Seven tactics to stop comparing ourselves against others

Race resultsIn sport comparison is inescapable. If you are racing or competing there will always be numbers ranking us, digitizing us, making easy comparison to anyone else. It is a very quick way for athletes to lose confidence and develop low self-esteem. This social comparison can be harsh as someone else will always be better than you. Even Bolt got beaten. And Research has found that the harder we are on ourselves the harder it is to regain our motivation and we are less likely to achieve the goals we do set so, the more we compare, the worse we will do.

You can only compare effectively if you are starting from the same starting blocks as the person you are comparing to. We are each too unique to compare fairly. Even identical twins will have different personality traits, different talents and different motivations. But we never are. So comparison puts focus on something you have absolutely no control over putting yourself in an unwinnable, and very frustrating situation. To get on top of this negative comparison here are seven tactics to try:

  1. Focus on temporal comparison where you look at how you are doing compared to where you were in the past and where would you like to get to. You can then make clear steps and plans to get where you want to go and this helps you feel much more in control. In doing this we become more self-aware and can understand our motivations and ambitions better. If we tie this in with our own values we can feel authentic in the route we take. To identify these values ask yourself three questions:
    • What do you want to be remembered for?
    • When you look back over this year what will you need to achieve to feel proud?
    • What are the three values that matter most to you?

Once we look deeply at the ‘then, now and the future,’ and understand our values which support that then everything is in the open it is much easier to confront and deal with it.

  1. Remind yourself that the perfection you see in others is just an illusion. We only see the instagramable perfection of other’s lives. Research found people more likely to show positive emotions than negative ones and that we each tend to overestimate the presence of positivity in the lives of others. This means we a comparing our lives with an incomplete picture of someone else’s. You may see the great race result a club mate had but not the pain they have gone through in training. You see the picture perfect family day posted on facebook but not the mega tantrum two minutes before the shots were taken. There is always a far more realistic story behind it.
  2. We beat ourselves up for not ‘trying hard enough’ yet we are on a different journey in life to other people and were born with different advantages. There is a great saying – don’t measure yourself against someone else’s ruler. If you compare yourself to other people around you those people start become enemies, instead of your friends. Benchmarking their successes to evaluate ourselves against will make us jealous and bitter rather than supportive and excited for them. If you find yourself succumbing to this then a good point to remember is that we become like those we surround ourselves with. Surrounding ourselves with successful, ambition and hard working people and some of those elements will brush off on us – so it is not just altruistic, it is actually in our own interests for those around us to do well.
  3. Celebrate your uniqueness. What do you love about you? Forget being humble. What is great about you? What values do you have, what traits do you love, when do you feel proud?
  4. Remember and document your successes – keep a diary or a ‘jar of joy’ and note down when you have been proud of something you have worked hard towards and achieved. When you find yourself starting to compare with others pull out a note and read through it.
  5. Find things that matter to you which cannot be measured. Race times, school grades, work appraisals all use numbers and are very easy for us to use to compare to each other. But some of the loveliest things in life can’t be compared. Seeing an amazing view from a mountain you have climbed, drinking the perfect cocktail on a lovely beach, eating fish and chips with your best mate on a park bench putting the world to rights, a run along the river where you come up with a solution to a problem you’ve been ruminating over, taking a picture of a friend or child that completely captures their personality, making someone’s day by baking them a cake they weren’t expecting. All things which have no measurement, but will bring you, and often someone else a little piece of joy.
  6. If you can’t help yourself comparing then study the person you are envious of and understand what it is you envy and then work out how you can achieve that. If they are famous then read interviews or autobiographies. Pull out the envy element and make a plan for how you can develop that. Write down three things you could learn from them to help you get closer to what they have achieved? When you find yourself starting to get jealous look over these, remind yourself you are on a different journey to them, and pick one of the things you can learn from them as your goal for the next week.



You can do anything – but not everything

Anything EverythingThis is my favourite phrase. It reminds me that that much as I’d like to be a superwoman there just aren’t enough hours in the day to be one. It suggests I’m not a failure if I don’t achieve everything – just that time is limited and no-one else could either.

I thought of this phrase when I went to chat to a group of new mums who are soon to head back to work. Having 6-12 months out of work to bring up a new baby is an amazing experience. But it can also leave us feeling rather vulnerable when we go back to work. Not only are there many questions floating round our heads about whether we remember what to do, how we will ever see our baby, will flexible working be possible, do we need to prove our work commitment all over again and whose job takes priority when baby is ill, or childcare falls through but we may have lost a little work confidence too, making it a nerve racking time. Before baby we were able to stay late, work weekends when projects required it, and have a good gossip over lunch. When nursery hours are limited and we want to get home for baby hugs we need to remember that ‘superwoman doing everything’ goes out the window and prioritisation comes into play.

