Coaching corner: a guide to gold
Recently there has been much discussion about whether young Irish and European distance athletes are training hard enough following an interview that Cathal Dennehy did with John Treacy. Ireland has only won three gold medals in the history of the European Junior Championships. In 2005 Colin Costello won the 1,500m at the European Junior Championships and we now speak to his coach, Robert Denmead, about that and his views on what Junior athletes should be doing to achieve success at that level of competition:
There has been much discussion lately about our young athletes and the amount of training they do. Do you think they should be doing more mileage?
I honestly don’t know what training they are doing so I can’t answer that question. I think the bigger question is whether they are training correctly. In my view what you want is a good training programme with sessions that are aimed at specifically improving physiological attributes such as oxygen uptake, power, lactate threshold, lactate buffering and muscle endurance. In terms of the mileage that you cover it’s not what you do but rather HOW you do it that’s important.
Yes, but surely there is a minimum requirement if you are a young athlete who wishes to succeed at international level?
The important thing is to give the athlete a training programme that they can cope with and that improves them. Some athletes can handle more volume that others. The training volume and intensity should gradually increase over time while ensuring that the athlete continues to improve. I like to have two or three important sessions each week and then the rest of the week has easy runs, the volume of which will depend on what the athlete can cope with.
You coached Colin Costello to the European Junior 1,500m title in 2005, what sort of mileage was he doing?
I coached him for 4 years prior to when he won the European Juniors and I would say his highest mileage during that time was about 60 miles in a week. Some weeks would be closer to 30 miles in the week because he would be easing down for competitions or just needed to have an easy week. I never counted the miles because my athletes run for time rather than distance when doing easy runs.
Tell me how you came to coach Colin and how you went about it?
I was friendly with Brendan Meade who coached Colin in Gormanston and we had discussed some of his training in the lead up to the National Juvenile Championships. Then I got a call from Colin asking me to coach him so I contacted Brendan and Brendan said he had agreed that I should coach Colin. I told Brendan that I wanted him to stay involved and be my “eyes and ears” at Colin’s sessions. So I set out the training schedules and Brendan attended the sessions and reported back to me. Of course I also spoke to Colin on the phone (we lived 100 miles apart) and I would have conversations with his parents. While I rarely attended his training sessions, I did get to his races as much as possible. It worked great because we all got along so well.
How did you know he was doing the sessions correctly?
The track sessions were done based on pace so it is easy to know whether they are done correctly. I would also speak to Brendan about how Colin coped with the session and to Colin himself about how he felt during the session. Then I would tell him if I felt the session was done correctly or not and he would make any necessary adjustments the next time.
For his aerobic development sessions we used a heart rate monitor and he ran to the heart rates I set him. Those were based on physiological tests that he carried out. Over time everything was monitored (paces, heart rates, effort levels, test results etc) and we had a big amount of data to work with.
Colin grew to understand how each session should feel and after a year or so he knew exactly what physiological element he was working on in the training session. I remember feeling in the third year that we really had it all down to a tee and he ran 1:49 for 800m and 3:45 for 1,500m as an 18 year old.
What other elements were important in his development?
There is no doubt that getting the right sort of competition was hugely important. In the first year that I coached him, he won the International Schools steeplechase and the AAA’s Indoor U-17 1,500m. There were a lot of very good athletes in his age group like Danny Darcy, Eoin Everard, Des Earls, James King, Mick Clohisey, Dan Mulhare, Paul Pollock etc so he always had to be on his toes at home. The next year he won the AAA’s U-20 1,500m and went on to win it twice more. He won silver in the 1,500m and bronze in the steeplechase at the European Youth Olympics and came fifth in the 1,500m at the World Youths. He ran in Gent against a world class field in 2005 and set an Irish Junior Indoor 1,500m record of 3:46.17, which still stands today.
He also competed in British Milers Club (BMC) races in England when he was seventeen and gained a lot of experience competing internationally. So in the years leading up to the European Juniors he was learning to compete with and beat most of the people he would face in the Juniors.
From the age of 18 he was competing against the top seniors in Ireland and beating most of them and he also ran events like the Cork City Sports mile and the Morton Mile. His confidence was high and he was very dedicated and focused. He was diligent in his training. At the same time I was studying all his opponents and took videos of races at the European Youths and World Juniors. I also bought a video of his World Youths final.
Six weeks before the European Juniors Colin and I went to Font Romeu for altitude training. I felt that would put the icing on the cake so to speak in terms of his preparation. Years earlier I had spoken to Catherina McKiernan’s coach, Joe Doonan, about altitude training and he gave me some great advice.
How did the altitude camp go for him?
It went really well. He came home from it in super form and looked superb when winning the National Junior 1,500m title. He was hungry for competition and couldn’t wait for the Europeans. He won a BMC 800m a week before the Europeans. We stayed in the French Altitude Centre and I left after 10 days while Colin stayed for 22 days. We got friendly with Paula Radcliffe and her husband Gary and they were very helpful. The 2003 World Indoor 1,500m champion, Driss Maazouzi was there and we hung around with him and some of the other French guys and Tunisians for the first 10 days. By the time I left Colin had a lot of friends up there and he just trained away. All the experience that he had gained using his heart rate monitor to train correctly was put to good use at altitude.
He did not run well at the 2004 World Juniors when he was 18 years old, what happened there?
In a nutshell it was a food issue. The food was extremely poor (very little carbohydrate provided) and he went into the 1,500m heats lacking the necessary glycogen stores. He was passed by a guy he would normally have beaten 70m before the finish and failed to qualify for the final. He ran superbly in Ireland a week before and also a week after the World Juniors so I knew it wasn’t that he lacked form. One good thing that came from that was that I spoke to key personnel in Athletics Ireland and asked them to send the High Performance Manager out to Kaunas prior to the European Juniors to ensure that the food and accommodation was up to scratch. In fairness that was done and everything was great for the Irish team in Kaunas (2005).
Have you any further insights into why and how Colin won the European Juniors, with Danny Darcy taking the silver medal?
First of all I think that we had covered everything in training. I felt that no one would be able to run away from him in the final because I felt that he was in shape to run 3:40 and I could not see anyone outkicking him because he was very fast and powerful in the finishing straight. James Nolan had raced and trained with Colin and he told me he had never seen a European junior 1,500m runner with such acceleration and power.
In the heats Colin kicked for home with 300m to go and tested one of his chief rivals for acceleration, and then just cruised down the finishing straight. After the heat he told me he would beat that guy. I video taped both heats and we watched them back. Danny Darcy had taken up the running with 700m to go in the other heat and Colin and I felt that Danny would make a long run for home in the final.
We had discussed tactics in Font Romeu and Colin said that he wanted to take the lead with 230m to go in the final and get the inside lane around the bend, then kick hard down the finishing straight. In the final Danny Darcy had the guts and determination to take the lead after 100m and make it a true run race. In my view it was his best tactic to win a medal because he had not beaten Colin on the track in the previous four years. Colin settled into second place and kicked away with 230m to go to win by 5 meters in 3:45.25, with Danny taking the silver medal. His parents, Colin and Philomena, were there that day as well and it was a great day for all concerned. I was only sorry that Brendan Meade wasn’t there but I heard he did a victory sprint across the infield in Morton stadium with his hands in the air when the result was announced!