Jens Emil: The Outlier (Part 2)

Of all the ways the Danish athlete differs from other pros, perhaps most striking is his philosophy. It’s a pursuit of high performance that is different, deeply personal, and one that gives him a confidence that no athlete can touch.

Written by
Sarah Bonner
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Jens Emil Sloth Nielsen is an outlier. As detailed in part 1 of this story, he’s followed a different path from the very beginning. But the 25 year-old Danish triathlete, recognisable by his blonde hair, tattoos and style on the bike, feels he is now ready for world-class contention. And rightfully so, he has been on the podium in all three World Cup races so far and successfully narrowed the gap between himself and first place from minutes to seconds in each consecutive race. 

However, while it might seem like he is chasing the likes of World Champion, Arthur Serrières, Jens Emil isn’t actually chasing at all. He might be competing but his pursuit of high performance is different, deeply personal, and it gives him a confidence that no athlete can touch.



Closing the Gap 

Jens says there is a big gap between him and the best: swimming. He is still seen as a pure mountain biker—even he agrees—and, while he can close down even a 3 minute gap on the bike, swimming with the front men will position him as a leader, not a chaser. “I’m not far behind and I improved my swimming but I'm still working on it. I'm realizing a lot about how to train, how to improve. It’s a lot of hours in the pool, a lot of high intensity, a lot of technique,” he says. 

But it’s not just about the physical grind. “It takes a lot of energy to swim, a lot of mental energy when you're not good at it. But I really like the process and I've seen some other guys swimming really fast, even though they didn't swim as a kid; so, I believe that I can reach a high level. It just takes years and a lot of integrity and maybe some really specific off-season periods where I focus on the swim.” 

Although he believes in his potential success, Jens isn't willing to sacrifice everything to improve his swimming. “I don't want to break my neck going into some swimming training routine that won't make me happy as an athlete.” It might be perceived as a lack of focus or dedication, perhaps even just the “wrong way,” but Jens has learned not to compare himself to other athletes and simply says: “I don't need to explain to anyone why I'm doing professional sports.”



Being Jens, Being A Triathlete

Jens’s approach to life balance casts him as an outlier. “I’m the kind of athlete that needs to feel good socially to train well. Where I know some other athletes need peace in the training to be good socially, I’m really the other way around. If I haven't seen my friends for a while, or if I haven't checked up on my grandparents or something like this, I don't want to train. It's really so important for me—and I don't see it as a weakness.”

Sacrificing having a social life is an accepted norm for professional athletes but Jens can’t function like that. Understanding his personal need to be happy in order to perform, he doesn’t like to compromise what makes him happy and that’s his social life. "It would be nice to have more tunnel vision for training but I just need this and I need not to regret,” he says. "I’m really trying not to regret anything that I'm doing. I'm really aware of how I approach my season and how I approach my training in regard to how my social life is and how my life is just moving around me.”

"Where I know some other athletes need peace in the training to be good socially, I’m really the other way around."

Life around him includes many projects within his local community. “I started an ice cream shop and I started a culture house, like a concert and a youth culture house,” he says. Jens also started Capra Triathlon, a professional triathlon team that also works to provide training and courses to local businesses. “It’s a business network where we show up to provide training every week and that's how I support myself. I'm trying to invest my time in that instead of like just getting a one year contract with a philanthropic sponsor. It’s more sustainable, that's what I believe, and I also think it’s a nice concept for sponsors.”

Of course, he admits all of his projects and his need to connect socially take time from training. “It often takes some of my time for training. Sometimes I'm like, oh, okay, I need to skip this two hour ride because I have to go to this meeting, or I have to do this, or I'm stressed when I have to go to sleep about something that I need to do,” he says, noting that 20 hours of training is all he can manage. “It’s a nice thing but it’s maybe not a strength when you're a professional athlete but it’s something really deep in me.”

“It wouldn’t work for everyone…I won't say there is a good way or a bad way, I just see my approach in a different way, which is a bit more patient. If we had a spectrum which is a narrow focus on your training or focus on your social life, I would probably be closer to the social life compared to some of the other guys.”



Competing As An Outlier

For someone who is pursuing world-class performance, it’s a bold move to do things differently. Jens sees the reality of what his competitors are doing, how athletes like Serrières are totally focused on performance and vocal about training 30 or more hours a week; but, while he is open-minded, he is unshakably confident in his approach. "I don't care how the other people train. [Serrières just does it differently from me, but it's not like I'm laying in my bed at night thinking, oh, is that the right or wrong way, because I trust in my own process.”

