Sally Gunnell: ‘I’ll still be going to the gym at 90’
- Credit: Jim Holden
Olympic champion Sally Gunnell, of Fulking, West Sussex, has no plans of slowing down in her 50s and says we can all be fitter and healthier with a few simple tweaks to our lifestyle
Photographs: Jim Holden
For a woman who was the fastest in the world, middle age crept up slowly on Sally Gunnell.
‘First, it was just putting on a little bit of weight around my middle even though I wasn’t eating any more,’ she says. ‘Then I started having hot sweats after drinking too much wine, and then I discovered I needed to work out differently as my old routine wasn’t have the same effect anymore.’
Eventually Sally realised her hangovers, that extra 3lbs on her tummy and the necessity to overhaul her daily exercise was down to just one thing: her age.
‘I was coming up to 50 and was dreading leaving my 40s behind,’ the Olympic gold medallist, who lives in Fulking, West Sussex, admits. ‘I realised that all of the things I’d noticed were down to my hormones changing. It was all part of ageing. I understood if I drank too much wine I was going to have hot flushes, and that this was all part of the beginning of the menopause. Once I knew that, then I just had to adapt.’
After the landmark birthday, Sally realised she’d been worrying over nothing.
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‘Being 50 was a great age. I’ve been at my happiest since entering my 50s. I’m 55 now, even though I thought I was 54. I seem to have lost a year somewhere! I’m more laid back and chilled now. It’s because my hormones have changed, and I’m being kinder to myself and not giving myself such a hard time. I now know it’s OK to have a bad day.’
While it’s hard to imagine a bad day for the former Olympic champion – she won gold in the 400 metres hurdles at the 1992 Olympics held in Barcelona –and is the only female British athlete to have won Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth titles, she insists she does have them.
‘Some days I don't feel like I'm getting older and other days it hits me like a ton of bricks,’ she confessed on Twitter recently. The outpouring of empathy and understanding was overwhelming – along with questions from other women desperate to know her secrets for looking so slim and youthful.
‘I don’t eat late now. I start my day at 6am and eat more fruit and veg,’ Sally says. ‘I disguise my veg in soup, and I buy them from the local farm shop so it’s local and fresher.
‘I try not to eat many carbs and I’ve taught myself it’s OK to be hungry. We always eat because we’re hungry but it’s alright to feel hungry for an hour or so.
‘I try to eat healthily all through the week and will give myself a treat on a Friday night.
‘I have a sweet tooth which I always used to give into but now I’m full on fruit and veg, so I’m not picking at chocolate.’
Sally was the first female 400m hurdler to win both the World and Olympic titles and break the world record. Incredibly, her record-breaking time of 52.74 seconds, made in 1993, was in the all-time top 10 until this year and is still the current British record.
Sally still runs – taking part in half marathons for charity – but she now prefers to walk her dogs, Diggie, a chocolate Labrador and Luna, a yellow Labrador, over the Downs near her home, ride her bike around the countryside, and do weights in her gym.
‘Everyone expects me to be fast, but speed is the first thing to go,’ Sally says. ‘If you don’t keep up that intense training, you can’t run fast. I don’t think I could even get over a set of hurdles now.’
At 5ft 5ins, and weighing just 9st 4lb, Sally still loves working out, but she now says she fits it into her life, rather than let it rule it. ‘Sometimes I’ll just do a few squats and push ups in 15 minutes,’ the mother of three sons – Finley, 23, Luca, 20 and Marley, 16, - says. ‘I’m never going to be an athlete again, and those days of training twice a day for up to six hours a day are long gone.
‘Now I do exercise for my mental health as much as for my body. It makes me happy and keeps me strong. I want to keep active and still be exercising and working when I’m in my 70s, 80s and 90s.’
She looks to her husband Jonathan Bigg’s father Jon as a role model.
‘He’s 90 and goes to the gym twice a week,’ Sally says. ‘He comes over and works out and is amazing. He’s our inspiration. I definitely want to be like that. I’ll still be going to the gym when I’m 90. We both will.’
Sally and Jonathan,56, who trains athletes, are exceptionally fit, despite her protestations, but they’re keen to share the lessons they’re learning on what to eat and which exercises to do to keep in shape.
‘Getting older used to be something to dread,’ she says. ‘No one wants to think of themselves as middle aged, over the hill or old. But 50 is the new 30, and we are all living longer and being more independent and making the most out of every moment.’
That’s why she and Jonathan have created a space on her website to talk about optimising your age. The couple want to inform and inspire others approaching their 50s and show how they can become happier and fitter.
‘Getting older is nothing to be scared of,’ Sally says. ‘We don’t conform to what society think of as oldies. We’re making the most of our experiences and we want to let others know that you only need to make some tweaks and you can still be in great shape, and feeling your best. We’re evangelising about optimising your age.
‘I love the idea that at 70 and 80 we will still be able to work and have a career we love. Life’s not over just because you hit a certain age, and we want everyone to understand that.’
As well as exercise tips, the new topic on her website – which her son Luca helped build – will also give advice on coping with stress, the importance of learning to switch off, and what to eat to stop the onset of middle-age spread.
‘Jon is getting a lot of questions from men too and he’s focusing on exercises that won’t put too much of a strain on your body. It’s a joint venture, and we will do podcasts, and give lots of recommendations for things we’ve tried and liked.’
Apart from launching the discussion on her website sallygunnell.com this month, Sally has a busy year ahead. ‘It’s our 30th wedding anniversary, Luca will be 21 and Jon’s dad is 90 so we’ll be celebrating a lot,’ she laughs.
‘It will also be 30 years since I won at Barcelona, so there are lots of big plans being made. We’re definitely going to party.’
What Sally eats
Breakfast: a shot of lemongrass with ginger and honey that I make the night before.
11am: home-made smoothie with walnuts, cranberry juice, spinach, cereal, and protein powder
Lunch: butternut squash or minestrone soup. ‘I’m not a veg person so this is a way of getting my five a day. I buy it all from my local garden centre.’
Dinner: chicken fajitas or a stir fry or home-made spaghetti Bolognese. ‘I don’t eat much red meat and have fish once a week.’ On a Friday, we might have a take-away. We like Chinese, Thai and Indian.
Drinks: ‘I do love my wine. We’ll share a bottle of red, white or rose once a week. The rest of the time I try to stick to water.’
Sally on her life in Sussex:
We’ve spent the last year doing up our new house in Fulking. It’s very different to the place we had for 20 years in Steyning, but we love it. We go walking a lot as we’re at the foot of the South Downs and we go up to the top to see the sea. We enjoy visiting Knepp Castle, near Horsham, where there’s a fascinating rewilding project. It uses free roaming animals to create new habitats for wildlife. We’re also into gardening. I do love my gardening.