Denise Lewis: I have to force myself to have moments of calm

Denise Lewis (Blake Ezra/PA)
Denise Lewis (Blake Ezra/PA)

Like many elite athletes, Denise Lewis admits to feeling adrift when her career as a professional athlete came to an end.

After winning gold in the women’s heptathlon at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Lewis announced her retirement at the age of 32 in 2005.

How did she deal with this transition? “Not well,” says the 50-year-old. “Because you have to set new goals for yourself. You’re not a performer in the same sense – you’re not thinking about the next championships. You become a different being, because the hours you spend on training are removed, and your identity as a high-performing athlete changes.

“Within that, you’ve got to grow and learn to accept that that part of your life is over, and try to come to an understanding that you’re not only defined by that performance, or the next championships.”

And yet Lewis suggests this isn’t so different to anyone going through a big life change – elite athlete or not. “There is a definite transition period that is very uncomfortable, but isn’t any change uncomfortable?” she asks. “When you’re changing a new job – it’s uncomfortable because you don’t know what the next phase is going to look like, and so you have to start asking yourself questions about what it is you want to do. How do you feel dealing with the anxiety and nervousness of starting over?”

Now Lewis – who has a new pocast Runtethered, in partnership with Google Pixel Watch, where she chats to a range of people about how they got into their chosen sport – some 17 years on from pro athletics, has more clarity on “Denise as an athlete” and what she’s like today.

“I think back – it was very much focused on results, and very much focused on what I needed to do to get better,” she reflects. “So the mind was engaged in understanding me and understanding my levels, and pushing myself to be better. My mental resilience came through withstanding pressure, because I’ve rehearsed the performance and the skill enough times.

“That conversation between body and mind is very different to what I face now as a mother-of-four, and having all those different challenges – relationship challenges, raising your children, being a working mum – there’s a lot more in my sphere now that I have to navigate.”

One thing she does struggle with as a mother (her youngest is four years old and her eldest is 20) is finding time for herself. “Me, Denise, and what I want… does get squashed,” she says. “It becomes very small. So I have to be very conscious of making sure I find that time. I have to highlight lockdown, because it was transformational for me. Having been that working mum and busy, [I started] really focusing back on exercise and what it really means to me. It reignited that passion again for me, and I realised actually, it’s more than just looking good. It is very much about that release and emptying the brain during that 30 or 45 minutes of exercise.”

Lewis knows she needs to make time for herself, but she says: “I’m a work in progress, because – and I get this from my mum, I’m sure – I don’t like to sit down. I feel like there’s always something to do. So I’ve had to force myself to have those moments of calm. Hence the walking, listening to a relaxation app or something like that where I feel calm.”

When she was an athlete, Lewis was focused “on a winning mentality”, she says. “You want to see how far you can go, and training was a means to an end – you can’t jump far if you don’t put in the work. It was a job, it was work” – whereas now, she describes exercising as “my heartbeat”.

“I feel I’m honouring myself and my body when I’m doing that, and my mind in particular. I can’t stress it enough – that connection is so essential to who I am.”

When it comes to moving her body, Lewis says: “I do some functional training, high-intensity workouts, I cycle – or spin – and I should say I stretch, but I don’t stretch as much as I ought to, I can’t lie. If I can get anything between two to four sessions in a week, I feel it’s a job well done, but what I won’t do is beat myself up.” For example, this week Lewis hasn’t exercised quite as much as she might have liked – she’s been feeling “bunged up”, courtesy of a cold from her four-year-old – but she says: “I know that’s OK.”

After turning 50 earlier this year, Lewis is on the cusp of a new phase in her life. “What I find at this glorious age, is to sit back and say, ‘Wow, you’ve done great, you’ve got to this age’. I’ve accomplished some amazing things, and had opportunities untold.

“As a woman, you are entering another chapter – which is inescapable. Menopause – I’m glad it’s high on people’s agenda, it’s a talking point now. But it’s looking at ways I can start to deal with any symptoms. So far, I think I’m OK, some would argue I have a little bit of brain fog, but that’s OK, it feels manageable right now.

“But being open to new challenges, creating new experiences for yourself – it stops you being one-dimensional, it enriches you. From the things I’ve done, whether through sport or entertainment, it’s those experiences that really did me a boost.”

Runtethered with Denise Lewis is available on Spotify, and you can buy the Google Pixel Watch in the Google Store.