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Training at the top echelons of sport is demanding at the best of times, but what happens when you throw a baby and toddler into the mix? For five-time Olympian Jo Pavey, it meant breastfeeding trackside, squeezing training into buggy walks, and a new-found happiness – all of which led to her incredible gold medal win in the 10,000m at the 2014 European Championship, aged 40 and just 10 months after having her second child!

Now 45, Jo’s children are five and nine. I chatted to the Saucony ambassador about how she makes life as an elite athlete work alongside school runs, clubs and family life.

© Jo Pavey via Twitter

How has your training changed since becoming a mum?
Before I had children, all I thought about was training, resting, fuelling, and getting out for training again. It’s been a total life-change; first, I didn’t know whether I’d retire, because my main priority was thinking about being a mum and making sure I had that really good quality time with the children.

I didn’t know how the running would fit, but actually I found that when I had children, I felt so much happier because I’d desperately wanted to be a mum. I think that really boosted me mentally, and it led me to finally achieve a gold medal at the European Championships in 2014 when I was coming back from having a baby. I think that just shows it sort of gave me a boost.

Most people think of you as a track runner but you’re actually quite a trail running fan?
Yeah, I do love trail running and I’m lucky in Devon that I have quite a lot of trails. I go to Haldon Forest, we have the South West Coast path near here and I love the Grand Western Canal because it’s dead flat and there’s no tarmac at all. So when I’m trying to get ready for racing, I can do quality mileage without the impact.

As a mum I can involve my family a lot too, trails being a safer place to run with them. We’ll all take the bikes to the forest and my little boy rides on his bike with me, and my little girl’s up to riding some of it now too. I’m definitely a fan of trail running, getting out there and just enjoying the beautiful scenery, allowing running to take you through that mental side of just enjoying your environment and letting your mind just switch off.

© Jo Pavey via Twitter

You have an nine-year-old and a five-year-old. Has your training changed as they’ve got older?
As a mum, what’s interesting is that the way you train as a family changes according to their development. We’re at the stage now where Emily’s started to go on her bike, whereas we initially started out with her in the pram and me running backwards and forwards, and then her being in a running buggy. Jacob can do a little bit of the running with me now, and it just changes as you go along.  Going to trails is a nice, safe environment for the kids and it’s a beautiful place to then stay and have a picnic, or they can mess around on the bike pump tracks at the forest.

How did you manage high level sport while caring for a baby and running after a toddler?
I found that it was all about being flexible, working out how training would fit around parties, playdates and all the needs of the kids – and, in the early stages, feeding the baby. Emily, my second child (who Jo had months before winning gold at the 2014 European Championship) wouldn’t even take a bottle for the first 4.5 months. I literally had to have her with me, and my little boy as well. So we very much went around as a family and I always had to take them both to the track with me. Jacob would run about a bit [while I trained] and Emily, when she got a bit bigger she’d sit on the rug, but I had to be ready to feed her at any moment, it was all a bit of a juggling act [laughs].

Also, the track where I train in Exeter was shut that summer, so we had to drive an hour each way for my track sessions. It meant making it a full family day out, so we’d hang around in the play parks afterwards, which wasn’t a traditional warm-down [laughs] but I think it did me a lot of good. Then we’d go somewhere on the way home and get back just in time to do my evening run. It was very, very busy.

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Presumably you had to be super-efficient with your training – and still have to be?
Yeah, I had to sit down at the start of the week and see how the training’s going to fit because there’s always so much going on [with the children]. When they’re little they need a lot of care but you’re more flexible. Now they’re older, there’s more to fit around – my son does clubs like surf-lifesaving and drama, he’s going to start going to Athletics; my daughter’s just started swimming club and she wants to do gymnastics… [laughs]. It’s pretty mad all the clubs, and of course there are lots of parties which they go to, which is lovely.

So it’s about being flexible, but also using age as experience. The years of knowledge I’ve gained allow me to sort out in my mind what the most important aspects of training are and prioritise those. My husband, Gav, is my coach and it’s nice because it’s easier to work out what’s going on with the kids and how it’s all going to fit in. And also it’s nice to work towards goals together.

