What’s it like to… be a 40-yr-old elite athlete mum

Jo-Pavey-380x275Jo, you’ve had an amazing year, becoming 10,000m European champion at the ripe of old of 40 and with two children in tow, your success inspiring everyone from women taking up sport later in life to younger athletes struggling through injury. Do you think you’ve hit the perfect storm of inspirational moments?
“Well people have been really kind and it’s surprised me just as much as anyone else but I was really just thinking I would love to make the team I had no thoughts that I could possibly get a medal this summer.

I started the year thinking it would be lovely if I could make one of the teams for the Europeans or Commonwealths, I really didn’t think I could get a gold.

I thought I’d love to achieve a gold at a major championships but I thought the opportunity of doing that had probably gone and that there was no possibility of that any more.

I was really surprised and I would never have thought ten years ago that the circumstances of finally achieving a gold would be at the age of 40 with two young children.

People have been really kind saying it’s inspired them to get out training and get fit in their forties and that’s really a nice side of it for me.

Also, busy mums have also been kind saying that they’re also juggling their lives and I’m thinking that’s what it’s like for me – just keeping really busy with little kids but I think it’s done me a lot of good.

I feel inspired because I’m on the team with lots of young twenty year olds and the team is the youngest team that I’ve ever been on there’s so being with them is inspiring for me as well as they’re so full of energy and enthusiasm.”

Team GB's Jo Pavey on the way to becoming the 10,000m European Champion at the ripe old age of 40

Team GB’s Jo Pavey on the way to becoming the 10,000m European Champion age of 40

Do you think it helps having while still an elite athlete because there’s more balance to your life now and it’s not all about the athletics? 
“Yeah, definitely. My main part is being a mum and I didn’t know whether my running would go with that but I think it did me a lot of good.

When I was younger I would stress a lot about sessions, like would I be able to hit the targets, and I’d be down the track faffing and I’d worry about quite a lot all day.

Then, after I’d train I’d rest and wait around for the next session so it was quite mentally stressful at times, living like that.

Whereas now I just get out there and get on with it and when I’m actually on the track I’ll train harder than ever and push myself but I don’t dwell on it in between.

I don’t get stressed about it and also I don’t just sit around between training – I’m more buzzing around being a busy mum like a lot of mum’s are.

I just feel a lot happier as well. I’d definitely got to a stage in my career before I had kids thinking, ‘Ah, I’m really not enjoying this now and I definitely want to be a mum’.

I’d got to a point where it was hard to feel happy whereas now I’m fortunate enough to have two lovely children and my husband’s really supportive and I feel so happy and that helps me to enjoy my running.

I think if you’re enjoying things you’re probably going to be better at it.

I’m definitely more balanced and in some ways it’s given me more endurance because I’m always busy and I suppose when I do get a couple of days a bit easier before an important race it means that I get a double benefit from the rest.”

So how does balancing training with a young family work in a practical way? For example, one of the things about being a parent is that you pick at your kids’ food and you’re on a strict diet, so is that sort of thing difficult?
“I need to eat a lot and I need to eat nutritious food to recover from the demands of training but I’ve always eaten well, which I think is proven by the fact I’ve managed to keep running for many years.

I am picking at food more because it gets to kids’ teatime and I haven’t done my second run yet so I start picking at all their food and I’ve still got to have my own dinner later so, if anything, I probably do eat even more than I did before but I’m more busy so it’s not really an issue.

It doesn’t hurt to have treats in between but you still have to make sure you have not only good food but food at the right time, like when you’ve just done a hard session there’s a window when you really need to get the fuel in.

I’m more flexible with timings and I think one benefit of being older is I can use the years of experience, which is really helpful, but I know what training needs to be done.

My husband and I work together, it’s very much a team effort, he coaches me and also looks after the children while I’m training or we all go along together but we know what we want to achieve and what we’re aiming for but we’re very flexible.

So if I’ve got two training sessions in a day, I might have planned a morning session at ten o’clock but I might not get to the track until 12 o’clock and then my recovery runs just have to be done in the dark or on the treadmill late at night.

People say you must have to be really organised but I’m not, I’m just flexible so I’m not that regimented and I think that’s a way that we find works for us.”

Back in 1997 I remember no-one had a mobile phone and I remember going to visit a physio in London and Denise Lewis was there and I remember telling my husband when I got back, ‘You won’t believe it but Denise Lewis had a mobile phone’.

