The Magic of Cheltenham

“It would be difficult to exaggerate the spine tingling excitement and anticipation I feel every year on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival. The four day extravaganza in the Cotswolds is the best race meeting of the year AND the best racing party of the year. Of course it helps that Prestbury Park racecourse is situated in a stunning natural amphitheatre at the foot of Cleeve Hill and the history of the Festival – which dates back to the early 20th century – matches the beauty and grandeur of the setting. To be hailed as a true jump racing champion – an Arkle or Golden Miller, a Desert Orchid or a Kauto Star – you have to win at Cheltenham in March and the fact that so many great horses have won there, some returning season after season, imbues the occasion with an incomparable aura and back story.

I have no doubt that Patrice des Moutis, the flawed hero of Monsieur X, would have been in his element at Cheltenham. Patrice loved the atmosphere and camaraderie of the racetrack, the smells of crushed grass and cigar smoke, the champagne bubbles and fat bundles of cash, and it was a bitter blow for him when he was banned from all French racecourses in 1953 due to his illegal bookmaking activities. He often compensated by going racing in Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s but mostly to flat racing fixtures near London like Ascot and Sandown Park. All of them enjoyable in their way but lacking the epic, bacchanalian quality of Cheltenham. Afficionados plan their annual trips to the Festival months in advance, not just for a day but for the whole week, to enjoy heartfelt reunions with old friends and share a deep and passionate reverence for the beauty and spectacle of jump racing and the courage and skill of the horses and riders. But what’s unique about the Cheltenham Festival, and would have been seized on eagerly by Monsieur X, is that it’s also a rip-roaring medium for a gamble.


With crowds in excess of 260,000 over the four days and so much money in circulation, the on-course betting market is the strongest of the year. This favours knowledgeable punters who can get on much bigger bets at favourable odds than at less well attended run-of-the-mill meetings. It also suits what I call proper bookmakers. Not the big high street betting shop chains but the real independent bookies who are prepared to pit their judgement against the punters and stand a serious wager. It would have seemed like paradise to Patrice des Moutis, constrained as he was by France’s rigid gambling laws which prohibited all forms of fixed odds betting and insisted that all bets had to be struck with the rigidly bureaucratic state run Tote or PMU. Instead of being deemed a renegade and outlaw, Monsieur X would have found himself in the company of like-minded mavericks and over-reachers, many of whom I have seen and known first hand over the last forty years.

Irish racegoers, proud of their country’s fabulous rapport with horses, love Cheltenham with a passion few can match. And the most consistently successful Cheltenham gambler of the modern era has been the legendary JP McManus, nicknamed (long ago by Hugh McIlvanney) the Sundance Kid. The softly spoken JP started out as a racecourse bookmaker in Limerick and first rocked the ring at Cheltenham in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By no means all those early plunges were successful but gradually the winners started to flow and JP began owning horses, most memorably the peerless Istabraq who made the hair stand up on the back of my neck when he won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham three years running between 1998 and 2000.

One bookmaker who was not afraid to take JP’s business was the Scotsman Freddie Williams, a miner’s son and self-made millionaire from Ayrshire who never flinched when the big money was down. In March 1998 McManus staked £100,000 each way with Williams on his horse Shannon Gale in Cheltenham’s Pertemps Hurdle Final, a valuable and extremely competitive handicap. If Shannon Gale had won Williams would have been looking at a pay-out of nearly £1million. As it was the gamble finished fourth which meant Freddie Williams only had to pay out £175,000 on the place part of the bet. As he said afterwards, he had ‘looked down both barrels of the gun’ and survived.


Freddie Williams died of a heart attack in his sleep after a day’s racing and bookmaking in 2008. He was succeeded by his daughter Julie who will be laying bets as usual from the family pitch at Cheltenham this week. JP McManus has long become a billionaire businessman with homes in Ireland, Switzerland and Barbados. But he will be at Cheltenham as always this week too, hoping to see his horse Buveur d’Air win Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle for the second time and no doubt contemplating more audacious coups in the big handicaps.

