Today on The Kona Edge, we get to share another fantastic story as we head to Stockholm in Sweden to chat with Rasmus Svenningsson who finished first in his age group at Kona 2018.
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BRAD BROWN: We head to Stockholm in Sweden now to catch up with our next guest here on The Kona Edge and it’s a great pleasure to welcome Rasmus Svenningsson onto the podcast, Rasmus, welcome.
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Thank you very much for having me.
BRAD BROWN: Rasmus, I’m excited to have you on because Kona 2018 you had an absolute monster of a race, finishing first in your age group, just outside the top 30 overall, you must be pretty chuffed with that performance.
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Yeah, still can’t believe I could pull that off, I just had a perfect day in almost every way, so happy I just made everything on that special day.
BRAD BROWN: What do you think the secret is to having the perfect day on the Big Island?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: That’s a hard one. I think maybe one reason to why have performed so well, it’s because I was there quite a bit before the race. I went there three weeks prior to the event, so I really got a acclimatized to the very warm and humid conditions there. It took me a very long time to get adapted to those conditions, so I really felt comfortable in those conditions and I had several kinds of tests, hydration-wise, nutrition-wise, I had biked the course several times, I knew what to expect on race day, there were no surprises. That, I think, is one really important factor. I would also say there’s a very important mental factor because I had had an incredible season leading up to the race also. I was undefeated in my age group before the race and I had surprised myself with several performance that I didn’t think I was capable of before. Still, I didn’t put much pressure on myself, it was just I know I can do this but I was still just happy to be on Kona because this was my first time racing there and the big goal for the season for me was to actually qualify for Kona. I could just relax and tell myself no matter how it goes, you’ve had an amazing season but now you can just do everything you can and see how it goes. Then I could relax and just perform well I guess.
BRAD BROWN: That to me is amazing, that first time out on the Big Island, it’s all good and well you’d been there three weeks before, but to have the race that you have on your debut is just incredible. Tell me, let’s take a step back and look at your sporting history. What’s your background? Where do you come from sports-wise?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Well, actually I was a cross country skier from the beginning, cross country and Nordic skiing. I don’t know if the South African population are very familiar with that sport but it’s really a physically demanding sport. I did cross country skiing from my youth to my early 20s and then I stopped for several reasons. I started studying instead but then I got, in some way I missed having a sport in my life that played an important part in my life. Then for quite some time I had been thinking about triathlon and Ironman because I thought that was a really cool thing. I like challenging my body in several ways and that seemed like a really cool way. I registered to an Ironman and that was my first triathlon event ever and that’s a very interesting story actually, my first Ironman.
BRAD BROWN: Which one did you do first?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: I did Ironman Zurich first, in 2015 and I hadn’t trained very much before and I also had very bad luck leading up to the race. I think a few days before I had a beef tartar which wasn’t good at all, so I got food poisoning four or five days before the race. When I was on the start line I told myself, what are you actually doing here? I hadn’t eaten for three or four days, any proper meal but I guess I was just too cheap not to go to the start line because I’d paid like 700 Euros for the registration and I wasn’t very familiar with the registration fees for Ironman back then. I finished, I’m still very proud of that, but it was a very tough race and I threw up many times during the race.
BRAD BROWN: That’s incredible. As far as the background in cross country and Nordic skiing, were you any good at it? Did you do it at any particular level?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Well yeah, you can say that I was good at it. I’m much better in triathlon now than I ever was as a cross country skier, of course, but still I reached maybe top 20-30 in Sweden and Sweden is one of the leading nations with cross country skiing, so I don’t know what I would have been like worldwide, outside top 100 by far.
BRAD BROWN: How much of your success in triathlon would you put down to genes and genetics and being lucky that you were born into the body that you’ve been born in and how much of it to hard work and just really training hard?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: That’s a really tough question because I think maybe my, the main genes I’ve been blessed with, if you can say so but I’m willing to put in the hard work for it. I think that I may have some good genetics, like for long distance and endurance but on the other hand I’m not that a natural runner for instance. I’m kind of a big guy, not that I’m fat or anything, but I’m quite muscular for being a triathlete. I think that my body is rather resilient and it can handle a lot of training. I think I also have a good VO2 max, I think I’ve been training a lot to improve my VO2 max also. I think that when people are looking at me, they wouldn’t see that oh, he’s a typical talented triathlete, but maybe I’m talented in other respects, I’ve been injury-free so far, so I think maybe I have good genetics for that. I think many people have some genetics that are good, it’s not like you don’t have or some people might have genetics for everything, but most people don’t and then you’ve got to work with what you have and increase your strength and your weaknesses.