So I chatted with the girls in my NCT group and we came up with five areas where a bit of honest reflection, some planning, and a dash of performance psychology techniques could help us get back into working life as comfortably and stress free as possible.

Feeling out of the loop professionally:

Lots of us were worried about things having moved on in the time we were away. It could be systems, computer programs, teams, colleagues, line managers, senior staff and, particularly for those in legal, HR, clinical and accounting professions, regulations and laws having changed.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • Ask for a KIT (Keep in Touch) day a few weeks before you go back so you can reacclimatise to the workplace, understand what has changed and prepare yourself for it.
  • Be open to learning new stuff – you have just learnt from scratch how to keep a baby alive so picking up computer changes will be well within your capabilities!
  • Instead of thinking you are going back to your own role maybe try to see it within your head as starting a new job – mentally it will feel less frustrating than going back to the same job with lots of changes.

Feeling out of the loop socially:

If you have been away from an office or your work environment you will not just have missed processes or systems changing but people. When you start in a new company going on staff nights out or lunches is a great way to get up to speed. But if you are working compressed hours to get back in time for nursery or childminder shutting or would rather spend your evening with your little one than networking in a pub then this isn’t possible.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • A baby commodifies everything. You are constantly prioritising and working out the value of something again the cost of childcare and whether you genuinely want or need to do something over seeing your baby. So accept this rather than fighting it or feeling it is unfair. I’ve found it helps me make decisions about what I value doing and prioritising becomes simpler. Would I rather go to X event or spend my evening with baby. Baby wins a lot!
  • Agree with your other half on how you will deal with evening events. Do you have one evening a week each to use for yourself; work, networking sessions, seminars, gym, drinks with friends? Or agree to own certain nights as your bath / bed nights for baby where the other one has more work or social flexibility.

Having to prove yourself again:

If you have spent a long time building your reputation in work, particularly in companies which have a long-hours culture or are very heavily male dominated, you may feel you need to re-establish your reputation and deal with some of the stereotypes that may be banded about around where your priorities will be.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • This one can feel really unfair and can be a real issue in some industries. Write a stock answer you use for all the annoying comments. Something like: ‘Work will feel easy after looking after a baby 24/7’. Repeat it over and over again until they get bored of winding you up.
  • Don’t try to prove yourself to anyone except the people you have to. It just causes lots of stress. Use your lack of time and flexibility to your advantage and be really focused on just what you need to do and who you do that for. This means being really clear from your line manager what your objectives are and what they see as priorities. Stick to these. Goal setting can be really helpful here. There is a template and worksheet you can use here. It is based on athletes but works just as effectively for mums heading back to work.

Justifying decisions:

Many of us fear being judged. We want to do the best; for ourselves, for our babies, for our companies, for our society. It can be difficult being questioned or judged about the choices you make, or even thinking you will be questioned. Many of us worry if we have had too much time off or too little? Should we go back flexibility or ask for fewer hours? And not only do we question ourselves but very unhelpfully lots of other people feel it is ok to question us too.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • Everyone has an opinion. Either because something genuinely worked for them and they think they are being helpful, because they want to validate the choices they made or sometimes just trying to make conversation. But it can feel intrusive, personal and judgemental – especially if you are questioning any of your choices yourself. Expect the opinions. Makes it feel less personal.
  • When you are offered advice, nod and smile and say “that sounds interesting I’ll think about that.” And then forget it instantly. They feel important and listened to. You get them off your back.
  • Internally, in your own head, have a mantra. This is a short phrase you repeat over and over to yourself and can block out some of the negative or guilty thoughts we have. It could be ‘I’m here so my baby has a great role model.’ ‘Baby is learning great social skills at nursery.’ The mantra needs to be personal and honest but can help you block out the naysayers outside and inside your own head.

