The sporty doctor
Tamsin Lewis is the 2014 Ironman UK champion and a doctor
Tamsin graduated in medicine from King’s College London in 2004 and passed her membership exams for the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2008. In 2009 she won her age group at the World Triathlon Championships and was named triathlete of the year by 220Triathlon magazine. Between 2010 and 2014 Tamsin decided to take time out from her medical training to compete as a professional triathlete around the world.
In 2014 she won Ironman UK as a pro athlete at her first attempt of the full iron distance (3.86 km swim, 180.25 km bike ride, and a marathon). At the time, she didn’t realise she was in the early stages of pregnancy.
Tamsin gave birth to her daughter, Sophia, in March 2015.
Were you sporty as a child?
At school I did mostly athletics, hockey, and swimming. I started tetrathlon, which involves target shooting, swimming, running, and horse riding, at age 9. I stopped when I was 13 because I became unwell and didn’t do much formal sport until I went to medical school.
Why did you choose medicine?
Having anorexia, and being around children who had eating disorders, made me intrigued about the body and why things go wrong. I was an intelligent, happy child (albeit with a difficult family situation), yet by the age of 13 I was starving myself to the point of hospitalisation—it didn’t make sense. I had a fantastic chemistry teacher who engaged me with human chemistry. He came to see me when I was in hospital and brought me books. Gradually the pull of the eating disorder became less and I craved to be healthy and energetic again. It was a long battle, which to varying degrees consumed most of my teens.
I loved medical school—I’d never been out of Devon, so coming to London was daunting. My finals were difficult. In January 2004 I sustained a serious head injury while skiing that put me in a coma for three days. My final exams took place that summer. I struggled through them, as brain inflammation after injury takes its toll. My concentration was affected. I wanted to sleep all the time, and I had mood swings and a degree of personality change.
Medical school was a fantastic experience. It gave me insight into why so many experience eating disorders. However, I do wish that nutrition education was given more priority—we are still focused on disease care not healthcare. The tide is, however, changing.
How did you find your time as a junior doctor?
What I found most difficult about being a junior doctor was the way that the seniors treated me. I found they often had a “pull your socks up” mentality—not allowing any room for illness. I was coming off the back end of a serious head injury and was experiencing depression, mood swings, and hypersomnia as a result. Antidepressants were not the answer for me but I was given them in escalating doses. It took me several years of research and experimentation with diet, supplements, and exercise to regain full health. Doing nights was especially difficult for me as brain inflammation post-head injury doesn’t respond well to changes in sleep patterns. I had to take some time off, and this didn’t help my training as you often learn the most on night shifts.
What made you specialise in psychiatry?
Again, it was my experience of mental health problems. Also, during my junior doctor years I realised that I wanted to spend time with patients—talking to them and understanding them. I thought that the brain played a central role in overall health.
When did you take part in your first triathlon?
2007—I’d put it off for years because I was worried that I’d be rubbish. Finally, I did the Bleinheim Triathlon, and I won my age group. I’ve got a talent for triathlon—I’m tenacious; I know how to hurt and push through and that’s a big part of it. When you’ve got that kind of mindset (and a lot of medics do), you know how to suffer.
When you get to the finish line you often have a sense of euphoria. And it’s at that point that triathlon becomes addictive. You’ve tested yourself and you’ve come through—often when you thought you couldn’t. Taking part in triathlon has made me more confident and resilient.
How did you become a professional triathlete?
At my first Olympic distance triathlon (1500 m swim, 40 km cycle, 10 km run)—the London Triathlon—I won a place on a team that provided a world class coach for free. And that’s where it all started. I was part of a triathlon academy, and was selected for the GB team for the world age group triathlon championship in 2007. In 2009 I won it. A famous coach called Brett Sutton called me up and said, “Right, do you want to give it a shot? I can see you’ve got talent. Take some time out and come to Thailand to train with me.” At the time I was in an NHS post working for the Priory Hospital in London. The chief executive was a keen sportsman and he organised some sponsorship to help me financially for a year. I got an out of programme experience (OOPE) granted by London Deanery for my training programme. This allowed me to train as a triathlete full time for two years.
People are scared of taking time out or having other experiences, but in my opinion it makes you a more rounded person and a better doctor. If you have opportunities, you should take them.
What were the highlights of your medical career, and those of being a triathlete?
In medicine, it was getting my medical degree. There’s nothing like the sense of relief when you finally get that degree after six years. And you have patients that change you as a person, and that’s probably why we do medicine, because it teaches you about human life and compassion, and it takes you away from yourself.
In triathlon it was winning the UK Iron Man. Over the years I’ve had injuries. I’ve had times where I thought I was rubbish and I wanted to give up; but that day everything went right. During the marathon stage I remember being in tears for the last couple of miles—smiling at people and thinking “wow. I’m going to cherish this day for the rest of my life.”
How has your experience of triathlon affected how you practise?
It’s completely changed my approach to life and medical practice.
I spend a substantial amount of time in my NHS practice trying to get people off medication—and educating about lifestyle changes. I am a huge proponent of functional medicine, which is a roots up approach to disease prevention. I also founded curoseven.com—a preventive health business—which has just received investment to build a technology platform to integrate health data with lifestyle recommendations.
Once you have jumped in a freezing lake with a thousand other people, cycled up five mountain passes in the pouring rain, and run a hilly 22 km at altitude (Alpe D’Huez triathlon), your approach to life changes: call it “learnt resilience.”
Do you have any advice for medical students who might want to combine being a doctor with a sport or other interest outside of medicine?
In the medical profession we are on a conveyor belt that takes you from medical student to foundation year doctor to trainee to consultant, without a break. Don’t be afraid to break the mould.
Striking a balance between doing a sport and studying is important. Pursuing a sport you’re passionate about can help to support you in later years if or when your job gets tough.
What are your aspirations for the future?
I’m still fit, but mostly just do running. I’ve done four half marathons (in under one hour 24 minutes) since giving birth, and I aim to run the London Marathon in under three hours this year.
One regret is that I never got to do the Iron Man World Championships because I became pregnant, so I would like to do that at some point as an amateur.Sally Carter, technical editor
BMJ and Student BMJ
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.