We have been loving watching AJ Odudu light up our screens on Strictly. She's full of love, light and laughter – and she's also a runner. Last year, Rachel Ifans caught up with her to talk all things running...
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Born to Nigerian parents, AJ grew up in Blackburn with her five brothers and two sisters. A Keele graduate in English and Politics, she’s also a qualified personal trainer and sports nutritionist, and has a flourishing career in radio, TV (presenting Celebrity Big Brother’s Bit on the Side with Rylan Clark, and sister show Bit on the Psyche with Iain Lee), as well as heading up massive festivals such as Isle of Wight 2012 and Freeze, Roxy Pro and Boardmasters. She sounds a bit uber, doesn’t she? But then you meet her and, happily, she puts you at ease immediately.
“Nothing that a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive can’t fix,” AJ laughs cheerfully as she commiserates about a mid-aft ernoon slump in energy aft er a badly timed cheese sandwich for lunch, putting any suspicions of a hoighty-toighty TV star to rest completely.
That’s not to say she’s not utterly professional. She’s here to talk about her love for running – and for the fit kit that comes with it! – and there’s barely a minute when she’s not 100% on message, eulogising about the sport we all love in such an engaging, fun and genuine way, that you find yourself smiling right back at her.
“I love keeping fit in a whole plethora of ways, be it skipping or boxercise or whatever, but I do always gravitate towards running,” she says. “It’s one of those easy things you can do wherever. I’ve always got my running trainers with me even when I go on holiday,” she admits, with unaffected glee in her voice.
One of AJ’s earliest memories of running is related to her family and she talks about it with characteristic fast pace, big smile and modesty. “My brothers always got trophies at the athletics club and I remember so clearly my oldest brother saying to me one day: ‘You’d be much quicker, AJ, if you didn’t look around. Keep your head straight, look forward, chest up, and use your arms to propel you forwards.’ Oh wow, I remember that so well!” she says.
She’s talking about Blackburn Harriers club where, as she recalls, she paid 60p a pop to run around a track for ages in the rain. “I didn’t find that much fun but I did like the social aspect of it and making friends,” says AJ. “I also liked the idea of getting the trophies and medals like my brothers but I never even won one. I never came in the top three – it was so frustrating!” she moans in her lyrical Lancashire accent, although she’s got one of those voices where you suspect she’s grinning broadly even when she’s remembering feeling annoyed.
The last decade has taught her many things about running, not least why those childhood medals were so elusive back in the day. Blackburn has a lot of green spaces but the harriers club, AJ explains, was mostly track with only a tiny bit of cross country. “I’ve realised,” she lets out a massive laugh, “I’m better at long distance. That’s why I never won a medal at the club – turns out I was in the wrong event!”
Running for fun
Now, running is about a lot more for her than racing for trophies. “I find it really empowering and uplifting. I love the motion of it; I love running with music, enjoying the scenery and reaching a destination.”
AJ talks about how she loves figuring out her training for herself. She’s joined many online and offline running communities over the years and absorbs advice as she goes along: “There’s always someone with the latest gadget or top tips, telling you what to do. I’ve always been in tune with how I feel at the time.”
Unless she’s training for a big race, she’s easy on herself. She tries to stay away from the stats-obsessed, performance-driven side of the sport, as it sort of dampens the magical mental health benefits she gets from running.
“I’ve got to the point now where I can run for fun. I follow lots of runners and run clubs, and I search for a community to join before I go anywhere. I find a crew and I just join in – anywhere in the world. It’s very inclusive. It’s also a great way to explore a city; I take a small backpack or bumbag with my bank card, hotel room key and phone in it and I’m good to go.”
This running-for-fun-in-2020 vibe is a far cry from 2017. AJ looks back over her running journey and recalls when she took on the big one, the London Marathon. “They don’t tell you that you’ll get overtaken by a man dressed as a womble and that that will strip you totally of your self esteem!” she giggles.
“I found training really difficult,” AJ says cheerily. “It was the first time ever that I’d had to stick to a plan – and there was no way out of it! I didn’t like the controlling aspect of it,” she remembers. “At the time I had an Apple watch which would buzz and remind me – honestly, it would flash up messages like ‘You must go for your 18-mile run now’ and I hated that!” Warm laughter fills the room again.
She describes the race itself as an emotional rollercoaster. “There were so many highs and lows; you’re veering from love it to hate it, then you bump into someone you know, and then you see someone old enough to be your dad absolutely smashing it and you’re, like, ‘OMG, I wanna be just like him’. All the people are moving forwards together. You’re basically in love! But then, all the amazing highs are mixed with doom and gloom: you’re asking yourself why you did it; it’s so painful, stop – just walk. You basically talk to yourself for four hours!”
So, what’s AJ’s one piece of advice for wannabe marathon-distance runners? Run with a friend. AJ started the London marathon with her friend Adrienne but they quickly went their separate ways. She says: “We both went downhill as soon as we separated. If you have a friend who runs a similar time to you, stick with that person because you can always accelerate in the last mile if you want to but you will definitely need that emotional support during the race.”
AJ’s running kit picks
I have so many trainers! My regular runs are quite short distance – 5K or 10K usually – so I like a light cushiony shoe but I’m also very fashion conscious when it comes to my trainers. I love bright neon colours and I’m quite trainer-brand-agnostic; basically, I like trainers to go with my fit kit so I need to have lots of pairs! Current faves are: Adidas Ultraboost – they’re great. They come in loads of bright colours, are very breathable and offer great support; Nike Free RN 5.0, such a great trainer for me – so soft and light.
I adore Nike running leggings; they do loads of great collabs with people and they come in lots of great colours and breathable fabrics.
I love my Columbia Windbreaker. It’s super light, and great for tying round your waist. I basically use it all year round due to the British weather! I’m a bit obsessed with it, to be honest. It’s quite retro in orange, purple and turquoise and you can get a matching bag and cap too!
I’m a sucker for over-the-head headphones – I use Beats wireless headphones. I couldn’t find mine for about a week recently, and I felt totally lost without them!
I have two types: If I go to a friend’s house, I run with a hiking rucksack. I have a Karrimor red and grey one which I love. I also have a Columbia trail runner backpack. It’s really small – just takes a phone, keys and a snack – and it goes on like a vest. It has lots of straps to hold it in place and it really doesn’t bounce.
My watch is the Garmin Fenix 6X watch. It’s quite big and bulky but looks stylish and syncs to your phone. I’ve got it in different colours so I can make it work with any outfit!
I go for different music each day really – usually garage, hip hop and dance music – but I always use Spotify because it’s the king of playlists.