Staying robust and resilient:

Finally, it is hard to stay robust and resilient when you lack any confidence. And if you have had a chunk of time away from the workplace it can be easy to let your confidence slide. Add to this fears about the choices you’ve made for childcare, the fact you may be surviving on very little sleep and simply missing your little one and your confidence can be knocked very easily.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • Actively build your confidence. Confidence comes from many sources but the two most robust ones are knowing you have the skills to do what you want to do and feeling you have the experience and evidence of this experience to do what you want to do. So grab a piece of paper and write down all the skills you already had in the workplace and the ones you have added by learning how to look after a baby. The mums I chatted to had some great strengths they had developed over their maternity leave including procrastinating far less, an enhanced ability to multitask, a new sense of perspective on what was really important and the ability to do everything on very little sleep.
  • Create your ‘what if’ plan. Every Olympic athlete does this but it can work really well in our daily lives too. Down one side of a sheet of paper write down all the things you are worrying about happening, then what you can do to prevent them happening, and what you will do if they do occur. This means you front up to everything that is weighing down on your shoulders and you feel much more prepared if something does happen.

We prepared a couple of examples:

Fear To prevent it happening I will… If it does happen.…
All the regulations in my field have changed. I’ll have to learn everything again. Ask if there is a junior or intern in the office who could pull together info on any regulatory changes in the last year.

Sign up to email updates for my profession to keep updated.

Get hold of the last nine months of magazines for my profession and read them during baby’s nap time.

Agree with line manager that I can have a session with them on changes in the sector while I have been away.

Ask line manager if I can attend a professional conference where many of the recent changes will be discussed.

Ask for someone to mentor me back into the workplace while I find my feet again.


Being new to the team I worry I still have to prove myself and I can’t do this if I have to leave by 5pm to pick up my baby from nursery. Work out with my other half that one of us will do drop off and the other pick up so we can work hours needed at one end of the day.

Log on after baby is asleep so you can show you are working flexibly.


Explain to line manager that you feel you are being judged on time in office rather than productivity and ask for their support.

Find another parent in the office and discuss how they have been able to prove their worth and be there for their children (People are really flattered to be asked for their advice so this can work well)

So hopefully there are some ideas above that can help you feel a little bit more like superwoman -while remembering that you don’t have to. The most important thing to do is to reflect on what is worrying you and prepare for it. The more prepared we are, the harder it is for something to knock us over so we can be strong for ourselves and our babies.

7 weeks till Marathon – Understand your motivation


Over the eight weeks’ final build up to the London Marathon I am blogging some ideas you can use to stay on track and ensure your mind is as prepared for the race as your body is. This blog, with seven weeks to go, suggests you should spend some time understanding your motivation for running the marathon.


Why are you running the marathon? Are you fundraising for a charity? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do? Do you enjoy running and use the time in your trainers to keep you mentally strong? Do you want to set a new PB? Has running become your social life? Or are you running because you always do a spring marathon? Whatever that motivation is that got you signing up and out training for the marathon, understanding it, can be really valuable. And when you don’t remember why you are running, or why you chose the races you have entered, it is all too easy to back off or even stop when it gets tough or life gets in the way.

There are two types of motivation. The first comes from inside you. This is when you are competing for the love of it, simply because you get personal satisfaction out of the training, out of striving for targets or just the joy of being able to run. The second type is more externally driven. This may come from the medals you gain, the accolades which come from your friends and family or the fact you don’t want to let down your charity. Neither is better than the other but, if your motivation comes from within it can be more robust and stay with you when you come up against set-backs.

If your motivation is that you love being fit and healthy you will, in the main, be happy looking at your training plan and seeing 6:30am treadmill sessions. Even if that session doesn’t go well your motivation remains high because you are inspired by the process, not the outcome. If your motivation comes from winning prize money your motivation will be through the roof when you are doing well but if you get injured, your rate of improvement slows or you simply have a run of bad luck you will find it really hard to maintain the motivation to keep going and training will feel like a chore.

Whether your motivation comes from internal or external factors all types of motivation can be fuelled – if you are able to identify, hone and make the most of yours.

Free writing is a really good way to do this. You need a pen, notebook, 30 minutes where you won’t be disturbed and a large mug of coffee (tea works well too!). Then all you have to do is daydream and ask yourself a bunch of questions as you write:

  1. How do you see Marathon day going?
  2. What to do you want to feel as you cross the finish line?
  3. What outcome would make you happy?
  4. When you have those (albeit probably rare) amazing runs where you feel like a runner and the miles fly by effortlessly, what is in your mind?
  5. What gives you your buzz in running?
  6. If you were told you couldn’t run at all for the next month how would you feel? 

