Lacing up her first pair of race shoes at the age of 12, the spritely 26 year old Vanja Cnops already has well over a decade's experience in running.
A strong and talented runner, she manages to consistently perform at a top level across varying distances and terrain.
Although we're only 4 months into 2014, she has already chalked up an impressive string of wins, including coming in first in the IVP Track & Field Championships' 1500m and 3000m distances, winning the X-Bionic Venus Run (5km distance), as well as being first in the MR25 10km and 15km categories.
Recently, she started taking part in multisport competitions, emerging first in the Women's Open category in both the Penang and Batam International Triathlons.
Vanja Cnops shares her secrets to an injury-free season, dining with her running idols and more with RunSociety.
Q: You've been running since 12. Could you share with us your story before you came to Singapore?
I started running with my parents, when they went for a weekly jog with the neighbours. Soon I joined a local club and the runners there encouraged me to run competitions.
In winter I ran cross country races and in summer, track and road races. Cross country has always been my favourite. I'm not really fast, but my endurance is good. This gives me an advantage in tough, muddy or hilly races. I was selected to join the Belgian National Team for European Championships 5 times between 2005 and 2009.
When I moved abroad, first to Norway in 2011 and then to Singapore in 2012, I lost my running routine and gained a lot of weight, but I still enjoy running as much as before.
Q: You did well in trail running last year, having won the North Face 100 25KM as well as the Salomon X-trail Run last year. Any idea why you excel in trail running?
I love running trails! Singapore has some great places for trail running. All my recovery runs and long runs, I do in the forest. In fact, I never run on the road, except for road races. My cross-country background obviously also helps me in the trail runs.
Q: Any fond memories with the Belgium National Team to share?
No special stories, but as a young athlete it's super exciting to go to international races with the National Team. I always liked to watch top athletes from other countries: how they prepare for the race, how they behave, what they eat… At one of those races, I played Xbox with Mo Farah in the hotel☺
It's inspiring to attend the same races as your idols. In fact, they are just normal people, but in some way you see them as superstars.
Q: How different was the training from Belgium to Singapore? Was it hard to adjust?
It was harder than I expected. In Europe, I always liked running in warm and sunny weather, so I thought I wouldn't have any difficulties. But the hot and humid weather in Singapore is different! It took me more than 1 year to run timings that are comparable to what I did in Belgium.
Q: You've also started training seriously for triathlons in 2013, and you've been performing great this year. How different of a challenge is doing the 3 triathlon segments (swimming/biking/running) when compared to just running?
It's not that difficult, it just takes more time. While running seldom takes more than 2 hours a day, swimming and especially cycling can take much longer. As a PhD student, I don't have that much time, so I have to be efficient. Cycling to work for example saves me some time and I think it’s a good base training.
The biggest advantage of doing 3 sports is the reduced risk of injuries. As a pure runner, I was injured at least once every year, but since I started triathlon, I have not had any injuries.
Q: What races or events are you looking forward to most in 2014?
- Road races: looking forward to defend my title in a few 10km road races, like the Pocari Sweat Run and Run 350.
- Trail runs: hoping to do well in XTERRA Malaysia and TNF100 Singapore.
- Multisport: focus on standard distance races in the Singapore Aquathlon and Singapore Triathlon.
Q: You have 2 coaches. Guy Ogden guides you for running, while Jonathan Pereira coaches you on triathlons. Tell us more about them.
Although I've been running since young, my running form is not perfect. Running coach Guy helps me to improve my running form and run more efficiently. He also makes my run training programme.
Triathlon coach Jonathan is in charge of my swim training, he corrects my swim technique and also gives me a lot of triathlon tips.
Q: What do you do for a living, and how do you incorporate both running and triathlon training into your schedule?
I am PhD student at NTU. During the day, I do brain research on rats at Biopolis. I usually swim or run in the morning and then cycle to the lab.
Sometimes I also run with a group in the evening. As a student, I have a lot of freedom, but I'm also often working late at night.
Q: You've got a great athletic base, excelling in cross country running, track & field, and triathlons. Could you share the top 3 (or more) training tips you've learnt while training for such a wide range of sports?
- Listen to your body; heart rate monitors or other running toys do not always tell you how you really feel.
- Listen to your coach; he may be right.
- Train with a group; it helps you to stay motivated and push your limits.
Vanja Cnops' next race will be defending her Women's Open 10km champion title in the NTUC Income RUN 350. Good luck!