Helen Jenkins MBE is a GB Olympian from 2012, the national champion from 2015, ITU Gold Coast Winner, ITU San Diego Winner and, yes, you’ve got it, she’s one of those athletes that just goes around winning stuff!
I don’t have any sporting heroes per se but Helen is one of the very few athletes whose results I check on from time-to-time and always wish her well. She recently returned from a serious operation to finish 4th at IM70.3 Dubai, perhaps heralding a return to winning ways in the years ahead, this time at longer distances.
Helen kindly agreed to an interview. I tried to sometimes steer the questions towards gadgets, kit & training; here are the answers.
1. Bionic Woman
Q: I believe your spinal surgery has turned you into a bionic Lindsay Wagner and you now have bits of hardware fusing your L5/S1. Can you describe that first moment when you finally realised that your body would physically be able to deal with the op you had gone through?
Initially, after the surgery, it was managing the pain and being careful not to bend or twist. My body didn’t feel ‘normal’ for a good few months. I started doing really gentle exercise after a few months. I think the first time I thought I may be able to do competitive sport again was last year, 18 months post-surgery. Before I had our second child Max my back was too stiff during swimming to be able to compete. When I started back training after Max my back was so much better in the pool and I then thought I had a chance at competing again.
2. Physio Gadgets
Q: I like percussive thumping machines, what’s your favourite physio toy?
Nothing too exciting, foam roller and massage ball. I use them most days
3. Racing 70.3 – Swim
Q: Congrats on the great result in Dubai. You nailed the swim despite, apparently, coping with a modified swim technique as a result of the surgery. Apparently, the water was 21 degrees and wetsuit-optional. Did you wear your Huub? And, if so, what extra performance benefits do you think that you uniquely get from Huub’s suit?
Yes, I wore my new Huub Agilis suit. I had been swimming in a wetsuit regularly in Lanzarote, so I was pretty happy it was a wetsuit swim as I felt comfy in it. The water definitely felt cooler than 21 too!
4. Racing 70.3 – Bike
Q: Did you pace the bike as you planned and if not what could you have done to eke out a couple of extra minutes on a flat course like Dubai?
I didn’t really know what to expect on the bike. I have only had the TT bike for four weeks before the race, so I haven’t had a bike fit yet. I set myself up to make sure my back was comfortable. The winner Imogen Simmonds came past me at 20k like a train! It was impressive and at that point, I decided to just ride my own race and see how I went. I have plenty of room to improve my pacing and position.
5. Racing 70.3 – Bike
Q: On race day in Dubai you used the Enve SES 5.6, which have a rim depth of 54mm (front), 63mm (rear) and which support tubeless clinchers. Other than sponsorship, why did you go with that wheel choice? With the benefit of hindsight, do you think a deeper rear rim or disc would have gained you any time?
We did some research into which wheels provide the best performance and Enve was on the wish list, so I was so happy to be working with them when they agreed to support me. Wheel choice is really an area that shouldn’t be compromised. I didn’t go for anything deeper as I haven’t ridden anything deep and I didn’t want to change too much in the first race back. As I get more comfortable on a TT bike I will use wheels with a deeper section.
6. Racing 70.3 – Aero
Q: Have you done aero testing? If so, where? And do you think you have an aero position that you can comfortably hold for the race duration?
No aero testing yet. I’ve just agreed to a partnership with Vitus Bikes and taking delivery of my new TT bike. I’m heading to the track in Derby at the start of March to do some work with Dan Bingham and the HUUB Fellowship of Speed. Dan Bingham has helped countless athletes achieve their best position, including the world record-setting HUUB Wattbike Team.
During Dubai I did get out the saddle quite a bit, a lot more than I’d hoped too, I need more practice in the aero position and with the Aero Bike. I only managed to get one 4 weeks before Dubai.
7. Racing 70.3 – Tyre Pressure
Q: What tyre pressure do you use for racing a flat, smooth circuit like Dubai?
I think it was around 90 psi, which from experience seemed like a good number? Will work that out again when I see Dan at the track next week.
