Thursday 20 July 2017

Irish rugby captain Niamh Briggs: 'Young girls are put off sport through social media pressure'

One of the top performing athletes in the country, captain of the Irish women's rugby team, Niamh Briggs also has a full-time career as a Garda. Here, she tells our reporter about achieving a balance and how health and fitness keeps her on top of her game

Ireland captain Niamh Briggs in attendance at the RBS Six Nations launch
Ireland captain Niamh Briggs in attendance at the RBS Six Nations launch
Niamh Briggs playing in the Women’s Six Nations Championship last year.
Niamh Briggs, pictured centre, during her graduation ceremony in 2010. Photo: Emma Jervis/ Press 22

Jessie Collins

Niamh Briggs is a worrier. She readily admits to agonising about things, something that can lead to sleeplessness and anxiety. "I worry a lot, so if I'm not busy, I tend to overthink things that aren't necessarily worth thinking about. I find that, downtime for me, isn't always the best thing." For the 32-year-old, being healthy, in body and mind, is about staying as active as possible. "Both my sports life and my work life can be stressful but they kind of balance each other. When I go training it relieves my stress at work, and they work quite well together."

Niamh Briggs is a worrier. She readily admits to agonising about things, something that can lead to sleeplessness and anxiety. "I worry a lot, so if I'm not busy, I tend to overthink things that aren't necessarily worth thinking about. I find that, downtime for me, isn't always the best thing." For the 32-year-old, being healthy, in body and mind, is about staying as active as possible. "Both my sports life and my work life can be stressful but they kind of balance each other. When I go training it relieves my stress at work, and they work quite well together."

For someone who competitively has been performing at an extremely high level for almost 10 years (she made her debut for Ireland in 2008 against Italy, going on to play at the 2010 and 2014 Women's Rugby World Cup, and was instrumental in winning the Grand Slam for Ireland in Milan in 2013), she has maintained a remarkably common-sense approach to her health. Mindfulness is not her thing, nor meditation. "I find it difficult to really practise mindfulness personally, to be able to switch off, but I get why people do it. I like to read things about it rather then try and do it myself - that's my way of switching off. I find it very difficult to sit there and think about nothing, I find if I stay in silence that my mind just tends to drift to different worries."

Outside of her regular training, pilates is the one alternative conditioning she does practise regularly. "That's something I do myself, it's a strengthening thing. I tried yoga before and found it was just too quiet for me. Pilates challenges me more from a sports perspective." But it is her discipline and adherence to a tight routine that keeps her both sane, and healthy. Yet, it's a timetable that would intimidate even the most dedicated. The day kicks off with training at 6am before heading to work for a shift as a guard with the Limerick force, followed by more training after work, and then training camps at the weekend with a mix of weights, on-feet conditioning, off-feet conditioning, skills, speed and kicking all part of the regular workouts.

Nutrition though has become one of the most important factors in every aspect of her performance, from stamina to recovery. "Nutrition is a huge part of my life (she studied Health and Exercise at Waterford IT before becoming a guard), I make sure I eat really well." This means a diet that is based around promoting resilience, health and healing. "Protein is a huge part of it," says Briggs. "I just make sure I have protein at every meal, and make sure it makes up a large chunk of what I eat. I don't tend to eat huge amounts, and I stay off sugary stuff and junk food." It's not just about eating healthily, she says, it's also about eating smartly. "It's really important to eat often and eat little, train your brain into fuelling it up for training and recovery, and that you are fuelling it in the right way. Sometimes I have to eat when I'm not hungry because I have to train that evening and if I'm not fuelled up I can't perform."

Planning is key too, when it comes to making it easier to maintain a good diet. "It's hard being healthy and trying to be active, you have to bring prepared healthy food with you, you have to plan. I always have a bag of healthy snacks in the car, I prepare what I have for the next day. Or on a Sunday I'd cook something for the week, like a shepherd's pie - it's very easy to follow when it's there in front of you." She also uses the healthy eating service Gourmet Fuel, which delivers pre-prepared foods designed for a healthy diet.

But before you think it's just evangelical eating all the way, she does still allow herself some indulgences. "I don't deny myself things but I find if I eat cake or something I feel terrible afterwards. I don't crave them, I like chocolate, I usually save that for a real treat. If I could have one favourite food it would be pizza, but I don't get to do that very often!"

