Mr Above Average

Today I am handing the blog over to my friend Gary Cookson, who  as well as being a fellow HR blogger (you can find his blog here, is a triathlete and fellow fitness fanatic.  But like many of us who enjoy exercise and competitions, he has overcome many challenges to get there.

Over to Gary…….

I am a big believer in having a sense of pride in ones physical wellbeing. I don’t think you need to be an Olympic athlete or a bodybuilder, you can be whatever shape you want to be as long as you are proud of that shape and your overall wellbeing.

In this blog I’ll talk about how I have lived my entire life not being proud of my sense of physical wellbeing, and what I do about it.

It’s both a curse and a blessing, the constant strive for improvement and sense of dissatisfaction with who I am.

 Obviously in my own blog, The Power of Three, I make reference to the fact that I am a triathlete, and how I place great emphasis in my work on physical fitness as well as mental resilience and career satisfaction. This blog post in particular focuses on the first, physical fitness, but the three are linked.

Anyway, for those of you who have only got to know me in the past few years, you may be surprised to learn that I used to be very fat and very unfit. Just 7-8 years ago I couldn’t go up two flights of stairs without getting out of breath, and couldn’t walk far without sweating. I ate wrong, very badly in fact. I drank heavily. I did hardly any exercise.

And now I’m the opposite. This is part of a cycle in my life of being thin and fat, fit and unfit, with each cycle lasting several years. As a child I was thin, but as a teenager very fat and unfit. At university and in my early to mid 20s I was super fit and thin but was doing so just to attract the opposite sex and once that happened and I settled down and had a family, I went back to being fat and unfit. Then my divorce happened and the cycle changed again to what I am now. Thankfully the cycle seems to have been broken despite me once again settling down, so I hope this time I stay fit and healthy.

And yet the dark times are never far away.

I have an unhealthy obsession with food dating back to my childhood. I’m well known for being a big eater, piling my plate high at buffets and the like and it’s a common joke amongst people I know. Sadly, I have no willpower when it comes to food. Put me in front of a buffet and I will overeat because it’s there for me to take. But serve me correct portions and I’m happy, because there’s nothing else for me to take. Leave me in the house with lots of biscuits and chocolate and I will eat the lot, but if there’s none there I’m not bothered or hungry either.

I have struggled with this throughout my life and I hate it when I work in open plan offices where there are lots of available snacks. One office I currently work in has regular snacks people bring in and it seems to be part of the culture that there are always chocolates etc on the table to help yourself from.

And I do.

But if they weren’t there I’d not miss them. In the other office I work at these days there are none, and I don’t mind. When I had my own office I was fine too. But put food in front of me and I have to eat it. I have to finish my plate, and I have to have a big plate if I can too.

No willpower.

Even though I know a lot about nutrition and what I should eat, I have no willpower.

Put that together with my pre divorce poor diet in general after marrying someone who had no pride in their physical appearance and who didn’t care what I looked like either, and no exercise at the time, and heavy drinking (4 pints a night every night) and it’s no wonder I was unfit and headed for an early grave.


Some of my health check indicators at the time were scary reading for someone in his early 30s.

But then I got divorced and suddenly had to cook all my meals myself, so found myself buying more healthy food. And I had time on my hands so joined a gym and started exercising. And the weight started to drop off alarmingly, and my health indicators started to improve.

And I realised I liked being fit.

To help me through the stress of divorce, and to find somewhat of a new identity, I started setting myself targets and challenges. Initially these were just to keep myself motivated, and to make myself feel better about myself, but they grew.

I started walking The Pennine Way with friends in stages and in the first couple I was embarrassed at how unfit I was, lagging behind, complaining, out of breath and looking a mess. So I started focusing my training on being better at this, and it worked.

Then I started making links between how I could train in certain ways and improve my performance in certain challenges. I was using data to improve myself and analysing things, stuff I’d been doing at work and in coaching sessions for a long time.

I did the Yorkshire Three Peaks (26 miles walking) in 9h11m and learnt how nutrition forms a vital part of performance in sport and fitness. I then did the national Three Peaks Challenge, solo but in an ever so slightly longer period than the standard supported challenge, and learnt the importance of proper planning, setting objectives and practicing.

I then did the Lyke Wake Walk (40 miles in 18 hours) and learnt the importance of having a support team and how to pace oneself in a long gruelling competition. I did the Isle of Man Parish Walk (80 miles in 24 hours) and got disqualified halfway through, learning the importance of knowing the rules.

All of these things were helping me become a better competitor, a better athlete, and a better all round person.

