[S3E3] How to achieve your race goals with extreme triathlete Allan Hovda

how to achieve race goals with Allan Hovda

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Android | Spotify | Email | RSS

Since interviewing Allan Hovda after this third win at the Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon in 2018, he has become a good friend and client. You can read about how we’ve worked together on his blog here: Going Mental with Adelaide Goodeve.

Allan’s achievements include being a 3-time Norseman champion, 1-time Swissman champion and course record holder for the fastest Norwegian ironman distance time. Today on the podcast we explore his journey into triathlon, pushing his own limits and developing an unstoppable mindset.

{Click on the player above to listen to the podcast episode and/or read on for a detailed overview}

Adelaide: Hello Allan! Welcome to the podcast, I'm so excited to have you with me!

Allan: Hello, I'm very excited as well. I must say, it was an honour to being asked to join your podcast.

Adelaide: Oh, thank you so much. It was fantastic to meet you at the Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon in 2018, and it was also my honour to be there when you crossed the finish line into first place!

[Read the 2018 Norseman race report here: Queen and King of the world’s ultimate triathlon: a smashed course record and triple winner]

Allan: Yeah, there were some really nice days before the race and during the race as well.

Adelaide: So before we jump into your adventures with Norsemen, could you please tell us who you are and what it is you do in the world today?

Allan: My name is Alan and I'm a 32 year old regular guy. I have a wife and son who's three years old. We live in in Oslo, the capital of Norway, and I work part-time as a process technician on a oil rig and I work full-time as an triathlete.

Adelaide: I was looking at your blog, which is absolutely packed full of information for any triathlete and I'm really intrigued by your story, how did you get into triathlon?

Allan: Yeah. Thank you about the comments about the blog. My road into triathlon was a bit random, but it was a movie of Norseman from 2008 and I was watching the movie, it is a really nice movie, but my first thought was that these people are completely mad. The things they're doing, it's insane.

So as someone coming from a non-endurance sport background that hasn't done any swimming or running or cycling or cross-country skiing, like all the other Norwegians. So I had a very unconventional background in that sense. Nothing would suggest that I was a perfect fit for doing a triathlon.

So I just saw the movie, thinking these people are mad and then I showed the movie to a colleague, and the colleague said, "Oh, I've been supporting for a guy who competed Norsemen twice. So you could definitely do it if you want to.' And I was like, "No, I can't". And then I asked about what his friend did and what he ate and how he trained and everything and I figured out 'Yeah, he wasn't that dedicated and all that. It didn't sound too professional'. So with the encouragement of my colleague, I signed up for the Norsemen 2009. Yeah, that was that. At least that was how I got into triathlon. I was looking at Norsemen and thinking that it was impossible, and then I was trying to do the impossible.

Adelaide: That's amazing! So 10 years later you've now won it three times?

Allan: Yes, but at least when I signed up, I didn't have any ambitions of winning it or getting the black t-shirt. It was an ambition of finishing the race and a lot of people doubted that was possible as well.

Adelaide: Wow, this is seriously incredible. I didn't realise it was that, so was Norseman your first triathlon as well?

Allan: No, it was the first triathlon I signed up for. So I did a sprint triathlon earlier that summer to test doing a triathlon and then I did a half distance a couple of months before. But it all started with signing up with Norseman.

Adelaide: So how did it feel when you finished Norsemen for the first time?

Allan: That's a good question, because the feeling I got when I finished Norseman for the first time, I did fairly well for my first triathlon, I finished three hours behind the winner. I was finishing up around 14 hours. So it wasn't bad at all. But of course, I was far down on the result list. I wasn't competing for a victory of of any kind, but to actually finish to, to do the thing I thought one year earlier was impossible. It was extreme feeling of conquering the obstacles or conquering challenges. So it was a very similar feeling to when I won for the first time. I didn't cross the line and think, 'Oh, yeah, I came 44th place'. So it was an extreme feeling of victory of beating my own set barriers.

Adelaide: So I'm really intrigued because I 100% understand that feeling of control yourself and achieving the impossible and making that seem possible, because I'm also addicted to that feeling and that sense of success. But what I'm really intrigued about, is how you went from your first Norseman to then becoming a full-time pro triathlete?

