An Interview with Dame Kelly Holmes at the GSK Human Performance Lab

I was recently invited by MaxiNutrition to join them for an evening at the Glaxo Smith Kline Human Performance Lab to learn about the facility and how the research being done there aids the development of MaxiNutrition products. I was really excited for this opportunity, not only because I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to nutrition and sports physiology, but because very few people gain access to this facility which is usually reserved for Britain's sporting elite. And, of course, I was eagerly anticipating meeting the lovely Dame Kelly Holmes. Read on to find out about what she eats to look and perform as amazing as she does, how she trains to burn fat and tone up, and what her ethos is.

The GSK HPL facility and the six pillars

During the tour, it was clear that the GSK HPL, opened in July 2013, is a state-of-the-art facility. The team here work with elite athletes and teams to improve performance, but also have a strong focus on research and development particularly with regard to understanding the role of protein (more on that soon!). One thing that was really clear from this event is that MaxiNutrition are using this research to try and make sports nutrition accessible and convenient for everyone's needs from these elite athletes to once-a-week runners.

The work at the HPL intends to accelerate the understanding of the role of six pillars: strengthstaminacognitionhydrationmetabolism and recovery. It's definitely worth taking a little trip to the GSK HPL website (just click on each of the six pillars listed above to take you to the relevant page) or to the GSK HPL YouTube channel to check out some amazing short videos featuring athletes undergoing testing on the different aspects, if it interests you as it does me. Another thing which is really impressive about the HPL is that they are dedicated to making their research findings as practical as possible. That's where Dame Kelly comes in...

Wonder what Kelly is doing running downhill on a giant treadmill? Running downhill lengthens the eccentric component of the muscle action, inducing more muscle damage. This allows the GSK HPL team to look at the effects of different interventions, such as protein, in offsetting the degradation of the muscle from muscle damage. Fascinating stuff! (That's the geek in me talking...)

Chatting with Dame Kelly

Kelly's role at the facility is as Technical Advisor. Having asked her what that entails, she told me "I sit on a panel of experts and most of them are scientists but I'm the 'applied person'; I'm somebody to put things into perspective." Kelly, with her wealth of experience, is here to remind the team that "on the ground there’s an athlete and a coach and you need to make your information very accessible and easy so that the science can be applied to the performer". This is an issue that Kelly is all too familiar with. She recalls when she used to do VO2 max tests, "it was very basic, my coach didn't understand it at all and we didn't know how to apply it to my training".

“As sports science moves on, performance enhances”

Talking about how Kelly has seen the science change over the years, she explains "when I first started [contrast bathing], it was just in a bath with cold water. Then it went from that to being in wheeley bin of ¾ ice and ¼ water and then going into a hot bath. I had that at Athens [where Kelly achieved two Olympic gold medals] as a recovery strategy". Now, as demonstrated at the HPL Hydro Lab, the baths are precisely temperature controlled. This is just one example of how technology within sports science has developed. Kelly recognises that "lots of sports people, especially in teams, use this to get that 1% gain [in performance]", which can make all the difference. 

Kelly Holmes on nutrition

In terms of nutrition, Kelly recollected that nutritional advice used to all be based on food, but after training hard, the last thing she would want to do was eat a meal and so struggled with the nutritional aspect of recovery. Now, Kelly is training for Duathlons but, as this isn't her full-time focus, her recovery strategy is far less time-intensive. Therefore, she relies a lot on convenient products such as recovery formulas. 

"I have a really bad sweet tooth"

"My days are absolutely hectic", Kelly says, "I found I was missing breakfast, which is the core meal of the day because you've fasted for however many hours you sleep, and I was feeling sluggish by 11o'clock and all I wanted was a sugar hit. I was just eating fast things that were giving me a bit of a buzz and filling me up. So I decided I'd got to eat smaller portions more often. I'll have porridge in the morning, and a protein shake after training, because it's quick and easy. Then I will have already prepared my sandwich or wrap, and that will be anything like chicken or turkey, with salad, mustard - all those things that are good and easy. My snacks now could be an apple and cottage cheese, or a protein bar, all things that are accessible to me". 

However, Kelly also admits "I always say to people still have your day when you can eat what you want. I have to! I love my food, I've got a really bad sweet tooth. I will be a bit more focused during the week but Saturday is my day. Everyone needs to switch off".

Kelly Holmes on training

Now that Kelly is training for Duathlons, she is spending time at the HPL doing physiological testing and trying to improve her performance on the bike because that's her opportunity for the biggest gains when competing, as she told me she is still suffering with her calves and achilles and so can't run as much as she did. "I'm trying to change my body. I've been running all my life and suddenly I'm getting on a bike, so I know what people feel like that are just starting training".

"I'm trying to change my body"

When I asked her about strength training, Kelly said "I do more HIIT training, it's an 'in thing' now but it's always something I've done, such as circuit training, but I do a lot of strength exercises within that. I do weight training for 'toning'. A lot of women are worried about it because it builds muscle. I've got a naturally muscular frame anyway but actually doing more weights has helped me burn fat and 'tone up' so I bring that into my training quite a lot".

Dame Kelly's ethos

"For me, to feel happy you have to feel happy on the inside and the outside. Some people think 'I don't like how I look' but actually if you start trying to make changes on the inside you feel better. I ask 'how do you feel as a person? Are you happy?' and if not, make those changes. They only have to be small. And from a fitness and activity point of view, set yourself a goal. Don't make a new year's resolution that you'll give up in two weeks' time, make a goal that you would like to achieve. It gives you a starting point to think 'how do I make those changes?' and it's more sustainable. It could just be to walk to work, or get off the tube early and walk two stops down!" 

"Are you happy? If not, make those changes"

"My goal this year was to do a Duathlon every month. I hadn't done anything competitive since I retired and this is my ten year anniversary of my two Olympic gold medal wins so I decided to set my own goal. I've done six [Duathlons] now. I'd never done it before in my life, struggled like you can't believe, but I feel good that I have that purpose".  

Kelly was incredibly friendly and inspiring and it was an absolute pleasure to spend time with her, and the rest of the team, at GSK HPL.