Former track and field athlete and Olympic champion Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill tells us about walking with her family and stepping out of her comfort zone
The day I catch up with Jessica, the UK has been advised to practice social distancing. It’s a strange, unsettling time, so it’s comforting to know that she too is affected by these changes, just like the rest of us. A mum of two, she’s trying to think of ways to keep her children busy over the next few months and is worried about running out of things to watch on Netflix (relatable). She took some time out of her day to chat to me about everything from what gets her up in the morning to what she misses most (and least) about athletics.
At the moment, people are stuck at home unable to do their usual exercise routines – do you have any advice for staying fit?
“It is quite difficult for a lot of people to go to the gym and exercise outdoors right now. For the past few months, I’ve actually been doing a lot of my workouts at home and my exercise routine revolves around my kids. I think circuits are fantastic – you don’t need any equipment, and there are so many HIIT sessions you can do. Try to carve out that time where you can grab a mat and push yourself really hard for an intense amount of time, whether that’s for 20 or 30 minutes, and feel that you’ve worked every muscle in your body, and then rest. The nice thing about home workouts is that you don’t need anything; it’s over in a flas and you can have the distractions of kids around you but still get on with it.”
What was the hardest life lesson to learn for you?
“Probably patience. As an athlete for the majority of my life, I was always thinking about what’s next and working towards that, always pushing myself – and pushing boundaries. I think, as an athlete, you always want something to happen yesterday – you want to beat personal bests and win medals, and it all doesn’t happen quite as quickly as you want it to, so I’ve always been a very impatient person. I only really learnt the importance of patience when I got injured and had to miss the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Also, before I had my son, everyone said you’ve got to have great patience with children and I thought ‘I’ll be fine’– how wrong I was!”
What advice would you give to your younger self?
“I would probably say enjoy the moment. Again, it goes back to patience; having deadlines and always working towards things to achieve your goals, and then not allowing yourself to fully enjoy them. Then, you’re onto the next thing and you don’t know how many moments like that you’re going to have. I’d tell myself to take that time in those incredible, amazing moments that you have in different areas of your life to just stop, soak it up and appreciate what you’ve done.”
What’s been your greatest challenge?
“It was definitely when I had my son and came back to make another World Championships and Olympics. It was a massive unknown, as I’d competed my whole life and then had my son – when you become a mum, you have no idea how you’re going to change physically and how you’re going to feel mentally. Having all those changes but still having those desires to reach the highest heights again in my career was really hard. It was like I was back at square one; I had to learn my event and build up all my strength that I’d lost while I was pregnant, which was really quite hard. Then, you have all those challenges of not wanting to leave your baby and travelling, and you question whether you’re doing the right thing. That was definitely one of the hardest times in my life. However, it was also one of the most amazing times, because I was able to commit and do what I wanted to do and thankfully come out the other side. I have no real regrets and I made two more major championships: the World Championships and the Olympics.”
When was the time when you stepped out of your comfort zone?
“I suppose most recently, having retired from athletics and not knowing what direction I wanted to go in and what I wanted to focus on. I’ve started doing some commentary – although there’s not much going on at the moment! I wasn’t really sure it was something that I wanted to do, because it was so out of my comfort zone. I was very comfortable being on the track performing, whether it was in front of 10,000 or 80,000 people, whereas I felt quite nervous about being on the other side, live commentating on the action from a very different perspective. Actually, it’s been so much fun and I’ve really enjoyed pushing myself and stepping out of my comfort zone. I think you get an adrenaline rush from trying new things.”
What do you miss most about athletics, and what do you miss the least?
“I miss the adrenaline and that feeling when you’ve trained so hard, pushed yourself to your limits and then get to stand on the line in an incredible stadium at a World Championships or an Olympics, knowing that you’re injury-free and ready to perform at your best. The feeling when the gun goes and you blast out of the blocks is like no other. However, I don’t miss any of the training sessions, or the pressure of having to train every day, knowing that you’re constantly working towards trying to achieve another gold medal that everyone expects you to get!”
How do you juggle work, family time and me-time?