Allan: Yeah, that was the journey as well and when I did Norseman fo the first time, it was a big challenge, but it was a challenge I was supposed to do and then I didn't have any plans to continuing doing triathlons.

But after finishing Norsemen I really got hooked to the sport. When I finished it was around the time when you had to attend the lottery to get a slot qnd I didn't get any slots for the next three years. I did set my mind on other goals to complete a half ironman distance, a flat Ironman distance race and then complete them as fast as I could. Then I went for trying to qualify to Ironman Hawaii as an age group athlete, which happened in 2012. I had another go at Hawaii in 2014, which was the same year I won Norseman for the first time and then I decided to sign up as a professional.

But if you're taking the road from my first triathlon in 2009 to until I went professional, it was just a continuous, like increase and improvement in the disciplines and improvement in the training and the quality of the recovery and food and everything. So it was a really gradual process. I didn't do any leaps of any kind and just just trying to improve every day, every year with the eyes on the long-term benefit.

Adelaide: This is giving me hope for my own Norseman ambitions!

Before we talk about what really hooked you into triathlon, and then we're gonna dive more into how you're meticulous at planning, which I just love. I've realised we've been talking about Norseman and for those who don't know what it is, could you please tell us about this incredible race?

Allan: Yeah, Norseman is an Ironman distance race. So you got 3.8km swimming, 180km bike ride and then finish off with the marathon.

But what's special about Norsemen is you jump out of the ferry and the water is usually quite cold. If you get like 15 degrees, then you might consider yourself lucky! So this year [2018], we were extremely lucky, but usually it's a rather chilly experience. And in 2015 we had 10 degrees!

Then you ride your bike across five mountain passes, so it's really hilly bike course. The view is absolutely stunning, when you're crossing the plateau, it's wonderful.

The conditions are usually not the most favourable. I think the worst I had was like four degrees and rain all across the Hardangervidda, so that was really, really cold.

Then you finish off with a marathon, with the first 25 kilometre flat and then it goes steep, really steep upwards, and you finish the last 4.7 kilometres on a rocky mountain. And you finish up at the Gaustatoppen, which is 1883m high. And yeah, that's Norseman.

Adelaide: I loved how you said hilly!

Allan: Yeah, it's strange. But you get used to the hills if you've done it a few times!

Adelaide: Yeah, I can imagine. So when you watched that first Norseman movie, what really grabbed you about it?

Allan: The Norseman movie is called 'Mind Over Matter'. And it was something about getting exposed to these extreme conditions, all this extreme challenges and the role of nature. And the only thing you have to rely on, of course, except your support team and stuff like that, is basically yourself. No one can pedal for you. No one can take the swim stroke for you, you have to do it yourself. It's a fair fight against your own demons and it really forces you to to explore your inner self and what you're capable of doing.

It is difficult to explain, but for me triathlons is about exploring yourself and Norseman is maybe the best course in the world to do exactly that.

Adelaide: What certain things have you discovered about yourself from racing in triathlons and racing in Norseman?

Allan: It has completely changed me as a person actually. So it's made me both experience and believe that it is nearly no limits to what you can do, if you really set your eyes on it. And it's like, you don't know where your boundaries are. You can do much more than you think you can, which is really an eye opener. And if you're going to achieve great result, you also have to work for it. Nothing comes easy regarding performance.

Adelaide: We're going to dive into some of your techniques and tactic in just a moment. But I'm really curious, what has been your biggest challenge in extreme triathlons or in triathlons that you've overcome?

Allan: One very obvious challenge for me has been the swim, because I quickly got to a level where I could swim Ironman distance in roughly one hour, but then I stopped improving. And no matter how much I trained I didn't get any better and at the time, I was working full-time, so I was working two weeks on an oil rig with no possibility to swim.

So I tried to improve, but I just didn't get any better and I started to believe that, 'No, maybe it's impossible to improve your swimming to a very high level when you're starting to swim on your own.'

But then Lars Christian Vold who won last year [2017] came along and he improved greatly in swimming. So he managed to do a 50 minute swim at another Ironman race and got really good. And then I thought if he could do it, why couldn't I?

