Swimrun brand ARK Sports have been innovating new products since 2017. We sat down to interview ARK’s CEO Helen Wikmar to chat about all things swimrun.
Helen quit her ‘ordinary job’ as a surveyor to join ARK Sports in 2018. She has since been named CEO and is a familiar face in the swimrun world. She is something of a workaholic, balancing the demands of running swimrun’s iconic brand, family life and keeping fit. Helen is quick to point out that although she works hard, it doesn’t feel like work.
For Helen, swimrun is freedom. The freedom to be a part of nature. She lives a stone’s throw from the ocean but loves how the environment changes on a daily basis with wind, sun and rain all possible between the mainland and her nearest island.
How do you expect swimrun to grow?
ARK Sports was established in 2017, when two of the founders left sports company Head to launch a swimrun specific brand. The prototypes were made and the ‘ORNÖ 01’ suits were raced in the same year. Since then, ARK has gone from strength to strength, developing lightning fast wetsuits and practical equipment to aid all swimrunners.
Helen hopes swimrun will grow exponentially but admits that it is hard to make accurate predictions. The pandemic stopped the evolution of swimrun in its tracks, and 2022 was still a difficult year. Helen has noticed a lot more interest this year than a year ago and is ‘extremely optimistic’ that the sport has a bright future.
What is the first piece of kit someone should get?
There is plenty of advice out there about getting a swimrun specific wetsuit, lightweight shoes or a set of hand paddles.
Forget all that, it’s all about a big pull buoy. The bigger the better!
Many people new to the sport try swimrun without a pull buoy, and swimming in trainers is heavy and laborious work. Helen compares it to a quasi ‘drowning experience’, certainly not great if you are giving a new sport a try.
ARK Sports have the answer, with their flagship ARK Keel. A monster of a pull buoy with a clever design to resemble a ship’s keel, it has a sublime fit between the legs when swimming and is easy to mount behind your back while running.
Indeed when ARK Sports are teaching children about swimrun, they always get them to try out a pull buoy and teach them that this is a vital piece of equipment to really enjoy the experience of swimrun.
For Helen, the feeling of resting her legs and recovering from the run while in the swim with the power of the ocean swirling around her is something you can only truly enjoy with a pull buoy.
How would someone new to the sport get into swimrun?
Easy one. Find a friend or introduce yourself to a group who do swimrun (there are plenty of groups on social media). Swimrunners are naturally very open and almost evangelical with wanting to help new people try the sport.
Helen notes that a lot of people are intimidated by open water swimming but her advice is to get out there and do breast stroke at your own comfortable pace. Helen is firmly in the ‘just do it’ school of thinking. In the case of swimrun, that means chucking on any pair of trainers and some running tights and giving it a go.
What should someone look for when selecting a wetsuit?
ARK Sports have made their name with innovative and high performance swimrun wetsuits. It feels like they are the right people to ask about wetsuit selection.
It’s crucial to have a wetsuit which is a snug fit, it should always be a bit tight when you stand up and the zipper is all the way up. You should always run with the zipper down so you can breathe while you are running.
The reason for the tight fit is to prevent water ingress. The neoprene ARK Sports use is very flexible meaning it can handle a lot of dynamic movement.
ARK Sports suits are thin which make them light and fast but they work as there is no water ingress at the neck which keeps the user warm even in colder waters.
How robust are the wetsuits?
Helen grins and produces a set of well painted but very sharp looking nails. Her hand plunges inside the suit followed by a short moment of tension before a hand shape appears through the neoprene.
These suits are durable and designed so you don’t have to worry about neoprene tearing. Obviously if you run into a sharp tree you might damage the suit!
Helen points out that the ARK Sports’ customer service function is there to really help swimrunners and if there is unreasonable damage, will help.
Ultimately our main goal is to have the happiest racers in the world and we work tirelessly to achieve that objective
ARK wetsuits are expensive, any plans to introduce a cheaper suit?
The simple answer is you get what you pay for and more. We will always try to have a premium and performance focused product.
The ARK Korp is our entry level suit and you get serious bang for your buck. It is a brilliant suit, packed full of technology and useful features.
We also have the RE:MARK collection, these are reclaimed, ex-demo or slightly faulty products which we have repaired and you can get a top level suit for a good price.
How much development actually goes into these suits?
This is the culmination of years of work and for every product the customer can see, there are dozens which have been tried, tested and not brought to market.
We are fortunate to have lots of friends doing swimrun and they do A LOT of swimrun. These athletes are a key feedback loop to keep making suggestions for us to iterate and develop. We really are striving for perfection.
Carbon paddles, what’s all the hype about?
At this point in the interview, Helen gets extremely excited and makes a ‘whooping’ noise. It has taken ARK Sports over two years to develop the Ark Carbon Blades, we are keen to find out more…
Carbon paddles are super light and most athletes will definitely see an advantage. Anecdotally, Helen is about 4 seconds per 100m quicker when using a carbon paddle vs a plastic paddle. Over 10km swimming that is a difference of almost 7 minutes.
Helen likes the fact that carbon paddles are totally stiff and offers a direct feedback loop of really being able to ‘feel’ the water. The paddles are extremely thin to help them enter the water with minimal friction.
Some practical advice is to train with plastic paddles and ‘level up’ to carbon paddles for a race day to eek out the advantage from carbon paddles.
Wooden paddles, say what?
ARK Sports have tested every material under the sun which even includes a beautiful looking wooden paddle. The wooden paddle is actually really good, and the ARK team were really surprised by how smooth they were in the water. Sadly the wooden paddles were far too heavy to be anything more than a prototype.
What’s next for ARK?
We plan to expand further to swimming verticals and triathlon, which are both larger sports. But fear not, ARK Sports are very driven and motivated to have the most joyful swimrun participants out there and will track the evolution of the sport with innovative new products.
Stay tuned for a new wetsuit for 2023 which will be the perfect warmer weather suit…you can find more about ARK Sports here.