The Sunday Interview with Sky Runners and Cookbook Authors Sanna and Lina El Kott Helander - Live Slow Run Far

The Sunday Interview with Sky Runners and Cookbook Authors Sanna and Lina El Kott Helander

För att komma till inlägget på svenska, klicka här: Söndagsintervjun: med bergslöparna och kokboksförfattarna Sanna och Lina El Kott Helander

It’s been many years since we heard about Sanna and Lina El Kott Helander the very first time – the identical twins and successful sky runners from Åre, Sweden, possessing seldom seen endurance qualities and showing contagious training enthusiasm. But it wasn’t until September 2018 that we met them personally, however since then, we’ve had the honor of calling them our close friends. These two elite athletes have – even though they’re just 27 years old – belonged to the very top tier in sky running for many years already, and thus live with sports as their closest companion and income source. They can also call themselves cookbook authors nowadays, as their book Ät Färg Spring Berg was launched a few weeks back. Both Sanna and Lina eat plant based, and their genuine cooking joy and interest in sports nutrition come through in this their very first cookbook, aimed at any and all living an active lifestyle and wanting to eat green. In this interview, we talk about training, nutrition, future plans and dreams, life lessons learned and their twin dynamic, among other things, and we hope that you – in the same way we already are – will be endlessly inspired by these two remarkably good hearted forces of nature with limitless potential. Here’s Sanna and Lina El Kott Helander:

Let’s get right to it: what does a perfect day look like to you?

Oh, it starts early. Yesterday was actually pretty perfect, haha. We got up at five and the weather was amazing, so we decided to put the skis on and go ski touring up to the top of Åreskutan where we had breakfast. It was so wonderful and we just felt so alive. When we got back home, it was only eight o’clock so we had a second breakfast and then we just pottered around the house for a bit – we made lunch and prepped some snacks and had some friends over. When they left we did another training session, and after that we still had the whole evening left and could do some garden work. The best part about getting up early is that there’s so much time to do stuff! So the perfect day is the day we have time to both relax and enjoy ourselves but also cook, walk the dog, train and so on. When we do lots of stuff but without any stress.

Are you always in the mood for the same things? The same kind of training session, the same kind of plan for the day etcetera?

No, we don’t are not – but it’s always more fun to do things together, so one of us usually slides over to what the other person wants. We’re both pretty adaptable people though, quite flexible and spontaneous, so it’s easy for us to just change our plans and mindsets.

What are some goals and dreams that you have, pertaining to your respective athletic careers?

Sanna: When it comes to running, I’d like to pursue the longer distances – up to 100k – eventually. Right now though, I’m happy going for the ones up to 50k. I want to do longer races simply because it will mean more to experience, and I also want to do more adventure races. I’d also love it if sky running as a sport would grow and get bigger. Another thing I’d want would be another shot at running for the national team, and then also winning a big race by myself – we’ve won big ones as a team, but I’d love a big individual victory.

Lina: I’m not sure I have any specific goals, but just like Sanna, I also want the sport to grow and for more people to learn about it. I think it’d make it easier to point to specific races and say I’d like to perform well here or there if the sport was bigger and if certain races were more prestigious and always offered up tough competition. But at the end of the day, I really just want to run as many races and experience as much as possible. Because there’s no Olympics or anything like that, I’m lacking a very concrete goal. But I guess we have the World Championships, so it would be great to perform well there one day.

You guys really radiate joy when you’re out there, and there’s no hiding of the fact that you love being outside doing sports – but there has to be something about the competitive aspect you like too?

We sometimes think we’re not competitive people but then every single time at the starting line we realize that that’s not true at all, haha. We raced against some friends the other day, just for fun, and said beforehand it was really just for fun – but once the gun went off, it was game time immediately!

Would you say you’re competitive characters in other contexts than sports?

Yeah, we kind of like to compete no matter what it is. Or at least perform well and do good, regardless if it’s sports or something creative or whatever.

Do you feel like you’re balancing that desire well? Can you handle the times when you don’t do as well or is that hard?

Yeah, we got it under control. We continuously work on it though and remind ourselves to not take things too seriously or make them bigger than they are. Then we also make sure to allow all feelings and tell ourselves it’s ok to feel disappointed and such. That that’s fine too, for a while. It’s always better to feel what you feel than pretend you don’t.

What’s it like between the two of you, when it comes to your competitiveness?

Haha, well… we both want to be the better one, that’s for sure. No one wants to be the weaker one when we train. If one of us is continuously a meter behind when we’re out biking, for example, that person will be grumpy, haha. As we train and live together, there’s always someone to compete with.

You’ve won plenty of races together, and now we’re not referring to team competitions but instead individual ones where you’ve crossed the finish line hand in hand. Tell us about those cases and what happens out on the course – do you agree on winning together?

