Scottish runner Elish McColgan on life on and off the track
‘My mum is my inspiration... she was a world champion and that was an amazing feat’
After winning a silver medal at the European Championships, the Scottish runner with the Northern Irish father speaks to Liz Connor about her life both on and off the track.
At just 27, runner Eilish McColgan has already achieved more than most will in a lifetime. She represented Great Britain at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games, and recently scooped a silver medal in the 5000m final at the European Athletics Championships in Berlin.
Running is clearly in the blood for Dundee-born McColgan, who competes in the 3,000m steeplechase and 5,000m — both her parents were international athletes too.
Her mum is Liz McColgan, the former world champion runner who represented Great Britain in the Eighties, while her dad, Peter McColgan, is the former record-holding Northern Irish steeplechase runner.
Here, she talks about dealing with the pressures of competing, her diet and fitness regimes, and hopes for the 2020 Games...
She says: “Competing in the European Championships in Berlin was an amazing experience. I put a lot of pressure on myself, as I knew I was heading into the championship in great shape and capable of winning a medal if I executed a good race.
“I went off at a strong pace and was over the moon to come away with my first outdoor medal. It started off as a poor year after I picked up a virus, so it was nice to end on such a high — not only scoring a fast time and picking up a silver medal, but doing it in such a historic Olympic stadium.”
Her achievement brought great pleasure to her parents. “My mum and dad were both really happy to finally see me get a reward for all the work I’ve put in over the years. My mum is my coach, so she’s been with me right the way through my career. They’ve both supported me through all the highs and lows of sport — injuries and illness — so they were proud to see me come away with a medal.”
She says that her parents did not push her to take up the sport in which they excelled. “Because my parents were international athletes, they always did their best to keep me sheltered from the sport. They wanted me to make my own decisions and not to push me into it.
“I was always the one being the driving force and always wanting to do more, while they were holding me back. Looking back now, although it was frustrating at the time, it was the right thing to do and the main reason why I think I’ve gone on to have success at senior level.”
The runner says that being an international athlete does not mean she has to cut out certain foods or drinks. “I don’t follow a strict diet, but my boyfriend [Michael Rimmer] is also an athlete, so we like to cook everything from fresh. We make our own sauces and use fresh vegetables and a range of different meats throughout the week.
“I don’t drink any alcohol, coffee or tea, but that’s mainly because I just don’t like the taste. There’s nothing that I restrict — everything is in moderation. If I want something sweet, I’ll do so. I’m training so hard, I need to make sure I’m getting in enough calories in order for my body to recover, rather than restricting it.”
So, what sort of training regime does someone competing at her level have to undertake? “I run every day apart from Friday, which is my rest day. I usually do hard track sessions on Tuesday and Saturdays, and a 10-mile Sunday run. Four evenings a week, I’ll cross train for 40 minutes, either on the spin bike or cross trainer.
She admits that leaves little time for other things. “I don’t get a great deal of downtime, but the time I do get away from training, I spend with my boyfriend. We’ll usually catch up with family or go out for a nice meal together.”
She recalls her first championship appearance and dealing with the pressures of performing on a world stage.
“My first ever championship was London 2012 at age 21. The pressure was really on because not only was it the Olympics, it was also on home turf. It was just beyond anything I could have ever imagined or prepared for.
“It really was the most nerve-wracking experience I’ve ever had, and I was thrown at the deep end. It gave me great experience for future championships — I’ve never really been as nervous since.”
She does not have to look far for her sporting hero. “My mum is a great inspiration for me. It’s not until you get into the sport that you realise how difficult it is to be the best in the UK, or the best in Europe. But in 1991, my mum was world champion — the best in the whole world — and that really is amazing.
“I have a great respect for her, not only as my mum and an athlete, but also as a coach.”
Does she have any top tips for budding runners? “Firstly, I would say find some running buddies. Whether it’s just one friend or a local group, it’ll allow you to keep motivated. Find a good coach too. If you have a schedule that’s tailored just for you, you’re giving yourself the best chance of sticking to it and staying accountable to achieving the goals you’ve set.
“I actually set online programmes for beginners to advanced runners looking to improve their times through my website, Running Made Easy (runningmadeeasy.co.uk).
“I’d also get a GPS watch. It’s motivating to know exactly how far you’re running and how fast — it allows you to see the comparison and improvements you’re making, which again can really help drive motivation. I use the Polar M430 (£174.50, polar.com/uk-en), which gives me all the information I need.”
What’s the best piece of advice she has ever been given? “Focus on you. As a kid, I would always worry too much about other people, which was silly because you can’t control what others do. Control what you can, and focus on improving you.
“The greatest thing about running is that it doesn’t matter if you’re a 20-minute park runner or a five-hour marathoner — everyone has their own personal best to try and aim for.”
If she had not been a successful athlete, what else could she have been? “I studied maths and accountancy at university, so I’m sure that I would have ended up doing something with my degree. But after being involved in the sport now, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. Perhaps I wouldn’t be running, but I’d still be involved in some capacity.”
Has she set goals for the future? “This year, I would love to run some personal bests over 1,500m to 5,000m, ideally climbing to second on the all-time list, behind Paula Radcliffe. That’s my main goal over the next year.
“In the longer term, I would love to be at my third Olympics in Tokyo 2020 and get as close to a medal as I possibly can. Breaking into the top five in the world is where I want to be heading.”
Eilish McColgan is a sporting ambassador for wearable sports and fitness technology brand Polar. For information about Polar’s full product range, visit polar.com/uk-en