Swedish IRONMAN athlete Sara Svensk’s journey into triathlon only began six years ago, but she quickly found she was a natural in the sport, going from a newbie in the 70.3 discipline to Swedish national champion in just a year – all whilst working fulltime as an intern surgeon!
More recently, in 2019, the TRR Nutrition ambassador came 10th at the 70.3 IRONMAN World Championships in Nice and clocked up the fifth-fastest women’s pro time (full IRONMAN) in history with her 8:34 win at IRONMAN Barcelona. I got the lowdown on Sara’s background, training and the sessions she loves to hate, via email for this quick Q&A.
Let’s rewind a lot. Pre-triathlon you did a lot of horse riding and your only experience of running was to get to and from the stables, is that right?
I have always loved being active, and I’ve always loved to run. When I used to do horseback riding, it was an 8km run each way to the stables, and I preferred to run rather than bike there! I believe it laid a pretty solid ground for me. Sometimes I just ran by feel and sometimes I’d time myself – this was before GPS watches, of course!
Around the same time as I did my first triathlon, I was starting to run more. I joined a running club and saw good improvement from simply being more structured. That said, I do believe that the long slow runs during my teenage years were one of the keys to my success!
What made you sign up to your first triathlon and how did it go?
In 2012 I watched Lisa Nordén (Swedish triathlete) place second in the Olympics. It was the first time I heard about triathlon and I was very impressed. Two years later, my mom told me about a local try-out-triathlon nearby my parent’s house. My mom convinced me to try it out, and I always listen to my mom, so I did!
The swim start was terrifying, people everywhere hitting each other, so I decided to go underwater just to escape the crowd and calm myself! After a while, I found my way to the side of the group and could swim more relaxed. I’m usually pretty calm in the water and this was the first time I experienced real panic.
You went on to do your first 70.3 and within a year had been crowned Swedish champion! At this point, you were still working full time. Was it tricky juggling work and training?
It was really hard! The summer I won my first nationals, I was also working as an intern surgeon at a small hospital, working about 50-60 hours a week. But it was too much. After the summer I was totally exhausted and my shape was worse than ever. It was the moment I realised you can’t work full time as a doctor and compete at a higher level.
Four years later, you recorded the fifth-fastest IRONMAN time (pro women). How has your training and approach changed since you became the Swedish champ in 2015?
Back then I had three different coaches, one for swimming, one for cycling and one for running. They were all awesome but they didn’t know triathlon. In 2017 I signed with my current coach, Frank Jakobsen, and together we have achieved some great victories, personally and in sport. And of course, I am not working a 60 hour week! It also takes a lot of time and a lot of hours of training to build a strong body that can handle the Ironman distance.
Currently, what does a typical week of training look like for you?
My week can be very different depending on where I am in the season, but typically:
Monday: Easy swim and run, physio appointment and massage.
Tuesday: Work day – swim before work and then bike or run after work.
Wednesday: This can differ a lot – a hard bike, long bike or hard run.
Thursday: Work day – swim before work and then bike or run after work like Tuesday.
Weekends are for longer bike rides or intensity work and I swim every day.
What kind of mileage do you typically cover in a week across swim, bike and run?
I actually have no clue as it differs a lot! Recently, I have been swimming on average around 30km a week, but the bike and run differ a lot.
You’ve said that swimming is your weakest discipline. Do you adjust your training ratio to work more on it?
Definitely. I’m really committed to improving all areas of my performance, and I swim a lot to reflect that.
Can you give us an example of a bike or run session that you love to hate?
I love a run session called over-under race pace. You do 1-2-3-3-2-1km in race pace quicker by -15s/km and between each you do 1km of race pace +15s/km. [This] ends up with 19km in a very high speed. It can be really tough, but I love it!
How important is the mental side of your performance?
I believe it’s very important and I do a lot of mindfulness that enables me to clear my mind and find focus. I also want to create a positive atmosphere while training and racing. I know some people like to be a little bit angry and use it to level up their performance. For me, it doesn’t work because I think it’s hard to build on negativity.
Have there been any moments during your races where you’ve had to really dig deep?
During the 2019 70.3 World Championships in Nice, I had to really dig deep. I found myself in a position where I didn’t want to be. I was very disappointed by my swim and bike. When I got to half off the bike, I realised I needed to turn this around, I needed to try to enjoy being in the World Championships and competing against the best! I somehow found my focus and on the run, I just kept telling myself that it’s not over until the finish line so keep on pushing.
What steps do you take to stay healthy and avoid injury?
I find it very important to focus on sleep, food and joy. I do a lot of strength and mobility, I try to eat well and well balanced. I always have a protein shake using the PRO Advanced Whey Protein from TRR Nutrition (£35.99, 900g, www.trrnutrition.com) and I also use the TRR Nutrition PRO Advanced Collagen (£38.99, 10 x 50ml bottles, www.trrnutrition.com) on a daily basis. It supports the healthy functions of my bones and joints and helps me get back to the hard training day after day.
I also think it’s important to do things you really enjoy outside of training. For example, reading a book, hanging out with family and friends, other activities like water sport, etc.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
My race suit from Trimtexis amazing.
Who are you sponsored by right now?
TRR Nutrition, Trek, Trimtex, Rudy project, Umarasports and Löplabbet.