9781472942296.jpgThere is one thing above all other that Patrice des Moutis had in common with JP McManus and Freddie Williams. Like them Monsieur X was a gambler playing for the highest stakes and of course he wanted his bets to win and he wanted to enjoy the fruits of his success. But underpinning his wagers, and those of Cheltenham’s Irish punter and Scottish bookie, was a sang-froid and attitude to life summed up by Steve McQueen’s bank robber hero in the 1969 version of the film The Thomas Crown Affair. ‘It’s not about the money,’ he explains to his insurance investigator lover played by Faye Dunaway. ‘It’s about me… me against the system.’”

Jamie Reid is a William Hill Sports Book of the Year award winning author. His book Monsieur X is available from Bloomsbury.


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The Psychology of Racing

When it comes to the day of the big event, there is nothing more you can do to improve your physical ability. Your level of fitness and physical potential is what it is. Your equipment and build-up to the event is in place. The only thing you can change now is how you think. How you think and how well prepared you are mentally will affect how you act and react to the environment and people around you between arriving at the event and crossing the finish line. The focus of your mind is actually the only variable. Barring bad luck, how you think and act will determine whether you reach your personal potential or fall short.

The Corinthian spirit, or the ideology that just taking part is the foremost important factor, is common among amateur sportspeople. This is a resolve-sapping malaise that primes the mind for under-performance, not just the thinking self but the subconscious mind that does not normally hold sporting success high up in the hierarchy of need. By that I mean food, shelter, social standing, sex, etc. The idea that it is OK not to reach your full potential is not a good thought to have when you are doing the ride and reaching within yourself for extra effort.

This ideology is not just an influence from others that passes viral-like from person to person. This spirit is part of us, as in most non-sporting activities, whether it be decorating, cleaning or whatever, even work-related things – we reach a point where we think the outcome is good enough and move on. What we don’t tend to do is openly question in our thinking minds whether it is the best we can do. When it is good enough we just move on to something else. This is normal and indeed healthy for general life in society. The alternative would be obsessive-compulsive disorder or something similar. This is our behavioural pattern, our lifestyle habit.

Clearly, then, the competitive event is an environment where we have to set aside our natural way in order to make the most of our potential. We need to be able to set aside the philosophy that serves us well in general life for the time that we are being competitive. We can train our ability to block out negative thought processes by the way we allow ourselves to think when we are in the sporting environment and when we are in the company of others. There is the matter of blocking out any negative or capitulatory ideology but also the need to build up an attitude that compels us to proactively make our best performance happen.

The first important thing to be dealt with is establishing prime motives. What is it that drives us to be competitive, to take part in events that test our ability and measure it against others? This level of self-analysis is rarely undertaken by the majority of riders, mainly because it is a mental exercise that we rarely undertake in normal life. There is also the deterrent that deep self-analysis is a difficult and sometimes painful task that requires honesty. This can take us out of a comfort zone where we drift along by force of habit and simple repetition of what we always did. We hope to reach into ourselves and ask: why do I ride to try to be better than other people, what is the emotional gain from doing so?


You could disappear into a corner right now and have a Zen moment of total self-understanding, but it is unlikely. Let me help you along the path by asking if you are actually competitive at all? A lot of people take part in competitive events and ‘compete’ because it makes them part of a peer group doing the same. That is not to say that they don’t turn up and ride at their best perceived effort. It just means that one of their major motivations for taking part will be satisfied with a good or average result. This is not wrong, since we are gregarious animals and this is high up in our hierarchy of need for general life. This also does not mean that you cannot be genuinely competitive by digging even deeper into motive and allowing yourself to be more in touch with more proactive driving forces. It also helps to make clear in your mind the points in time before and after the actual doing part of the competition as being a distinct, separate and completely different part of the competitive experience. Being part of the racing community and the social aspect of the competition is a good motive to hold on to, as long as it can be replaced by completely competitive motives at the point of action. The race itself is a time totally separate from the rest of life and needs a different set of motives and values if we are to bring out our best performances.



How you think can and will determine whether you ever get near your true and absolute potential. Real athletic confidence is built on a complicated foundation of training, diet and rest. The actions of the mind determine the winners from the rest.

