Triathlete Chrissie Wellington: We can all turn the tide for ourselves

Nelson Mandela said that sport has the power to change the world. I agree. I see this day in and day out in many aspects of my life, including through my job as global head of health and wellbeing for Parkrun, the 5k events that begin thousands of people’s weekends all over the world.

Countless lives have been changed through participation in the runs, by the opportunity to be active in the open air, to make friends and be part of a supportive community. 

Yet we are still faced with shocking statistics that show declining levels of participation in sport and physical activity, by young and old, male and female. And we only have to open our eyes to see that sedentary lifestyles and obesity have become deep-rooted epidemics. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The power is in our hands. We can all turn the tide for ourselves, for our families. 

Just over 10 years ago, aged 30, I made the decision to give up my job as a Government policy adviser, one that I loved and which gave me security, and embark on the unknown and quite daunting career as a professional triathlete. I often reflect on what my life would be like had I chosen a different path.

I would not be sitting here as four-time Ironman world champion, nor would I have had the wealth of opportunities that this title has afforded me. Although I was frightened of the unknown, ultimately I’m so glad I chose the path that scared me. 

You may be sitting on your sofa, reading this and thinking that you need to make a change; that you want to take up a new hobby, try a different sport or simply move more. So how do we follow through on these fantastic intentions and turn them from words into reality? 

Think about occasions in your life when you have been happiest and the reasons behind this; recall someone who has inspired you or about an activity that has piqued your interest but you never pursued. There doesn’t have to be a huge flame – a little spark is enough to start a future fire burning. Then vow to take that one step forwards. Set a clear goal, and think why.

For instance, you might decide to complete your first 5k, and the motivational carrots could be to improve your health, meet new people, prove to yourself that you can rise to the challenge or to raise money for charity. Write it on your wall, tell your friends and family, post it on social media – verbalising your intentions can help make them real and help hold you accountable during motivational wobbles. 

Starting something new is often the hardest part. So do just that. Start. Whether your goal is a short walk around the block, a gentle bike ride with your son or daughter, an open-water swim, a long hike or your first triathlon, remember: we were all beginners once. 

Try not to see your goal as a huge mountain to climb. Break the journey down into manageable segments, so that you can have stepping stones of success en route. If your goal is a 5k race, perhaps start by trying to run for 500m, followed by a 500m walk. The next week you could try to run 700m and walk 500m, until gradually you run more and walk less. 

It’s good to make exercise as convenient as possible. For example, find a gym, running route or swimming pool that’s accessible and affordable; cycle or run your commute to and from work; keep your sports clothes at the office so you can do a quick training session in your lunch hour; do exercise videos in the comfort of your own home or strength exercises (such as squats) while you are brushing your teeth. 

For parents, a running buggy, a bike seat or bike trailer can be a useful investment. I found that doing long walks with my daughter in the baby carrier was a great way to be active outside.

I have also exchanged childcare with sporty mothers – they look after my daughter while I run, and I reciprocate. Another option is to encourage your kids to do junior Parkrun and join them for this fun, weekly, 2k event. 

It’s also worth thinking about nutrition and what changes you might want to make to ensure you fuel for health. Ultimately, you are what you eat. For me, becoming an athlete was the springboard I needed to overcome unhealthy eating, which developed into an eating disorder in my teens. A better diet enabled me to become healthier and also happier with my body: a body that I had been so critical of for so many years. 

Research tells us that one of the major barriers to participation in sport – particularly women – is concern over what they look like. It helps to view your body less as an external, visible image and more as a unique, special vehicle that will help you achieve your sporting goals. That’s how I view mine now. 

And, like cars, our bodily vehicles come in all shapes and sizes. Even at pro level, athletes are all built differently, so try not to compare yourself to anyone else. There is no one ideal sporty shape or size and if you wait until you are a target shape or weight to do anything, you could be waiting for ever. 

Of course, there may be times when your enthusiasm wanes. If you find yourself in a bit of a motivational hole, there are things you can do. A reliable training partner can provide encouragement, while sports clubs are great places to meet like-minded people and can offer a cocoon of advice, support and encouragement. Or head down to your local Parkrun so you can be part of a wider community, instead of exercising on your own. 

If you like music, use it to fuel your fire or perhaps download motivational training podcasts. Chart your sporting progress in a log, ensuring you bank the feelings of euphoria to draw on in future. A little bit of bribery never hurts, so occasionally reward yourself and take time to celebrate what you are achieving. 

Talking of positivity, the mind truly is incredibly powerful and you’ll benefit from training your brain to up your mental strength. I play songs in my head and count repetitively in time with my pedal strokes or footsteps. I replace energy- sapping thoughts of “I’m tired’, “I want to sit down and eat a doughnut” or “it’s raining and my new shoes will get muddy” with positive affirmations, my personal mantra and images of my family.

Before a competition, I write “never ever give up, and smile” on my race wristband and my water bottles then look at these when I need a boost. 

That’s not to say that I don’t suffer self-doubt. In fact, in every Ironman I’ve done, I’ve wanted to quit at some point. There’s that little voice in one ear that says, “Pull over to the side – it’s not going to be your day.” But I’ve pushed through, using the strategies I’ve honed.

It’s not always easy. Sport has its highs and its lows, and it’s often the lows that make the highs so precious and special. But I believe it truly can change lives, no matter who we are. 

So never look back and think “what if”. Seize the day, try something new or push your bar that little bit higher and, believe me, you really can achieve more than you think possible. 

Chrissie’s book To The Finish Line: A World Champion Triathlete’s Guide to Your Perfect Race (Constable, £18.99) is out now. See Express Bookshop at


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