BRAD BROWN: Rasmus, as much as you’re fairly new, because you’re still quite young, as much as you’re fairly new to the sport of triathlon, you’ve got a huge aerobic base that comes from the skiing. You might not have done 20 years of hard work in triathlon training, but you’ve got this massive engine and base that you’ve built over the years from skiing.
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Definitely, especially the engine because the VO2 max, you can call it the engine; it’s maybe the main predictor for performance in cross country skiing, so a lot of my training was focused to improve my VO2 max. Of course that I got with me, taking it into triathlon and of course that makes a huge difference compared to if I would have just started from scratch.
BRAD BROWN: I’m interested and you joke you don’t know how big Nordic skiing is in South Africa, I can tell you it’s not big at all, we get very little snow, only in the high areas and I think we’ve probably had two or three people go to the winter Olympics ever, winter sport is not big here. Just for interest sake, from a physical taxing point of view, which is harder, the skiing or Ironman triathlon?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: I would say Ironman triathlon is harder and that’s maybe the reason why I like it more! It’s a more complex sport, you get the nutrition coming in and there are a lot of races taking place in warm conditions, humid conditions, so you need to take that into account. It’s a longer day. Cross country skiing, of course there are a lot of technical aspects to cross country skiing, but basically it’s pretty much like you need a high VO2 and decent strength and so on. Of course it’s very complex as well and it’s really, really hard to become a great cross country skier, but I think it’s even more challenging and maybe you need to think more, you need to be intellectually aware of what you’re doing all the time and how you plan the races and how you execute your races. Then there’s also a lot of interesting training data that you can analyze and put into racing. All those things I thrive on that. Yeah, I would say it’s more challenging, for sure, and mostly in every way but I would say that’s a good thing.
BRAD BROWN: I’ve never been to Sweden or to Scandinavia, but if I think of Sweden, I think of long, cold winter’s nights, lots of snow. I don’t think triathlon as a sport, but not just in Sweden, but I think in the whole of Scandinavia there’s a big explosion in the sport. There’s lots of Ironman races, both full and 70.3 distance, then you get races like the Norseman in Norway, why is triathlon growing like it is where you are?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: That’s a tough question. I think like in Sweden and maybe even more in Norway, it’s really like active population, especially in Norway it’s a really active population and I think in Sweden there are a lot of people who do triathlon, most of them are high achievers in business life and other careers. Then there’s maybe a bit of they need a bit of a challenge in their private life as well and then triathlon and Ironman may sort of like be the greatest challenge for people to take on, for physical challenges. That might be a factor but I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because it’s fun and people find it’s really fun and you get to do three sports which is much greater than doing just one. I hope it’s that people just think it’s really fun and like to challenge themselves.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me a little bit about life outside of triathlon for you. What do you do outside of the sport?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: I’m in medical school; I study medicine, my fifth year, so I have one and half semesters to go until I earn my degree. Otherwise there’s mainly training outside my studies and it gets harder and harder because the triathlon has become more and more an important part of my life, so I’ve been prioritizing triathlon more and more for the last say one and a half years. So, we’ll see what happens then but as you say, I consider myself to be still quite young, I’m 26, so I want to see how well I can do in this sport on a professional level as well.
BRAD BROWN: I was going to ask, what’s next? You’re 26 years old, you’ve done 8:30 and some change in Kona, you’ve won your age group, for lots of age groupers, to get on the podium in Kona is this lifelong dream, you’ve achieved what most people want to do in the sport, what’s left for you?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: It’s the pro [**] is definitely for sure. I would very much, because I got the qualification, if I won my age group, so that would have been really great to come back to Kona because it’s an amazing place and everyone who has been there, it’s worth all the hard work just to get there and enjoy the place. Still, I need a new challenge and that’s the pro [** 0.15.30], so I will be four feet in my qualification for the [** World Championship] as a pro next year. So we’ll see how it goes but I will definitely give it five years, at least and if it goes well, hopefully [**] because now that’s all I want to do and this is what I’m, yes, gives me most joy in my life right now.
