swim sessions three times a week to build endurance for that. I’ve also been doing a lot of trail running for races, so I’m running three to four times a week up to 12 miles. The bike’s taken a bit of a back seat lately, but once tri season ramps up again in a couple of weeks I need to be back on the turbo! I just built a ‘fit shed’ in my back garden so I can get quality miles in without worrying about the dodgy country roads near my house. I usually train six days a week and throw in a bit of yoga too if I’m seizing up.

Triathlon, open water, swimrun, trail running – are there any events still on your bucket list?
Yes, so many races! I’d love to take on some of the iconic world races – so in triathlon I’ve always fancied Escape From Alcatraz, that swim just looks unreal and if I could ever get a good enough run of uninjured training in, then of course there’s Norseman… In Swimrun I’d like to say I could one day be tough enough for the ÖtillÖ World Champs, but it would take a lot of work to get there. In running it has to be the Barkley Marathons… But realistically I know that completing one loop would be a huge achievement, let alone five! Never say never, though.

Perhaps more realistically, I’d like to do my first ultra-marathon in the next year. I had signed up to one in April (33 miles on the Welsh coastal paths), but had to drop down to the shorter distance (19 miles) due to injury. So I guess that’s my next goal. I hate leaving stuff unfinished!

You’ve interviewed the world’s top triathletes. What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Wow, that’s a tough one to narrow down. We talk to so many amazing triathletes and many of them have different training advice. I always like interviewing the Brownlees though – a lot of their motivation and success comes from their pure love of being outdoors training and that really resonates with me. They’re just out there doing what they love in the Yorkshire Dales! Whatever the weather, I’d always pick a training session over being indoors and when you love what you do it’s much easier to motivate yourself.

Outside of triathlon, I was lucky enough to do a couple of training sessions with Ross Edgley this year following his Great British Swim and I really can’t say enough good things about that guy. His knowledge of sports science is unreal, yet he manages to break it down into practical advice everyone can learn from. Mind you, he did throw buckets of iced water over my head in training…

© Nikos Karanikolas

You test a lot of kit – does this mean a fair amount of time spent out of the office?
A lot of it I can get done during my regular training as I’m out there most days anyway, so it’s not much extra work to pull on a pair of new run shoes or a tri-suit that needs testing. When it’s a big feature, such as our big annual wetsuit test, then I need to spend a block of time on it. The test team will usually head to Lanza or Mallorca a couple of times a year with huge suitcases of new wetsuits and tri-suits and spend a few days testing and comparing notes on them all. I live in fear of an airline losing our luggage though… Imagine 20 new wetsuits going awol! The horror!

What are your can’t-live-without items of kit at the moment?
Oooh tricky! If you limited me to five bits of kit though? They would be:

  1. My Orca Alpha wetsuit. There are other wetsuits I love for different conditions, but this has been a staple for a few years now and I always go back to it.
  2. A 2XU tri-suit. I just tested their new women’s suit (see issue 366) and it’s just brilliant.
  3. Salomon Sense Ride trail shoes. I run off-road mostly, but with stretches of tarmac, and these are great for covering varied terrains without being too harsh.
  4. My Garmin Fenix S. I bought this as a treat after being really poorly a couple of years ago – it was my treat to spur me back into training and I love it!
  5. My trusty inov-8 Race Ultra vest pack which carries all my stuff on long training sessions. It’s the best one I’ve found for balancing weight and taking pressure off your back and shoulders.

Other great stuff I like: HUUB Aegis II thermal wetsuit for winter, ARK swimrun wetsuit, On Cloudflows for tarmac racing, Aussie Grit trail-running shorts, 33 Shake Chia gels and an ancient, smelly DryRobe with the 220 Triathlon logo on the back which I inherited from the mag’s previous editor. I dread to think where it’s been…

© José Luis Hourcade

Whose journey in triathlon are you excited to watch right now?
I’m a huge fan of Lucy Charles, she’s a genuinely lovely person and we’ve followed her journey over the last few years. I’d love to see her take the win in Kona, although she has some tough competition!

As for the men, leading up to Tokyo I’m probably with every other triathlon fan wondering which direction we’re going to see Ali Brownlee go in – Olympics or Kona?

What’s next for you this year?
Well, as I mentioned it’s the magazine’s 30th birthday this year and we’re doing a lot around that. Look out for 30 competitions over 30 days launching in January on 220triathlon.com, plus issue 368 (on sale August 8th) is one to look out for as well! Following that, we’ll be doing something special around 30 years since Iron War. Dave Scott and Mark Allen are real heroes of mine, so I’m looking forward to that.

Event-wise, I’m at a swimrun weekend with Vivobarefoot and one of the Maverick East Sussex trail races in June. Other places you’ll find me are the Henley Swim Festival, commentating at Norseman and at the Woburner. Other races TBD at the moment, I still have a few free weekends that need to be filled! If anyone has any races they’d recommend, let me know…!

© Steve Sayers

You can keep up with Helen’s training and kit testing via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/helenwebster_outdoors and www.instagram.com/220triathlon. To find out more about 220 Triathlon visit www.220triathlon.com.