Olympian Lizzie Lee on how to start running and tips to get the kids involved too

Olympic runner Lizzie Lee breaks down the art of running into simple steps and shares her top tips on how to deal with our natural resistance to exercise. What's more, she has advice on how to get the whole family involved
Olympian Lizzie Lee on how to start running and tips to get the kids involved too

Lizzie Lee and her daughters Lucy, aged 6, and Alison, aged 3,at the launch of the Irish Life Health Family Mile Challenge in Cork. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile 

You are never too old or too young to start running, says Lizzie Lee. Easy to say when you are an Olympic marathon runner and a regular in the Irish athletics team, but Lee is speaking with a wealth of personal experience.

“I didn’t get into running until I was 27,” says the Cork-based athlete. “And it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I started running quick marathons.”

Yet as the years went by, Lee defied the ageing process by getting faster. Now aged 41, she will wear the Irish vest again this weekend (June 5) when she competes for her country in the European 10,000m cup in Birmingham. That she has scaled such heights of athletics success at all is remarkable, but even more so when you consider Lee squeezes in training around a busy family life and career – she has a degree in electrical engineering and works for Apple.

“I have three girls aged six, three and one, so there is a lot of jugging to fit everything in,” Lee says. “Like everyone, we are busy, busy, busy, but I do believe that it is possible to make it work and to carve out time so that the whole family is active.”

Weekends are a whirlwind in her household, with husband Paul Kelleher, also a keen runner, coaching her older daughter in GAA, and Lee fitting in her training.

They will all participate in the Irish Life Health Family Mile taking place on the weekend of June 26 and 27, an initiative that includes a collective challenge to see if all the miles clocked by families over the two days matches the average miles covered by an Irish International marathon runner in a year - 4,000 miles.

While she may have been a late starter to elite sport, Lee believes the secret to her success lies in the fact that she rarely sat still as a child. “I had a very healthy, active upbringing,” she says. “My parents were always cycling and walking and I played a range of different sports which gave me a love of being on the go.”

They are experiences she wants to pass on. So what is her advice for the rest of us who would like to run – or walk – our way to improved fitness while getting the rest of the family fit in the process?

Get the kids involved

Lizzie Lee during the Irish Life Health Family Mile Challenge in Cork. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile 
Lizzie Lee during the Irish Life Health Family Mile Challenge in Cork. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile 

There is evidence that children with active parents are more likely to be active themselves. Results of one large study involving more than 5,400 children and published in the British Medical Journal found that 11-year-olds showed greater physical activity than their peers if their parents hit the gym an average of twice a week.

“My saying is ‘monkey see, monkey do’,” Lee says. “If your kids see you going out for a walk, run or cycle every day they begin to think that is the norm and will start to think they have to do that for themselves.”

The fitter you are, the fitter your children will become. So get moving.

Small beginnings

Dragging kids out to run a mile or more if they really are reluctant will prove futile. Ditto forcing them outside when the weather is awful. “They can’t be pushed into something they won’t enjoy and it’s no fun if the rain is pelting down,” says Lee.

But there are ways and means, she says, just find creative ways to make exercise seem exciting. “During lockdown when all organised sports were cancelled for children, I took my eldest daughter out every day,” she says. “We started running 400m and only progressed from that once I could see she found that relatively easy and enjoyable. Our goal was one mile which we eventually reached.”

One step at a time

You may want to run a 10km or even a marathon, but heading out for long runs when you have previously not run a step in years is a recipe for disaster. Start small, downloading a couch-to-5km programme or aiming for a mile and then moving on from there.

“It is easy to become overwhelmed with the prospect of running a particular distance when you start out,” Lee says. “But tackle it in progressive stages, not moving on until you feel comfortable with the level you are at.”

Joining a running group or club is a good move. See athleticsireland.ie.

Provide incentives

Lizzie Lee 
Lizzie Lee 

As an adult, you might reward yourself with a pair of new trainers or leggings as you get into shape and the same tactics can work with the rest of the family. There are studies showing that exercise rewards are motivational, resulting in an upswing in activity levels. One three-month trial by psychologists at the University of Warwick, published in the journal BMC Public Health, showed that adults who were rewarded for their daily walking went on to walk further as weeks went by.

