Pro triathlete Allan Hovda has come a long way as a sportsman during the past 10 years.
In 2009, he had 'only' raced a sprint tri and an IM 70.3 before taking on The Norseman - an extreme triathlon featuring a 3.8 kilometre swim, 180 kilometre ride, and a marathon.
Fast forward to the present day and Allan is a three-time Norseman winner, as well as a winner of the Swissman. He's now a fully-fledged member of Team PH too and will be offering Sweat Testing to athletes from his base in Oslo, Norway.
We caught up with Allan while he was at PH HQ recently to chat about how his approach to hydration has changed, as well as how he balances sport, work and life as a pro triathlete...
Hi Allan, so you went into your first ever Norseman with 'just' a sprint and half-IM race under your belt - what were you thinking when you signed up for such an extreme challenge?
My triathlon career started with me signing up for Norseman. At that time, I was 22 years old, I had no endurance background and no swimming background. I was doing recreational kickboxing at the time.
I just wanted to do the impossible, so then I signed up for Norseman nine months before the race and I thought about the challenges later.
My kickboxing meant I was a fairly fit guy, but there was a severe lack of endurance and muscular specificity. So I got a coach, and we trained about 300 hours in those nine months.
It was really difficult to get the swimming technique because I had zero experience of swimming and there weren’t any swim classes near me. So, I had to learn it myself and look at videos from YouTube.
It isn’t a very efficient way to learn to swim!
It's remarkable to see the progression in your Norseman results over the years - in your first race in 2009 you were 44th, in 2013 you were 3rd, you won in 2014 and 2015, before a DNF in 2016, a 2nd place finish in 2017, victory for a third time in 2018, and then a narrow 2nd in 2019.
What’s been your biggest area of improvement in those 10 years?
I spent a good portion of the four years between my first and second Norseman improving in every discipline. I was quite lucky, because I knew my knowledge about training was bad, so I needed to get help with that. I think that was key to preventing me from overtraining or getting injured.
When I won Norseman the first time in 2014, it was amazing. But winning the 2015 race was a better performance because the competitive level of the other athletes was much higher.
In triathlon, you have short-term goals but for me it’s about the big picture. It isn’t important to be in the shape of my life in 5 months or even a year or two. It’s in the longer perspective, so going out every day, seeing where I can find improvements.
Will that desire for self-improvement give you added motivation for 2020 after Hans Christian Tungesvik beat you by just 72 seconds in 2019?
I think 2019 was the strongest performance I had in Norseman ever.
I led the race for three hours and was overtaken about 150 metres before the finish line, but I’m much happier with that performance than when I won in 2018.
Losing in that way really showed my weakness, which is the big stairs. In the last part, the stairs are very steep, and one stair is the equivalent height of two ‘normal’ stairs. That was the nail in the coffin, because my muscles weren’t ready for those kind of leaps.
In that regard, I’ve already started my training. I live on the 11th floor in an apartment and I finish every run by running up the stairs, two stairs at a time.
I’m very happy with my 2019 performance, but I’m never going to be beaten again in that part.
And we must talk about your DNF of 2016 where you were coughing up blood at one point. Just how worrying was that experience?
It was the race where I learned the most. I got something called swim-induced pulmonary edema (SIPE), so I was having small internal bleeding in my lungs.
There was clearly something severely wrong - I noticed it from halfway on the bike, and my power output went way down.
I ran about 500 metres and was zigzagging all over the road, before I started coughing. I had to get rid of something in my lungs. It looked a bit red when I put it into my hand, but it was difficult to see. So when I got to my supporters, I asked if I could get a napkin, and I could see it was actually bloody.
Of course, in retrospect, I pushed myself too long
But it’s a big obstacle to DNF. I’d never done it before. I was getting an ambulance to a hospital and they thought I was having a blood clot in my lungs. I could see my wife got really scared of watching it.
She was hearing the doctor saying, “this is really serious”, and looking at me, and I’m like, “no, no, it can’t be serious. I feel fine.”
My take-away from that was the most important thing in life is not triathlon. There are other more important things - long-term health, your social connections and your family. Without that, it’s difficult to be truly happy.
Everything I do now is with my long-term health in mind. I’m not compromising my health for triathlon. I don’t use medication to keep the pain away. If I have pain, then I have to training differently rather than disguise it.
My goal is to be a triathlete when I’m 80 years old.
So, now you have your pro licence as a triathlete, how do you manage your training so that you can still enjoy social connections and family life?
I’m a part-time process technician - which is basically Homer Simpson's job - on an oil rig, where I work one week and have five weeks off. It’s probably one of the best work schedules in the world.
When I’m home, I try to take my son to the nursery as late as possible and pick him up as early as I can.