•   Stay in the present – your performance is about today, not last week or last year
•    Meticulous attention to equipment choice and detail is vital to ensure your confidence is based upon event planning to complement your training programme
•    We all have an options menu; learn to challenge the option that says ‘I have
tried hard enough’ – there is always, regardless how small, some gas left in
the tank
•    Visualisation is of great value, learning how to put your mind in the
situation of a race day scenario

Extracted from The Obree Way: A Training Manual for Cyclists by Graeme Obree, available from Bloomsbury

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Tapping into your mind-body connection

Mindfulness calls you to notice thoughts and emotions and let them float through your mind like passing clouds in the sky, rather than getting hung up on wrestling them into submission or attempting to deny them altogether. We can’t change the weather, so why waste energy compounding the storm?

Understand that turning your attention to your mind to take stock of the content of your cognitions is no easy feat. Even master meditators are susceptible to having their minds wander from the task at hand. And that is precisely the point. Each time you notice that you are distracted, gently bring your attention back to the present, again and again. This practice is akin to running intervals on the track or pumping iron at the gym. Repeatedly redirecting your attention fortifies neural pathways and strengthens the muscle of the mind.

  • Start by noticing and acknowledging the top three thoughts running through your mind.
  • Take stock of the speed of your thoughts. Is your mind racing, are you feeling more lethargic, or are you somewhere in between?
  • Identify whether you’re attaching emotions to the thoughts. Are you worrying about work or stressing about what you have to do after the run?
  • What is the storyline you’re following? Are the thoughts you’re having being fed by a certain identity you’ve created for yourself?
  • Notice whether stress in your everyday life is shaping your attitude toward your run. Are the anxieties stemming from other venues causing you to feel bored, hurried, tired, or uncomfortable?
  • Remember, being mindful is all about noticing the thoughts without judgment. Identify each thought as it pops into your head and let it move along without obsessing over it, trying to push it away, or clinging to it.


Hopefully, by observing your surroundings, physical sensations, thoughts and emotions on the run, you’ve tapped into a wellspring of information.

In Mindful Running, lifelong runner, coach, and fitness journalist Mackenzie L. Havey recounts her personal practice of meditative running and the influence it has had on her life. She taps a wide range of sources – from weekend warriors to Olympic runners, from coaches and sports psychologists to neuroscientists and meditation experts – to examine how training mental fitness through mindfulness can enhance your running practice and lead to a more contented existence.

To find out more about Mindful Running head to the Bloomsbury website.

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Yoga for Easing Anxiety

The New Year is a great time go after goals and launch into new and exciting projects but all these new challenges can leave us feeling anxious and a little overwhelmed. Yoga is a beautiful way to ease anxiety by teaching us to stay in the present moment. By focusing on our breath and how our body feels in each pose, we keep ourselves anchored in the here and now so we can reduce any mental chatter and instead of reacting fearfully to worries and anxious thoughts, we can let them go. This yoga sequence focuses on releasing stress from the muscles that commonly tense up when we are anxious to create a calmness in your body and mind. 

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If you’re still beginning your journey into yoga practice, a guided meditation from Nicola may boost your confidence:


For more meditation exercises go to Nicola’s website where you can find a range of meditations from self-love to full body.


Whether you long to live with less stress, reduce anxiety, find the confidence to follow your dreams or simply find more happiness and meaning in your everyday life, Thrive Through Yoga will take you on a 21-day journey towards health, strength and freedom, and is available here.

Nicola Jane Hobbs is a yoga teacher, performance and lifestyle coach and Olympic weighlifting champion. She is also the author of Yoga Gym (available here) and Fear-Free Food (pre-order here).

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How to Fuel Your Fitness in 2018

If you’ve resolved to get fitter in 2018 and embarked on a running programme, now is the time to take an honest look at your diet. Are you fuelling your body with the right foods? Do you eat plenty of nutrient-packed fresh foods, or are you relying on too many sugary snacks and fast foods?

There’s overwhelming evidence from scientific studies that a good fuelling strategy can improve your stamina, recovery and performance. Better still, it can also make your running feel easier.

In The Runner’s Cookbook, I explain how to eat to optimise your performance. Grounded in scientific evidence, this part nutrition guide and part cookbook, shows you how to fuel your body. You don’t have to be an Olympic runner to benefit; whether you’re training for your first marathon or just looking to improve your Parkrun time, my tips will help you gain the confidence to create delicious, nourishing meals that will support your training goals.

