Meet the athlete - Imogen Walsh
Updated: Jan 17, 2021
Imogen is one of Great Britain's most successful female rowers. She has won multiple medals at the World and European Championships over her career. This interview details her last few years in the GB Rowing Team and what has happened since.
I first met Imogen, around 10 years ago, at a GB Rowing dinner with my partner, Tom. She probably has no recollection but I remember being totally in awe. I'd never met someone who looked so athletic, lean and ripped! It turns out she's also one of the smartest, friendliest and interesting people I've had the privilege to get to know a little. Since then the occasional chats at rowing events have progressed into being part of the same book club and keeping in touch about mini-adventures we're doing.
I knew about Imogen's rowing career and, more recently, I knew a bit about her struggles with overtraining syndrome but I wanted to find out more. I asked her some fairly difficult questions - huge kudos to Imogen for being so honest about her experiences.
My biggest achievement in rowing... on paper, it would be the two World Champ golds, but actually what stands out for me personally, are two less obvious ones. First of all winning the Wingfield Sculls, an invitational race on the Thames, in single sculls, side by side, over the boat race course. The number of entries varies year to year, but this particular year had a really high standard field, including the current GB women’s single sculler, and other multiple Olympians. I was 100% the underdog but managed to come away with the win. It was probably the most gruelling race I have ever done! The other memorable one for me, for both good and bad reasons, was taking silver in the lightweight single at the World Champs in 2015. It was the year in which I had been taken out of training (due to overtraining syndrome), from October to January, then on moderated training until March. I was in such a bad way in October that the team doctor didn’t think I’d be competing at all that season, and in truth my fitness by the summer was still a long way from what it had been prior to illness. But the technical focus that period gave me meant that I could still improve my boat speed. This race has really mixed emotions, because on the one hand I had come so far from being told not even to walk for too long at a time, to competing at this level, whilst on the other hand I was no longer in the only Olympic class boat for lightweight women, the double scull. The GB lightweight double also took silver at these championships, which I knew pretty much meant my olympic hopes were over - the selectors were unlikely to change the line-up of the double after their performance.
My overtraining - I think this came about for two reasons: one my inbuilt approach to training, and the other was the attempts to change my physical stature. I have always been small for a lightweight rower, sitting at or under the required weight. Normally, lightweight athletes will sit a good bit above race weight in the winter, coming down to just above race weight in the summer, and then making weight on race day by gut emptying and sweating. By being underweight, I was seen to be giving away speed to opposition; why be underweight when you could be carrying more muscle? There is rationale in the theory for sure, and eager for any gains on offer I willingly took on extra coach-led weight training in the Autumn/ Winter of 2014. However, in a volume-based program, spending hours each day churning out low intensity mileage, the gains were minimal, but the fatigue was significant. There were physiological warning signs (heart rate, lactate, the need to see physio which I hadn’t required before), but these were ignored. Alongside all this, I have a stubborn streak! And I actually really enjoy long endurance work (hence my current attraction to ultra events), and so I ploughed on with it all, despite the aforementioned physiological warning signs. The speeds in the boat and on the machine were getting worse, and a constant level of fatigue and joint pain that was beyond “normal”. In hindsight I should have called time on it but didn’t. But in the same vein, when you are in professional sports situation, you put your faith and trust in the those setting the program and hope they will push you when is right and hold you back when it’s right too. Unfortunately for me, holding me back only happened when things had gone too far.
No, I didn’t have a normal menstrual cycle and still don’t. It was discussed if you brought it up, which, when I had my overtraining and it was found that my oestrogen levels were so low as to be off the readable scale, I was sent to see a gynaecologist. However, had this not flagged it, I’m not sure if I would have brought it up and it wouldn’t have been tested. Whilst I realise it was up to me to say something, I think more could be done to make sure it’s something that the individual does mention if something is awry. It should be put on the table for discussion as much as any other metric.
Looking back, I can see why I did what I did. It was my faith in the program and ability to persevere when my body was telling me to stop, that in some ways what helped me get to where I did, both positively and negatively. But I think my attribute was also my downfall, and I think if I had doubted myself less then I would have not pushed myself to the point I did. (Myself and my double’s partner went into World Champs 2014 as one of the favourites to win, having won the World Cup series, but then had a diabolical semi-final and ended up in the B-final. We won it in a world record time, but still it was a dire result in ranking, and made me very anxious about my seat in the boat, especially knowing the doubts about my size hanging over me). I do wish that there had been someone watching my back, someone who knew me and my tendency to push when I should rest, and who would have stepped in. I feel a strange combination of not regretting my actions, but also knowing I would do things differently if I had that time again.
I think as a lightweight, just by virtue of being a smaller person, I would carry less glycogen stores than a larger person (I’m 5’4” and 52-54kg, depending on my recent gluttony!), and so certain training sessions are likely to empty me more. Similarly, although I didn’t need to be lean to make weight, I did have significantly lower body fat than the heavyweight rowers, so again, during times of long endurance training, I think you are pushed more to the edge of what is healthy for a normal functioning female - shown by the disturbances to menstruation (but which I understand can also be disturbed by overtraining, regardless of body composition). Aside from being lightweight or heavyweight, I feel there needs to be greater recognition that different people have different body types, and that different sessions might knock some people more than others, regardless of weight/ body comp. I don’t feel that I regained my fitness fully at all during my remaining time in the team - my erg tests never got back to what they were.
