How Jo Pavey Learned To 'Enjoy' The Journey And Not Get Beaten By Results

"I’m probably not in my prime," says the 46-year-old, sometimes dubbed the 'granny' of the track. But she's set her sights on the 2020 Olympics.
Jo Pavey
Ian MacNicol / Getty Images / HuffPost UK
Jo Pavey

Head In The Game sees athletes across a variety of disciplines speak candidly about their mental wellbeing – from occasional periods of poor mental health to ongoing, sometimes debilitating, struggles with mental illness. They also share coping mechanisms and the support they’ve turned to during their lowest points.

Jo Pavey jokes that she’s “famous for being old”. In 2014, at age 40, the runner became the oldest woman ever to claim gold at a European Championships. Now, she has her sights set on her sixth Olympic Games. If she competes in Tokyo this summer, she’ll be just shy of 47.

“When I won at the European championships, I got a double-barrelled surname. I was referred to as ‘Jo Pavey-Forty’,” she laughs. “Then when I went to my fifth Olympics in Rio, people used to call me ‘Granny’ – I was so much older than my teammates, they were practically 20 years younger than me. I thought it was funny, really. It sounds cliche, but age is just a number.”

Laughing off the naysayers and running against the odds has been vital for maintaining a sense of identity and boosting her wellbeing, says Pavey, who’s mum to 10-year-old Jacob and six-year-old Emily.

“When I got to a certain age in my career and had kids, I thought maybe I wouldn’t have time to exercise and continue being an athlete, but keeping going has been brilliant for my mental health,” she says. “It makes me feel better about myself and more in control of other aspects of my life.”

Reuters Staff / Reuters

Pavey is fully aware that her goal of competing in Tokyo is ambitious. Some might say brazen.

“I know it’s a big ask,” she says. “As I get older, it’s harder to hit the times and there’s a lot of talented girls in the UK that you have to compete against [to get a place]. But I feel like if I keep injury-free, it could be a realistic target.”

For Pavey, the key to staying positive when faced with such a daunting challenge is to focus on enjoying the journey – whatever the final outcome.

“As I get older, I enjoy the challenge of seeing how well I can still run. I know realistically I’m probably not in my prime, but I still enjoy the challenge of trying to achieve my goal,” she says.

“If I don’t make it, I want to look back and say, ‘Well, I’ve enjoyed carrying on with my running, I’ve enjoyed getting active with my family, I’ve enjoyed trying to achieve something.’”

Pavey does believe she has one clear advantage over her younger counterparts, however, and that’s the mental resilience you gain with age. Throughout her career, she’s learned not to be derailed by disappointments – and they’ve been plentiful. In 2004, she had high hopes for the Athens Olympics when she tore her calf muscle. Then, four years later, she says she was in “the form of my life” for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, only to be struck down with food poisoning the day before her race.

“I felt really dizzy and sick. I felt so ill going to do the race – I completed it, but I was well down on the time that I was hoping for and didn’t run the way I had been in training,” she recalls.

“It was disappointing and in some ways you feel like you’ve let everyone down. Your family, your friends and everyone who’s supported you. It was bad, really tough.”

Jo Pavey after winning the women's 10,000 metres race during the European Athletics Championships in 2014.
Phil Noble / Reuters
Jo Pavey after winning the women's 10,000 metres race during the European Athletics Championships in 2014.

Pavey dealt with the disappointments by taking a step back and asking herself, “What can I learn from this?” Every injury has taught her something about training, she says, and the food poisoning taught her to be extra vigilant about what she eats before competing – even inside the supposedly sanitised walls of the Olympic Village where the athletes stay during the games.

“When I talk to young athletes now, I say there will be ups and downs. Part of a sporting career is that it won’t always be rosey and things won’t always go perfectly,” she says. “There will be times when things don’t go to plan and you have to rethink and focus on what you’ve learned from that.”

Pressure on sports stars to perform comes from all angles – friends, family, coaches, fans and the media – she says, but none are felt more acutely than the pressure from sponsors.

“I’ve been really happy with sponsors I’ve had more recently, but in the past when I was a younger athlete I did have those pressures of hitting certain times and reaching certain standards in order to maintain a sponsorship contract,” she says. “Then there’s the issue of being pregnant, of course, and having those expectations with my previous sponsor.”

Pavey is referring to Nike, her former sponsor, which froze her contract when she became pregnant with Jacob and again with Emily. Last year, Pavey joined a chorus of sportswomen condemning Nike’s maternity policy. The company says it’s since changed its policies to ensure that “no female athlete is penalised financially for pregnancy”.

But the financial implications of underperforming “do play on your mind and can add stress”, says Pavey, adding that the support of her husband Gavin has helped her navigate sponsorship tension in the past. She’s also an advocate of social running, joining her local Parkrun regularly and not taking it too seriously.

“As far as running and mental health, it’s all about getting out in beautiful scenery and really taking in your environment,” she says. “The running community is a really positive thing to be part of. It’s not just about the fitness side of it, it’s the social side of getting out, being with other people and encouraging each other.

“When you get back in, you feel good about yourself. You feel like you’re more able to get through life’s challenges.”

It’s that pure and simple love of running that started Pavey’s competing way back in secondary school, and as she eyes up her next target, she reminds us there’s been far more highs than lows.

“I’ve had times when, yes, it’s been stressful and there’s been disappointments,” she reflects. “But all in all, if I look back at what lifestyle sport has given me along the way, all the amazing people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had, I feel extremely fortunate.”

Head In The Game
Getty Images / HuffPost UK
Head In The Game
Head In The Game interviewees: (top, left to right) Frank Bruno, Jordanne Whiley, Becky Downie, Elise Christie, Andrew Strauss; (bottom, left to right) Rebecca Adlington, Liam Broady, Eniola Aluko, Marcus Trescothick, Jo Pavey.
Getty Images / HuffPost UK
Head In The Game interviewees: (top, left to right) Frank Bruno, Jordanne Whiley, Becky Downie, Elise Christie, Andrew Strauss; (bottom, left to right) Rebecca Adlington, Liam Broady, Eniola Aluko, Marcus Trescothick, Jo Pavey.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email:
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on