Reading though your piece of writing at the end can help you identify your motivation. If your daydream is standing on a podium at the end of the marathon then you’ve got a pretty big clue. If it is to be able to hobble into work on the Monday morning with your medal round your neck you have another clue. If you imagine yourself handing over a big cheque to a charity that matters to you, another clue. If it is having your son or daughter ask to go running with you because they want to be like you when they grow up then ‘inspiring others’ may be your motivation. Whatever you feel it is, once you’ve identified it you can work to bring it into your training – making your training really effective and a lot stickier.

For example, if a big donation to your charity is your motivation then research what your target amount could buy for them, and break that down per mile so you know for each mile you’ll be providing an hour of a nurse to someone with cancer, or two hot meals to elderly people. Perhaps speaking to some people the charity supports to dedicate each section of the marathon to them. Or create yourself a mantra which reminds you of who and what you are running for. Write that mantra on your wall, in your wallet, in your kit bag.

If you discover you are motivated by inspiring others then joining group training sessions, signing up to be a run leader for your club or taking coaching classes can be a great way to stay on top of what you want to achieve and give you the buzz you need to stay on track.

So actively identifying your personal motivation and then entwining that with your training and races plans can keep you on track and your goals in sight.

The ten social media mistakes athletes make most often


Social media can have many great uses for athletes. You can keep up with latest advice and research on your sport or training, you can catch up with friends and their news even when you are training and working too many hours to see them in person and it can keep you entertained in your downtime when your body needs to rest and recover.

But, social media can also be a minefield if you find yourself comparing your training to others, you see trolling direct messages which distract you from your performance, or in the heat of a moment you don’t think through what you are tweeting and say something crass, rude or disrespectful. From researching some of the biggest social media screw ups by athletes we have found the top 10 reasons why athletes get in trouble over social media. 

  1. Forgetting anyone can see what you are writing

Not an athlete but a really good reminder from a girl who had just been offered a new job and tweeted: “Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.” Not surprisingly the IT company were hot on checking their mentions on twitter and the job offer was retracted.

  1. Ignoring your privilege

Ian Poulter, the golfer, complained on twitter about his wife having to look after their four children on a flight in business class without the help of their nanny whose seat had been downgraded. He was accused of being out of touch with people highlighting that his Twitter profile picture was of six sports cars parked outside his multi-million pound Florida home. The digs he got back were substantial including one from Joseph Fink who summed up how many felt with : “Our thoughts are with @IanJamesPoulter in these dark times.”

  1. Showing disrespect for your sport

Ian Poulter (who clearly needs a lesson in social media reputation protection) posted videos online of himself and his children eating cereal out of the Ryder Cup. Ouch.

  1. Showing disrespect for others

During the 2012 Olympics Michel Morganella, a Swiss soccer player, sent a racist tweet about the Korean soccer team. He was expelled from the team and forced to miss the remainder of the Olympics. Greek Triple jumper Voula Papachristou also got kicked off the Greek 2012 Olympic team for twitter posts mocking African immigrants and Retweeting a politician from a far-right party.

Only this week Burney striker Andre Grey was banned for four matches and fined £25k for homophobic tweets he sent. The tweets were actually sent four years ago when he played for a non-league club. Which highlights that your online footprint is never washed away.

  1. Having your partners weighing in on an argument

Cycling partners are clearly a very defensive bunch. When Lizzie Armistead was dealing with criticisms around missing three doping tests just before the Rio Olympics one of her main rivals, the French cyclist Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, tweeted that the decision to let her ride was shameful and that the rules should be the same for everyone. Armitstead’s fiancé (now husband) Philip Deignan replied by accusing the Frenchwoman of having an affair with a married man with children.

The other-halves of Cyclists Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins also got into a twitter spat in the 2012 Tour de France. When Froome was ordered to slow down to allow Wiggins to catch up and retain the overall lead, Froome’s girlfriend, Michelle Cound tweeted: ‘Teamwork is also about giving the people around you, that support you, a chance to shine in their own right.’ Mrs Wiggins shot back a response which praised other members of the Sky Team for ‘genuine, selfless effort and true professionalism’ –  but omitted Froome. Then Peta Todd, Mark Cavendish’s wife weighed in tweeting about Froome: ‘You are a little bit special. Legend.’ No mention was made of Wiggins.