“Don’t be afraid to coax your children with rewards,” Lee says. “I promised my daughter a new pair of running leggings once she managed a mile under 15 minutes and that kept it fun.”

Be accountable to someone

Arranging to meet others for exercise is one of the best ways to ensure you keep it up. “By making yourself accountable to others, it is much more difficult to opt out,” Lee says. “So afix a date with a friend to go for a run or walk and you will likely not want to let them down.”

With children, getting them involved in organised sports clubs and teams has a similar effect. “Exercise is more fun and you are more likely to keep it up if it’s done with others,” Lee says.

Research has shown that group activity brings benefits. A study in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association reported how group exercise lowers stress by 26% and significantly improves quality of life whereas those who exercise individually put in more effort but experienced no significant changes in their stress levels.

Create a window

Everyone has busy lives and the key to fitting in exercise is to prioritise it with a daily slot in your diary. “You need to create a window for yourself,” Lee says. “If you don’t the day just runs away and you get to the evening realising you haven’t been active.”

Lee says she often meets another group of runners at 7.30am to fit in her training. “Find out a time that works for you,” she says. “Very soon that will become habit and a slot you will be reluctant to lose.”

Lee says she uses her daily runs to put life into perspective. “However busy I am, I will return feeling I have a better handle on everything,” she says. “Exercise has as many mental as physical benefits, so it is important for your emotional health too.”

Do anything rather than nothing

Don’t give your children the option to sit on their electronic devices all day. “Any activity is better than none and children need to move for physical and emotional development,” Lee says.

“My sister has two teenage girls and when one quit playing hockey because she no longer enjoyed it, my sister told her that was fine as long as she replaced it with another activity which is my philosophy too. Do something active – it doesn’t really matter what.”

Get everyone involved

Lizzie Lee and her daughters Lucy, aged 6, and Alison, aged 3
Lizzie Lee and her daughters Lucy, aged 6, and Alison, aged 3

It’s easy to make excuses when people of different ages and physical abilities inhabit the same household, yet Lee says there is always a way to get everyone involved.

“It may be that as you run, others cycle alongside you,” she says. “Or get the family involved in part of your own activity – I would take my eldest out for a mile and the younger daughter would join us for a lap around the block at the end.”

Do it for others

Studies show that doing something that will benefit others is a great motivator. The less we are consumed with ourselves, the greater the amount of effort we are willing to tolerate. So, if you have struggled to motivate yourself to run in the past, then remind yourself that keeping going will inspire your family and friends. “They will be motivated by your progression,” Lee says. “So keep it up.”

Or try signing up to raise money for a charity. Last year, researchers at the Poznan University of Physical Education in Poland reported how women, in particular, are primed to respond well to the motivation of running for a charitable cause.

One step at a time

 Dr Philip Kearney, a lecturer in skill acquisition, coaching and performance at the University of Limerick,  has advice for reluctant runners of all ages:

1. Start with walking There are so many mental and physical benefits to a daily walk and you really can’t run before you walk, so implement this first.

2. Add in some stairs Stair climbing is a fantastic way to improve fitness levels, so take as many flights as you can to boost leg strength and cardiovascular fitness. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows how progressive stair climbing starting with one ascent a day in week one to five ascents a day in weeks seven and eight, five days a week, has a significant impact on the health of previously sedentary young women.  Each ascent took about two minutes to complete, so it's easy to fit into your day.

3. Take your kids with you A study published in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal two years ago revealed that seven in ten Irish children don’t get enough activity and that Irish boys have the second-lowest levels of physical inactivity in the world, after Bangladesh, while Irish girls rank ninth-highest in the study. Parents have an important role to play as an adult. Be their role model and encourage them to get out. We want to get to the stage in Ireland where it is not normal to be inactive.

4. Create a springboard Research from Cambridge University has shown that we tend to adopt a cycle of behaviour and - even if we are reluctant to take up an activity - the better we get at it, the more likely we are to continue. However, we often need a springboard, something that will propel us onwards. The Irish Life Health Family Mile, taking place on the weekend of June 26 and 27, is an ideal starting point. Use it first as a goal and then to motivate the whole family to do more activity going forward.

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