That’s been mostly over longer distances, so we’ve basically bumped into each other towards the end and also known no one else is coming fast from behind. Neither has then had the desire to race hard against the other one but instead we’ve been enjoying running together, talking and then winning together. But if we have several kilometers left and one person is clearly stronger than the other, then we always encourage the stronger one to push and go ahead. Or if we’re for example running together towards the end and someone else comes, then we always push each other – or the one who has the energy – to defend the win, even if that means we’re not coming in together.

But when the gun goes off, you depart as competitors first hand?

Absolutely! But if we do catch up with each other out there we love that too, and we can often help each other out by pacing and pushing more when we’re together.

We know you train a lot based on feeling, but do follow any sort of plan, be it short or long term?

Not really, or at least no big or detailed plan. We look at the weather a lot and plan for the week. We know we like to get in a few strength sessions per week but it doesn’t matter to us what days we end up doing them. Our training is definitely reflecting what season it is. We do a lot more shorter sessions and spend time at the gym from November to January, but as soon as the daylight returns we get so much energy and are ready for longer days out. And we usually have our racing season April-September.

When it comes to overall volume, it feels like you don’t have a limit but could pack in an endless amount of kilometers and hours. Do you have to control yourselves to not overdo things or do you trust your bodies’ signals?

We’ve gotten better at reflecting on why we’re tired sometimes, haha, and can look back at the past week, for example, and see why. Some days we’re just so energized and can do so much, but sometimes it’s pretty clear that we need to rest and then we do that. We trust our feeling and train a lot when have energy and rest if we’re lacking. We’ve also gotten much better at resting and also enjoying the feeling of being tired.

If you were to select the physically toughest thing you’ve ever done, what would that be?

Sanna: I have this thing that always pops into my head but I’m not really sure it was actually the toughest – anyway, I was so completely wiped out when I did BAMM Winter but felt like such a warrior for continuing on, haha. First we went cross country skiing and then we switched to snow shoeing, followed by running. This was a while back so I was more of a beginner at racing and didn’t refuel well at all. I was in a good mood though and really wanted to finish, and I was extremely pleased afterward. As I said, maybe not the toughest thing but a very strong memory.

Lina: For me it’s a 75k race at high altitude in France that I did. I wasn’t really feeling up for racing beforehand, and when the gun went off, everyone disappeared so quickly. I thought to myself that they were all going too fast, but I never managed to catch up. Damn, how I had to fight my way through that race! My legs gave in at the finish line, I couldn’t stand up. And everyone else had come in over an hour ahead of me. I’m also thinking about all the adventure races we’ve done when we’ve been so extremely cold. When we’ve been paddling and you’re just shaking. Or during the biking sections, when your butt hurts so much you can barely handle it!

When did you decide to go all in and try making racing your livelihood? And what spurred it on?

We did BAMM up in Björkliden 2013 or something like that, and a relative of ours who worked for one of the outdoor brands involved said “but shouldn’t you go pro? You’re so good!” and we were just like no, no, we can’t get into elite sports because then you have to redesign your whole life. Our idea of an elite athlete was someone who was just out suffering all day. Just the thought of it scared us! But we continued racing and did well, so then it kind of felt like oh, hang on, maybe you don’t have to change everything? We’re doing what we’ve always been doing and what we think is fun and we’re doing well anyway! So it was around then we got intrigued and wanted to start exploring it a bit. And then we won Trans-Alpine and got lots of attention, and those around us started calling us elite athletes. We also got a big sponsorship request, which lead to things feeling more real and a bigger commitment

How long do you picture yourselves living this kind of life?

Sanna: Oh, well, there’s so much I’d like to do but I’m thinking you can combine lots of things in life – I’d love to have a small farm with some animals and a bed and breakfast one day but I don’t see why I’d need to stop racing at an elite level because of it.

Lina: Many of our competitors are 10 years older than us and work as doctors and lawyers, own farms etcetera, so we know it’s possible to do both. And we’ve also organized races ourselves, which is something I’d love to continue doing even after I stop racing myself, so I get to be part of the sport and stay in that bubble.

Lina, you had a serious knee injury that took a long time to recover from about two years ago. What are some positive things you brought with you from that time, if any?

Lina: Oh, many! First and foremost that something that feels impossible doesn’t have to be. I seriously thought I might never be able to walk or run ever again. I have pictures and videos reminding me of when my exercise was to take a step down from the curb. To think that was the challenge of the day gives perspective! So when I’m facing a challenge or something that doesn’t feel doable, I know anything is possible.

Sanna: I just want to add here that the rest of us have gotten to see things Lina wrote down, pictures she took and such and I’ve been so touched and affected myself. I feel the same way, that anything is possible if given time. She was so incredible when she could start walking – she would slowly walk up to the top of Åreskutan every day and take the cable car down.

