Everyone should try running!

Sports presenter and seasoned endurance runner Vassos Alexander chats to Liz Parry about his passion for running

Images of Vassos Alexander courtesy of Georgie Redmayne Photography

Every morning, sports presenter Vassos Alexander can be heard on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on VirginRadio. Vassos has also worked on Radio 5 Live as a presenter, has covered seven Olympic Games and commentated on everything from tennis to triathlons. Having taken up running in his mid-thirties, Vassos is now a seasoned endurance runner with a sub-three-hour marathon PB, and has completed almost 100 marathons and ultramarathons. A dad-of-three, he’s also the author of two bestselling books on running, Don’t Stop Me Now and Running Up That Hill. His latest book, How to Run a Marathon, is out now.

Q A lot of people have taken up running since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic as a way of keeping fit during the lockdown restrictions. Why do you think that running has become so hugely popular?

Vassos: I wonder whether it’s a kind of antidote to all the comforts and conveniences of the modern world. I just feel that when we’re running we’re doing something very natural that we were born to do and that we evolved to do. There are great benefits to the modern world but I just feel that we need a counterbalance of some kind. And perhaps people feel a need to connect with their authentic self a little bit.

Q What is it about running that really speaks to you in particular?

Vassos: I used to be a bit of a sedentary thirty-something, but when I took up running I quickly realised how brilliant it was and how many boxes it ticked physically and mentally. I just love the sheer childlike joy of running – it feels kind of playful. Although when I started it was really hard work! I know what it’s like to be unfit and also what it’s like to be fit, and I can tell you that it’s loads better to be fit! I think maybe that’s why I’m such an evangelical “everyone should try running” sort of bloke.

Q You took up running fairly late in life, in your mid-thirties. What was it that prompted you to start?

Vassos: I had got to the age where I realised I couldn’t just do no exercise and eat what I wanted. So I decided to start running and I realised that I’d hit on something. I carried on because I simply fell in love with running. Not that it was easy. I couldn’t make it to the end of my street when I started. I didn’t put too much pressure on myself to go further or faster. I knew that I was going on a journey and I just waited to see where the journey would take me.

Q Did you ever imagine that you would go on to do marathons, ultramarathons and triathlons?

Vassos: Never. If that journey had ended with me still running, but just doing Park Runs, then great! Park Runs are wonderful. But I started entering races and there was this huge allure of the marathon. Chris Brasher the founder of the London marathon, called it “The Great Suburban Everest”. It was particularly alluring for me because I have Greek heritage and the marathon was born in Greece in 500 BC. So I always had that in the back of my mind that I would love to run a marathon. And then I did. Even though I was totally broken I knew it was something I definitely wanted to do again and again.

Q What would you say to people who would like to take up running but perhaps don’t have the confidence or feel they don’t have the ability to do it?

Vassos: I would say that they’re not alone in having those thoughts. I honestly never thought that I’d be a runner. I think it’s about getting out there and taking that first step. Don’t feel that you have to run for 20 minutes straight. Just get outside and maybe run for 30 seconds and then walk for a couple of minutes. Then do it again. Go out for maybe 10 or 15 minutes and alternate running with walking and soon you’ll realise that you’ll be able to run a bit further the next time. Park Runs are a great thing to aim for and you don’t have to run the whole 5K distance.

Q Do you have any tips for keeping motivated?

Vassos: Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Stick to your training plan if you can, but set yourself a goal. Put a race in the diary six months from now so you’ve got something to aim for. But if one day you’re really not feeling it then don’t beat yourself up about it. Just getting out there, in nature, feeling the wind on your face, that usually makes you feel better anyway and helps to motivate you. If you can run in nature that’s inherently good for you.

Q How do you manage to fit in all the running that you do around your work life and your family life?

Vassos: The best piece of advice I’ve got is to run your commute if you can, or at least bits of it. For me, when we moved from Radio 2 to Virgin that increased my commute from six miles to nine. We also have a dog who needs exercise so instead of going for a 20-minute or half-hour walk I’ll go for a run with her.

Q How much extra exercise do you do in terms of strength training and stretching?

Vassos: In the last six months or so I’ve started doing a little bit of weight training and I’m quite enjoying that. I’ve also started open water swimming which I just love. That’s another new thing for me.

Q You mention in the book that you follow a plant-based diet. How has that helped your health?

Vassos: Over the last two or three years I have opted for a plant-based diet. I went vegetarian first and now my diet is predominantly plant-based. I definitely feel healthier, shinier and cleaner from not eating meat. I’ve reached a stage where I just want to eat healthily.

Q What do you tend to eat before going on a run?

Vassos: A banana is a great source of quick- release energy just before a run and it’s got potassium to help with muscle cramps. Oats are fantastic fuel too. I sometimes leave them to soak overnight with chia seeds, which plump up nicely with some plant-based milk. I always hydrate well with water. After a long run it’s a good idea to have a bit of protein to help with muscle repair. I often have something like hummus and toast.

Q Are there any races that you haven’t yet done that you would like to do?

Vassos: Absolutely! I’d love to experience more marathons, more start lines. There are some ultras I haven’t experienced. I haven’t done all of the marathon majors. I think my happy place might be the start line of a marathon, despite the fact that I know I have 26.2 miles ahead of me and some of them won’t be pleasant. I just think that mixture of excitement and nervousness is a really heady mix. What I’ve missed most in 2020 is running races. When I’m able to get back to racing I will just have the biggest grin on my face.

How to Run a Marathon by Vassos Alexander (£12.99, HarperNonFiction) is published on 7 January 2021.

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