And they contributed to me having a lifestyle change. And to me that was a revelations. It’s not about diets. It’s not about going to the gym for a few weeks. It’s not about New Years Resolutions. None of these things have anything more than a short term effect. But a long term lifestyle change does have a long term lasting effect. I find too many people, myself included in earlier attempts, give up because they don’t see overnight changes in themselves.

You see, my problem is with body image. No matter what shape and weight I actually am, no matter how fit I become, I look in the mirror and see someone who is horribly overweight and out of shape.

All the time.

And I know others don’t see the same when they look at me, but I think I’m fat. I think I’m overweight. I think I’m unfit.

And whilst this is a curse in that I am never happy with myself, it is also a blessing in that it always, always, motivates me to keep my fitness training going and to always strive for more.

I don’t have a problem in motivating myself as I know all I need to do is look in a mirror.

And I find myself occasionally motivating others in an informal sense. I’m not a personal trainer, and yet I think there are enough overlap areas between that and HR and in particular leadership coaching, that I would make a good personal trainer.

I know I’d love to run a spin class. Or a boot camp.

A few people have asked in the past if I would give them some personal training advice, and I have. And strangely when I was talking earlier this year about going self employed, a few people thought that I was doing so to become a personal trainer.

Maybe there’s something in that.

And that brings me to triathlons…the ultimate Power of Three!

I decided to do my first triathlon in 2010 as just another challenge. I knew little about them. I could only swim breaststroke and had never swam in open water. I didn’t own a bike and borrowed a friends mountain bike. And I had never run as much as 5k without stopping ever. I had no clue about how to transition, and didn’t know what I was doing at all.

And yet I did it and found it exhilarating. I made loads of mistakes (including thinking I would be able to dry off and get changed after the swim in a private changing room) and walked most of the run course, but I did it and signed up the same day for my next race.

And here I am, 31 races later and with 7 more entered this year. I love them.

I like the fact that I’m wholly dependent on myself and not on team mates. I like how there is an abundance of data about my performance to help me analyse and improve. I like how there is always some new piece of kit or tech to try. I like how I can choose to race against the clock, my PBs, or against others to benchmark my performance.  And I like the variety they bring to my training, effectively training for three sports instead of one.

They’re very addictive.

I’ve been forced to integrate all of my learning from all of my challenges into one. I need to be very careful on nutrition. I don’t drink alcohol for a clear week before a race as it just fatigues me (meaning in summer I barely drink alcohol at all), or within 24 hours of any training session (meaning I must have at least 5 or 6 alcohol free days a week). I know how and when to carb up, and for how long to have the best effect on my performance. I avoid takeaways and overly fatty food for a clear week pre race also, and my final 36 hours is spent carb loading (pasta mainly). I know how much and what I need to the days before a race, and what I need to have inside me on race days to fuel me up. I know whether I need to intake food or drinks during a race. I know what food and drink I need immediately post race to aid recovery. I know the importance of tapering my training in the immediate pre race week, and only gradually increasing it post race. I know how to plan my training so that I reach race day in peak condition.

I also know what time of day I prefer to train and when I’ll find it hard going due to my body’s natural cycle and rhythms.

I have race week routines and I stick to them. It may drive my family mad but it works for me. I know what support they can give me and am pleased they do. 

I know during the race how I’m doing, thanks to the tech I wear. This helps me maintain focus and motivation.

And yet I’m only just above average for my age group.

Could I be better? Yes. If I worked less hours or spent less time with my family I could. But I am happy with my balance.

Ultimately, if you’d said I could be an above average triathlete 8 years ago I’d have laughed at you, as would everyone who knew me. It’s a good place to be, above average. I’m no Brownlee Brother, and will never win a race, but I’m ahead of 50% of my peers and ahead of 100% of those who don’t try at all.

And I get to see the impressed looks on people’s faces when I say I’m a triathlete. It’s awesome.

Above average in physical fitness is achievable for most people. Olympic standard isn’t. If I do ever dabble in personal training, I’d want to work with clients who aren’t happy with who they are and want to change. Those clients who recognise they could be better and want to learn all the various things that need to happen to be better, from nutrition, to focused training and objectives, to understanding physical limits and work life balance issues, to understand the rules and the need for support, the need to make lasting lifestyle changes. Those who want to be “above average” and harness the Power of Three.

I think I’m well placed to help such people as I’m Mr Above Average. I’ve made loads of mistakes but learnt from each one.

I can relate easily to Gem’s own journey as much of it mirrors my own, and I can sense she’s happier than she used to be about herself but still not satisfied. Like me. Like anyone who wants to change and embed improvements.

If you want to know more about anything I’ve talked about, please contact me.

Till next time.



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