More recently, sleep has also become another important element of Briggs' wellbeing. A bad injury this year meant she was out of action, and given her usual level of activity, this really challenged her sleep. Yet, she found, "the more I slept, the more quickly I healed". She did some research and put some restrictions in place to make sure she slept well. "I spoke to people about it, I looked up stuff online. I now turn my phone off after 9.30 and I don't have caffeine in the evening. Before, if I woke in the night, I would have gone to my phone but now I just read my book."

Relaxation for her is about positive distraction, "I'm not really good at sitting still for a while".

And a set routine is essential for maintaining such a packed schedule and two roles that also carry a lot of responsibility. One does really support the other, says Briggs, and being active has also helped her overcome her own feelings of insecurity. "When I was younger I wasn't bursting with self-esteem, I didn't have a whole lot of confidence, but playing sport at a high level gives you that belief that you can be whatever you want to be. I think being active and being at the gym would give anybody confidence. I think if I worked in any other job I'd still be active and that's really important to me."

That certainty she can hold her own is a definite plus when it comes to policing but it has benefits beyond that. The part that exercise plays in keeping your mind sharp cannot be underestimated, says Briggs. "The benefits of being active and exercising are so many. I find that when I train in the mornings before I work, I am way more ready for work than if I didn't. If I don't I feel sluggish. If we have a downtime of a few weeks in the off season I find it really difficult so I like to tip away all the time, you feel better, you are sharper."

Focusing on what your body can do for you is a great counter to a lot of the media messaging that is influencing young girls too. "I know that I'm strong and healthy and that's the most important thing. There is a huge culture at the moment through social media about what you should look like and there is a big drop-off in young girls playing sports at secondary level, but for me personally playing sports has helped my relationship with my body shape. We always want to change things about ourselves but you get more accepting about what you want and what you have [through sport] and you learn very quickly about what's healthy and what's not."

And the advantages in feeling strong and powerful physically is something younger girls are starting to switch on to. "Society tends to evolve, and people get more accepting of it, when I say I play rugby you can get a lot of looks from people, 'you play rugby?' it's out of the social norm. But going around to schools and clubs and meeting so many young girls, I think that shift is starting to happen. I think that girls understand that they can empower themselves, and if they love to play something, for example rugby, then play it. Compared to say five or six years ago when that wasn't the case - they didn't want to play because they didn't want to look a certain way, or be judged in a certain way."

And men's attitudes are changing too, it's about being seen, Briggs says, as a sportsperson first. "It's just really important to us that we are perceived as really good athletes and then also really good rugby players, regardless of our gender. I think the more that we are successful, and the more our games are on television the more that will be the case. [And] I hope we get to a stage one day where that conversation doesn't even need to happen."

* Niamh Briggs is part of Aon's 'Journey to Greatness' thought leadership series titled 'From wellness to wellbeing; how taking a holistic approach to wellbeing can drive elite performance'. Aon are proud sponsors of the Women's Rugby World Cup starting August 9

FITNESS & HEALTH TIPS

* My advice would be to exercise a little and often, make it part of your routine, even 20 minutes a day can make all the difference to your fitness and energy levels.

* Keep to a routine, it will make it easier for you to achieve results.

* Be active every day. It will keep your energy levels up and make sure you get the extra benefits of a better focus in your work.

* Using tools like My Fitness Pal can be helpful in keeping track of your diet and calorie intake.

* Make sure you are eating a high level of protein, it's what we use most to repair and rebuild muscles so is really essential to keeping fit, and recovering from any damage or wear and tear on the body.

* I take a shot of beetroot every day - it's a natural source of iron, folic acid and magnesium - which also all act as cleansing antioxidants and are really good for the blood and a natural anti-inflammatory.

* I snack mostly on berries and fruit. I keep healthy snacks in the car to make sure I have something good to hand if I need it.

* Plan your meals, prepare food in advance so you don't go for the easy, less healthy options.

NIAMH'S DAY ON A PLATE

* Breakfast: Poached eggs, spinach and avocado, sometimes porridge - it's definitely the most important part of the day so I try to make sure that it really fuels me.

* Lunch: Tuna salad with veg - getting a good portion of protein in here is key for me, I vary it with chicken sometimes or other high-protein foods.

* Dinner: Turkey and aubergine lasagne, I also cook things like shepherd's pie on Sundays in advance for the following week so there is something healthy to reach for in the evenings when I get back from training.

Health & Living

Promoted articles

Editors Choice

Also in Life