The mind and the body
As a rock star and tv heart-throb, Niall Breslin is used to having his athletic form fawned over, but this year he’s revisiting his sporting past and trading the stage for the start line as an antidote to life’s problems.
For Niall (Bressie) Breslin, fitness is more than just a hobby or a pastime, or even a way of life. “It's the antidote,” he tells me. From professional rugby player to pop band frontman to solo artist to reality talent show judge to record producer to triathlete, this Mullingar-raised renaissance man has crammed an astonishing amount of action into his 32 years, based around his twin loves of music and sport. However, a lifetime of struggling with generalised anxiety disorder hasn't made things easy.
It has, on the other hand, provided the inspiration for The Voice Of Ireland coach's latest project — a return to his athletic past to raise money and awareness for mental health causes.
“Anxiety, depression,” he explains, “all of these things are caused by a lack of serotonin in your brain. It's a chemical imbalance, and the one thing sport and physically challenging yourself does, is it gives you serotonin — that's a fact, no matter who you are. People have this idea about depression; that it's a ghost, it's a mythical, magical thing. It's not. it's science.”
After years of suffering with panic attacks (including one during a live broadcast of The Voice Of Ireland), Niall came clean about his anxiety battles this year in the hope that he might bring attention to a problem that affects hundreds of thousands of Irish people.
“When you have a mental health issue, you can pick from all the options of medication, meditation, training,” he says, “but none of them are going to work unless you actually talk about it first. Then you can start thinking, ‘what's the best way to deal with it?' and for me, it's training.”
Niall has been putting his muscles to work since he was a young lad, but is quick to point out that he wasn't a sporting prodigy.
“I was quite chubby,” he recalls, “and I was about as athletic as a dead cat. Then I moved to Israel for six or eight months with my dad and I started taking up sport there and I had a growth spurt, so I was nearly six foot tall when I came back. But I never concentrated on getting fit; playing all those sports, all of a sudden I kind of grew into my body.”
By age 21, Bressie was playing professional rugby for Leinster, but fell into the trap of overtraining.
“I came back from the U-21s World Cup in Australia; we played five games in two weeks after a long season and I played every minute of every game and I was back training within a day. Nowadays you get six to eight weeks, almost by law, because that's so high impact. You sit on your arse for six to eight weeks to let your body\[Prestige\] to recover. I was given about six hours. I was burning out.”
From there, his sporting career was plagued by muscle injuries, many of which are simply too gross to repeat.
“I've had every injury you can name,” he says, “and tearing a muscle is the most painful of them. I was like a taxi man with no car. I wasn't willing to sacrifice and feel that down all the time and feel guilty when I was injured.
“I remember being in the middle of a game, and Leo Cullen was the Leinster captain at the time and we were playing in Wales and he looked at me and said: ‘Will you ever run?' And I said: ‘I can't run. I actually can't. My legs are gone.' I was in ribbons.
“The final straw was playing for my club in UCD and my own player stood on my face and I was very lucky to not lose my eye. I was sitting there in Limerick Regional Hospital completely disorientated, concussed, blood and vomit all over me. I was in shock and I remember ringing my mum and going: ‘That's it'.”
Music picked up where sport left off, but Niall knew that his competitive streak would draw him back to the gym. Having conquered the charts with second solo album Rage and Romance, he decided to set himself a physical challenge — to complete a triathlon in 2013.
“The first thing people said to me was, ‘I don't have time for that' and I said, ‘do you think I have?' It takes sacrifice; it's not gonna happen if you go on a treadmill for 20 minutes a week — you have to train. This morning, for example, I was in bed at 1.30am after a gig, but I was out on the road at 6.30am going for a run. It's hard but I have to do it.”
There was just one tiny problem. Niall never swam in his life until January of this year.
“My swimming coach will tell you, he said: ‘This is a disaster!' I have an innate fear of water; I hate it. I hate fish, I hate everything about it. I hate the idea of getting into
water with 400 people at the same time, but I started with two sessions a week and bumped it up to three. I still struggle with it, don't get me wrong, but I'm going to be able to swim in the triathlon.”
If Niall seems unnaturally confident, it's probably because he's got the mental side of his training down pat.
“It's like going to the gym for the brain,” he raves. “You can almost meditate when you're on a bike; you can just sit there and get your breathing right. You can get into a zone; you get into the pattern of breathing where you're relatively hypnotised. If you can get into that zone, it's very, very hard to get tired. From then on, your mind calls the shots.”
Bressie will take part in a series of triathlons this summer to raise funds for the Lakelands Area Retreat and Cancer Centre. For more information on the centre, or to donate, visit larcc.ie.
SWAPPING PINT GLASSES FOR RUNNERS
Obesity figures and exercise statistics paint a pretty glum picture of the Irish population’s collective health, but Bressie insists that his countrymen and women are making progress when it comes to taking care of their bodies.
“There's a massive cultural shift in Ireland,” he says, “It’s amazing. We're kind of swapping the pint glasses for runners now; people are really buying into the fitness thing. If you go into Phoenix Park now on a Sunday morning, there’s hundreds or thousands of people running and cycling.
“When I did the Cycle Against Suicide, there was a thousand people cycling into Dublin who were all keen and fit cyclists.
“There’s a shift over towards this side, and it’s great that the media is finally covering it; it's just a pity that the Sports Council aren’t funding the athletes that we have here.”
According to Bressie, Ireland needs to invest in its elite athletes if its people are going to be tempted off the couch and onto the playing field.
“People are saying that we’ve no money, but we didn’t fund them in the Celtic Tiger either. I’d like to see a bit more funding for our athletes to create some heroes.
“It's my generation that are doing triathlons, not kids, so it'd be nice to have some heroes that kids can aspire to. It's really something that I think needs to be looked at if we're serious about having this culture shift.”
This article originally appeared in Fit Magazine available on Thursdays with the Irish Independent