  1. Public spats with team mates

In 2015 when Mo Farah fell out with fellow runner Andy Vernon for implying he was ‘a Plastic Brit’ the gloves were off. Farah was about to race at the Sainsbury’s Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham and Vernon tweeted: “Another stellar field against Mo Farah on home turf this weekend at Birmingham. #joke”. Farah responded: “Shame you didn’t make the line up….again #ComeBackWhenYouWinSomethingDecent”. Vernon replied: “Lol Mo Farah I think even you can work out that I can make the cut to the Indoor Grand Prix. Lets hope no one loses their shoe…” Farah’s response: “I wish you did make the cut mate so I can leave you in my dust like ALWAYS!! hahahaha #hatersgonnahate”. Refering to Farah’s ‘hatersgonnahate’ hashtag, Vernon wrote: “1) stop quoting Taylor Swift. 2) I don’t hate you Mo. I would just rather watch a race than the the Mo Show. #playersgonnaplay.” Farah then posted: “that’s why they didn’t put you in the race mate.. Cos you’re an embarrassment!! Taylor swift can probably run faster than you!” Great fun for fans to follow on twitter but didn’t do either athlete any favours and caused them both unnecessary stress.


  1. Tweeting when angry over selection

Long jumpers Greg Rutherford and Chris Tomlinson had a twitter fight after only one could be chosen for an international competition. Greg Rutherford got the spot and didn’t even make the final. Tomlinson tweeted: “Words can’t describe my anger. Season ruined on media profile & not current athletic form. Thanks for the support from the athletics community.” After apologising to fans for not making the final Rutherford added his own dig at Tomlinson: “Oh and to the trolls… Imagine a picture of my bum hole. I’m waving it at you.” Nice.

  1. Making inappropriate jokes

If commenting on news stories athletes really need to know they have the final facts. Breaking story comments can be risky for anyone, as can making jokes. Kevin Pietersen the cricketer really fell short here. He sent a tweet commenting on an article about two South African stowaways who had come on a plane from South Africa saying “Captain and Opening Bowler in England’s WC cricket team in 2019.” He then read the actual article to see one of the stowaways had died as he fell on a roof of a building from the plane and the other was fighting for his life.

  1. Responding to criticisms

When day in, day out, you get fans, critics, journalists and former players on social media goading you it can be incredibly hard for athletes not to bite back. But this very rarely goes well and often it is the athlete who comes off worst. In Kevin Pietersen’s case (yup – again) he was fined for criticising Sky commentator Nick Knight on Twitter. He’d tweeted: Can somebody please tell me how Knight has worked his way into the commentary box for Tests? Ridiculous.” It was agreed his remarks were prejudicial to ECB interests and a breach of England conditions of employment.”


During the 2015 World Cup James Haskell got into a row with Neil Back who tweeted before a world cup match: “Don’t take your selfie stick out onto the pitch before the game like you did against @fijirugby on 18th Sept. Across a number of tweets Haskell replied: “I wasn’t even playing” You’re so old and out of touch your eyes don’t work. I hope ur book sales go better than your coaching. Explain how me recording a once in a lifetime event detrimental. You were one of my childhood heroes, yet your general negativity towards myself & the team is appalling.” “You talk about my self promotion yet u have released a sensationalist book just to make cash. That’s all I have to say on this. Rule No1 never meet your heroes.”

  1. Forgetting you are an ambassador for your sponsors

Finally, as Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Ryan Lochte have all found to their cost, poor behaviour will quickly lose you sponsors. Poor behaviour on social media amplifies the athlete’s issues as their own words spread so quickly and no amount of crisis PR can fix things for them. Steph Rice, the Australian swimmer, tweeted a homophobic statement after watching a match. She lost a lucrative endorsement deal with Jaguar.




How to get what you want!

arm-touchAttended a great talk at the British Psychological Society last night by Christian Jarrett (who writes tonnes on psychology – find him on twitter @psych_writer) who had pulled together some really interesting pieces of research that give clues as to how to behave if you want people to do what you want!

There are six tips. Some obvious, one counter intuitive, one rather creepy!

