Years ago, when runners actually worked for a living, they had to fit training around the day-job. Sydney Wooderson, world mile record holder in the 30s and 40s, would come home from work as a solicitor, and then travel on to a south London track – Motspur Park or Tooting Bec – and perform time trials. One day he’d do a three-mile jog, then a fast 660-yard trial. Another day, he’d do a mile slowly, then a three-quarter mile test.
Of course, most runners – club runners, charity runners, runners who run to keep fit, joggers – still have to fit their exercise around what pays the bills, but the advent of the professional runner has led to another phenomenon – the training camp.
A professional athlete’s year is punctuated by spells, usually abroad, sometimes at altitude, putting in intense preparation for their competitions. Reports of Mo Farah’s training in Iten, Kenya, or Paula Radcliffe’s in Font Romeu, make us scrubbers envious of the time to focus solely on running.
Nothing to do but sleep, run and eat, and sleep, run and eat. Doesn’t that sound great?!
John Ngugi, the Kenyan Olympic 5,000 metres champion from 1988, was famous for turning up at the Kenyan team’s training camp in really poor shape, and then flogging himself to catch up. The Kenyans trained three times a day, but Ngugi took that further by substituting their easy half-hour in the morning for a 13-mile run. And, of course, he would complete the other two sessions each day with the team.
Boxers are famous for their training camps, usually revolving around conditioning in the early morning, and then more boxing-orientated training later on. Most will do ‘roadwork’ – i.e. running – upon rising, then exercises, and finally possibly a dip. In the winter months, John Conteh used to break the ice on the Highgate ponds to get his swim in. Marvin Hagler used to run the last part of his roadwork backwards: he didn’t like retreating in the ring, but if he had to, he said, he wanted to be ready.
Many boxers’ camps then feature press conferences in the mid-morning to keep the fighter focused on the task ahead. In the late afternoon, they hit the gym for sparring, skipping and other fitness routines, usually in three-minute bursts to simulate the rhythm of the fight itself.
The other use of the boxers’ training camps is to keep them away from the opposite sex, a boxing trainer’s fixation memorably summed up by Rocky Balboa’s, Mickey, in the maxim: “Women weaken legs.”
Training camps – in a more restricted form (probably less sparring, possibly more sex) – are open to us lot too. Other responsibilities permitting, you can turn holidays into camps. When I was at university in Bristol, the Cross-Country team would congregate early for the spring term and drive down to Merthyr Mawr in south Wales, which features the highest sand dunes in Europe. There, we would run three times a day for 3-4 days, maybe a relaxed hour morning and evening, with a more testing pre-lunch session on the dunes.
This might consist of a simple time trail round a circuit of sand. It might include a two-man relay up and down the Big Dipper (you can imagine!) It might be anything that really, really hurt.
Dunes help you breathe less easily.
In later years, when I was race walking, I went and stayed with my Aunt in Swansea. The entire time was training-orientated. Get up, cup of tea, walk between two and four hours in the morning, have a bath, breakfast and go back to bed, to rise in the late afternoon to do a fast hour’s speed session. Two weeks later, I set a personal best of 4:39:18 for the 50km walk, and four days after that, a personal best of 13:52 for the 3,000 metres walk.
Training for the Quadrathon (2-mile swim, 50km walk, 100-mile cycle, marathon run), I stayed with my great friend, Rod Lock, in Southampton. Days would be 4-hour walk in the morning, and an hour’s hard hill running in the afternoon. Or a swim session first thing, and a 100-mile cycle out into the New Forest for the rest of the day.
Camps though can backfire, especially when they involve altitude training. Ron Hill and Paul Nihill were favourites for the Olympic marathon and 20km walk respectively in 1972. They both came sixth, and blamed mistiming their descent from altitude for their relatively poor performances. Even Sebastian Coe, who got most things right in his running career, seemed to do the same before the British Olympic trials in 1988. He was reigning 1,500 metres champion from Los Angeles four years before, but would not be in Seoul to defend his title, finishing out of the selection positions in his national championships at Crystal Palace.
Training camps are generally positive experiences, though. With no other physical stresses, more sleep than usual, the right food, and total mental focus, the runner can push his or her body further. Of course, we are all human, and even training camps need to acknowledge that fact, and build in rest periods, easier days, lighter sessions and alternative exercise.
But most of it is hard work: as Mo Farah himself admitted after running the last 400 in 52.81 to clinch his final Olympic gold in Rio, “I run 49 seconds for 400 metres in training. That is the type of training I have do to be the best in the world. That is the reality. There is no other way to win.”
Those 49-second 400s were sometimes carried out at the end of a 20-mile run at altitude!