So, there’s a window while my son is at nursery where I can do my training, which is usually two sessions a day. I try to be as efficient as possible in training in order to maximise the time I have with my son.
My wife has quite a demanding job as a lawyer, so it’s really important for me to support her in the same way she supports my life in triathlon
To be fair, if you’re a professional triathlete, you 'only' need maybe 20 hours of training a week on average. Sometimes more, but often after races, less.
If you train 7 days a week - which I do - it’s only 3 hours a day. If you only have 3 hours of job each day, then you have time for other things as well.
If we look at your approach to hydration, I understand you were initially a big advocate for the ‘drink to thirst’ approach. You wrote a blog piece on your website about how your perceptions have changed and I wondered why that changed?
I think it started with reading the general guidelines when I started triathlon, so when you are 2% dehydrated, your performance goes 10% down each percent more dehydrated you get. From my own experience, I knew that that was just B.S.
Personally, I can be way more dehydrated than 2% and perform optimally.
Then I read the Tim Noakes' book Waterlogged and I was drinking more or less to thirst. I think when I won Norseman in 2014, that was what I was doing and I was feeling really good. I was dehydrated – I was drinking not much at all – and I was very dehydrated in the end, but I was running faster than I had done before.
The only issue with that was that the conditions in Norseman that year were really cold, so I wasn’t sweating a lot. So, then at Ironman Hawaii and hot races, I got really “toasted” and found drinking to thirst in long races isn’t the best way to do it - even if it’s cold.
So then I had to do some more research and I listened to some podcasts with Andy Blow, before getting in touch to see if I could get a Sweat Test.
I met Andy and the crew in Stockholm when they were in Sweden for the ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Championships and I took an Advanced Sweat Test - my sweat sodium score was maybe 50% above average.
Then I looked at the salt tablets I was taking at the time and found I was replacing maybe 20% of my salt losses because I didn’t have a clue about the strength of the salt tablets.
I was using generic tablets and the package said “take 2 capsules each hour, 1 capsule every 30 minutes,” and that was what I was doing.
Then I really got into the hydration part of my performance, so now my plan looks quite different and my performances – especially in the hotter races – are much more stable and have improved a lot.
So, how do you approach your own hydration strategy in training and races nowadays?
In training, I sometimes ride on the Turbo and weigh myself every 30 minutes, while I'll also record details like how much I drank, the temperature in the room, and if I had a fan on or not. I can see my Sweat Rate in different conditions and what it does to my performance.
From a personal perspective, I can be as much as 6% dehydrated before you can see that my heart rate is getting the hockey stick shape. It goes up 10-15 beats without the power going up, and then you can see that your dehydration is causing your heart to work harder.
I go in with the plan of drinking – it might be about 1 litre of fluid each hour for maybe the first two-thirds of the bike leg - and try to really be on top of hydration. I use the PH 1500 mix, so I get the salt I need and the sugar to increase the absorption rate.
I’m not out there to win the bike. Doing the bike leg is all about setting yourself up for a good run.
It's very important for me to go on feel from the start, because if I reach the point of 6% dehydration and get really thirsty, and then I’m supposed to be holding that, I put myself in a difficult place.
So I go into races with a plan but it’s a constant work in progress and I have some flexibility within the plan.
Your approach to the sport has clearly changed in the past 10 years, so what would be your best piece of advice to your 22-year-old self when preparing for your first Norseman?
I think the advice for the first triathlon is to remember you’re there to enjoy yourself. That should be priority number one.
But screwing up your nutrition and hydration is not very fun, so make sure you find a good nutrition and hydration plan by having a strategy and using the products you’ve tried out in race-simulated training sessions.
And looking ahead, you've done a few Ironman races and went 8:13 at IM Barcelona in 2019. Are the IM World Championships in Kona on your radar?
I have some wider goals. I’m 33 this year. While not being very young, we saw maybe the strongest Ironman performance in history in Hawaii with Jan Frodeno, who is 38.
I’ve done Hawaii twice and I would like to qualify there as a pro, but I’m realistic enough to know that I need to improve my swim.
In Ironman Texas, I was 11 minutes off qualification - which was decent considering the heat and the fact I was coming from Norway in April.
I know if I don’t improve my swimming though, the race in Kona would be over for me after 200 metres in the water, so I’d effectively be a ‘tourist’, which is why I’ve doubled down on the swim in training.
Ultimately, I’m just trying to enjoy the process and work with guys like Precision Hydration to see if we can make some improvements together.
Thanks Allan, we look forward to working with you and helping you achieve more Norseman and Ironman success.
If you'd like to book an Advanced Sweat Test with Allan Hovda in Oslo, Norway, email email@example.com.