Thursday 18 July 2019

Paula Radcliffe: 'Women will flourish under somebody who really builds up their confidence'

World record holder Paula Radcliffe speaks to Niamh Horan about breaking down barriers

Paula Radcliffe on the track at the National Sports Campus. Photo: David Conachy
Paula Radcliffe on the track at the National Sports Campus. Photo: David Conachy
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

For years, experts said the human body was simply not capable of a sub-four-minute mile. It wasn't just dangerous; it was impossible.

In 1865 when records began to be officially kept, the fastest miler was England's Richard Webster (4.36.5). It would be another 89 years, in 1954, before Roger Bannister ran under four minutes. Once he broke that mythical barrier, the rest of the world saw it was possible, and his record began to be routinely broken. The reason? It was no longer an obstacle in the human mind.

The 'no limits' mentality is what Paula Radcliffe used as her go-to mantra when breaking one record after the next.

A three-time winner of the London Marathon, a three-time New York Marathon champion, and Chicago Marathon winner, she says mindset plays a crucial role in sport.

"My mantra was 'no limits' and my attitude was to shoot for the moon. So, for example, I would never say I am going to try and run a marathon in a set time. But I would say I am going to try and run faster than a particular time. That meant I wouldn't slow down if I felt I was ahead. Or panic and think 'oh my God, I can't keep up this pace' if I was going much faster than expected. Instead I would learn to be in tune with my body and know intuitively how far I could push myself. A huge amount is psychological."

Paula, who was in the capital to meet more than 100 prizewinners who entered a competition run by super-supplement Revive Active ahead of today's SSE Airtricity Dublin Marathon, describes the mental techniques she uses to keep her mind in the zone and off physical pain when going for gold. "I count in my head up to 100 three times, and that would bring me to a mile. It helps me break down the marathon so that I am not projecting ahead and thinking 'oh, I have 10 more miles to go and I am going through a rough patch now'."

Paula with Sonia O’Sullivan at Sydney 2000. Photo: Reuters
Paula with Sonia O’Sullivan at Sydney 2000. Photo: Reuters

While some athletes sing to the rhythm of their step to keep their focus, Paula also explains how you can use personal reasons outside of the running track as positive motivators.

"The year I had my daughter Isla I was finishing in the New York marathon and going uphill for the last 400m. I was saying Is-la, Is-la, Is-la over and over to fit into my step because I knew she was waiting at the finish." And on motivation, she describes how she believes men and women are spurred on to achieve in different ways:

"The mindset is different in terms of how you would coach and motivate a female athlete to how you would coach a male athlete. Men tend to get more fired up so if you are coaching a man you might say 'you're not good enough, I know you can do better than that, you need to run faster', whereas if you say that to a woman they will just hear 'I'm not good enough' and walk off the track in tears.

"You have to say 'I know you can do this' or 'I think you can do this really well'. [You have to focus] much more on encouragement and building them up, particularly with young girls.

"It's not that you're being mean to the guys, it's just that they hear 'you're trying to push me harder and I'm going to show you', whereas women will hear 'you think I am not good enough'.

"Women will flourish and do better under somebody who really builds up their confidence. Whereas a male will do better under someone who fires them up."

Paula believes emotion plays a role: "I think it's the emotion as well. Women really find it hard to turn off the emotional side of things, whereas men don't really tend to get upset. You never see a guy walk off the track in tears. I don't think it's weakness, it's just different and in some ways it makes women stronger."

Sunday Independent

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