On your marks, get set…

The running habits and regimes of others are sources of great interest. From our couch-to-5km comrades, our fellow parkrunners and marathon-slaying mums, to those at the top of their fitness game, there is always a top tip to be told and a wise word to follow. Irish Runner put some well-known faces through their paces on their running goals, fitness tips and the general role of exercise in their lives

Anna Geary

Anna Geary is a former All Ireland-winning camogie captain for Cork, as well as having been the Cork Rose in 2014. Since retiring from inter-county camogie, Anna has been working as a performance coach, as well as a broadcaster and reprised her role as a coach in 2018 on Ireland’s Fittest Family. Anna was also a finalist on RTÉ’s hugely popular Dancing with the Stars in 2018.

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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.

An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar

While Leo Varadkar is busy running the country, staying fit and healthy is very much on his personal agenda

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IR: Can you share your fitness/running goals for 2019?
LV: With my job at the moment, I guess it’s just not falling backwards and keeping my fitness at a decent level.

IR: Can tell us about your running career to date?
LV: I am more of a triathlete than a runner. I have done lots of sprint triathlons and half-marathons and 10km. But I haven’t done an Olympic triathlon or a marathon yet.
I train four times a week. It’s mostly high-intensity interval training and weights with some cross-fit in the gym for an hour first thing. I try to work in some swimming and running. Usually a swim before Cabinet meetings on Tuesday and an outdoor run at the weekend.

IR: Can you list five positive ways that running influences you and your life?
LV: It’s a great way to start the day. It’s also a chance to switch off and get away from the phone and any distractions. It allows you to clear your head of all the noise and clutter and think clearly again. The best decisions are made after a decent night’s sleep and a good run or some intensive exercise. It’s good for physical and mental health, as important as eating well and sleeping well.

IR: What is your favourite running song?
LV: I don’t have one. I do have Apple Music, so I tend to mix it up a bit. I like to listen to different songs and don’t like to listen to any one for too long.

IR: Do you consider yourself to be a fitness role model and how important is it for the Taoiseach to be seen out running and partaking in running events?
LV: I don’t think I am a fitness role model, but I do hope that getting regular exercise and keeping in shape sets a good example. With the pressures of modern life there are so many excuses or reasons not to keep fit, but everyone, without exception, can make it part of their life.  

IR: Can you share with us your favourite running spot?
LV: The Phoenix Park is in my constituency. I like to run there. There are loads of different routes, hard surfaces as well as trails. I love the sunshine, so I like nothing more than running alongside a beach or water, although not on sand itself. Along the lake in Chicago is great. Barcelona too. Also, along Dublin Bay down to Monkstown or Sandycove for a dip to cool off.

IR: In what ways are the Government promoting, encouraging and facilitating a healthier and more active lifestyle for the citizens of Ireland?
LV: We support sports clubs across the country through the Sports Capital grants, which help them to purchase new equipment or improve their facilities. We’ve also brought in the Public Health Alcohol Bill to try and bring down alcohol consumption. The Healthy Ireland initiative is helping to promote good physical and mental health across society. It encourages people to take simple steps to eat well, think well and be well. We brought in wellbeing as a subject in primary schools and physical education (PE) is now a leaving certificate subject in secondary schools. We have developed strategies on positive ageing, physical activity and obesity. There’s now a sugar tax on sugar-sweetened drinks and a new alcohol bill. Healthy Ireland also supports parkruns, the European Week of Sport, the Great Dublin Bike Ride, and The Daily Mile.

Karl Henry

Personal trainer, Karl Henry became a household name as the health and fitness expert on RTÉ One’s Operation Transformation. Karl has also worked alongside World Champion boxer, Bernard Dunne on Ultimate Street Challenge for RTÉ One. Over the series, 10 16-year-olds battled it out through physical challenge on the streets of Dublin to find the Ultimate Street Challenge Champion. Karl released his fifth book in March 2018 called Karl Henry’s Healthy Living Handbook, as well as a his first podcast entitled ‘The Real Health Podcast with Karl Henry’. 

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IR: What are your 2019 fitness goals?
KH: To be honest, I am just deciding on them at the moment. It looks like the Connemara 39.3 ultra-marathon in April and then either the Connemara 100 mile ultra in August or the Race Around Ireland bike race. I completed it around Ireland this year and really enjoyed it, tough as it was, so I am thinking of going back for more. I like seeing what I can push my body to do, but it is always a fine line between training hard and recovery, especially with a busy work schedule!

IR: What is your general fitness regime?
KH: It can change depending on the time of year and the event I am training for, but each week I tend to do four sessions of a combination of running or cycling and then one resistance session on top of that, with some flexibility work.

IR: Can you describe your running sessions?
KH: Running has always been central to my health. I started with 5Km and built up to marathons and then ironmans. My marathon PB is 3:39 in Dublin and my ironman PB is 11:38. I find running is handy when I travel as it’s so simple to do.

IR: What is your favourite running spot? 
KH: I love running the Hill of Howth and, obviously, the Phoenix Park. Mountain running in Wicklow is always fun too, especially on a really mucky day! 

IR: In terms of your diet, what are your top foods for optimal health and nutritional benefits?
KH: My diet tends to be balanced, being good most of the time with the odd treat...I find that really works for me. Porridge is great, cheap and full of slow-release energy. Then protein and colour-based meals, with nuts and fruit in between. My last book was a cookbook, so I did a year’s worth of research for that and really found the benefits of cooking from scratch! 

IR: What are some common pitfalls experienced by people who are returning to exercise and how can they be avoided?
KH: Most of the time, people do too much too soon, set targets that are just too big and don’t spend enough time planning and reflecting on the issues that got them unhealthy in the first place. Start small, build it up, set achievable targets and find and exercise you enjoy and you are well on your way to real health.

IR: What can be done to reverse the high drop-out rates in sport among girls?
KH: I think incentives are the way forward throughout the school cycle. Maybe points or grades for your fitness as you go through secondary school would be the way to do this. When Ireland needed more maths or science to be taken for the Leaving Cert it was incentives through bonus points that made that happen and I think this could be the same for fitness levels.

IR: What advice do you have for beginner runners on improving breathing techniques?
KH: I think the key thing for beginner runners is that running is fun. Start slow. At the beginning of the run, focus on controlling your breathing in for five seconds and out for five seconds and it tends to settle quite quickly. As your breathing settles you can up the pace. 

IR: What stretches would you recommend for runners? Is it always better to stretch only after running?
KH: I tend to use the initial five minutes of my run to loosen out any aches or pains, changing my stride if required and stretching if required too but I normally only stretch afterwards, loosening out the major muscle groups of the legs: quads, hamstrings and calves. 

IR: What is your favourite exercise and why?
KH: Hard one, the plank is always good as it is so versatile! You can work any amount of muscle groups. 

IR: What are your top five exercises for runners?
KH: Aim to do full body workouts, working at least one exercise for each body part. A simple programme would be: bench press, shoulder press, lat pulldown, bicep curls, tricep dips, squats and plank. 

IR: Tell us about your new podcast.
KH: I launched the podcast in April, called the Real Health Podcast, in association with Laya Healthcare, and we have had over 600,000 listeners so far. I launch a new episode each week, every Friday, and aim to deliver content that is easy to understand and works.

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