Then I did the correct things like getting my own coach and really being dedicated to a swimming programme. And of course, then my swimming went from being okay to being quite good. So in 2016, I was 7 minutes behind Lars Christian and last year [2017], I was 3.5 minutes behind and this year [2018] I was 1.5 minutes. So I aim to be on the seat next year [2019].

Adelaide: You seem to have nice friendly rivalry with Lars Christine Vold?

Allan: Yes we are rivals on the course, but we are friends as well. He really motivates me to think beyond and think further and do my preparations even better than than I have done.

So I can say, even if he is usually my strongest competitor at Norseman and I want to beat him in the race, I really appreciate that he is around and pushing the level higher and pushing me to a level beyond what I've been before.

Adelaide: So what time did you do your Norsemen swim this year?

Allan: It's a good question. I think 55 minutes.

Adelaide: That's amazing.

Allan: Yeah it is good, because it was 5.5 minutes behind two very strong swimmers who are top ITU swimmers, Eirik Ravnan and Harry Wiltshire. And Harry Wiltshire one year was the fastest up in Ironman Hawaii. So being 5.5 minutes behind those guys are actually quite good. Compared to what I've been before.

[Listen to my conversation with Harry Wiltshire here: ]

Adelaide: What do you think was the one thing that helped you improve your swimming?

Allan: The one thing was a technique issue that my coach sorted. I've had several swim coaches before, but no one had thought that I was tightening my shoulders, or my muscles in the shoulders, the whole stroke. So I didn't relax my shoulders in the relaxed phase. So I was constantly on with the activation of the muscles, which made me fatigue much more than I should. So when I was just focusing on relaxing the muscles in the recovery phase, then I could keep on the same pace for much longer than I could keep my 1000 metre pace for 3800 metres. So that was that was a huge difference.

Adelaide: That's a big difference!

Allan: Yeah, so that was really like a typical triathlon obstacle. And the thing I overcome, then another I can just tell it was in 2016. It was the year in Norsemen that didn't go exactly according to plan.

I was I was in the shape of my life. I had won the Swissman Xtreme Triathlon six weeks prior. And I felt really good. And then on the swim, I didn't feel as great. I had a high breathing rhythm. And then on the bike, it went good to the halfway point and then I gradually faded. And then it went really, really bad. When I started to run, I was running in zig-zag. I was feeling awful. I didn't have my balance. I was really cold. Then I coughed up some blood from my lungs. I had gotten what is called swimming-induced pulmonary edema. I did 1.5 kilometres of the run before I DNF (did not finish).

It was my first ever DNF and it was really hard. I was like, 'I'll rather die before I DNF'. But when you're in the situation, then it's like, 'No, I'll probably go for live this time and go back to do Norseman another time'. So that was also a challenge to overcome, because I was considering to just finish the Norseman no matter what, but it was obviously a good choice to throw in the towel.

Adelaide: And you know what caused the swimming-induced pulmonary edema?

Allan: No, it isn't easy to point out one cause, because it's a matter of several risk factors. It can be like the cold water, if you carb load, you have a lot of water as well in your body, which can combined with the compression from the wetsuit and give pressure to the outside of the lung and press water inside your lungs, which gives internal bleeding. So it's several risk factors. So it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it was.

Adelaide: oh, that's so interesting.

Allan: Yeah, it is interesting.

Adelaide: What was your one takeaway from that DNF experience?

Allan: You never know how long you're going to live and you really have to live the life you want to live right here and right now. You cannot think, 'Yeah, in five years I'm going to live the life I want to live, when I retire, I'm going to do the things I want to do.'

You can die tomorrow, or you can hopefully you'll not, but you can. And the ones you love can also die tomorrow. So don't wait to tell them you love them and don't wait to do awesome things with them.

Adelaide: That's such a beautiful message. We're going to slightly change tact here and continue the theme of learnings. So this year [2018], you came back and you wanted to show that you are the king of Norseman. What did you do differently in your training?

Allan: The training has changed quite a bit. I've been a high volume kind of guy, because I've always been pushing the training sessions. So I started up training a couple of hundred hours a year. And then it got up to 400, 500, 700, 900, 1000, 1100 and I was up to close to 1200 hours a year. I was I was pushing it. The last few years, I didn't get the results I wanted from the training. My training was good and some sessions better than ever, but when it came to racing, I didn't perform as expected or wanted.