After losing my seat in the double for Rio 2016, but having instead raced and won in the lightweight quad at the world champs that year, I was offered a job coaching and developing the Maldives rowing program. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to carry on rowing, but felt a break would be good, and this was a pretty great opportunity! So, I left the UK a week or two after Worlds, for 7months in the Maldives. I thought it would then become clear to me whether I wanted to go back to rowing or not… but this wasn’t the case. It really just allowed me to bury my head in the sand (literally?!) but not really come to terms with either leaving professional sport or focus on going back to it. It’s probably telling that I rowed probably only five or so times whilst I was there, but did develop a love of running, which I began doing every day, in the scorching heat, which I now prefer over the cold any day. When I got back to the UK, I had a decision to make about rowing. My rowing career had ended badly (in my eyes): I hadn’t gone to the Olympics, and I felt I had unfinished business. On the other hand, there always seemed to be something else on offer that simply was more fun than the prospect of full-time rowing training again. Whether it was hiking round Mont Blanc, trekking in Tajikistan, or Adventure Racing in Croatia, there was always something more tempting on offer. I love the mountains, and travelling, and committing to the fixed nature of rowing training paled in comparison. I was hugely fortunate to have my 5yrs of full-time rowing, but it does stop you from doing other things, and I am loving now doing those other things!
After 7 months in the Maldives, I came back to the UK and tried to find my niche. Finally, I found something that combined my career prior to rowing (for an international development charity) with my interest in sport, and more specifically what sport can do for someone beyond the physical. In Spring 2018 I started a project running rowing programs in prisons, the idea being that firstly regular exercise bestows good mental and physical health on the participant, but that by partaking in a sport that would often be seen as elitist and exclusive, that it would break down the perceived barriers and show to participants that actually there are many doors open that may at first glance seem closed. As and when participants can get out on the water, there is then the huge mental health benefit of being on the river.
During the 7months I spent in the Maldives however, when I ran a lot, I feel I became fitter than I had ever been but lost a huge amount of muscle (I went down to 49kg). I’m not sure I am totally back to where I was pre over-training, I feel I am running near the edge of healthy all the time, and not entirely staying on the right side! I have to acknowledge though I am also now 36 and so regardless of over-training recovery, my body won’t react the same as when I first joined the team at age 26!
In September 2019 I took part in my first multi-day Adventure Race (in fact, I’d only done one single day race previously). The race is multi-discipline (this one was running/ hiking, kayaking, rapelling and mountain-biking). You are issued with maps at 6am on the Tuesday morning (and all forms of GPS/ phones etc taken off you), and then bused to a start line. From there, you navigate and race your way to the finish line, stopping to sleep only as much as you must. We slept a total of 6 hours from getting up on Tuesday morning, through the entire race and finishing at 5pm on Saturday. The race started with a 32km kayak, then a 40k run, into a 70k mountain bike, and so it goes on. There are various checkpoints along the way that you have to hit, and then certain transition points where you will get your bike, or somewhere you can restock your kit. But you’ll also have to carry kit for up to 16 hours at a time too. The sleep deprivation was something I have never experienced; it was 100% the worst part! That, and actually the Saturday night/ Sunday morning after we finished, I was really ill. It was like my body could finally relax; I had the worst headache I’ve ever had, and couldn’t stop vomiting. That all said, the event as a whole was one of the best things I have ever done! It was an amazing way to see the country (this one was in Croatia), to go places that you can only get to on foot, to push myself in a way that was nothing to do with metrics and speeds and comparisons - it was purely about the team getting through the course. It was so liberating to take part in something where literally the only goal was to get to the finish line.
I think the rowing training teaches you to withstand physical discomfort, but the pain of having had just a few hours’ sleep for days and days, whilst in constant physical movement was something else.
I love the mountains, so for current training ideally, I'd be up a hill somewhere!
When lockdown came in last March, I started running a lot more, and really loved exploring new trails around where I live. However, I probably got a bit carried away with it, and developed a niggle in my hamstring. The races I had entered were all cancelled (a couple of ultras in the UK and abroad), mostly postponed to next year. I did though run 150km of the Devon/ Cornwall coast path (which is super hilly!) and go to the Lakes and to Scotland for some mountain-time. Recently though I have been restricted to the bike (see below…), which is better than nothing for sure, but not my first choice.
My experiences of overtraining have made me much more aware of warning signs (and especially so when I coach other people). I pay more attention to my own heart rate and how I feel during training. However, whilst I am far more aware, this sadly rarely translates into adapting training. I still push on when there are warning signs, which has come to a head recently - I have had pain in my hamstring insertion since May, finally stopped running on it in October, went for an MRI, and I have torn my tendon. I will need to have surgery, a couple of weeks of complete immobility, and then up to 12weeks on crutches. I will still not be running for many months after that. The reality of all this is still sinking in and horrifies me. So, I am still learning, or rather, failing to learn… Perhaps this time though, as it is taking me as far from training as I’ve ever been, the message about “listening to your body” will actually sink in.
My current goal is to be able to run at all! And then to do more Adventure Racing, some ultras (I have a hankering to go to Norway for one - I had been due to do one there last year), as well as explore the Dolomites which look incredible. Right now, running to the corner shop would be an achievement though…
You can find Imogen and her adventures @imogenceit on Instagram.