Swedish twins and GORE Wear athletes, Lina and Sanna El Kott Helander, are outdoor lovers who specialise in skyrunning and adventure racing. Since 2016, the plant-powered pair have been on numerous podiums of the Skyrunner World Series. Their love of the outdoors and deep love of nature is plain to see: living a simple life in Östersund, Sweden, they share their active and clean-eating lifestyle on Instagram. Follow @linaelkott and @sannaelkotthelander for sporting inspiration and the @elkotts for colourful, tasty vegan recipes.
We were lucky enough to have a visit from the El Kott twins in January. They hosted a GORE Wear evening at our Run4It Edinburgh shop, and spoke to us and our customers about sky running, vegan eating, sisterly competition, GORE Wear running gear and more!
How would you describe skyrunning?
Lina ~ If you know what trail running is, skyrunning is a more extreme version of it. To be called skyrunning the race has to feature at least 2,000m of elevation gain. But it can be any distance.
Sanna ~ It is mountain running at high altitude where you can be quite exposed. You go through some technical ridges, steep slopes with scrambling sections.
How did you start running skyraces?
Sanna ~ We have a done a lot of different sports like soccer and dancing for instance. Running has always been a part of the activities we were doing. Our soccer coach had to tell everyone to run except us, we were always running! Because we enjoyed it and we saw that we were good at it we started racing local fell races. And among our fell running friends some of them were doing skyrunning so we joined them!
Lina ~ We thought “why can't we do it if they do it”. We were curious and we wanted to explore something new. You get a real reward from competing at skyraces. It's the really about the freedom of being out there in the nature and exploring your potential by testing your limits.
What's your most memorable skyrace or run?
Lina ~ The Transalpine Run*. It is a team race. We love team races because we're very similar and we can share good and bad moments. The Transalpine Run is one of my favourite races because I like having my sister by my side and the format is really cool.
Sanna ~ It is a stage race so you run 7 days and it's pretty much a skyrace everyday! It is very challenging. It's a race where we have to take risks, as we have to be fast if we want to win or be on the podium. We like the competition side of it and we both love to race.
Lina ~ It's very challenging because you need to be good running uphill but downhill too. You need to be brave running downhill on some of the descents!
*The Transalpine Run is run in teams of two and goes across the spine of the Alps from Germany to Italy. It covers over 250km and 16,000m of vertical gain in only 8 days.
What are your 2020 goals? Is there anything that either of you particularly want to achieve?
Sanna ~ We've been doing the Skyrunning World Series for a few years now and we'll be doing it again in 2020. There are about 20 races, we've decided to take part at 8 of them. You get points according to your ranking at every one of these races, so we want to be well ranked in the series.
Lina ~ I don't have any particular goal. I was injured last year so I'm just very eager to just race again. I just want to feel the joy of running and racing again.
Sanna ~ But we'll also race together the Monte Rosa Sky Marathon*: it is 7,000m of ascent and descent for just 30k. That will be a fun one to do together, you have to be attached to rope on some sections.
*The Monte Rosa Sky Marathon marked the origin of Skyrunning. Participants now race in teams of two for safety: the route ascends and descends along paths, ski runs and across glaciers in a loop, for a total distance of 35km and 3,490m vertical climb.
Are you competitive with each other?
Lina ~ Oh yes we are very competitive! We both want to finish in first place. On team races we encourage each other but on individual ones she's one of the others (Lina laughs). But we'll still motivate each other.
Sanna ~ I'm happier if Lina passes me than if it is another girl! But of course I want to be first crossing the finish line!
As vegan athletes, do you have any tips for moving toward a more plant-based diet?
Lina ~ As professional athletes we need to eat well and enough. We're not afraid of eating a lot because our body needs variety and it is key in a vegan diet. We need to get all the carbs, fat and protein in order to train well and avoid injuries.
Sanna ~ A lot of people think that we'll be missing a lot of essential nutrients. But we cook big plates of food with a lot of different veggies, fruits, grains, etc.
Lina ~ But also you should eat what you like. If it is healthy but you don't like the food you're eating, don't force yourself! There are a lot of ways to make healthy and tasty food, like smoothies for example.
Sanna ~ Smoothies can hide a lot of things: we blend beans, tofu, berries, veggies etc.
Lina ~ We love “colourful food” like berries and veggies, but we know that sometimes it is not enough so we add tahini, tofu or beans to feel full.
Sanna ~ And on races most gels are actually vegan. You need salt, electrolytes and sugar when you're out racing or training. We usually take a lot of cookies, bars and stuff like that with us.
Do you have a nutritionist to guide you?
Sanna ~ No, we are our own nutritionist. We don't have a coach either for training.
Lina ~ We just like experimenting a lot. I will most of the time eat what I'm craving for. I will just take what my body tells me!
Sanna ~ We challenge ourselves and test our limits. It is good to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. If you haven't tested anything before, don't be afraid to go and try. You can only improve.
You might fail on some parts but it's a learning curve and it's cool to test new things.
Lina ~ We bring a lot of snacks and lunch boxes with us for most of our runs. You should enjoy what you do and not stress about being out for many hours. This way, we're not afraid of getting tired: we can't just stop to rest and continue a few minutes later.
Have you always been vegan?
Lina ~ We've been vegan for 4-5 years now but before that we were vegetarians for 15 years.
Sanna ~ For us turning vegan wasn't a big deal because we already ate pretty much vegan all the time.
Lina ~ We did it more for ethical reasons than performance. We were both already physically active before being vegan. I feel energised all the time and I think that has to do with our diet. I think we're eating the right food for our bodies.
Do you do cross training or gym workouts at all?
Lina ~Yes we like to do that kind of training too. Though I realised that I needed it more when I injured myself last year and I needed to recover from my operation. Generally, when I'm standing in the gym I just feel that I want to be outside. So we prioritise outdoor activities but if we've been running a lot and we want to cross train, or if it is the end of the day and we want to do something, then we'll be some form of gym training.
Sanna ~ We'll just do body weight training like pull ups or push ups for instance. In skyrunning you use both lower and upper body, as you need to use your hands on scrambling sections. There are sometimes ropes or chains to help you move on ridges. So you need some good arm strength!
Do you follow a weekly or a daily training schedule?
Lina ~ No we're really spontaneous! We always change our plans. We've sometimes ended up being out on the hills for 5h instead of 1h!
Sanna ~ We really like to do what we called multi training. For example, we will cycle to a place and then we'll run a loop and cycle back. So we're not following any type of training plan at all. Instead of going to the gym we actually go more climbing. We just like to decide what we want to do on the day. We don't have any real structure. I don't think I'd like to have a coach because I don't think there's a better person than me to say how I feel on the day and what I can and want to do.
Lina ~ It's like learning by doing, you need to test yourself and see how that goes.
Are you full time athletes?
Lina ~ We are full time athletes. We tried a few years ago to study but it only lasted a couple of weeks (laughs). We just thought it wasn't for us!
Sanna ~ But we love to cook and it became a real hobby. So maybe in the future we'll start doing other things in food industry, we don't know yet.
Lina ~ GORE Wear and other sponsors allows us to be full time athletes, so it's really cool. I mean, we aren't rich but we're rich from our experiences, so it's really worth it.