In this edition of our ‘In the Pen‘ interview series, we talk to Martin Yelling. Read on for his advice for new runners, discover who inspires him, learn how running has been a constant thread throughout his life, and much more.
Introducing Martin Yelling
Martin is well known as:
- Co-host of the long-running podcast, Marathon Talk;
- Former élite athlete and Great Britain international;
- Coach at Yelling Performance, alongside his wife, Liz (an Olympian), and sister, Hayley (also a former élite athlete);
- Expert coach for the London Marathon;
- A founder of Stormbreak, a charity that aims to improve children’s mental health through movement.
Running has been a part of Martin’s life for over forty years, and we are grateful to him for taking the time to talk to us, answer our ‘In the Pen’ interview questions, and share some of his experience with the Lonely Goat Running Club community.
1. Why do you run?
The answer to this has changed over the years I’ve been a runner
I now run for physical and mental health. Because I’m getting a bit older, I want everything to still function, so my goal now is a long, healthy life style. Previously, I ran to try and run faster.
2. What motivates you?
This depends on many, many things, but mostly what’s going on in my life at that particular moment. It could be driven by the fact that I’d set myself a target or a goal (which is less likely now as I’m not a particularly goal-oriented person).
The motivation used to come from seconds or minutes, or arbitrary times. Now the motivation comes from “What do I need from this run? What do I need my running to give me at this moment?” That might be “I’d like to go and work hard,” or “I want to do a run from A to B in a particular time just because it’s fun to do so.”
The only person I’m being competitive with is myself. I think I’m quite self motivated so I can choose my motivations for a particular period.
3. What’s your advice for new runners?
I would say “Don’t doubt yourself, and be more patient. You can achieve more than you think you can.” This doesn’t necessarily mean you can achieve everything straightaway, but it does mean that you can keep going when perhaps you thought you couldn’t.
What happens with new runners is often they are too full of self-doubt, so they question themselves a lot and think they can’t do it. They can, but sometimes they’re just not patient enough.
Many new runners yo-yo their training. They get excited, do a lot too soon, and then run out of enthusiasm quite quickly. You see this characteristically in January, where people start running on the first of January, and then three weeks later they either have no motivation, are properly pissed off with it all, or injured.
Manage your expectations
If you’re a new runner it’s much better to be really kind to yourself and not ‘over-promise and under-deliver’ to yourself.
When you over-promise, the likelihood is you’ll under-deliver, get frustrated or disappointed, and stop. Whereas if you under-promise, just a little bit, then it’s more likely you will over-deliver. Then, your motivation stays higher because you’re making constant progress, rather than yo-yo-ing and stop-starting – which is what typically results in new runners packing it in.
Be patient. Be kind. Be committed. Keep going.
Running doesn’t define you
Also, it’s really important to accept, when you’re a runner, that it doesn’t define who you are. So, contrary to popular belief, the time you run a marathon in, or your Strava segment splits, or your race times don’t define your identity as a human being.
It’s like when you meet somebody for the first time and you default to asking them what job they do, but it doesn’t really matter what job they do. When you meet a runner for the first time, you might default into asking them how fast they’ve run a particular distance, when it shouldn’t really matter. What matters is what runs they enjoy, or what they get out of running.
4. What did you used to do when running that you don’t do now?
I used to obsess about running. Whether you’re after an elite performance, a personal best, or the highest standard of performance you want to achieve at whatever level you’re at, you need to push yourself. Sometimes, therefore, a little obsession is a necessary characteristic, but not when it controls you.
Runners can occasionally be a strange, absurd breed of people. It’s really unhealthy to obsess about things and you should always control your running, rather than have your running control you. One of the ways in which you know that your running is controlling you is when you’re so obsessive about something – such as hitting a particular mileage – that you can’t let it go. Your running has such a tight hold on you that you cannot show enough flexibility or adaptability to not do it. That’s when things can cause problems for you as a runner.
The problem with obsession
A worst case scenario is: you become so obsessed with counting distance or miles that you end up getting injured because you didn’t listen to your body enough. For example: If few months ago a runner starts to get a little niggle, that was their body warning them about becoming a little bit too obsessive. But they carried on regardless and now have got an injury that needs three months to recover from.
