IR: What are your 2019 fitness goals?
AG: I think it is quite important to set yourself goals. I think when people think of goals, they think about these big drastic changes. Often, with fitness goals, people think committing to exercising four or five days a week isn’t enough and that it has to be running a marathon or else what’s the point?
The more specific you are with goals, the better. I work as a performance coach and I say to people all the time: ‘Saying you want to lose weight next year isn’t a specific enough goal’. You should say that you want to lose 7lbs in three months or something like that. The more specific the better.
The challenge for me is enjoying the likes of yoga or pilates or walks because I tend to only associate fitness with getting a sweat on and really feeling good. But it’s about getting to understand the benefits of exercise to my mind.
IR: What is your general fitness regime?
AG: If I’m honest, I probably don’t rest enough. I’m better than I was. In the past, I would have been guilty of training almost every day of the week. Whereas, now I would train four to five days a week, good solid sessions. They would never be anything more than 40 to 50 minutes because I believe in intensity rather than duration. That works for me, I love getting a sweat on, I love feeling like I’m pushing myself, so I limit breaks. Even in the gym I like to bang out my session in 50 minutes, rather than be there for an hour and half. No wonder people get demotivated, who wants to spend an hour and half of their precious time in the evening after work, or in my case, first thing in the morning in the gym?
In general, I much rather exercise in the morning, I get energy from it. But I like my runs in the evening, maybe it’s just to wind down and process the day. I would rarely get up first thing in the morning and do a run, but if I was doing a class or boxing I would do it first thing in the morning, that’s when I enjoy it the most.
IR: Do you run as part of your fitness regime?
AG: This year, I took up running. I play camogie, so I run around a pitch for 70 minutes and you would think, if I can run around a pitch I can run. But I couldn’t, I couldn’t do a 5k. I couldn’t run for 15 minutes, I would always struggle, and I thought maybe it’s not for me. A friend of mine, Joe O’Connor, who was a runner himself, told me that I’m focusing on too many things when I’m running. I’m worried about how fast I’m running, I’m worried about the distance, posture and technique, and I didn’t enjoy it. He said, take off the Fitbit and close all the apps, and pick a point from A to B and run from A to B. Don’t worry about anything else. When I started to do that, I began to enjoy it. I’m never going to love running like some people crave it. But I know it’s good for my mind.
I ran my first 5km this year and it was my first what you could call ‘competitive run’. I am a very competitive person and I love the challenge that comes from anything competitive, but I didn’t enjoy that if I’m honest – because I didn’t enjoy people passing me out. Then I made the mistake, as every rookie does, to try to keep up with these people, so I took off. For the first 2km I was running way faster than I have ever run before. By the time I hit 4km I didn’t think I could finish the race. The last 1km was a struggle, but thankfully the mental resilience that I have built up from sport kept me going. I did a PB for my 5km, it was under 24 minutes, which for me was brilliant, considering I had only taken up running a month or two beforehand, but it made me realise that I don’t enjoy it from a competitive side, because I’m never going to be an endurance athlete. I used to sprint when I was younger, and I loved sprinting. I got such a kick out of it because my body and legs are designed for power and strength. That was my forte, anything under 200m. Even in training for camogie, I would rather sprint than do a 2km or 3km run. I have identified what I’m good at. I understand the benefits of running and even the benefits for the circulation in the body and for the mindset and general fitness. It is good to do more endurance running. If I’m honest, it’s good to test yourself fitness-wise, doing things that aren’t your favourite thing to do. That’s why doing the yoga is a different mindset for me to get into, same as the running. It builds mental toughness because you are doing something that’s not your favourite exercise but, when you do it, you get so much more from it.
I have built up to running 10K for 50 minutes. I’ll put a podcast on to distract me, but I feel amazing afterwards. It’s not that I don’t like doing it, it’s just that it doesn’t come naturally to me. But the reward from doing it is amazing because I know it was hard for me to do it and I had to earn it. I get the buzz and adrenaline rush, plus I’m doing two things in one as I usually listen to podcasts that are educational because for my own performance and mindset background it might give me ideas for my next talk.
IR: What is your favourite running spot?
AG: I love running in the Phoenix Park because there are different things going on in nature and I think it is nice to be around nature, because we are living in this bubble where everything is go, go, go. But nature is peaceful and calm. I hope that rubs off on me.
IR: What are your top foods tips?
AG: Number one for me is hydration. I struggle with this myself, and I think we often eat when we are, in fact, thirsty. If you are hydrated, your body is in a much better position to absorb the food. You won’t get bloated and you will feel less lethargic, and you probably won’t eat as much either.
Eating regularly is key. I don’t understand why people skip meals. For your metabolism, we need to be eating regularly, especially if you are training a lot.
I personally don’t think it’s good to label food as good and bad. I don’t think there is any such thing, I think it’s about moderation. If you label something as bad, there is guilt that comes with eating the ‘bad’ food. If you look at an avocado, it is deemed a good food but if you eat too many, there is a lot of fat in avocados. It may be seen as a good food, but if you eat too much of a good food, it can still be a quite calorie-dense. I think it’s about understanding your lifestyle and what suits that.
We need to stop labelling food as good and bad and to get away from this idea of cheat meals. Calling something a cheat means guilt can be attached to it and you feel you’re doing something wrong. Break down your food every day: you’re having three meals a day and two snacks seven days a week, that’s 21 meals a week and 14 snacks. If one of those snacks is something you like, such as two biscuits, or one of your meals is lasagne, that’s not going to have a massive bearing. It might keep you on track longer term because you will feel you’re getting a balance. You’re eating a food that you like, maybe not as often as you might like but you’re still getting it into your weekly regime, so it keeps you on track and you’re less likely to binge and break out.