One of the biggest mistakes new runners make is buying lots of supplements, in the belief they’ll help them run faster! The truth is the vast majority won’t – and could even be dangerous! In The Runner’s Cookbook, I debunk the myths about supplements and give you evidence-based nutrition advice on fuelling before, during and after running, guidance on hydration and weight loss, and how to prepare for 5k, 10k, half marathons, marathons and ultra races.

You’ll also find more than 100 delicious easy-to-make recipes, including breakfasts, salads, main meals, vegetarian main meals, desserts and snacks – that match the nutritional needs of runners. They combine tasty nutrient-packed ingredients to fuel your running and promote recovery.

Turkey Pilaf

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This simple one-pot dish made from turkey, rice and vegetables and served with yogurt really ticks off all the food groups. It provides an ideal mix of protein and carbs along with antioxidant-rich vegetables – just what you need for rapid post-run recovery. You can substitute chicken breast or thigh fillets for the turkey and frozen broad beans or green beans for the broccoli.




Serves 4

  • 2 tbsp light olive oil or rapeseed oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 leek, washed and sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 400g (14oz) turkey breast steaks, cut into 1cm strips
  • 2 tbsp medium curry paste
  • 200g (7oz) brown basmatic rice
  • 500ml (18fl oz) chicken stock (or 1 chicken stock cube dissolved in 500ml boiling water)
  • 1 head (300g) broccoli, broken into florets
  • 100g (3.5oz) frozen peas
  • A handful of fresh parsley, chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to season
  • To serve: Plain Greek yogurt

Heat the oil in a large heavy-based pan over a medium heat, add the onion and leek and cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and turkey and continue cooking for a further 2–3 minutes.

Stir in the curry paste, rice and stock. Bring to the boil, cover and cook on a low heat for 25 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid.

Stir in the broccoli, continue to cook for five minutes, then add the peas and continue cooking for a further five minutes, adding a little more stock or water if necessary.

Stir in the parsley, season to taste and serve topped with a spoonful of plain Greek yogurt.


For more delicious recipes pick up your copy of Anita Bean’s The Runner’s Cookbook (available at a discount from 

Anita is also the author of The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook (available here).

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Arthritis: Where Do I Start?

Arthritis can be either be due to age or previous injury and called osteoarthritis (OA) or inflammatory in nature and called rheumatoid arthritis (RA).  They are very different conditions, but practical and simple tips can help manage both.

OA: is a condition experienced by many with both good days and bad. There is no cure and helps if you understand that it is part of the natural ageing process, like grey hair and wrinkles on the inside! Some people have more symptoms than others.

RA: is a condition that is caused by your body’s immune system being unable to control inflammation and can affect joints as well as other parts of the body.


Whether you have osteoarthritis or RA, regular gentle exercise can improve the range of movement in a joint and ease stiffness. Movement puts changing pressures through the cartilage and the joint, which helps the circulation and the synovial fluid to ‘oil’ the joint. In RA this may not be true if the cartilage is severely damaged or eroded. Everyone has heard the ‘no pain no gain theory’, but this will do little to encourage you to exercise and step onto the path to personal fitness. Some people do nothing, or fear that exercise will make them feel worse; others do too much and feel terrible. Your personality and experience of exercise will influence how you react. Exercise doesn’t have to hurt, and physical pain can be avoided if you exercise within your ability. However, it can be hard at first to change your habits and become disciplined with a commitment to exercise! You should expect muscular aches after exercise, but pain can and should be avoided.


  • Know your limitations and pace yourself. This will prevent a ‘boom or bust’ cycle and keep you active on good days and bad. Little and often is best in all activities.
  • Exercise is key to keep your muscles strong and flexible to support and protect your joints.
  • Find an exercise you enjoy and make it part of your lifestyle. Exercise should be like cleaning your teeth, performed daily and regarded as a form of maintenance for muscle health.
  • Use ice packs on hot swollen joints. 10 minutes at regular intervals when in pain or an inflammatory flare up. Before and after exercise can also ease symptoms.
  • Use heat packs for aching joints that are not swollen or in a ‘flare up’.


