I got an email in October last year asking if I’d be happy to give answers to a few questions about athletics and porridge oats. This juxtaposition is made decidedly less odd by context: Flahavan’s Porridge sponsor the Northern Irish Primary Schools cross country league, and I’d just had perhaps my best race of the year over cross country.
That feels rather a long time ago now, but then I was in the rainy Wicklow mountains rather than warm continental Europe (incidentally, give me my favourite place in Ireland over balmy beaches any day of the week, even mid-January), and much has happened since.
Anyway, to keep up my goal of posting weekly, here are my answers. My other goal was reading a book a week. I’ve read two so far and am 90%, 50%, 50% and 10% through my ‘currently reading’ books. By my own admittedly flexible logic, I’m ahead of schedule. Now, on with the questions and answers:
Tell us a little bit about yourself!
How did you get involved in running / athletics?
I put these two questions together because it’s hard to answer them separately. Running is such a big part of my life now, and I’ve made so many friends through the sport that it’s hard to describe myself without it.
I only started running seriously a couple of years ago, although I did the steeplechase a few times at school. It’s a really funny story: a friend of mine who was a runner and also played hockey with me just told me one day that he’d put my name down for the steeplechase. I didn’t even know what it was!
After three races and almost no specific training I came fifth in the Northern Ireland schools championships. I spent a lot of time running around on a hockey pitch, an although I was a pretty bad hockey player I had a lot of practice for running chasing after the ball!
I always thought running was something I might come back to later on, and five years ago when I came to live in London I slowly started getting involved in athletics again. It started with a 5k parkrun near where I lived, and five years later I’ve raced twice for Northern Ireland and I’ve been picked to go to the Commonwealth Games.
For a long time I wanted to be an academic, a university lecturer in Anthropology, but somehow I’ve found myself trying to be a professional athlete. I still find it all very strange, as I was never really good at sport before, and all the attention is a bit odd, but I’m getting used to it now. I still don’t really think of myself as ‘really good’, but I think it’s better that way – it keeps you modest.
What is your advice for any young people looking to get involved in running/athletics?
Don’t be afraid to try! I think that’s a big secret to all sport. No one starts off being brilliant, and if they seem like they are it’s partly because they did something similar before.
Athletics isn’t for everyone, but everyone can do it, especially with endurance running like cross country. It’s not like or hockey or football, or even running on the track. Everyone’s doing the same thing, and everyone’s working all the time to keep going, even the people at the front. Another secret is that even if it looks easy, it probably still isn’t – I know it’s not for me! Don’t give up just because it’s hard, because it’s supposed to be.
Have a go, and see if you enjoy it. There’s so many different events, and I know it’s hard to think this at the time, but it shouldn’t be about how good you are. It should be about whether you’re having fun. Also, don’t be afraid to give something else a go. I spent a long time playing other sport before going back to running, and I came back not because I was good, but because I started to really enjoy it. It’s a sport you can always do, whatever age you are, and that’s why I love it so much.
What is the best piece of advice a coach has ever given you?
It’s very simple: four words – I’m on your side. I was struggling to pick myself up after a bad race, and instead of criticising me my coach just told me that. When you’re down, the best thing that someone else can do is offer support, rather than making you feel worse. My dad taught me that.
There’s a wonderful quote from Andy Baddley (who ran in the 2012 Olympics), who talked in an interview about the advice his coach gave him: “what you do in the dark comes out in the light”. Ultimately, sport’s sometimes hard, and it will sometimes hurt, especially if you want to do your very best. At these times, it’s important not to feel bad about not doing well, feeling tired or like you don’t want to be there, and to realise that these are the moments that matter. Not the easy stuff. If you can keep going when you’re alone, and it’s hard, you’ll find something extra in a race, when it really counts.
How do you fuel up ahead of a big race – how important is a healthy diet to you?
I always have a good breakfast on race day, something I’ve tried before and know well. Often it’s muesli or porridge with seeds, honey and fruit. I have something small several hours before a race (like a banana, a small bit of bread or a bit of salad), and I always try and sleep well in the build up. If you’re well rested your body can really absorb what you need from food, and it’s also really important not to eat too quickly and give yourself time to digest. It’s not a race to finish a meal!
My coach has really helped me change my diet, which wasn’t very good before! It’s not just about performance, or even recovery, but also about mood, sleep and energy through the day. People don’t talk enough about how the wrong food can make a difference to our mental health, and how we sleep, and this is something that’s really important to me. Athletics isn’t just about what you do on the track, or even in training, and I see diet as part of my job as a sportsman.
What way do you have your oats?
It depends on the time of day! I very often have porridge in the mornings: I used to love pouring golden syrup and sugar all over mine, but now I use honey and seeds or nuts as it’s much healthier. Sometimes I’ll mix oats and muesli for breakfast to have a different texture to my meal.
Oats are amazing as part of Apple crumble, and they’re also great in flapjacks and energy balls! I try and make my own treats rather than buying things from the shop, so I know exactly how they’ve been made and to make me appreciate them more.
They’re a great thing to travel with, as I’ve found myself competing in international races a bit this year – if a hotel doesn’t have the right thing for breakfast they always have hot water, so I sometimes bring a little box myself, or buy some from a shop before I get to where I’m staying.
What’s your favourite porridge topping?
Blueberries, without a doubt. We have some in the garden back at my family home in Northern Ireland, but as I live in London I have to buy them from the shop. They’re probably my favourite fruit and are well worth the price! I often have banana, nuts, seeds and dried fruit too, one of the great things about porridge is that there’s so much you can add to it.
What did/do you like to hear from the side-lines when you are competing? How did it make you feel to receive this support?
I was running in the Antrim International for Northern Ireland and having a pretty bad race: I’d started too quickly and the muddy conditions had got the better of me. Feeling my legs losing their spring, I came round a corner and someone shouted: “come on Northern Ireland”. At that moment I realised I wasn’t running for myself – the vest I was wearing was a privilege, and people were supporting me not because of who I was, but what the vest I wore represented. I felt honoured to have the opportunity, and I was determined to make the rest of the race something to be proud of.