I think we need to be kinder to ourselves. Unless you’re an elite athlete training for the Olympics, world championships or a professional who needs to be diligent and disciplined with your food. If you just want to be fit, you have to accept life gets in the way sometimes.
IR: As a coach on Ireland’s Fittest Family, what advice would you have for families who find it difficult to be active?
AG: If you’re doing something with your family, it’s important to find something that everyone enjoys. If one person loves running and one person doesn’t, that’s not going to be something they look forward to and they won’t get the benefit out of it. It’s not just about fitness, it’s also about spending quality time with the family. Nowadays, we are all so busy and there are lots of distractions, whether it’s technology or social media or longer working hours or commutes, so you rarely have that quality time to spend with your family. That’s why I think Ireland’s Fittest Family is a really nice programme, it is something all the family, whether they are 14, 40 or 65 can enjoy. I think something like hiking or going for a walk is good because you are getting your fitness and fresh air and you can also talk. It doesn’t cost anything, there’s no membership involved.
IR: What can be done to encourage more teenage girls to stay in sports?
AG: I played sports for my entire teenage years and adult life and I understand the benefits of it, mentally, physically, socially and emotionally. I think it’s just about getting all teenagers moving.
I think it’s about the bigger picture. I would love all boys and girls to play sport, but I think the emphasis shouldn’t be just on sports because, with that, comes competition and not everyone is competitive. Also, with sports there is a lot of sweating and young girls are quite conscious of that and I think it is about encouraging them to find something that is activity and movement-based. It might not involve contact or be competitive, it could be dance. Dance is a good workout. I know myself, I did it for 17 weeks! There isn’t necessarily competition, yes, you sweat, but not in the same way as playing camogie, hurling or soccer, and it’s enjoyable.
There also has to be a look at the bigger picture about what movement and activity and fitness can do for you overall, for your mind, body, social skills and even career opportunities. I learned so many life skills from sport. I learned about dedication and commitment, sacrifice and team work and working with people you mightn’t even like; it’s more about respect. There needs to be an emphasis on that and finding the right fit for whatever suits their life and personality. If you push sports on people who don’t want to play sports, you’re wasting your time and theirs.
It’s also about being on their level and understanding why they don’t want to get into it. Often, I will speak to girls and they will say they don’t want to get big and muscular. They have this pre-conceived idea about playing sport, that it will make them butch and masculine. But that’s not the case. It’s about also showing girls that they don’t have to choose between being feminine and playing sport. They can still wear fake tan if they want to and wear make-up and high heels, but they can equally play sports and be an absolute warrior in whatever chosen arena they have. They don’t have to compromise or choose one or the other. There is no opportunity cost and they can do both successfully.
IR: What is your favourite exercise and why?
AG: I would be careful about this and add a disclaimer because every person is different. What works for me might not work for anyone else. We live in a world where people see fitness influencers on social media doing a work out and think they can get the exact same results.
Last year, I got an injury, a bulging disc, and I used to love lifting heavy weights, but I can no longer do that because it affects my back. I’ve had to change my regime, which has been hard. I now have to do more muscular endurance, and I find it hard because I used to love lifting heavy and I loved squatting heavy weights, leg pressing and dead lifting. I love squatting. It’s a compound movement, it’s great for all aspects of your body. Now I squat just using body weight.
I love doing core work and feeling the burn. Playing camogie, having a strong and stable core was very important and I worked hard at that. Something I’m striving to do is pull-ups and chin-ups. I’m quite strong so I have a lot of muscle to lift but I’m constantly trying to work on that. When things that don’t come naturally to me, I feel great when I do them.
IR: What advice would you give people who are embarking on a healthy lifestyle for the first time?
AG: Goals need to be realistic and your own goals. They can’t be someone else’s goals. You need to be clear about what makes you tick, what you want to achieve in your fitness goals. The biggest thing with goals is to stop comparing yourself to others. I’m my own best example of that, when I was running that 5k and people were passing me out. They could have been marathon runners and, for them, the 5k was just stretching their legs. Whereas, for me it was a big deal and I was comparing myself to them and I had to switch off because you don’t know their story. You don’t know if they’re a professional athlete. You don’t know anything about them, so stop worrying about the fact that they passed you out. Be proud of what you’re doing.
Consistency is key with goals. If you set yourself unrealistic goals, you can become demotivated. Sometimes, at the beginning, underestimating yourself is better than overestimating yourself because even if you underestimate yourself and think your goal was easier to achieve than you expected, you still get the high that comes from achieving that goal. I would say to people, start small and, when you’ve achievied that, you will get the confidence to set bigger goals.
The other thing I would say is – tell people about your goals. If there’s accountability, you are much more likely to stick to your goals. If the people at work know that you are building up to running a 10k or losing a bit of weight, whatever it is, if people are asking you about it, it keeps you accountable.
The last thing I would say, is reward yourself. At the end of every year with Cork, we had goals that we wanted to achieve. But we also had little milestone, sub-goals, and if we reached those goals, it was a really good way to keep us on track for our big goals. When we reached our sub-goals, we celebrated them just as much as the big ones.
I’m a firm believer in tangibly rewarding yourself with something. I don’t believe in rewarding yourself with food because it is a very negative relationship to have with it. I don’t think you should get into that mentality. So, I like clothes, going to the cinema, nights away at a spa, etc. It might be something small, like getting my nails done or buying a new piece of jewellery or a handbag, not something expensive, but just tangibly rewarding yourself, so the next time you’re on course to another goal and you’re struggling with it, you can think of the last time you achieved a goal and what you got from it.