So where are you now in your career? Is it a big sigh of relief that you’ve achieved a gold medal at a major championship or are you still full of running?
“I still feel like I can carry on. I’d love to make a fifth Olympics so I’m very much targeting that at the moment but you’ve actually got to qualify in the first place so I’m not complacent about that.

There’s some good girls in the country that are improving so I can’t be complacent but I suppose this summer has made me feel it may be a bit more achievable than I thought it would.

I’ve still got to qualify and so I’ve got to qualify for the world champs next year in Beijing so those are the sort of things on my mind at the moment.

But it’s whatever works for us as a family – fortunately for us we’ve managed to find that it has worked for us and we feel fortunate that running gives us more family time as opposed to less, so we’re quite lucky really.”

Does it change things a little bit as your oldest child started school in September?

“Yeah, we have to take each stage at a time. It won’t change things as in… since I had my first child, as soon as I had him I decided not to go on any training camps and I haven’t been on any training camps for six years.

I didn’t consider going away, obviously, because I’ve got children, so that side of things is all exactly the same.

The odd thing that might change is some of the events that might be during school time, I’ll have to go on my own, whereas we’ve always all gone together.

When you’re talking about major championships, it’s more than likely to be in the actual summer holidays so we’ve always gone everywhere together but there won’t be much time away as I don’t compete that regularly when it’s not summer months.

It’s already a big shock to us that we can’t go where we want when we want because Gav and I had our children fairly late in life and we’ve always lived like that until now.”

At the end of your 10,000m run at the European Championships, you said that it just felt like such a long way…
“It does feel like a lot of laps. I’ve done road races longer than that – it’s just a long time.

If you’re running on the road, with a pack of runners, you’ve got as much as space as you want, whereas when you’re running around in circles you have to run in that zone, trying not to get cut up but you can’t just run wide because you’re running further.

You’ve got to really concentrate like mad and it was very tactical, which is why I got so tired by the end because it was so messy.

I was also thinking it was such a long way because it was after the Commonwealths [which were 10 days before] and it was a difficult decision about which event I should be focusing on.

I would run the 10,000 because I entered for it but you’re sort of thinking, ‘Oh I was pleasantly surprised that I was competitive in the 5,000 at the Commonwealths…

I think however fit you are, for the 10000m you’re a bit slow because you’re in spikes rather than racing shoes and I do start to feel the impact fatigue in my legs.

In spikes, you’re up on your toes and my legs start to get a bit sore by the end more so than if I was road racing and I’ve got to get my breathing right but everyone else is probably feeling the same thing, but it definitely felt like a lot of laps.

I remember thinking after I’d done nine laps with 16 to go I thought, ‘This is ridiculous’.”

Throughout your career social media has become more prominent. Do you think it’s an important tool for sports these days?
“Yeah, definitely. Back in 1997 I remember no-one had a mobile phone and I remember going to visit a physio in London and [Olympic heptathlon gold medalist] Denise Lewis was there and I remember telling my husband when I got back, ‘You won’t believe it but Denise Lewis had a mobile phone’.

It was a totally different world so it adds a new angle on the career for me. It’s really nice how you can talk to people and lend support to other people at other events and give encouragement to youngsters.

People have been really kind sending me messages and yeah it’s all very nice and social but it is quite a change.

The youngsters coming through in their careers don’t really know any different, it’s just the way the world is, but for me it’s dramatically different and I’ve had to adjust the way I work within the sport to do it because I haven’t grown up with that even being a possibility at the start of my career.

It’s like you say, it’s nice for sportspeople to be able to communicate with people who are interested and different sports as well can get their sport publicised, which is a really nice thing and so many women are doing well in sport.

I was really thrilled to meet the women’s rugby team [England women won the Rugby World Cup in September] and it’s nice to think they’re finally getting the recognition they deserve.

So yeah, it’s definitely been a changing world in sport and I’m old enough to have noticed the change.”

I saw one of your tweets in July and it was just before the Commonwealth Games and you were in the mum’s race at the pre-school sports day – did you win?
Yeah, I did but I shouldn’t really be showing off about that. I thought it was funny because it was my last race in preparation for a major championships and actually I didn’t feel very confident running such a short distance – it takes me a while to get going.

Jo social
Jo on Twitter

Heads up
Jo had a book published in July 2016. Haven’t read it yet but feel free to tell me your own views on our Facebook page and I’ll include them in out Sports Liberated Book Group.

Author: Jo Gunston

Roving blogging superfan shares behind the scenes stories of her sports life and the best of those from like-minded souls.

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