“As the kids are getting a little bit older, it frees up a little bit of time but it’s just a balance. I’ve always been the kind of person who has a routine and who tries to create structure with my life, so I try to do that now. Every day is very different – I work different days, and some weeks I’m really busy, while other weeks I’m not. There’s always the kids to be taking care of and making sure they’ve got everything they need and that they’re happy, so making time for yourself can be hard. That’s why I always find time to exercise – I do a quick circuit at the end of the day or while the kids are at school or nursery, as it gives me that headspace, but also makes me feel good from that buzz of adrenaline. I think it’s really important to find that time where you can switch off. It’s all about achieving balance throughout your life.”
You’ve spoken about your anxiety in the past – how do you manage it and do you have any advice?
“For me, the anxiety is always the worries that come with having children. Everybody tells you that when you become a mum, you just worry for your whole life, but you don’t really realise it until you’ve actually had children. I have a constant fear of them being happy, having everything they need and that they’re thriving. Plus, there are other worries, like if you’re doing the right thing, and the guilt of thinking you’re working too much. I’ll always feel like that, but I’ve learned it’s about pulling everything back into perspective, working out why you worry so much and whether it’s a rational fear or if it’s just that you’re overdoing it in your own mind. But it can be difficult.”
How did you come up with the idea for your app, Jennis Fitness?
“It was after I had both of my children. After I had Reggie, I went back into full time competing and training and I had a really good physio team, coach and support network around me to help me get back to my full fitness in the right way. Then, when I had my daughter Liv, I was retired so I had no team, and I was trying to get myself back into exercise on my own. I relied heavily on what I did the first time around when I was pregnant, and I felt that all those tips and support that I had was so important. I wanted to share them via an app and help women stay active, feel confident exercising during their pregnancy and then to have the support post-natally to know the right moves to do and not feel the pressure to rush back into working out. I tagged on the fitness element, which is basically HIIT circuit workouts that I do now to fit into crazy life as a mum of two. It’s showing women how to find ways to exercise efficiently, knowing that you’re doing the right thing and are going to see the benefits. That’s my thinking behind the app – it took a while to put it all together and it’s an evolving, ongoing thing, but it’s been really fun and I’m so happy with what we’ve been able to put together.”
Do you get out walking with your family?
“We had a chocolate Labrador who was a massive part of our lives (unfortunately she died before Christmas), and she encouraged us to do so many walks from where we live right on the outskirts of Sheffield to just into the Peak District. We tend to walk every weekend with the kids – my daughter is only two so she walks as slow as a snail and we don’t get very far, but we always try to go out for a stroll in the woods or the countryside. I think it’s vital to ingrain into our kids that being active and being in the outdoors is important. Walking makes a big difference to your fitness;if you can get out for 20 minutes a day, then that’s a great thing to do.”
Who inspires you?
“That’s an easy one to answer: I’m inspired by my family. My parents took me down to the athletics club when I was about 10, got me involved in athletics and supported me through it all, from being a club athlete to becoming an Olympic champion. They’ve always inspired and encouraged me to keep going and not ever give up if I had set backs or disappointments, and ultimately they helped me begin my journey in athletics and see it all the way through, so they definitely inspire me.”
What gets you out of bed first thing in the morning?
“The kids, because my daughter gets up at 5:30am! They wake up early so they literally have me out of bed straight away. Normally, life is pretty busy and filled with lots of various things that I really enjoy, and those things keep me motivated to get out of bed every morning.”
How do you de-stress after a busy day?
“Like every other evening, I try to do a little workout to de-stress, and then I like to sit down and watch something on Netflix that’s all consuming, where you can tap into a different world and switch off from everything. We’ll be doing more of that now, but I feel like I’ve watched everything and peaked too early!”
What does being healthy look like to you?
“Complete balance. I don’t restrict anything, I don’t ever cut out food groups, I eat chocolate and I have sweet things, but I just don’t have them every day. It’s about finding time to exercise so you can balance that with having a nice dessert in the evening. I think everything about being happy and healthy is balance. Don’t cut out the enjoyment , but work to have nice things as well.”
What do you eat in a day?
“A typical breakfast would probably be homemade granola and blueberries with a bit of natural yoghurt and some honey. Lunch is normally a salad or something with pitta bread, salmon or eggs, that kind of thing. We’ve been doing Mindful Chef recipes at the moment for dinner three times a week – they’re various different dishes, from veggie to fish, and they have some really good recipes, so it’s nice to vary and mix up our evening meals.”