© Chris Samsom

She may be a youthful 24-year-old, but GB triathlete Sian Rainsley already has an impressive 17 years of solid race experience to her name, having competed in triathlon since the age of seven. A successful junior triathlete, Sian earned silver at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, before recently stepping up to compete for the senior GB team. However, it’s not all been plain sailing for the GB triathlete; after falling ill at her first GB training camp at the age of 18, Sian was diagnosed with the autoimmune condition, Crohn’s Disease.

Despite doctors advising her against pursuing a career in elite sport, Sian has been able to manage her Crohn’s whilst competing as a professional athlete, even earning a gold medal in the mixed relay for Team GB’s senior team at this year’s 2021 Kitzbühel European Sprint & Relay Championships. Although, if that suggests it’s been an easy ride for Sian, far from it. In this week’s Q&A, Sian kindly shares the challenges she faces in managing and living with her Crohn’s Disease whilst chasing her dream of a successful triathlon career.

© Chris Samsom

You’ve competed in triathlon since you were 7. That’s a lot of training sessions! What keeps you motivated?
Mainly [the desire] to achieve my ambitions and childhood dreams. I know the work needs to be done to achieve the goals I want. Although, lots of other factors do contribute too, such as enjoying the outdoors, my friends’ company at training sessions, camps abroad, the post-session buzz, good food to look forward to, my boyfriend and family… it’s a very long list, which I guess is how I’ve stayed committed for 17 years!

You were diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the age of 18. Can you briefly explain what Crohn’s Disease is for readers who don’t know?
Crohn’s Disease is an autoimmune illness where parts of the digestive system become inflamed. It’s an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that has symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhoea, tiredness and weight loss.

Am I right in thinking that doctors advised you against pursuing a career in triathlon?
Yes! They didn’t think it would be possible to compete at an elite level with such an illness, especially in such a demanding endurance sport. I’m the first triathlete within the British Triathlon World Class Programme to do so.

© Chris Samsom

How does your Crohn’s disease impact your racing and training?
A ‘flare-up’ can be debilitating, and can only really be controlled by rest and powerful medication, which makes training very challenging. Once, in 2018, I was admitted to hospital for a week due to critical complications with my medication and immune system. Unfortunately, during these periods it can heavily impact my training and cause huge setbacks. I do experience more minor ‘flare-ups’, however, I manage my training on symptoms and just listen to how my body is feeling. I keep everything aerobic/easy to reduce the stress load. 

As I’ve progressed from junior to senior competition, I have found it much easier to give my body the rest it sometimes needs, which in turn has meant my training has actually been more consistent. I have raced a couple of times post major flare-ups, once I’ve recovered. This has required a couple of therapeutic use exemptions (TUE) due to the medication I have needed to get back into remission. 

Do you have to be especially careful to ensure you recover properly?
100%! Any stress on the body can cause a flare-up, so recovery is crucial. I’ve suffered from muscle breakdown a couple of times, which is due to my body not being able to take in the nutrients as easily. Fuelling is key around and during sessions, but even more so for someone with Crohn’s Disease.        

© Chris Samsom

What does a typical week of training look like for you at the moment?
I train around 25 hours a week. This includes 2 aerobic swims, 2 intense swim sessions (1 in open water), 2 bike sessions, 1 long ride, 1 recovery ride, 2 run sessions, 2 long runs and 2 gym sessions.

Can you share a typical swim, bike or run session that you love to hate?
My Run Canal Session is 5 x 2km, descending each rep (each rep faster than the last) with 75 seconds easy. It’s a long session and the last couple are pretty challenging with the fatigue hitting, but it feels so good once it’s complete. It’s a great session to take on ahead of racing 10km.

You recently stepped up to senior competition. How have you found the transition?
Initially stepping up was a little daunting; so many of the athletes I looked up to were suddenly on the start line, including Olympic and World medallists. Now I’m into the season, it’s been great racing against them to see where I’m at and where I can improve, but also being in the mix too. Fortunately for me, the step-up improves the swim standard, which is one of my strengths, leading to breakaways and better results.

© Chris Samsom

Do you get nervous ahead of big races?
We devote so much of our time and energy to triathlon so it’s inevitable that we want to do well. Triathlon is hard to predict too; you can be in great shape but there are lots of uncontrollables within the race such as a hectic swim, bike mechanicals or crashes, transitions etc. It can be easy to worry about this. I turn this nervous energy into excitement for the race and just know that I’ve done everything I can to put myself in the best contention for a strong result. Ten lucky jumps and deep breaths to control my nerves on the start line keep me focussed on the processes I need to go through.

What’s on the horizon for you over the next month or so?
I’m competing in my second ever World Series race in Montreal, Canada on the 14th August*. It’s the debut race of a new format: the eliminator. I then fly straight to Edmonton, Canada and compete in my first Senior World Championships the following weekend. This is the usual Olympic distance. It’s a long season with the World Triathlon Series heading to Germany, Bermuda and Abu Dhabi in the following months. 

*Interview conducted in July 2021

What are your favourite items of kit and who are you sponsored by right now?
I’m currently supported by Ribble bikes, Asics, SunGod, WeBuyCycle, Limar, and Huub. My new Ribble bike is super cool; it’s fast, corners smoothly, and is made in GB. The Asics Metaspeed Sky trainers are simply the best running shoes out there – if you want a PB, they’re the shoe!

© Chris Samsom

You can follow Sian via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/sian_rainsley