Helen Jenkins grabbed the ITU World Championship titles in 2008 and 2011 and represented the UK in the Olympics, but stepped away from the sport for about 3 years while giving birth twice and dealing with a spinal fusion operation. Jenkins, who will be 36 on March 8th, recently jumped into the IRONMAN 70.3 Dubai and finished 4th - and is so inspired to see where she can go with more training and fitness.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Helen.
Helen Jenkins: No problem, and thanks for the interview!
ST: How is the family and how are you?
Helen: We are good thanks. Life is busy with a 2 and half year old, a 9-month old and training, but I love it. More sleep would always be nice but I’m enjoying combining family and triathlon life.
ST: In 2018 you had a spinal fusion surgery, but that was about an issue you apparently had to manage for several years. Can you elaborate?
Helen: I have spondylolisthesis, in basic terms the bottom vertebra of my spine was slipping forward over my pelvis. It is a condition that developed when I was a teenager. I have had problems through my career with injuries and a lot have been caused by the nerve compression associated with spondylolisthesis. The worst was before London 2012 Olympics, I was in huge amounts of pain for the 4 months before the games. I spent all of 2013 trying to work out the problems. Surgery was an option at that point, but I was told I would never compete again. So I managed the issues and problems from 2012-2016 while still competing at a high level, but also unable to train 100%. After the birth of our daughter Mali in 2017, I had a lot more problems and couldn’t walk several times due to the pain. I went to see a surgeon who said eventually at some point I would need a fusion to live an active life. I decided to have the surgery straight away.
ST: How long were you in the hospital for the surgery?
Helen: I had two surgeries. The first the surgeon went in through the stomach then a week later through the back. I was in hospital a couple of days each time. The first surgery I didn’t find too bad but the second one was really painful. I had to take strong painkillers for a few months. The hospital was in central London so the hardest part was getting home to South Wales in a car. The journey was quite painful. There is no lifting, twisting movement for a few months so the hardest part was not being able to pick up Mali, who was 4 months old.
ST: What did your doctors tell you in terms of coming back to competition?
Helen: I was told that it was unlikely to return to competition. At the point when I had the surgery I wasn’t worried about competing, I wanted to be able to live an active life, go for a run, pick up Mali. I was happy with what I had done in my career and if I never got to race again that was it.
ST: Prior to the recent 70.3 Dubai I think your last race was in late 2016. In addition to dealing with that surgery, you also gave birth to Mali and Max. Other than the physical changes, how is your mind now different in terms of goals and priorities?
Helen: Priorities are definitely different now, the kids are the most important thing, especially with Max being so young (9 months) I try to do my training around them. I am lucky I have great support looking after the kids, so I am able to train too. The biggest change is that I was told I was unlikely to be racing again so the last 6 months building up to racing has felt like a bonus. I didn’t know if I’d ever do a triathlon again so I am feeling lucky to be back doing something I love. I am so used to having a big goal to work towards, when your involved in ITU and going for an Olympic cycle there is always something to be aiming for and it can feel quite pressured. So it has been a change for me to just see how training goes and see what happens, also a lot more relaxing. One of the biggest changes with having kids is the lack of down time, there isn’t as much rest and recovery. I don’t think I appreciated the down time enough when I had it before. It also works in my favor too because I really make the most out of the training time I have and appreciate it.
ST: When you traveled to Dubai earlier in February, how ready did you feel and what was the goal?
Helen: I didn’t really feel ready. I had only been training properly for 4 months and I had gone from zero fitness as I barely trained while pregnant with Max. I really needed to pick a race to commit to and focus my training. Once I had committed to Dubai my training picked up and improved. Most people wouldn’t believe me, but the aim was really just to get around, I needed to do a race to prove to myself I could still do it.
ST: Compared to all the ITU events you have done how did it feel to go longer and non-drafting? And in terms of atmosphere how was it different than, for example, the WTS Abu Dhabi race?
Helen: The distance felt like a long way! Partly because I haven’t done that distance and also because my fitness is not fully there yet. I loved the atmosphere at Dubai. At ITU and World Series there is often an age group race, but it is at a separate time or day. It was fun to be out on the course with everyone. There were a lot of Brits racing so I had loads of support, I was so grateful to everyone who came to say hi and gave me a cheer. There is such a great community in triathlon.
ST: Talk about the swim in Dubai.