So then I figured out I needed a coach. And together with my coach, we did a totally different training regime, cutting back a lot of volume and we increased the intensity during the training sessions. Overall, the training load was much lower, because I was not just training a lot of volume, but a lot harder as well. So I was really pushing my body and the lack of performance in the races was probably a sign that I didn't have enough recovery. So then we mixed it up with more high intensity and considerably less volume.

Photo credit: Allan Hovda | James Mitchell | Quintana Roo

Photo credit: Allan Hovda | James Mitchell | Quintana Roo

Adelaide: How do you feel that affected your performance this year?

Allan: I was really happy with the performance. I'm happy with the reduce training volume, because it frees a lot of time, which I can use to to both recover better and spend with my three year old son to do fun things.

So from a performance perspective, I'm more on the safe side regarding having surplus energy levels and stuff like that. So my races until Norseman have been really solid and my performance in Norseman as well was solid. I was quite certain I wouldn't have a bad second half of the race or something like that. So I was feeling quite good and confident that I would have a good race.

Adelaide: What does your recovery look like now?

Allan: Now my training schedule is a bit like, I can have a hard swim or a medium swim. Like tomorrow I'll I'll have this is a typical day, for today I'm only having a hard and long swim, nothing else. Then I'll go out and do the swim as good as I can and then I'll try to relax or rest. There's always a lot of practical things that have to be done, but the main thing is getting the swim done with great quality and have great food afterwards, and then relax and stretch out.

But tomorrow I'll have a 2000 metre swim, a short swim, not too hard and then I'll have a 1-hour interval session on the bike with much intensity and then I'll relax for a couple of hours and then I'll do a 1-hour interval session again on the bike.

Adelaide: When you say relax, is that just chilling out at home or is that doing yoga or something?

Allan: No. I don't do yoga, I've done it a few times. But it's being home, cleaning the apartment. Yeah, of course you have to do a lot of laundry and buy groceries and stuff like that. So it's nothing too fancy on the recovery side. I also write my blog and stuff like that, it's usually a time when I write a blog post and stuff like that.

Adelaide: I just want to say here that your blog is a gold mine for anyone who is a triathlete, I was seriously impressed!

Allan: Thank you very much. It has been a gradual process with the blog when I started in 2010. So the first blog posts are written so bad. Writing was my poorest subject in school. So I was quite bad at it. So that's been a process as well and it's given me a lot to write about, my story and share my story and my best tips regarding equipment and training and racing and all the things in the world of triathlon.

Adelaide: The other thing I really want to talk about is mindset. In your interview with Helen Webster, the editor of 220 Triathlon, after you won Norseman, you mentioned that your motto and your mindset this year was that you were prepared to kill yourself. Could you please tell us more about this?

Allan: Yes, it was my motto and my mindset and I don't know if it sounds like a bit of a badass motto, but this year I haven't been enough of a badass. So I've been the winner of one of the world's toughest triathlon, makes other people think you're hard as a nail, but I don't see it that way. I don't feel that I'm invincible, I don't feel that I can push myself as hard as I want to. So I've been motivated to push myself and what I'm capable of, but most of the time, I feel I caved in, caved in for the fatigue and caved in for the pain and try to rationalise to not push myself anymore.

So last year when I was in second place behind Lars Christian Vold and I was nine minutes behind him on the run, which shouldn't be impossible. And I took three minutes on the flat and didn't feel great. And when the uphill came I resigned and thought 'Yeah, Lars Christian is such a great guy, he deserves this.' And this is true, but it isn't the right mindset to have.

This year, we tried to motivate myself with don't care about your competitors, you're going to just push us hard as you can until you blackout, you are going to kill yourself on the run. Don't care about when the body says 'This hurts, you've got to stop.' But you don't stop. So I was going to just hit the full throttle button until until I crossed the finish line or I collapsed. So that was what I initially tried to do. It was something I worked against to try to push myself to the depth I wanted to do.

Adelaide: What kind of techniques did you use to do that?