8. Racing – Gadgets
Q: We seem to share in common a Stages Dash bike computer. Mine is the L50 and I believe you have the M50. My readers [that means me 😉 ] would be interested in seeing a photo of the actual screen(s) that you have set for race day.
I had the screen set with the power I was pushing, the time and distance. I usually just glance down at it to make sure I was hitting my numbers. As this was my first 70.3, I was focusing more on the time, as I wanted to make sure I took on all my nutrition.
9. Racing – Power Meters
Q: I’m currently running a Stages G3 LR power meter on Shimano Ultegra cranks, I think you have the same PM but I assume on Dura-Ace cranks. Apparently, both our right-side Shimano cranks skew the power readings. Were you aware of that? and is it important?
No, I wasn’t aware, it hasn’t been something that has affected me. I have tried the Stages on Zwift and it was pretty similar readings, I wanted to see how they compared as I do a lot of my training at home on Zwift. As long as what I am training on, the Stages/Zwift, are comparable that works for me. I do sessions to power a couple of times a week so I tend to know where I need to be.
10 Racing – Running Shoes (a)
Q: I know you use ON race shoes, do you use the CloudFlow? I was eyeing up a pair of those myself last week in my (new) local running store, the little tubular sections under the sole look bouncily-intriguing but I’ve never tried them.
I actually raced in the 50/50. It has plenty of support and cushioning while being a bit lighter for a race shoe. Perfect for 70.3 racing for me and think I will carry on using that model for a while.
11 Racing – Running Shoes (b)
Q: What makes a good race-day running shoe for you?
I haven’t been injured for years due to overuse; it’s always been my back. My shoes have had to compensate as much as possible for my less than ideal biomechanics caused my my sponolythesis. So, for me a good neutral shoe with good support.
12 Running Shoe Tech (c)
Q: What are your thoughts on carbon plates in run shoes (eg Nike Next%) that could possibly save you and me 1% or more of our HM time?
Reminds me of the super-fast suits in swimming which then later got banned. It became such a joke that every world record was smashed so quickly. I don’t really think too much about it. I get all the arguments for improving technology etc. but if there is that much of an advantage in them, which I’m not sure there is for everyone especially in long course triathlon, but, if there is, and you don’t have them, well it’s not a level field.
13 Training Principles
Q: I’ve read about your attitude towards training and you don’t seem to shy away from hard work. But how do you/Marc ensure that the hard work is focussed on the right kind of training?
My whole career has been managing volume and intensity and reducing risk where possible. We have been fortunate enough to have a great support team of physio, physiologist, s + c, psychologists and their job was supporting Marc and me in deciding when to push and when not to push. A lot of the time it was a case of well, if you don’t push now, then you are screwed anyway as there is no time left so fingers crossed and hope the back holds out. The focus was on keeping the volume high enough that I’d benefit from it and make sure I was fresh enough to get the most out of the hard sessions. It wasn’t easy
14. Training – Peak Week (a)
Q: How many WEEKLY hours of Swim-Bike-Run did you peak at in your training for Dubai
I managed a couple of weeks at around 20 hours. I was riding about 12, swimming 5 and running 3. There would be some gym work around that. Most of the weeks before January were less than this.
14. Training – Peak Week (a)
Q: In your peak week, what percentage of that time was spent doing FAST stuff?
Not a lot, I was doing about 45 mins of race pace stuff a week for running, but it was far from fast. I was riding about 3 hours at around race pace on bike. Swim was better, and we weren’t worried about that hurting me so probably 3 out of the 4/5 sessions were at race pace or above.
15. Training – Taper
Q: What training do you do on the two days prior to race day?
Pre-race I try not to worry too much. Some athletes get really focussed on pre-race and more often than not something happens pre-race and you don’t get it done. I will always try and do 3 x 3mins tempo running in the 2 days before, similar on the bike and a race pace swim in the pool and a swim on the course. I really try not to worry about how I feel the few days before the race. I focus on all the work I have done in the months leading up to the race.