  1. Be nice and polite. Research has found that when you ask someone something (i.e. can you fill in a questionnaire) that 57% of the time people will do this for you. When you premise the same question with “can you do me a favour and…” the amount of people offering to help goes up to 84%. So minding your Ps & Qs works!
  2. Warm up the person you need a favour from by apologising for something that isn’t your fault. The example from the research given was asking to borrow a mobile. When a person just asked to borrow the mobile 9% of people handed it over. When it was preceded with a “I’m sorry about the weather” that figure leapt to 47%! Apparently the superfluous apology makes you seem more empathetic and trustworthy.
  3. Play happy background music when you are asking for something you want. When a lecturer asked students to lie for him when no music was playing, 40% agreed to. With positive music in the background this rose to 70%!
  4. Make someone relieved. Researchers have set up situations where a person is fearful (thinking they were about to be in trouble with the police) and then let them realise that no police were around, giving them a sense of relief. 59% of those who went through this situation agreed to fill in a 10-minute survey straight afterwards from a road side researcher. Only 46% agreed when they had not had this experience of fear and then relief first.
  5. Confuse people by not reacting in the way they expect. There is a psychological concept called ‘Interpersonal complementarity’ where we naturally follow the social cues around us. Someone smiles, we smile back. Someone puts out their hand to shake it, we do the same. A Stanford Psychologist used this to his advantage when he realised he was in a difficult situation with a potential mugger barging into him aggressively. He fought an aggressive reaction back and instead pretended to know the guy, was overly friendly and completely caught him off guard, giving him time to escape safely.
  6. Lightly touch someone on the arm. OK, so this one sounds a little creepy but researchers in France went clubbing and asked people to dance. 43% said yes. When they asked someone to dance and lightly touched their arm at the same time 65% agreed. This has been replicated in customer service jobs where positive feedback for the staff member has increased with arm touching and waiters have received bigger tips. It apparently makes you seem more attractive and dominant.

Is it possible to win the war on doping?

Anti-doping event

Doping is cheating and should be stopped at all costs. Goes without saying. Yet I attended a discussion this morning hosted by the Institute of Sport and Exercise Medicine and really had my beliefs stretched on just how feasible that really is. Of course we want a level playing field for all athletes. Of course we want to watch ‘fair’ sport. Of course we have a duty of care to athletes’ health to ensure they don’t feel they need to take drugs in order to compete. But how realistic is it? Can it actually be effectively governed?

The debate, titled ‘anti-doping is an unwinnable race’ saw a huge majority of the room agree that it was an unwinnable war, they we can’t govern it, there are just too many variables, too many stakeholders and too much politics in the way. And yet a majority also thought we should be trying, if not for the fairness element then certainly to protect athletes and their health.

Dr Paul Dimeo, a lecturer in sports politics highlighted how, in the 50 years we have been trying to stop doping we have continually failed and yet we do have a delusion of drug free sport. He gave three reasons for why we will never win the war against doping:

  1. It requires every single country to support the efforts. Yet in professionalising and politicising sport, money, power and kudos have got involved ensuring some countries will never want to prioritise anti-doping. He cited the number of positive tests being found through WADA at 2% and yet Dick Pound has suggested the figure maybe closer to 20% and independent research puts it up to 30%. In Russia some estimates suggest it maybe 90%. And then there are countries like China where we know nothing about how their anti-doping testing works and when researchers have tried to find out information was not forthcoming.
  2. It doesn’t create a level playing field because the wrong people get charged for minor infringements and others seemingly get away with so much more. On top of this there are many inconsistencies on how the rules are applied. And those athletes who are sanctioned become so marginalised their mental health can be harmed. I think this area is difficult because surely it is for the athlete to educate themselves about what they ingest. Yet it is easy to say that in a country like the UK where drug education is widely supported by the NGBs and athletes have some autonomy over how they train and who they train with. Should athletes in countries where they are given no choice in their support team, have no drug education and see sport as their way out of poverty, be held up to the same standards?
  3. Finally, Dr Dimeo suggests the current system does not protect the health of the athletes as we are testing for the drugs we have the ability to find, rather than the drugs that actually cause harm.

Therefore, whilst we are unclear on the reasons to be against doping (is it for fairness or to protect athletes), there is a strong motivation for some athletes to dope (to take them and their communities out of poverty), and a lack of resources to test and educate then there are just too many ways in which it will never be stopped.

Michele Verroken, a former director of Ethics and Anti-Doping at UK Sport, proposed that although she agrees with some of the arguments made, it is still important we try to stop doping and we could do so by really understanding what we are trying to control for (to create fairness or to minimise harm) and making the codebook much simpler so it would be easier to try to win the war on doping. But at the moment the key stakeholders don’t have the motivation, or incentivisation, to make the changes needed. In a lovely phrase used by Verroken; ‘the IOC are hosting a party and no-one wants to spoil a party.’

One of the doctors in the audience pointed out the elephant in the room – that the debate was surely coming to an end as genetic manipulation will soon become used for fixing health deficits and then health benefits creating such blurred lines that we will be in a whole new sporting landscape which won’t involve pharmacology. This will be the next big area to contend with, and one which will force the debate back to the basics; why are we against doping? Do we want a level playing field for fairness? Do we want to protect athletes and their health? Or to protect the ‘spirit of sport’?