Have you got more time now that both your children are at school?
We’ve now got slightly more time, because my daughter has just started school. Before that, she was only doing a couple of days at pre-school. As my husband and I work on the running together, we’ve been fortunate that we’ve never had to use nursery for either of our children. So yeah, it’s a totally new phase now with both children at school and I’ve felt I’ve had slightly more time to train.

What does a typical day look like for you?
I don’t train until after I’ve done the school run – I want to be there for them in the morning, getting them ready and taking them to school. So I do my main training in the morning, whether that’s a track session, going to the trails or doing a longer run when they’re at school.

I’ll do my morning training and then come back, maybe have a quick lull, catch-up with emails and then piles of laundry. It’s such a losing battle trying to keep it all done! My mum’s always saying, ‘Don’t wash so much, they can wear those few clothes for a few days,’ but when the kids are active, I’m training twice a day, and my husband’s running, it’s just a total losing battle. So I have to do that when I get the chance [laughs].

[Jo and I now break to discuss the frustrations of tomato and baked bean stains on school shirts]

My husband will pick the kids up but I’m always around after school. When there’s daylight and no clubs after school, we can all head to the forest as a family and I can do a shorter run while they get out the house. Because they enjoy doing that, we’ll often take a picnic tea, so that’s really fun.

© Jo Pavey via Twitter

What will you do during winter evenings or when the children have clubs?
If they’re doing something I’ll often train later on a treadmill which we invested in when I got pregnant with Jacob. We thought of it as a way of being able to fit the training round having young children a bit more. In the early days when I was breastfeeding both of them, it saved that panic of wondering ‘Are they going to need another feed?’, and I could actually run in the same building as them. Also, if Gav wasn’t there, I could run while they were asleep with the baby monitor on. We have the treadmill stuffed in an under-stair cupboard and people say I must be so motivated to train in a cupboard [laughs].

Do you watch a TV or listen to anything while you run on the treadmill?
No. Occasionally, I’d have an iPad and watch something on that, but I can only do that if I’m running slow. I don’t really use a speaker, so if I’m running really slowly on the treadmill, I’ll put subtitles on. But I have to turn it off after I’ve done the warm-up because I can’t read the subtitles when I’m running quick! To pass the time a bit I might switch it to music, but I think it’s good mental training to put up with it to be honest. And it’s useful, it really sets your pace.

Occasionally I nip and just do a quick run on it if we’re not going somewhere as a family. There are no streetlights where we live, so it’s really important to have the treadmill. Because there’s not enough daylight in the winter, I’ve accepted that’s just what I have to do.

Do you find being active as a family is the best way to get your training in?
I find it rewarding to be able to show the kids [what I do] and that it’s great fun to be active. What I’ve realised after becoming a mum is that you can have amazing quality time as a family and all keep fit together, and that’s really kept me motivated as well as allowing me to achieve things that I’ve wanted to achieve. That’s a massive motivation to me; that we can all be active together and enjoy being active together. There’s so much you can do. On the beach, you can nip off and do a little run, or we can paddleboard. Just really focusing as much as possible on making training quality family time. I think that’s really how it fits with being a mum, being flexible, using the experience to prioritise training.

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What kind of running training sessions will you do?
My training sessions will change according to what’s coming up. So when I’m getting ready for road races, I’ll specifically do road tempos in my racing flats and road sessions to really get used to that, because you need to add that element of training that’s actually a rehearsal for what you’re going to do on race day. I’m really focused on keeping the road sessions in, but also really long tempo sessions on a trail where I really look at the pace I’m doing and really try to hold a pace. That becomes important and I’ll keep that as a key session.

As far as the track sessions, I won’t go to a track that often when I’m training for road but I’m really aware of the importance of keeping the sessions in there. I definitely go at least once a week, but in the summer it will be more like 2-3 times a week. Yesterday, I did some 1km reps and then a tempo effort and some sprints afterwards. I like to mix it up a bit so I can cover all aspects of what I need to achieve in the same session. I find that helpful.