Allan: I didn't execute it as good as I wanted. My technique was the things to, I don't know, visualise yourself pushing harder or actually pushing through when you're in the hard training sessions. So I had some really tough training sessions before Norseman and then I was like, come on push, you can do more. And the things like mainly positive self talk, but also like, come on, you can do better than this. And like listen to Eminem. The song is called 'Until You Collapse'. So that was like a motivational song. I don't know how effective it was.

Adelaide: Learning from this experience, what do you think you'll do for next year?

Allan: Yeah, the learnings from that is that I have to find some better ways to motivate myself to push, because I was prepared to do Norseman, or to push alone without competitors. But most of my training, I was motivated against Lars Christian Vols. So I was prepared to have a rivalry against him or someone else who would be having a good performance.

But when it came to Zombie Hill, I had 21 minute lead, I completely collapsed in regard to my mental state of wanting to push. So the course record was within reach, but I wasn't focused on the course record at all. Because since the condition varies so much, I don't want to focus on taking the course record, because if the conditions are not course record conditions, which the only two times I've done it has been this year and last year, then you're setting yourself up for failure.

So I've tried to focus on other things and using my competitors too much to push me, because when I didn't have any real competitors, I completely lost my ability to push myself. So at least that is something I have to work on, what motivates me? It isn't winning, actually. So I have to say, it is it was very nice to win. But when you have a 21 minute lead and yeah, I knew I couldn't lose that much. So then I had achieved my goal and then it was a tough time to motivate myself to push harder. But in the end I want to be able to push myself harder, to reach another place and that's much more important than winning.

Adelaide: What do you think your motivation is, if it's not to win?

Allan: Yeah and that's a cliche as well, to be your best self, but it may be because you don't know where your limits are and I know I probably won't find them, but I can explore them as much as I can.

Since winning Norseman twice, I knew that could be done, so I need to have something else. I'm very interested in the performance perspective. This year I had a very good swim, a very good bike and the first 25 kilometres of the run was also solid, but then the last 17 kilometres was not great.

I want to have a performance where I I feel like I've done everything I could, from when the gun goes off to when I cross the finish line. Of course you might call it the hunt for the perfect race or something like that, and that's never going to happen. But I want to have an even better performance, a performance I know that I did the best I could. In 2015 I think I had that kind of performance, but I've improved physically since that time, so I should be able to do to do it better.

Adelaide: I think that's what everyone is always chasing to finish your race and know that you did your very best. So in everything else that we have spoken about, is there anything you'd like to add?

Allan: Triathlon is an amazing lifestyle, to include your family in your journey is very important and doing fun things, triathlon related things with them, and try to include them as much as possible. So you will have their support and share the experiences with them.

Adelaide: What we didn't talk about was the fact that your wife leads your support team, doesn't she?

Allan: Yes, my wife is definitely my main supporter. She's been my main supporter in Norseman every year except from last year, because she was having to take care of our son. She's really my main supporter and also a big contributor that I can do what I love to do.

Adelaide: I'd love to dive more into that, but unfortunately we do now have to wrap up. So the final things that we wrap up the podcast with is the Wildfire Round. I have three questions for you and just say whatever comes to mind, don't try to think too much. The first one is: What drives you to get out of bed in the morning?

Allan: My son yelling at me time to get up! He ensures we get up early enough.

Adelaide: That sounds like a really great alarm clock actually! When you think of a successful athlete, who do you think of and why?

Allan: Chrissie Wellington. In my eyes, she's the most inspirational triathlete there is. Not only because of her amazing performances, but because of her openness and willingness to share her weakness as well. Showing me that you don't have to be like a super badass to perform world class.

Adelaide: Which book have you gifted the most?

Allan: I Am Malala

Adelaide: Finally, if you could have one billboard and place it anywhere, what would it say and where would it be?

Allan: It would definitely be put up on the exit or the door before walking out of the morning. It would say something clever about live your life today or something, but I haven't a good quote in my head. Live your life today. Live today, we will go for that one. Live your life today.

Adelaide: Amazing! Allan, it has been really incredible to chat with you about your triathlon journey, your knowledge and experience, and to hear all of your learnings and also have some tips for my journey as well and I'm sure for my listeners journey too.

Allan: Thank you so much for having me on the show. It was a real pleasure.