Helen: I was really nervous before the start. It had been such a long time before i started a race. The nice thing about Ironman is the field is a lot smaller, so the swim isn’t as physical as an ITU swim. I knew Pamella Oliveira was a great swimmer from racing her in ITU so my aim was to stick with her, which I managed to do. I had been doing a lot of training in my wetsuit when I was in the training camp, so I was pretty happy with it being a wetsuit swim. The sun was coming up as we were swimming back to shore, and I’m aware I should have been focusing on what I was doing, but it was beautiful and just for a moment I really appreciated where I was and I was so happy to be back in a race.
ST: Once on the bike how did you feel?
Helen: The bike is what I was the most nervous about. Riding aero Enve wheels, using my Stages Power meter to keep consistency, trying to be aero, it was all new. I had only been riding a TT bike for a month and haven’t had proper aero bike fit yet, but this is coming on March 4th with Dan Bingham and HUUB’s Fellowship of Speed setting me up on my new bike partners Vitus’ TT bike.
In Dubai, my position on the bike was more about not changing too much and keeping my back comfortable. Now I have got the first race done I have a new bike and I’m going to get set up properly. During the race Imogen Simmonds came past at 20k like a train! At that point I decided to just try and ride my own race. I was pretty happy to get to the end without getting passed again and get on to the run.
ST: What about the air temps coming from the colder UK?
Helen: I was fine with the temperatures, we spent all of January in Lanzarote and it was warm there. I felt quite warm towards the end of the run but nothing too bad.
ST: Running-wise, if you had to rank it, where are you at this time? And was there a point during the run in Dubai where you felt it was enough?
Helen: I am a long way from my best, but I haven’t been able to run on and off for 4 years so it is expected. I knew it wouldn’t be enough to be competitive with the best runners, but I was actually happy with my run considering the training I have done. It won’t take much to improve it.
ST: In the end you finished 4th and you said you were pleased. So what is next?
Helen: With everything I have been through and being told I wouldn’t compete again I was so happy. It was a huge achievement for me to finish. In terms of actual performance, it is nowhere near my past best races I have done. I am aware I have a long way to go to be competitive with the best, but it was a really good starting point for me and I’m excited to see what I can achieve moving forwards.
ST: With so many super fast times in the race folks were wondering about course distance accuracy. Were they correct in your view?
Helen: I’m not sure about the bike as I haven’t looked at the data. I think the run was about right on my watch.
ST: Talk about your current training volume in terms of swim, bike and run. And where do you hope to be in a few months?
Helen: I’m not an extremely high-volume athlete. So since building back up after the birth of Max in May 2019 I would say I average between 18-20 hours training a week. Some weeks are more but we have been really cautious with my back and the load it can take. Also, if you throw in having young kids and the lack of sleep, there have been times when one of them is sick or teething and I don’t sleep properly for a few nights so we have adapted training to the kids too.
I swim 4/5 times a week with our swimming club Bridgend Swimming Club
Bike - 5 times a week
Run - 5 times a week
Gym/strength - 2/3 small sessions a week.
Now I have had a long period of training consistently and my body has handled it I will try and build and increase volume. Bring in some more specific sessions for the longer distance. I’m not where I was when I was training in 2016 but I am working my way back there.
ST: How are you runs workouts split up in terms of speed work and endurance?
Helen: To be honest we haven’t really got to that stage yet. I was trying to do one harder run a week. Some weeks it would be a steadier run on the treadmill, some weeks it would be about trying to get a bit more speed. It was only the last week or two before Dubai I actually felt like I was fit enough to push a bit harder and go faster. I hadn’t run a half marathon until the day of the race either.
ST: Can you also go in detail about one your harder swim sets?
Helen: Myself, Marc (husband) and good friend Rich Watkins started a swimming club around 18 months ago - Bridgend Swimming Club. Marc coaches the morning sessions and another coach the evenings so I get a great variety of sessions.
This is a session I hate as I rather do reps off short rest as I am really aerobic. I would prefer to do 100s off 1.20 than lots of rest. This set is Short course 25m pool.
4 x 100 off 1.40 Best effort
3 x 50 easy off 60
3 x 100 off 1.50 Best effort
3 x 50 easy off 60
2 x 100 off 2 mins best effort 3 x 50 easy
1 x 100 best effort off 2 mins 3 x 50 easy
4 x 100 best effort
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Helen: I want to make a special mention to Huub Wetsuits - they have been with me through thick and thin, they are the only company that kept sponsoring me when I was pregnant and through back surgery. Bike, shoes and nutrition all didn’t stay and went, so it was really special that they stuck me. Additionally, I really am grateful to On Running, Stages and Enve, who I’d not have a relationship with before this year and they took a leap to help me.
Images 1, 3 and 4 courtesy and copyright of Ryan Sosna-Bowd. Image 2 personal FB.