Meet the man who turns mortals into elite athletes
Meet the man who turns mortals into elite athletes.
Professor Greg Whyte is the man behind David Walliams’ swim up the Thames, Eddie Izzard’s back-to-back marathons and is now training Davina McCall for a brutal endurance stunt in aid of Sport Relief. Theo Merz finds out how he does it.
We’re in Professor Greg Whyte’s Harley Street clinic, where the sports scientist is being bombarded with text messages from Davina McCall. “She texts me 20 times a day, then she tweets me, then she’ll send me a message on Facebook. If it’s really urgent she’ll give me a call.”
This isn’t just a symptom of the hyperactivity which characterises McCall’s presenting style on shows such as Big Brother and Long Lost Family. With just over two weeks to go until the brutal endurance challenge she has taken on to raise funds for Sport Relief, she has good reason to want to be in constant contact with her trainer.
When she first started working with Whyte – an Olympian and former international pentathlete – she was suffering from problems with her hip and achilles, hadn’t run any real distance in six years and was out of breath after 25 metres in the pool. (This may come as a surprise to anyone who has bought one of her fitness DVDs, though Whyte explains she had good anaerobic fitness but little endurance.)
But three months later she is almost ready to run, swim and cycle the 500 miles from Edinburgh to London for the BT Sport Relief Challenge- a journey that will see her cycle 130 miles on the first day alone, swim across Lake Windermere, scale Scafell Pike and culminate in a full marathon.
If McCall is anxious, though, Whyte has no reason to be. The 46-year-old – who normally divides his time between an academic role at Liverpool John Moores University and treating patients at the Centre for Health and Human Performance in London – has been involved with Comic and Sport Relief for years and has a history of turning celebrities into endurance athletes. He was the man who trained David Walliams to swim the channel and later the Thames, got Eddie Izzard running 43 marathons in 51 days and prepared Chris Moyles, Cheryl Cole and Gary Barlow to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, amongst other challenges.
So how does he do it? It’s hard to reconcile the genial, suited Whyte sitting in this consulting room with the aggressive training it must have taken to get McCall in shape during their five-hour weekly sessions.
“For me, the most important step is commitment,” he says. “If they want to do it I can get them through it. I always make sure they understand the challenge and that we set targets – not just the ultimate goal but short-term goals, all the way through. Every time they make one that’s a big tick in the belief box, and then the confidence rises.”
Even the most out of shape celebrities, Whyte claims, have a resilience built up from years of setbacks as they struggled to reach the top of their chosen profession. “Chris Moyles was probably one of the most unfit men I’ve ever met when he first started the Kilimanjaro challenge. For him, a long walk was from the pub door to the taxi and he would have to have about 12 cigarettes on the way. But what I love about Chris is that he applied himself, because he’s part of that group that understand what hard work is all about.
“People ask me what the difference is between working with a celebrity and working with an elite athlete. There’s virtually no difference at all, it’s just a question of what tools they have. They both have the work ethic, they know what misery is and they know they can get through those dark periods.”
Which is not to say there’s no hope for us mere mortals. According to Whyte, the secret is finding a tangible challenge rather than promising to go to the gym three times a week or get your body ready for summer. This doesn’t have to be an epic undertaking like McCall or Walliams but it should involve the activity you enjoy the most and be big enough to impress your friends and family.
“How it’s perceived externally is actually very important in keeping you motivated. It doesn’t have to be a marathon. There’s so much out there. Cycling’s big at the moment, or you can try open water swimming. Then you’ve got all those adventure races like Tough Mudder, which aren’t so much about the time you get but just about completing it.”
The key for anyone thinking of taking on a fitness challenge is information – and it doesn’t matter whether this information comes from websites, books or Harley Street physicians. “You need to understand how fit you really are, but you can find a quick fitness test online and go and do it in the park. Sports science just acts as a shortcut; the more you know, the more effective your training will be.”
In the spirit of getting informed, Whyte offers to give me a quick fitness test at the end of the interview, hooking me up to a heart monitor and putting a breathing apparatus over my face as I cycle. (He calls it the Hannibal Lecter mask; Whyte hopes he’s not breaching patient confidentiality if he reveals Sir Anthony Hopkins has been to the Centre and actually worn it.)
After 15 minutes of increasingly strenuous peddling and some unexpectedly forceful encouragement – “squeeze…SQUEEZE” – Whyte tells me that I have the level of fitness one would expect for my age and gender, which is a relief as I’ve always avoided tests like these for fear of finding out I have the body of a 60-year-old smoker. “I don’t really like using the word average, but that’s more or less what you are,” he says. “Still, you can always go from ordinary to extraordinary.”
For the moment, I’ll just be sponsoring Davina.