“A friend of mine, who’s a successful entrepreneur, often tells me he really regrets how hard he works, because he missed the first six years of his boy growing up because he was always away working,” says the former Olympic and World Champion athlete, who recently took part in Channel 4’s Celebrity Hunted.
“You know, I don’t think you’re going to one day sit on your deathbed and think, ‘Ah, I’m really proud I’m leaving my kid a load of money’. I think you’d rather think, ‘You know what, I’ve brought my child up to be a good young person and I’ve had great memories with them’.
“Of course, we all need to work, bills need to be paid, and it can be a stressful life,” adds the 48-year-old, who was born in southern England to Welsh parents and now lives just outside Southampton, near the sea. “But make sure you have plenty of ‘me time’ and family time and look after your mental health, because it is massively important.”
Thomas – who won silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as part of the men’s 4 x 400m relay (setting the UK record for the event in the process) and scooped Commonwealth and European golds during his sprinting career – recently became a father for the second time, when he and his partner welcomed baby Dougie in January. Although his partner has chosen to stay out of the public eye, Thomas has been sharing sweet snaps of their elder son Teddy, three-and-a-half, cuddling his baby brother.
But he’s honest about the ups and downs of parenting too, the nursery run “challenges” as well as the proud and joyful moments – which is why keeping up his workouts is vital. “To be perfectly honest, when I get to the gym or go for a run, that is my kind of escapism, that’s my release,” says Thomas. “People deal with stress in different ways, but for me, exercise is definitely my happy place. It’s the time when I switch off.”
He agrees it can be easy to let these things fall to the bottom of the priority list when life gets busy or stressful. But that is often when we need self-care the most – and he recently got to see exactly how much of a difference it can make not to exercise for a week, when he took part in ASICS’ Mind Race experiment.
The study saw Thomas and other participants train as normal for a week, followed by a week of no training, before resuming their regular routines. Researchers monitored their brain activity and state of mind throughout, and the impact of not training was found to be similar to a week of broken sleep, with participants reporting a 23% increase in racing thoughts and 22% drop in their ability to cope with stress. Their confidence also dropped by 20%, positivity by 16%, and energy levels by 23%.
“I knew by not training for that week, it wouldn’t really affect my fitness so much, but it was quite a shock how much it affected my mental state,” says Thomas, who recalls feeling “antsy” and “a bit rubbish and anxious” and more “lethargic” when he couldn’t train.
He also got to see “fascinating” visual evidence of the difference in brain activity. “The picture of my mind during the week of training was quite tranquil, it was quite nice, if you can imagine, like a bit of a flowery scene. And then the week when I wasn’t training, it was like a thunderstorm, it literally was all black and really scary. It just shows that my mind stability, if that is such a thing, was massively affected when something I love doing was taken away from me.”
He has previously talked about experiencing depression after a string of injuries meant he was unable to compete in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 Commonwealth Games, eventually bringing his athletic career to halt. In summer 2020 during lockdown, he opened up further about the “dark years” he went through on Movember’s In The Barber Chair podcast, saying: “I bottled it up inside for years.”
Did taking part in the ASICS experiment have parallels with facing injuries during his running career?
“That’s a brilliant question… I had a lot of injuries in my career, so I knew I was probably going to feel a bit low by not training, because it was almost replicating being injured as an athlete and being forced to sit on the sidelines and watch your opponents do something you love. Being injured when it’s your career, it was horrible, and this kind of brought it back a little bit – but the beauty of this was, I knew it was only a week, and I wasn’t injured. So as soon as the week was over, I was straight back to training, so psychologically it wasn’t as hard. But there were definitely similarities.”
He’s glad there’s more focus being given to mental health in sports now. “I think it’s just [getting] better for everyone,” says Thomas. “Especially coming from a male point of view, it’s been in the past a blokey thing not to share emotions, to bottle things up. I think women have been better than men at doing that, and it’s about time us guys realised it’s OK not to be OK.
“There are some fantastic mental health charities out there, and high-profile people who have come out to say they’ve had their own struggles and I think it normalises it, which is great, because it makes people realise, well, I’m not alone if I feel a bit low. Definitely, it’s good to talk about it, and it’s not a sign of weakness at all. It’s a sign of strength to reach out to someone and say, ‘Listen, I’m not feeling great, or I’ve got a couple of troubles’.”
It’s something he hopes to model for his sons. “Ted is a ‘threenager’ at the moment! He had a right wobble yesterday, they have tantrums, and it can be really hard [to ask them], ‘What are you screaming for?’ We try and explain to him it’s OK to get upset from time to time, you don’t have to lash out, just talk to us, and that’s what we did yesterday. I said, ‘Tell Daddy, use your words, what’s the matter?’ And it’s hard for him to communicate obviously, but I’ll definitely tell the boys as they’re growing up: ‘Listen, you can have days when you’re not feeling great. Just make sure you talk to someone’.”
He’s not going to “push” sports on them but hopes they’ll embrace its positive benefits.
“Sport teaches so many lessons, it has so many parallels with the real world – learning how to win, how to lose, how to get the best out of yourself, be a team player, whatever it might be. Teddy runs around everywhere, so I’ve got no doubt he’s going to do every sport there is, and I’ll definitely encourage him. So I’ll continue to encourage him to get on his bike and run around and be on a scooter, and just have fun really.”