16. Training – Typical Week
Q: Can you share a typical Helen Jenkins HIM training week?
Monday – Swim 5:30 am, 5k, Bike 1:30 hours Swift with an hour @ race pace
Tuesday – Swim 5:30 am, 5k race pace + session, ride 2-3 hours, run 45 mins
Wednesday – easier day as I’m with the kids all day so would try and run 30/40 mins
Thursday – Swim 5:30 am, 5k race pace + session, ride 1 hour, run 1 hour with 30 mins @ race pace
Friday – Recovery session with the kids again
Saturday – 3-hour group ride, maybe on zwift, the group rides on here are really hard. Run 30/45 mins
Sunday – 6:30 am swim 5k, with above race pace work, Run 1:15
17. Training – For Mortals (a)
Q: Aspiring Age Group athletes inevitably try to copy what better-trained athletes do. Can you suggest any key sessions that really make a difference?
A build run is a session I always try and get done no matter what race I am doing and aim to get to 3x 20′ but before I get there I start at 20′ easy, 15′ @ just below race pace then 10′ @ race pace or just above. Within 5/6 weeks this normally gets to 3x 20’@race pace
18. Training – For Mortals (b)
Q: Do you have any female-specific training tips for a triathlon?
Find a nice saddle! Make sure you are getting enough protein after your hard sessions. Anyone who has recently had a baby and returning to sport I would recommend seeing a post-natal physio. It really helped me and gave me confidence that I was ready to return to running.
Q: I once talked to Stuart Hayes about supplementation. He was generally sceptical but swore by pro-biotics. Are you the kind of athlete that has an occasional penchant for yukky-tasting beetroot juice and an infeasibly strong espresso or, instead, a healthy and balanced diet and lots of water?
I’ve been trying to eat less meat for a few years and now I’m at the point where I really don’t miss it. If I go to a steak restaurant, I still may have a steak so I’ve not cut it out completely but have massively reduced daily and weekly intake. I feel pretty good not eating it. We eat a lot of Veg and a lot of salad. I love a Chinese now and again and Mexican style food is brilliant.
I am very lucky to just starting to officially work with Clif, I’ve been using their product for the last few years. Clif is a funny one, it’s so so good, that if I keep too much in the house I’m definitely going to eat too much of it. Marc is worse and his restraint is worse than mine, will always see an empty packet around and he can’t blame Mali or Max yet. I do supplement with Probiotics and a multivitamin
20 Futures & Anything Else
Q: Looking ahead to December 2021 (one). If you had 22 perfect months, what medals will be in your kit bag?
I am not sure. I know that if I can train ok then I’m hard to beat. I’ve proved that when training has absolutely sucked for me, it’s my body allowing me to do it. If my body lets me train then I aim to win but it’s never a given with me and I’m always worried about letting people down when my body has previously let me down.
I am lucky to have had the opportunity to do what I do. A few years ago when injuries and everything came with it, it was really hard for Marc and I. We realised this isn’t a job. If this wasn’t my career I’d still be swimming, running, occasionally riding my bike and enjoying spending time on the beach. So, let’s enjoy it and whatever happens we will try our best to find a way out of. We are pretty lucky really to have had the lives we have had and earned pretty good money doing it that’s set us up for the rest of our lives.
Closing Thoughts, Post-Interview
Well, I found that interesting. Helen seems to have avoided the trap of becoming gadget-obsessed. I’ve found to my cost that made me slower over the years…or maybe it’s age?
If you zoom in closely on the bike photo you will see that Helen has her gels taped to the top tube with black insulating tape. Sitting upright to drink from a water bottle and peeling off a gel clearly isn’t the end of the world even for elite athletes.
Did Helen obsess over the NP-to-power ratio for each lap on her bike computer? Err, no. just the power
Does Helen require supreme power meter accuracy, err no. And she’s better than you and I put together!
Enjoy your gadgets, don’t get obsessed by them and train hard & smart.
Images: Some images copyright of Ryan Sosna-Bowd, Team Jenkins, me, On-Running