What kind of track sessions do you do?
When I’m actually getting ready for a championship, I don’t really do a lot of sessions that aren’ton a track. I’ll keep my tempo run in there but I might choose do it on a trail or some grass. Or the treadmill is a really good option because all I want is that long, aerobic effort; I don’t want to ruin my legs for track.

Otherwise, literally all my sessions I’ll do on the track; when you’re getting ready for track meets you just have to have your track sessions where they need to be otherwise the rest of it is a complete waste of time. I might do longer sessions like 10 x 1km, things like that. I also do 16 x 400m, or 8 x 400m with 35-40 seconds recovery and then have a five-minute rest and do another 8. I’ll know I need to keep them below 3km race pace and that’s always quite a good thing to keep the speed in the legs. And then I might do a short tempo and finish with a couple of 200ms. Things like that.

© Jo Pavey via Twitter

Does your training schedule include any strength and conditioning?
Yeah, I do a bit, although I’m just using freehand weights and I’ll do lunges across the lounge. People laugh at me because I multi-task. I’ll do some strength and conditioning while I’m cooking a meal: I’ll do a few sit-ups, then go and make the stir-fry for a bit! As a distance runner I’d rather do functional core stability-type things than go to a gym and lift weights. And also, if you’re on the machines doing strength and conditioning you could be doing a lot of open chain stuff which isn’t specific to running. I do a lot of functional work, core stability, things like that. Having a strong core means that your legs can move more freely and you can really feel that.

Has your approach to strength and conditioning changed since the beginning of your career?
I don’t do as much full-on strength and conditioning as I did at the start of my career, because I went full circle really. I’d been backpacking around the world, came home and made the world championships and of course hadn’t used a gym. After making my first senior championships, my natural reaction was ‘Right, I want to move to the next level now and get stronger, faster’ and I went in the gym and tried to make myself as robust and strong as possible, but all I did was get injured. Because you’re taking tweaky, tired muscles to the important track sessions you’re doing. It’s about getting that balance.

Do you get nervous before a big race or are you totally used to it by now?
I always get nervous! Totally. Sometimes when I go to big races, I think, Why am I still doing this to myself? [Laughs]. It never gets easier, so the only thing is to channel it in the right direction. I remember when I first started doing important races when I was younger, I used to feel so sick. At my first championships in 1997 – which goes to show how old I am! – I came back from backpacking around the world, and it was quite scary to suddenly go from backpacking to being in the British team in Athens at the world championships. I remember being on this astroturf pitch for my warm-up and my family, my brothers and my mum and dad had come to watch me, and I just felt so nervous in a horrible way. It all felt overwhelming.

Once you’ve got used to it, yes you’re always nervous but you know what to expect. You know that if you control the nerves you can produce a good performance because of them. Say you’re doing a 5km track race, I’m always surprised that you can often do all the 1km reps stronger – all 5 of them quicker – than you’d do one of them in training. So I think that extra nerves and adrenaline, if you channel it in the right direction and learn how to deal with it, it’s a positive thing. If you weren’t nervous at all, I think you wouldn’t be ready to perform.

© Jo Pavey via Twitter

What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
I’m lucky with Saucony that the shoes are so brilliant and they have shoes for all different types of running. I’m excited about the launch of the new Triumph ISO 5 because I’ve really enjoyed the old model’s cushioned, neutral ride for getting the mileage ticked off. Obviously, I really like the Type A8 racing flat, which I’ve been able to use a lot on the track. I like to do the majority of my quality mileage in the Ride Iso and the Breakthru. And I find that loose-fitting clothing is really important, so I can try and achieve what I need to achieve in training.

Jo Pavey is a proud Saucony UK Ambassador. She is supporting the launch of the Triumph ISO 5, available to buy from www.sportsshoes.com from November 1st.

You can follow Jo’s training and racing via her social media accounts: www.twitter.com/jopavey and www.instagram.com/jopavey.