Latest research: Recovery strategies


A confession. I love triathlon. For 12 years I’ve been racing in them. I’ve raced every distance from super sprint to Ironman. It’s taken me to amazing places round the world, introduced me to my husband, given me fantastic friends, helped me develop a wonderful support network of likeminded people who I love learning from and even made me change career. So I will always defend triathletes.


We can be a fickle bunch when it comes to new gear, gadgets and gimmicks. Some have been known to spend hundreds on equipment or toys which can save a few watts off their bike, or grams from their trainers. And one area which is always moving is around recovery. Which magic vegetable should we be drinking before bed? Are we supposed to be sitting in hot baths or freezing baths this month? And just how many items of fluorescent compression gear are actually necessary, if any?

So when I attended Elevate conference and found there was a session on ‘Athletic Recovery’ to highlight what the current research is telling us about which strategies actually work I was there! The session was hosted by Dr Ken van Someren, Head of R&D at GSK with talks from Dr Jessica Hill (Senior Lecturer at St Mary’s Uni), Prof Glyn Howatson, Reader Northumbria Uni) and Nick Littlehales (Sleep Coach). We learnt…

Recovery is really important

  • It gives you faster and better adaptation from training which gives you better winning margins.
  • But we need to be clear each time what type of exercise we are trying to recover from and adapt for that.

The focus with nutrition should be on quality and in real food

  • We need to focus on quality and those products which have been through informed sport programme (i.e. tested to not contain any WADA banned products) or, even easier, are real foods so no processing required and no contamination possible.
  • Functional foods have added value beyond basic nutrition and can potentially improve your health through reducing inflammation, exercise induced pain, blood pressure and by improving your cognition, vascular function and sleep quality. Important to have the right food at the right time of the right quality and over the right duration.

Always bear in mind the placebo impact

  • While researchers will do all they can to remove the placebo effect some recovery interventions are very difficult to randomise or blind. There is just no way to disguise the fact someone is standing in a vat of icy water!
  • There can also be a belief effect – with athletes who already believe an intervention is effective reporting more effective outcomes.

Different recovery interventions may work differently on different groups

  • Highly trained athletes may respond differently than untrained members of the public.
  • Strategies may work differently with people of different ages. For example anti-inflammatories can supress adaptation in the young yet in older athletes paracetamol and ibuprofen were found to help with adaptation.

How an intervention is carried out can make a massive difference to how it works

  • The duration that an intervention is run for, temperatures used, quality or purity of product, used just once or multiple times or the type, length and intensity of exercise completed before the intervention can all impact on the efficacy of an intervention.


Research on specific interventions

Cryotherapy (ice baths) – the therapeutic application of cold has a number of benefits: Reduced blood flow, constriction of blood vessels, reduced tissue temperature, compression of water. What they can see so far is that you need to spend 5-10 minutes in water that is between 5-10 degrees to be effective.

Compression garments – the theory is that the muscle fibre reacts when damaged meaning there is less space for any swelling to occur. It is thought to improve blood flow, reduce DOMS and decrease muscle oscillation. The research to date finds that wearing compression does not help race performance at all. But that they do have a role in recovery when the compression garment actually fits properly.  Their advice is to wear them straight after a race and sleep in them overnight.

Tart cherries – when they gave 10 athletes tart cherries and 10 athletes a placebo over a 7 day period (5 before competition and 2 afterwards) they found the athletes who had the cherry juice had reduced inflammation both immediately and over time.  They suggest taking them before competition increases your anti-oxidant capacity. They also ran a cycling test, mirroring a three day stage race (in the lab) and found that the cherry juice reduced inflammation.

Blackcurrants – Worked with a group of modern pentathletes and gave them a placebo and then blackcurrant juice. They found with the blackcurrant juice they had reduced inflammation and reduced oxidative stress.

Sleep – As you can’t control how you sleep it is about what you do leading into sleep. Suggested that instead of talking about hours of sleep you have had, talked about how many cycles of 90 minutes you get, and how many cycles you need. Then you can add extra in the day if you need to. You need to prepare well to sleep so you get all levels of sleep and not just lighter levels of sleep. One key tip is to breathe through the nose so if you struggle with this look out for tools which can help.

Learning from the best: Sally Gunnell, Lucy Martin & Joe Townsend

Elevate winning mindset

On Tuesday I attended Elevate, an exhibition with seminars for those working across exercise, health and performance. A seminar I really enjoyed was chaired by Prof Greg Whyte and focused on what it is to have a ‘Winning Mindset.’ He hosted Sally Gunnell (a former Hurdler with titles including World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth champion), Lucy Martin (former GB Cyclist), Joe Townsend (GB Paratriathlete) and Dr Peter Jones (Sport Psychologist).

