When Nikki ‘met’ Tiff

How it all started

Who on earth would compete in an Ironman 70.3 in Weymouth during a weather warning with predictions of cold, wet, windy conditions? As it happens on 24 September 2018, more than 2000 triathletes, including our very own Tiff Orton and pro-triathlete Nikki Bartlett. Since then Tiff has been following Nikki on social media and when Nikki revealed she had been speaking on mental resilience, Tiff plucked up the courage to ask Nikki if she would answer a few questions for #not2TUFF2talk. Nikki gladly obliged and here is how it went.

Nikki Bartlett fact file

  • Born 25 June 1987
  • Started rowing at the University of Birmingham, gaining multiple GB University Medals.
  • Switched to triathlon in 2012, following injury and turned pro in 2015
  • Winner of the 2019 iconic Lanzarote Ironman
  • Claims to be sweatier than Glenn

Tiff: You started off as a rower: what made you switch?

Nikki: I absolutely loved my rowing career, and wouldn’t change one element of it. Rowing is an absolutely brutal sport; Physically and mentally. The training is beyond repetitive, staring at a rowing machine when it’s crystal clear water on the lakes. Ergos were essential for increasing performance, and now makes a turbo enjoyable. Turbo/wattbike/treadmills are all key training tools. The psychological element of rowing set me up well for IRONMAN / triathlon. But the main reason I switched was due to repetitive rib stress fractures: 2years in and out of the sport. It was a really difficult period of time for me, with aspirations to make London 2012.

Whilst I was out injured a friend mentioned she was doing a ‘half ironman’ – I had absolutely no idea what that was, and once explained I didn’t really have a clue what Triathlon was. It sounded brutal. So naturally, I signed up! I loved it and we agreed the following year to do an IRONMAN ‘for fun’ – as you do. But in the meantime I was back rowing competitively again. I did IRONMAN Bolton with probably a couple of swim/bike/runs behind me. I would never ever advise that method ;)! I somehow qualified for KONA, naturally I had no idea what it was so declined me slot. Shortly after the IRONMAN, again my ribs weren’t great. So I decided in 2012 to switch sports.

Tiff: Bike, run or swim?

Nikki: Close call between bike and run! Definitely not swim.

Tiff: What is your go to post-race meal?

Nikki: I naturally crave salty foods, chips especially. And if it’s a hot race add in some ice cream and coke. But shortly after that you’re starving again (and again, and again) and that’s when I try and get some proper nutrition in; nutrients, with of course, lots of chips, salt, vinegar and ketchup on the side! I like to race a lot – i love racing, and find it gets me fit too. So I need to make sure the body is recovering quickly after too.

Tiff: Your top-tip for club triathletes?

Nikki: Where do you even begin, this list is endless. Essentially you do this for FUN – remember this when you’re tired, it’s wet, cold etc. So keep it fun – join in sessions with others, ditch the Garmin on easy rides, explore, see the country by swim/bike/run – drive somewhere new to explore. Get lost in the trails. Love what you do and share the process and journey with likeminded individuals

Tiff: Your best moment in triathlon?

Nikki: This is very difficult, it’s a close call between lots of events, moments in training etc. I believe the best is to come, but reflecting on my time so far – my first pro podium in 2016 at IRONMAN Pays d’Aix, and my first PRO Ironman / proper Ironman on training; IRONMAN Wales, where I came 3rd – totally unexpected after a disappointing World 70.3 Championships in Australia 10days before. I was only just getting over the jet lag! Editorial update: As of last week, we’re pretty sure this has changed. Since writing this piece for us, Nikki has won her first pro event, the iconic Lanzarote Ironman. Go Nikki!

Tiff: Your most embarrassing moment in triathlon? 

Nikki: Oh goodness – I’m clumsy and full of embarrassing moments. It would be hard to pick one out of the whole bunch. Probably looking back to racing IRONMAN Bolton as an AG with no training, and turning up like a complete chopper, when I look at my race photos I cannot help but laugh!

Tiff: Graham has asked if I can add another – What makes ex-rowers such great triathletes? (this may have everything to do with the fact he is an ex-rower himself!)

Nikki: This is a very good question, I hadn’t read this before writing my reply above on why I turned to Triathlon. But I really do think rowing as a sport makes you bloody mentally tough, I can’t even begin to describe all of the elements, here’s a few:

  • I used to be a lightweight rower – the toughness on making weight, if you don’t make it – you simply don’t race. You then have to sustain this for back to back races over the weekend, and summer racing. The sweat downs / thought of them horrifies me. I don’t miss that! 
  • I think we learn the most about ourselves through difficult times, ones which need resilience, patience, ability to overcome hurdles, adapt and make ourselves accountable for decisions. I learnt a lot of this through my time rowing, injuries, setbacks, GB trials process etc
  • Staring at that rowing machine for hours on end, rate 18, making sure the split is exactly to the range in which you aim for. Hours of endurance (our programme was heavily endurance based which may surprise people)
  • The list goes on!

Tiff: You spoke earlier this year at the Grantham Army base on mental resilience, how did you become interested in mental health and wellbeing?

Nikki: People see triathlon as swim, bike, run. But it’s a lot more than this; nutrition, S&C, mental toughness, adaptability, resilience – the list goes on. In my time throughout different sports I’ve seen athletes crumble under pressure in training and athletes who are great in training, but cannot handle the pressure, or just don’t back themselves in races. Not only this, but the key to success, or reaching your goals is being happy in life; work, family, environment etc. All of these aspects are key to how we operate as individuals, and how we perform in sessions and racing. If your not taking care of your mental health, the results will follow the same path too. Its imperative we take care of ourselves, and understand life is about being happy, self love and understanding what motivates and drives you in life

Tiff: How does triathlon help with your wellbeing?

Nikki: I don’t even know where to begin on this answer. It’s an absolute privilege to do what I love to do, day in, day out. I wake up daily ready to take on each session, task and try and perform to the best of my ability. I feel very lucky to be living the dream and seeing how far I can go in the sport. This fundamentally drives me each day, and has a huge impact on my mental health and wellbeing which transfer to health, relationships and general life.

Tiff: The New Economics Foundation have researched and published Five Ways to Improve Wellbeing. We’d love to know how much you find that triathlon contributes to these. Can you score each out of 20?

  1. Connecting (with other people) – 20
  2. Being active (speaks for itself) – 20
  3. Taking notice (being aware of the world around you etc) – 20
  4. Keeping learning (setting challenges and learning new things etc) – 18
  5. Giving (helping others etc) – 20

Editorial comment. Nikki has rated triathlon as scoring a massive 98% on the Five ways to Improve Wellbeing. If you want to find out more about the Five Ways click here.

Tiff: And finally, what is the single most important thing clubs like Tuff Fitty can do to promote mental health and wellbeing?

Nikki: I think this is a huge topic, and I’m no expert in this area at all. But giving people the opportunity to explore, find their goals, make positive changes to their health and wellbeing is key. It’s allowing people this opportunity. And sometimes that is the boundary for most people, not having the opportunities where they live, the right people to share with or provide support etc.

Nikki winning 2019 Ironman Lanzarote