Still, Jens says he admires Serrières as a friend and a competitor. “He is very focused and very professional and it's nice to have a guy like that to make us other athletes work harder. Or find another way to work and be able to beat him, because definitely he pushes the level,” he says. “It's clear to see the last two years how he pushed the level, but I'm not gonna try to copy him to get to that level. I won't say I'm never going to do it like that because maybe I am, maybe I'll find a way to do it and that makes me happy. But right now, I think my body is not working like that and I see myself quite different from a lot of other athletes.”

"[Serrières] just does it differently from me, but it's not like I'm laying in my bed at night thinking, oh, is that the right or wrong way, because I trust in my own process.”

Seeing himself as an outlier might just be his superpower, but on the race course, sometimes it catches him off-guard. “It often amazes me when I catch the front guys on the bike, even though I probably was 2 or 3 minutes back after the swim but most of the time it actually just slows me down. I'm like, okay, what do you do now? Do you attack right away, do you stay here, do you drink? It’s not every race that I catch them, but usually I do if I have a good race, and I'm really not mentally prepared to catch them. I don't know why but I always expect them to be faster but that's experience. It's clear to see but it's not something you can read in the books.”

Even after winning Malta, Jens says it didn’t clarify things. He hasn’t won a race since. “I think winning is a whole other different sport. It's so hard to be in the front of a race. It often gives you a lot of motivation, but, actually taking the tape, you have to learn to do that as well. It's not something you do in your training,” he says. Still his belief in his unique process keeps him patient and optimistic: “Winning back-to-back as some of the other guys can do it, I look forward to practising that and I hope I can do it soon.”



The Scandinavian Approach 

What underpins Jens’s entire approach is not something you could measure on TrainingPeaks. In fact, much to his coach’s initial chagrin, Jens, unsurprisingly, isn’t a data or numbers kind of athlete. “I'm not a guy who runs with my watch all the time and I'm really bad at updating my TrainingPeaks. We had one year where [my coach and I] argued a bit over this, but I just kept not doing it because I was not motivated to put my stuff on TrainingPeaks,” he laughs. “We found a way where we just talk twice or a couple of times a week, and he just follows along. He's just trusting what I'm saying, how I feel, how I feel the tension in training is. He trusts that, and he questions it, but he trusts it. He's really more of a more mental coach than he is a physiological coach, I would say. Or I use him more like that.”

But what about the numbers? In world-class sport, it seems ludicrous to ignore data analysis but, again, Jens sees it differently. “I wouldn't say my training is not well analysed, it's just in a different way. I think it's more analysed because we take the mental aspect into it, instead of just looking at data,” he explains. What he sees as crazy is the standard to put a premium on data over an athlete’s emotional and mental experience. “It's just a huge part of it especially if you want it to be sustainable for the long term.”

“It’s quite a Scandinavian approach,” he says, speculating that it will be the preferred approach moving into the future. “It’s a more holistic point of view of the athlete.” 



The Juice Is Worth The Squeeze

Instead of total sacrifice, Jens has chosen more patience. Instead of blind focus, he has chosen a holistic perspective. Instead of tradition, he has chosen to innovate. As Jens teaches, whether it’s the right way isn’t the question, it’s whether it’s your way. “It all comes down to recognizing yourself and your approach to your goals and dreams,” he says. “Being a professional athlete, you can really do it in a lot of different ways. You can go all in on social media in ten different ways, you can do it on a team where you’re more hands off, or like me, you can innovate your own way of doing it.” 

Of course, going against the grain isn’t easy but, as Jens says, “The juice is worth the squeeze.”

“It all comes down to recognizing yourself and your approach to your goals and dreams.”

His approach maybe different, but as the current World Cup leader it's clearly working. However, his biggest challenge still lies ahead as he prepares for Stop #3 in Belgium where he will be up against the toughest competition there is, with many racing as close to home as it gets and just as many hoping to take his place at the top of the pile.











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Author Bio

Sarah Bonner

Sarah Kim Bonner (MA, PGDip, BA Hons) is a Canadian freelance writer, graphic designer, and professional triathlete. She has worked as a creative for over 10 years, specializing in written storytelling within endurance sports. Emotionally allergic to an office 9-5, she has lived and raced all over the world from the Arctic to Africa and now calls the Canary Islands home. Find her at or @sarahkimbonner.

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