At the beginning of the season I sat down with Amidou Dembele, one of our CE Squad members, to talk about his goals for the season. He decided he wanted to give the traditional Snowdon International race in Wales a go and on quick reflection I encouraged it strongly: not only did the long climb prove a great test of what has traditionally been his weakness in the hills (the climb) but the descent was almost written for his skills (the more the better).
A spanner in the works
When he began to have trouble with an inflamed big toe joint early in the year that put a big spanner in the works. He had gotten off to a great start in training and finished 3rd in the Wicklow Way Trail during his Aerobic phase of training, so all the groundwork was there for a successful season in the hills. This was a double-blow to the CE Squad’s ambitions for the year with Jason Kehoe also side-lined from the after-effects of the injuries he picked up throughout his successful, but hard-fought, 2011 campaign.
Eventually, we got him in front of Tony who identified a particularly egregious pair of modern-day super-cushioned runners as the main culprit. Amidou’s foot is much less compromised than the average Irish runner, I’d work with or that we’d test in the injury free workshops because his upbringing in Mali has differed significantly from that of most Irish kids both today and 30 years ago. Up at six o’clock in the morning, Amidou and his siblings would play until six in the evening outdoors, mainly bare foot and thus his foot will appear quite wide with a full splayed out big toe compared to what you see if you drag the shoes off your average punter on the street.
This, ironically, makes him more vulnerable in some ways to modern runners as his toe got particularly badly squashed. Other than that, his running technique was largely flawless, so from April onward, we began his rehabilitation and he took up running again, although not in the volumes that would constitute “Lydiard training”.
4 weeks to Snowdon!
With four weeks to go, and the benefits of a second workshop with Tony, Amidou was ready to begin “serious training”. This is precious little time to get ready for a 10 mile run over hard rock and tarmac with 1000m of vertical climb and a super-competitive field the likes of which can simply not be found in Irish hill races as none of them attract so many runners of international or near-international standard.
To achieve this I had to apply the Lydiard principles to circumstances that were less than ideal. We knew it would be important to get good aerobic mileage in as Snowdon is a highly aerobic race taking very close to a runner’s half-marathon time to complete (for Amidou this meant estimated just below 80 minutes, which proved correct).
He also needed exposure to hills, he needed to get at least one race in before (Snowdon is too big an event to make it your first of the season) and we needed to do some light stimulation of the anaerobic system as well as leg-speed work to make him sharp for the descent in particular.
Key workouts used to prepare
This was the simple recipe:
- Long aerobic run: he did one of these per week, generally on hills, starting at 2 hours but he quickly built up beyond 2 hours and 30 as he complained to me that “I don’t feel tired at the end”.
- Fartlek: one to two sessions of these per week done in the “sausage session” format meaning sessions like 2-3-4-4-3-2 minutes with double running recovery in between at whatever hard pace he liked. This would provide anaerobic stimulus and improve his ability to circulate lactate around the body as fuel without risking tiredness or impacting his aerobic build-up.
- Hill sessions: this was a custom-made session to get him sharp for hill racing quickly – just the Lydiard hill circuit but with the uphill focus being on running steady and relaxed. I designed four different sessions (below) for variety and progression.
- Strides: our standard strides of 10 x 100m with 300m easy trotting in between. A recovery day really, but keeps the athlete sharp for the race ahead.
- Races: We planned in two races Lug na Coille and Mt Leinster. Both have long climbs and long descents so mirrored Snowdon in some respects. As Amidou had descended faster than anyone else off both mountains last year, I imagined they would be perfect for building race confidence.
- Out and Backs: I planned in two sessions run at maximum steady state, or just below lactate threshold, as much of a long uphill climb is run just around this zone and efficiency at this intensity is critical for success is long-distance running.
- Easy runs: among all this, we had time for two easy runs and a rest day (the Friday before the race where we trotted a few kilometres up Snowdon) during this intense 28 days.
We assigned no mileage targets as we could not be sure what Amidou would be able to do on such short notice and rather encouraged the sessions to be run by feel. The intention was to have him run every day if possible as nothing better ensures that the athlete becomes tireless. It also serves as a useful control mechanism: you have to leave yourself in a condition to run well every day and thus avoid overdoing it in any one session. You simply cannot afford to be “knackered” for days after a workout done too hard.