Lina: I really feel like I learned not to rush things. Before my injury, I thought I could and should be able to do everything, but when time all of a sudden started moving so slowly – which it does when you’re injured – I learned to enjoy taking it a little easy.

What’s your dynamic like beyond sports? Do you always get along?

No, definitely not! We’re siblings and annoy each other just like everyone else. But it’s more bickering than fighting, which wasn’t always the case – back in high school we would even get into proper fist fights! But we think it’s more fun to be happy and get along so we’re pretty good at making peace.

Eating outdoors, enjoying nature, skiing etcetera, have all those things been parts of your childhood?

Yes, absolutely! That’s pretty much what we did on weekends and school breaks – we went skiing, cooked outside and stuff like that. And when we went downhill skiing, we never went to a restaurant to have lunch – no, no, it was always a packed lunch either in the warming hut or outside in the sun. I guess we felt a bit so-so about that as kids but eventually we started appreciating it, and today, it’s a given.

Your dad is half Egyptian. Were influences from a different culture noticeable when you were growing up?

No, not really – he grew up in Sweden with his Swedish mother and didn’t meet his father until he was 20 years old, so it hasn’t really been a big part of him but he’s wanted to get in small things. We’ve always had liba bread, tahini and those pumpkin seeds with their shells on that are very common in the Middle East at home, for example – and he’s always walked around in a galabeya instead of a robe. That’s been totally normal for us but maybe not too common in other Swedish households, haha.

Speaking of food – let’s do a few questions on that theme before we wrap up. You eat plant based. Have you ever found it difficult or challenging to combine that with elite level sports?

No, not really – but we’re both interested in food and nutrition, pretty read up on things and very keen on getting everything we need and not ending up deficient, so it hasn’t been hard for us. The most important thing is seeking knowledge so that you know what types of food contain what – but the same goes for someone eating an omnivorous diet. Eating meat doesn’t mean all your nutritional needs are automatically met.

And now you guys have just come out with a cookbook. What was it like writing it?

So much fun and it also meant so much more work than we thought! But fun work, and it was great having something on the side of sports that still had to do with our biggest passion. We just want to write more books now, and have so many ideas!

Who would you say this book is aimed towards?

Those who want to feel more energized in their lives in general, are curious about eating a little healthier and less processed food and would like to feel creative and have fun in the kitchen. We can get the same endorphin boost after a good meal as after a run, and that’s what we want to communicate. Beautiful and yummy food makes you happy! (You can find one of Sanna’s and Lina’s favorite recipes from the book at the end of the interview.)

And lastly, what we ask everyone: what are your favorite ice cream flavor(s)?

Sanna: I do like traditional popsicles a lot, but if I buy by the scoop I almost always end up with one scoop really dark chocolate and one scoop of some type of sorbet.

Lina: But mostly though, we eat nice cream that we make at home from frozen bananas and berries and such. When it comes to ice cream by the scoop though, I like chocolate and different tart berry flavors.

Thank you so much, dear Sanna and Lina, for making this happen and for sharing some of your thoughts with us all. We look up to you both in so many ways, and wish you all the best in whatever endeavors you choose to take on in the future! If you’d like to know more about Sanna and Lina, we recommend that you first go follow them on Instagram, where they have one “regular” account each (Sanna: @sannaelkotthelander and Lina: @linaelkott) as well as run a food account jointly, @elkotts. For more recipes and blog posts of different sorts, click your way to their website, and last but not least, we’d love to encourage you to check out their book Ät Färg Spring Berg: Vego, naturligt, näringsrikt. Recipe below. That’s all for now – live well!

All images courtesy of Sanna and Lina El Kott Helander.

Green Lasagna 

A refreshing yet filling lasagna, just as good right out of the oven as the day after. 

1 package bean lasagna sheets (regular ones work too)
300 g cooked chickpeas
1 zucchini
olive oil
fresh basil for topping
toasted pine nuts 

Greens sauce 

250 g broccoli 
300 g frozen green peas
300 g spinach, fresh or frozen 
2 shallots, peeled and chopped
600 ml water
1 apple, chopped
2 garlic clove, peeled and chopped
salt and pepper 

Cashew sauce 

250 ml soaked cashew nuts 
270 g firm tofu
1 can coconut milk
2 garlic cloves
½ lemon, zest and juice
4 tbsp nutritional yeast
salt and pepper 

  1. Green sauce: bring broccoli florets, peas, spinach, apple and onion to a boil in a pot with 600 ml water. Let simmer until everything is soft. Drain and blend with an immersion blender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  2. Cashew sauce: blend all ingredients to a smooth sauce.  
  3. Slice the zucchini. Layer lasagna sheets, green sauce, cashew sauce, slices of zucchini and chickpeas in an ovenproof dish. End with a layer of sauce. Bake in the oven at 200ºC for 30 min. Drizzle some olive oil across and top with basil and pine nuts. Serve with a side salad. 

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More posts in our interview series:

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