Sonia O’Sullivan: Taking up a new lifelong lesson in bodybuilding

A catch-up with my old Villanova room-mate has me dusting down the dumb-bells

Sonia O’Sullivan pictured with daughter Sophie  in Cobh back in 2002. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

Sonia O’Sullivan pictured with daughter Sophie in Cobh back in 2002. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

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I was down at the local track in Melbourne recently for a 5,000m seeded-race, where you get to line up alongside runners of a similar ability and ideally running a similar pace.

The plan was to see could I still break 20 minutes over the distance I used to race for real: that’s still running at a half-decent pace, just under four minutes per km sounds good when you regularly jog around at five minutes per km. I wouldn’t dare check the equivalent mile pace, the old running currency of my time.

Earlier in the day I got a call from Carol Kolimago, my room-mate at Villanova University, who moved to Melbourne a few years ago with her family. We were in college together for four years, ran on back-to-back NCAA winning cross-country teams in 1990 and 1991, when running really was our only form of training.

Carol wanted to come and watch my race for another catch up. After 30 years it’s still special to have this opportunity to reconnect with such an important part of my life, especially as I often talk to my daughter Sophie as she embarks on a similar journey at the University of Washington.

I was trying to play down the race, hiding among the men in the mixed field, and it was encouraging hearing Carol cheering for me on every lap, like we were back in college chasing points, or even chasing an Olympic dream. We still have much in common, continuing to run and cycle and challenge ourselves, and Carol has completed a few Ironman triathlons, including the Kona World Championship in Hawaii.

The common thread of endurance training continues to filter through our lives. It’s hard to lose that mindset, believing endless running and cycling and cardio workouts are the best way to maintaining health and fitness throughout your life.

I’m reluctant to let go of any part of my running, especially when I can manage all the little aches and injuries these days, even if heading out the door I sometimes feel like I’m just wearing away at my body, maintaining that lean and lightness while burning as much energy as required.

One day last year we met up for coffee, and on the way back I dropped Carol at this new gym she’d just signed up to. Like most runners, I’ve always done a bit of gym work here and there to try to maintain some general strength and core fitness, at one point in my career that included lifting my daughters Ciara and Sophie when they were very young. I still have my 5kg dumbbells at home, a few medicine balls, but didn’t enquire too much about this gym and new personal training regime Carol was going to.

Carol Kolimago taking part in a Victoria ICN (I Compete Natural) competition
Carol Kolimago taking part in a Victoria ICN (I Compete Natural) competition

Roll on a year later, and Carol has once again stepped far out of her comfort zone, leaving behind the obsession with daily runs or doing some level of daily cardio activity, and committing to a whole different mindset of looking after her body both inside and out by stepping into the world of competitive bodybuilding.

This isn’t what you might think of traditionally; this is all natural bodybuilding, where you fuel you body through copious amounts of clean, simple nutritious food while working specifically on building muscle and transforming your body.

I was keen to hear more, and talked with Carol after my race all about her competition, how she got so strong and confident in just nine weeks once she committed to the Victorian ICN (I Compete Natural) competition, where she won six categories. That alone provides all the feedback you need to keep working hard.

It’s so easy to keep doing the same things over and over again. Sometimes different in name, but essentially the same mindset with whatever activity you do, the foods you eat, and the commitment you allow yourself to give to a hobby or fitness regime.

There’s always another road race to sign up to, marathon or cycle from one end of the country to the other. If you’re programmed to rise to these challenges you just know what’s required and it’s so often just about preparing enough that you’ll be able to comfortably complete the distance. Sometimes it’s also about reawakening the competitive spirit.

Like anything else, when you see results you gain more motivation to do more, and there is no greater concrete feedback than seeing your time as you cross the finish line, reading through the results after, and breaking down the categories

I’ve always known that as we get older weightlifting is something that can benefit everyone. It helps to improve your core and posture, how you carry yourself, still none of that seemed so obvious than with Carol’s transformation and commitment to the gym.

I was inspired to pull out the dumbbells from under the bed, and be a bit more regular with my sit-up routine. I also signed up to a gym for four weeks to train with people and push myself a bit more, to commit to something different, something that is so easily forgotten at the end of the day, when the energy levels are draining and home duties like cooking dinner and relaxing start to creep into your head.

Carol is also getting the same satisfaction from training in the gym as training for an Ironman, only in a different way. Two hours in the gym working hard can deliver results in a fun environment as opposed to pounding the pavement, laps in the pool and hours on the bike outside alone, which can wear you down so much more.

There is a time and place for everything, and the safety of doing what you know over and over again can often outweigh the courage required to do something completely different. Carol also shared her nutrition programme with me, which goes along with the daily gym workouts focusing on different parts of the body each day; four meals a day including protein, fats, vegetables and starchy-carbs in every meal, even if vegetables for breakfast would take getting used to for most.

She also told me the only non-weight training she includes is 14,000 steps per day; no more, and she is as lean as she was way back in Villanova and eating so much more food, building muscle , with very little muscle wastage, by working across all areas of the body each week.

It was definitely food for thought: my next goal is how to get the balance right between weight lifting and running, building up a bit more muscle to get that perfect combination to use one sport to boost another without having to compromise too much.

No doubt the balance changes depending on your goals and targets, whatever you choose to do. After just breaking that 20-minute barrier for 5,000m – 19 minutes, 40 seconds be exact – there’s still plenty of satisfaction from running, but also the wonder is my strength letting me down, and is there more I can do to reawaken and even rebuild the sleeping muscles?

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