BRAD BROWN: Brilliant, Rasmus, you mentioned the tracking the VO2 max and then you were also talking about the all data you pull out, I’m guessing that you’re pretty analytical. What are some of the things that you track and numbers that you, not necessarily the actual numbers, but what are some of the metrics that you track during a season to see how you’re improving and how you can improve?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Yeah, so mainly it’s of course, I think it’s most interesting to look at those simple things, like running, the speed, basically how fast I’m running on my long runs and on the track, if I’m getting faster and faster and on the bike, the Power of course, I think that’s my favorite training metric because it’s so standardized to measure it perfectly in Power. I regularly do 20 minutes all out tests on my trainer and I’ve been doing it for my bike here training on the turbo trainer this year. The swim is also rather standardized. You swim in [** 0.17.25] and you can perform regular tests and you notice rather quickly if you improve or actually deteriorate or if you reach a plateau. Yes, those metrics are kind of good because in cross country skiing for instance, the conditions when you ski, how the snow is and everything, you cannot rely on times that much and there’s no such thing as Power meters. You actually don’t really know how you’re progressing and in triathlon it’s really easy to measure, am I really progressing now. If you stop progressing for a few weeks or a month then you need to start asking yourself, okay, what do I need to do now so I can [** 0.18.18]. That, I think, is a really nice [**] and also some of the pros share their training data, so you can actually go and chase their numbers, on the bike for instance, so that’s a great motivation for me to try and hit the numbers [that are possible?] You need to know where to aim, that’s my take on it.
BRAD BROWN: As far as coaching, are you doing this on your own or have you got someone that’s helping you? Have you got a coach that you work with?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Right now I’m actually coaching myself, but I really like discussing training, so I have a couple of advisors that I regularly discuss my training with and that’s really fun and they have really good input. Last season I was working with a guy in Brazil, he’s been a pro racing in Kona before and he planned my training. Now it was really hard because I went back to school and you need to adapt your sessions for my school studies. It’s hard for someone to just put up a plan and then for you to follow it. I also think it’s really fun to plan my own training and be responsible for my own training.
BRAD BROWN: Looking at the amount of time you train, obviously being a student, I know what it was like when I was a student, there wasn’t much studying going on, but there wasn’t much triathlon going on either, that’s for sure. It’s not like you’re breezing through an easy degree, you’re studying medicine, there’s a heavy workload there, how many hours a week in peak training are you training for a race like Kona or a goal Ironman race?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Like my peak, before Kona then for summer holidays, then I could do pretty much [** 0.20.36] if I wanted to. Maybe the few months leading up to Kona, I averaged maybe 18-20 hours a week. Now I’ve been focusing a little bit more on high intensity and I’m also back at school, so maybe now on the easiest weeks maybe 12-13 hours and 18 hours on the heaviest week, but mainly around the 15-17 hours I would say. Then there’s a lot of intensity in those hours. I wouldn’t go much harder, or much more, even if I had unlimited time for it, for training because I think that the quality training, high intensity training is so important, especially this part of the season. I would prioritize that anyway.
BRAD BROWN: If you had to go back and start over, is there anything that you would do differently, knowing what you know now, there’s always things to learn in the sport of triathlon, but would you change anything?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: That’s a good question. I think I did most of the things pretty well last year, but maybe I would be focussing a little bit more on the volume actually and maybe reducing the high intensity training a little bit, especially when the season approaches because the coach I was working with, she just put down a lot of volume and I responded very well to that, at that time, but I also think the reason to why I responded very well to that is because I had a really good engine to start with. I had the right engine to bring volume from, so I think it wouldn’t have been that successful if I hadn’t done all that high intensity work prior to the volume. For this season I have a similar approach to my training, but would I have done anything differently, no –
BRAD BROWN: When you’re winning there isn’t too much to change is there?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: No, I can’t come up with anything right now! I’m sure of course there’s something, I’m sure, that I could have done differently.
BRAD BROWN: Before we wrap up, let’s touch on Kona as a place. It’s vastly different to where you live, it’s vastly different to where I live, what makes the island so special and what makes that race in particular so special?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Oh, everything I would say! Race-wise it’s definitely the heat and maybe the humidity is the worst because you’re used to, I raced in South Africa last year and that was kind of hot as well but still the humidity, isn’t that high, so the sweat can feel like it vaporizes from your body and then you cool down. I usually sweat a lot, but you get a lot of cooling effect from sweating a lot when the humidity is quite low. In Kona everything just streams from your body, it’s not vaporizing and then you’re not cooling down by sweating on your body. The strategy on the run, especially on Kona was to get to the next aid station and then put your head in an ice bath or you get enough [** 0.24.57] to get to another aid station and then let’s do it all over again.