I loved some of their insights into what it takes to have ‘The Winning Mindset’ and wanted to share a few. I was scribbling frantically so may not have got their quotes word for word, but should be pretty close.

On the importance of mentally preparing to race

Sally Gunnell: The biggest thing that lets lots of us down is that inner voice. I realised this when I was in a race and at the 8th hurdle I started wondering how other people were doing. At that point I stumbled. I then realised the power of the mind. You need to prepare ahead. It takes time to really prepare yourself to get in the right mental state. My brain won those races. It was about 70% mental.

Lucy Martin: My mind was always my biggest challenge. I always beat others in training but on the day I would always mess up. Then I learnt to just focus on myself. You have a lot of time to think on the road, 3 to 4 hours, and I’d find myself comparing myself to all the other competitors. I learnt to completely focus on myself and my performance improved. That was more important than any other training I have done. In the Olympics in 2012 I felt relaxed and had my best training. All because I had been training my mind. And I took it into other parts of my life too. Those girls who are not emotional, who think logically are the ones who succeed in challenging times. My mind is now more important than my physical training. I would prioritise it over my physical training – it is that important.

Joe Townsend: On the start line I feel cool, calm and collected because I am in an environment which is familiar territory. Compared to the Marines where I was always going somewhere unfamiliar. On the start line the hard work is done and you get to race. Most people have a fear of the unknown when racing and yet all the information you need is in front of you. Three days before an event I will have a schedule to follow. It reduces loads of the stress and anxiety. You have all the information you need before the race so you know what you are going into.

On the importance of using visualisation

Sally Gunnell: I was taught to visualise. Preparing mentally. Every day. Go through the perfect scenario in my mind. It also taught me to visualise what happens when things go wrong: in every scenario they could. But I would also finish the scenario winning. I would never cross the line below first in my visualisation. I would always win in the image.

Joe Townsend: You can visualise the race. You know what you are going to be faced with. Visualisation allows you to keep calm. You know you have the tools to help you stay focused.

On how to deal with pressure

Sally Gunnell: I trained myself to deal with more pressure. I felt the more pressure I had the better I would do. Never let that voice finish that negative sentence. Instead, force feed positive thoughts.

Peter Jones: The pressure is always there. It is how we choose to deal with that pressure that matters. There are either challenge or a threat mindsets which sit on a continuum. A challenge mindset athlete will focus on just what they can achieve. They have perceived control, they focus on the process and on what they can do. A threat mindset athlete will focus on what can go wrong. They may have lower self-belief, lack of control over their environment, focus on avoidance and find reasons not to compete. Sports Psychologists can even see a physiological difference between those with a challenge and a threat mindsets. The role of the psychologist is to move athletes who have a threat mindset towards more of a challenge one. To do this the athlete needs to grow their self-belief, control their environment and focus on their approach and what they can do. Each of these will help the athlete increase their resilience. It is also not a constant so it is important to build behaviours and practices.

On their racing mindset

Joe Townsend: If you can’t change a situation, then don’t worry about it. If something happens and the course has to be changed then you are all in the same boat. You just go away and learn a new course. There is no point getting wound up – you can’t change it so you have to deal with it. Maybe I have been desensitised to some of those tough situations going through the military. I also always race myself and not my competitors. Stick to my own race plan and as long as my process has been followed then this counts as a great race.

On their pre-race rituals and routines

Lucy Martin: I don’t have a ritual but I had a routine where I would get ready very early and check over everything; my bike, how many gels I had on me etc. I would try not to focus on the race and would aim to save as much mental energy for the last 30 minutes of the race. Others would arrive much later and be much more relaxed about it.

Sally Gunnell: I used to have a lucky bag. Each year I or my husband would buy a lucky stone or something to add to it. 2 weeks before Barcelona Olympics we had a Chinese and in my fortune cookie it said: You are the chosen one. That went into my bag. When my bag went missing I retired.

Joe Townsend: I have a routine and the same process that I always follow. It works well for me. It means everything becomes very familiar.

On a winning mindset being nature or nurture?

Lucy Martin: You can be born with a winning mindset but you can also develop one.

Sally Gunnell: It all comes down to your mental training. Everyone has doubts but it is who can deal with the situation the best.

Peter Jones: You can be born with it and your environment can change it, but you can also change it.