On Oct 16 2019 I had the opportunity to briefly talk to George Bjälkemo who, together with Pontus Lindberg form Team ATG Sport. Both former long-distance triathletes they ended up fourth in the 2018 edition of the ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Championships after having won every single race in the ÖtillÖ swimrun World Series.
My first question was how that felt, and George replied as follows:“We both entered the WC race pretty battered suffering all sorts of small injuries collected over a year of intense racing. There was really no time to get in the necessary training that we had in mind at the beginning of the year to prepare for the WC race. However, in the end it came down to a strategic miscalculation that got us chasing the lead group throughout the race. We raced too conservatively and reacted too late to how things developed during the race. In retrospect, we did not have a good day on race day as far as mental readiness is concerned. This could have been the case if we had been able to train and prepare properly but for the race it certainly did not improve the situation.
”So, what did you do different this year to end up on the top of the podium?“
Well, first of all after ÖtillÖ we took a break. After getting back into training again in October, things were going well until in December Pontus took a bad fall out on the trails and fractured his lower leg. Not long after I was having some (injury) issues with my right calf. Consequently, throughout spring we were both stuck rehabbing (in my case not even close to what Pontus had to do!). This meant a lot more time in the pool and a lot of non-impact workouts on the cross-trainer. We found the cross-trainer work outs to be very effective and that is something that we fall back to whenever there´s an increased risk of injury. Pontus was also on a strength training routine with Access Rehab.
”You guys did not do any other big race in the build-up to ÖtillÖ so how did you tailor your training to peak in ÖtillÖ?“
The thing is that for ÖtillÖ you have to do a lot of volume with emphasis on not just mileage but rather time out the trails. We both follow the same training program and we work in blocks of 4 weeks. We make a rough plan for the months leading all the way up to ÖtillÖ but in detail we don’t really plan more than a block of 4 weeks ahead and a lot of time not even that. We really focus on evaluating how we feel daily to ensure we not only get quality training in but also recover properly from each session. This becomes especially important when you start adding volume. Consistency is key!
“Can you tell us a bit more about these 4 week cycles? How does it work?“
Believe it or not but we don’t actually do a lot of swimrun training unless it’s for a specific purpose of let’s say practicing transitions. We found that you get a lot more quality out of a specific run session or open water / pool session. Especially when water temperatures are low we experienced that the risk of injury goes up and so does recovery time. For the WC we focused one week in each block on a lot low intensity volume, meaning we could go out for a 2 -2 ½ hour open water swim session (mixing it up 50/50 with pull buoy and paddles) immediately followed by a long 2-3 hour run in technical terrain. When the water temperatures allowed for it we also did 4-5 hrs of swimrun sessions. We could also mix a long run extended with time on the cross-trainer. The rest of the weeks in the block builds up to this week and the week after we really focus on recovery. Normally we run and swim 4 times a week but in the final three months leading up to ÖtillÖ this went up to about 5 times a week. So, during spring we gradually add volume and by the time we are a few weeks away from ÖtillÖ the peak week average around 20-30 km of swimming and 120-150km of running. The other three weeks are a lot less volume to prevent over training and injuries.
”I understand that most of the training is relatively low intensity but how come you guys are still so fast?“
To a certain extent we also train our cardiovascular system by doing VO2Max work outs and threshold sessions but when you start adding serious volume we tend to do these work outs mainly in the pool where there is less impact on the body..
”That’s really interesting George, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience with us. Can you tell us a bit about your race plans for the coming months and if Team ATG Sports is going to defend their world championships title?“
You are very welcome! Hopefully we will be racing ÖtillÖ Malta. After that we take a break. Yes, we will be defending the title at ÖtillÖ Wc next year.
”Do you have some connection with Finland you would like to share with us?“
You know what, I don’t come to Finland very often but maybe I should because my grandmother is actually from Turku.
”Well, that explains your high degree of sisu! I am sure that we can find a beautiful swimrun for Team ATG Sport in Finland to prepare for ÖtillÖ. Thanks and good luck for the upcoming races.”