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30 Apr Getting with the Pro-gramme

Lately I’ve been thinking about what seeing myself as a semi-professional athlete means. I’m not a professional athlete as my running comes with a fair number of costs and only a few unpredictable paydays in the year . Yet if I don’t live like a professional athlete how can I become one? Athletes are competitors so it’s hard not to compare yourself with training partners and others on social media.

Most of my lifestyle I have control of: if I stay up late watching Geordie Shore (don’t pretend this never happens to you…) and end up not getting enough sleep I feel guilty enough to make myself go to bed early for the next few days. On the other hand, I have to work to keep myself to be able to afford the TV licence to watch Geordie Shore, amongst other things. I’m lucky to have enough financial support that I can afford to work part time – ali1I work 21 hours a week for the Red Cross. I enjoy it, but can’t pretend that on my warm weather trip to Portugal I didn’t enjoy training being the focus for the day, and I had enough time to get massage and plan healthy meals as well as reading half of Gone with the Wind (I then looked up the 2nd half on Wikipedia. Don’t judge me, it’s a really long book.) I only managed 6 days away as well because I didn’t want to use all my annual leave; it was more of a short break with lactic sickness and unspeakably painful massage thrown in. I’m extremely jealous of people who can spend most of their year in Kenya, Portugal and Font Romeu. So am I doing enough I join them?

From living in the family home to studying at university and now working part time my lifestyle has changed in some ways but not others. I’m still not a big party-goer; some reading this column may have encountered me slightly worse for wear, dancing like a fool on a night out, but these have been the exceptions to my rules; I didn’t drink at all until my 2nd year of university and now limit alcohol to once every few months. Even then it’s only if there are no important sessions or races on the horizon. I’m also pretty good at sleep, mainly because if I don’t get my 8 hours my ‘ray of sunshine’ façade tends to slip to reveal my inner grum and I end up looking even more like a sasquatch than usual.

‘Professionally’ there’s not really anything ok about my mum having to remind me to buy new running shoes because my old ones are wearing out, and sending texts to my dad that say ‘Have lost council tax number, have to pay by midnight. Can u find it?’ is another example of my hopelessness. This might be part of being 23, but being a functioning adult is a pre-requisite for being a professional athlete; paying your BMC and club fees four months late is not a sign of complete control …

There’s something else I haven’t managed to master fully yet; food may be the biggest challenge of all my athletic must-dos. My favourite food groups are beef, carbs and pudding. UntitledI’ve seen people posting their pro-athlete breakfasts on FB/Twitter recently and, let me tell you, they look filling and wholesome and very healthy but it’s not the 3 crumpets with jam I had last Friday (but it was rest day, and you can eat whatever you want on rest day, right?). I’m not willing to be even more restrictive of what I eat just now; maybe one day I’ll have to in order to get that extra 1% of performance, so at least I’ll know where to look first for my next lifestyle improvement / sacrifice. Right now though someone needs to keep my housemates, friends and colleagues in home-made cake and I’m the one to do it…. the way I see it, as long as I get enough iron and calcium, I’m above the line.

My training volume and style has changed somewhat over the last year and I’ve had to get used to maximising recovery; but does that mean I shouldn’t be walking around between sessions? If it means I can justify driving to work rather than walking and getting the train I’m happy, but does that also take shopping and walking the dog off the list of acceptable activities? I’ve also been juggling being based in Birmingham with other commitments; I feel I need to be in Birmingham to get the most out of a Saturday morning session. This means my boyfriend has to travel to visit me rather than the other way round, which isn’t really fair on him. He’s pretty easy-going and doesn’t seem to mind but I can see how always being the one to compromise can become a problem.

Being ‘professional’ is also important in terms of image; we’ve been told, sensibly, that as athletes who get occasional media coverage, be it local or national, we shouldn’t be posting unprofessional messages on social media. So nothing illegal, offensive, or claiming blatantly non-athletic behaviour like binge drinking, dogbut is it ok if your tweets mark you out as a grade A loser? I post waaaaay too many pictures of my dog, Bruno, which isn’t too weird until you find out Bruno isn’t a real dog. Are potential sponsors are putting big crosses by my name right now; “Decent runner but off-the-scale weird….”.?

The way I see it, the challenge is to negotiate how being professional takes in the real you, not how to become someone else; I’m trying to follow the good example of my training partners and grow into being a ‘real’ professional. I don’t think you can rush these things; if I started trying to do everything right all at once, I couldn’t see it working; there aren’t enough hours in my day to do everything I could as a professional athlete and hold down a job in the Muggle world. I also have a bit of a low attention span for these things (a prime example is the time it took me to write this blog after my first one). I know I need to get there I’m trying to find the right balance between being Len, who likes cake, being silly and doesn’t like foam rolling, and being Alison Leonard, who’s trying to run quick this summer and needs to get her head in the game.