That focus on constantly pushing and pushing and pushing, and more is more, and more is better, isn’t always the best way to get the result you want. If you want to run quicker, run for longer, or run further then most likely “more more more” isn’t going to be better.
Balance is important
It’s really important to have a more rounded and balanced approach to your running where you own the process. When you focus on the process of your running, over the outcome of your running, you obsess less about seconds and segments and heartbeats per minute, and you increase your chances of achieving the goal that you’ve set yourself.
I never count the miles I run in a week, now. Ever. Whereas, rewind to me as a 25 year old athlete trying to run as fast as I could, and I was counting miles.
I never count distance now, because I can let distance come and go. I can let time and seconds come and go. I can dig into competition with other people, or myself, but I can also let it go.
5. Where’s your favourite place to run?
I’ve got lots of different favourite places, and I wish I could narrow it down to one.
In the UK, my favourite place to run is along the South West Coast Path. It’s a fantastic place to run and we’re lucky to have a part of it on our doorstep.
I love to run in mountains, with nobody around. We [Martin and his wife, Liz, a former elite runner] used to host some running camps in the Alps, and that is a magical place to be.
I used to run a lot in Boulder in Colorado, so the foothills of the Rockies are probably my third best place to run.
6. Is there anywhere you would like to run that you haven’t?
I’m not a very good city runner, so somewhere remote would be good, like the wilderness of Alaska.
I have been lucky in that when I was training a lot, that enabled a bit of travel. Also, I never go anywhere without my trainers, so I’ve run in quite a lot of places. I’ve run in Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, and the USA, but never in the wilderness.
7. What do you like most about running on your own?
I like running on my own because I’m fully in control of my ‘engine’ on that day. If I want to go and rinse myself, without worrying about the intensity or anyone else, then I can just go and do it. I like that element of controlling the run.
And sometimes, I just want to run on my own and not have to chat with anyone.
8. Do you listen to music, or do you prefer silence when running?
I sometimes listen to music, but not very often. I’m very led by how I’m feeling that day. If I listen to music, it’s old school dance classics and Ibiza anthems.
Despite being a podcaster, I don’t tend to listen to podcasts when running, unless there’s an interview with somebody that I particularly want to catch up on.
I find one of the things I enjoy about running outside is experiencing the elements in every sense. I want to feel the wind, the rain, or the warmth of the sun. I want to hear the noises of where I am. You don’t get that if your ears are being consumed by man-made sound.
9. Do you have any favourite running books?
I’m rubbish at reading books about running. I’ve got a bookcase full of books about running, but I’ve not read many of them. I love reading, but I just don’t really read running books.
That said, I’ve read The Brave Athlete, by my friend, Simon Marshall, and his wife Leslie Patterson, in which they write all about how to become a better athlete. And I read an old book on Gordon Pirie [1950s Olympian], which is very old now, which I enjoyed.
If I was going to read a running book, I would prefer it to be an account with some substance, something which is exciting.
10. Are you a parkrunner?
Yes. In fact, I helped set up a lot of parkrun stuff in the early days. I helped set up Poole parkrun and Poole juniors. I ran the very first Poole parkrun and have been involved with parkrun for the last ten years.
Paul Sinton-Hewitt, who is the founder of parkrun, is also a trustee of Stormbreak.
Running is something which has been an amazing feature for me, for the last 42 years of my 49 years of life. That’s why we founded Stormbreak. It’s a charity that uses movement to help children’s mental health.
We try and teack kids mental health skills and strategies and coping techniques through simple movements. We’re trying to do more work with schools and community organisations, so check out Stormbreak.org.uk, particularly if you’re a teacher and you’re looking for a mental health programme to start in schools.
11. Who inspires you?
I always find that difficult to answer, because I don’t do idols, really. Typically, the people that inspire me are people that demonstrate incredible human qualities I like. I find that behaviour inspiring.
For example, just because somebody runs fast, I don’t really find them inspiring. Whereas I am inspired if somebody has overcome a personal grief, or they’ve set out on a journey to heal themselves or somebody else with the running they do. People that showcase the best human qualities are those I find inspiring.
I work a lot with the London Marathon and every year I see lots of stories of people who have worked with adversity in their life and then they go and run a marathon! Wow, that’s tough. To overcome something, and then use running to you help you do that, and shape other people’s view of the world through your achievement: That’s much better than simply going quick.