Paula Coates is a Chartered Physiotherapist who works as Clinical lead and Audit and triage lead within the NHS. She treats both NHS and private patients with complex long term conditions and sports and spinal injuries. She has also published books on the long term management of back pain, diabetes and running injuries. Her book Exercise your way to health: Arthritis has been chosen for the Reading Well for long term conditions scheme.

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Beat the Heat

Britain is recovering from a heatwave and that’s great if you’ve been paddling in the sea but not so hot if you’re heading out for a four-hour cycle over rolling terrain. We all know this will be a brief break from cooler climes but the riders who’ll do battle with the Tour de France, which this year starts in Germany on 1 July, will face extreme temperatures for a significant chunk of the 3,540km tromp to Paris. Cycling performance plummets once dehydration levels reach over 2%. This is multiplied in a race comprising 21 stages. It’s why every team will have their own hydration strategies, designed to keep Froome, Contador and Quintana pedalling at their optimum…

Focus on Electrolytes


Riders have been known to sweat over 11 litres during a long, mountainous stage. Fail to hydrate properly and the riders’ blood thickens, heart rate rises and speed drops. That’s not only a huge amount of fluid but also of vital electrolytes like sodium. Sodium’s essential for the body to retain water, and is why teams will plop an electrolyte tablet into their bottles come a hot day and tweak their protocol. For instance, instead of adding 40g energy-giving carbohydrate into the normal two bottles, they’ll dilute carbs to 20g over an hourly four bottles and add electrolytes. Not only will the rider enjoy the same carbohydrate levels, they’ll replenish sodium stores. This sounds simple but strategies like this will be practised beforehand and in the labs to ensure the rider’s stomachs can cope.

Willing Water Carrier

These practices are meticulous. Bottles are kept in fridges that nestle in the boots of the directeur sportifs’ (DS) cars. One of the domestiques will call back to the DS on his radio that the team of nine riders need more fluid. The team car will accelerate past the other team cars – sidenote: you can’t mistake Team Sunweb’s cars as they drive Mini Clubmans! – while the domestique will drop back. The mechanic in the back of the team car will collect nine bottles from the fridge, comprising either carbohydrate, water or electrolytes. He’ll pass to the DS, who’s driving, who’ll deliver them out the window to the sacrificial domestique, who’ll stuff them in his rear pocket and down his back; in fact, the hod carrier (domestique) often resembles a camel when returning the bottles to his teammates.

Cool Tights

You’ll note that some of these bottles contain water only. Obviously these are drunk but they’re also used as a rudimentary cooling technique – aka poured over heads. And that’s not the only rudimentary cooling idea. Within those team-car fridges are more tights than a Parisian catwalk, each packed with ice and scrunched up into a bun. Those willing domestiques will pick up these fashionable items of ice, which the riders then place on their necks. It’s a proven method of cooling, both perceptively and empirically, with studies showing that the ice cools the blood flowing to the brain. Wristbands sprayed with cooling fluid are also used, while the occasional rider will even wear a pair of gloves for the same idea.

All About the Wee

In the morning and after each stage, team doctors will measure their riders’ hydration levels. Urine charts are common, though these can be misleading. Anyone acquainted with a joyous hangover is aware that dehydration manifests itself in particularly dark wee. But in the world of professional, this can also be a sign of vitamin-B ingestion and even beetroot, which is popular in many a team’s morning smoothies because of the nitrate content’s purported ability to make exercise feel easier. That’s why teams like Sky would use a urine-gravity device that not only accurately measures hydration levels, but also flags up pH levels of the blood, which can be a gauge of impeding illness.

Ice, Ice…

Come the Tour’s time-trials on stage one (1st July in Dusseldorf) and stage 20 (22nd July in Marseille), there’s a good chance you’ll find teams warming up against the backdrop of Slush Puppie machines. Studies have shown that consuming a Slush Puppie lowers the rider’s core temperature, meaning they can work harder for longer. It’s a tactic oft-used by Sunweb, whose leader, Tom Dumoulin, won the Giro d’Italia in May.

The Tour de France is the greatest race in cycling and the place where teams roll out their latest, most cutting-edge hydration protocols. It’s something to keep an eye on when you’re watching Boulting and Boardman narrate events while you sit down with a nice dehydrating, albeit cooling, beer…

Want to know more about the history of cycling? The Science of the Tour de France is available to buy at discount from

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