Yes, the humidity and the heat there and when I got there, the first week, I was like, it shouldn’t be possible to do an Ironman in these conditions. The first days I went out on the [** 0.25.20] I was out for like one to two hours, I was completely exhausted when I got home. I was like; I’ll be satisfied even if I finish this race! Then you acclimatize really quickly and you start to feel better but those conditions are really tough. The place is really nice and you really feel as if it’s a World Championship, all the pros are there and I think it was even more special than I had thought.
BRAD BROWN: Rasmus, I’d be remiss not to ask this, the week that we’re publishing this episode, it’s Ironman South Africa coming up this weekend actually, so your experience in Nelson Mandela Bay last year at the 70.3 World Championships, what do you think of Port Elizabeth, what do you think of South Africa?
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: I love South Africa. I wasn’t there for the 70.3 Worlds; I was racing the African Championships.
BRAD BROWN: Oh, it was the full last year, sorry, my apologies.
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: No problem, I love it, we had the best time there. I only have super great memories from South Africa. We stayed at the lodge and there were other people competing in the Ironman and we became all very good friends from different nationalities. I had my first age group win in South Africa and I think some kind of mental barrier just let go after that race. Yeah, it definitely has a very special place in my heart. I’m planning on going back to South Africa next year, now after this year my world is a bit light, so that’s the main reason I’m not racing this year, is to concentrate, but yeah, I think also the bike race in particular, has been beautiful and all the people who are all so very friendly and the nature is incredible.
BRAD BROWN: The crowd support on that run course is phenomenal as well.
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Very much, I’ve been racing in Ironman Sweden and I think you can do five or six different ironman races in the world and Ironman Sweden is really famous for having a very, very good crowd, but I think the South African crowd, it’s just as good, as I said.
BRAD BROWN: I love that race, obviously it’s my home race and I’m extremely proud of it, but there’s just something about racing in Nelson Mandela Bay and then just finally to wrap this chat up Rasmus, you’ve said it a couple of times now, the mental part of winning your age group and going into Kona, being unbeaten and going, I could win my age group. Dig into that a little bit more, tell me a little bit more about that.
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Yes, that’s something I didn’t think much about before this season but then I think something happened in South Africa. I won my age group there and I really fought very, very hard for that victory. There was a really, really great Swiss runner coming from behind and just got closer and closer as the run went by and my brother was with me, supporting, and he was just screaming, “You need to take this.” I gave everything I had for my first win there and I think I started to believe in myself in a different way. Then a very interesting mental aspect also was a few months later, I raced the 70.3 and it’s rather weird, but I never considered myself to be quite a good runner. I thought I’m too big, I weigh too much, but on that race I managed to pull off a 1:14, half marathon speed and I thought that I would never be able, even if I trained for like five years, I wouldn’t be able to, I wouldn’t be capable of doing a 1:14 half marathon. Then I started to realize that maybe I can actually become pretty good at this sport. Now I’m thinking that mental thing and of course winning my age group in Kona, I hadn’t even thought that would be possible as well but now I think, I’m going into this season now and in my training I believe in myself in a very different way than I did before. I think that’s even more important than my thinking from the beginning.
BRAD BROWN: I couldn’t agree more and if you look at any sport, not just triathlon, you look at the guys at the top of their game, physically they’re all pretty much the same and golfers are good examples. What separates the good from the best is their mental game and having their mental game and the confidence and the belief that they can win.
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Yeah, for sure and also that when you reach, in your training you also strive for a different level so now, on the bike for instance, I’m really trying to chase one of my favorite pro athletes, I’m following Lionel Sanders, like for two years ago I was just, oh it wouldn’t be possible to push this Power on the bike and now I’m not there yet, but I’m not that from it on several intervals. That’s because I’ve been aiming for that level and I have been believing in myself, there’s no reason for it, why wouldn’t you be able to get that level also. You shouldn’t think that there are any limits, even if you say you’re not talented enough or you don’t have the genetics for it, most people can definitely be much better than they think they are, or they think they can become. You shouldn’t set any barriers for yourself.
BRAD BROWN: I think that’s such a great place to end this chat. I look forward to talking about your individual disciplines, but we’ll save that for next time.
RASMUS SVENNINGSSON: Yeah, sure, okay, great, thanks for having me.
Brad Brown is a 40 something age grouper that dreams of one day qualifying for and racing on the big island (He may have to outlive everyone in his age group though).
Morbidly obese in 2009, Brad clocked in at 165kgs (363lbs) at his heaviest.
He's subsequently lost a third of his body weight on the way to a half Ironman pb of 5:06 and a full Ironman pb of 12:21.
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