Of course, I find some fast performances astonishing, but I don’t necessarily think the owners of those performances are inspiring.
12. What achievements are you most proud of?
I’d probably segment this into things I’m proud of from a performance perspective, and other achievements.
It was good to finish in the top 10 of the English National Cross Country Championships, and to win a medal at the ‘Three-As’ [the Amateur Athletic Association of England National Championships]. It was good to have gone under 30 minutes for 10K, and pull on a Great Britain vest to race internationally.
So from a performance point of view, I think I’m proud of getting what (at the time) I thought was the most out of myself. In hindsight I think I probably could have got a little bit more by being more wise.
It’s always hard, because I was surrounded by very high performances. Liz, my wife, went to the Olympic Games, won a medal at the Commonwealth Games and could run a marathon at a crazy-fast pace. Performance is not something that really drives me now, though.
I think I’m also proud of the podcast, ‘Marathon Talk’. We’ve been doing it for ten years and have had over ten million downloads. I’m proud of the community of people that represents. I think I’m quite proud of runners, generally speaking. I think they represent lots of good things. And if I’ve had a tiny part in shaping what those runners believe over the last ten or fifteen years in that field, then that’s good. I used to write a lot of magazine articles, books, and online articles, so I guess I’m proud of having some tiny imprint in people’s running lives.
13. What is your next challenge?
I’ve got no performance goals now because I’ve done so much in running, and my wife has achieved so much, too. When you frame running in that performance-oriented way it doesn’t really motivate us anymore, but we do have goals.
I’d quite like to run the South West Coast Path with Liz, as a ‘one-er’. Just do the whole thing, take our time and enjoy it. I’d like to do something like a self-supported trail run, like the coast-to-coast. But again, I’m not bothered about ‘fastest known times’ or doing it as quickly as I can do it. I’m bothered about engaging with the journey and taking it in.
I’d quite like to run across the Alps too. There is a 5,000 kilometre route which goes all across the Alps and I think when I’m older I’d like to string some pretty serious sections of those Alpine routes together.
I’d like to run a marathon with the kids one day – and not get taken down by all of them! That would be quite good.
14. Do you have any funny running stories?
The thing for me is I’m lucky that running is threaded through my life in so many ways. Liz, my wife, is a runner. My sister, Hayley, used to be a runner, with a 31 minute 10K PB – she never used to hang about! Running has been a constant, so there’s not necessarily stand-out funny little bits and pieces.
I’ve got some great running memories though, and most of my stories come from people I’ve run with. I love going running with Eddie Izzard [comedian and ultramarathoner], who I used to help coach, as we would stop and tell each other fun stories as we’re running.
I’ve been lucky enough to run with some incredibly fast African athletes and I’m puffing and they’re gliding like a gazelle. I’ve also been lucky enough to be coached by some brilliant coaches who would shout at me to stop me running too much, or push me when I needed it: George Gandy, who died recently; Les Brown, my fellow British Milers Club coach; Alex and Rosemary Stanton, who coached Paula Radcliffe. Those guys have shaped the way in which we see running and the running world.
Marathon Talk at Comrades
There are tons of stories from when me and Tom Williams [co-host of Marathon Talk, and Chief Operating Officer of parkrun] did the Comrades Marathon in 2011. We were podcasting early and not so many people were podcasting back then. We were walking up Table Mountain just before the race, chatting away, and someone came over and said “Hey, are you Tom and Martin from Marathon Talk?” That was unbelievable; that we were up Table Mountain and there’s somebody there that listens to the podcast. I love stuff like that.
15. How can people follow you online?
16. Is there anything else you would like to mention?
I would urge people to keep in touch with why you run. Focus on what running can do for you, and how you can use that to help running impact the lives of other people. Look outward rather than inward.
Running in the Midpack
I’ve got a book coming out, written with Anji Andrews, called Running in the Midpack: How to be a Strong, Successful and Happy Runner. It’s out on 4th February 2021, published by Bloomsbury, and you can pre-order it.
Thank you, Martin!
A massive thank you to Martin Yelling for taking the time to talk to Lonely Goat for our ‘In the Pen’ interview series.