Olympian Iwan Thomas reveals mental health struggle and shares advice for coping in lockdown in Movember podcast

  • In the latest episode of Movember’s In The Barber Chair Podcast, former Olympian Iwan Thomas talks about his mental struggles after an injury-plagued career forced him into retirement

The fifth episode of Movember’s new In The Barber Chair podcast series sees Iwan Thomas sit down with host Matt Johnson.

Opening up on his battle with depression after injury forced him into retirement, Thomas told of days where he “didn’t want to wake up”, despite his once unbeatable mental strength.

As an athlete, Thomas represented Great Britain at two Olympic Games, and ran for Wales in the Commonwealth Games.

His British 400m record of 44.36 set in 1997 still stands today, with the 46-year-old attributing much of his success to his incredible mental strength.

He told Matt Johnson: “My mind strength was my strength. I had the switch. I never had any trouble getting up for a race or for training.

“The mind is the most powerful tool we possess. If you use it in the right way, you can overcome anything. But likewise, if you start to doubt yourself, you’ve lost that race before you’ve started.

“Apart from Michael Johnson, I was as strong if not stronger in the mind than anyone I raced. Quite often I felt a race was won before I’d even got on my blocks.”

But after suffering a string of injuries, Thomas was forced to accept he’d never be able to compete at the same level again.

“I knew from the age of 25 I was never going to run well again. I knew I was going to have to do something else with my life, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Thomas said.

“I went through a lot of dark years, but at the time I didn’t admit that, because I felt it was a sign of weakness to say I was struggling.

“Many a day I didn’t want to wake up, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I felt I’d lost my identity.

“I wasn’t that big strong athlete, mentally or physically anymore – I was a little boy, scared of what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”

Iwan, a long-time supporter of men’s health charity Movember, wants to encourage other men to speak out and seek help if they recognise they have a problem with either their mental or physical health – and during the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s more important than ever.

New figures released by Movember found eight out of 10 British men find it helpful when people ask if they’re having a difficult time – yet nearly half say no one has checked to find out how they are coping during lockdown.

But almost a quarter of men surveyed had also not checked in with friends or family themselves to find out how they were doing during the crisis.

As Iwan’s career came to a close, he too was hesitant to admit to friends he was struggling for fear of judgement.

He said: “I felt if I spoke up, my friends might turn around and say to me ‘what have you got to be depressed about? Look at your life, you’ve done well’. I felt they would judge me for that.

“I bottled it up inside for years. I wish I’d spoken out sooner, because we know that can help others and make a difference.”

Movember’s research also found 22 per cent of men reported their mental health had worsened compared with before the outbreak of COVID-19 and a third admitted they felt lonely more often.

The pair offered insight into how they’d been keeping their mental health in check during lockdown.

Matt Johnson: “What I’ve found works for me is not sweating over the stuff that I can’t control.

“At the beginning of lockdown I was very anxious, but I’ve found peace using my mental health tools, like just checking in with people, checking in with myself and my emotions.”

Iwan Thomas said: “In lockdown, I’ve started to set realistic goals. I might just write down one job a day, but once I’ve done that, I can go to bed at night feeling like I’ve had a constructive day.

“I’ve stopped watching the news as often as I was. Not because I’m ignoring what’s going on, but because I found myself overthinking about the future too much – I wasn’t thinking about the here and now.

“Keeping your mind busy and keeping yourself occupied is important, otherwise you sit around and think about the future too much. We need to try to remember the good things in our lives.”

The Movember podcast brings listeners real cuts and real conversations about what it means to be a man today.

Available with all major podcast outlets, episodes of In The Barber Chair see a celebrity host hold open and honest conversations with other big-name guests.

Previous episodes were recorded at Ted’s Grooming Room in London and are hosted by Tim Lovejoy. They feature comedian and actor Ben Miller, YouTuber Jim Chapman and stand-up comic Paul Chowdhry, while Matt Johnson speaks with former Love Island winner Jack Fincham.

The latest episodes are recorded via video call in keeping with lockdown restrictions.