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Interview: Celebrity trainer Greg Whyte

Having trained the likes of Eddy Izzard and David Walliams to perform impressive physical feats, Greg Whyte believes the most difficult challenge is motivating ordinary people to take exercise more seriously

Think of any high-profile celebrity weeping tears of pain and sheer exhaustion as they swim the Channel, cycle the length of Britain, or run an absurd number of marathons in a row and it's likely that Greg Whyte will be literally and figuratively behind them.

A world-renowned sports scientist and 'physical activity guru', Professor Greg Whyte - to give him his correct title - has trained everyone from Eddie Izzard when the comedian ran 43 marathons in 51 days, James Cracknell's run, cycle and swim to Africa, Cheryl Cole's ascent of Kilimanjaro, and perhaps most famously David Walliams' cross-channel swim.

As professor in applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University, there is little that Greg doesn't know about the more extreme end of physical activity.

Describing himself as an “ultra-endurance nutter” on his Twitter biography, he came early to sport and exercise, and now he wants to pass on the exercise habit to create a nation of fitter, healthier, and hopefully happier people.

Having a sporting background is a good start for people wanting to live active lifestyles, and with a boxer father, and an uncle who was a professional footballer, Greg's environment as a child pushed him towards a sporting life.

“I started training as a swimmer at the age of six, which meant a 5.30 start each morning and some evenings as well,” he says. “It also meant I spent a lot of time smelling of chlorine.”

“But it's a tough life as an athlete, and not nearly as glamorous as everyone thinks it is, but you do it because you enjoy it and love it, and that is what we are driving for.”

By the time he was 15, he'd moved on to the modern pentathlon - fencing, swimming, show jumping, cross country running, and shooting - as Greg admits, an unusual sport for a boy from Luton.

He made the Great Britain modern pentathlon squad for the 1988 Olympics held in Seoul, South Korea, and he actually competed at the next two Olympic Games in 1992 and 1996. He has won a world championship silver medal and a European bronze medal in the discipline.

Once finished with his athletic career he plunged into academia with similar enthusiasm, rattling off a BSc, MSc and then PhD, before forging a career as one of the pre-eminent sports scientists, not only in the UK, but internationally.

He held posts as director of science and research at the English Institute of Sport, and as director of research for the British Olympic Association based at the Olympic Medical Institute. And in between all this he's continued to keep himself ultra-fit, completing huge swims across the English Channel, from the UK to Africa, and even from Britain to the US. In fact, from the British Virgin Islands to the US Virgin Islands, a swim of 90 minutes - still tough for mere mortals - is light work for someone of his calibre.

And his secret when taking part in such gruelling events, and the essence of his advice to the celebrities he trains? Keep going.

“There are nutritional factors and technical factors, but much of it is about hard work, which is fundamental to life not just these sort of events,” he says.

“Hard work permeates everything, that's a given. Then it's a whole cascade of things. Belief is key. People I'm working with have to move to a position where they think they can be successful. 

“Some of these challenges are very, very big and there is always that concern that they may not be possible. Belief is underpinned by confidence and that is why a structured programme of training is important to develop physical capacity.”

Planning is everything when training for an event, and Greg makes sure that the training programmes he draws up focus on encouraging his athletes to do the things that they hate well.

“For most of us our default position is to do the things we're good at, but improving those is not necessarily that important, because failure tends to come from those weak links in the chain,” he says.

“The skill of a coach or educator is to spot those. I dissect the determinants of performance, what is key to bring success, then I identify strengths and weaknesses, which are always different, and that is why bespoke coaching is absolutely key. One size doesn't fit all.”

The amount of time he has to train his charges varies, but generally speaking it isn't very long. He's coached 22 celebrities through major physical challenges so far. When David Walliams swum the Channel, Greg devised a nine-month programme that started with six hours of training a week, rising to 18 hours. Davina McCall completed her extraordinary 500-mile swim, bike and run for Sport Relief on only two-and-a-half months of training.

“The one thing you don't see on the documentaries about these challenges is the process,” Greg says.

“In most of these type of challenges people train for most of their life, and these guys don't have that sort of time. But what they do have is tenacity. These guys know how to work hard, and what's important is that they are not afraid of failure. Many people lack vision for various reasons, 

but these guys know how to deal with failure, they know what success is, and they have had to work hard to get there.”

Coaxing such motivated people through massive physical challenges is easy, however, compared with the enormous problem at the other end of the physical activity spectrum to which Greg is beginning to devote his time.

“One of the key factors is that whenever we talk about physical activity, someone will change it to sport, and actually sport lies at one end of the spectrum and is the least important,” he says. UK Active, a pressure group of which Greg is chair of its scientific research board, recently published a report, broken down to boroughs, which showed that in some parts of the country 40% of the population were completing less than 30 minutes of activity a week.

“That is really where our targeting should be,” says Greg.

“Targeting sports participation and even exercising is possibly misdirected. Standing and sitting, taking the stairs, taking the kids to the park, all these things need to build in activity to everyday life to make it habitual. “We talk about doing 150 minutes of activity a week but for people in the lower quartile you might as well ask them to walk to the moon they are so far away from that goal, and it is actually counterproductive. 

“People need small steps first, short term goals, followed by medium term goals, then long term goals and we go straight to long term goals. We need to set activity goals that are realistic and achievable.”

Greg is determined to use his knowledge and expertise of endurance performance to help a wider group of people than those wanting to run over mountains or canoe around the world.

“I look after exercise for people with cancer and pulmonary disease to celebrity challenges and Olympians,” he says.

“The process is very similar, the physiology and psychology is similar, whether it's an Olympic gold medal, the summit of Everest, or major surgery for cancer. Each of those is a major challenge and what we do know is that physical activity has a profound effect on performance and outcome.”