A Question of Training

It’s often argued that Irish distance runners don’t train as hard as they used to, but is it true? With another Dublin Marathon around the corner, and a World Championships just past, twotime Olympian Colin Griffin attempted to find the answer as part of his Master’s thesis

The vast majority of Colin Griffin’s life has been spent chasing high performance, in one way or another. As an athlete, the 50km race walker competed at two Olympic Games – Beijing 2008 and London 2012 – and since retiring has transitioned to life as a strength and conditioning coach at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Dublin, where he works with many of Ireland’s top sportspeople. Last year he completed his Master’s degree in Coaching and Exercise Science at UCD, and for his dissertation he set out to investigate training loads and injury rates among Ireland’s best distance runners. He spoke to Cathal Dennehy about his findings.

CD: How did you complete the research?

CG: It was done by surveying 109 Irish athletes who were competitive at national club level – 71 men and 28 women, all over the age of 18 and competing at distances from 800m up to the marathon. I looked at their mileage, their use of resistance training and drills, along with injury rates.

What were the most striking results?

Given that we had a decent few who had been to the last few Olympics, It was noteworthy that just 11% did more than 80 miles a week. Obviously high mileage isn’t for everybody, but if you’re a high-performance athlete and you’re hoping to be competitive over 10K or a marathon, you need to be at a certain level.

I compared the results with studies done on African athletes. Your average world-class athlete would cover 90 to 160 miles a week. Of course, you’re looking at the top end of the spectrum there, but not many Irish athletes are hitting that. Are they training hard enough and smart enough? I can’t answer that, but it was one question that arose. You wonder if there is a lack of robustness which leaves them exposed to injury at higher loads.

Would the injury rates you found be typical for high-level distance runners?

They were quite high, and obviously that’s having an impact on the athletes’ progress. As for the breakdown, 24% of injuries related to the knee, 20% were foot and ankle, 11% achilles, 8% calf, 9% hamstring, 15% hip/groin, 8% back and 5% IT band. The research was kept quite general, but ideally you’d ask questions about how they structure their training, how they live, how they recover. Even though a high proportion do resistance training, you don’t know how they’re doing it and how well supervised or structured it is – whether it’s done appropriately to them.

Colin Griffin in action, London 2012. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile.com

Part of your research involved interviewing Irish coaches about their methods. What did you learn from that?

I found there was a split among them. You had coaches who wouldn’t know a lot about resistance training – often they were competitive athletes in the ’70s and ’80s who were not exposed to resistance training but didn’t really need it because they grew up in rural Ireland and were lifting bales of hay at the age of 12 and ran or cycled two or three miles to school and back. That probably influenced their coaching philosophy and they probably don’t make the connection to athletes nowadays who were more sedentary, were driven to school and not as physically conditioned. Maybe that’s why many athletes today can’t handle higher mileage.

Some coaches had the blinkers on and weren’t willing to see outside their own experiences and are maybe not challenged enough. There were three or four in that bracket, then others who were more modern and openminded.

The way I see it; a coach gets a few athletes who achieve good results and then they’re figures of authority in Irish athletics. If they saythat’s what you do, it’s gospel, but we should be able to apply a critical eye and look at them and ask: are they coaches of a good athlete or are they good coaches?

What advice would you give athletes who read this and want to eventually increase their training towards that elite zone of 90 miles a week or more?

Everyone is different, so it’s about what the athlete needs. Are they aerobic athletes who need that high volume or are they fast-twitch

fibre dominant needing a different approach? It’s about finding the right fit and finding a new stimulus every so often, so athletes don’t get stuck on a plateau. You need to be exposed to a little bit of hardship when it matters most, but then know when to pull back. It’s as much about how you live in your day-to-day lives and the way you think as it is about the training.

If you’re an Irish athlete looking to break through, you almost have to go against the grain and take risks. It’s easy to be a big fish in a small pond at home, to be in a comfort zone where you’ve people telling you what you want to hear, but suddenly when you go abroad you realise where you’re at.

Numbers Game:

What the survey said about Ireland’s leading distance runners 53% run less than 60 miles a week

11% run more than 80 miles a week

88% of athletes include resistance training [weights, core stability or hill training] in their programme

60% had been injured in the past two years

26% had suffered a bone stress injury