Tempo Wednesdays – Coached by an Olympian

So I ran round my local park last night with an actual Olympian. No big deal.

As part of an England Athletics initiative to encourage more women to take up coaching, some tenacious Eagles had arranged for British athletics legend Mara Yamauchi to lead a guest coaching session for the club.

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Mara competed for Team GB in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, and she currently holds the second fastest marathon time for a British woman ever, behind Paula Radcliffe who is still the world record holder.

The session was brilliant – we began with a 10 minute jog around the park to warm up (completely surreal to be ‘jogging’ behind a bona fide Olympian at what was actually close to my 5k pace!), and then we went through some useful drills designed to allow us to focus on our running action before completing a challenging set of intervals.

The drills proved extremely helpful – in particular being encouraged to think about foot placement really made a difference to how I ran the intervals, and I pulled out some serious pace work. I ran the fast sections somewhere between 1 and 2 minutes per mile faster than 5k pace I think. I must have been going some because even with the recovery at training pace (11 minute miles), my average for the entire session was faster than my current 10k pace. It was definitely the best intervals performance I have ever put in. This may have had something to do with not wanting to show myself up in front of one of my sporting heroes, but I think it was more that the session was well designed to get the best out of us and Mara herself was a sincere and encouraging coach.

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Following the training session we de-camped to a local pub for a Q&A session in which Mara spoke to us about how she got into athletics, her athletics career, and her current transition into the world of coaching.

Mara had realised she was good at endurance sports when she was at school and had always dreamt of being an Olympian, but she originally worked as a civil servant. She spent 10 years working for the foreign office, before deciding to go part time at the age of 29 and focusing more on her sport. She decided that the marathon was the distance for which she could reasonably expect to compete at the top level, and first qualified for the World Championships in 2005 by running a time of just under 2:32. By 2006 she had reduced this to 2:26 and went on to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Between January and June 2011 Mara struggled with hamstring issues and was told she needed to stop running. Not taking no for an answer she got a second opinion from a different coach who told her she had a problem with her glutes not firing properly (this sounded familiar to at least half the people in the room!). The new coach, Dan Pfaff, helped Mara to correct the imbalance and by November 2011 she was running well enough to qualify for London 2012.

Mara retired from elite athletics in 2013 and now gives back to the sport by coaching athletes of her own, some of them on a voluntary basis.

During the Q&A I was struck by how much of what this former elite athlete was describing covered the same ground as what we regularly discuss before parkrun or down the pub at the club social. So much of what was discussed seemed to be universal to all runners, regardless of what level you are running or competing at.

Mara spoke about her experience with coaching and how it is interesting to hear about the different reasons why people run – whether it is from a place of competitiveness, or to cope with stress, or in some cases for mental health reasons.  She does coach semi-elite athletes, but described one of her greatest coaching successes as a person who she helped to achieve a half marathon PB at our very own local half marathon, the Ealing Half (not an easy course to PB on – we have ‘undulations’).

When the discussion turned to why women make up only 17% of the nation’s coaches, it was considered that it may be to do with finding the appropriate work-life balance for women to make the time for coaching. There was also a suggestion it may have to do with confidence – being a coach requires being a role model and having strong leadership, and this isn’t something that women tend to take lightly.

This is an interesting point. I think it’s true in any line of work that women are much more likely to make sure they are happy that they are capable of doing something before they try to do it; how many times over the years have you watched a male colleague apply for and be given a role at least two levels above their capability because they were confident enough to go for it first and learn how to do it later? How often have you then had to do a lot of the work for them when they don’t, in fact, bother to learn how to do it? My own opinion on this is that if women only make up 17%, that’s going to be 17% of excellent, thoughtful and hard-working coaches safe in the knowledge that they are doing a good job.

Mara also shared some of her insight about training and racing with us, stating that the ultimate goal is to have a plan within which it’s possible to improve. Or to put it another way, it’s ok to have a grand plan but be ready to adapt it to the circumstances (much the same as the message I took from Phil Hewitt’s NYC Marathon chapter). She also illustrated why it’s important to learn from your mistakes; she told us how during the World Championships at Osaka in 2007 she got a bit carried away at 29k and found that she was going at a pace she couldn’t sustain. In January of the following year she took the lessons from what happened, made adjustments, and won a race on the same course.

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Given that most of us in the room last night have full time jobs and are either currently training or have trained within the last 12 months for a marathon, it was interesting to hear that Mara felt it would be nearly impossible to train properly at the same time as holding down a job and having a home life! I think several of us would tend to agree, and also that to achieve this it is important to be very organised and have a good support network as Mara advised. Her preference was to work part time, which allowed enough time to train seriously but also provided more than one focus, and so helped her to avoid too much isolation or obsessing over her running. Personally, that sounds ideal!

We were treated to some great advice on how to cope if you have a bad run in the lead up to a big race; Mara’s approach is to try thinking back over all of the aspects of your training which have been positive – all the good runs, the rest days you have allowed yourself, the good food habits you’ve adopted. If possible, she advised us to work out what the problem was and try to fix it. If the problem can’t be fixed, or at least can’t be fixed in time, then your other option is to ask yourself honestly what’s the worst that could happen? Coming to terms with that in advance of the race should help take some pressure off and put things into perspective.

Mara does still run but rarely races. She admitted to missing the exhilaration that comes with competing and being at the peak of your fitness, but doesn’t miss the stress and pressure of competition. She spoke about being realistic with your goals as you grow older and coming to terms with the fact that your fastest times may be behind you, and how this can be a difficult adjustment. Coincidentally, yesterday Jo Pavey was picked for a spot on the Team GB athletics squad for Rio. Jo will compete in the 10k distance at her fifth Olympic Games at the age of 42. This earned a round of applause and a small cheer in the room when Mara named Jo as a personal sporting hero during our chat.

There were also some questions discussed around some of the more serious issues in top flight athletics, including funding for athletes and the recent doping scandals. Mara brought a different perspective on this which I hadn’t considered before; when clean athletes compete against athletes who may be doping, they don’t necessarily know those athletes are doping. In those cases they may start to believe they are underperforming if they can’t keep up, which leads them to over train or push too hard. The clean athletes then get exhausted or injured and lose their chance of beating the doped athletes. This causes a vicious cycle which just continues to benefit those who dope over those who stay clean.

This is a really good point, and I feel like I have been either naïve or a bit thick not to have thought about this before. I’ve never understood why anyone would want to cheat themselves by taking drugs to achieve times which do not really belong to them, and have always thought it a terrible crime that those who dope are effectively stealing the medals (and the prize money) from the clean athletes. But the fact that the actions of those who dope can cause real physical damage to other, clean athletes and that this may have a permanent impact is really despicable. This has strengthened my opinion that if caught deliberately doping more than once, a lifetime ban is the only possible route if the authorities genuinely want to stamp cheating out.

We had a fantastic time spending the evening with Mara. The actual training session was hard but achievable, and she gave us so much encouragement. The athletes she is working with are very lucky in their coach.

She was also extremely generous with her time and knowledge during the Q&A; one of our club members asked her for a bit more detail on the glute injury story (there’s always one who lowers the tone!) and she was happy to give us a quick demo on how to check for any weaknesses and showed us some simple exercises for how to strengthen those butt muscles.  It was this more than anything that underlined for me once again how much runners are in this thing together and how we all have the same challenges to face, and that we face them with an unspoken camaraderie that’s always there.

When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a back of parkrun plodder or the second fastest female marathon runner for your country – you won’t achieve your goals unless you get your arse into gear.

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5 thoughts on “Tempo Wednesdays – Coached by an Olympian

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