Close look at the hill sessions
Each week, the hill session given to Amidou was made slightly more challenging although none were super-tough workouts as some might expect. With the high volume and focus on aerobic development, there was no need for killer workouts to bring him into racing shape. In week 4 (the race week), the session was short and snappy and just a “final reminder” to his body of what lay ahead on the Saturday. Athletes should always be slightly undercooked rather than overcooked.
So these are the simple instructions he got, I owe a debt of gratitude to Colin Livingstone, who coached Tim Davies from mid-packer to 5th in the World Mountain Running Trophy, for the inspiration for these workouts:
- Week 1: hill circuit on grass. Run relaxed fast uphill and concentrate on really being fast and relaxed on the downhill. Do for at least 20 minutes.
- Week 2: 8x300m uphill – relaxed strong running with downhill recoveries.
- Week 3: 4 x 2 minutes uphill @ 3k intensity (run very strong). Relaxed recovery back down.
- Week 4: run relaxed uphill, jog flats, fast striding downhill. Do 10-15 minutes.
The two races were meant to do the rest in terms of “hill preparedness”.
Lug na Coille and Mt Leinster
Sadly, Lug na Coille proved a worse test than expected. Amidou had a solid climb, with no pressure after the two weeks of training bagged, but had chosen very poor footwear and could not unleash his usual devastating descent. His finishing position was therefore not what we had expected but we knew there was no mystery to the result and nothing to worry about.
Mt Leinster came and went without Amidou as he woke up with a head-cold and had to give the race a miss. Perhaps this worked out to our advantage at the end as he could keep focusing on training.
Steady state runs
We only had time for two of these workouts during the four weeks, so had to make them count. For the first week’s workout, Amidou did a 1-hour “steady cruise” at no faster than 10 mile race pace intensity (the lactate threshold occurs at 60 minute or 15km pace in general).
In week 2, we went for something much harder and much slower with 20 minutes @ 10k to half-marathon intensity with plenty of warmup and cooldown and strides. Most runners would recognise this as similar to a normal tempo run. We would normally spend weeks doing runs like the one in week 1 before embarking on these faster runs but, in the absence of time, one of each had to make do. I wanted Amidou familiarised with as many intensity levels as possible before the race without doing too much hard anaerobic work, which contributes almost nothing to a race as long as Snowdon and which is very high risk in terms of delivering “a flat” athlete to the starting line.
The real money – aerobic runs
Throughout these four weeks, the real money in the bank did not come from these elaborate workouts, however, but from the weekend long run and a longer Tuesday aerobic run in addition to that. Amidou had the option of throwing in random 70m strides in this run when he felt great for extra speed stimulus.
How the schedule looked
As we were in a hurry, I did not create a full elaborate and colourful training plan but simply send this in an email with my comments:
In the end Amidou finished 37th overall in a field of over 500 including one of the best international gatherings attending the race in many years. The winning time was the fastest in 15 years which showed the quality of the race and it was his first opportunity to test himself against some of the very best descenders in the world – the Scottish maestros Murray Strain and Robbie Simpson as well as several of their Italian and English rivals.
He recorded the 12th fastest descent of any runner but left disappointed that he just missed breaking the 25 minute barrier. It was a proud moment for me as a coach as I had carried a gut feeling since I saw him pass me out like I was a spectator during the 2010 Devil’s Glen race that he could develop into an international class descender, and perhaps (no pressure) one of the best in the game over time. Instincts are instincts and sometimes they are wrong, so it is even more pleasing to see them vindicated.
Perhaps even better was his 13th position in the open category (disregarding the international runners) and a very strong climb of under 55 minutes. This is were there is most room for improvement, but with only four weeks to work with, I consider that time an unqualified success. You cannot hurry athletic development, it is a careful process that takes place over at least 3 years and sometimes as much as 10 and its important to celebrate the steps on the way.
So it can be done, preparing for Snowdon in four weeks. Would I recommend it? Not really, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. Amidou has promised a report on his own on the race and we look forward to bringing his own perspective here.
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