Ó Lionáird’s Blog: Junior training insights

It seems that in the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion and dialogue surrounding the training of junior athletes in Ireland. When I asked you good folks on Twitter for blog content suggestions, junior training dominated the feedback. Perhaps that has come about in light of John Treacy’s comments surrounding Europeans vs. Africans, or maybe it’s just a product of us looking beyond our own circles in search of better knowledge on training. I said to conclude my last blog that many Americans credit the Internet and freedom of training knowledge to their rise on the world distance-running stage. It would be great to see the same openness in Ireland and perhaps JumpingTheGun can be the catalyst for that.

I’m going to begin the detailing of my training as a junior with a caveat or disclaimer. Individual variation is a product of nature, and often-prescribed plans catered to the individual are not created with replication in mind. One should never attempt to view success in a vacuum and attempt to mimic every aspect of someone else’s plan. Rather, gaining insights from the thought process involved in the plan’s construction and applying some of that thought to one’s own programme seems to be a far more sensible approach when looking to improve one’s own preparation.

My coach’s philosophy: long-term development

I trained with Leevale AC in Cork from the age of 12 to 18. As soon as I came in to the club, I came under the tutelage of Der O’Donovan, with advice from Tony Shine on top. Der wrote the plan and it involved, essentially, a five-year plan to get me in the position to go to America on scholarship and be successful. Leevale has a huge tradition in sending athletes to the States and this was drilled into me from a young age.  Der coached Marcus O’Sullivan and Mark Carroll and much of my training looked similar to what they did at my age.

Sparring Partners: Leading a cross country race alongside my regular training partner in my teen years: John Shine. Image: Leevale AC

Sparring Partners: leading a cross country race in Cork alongside one of my regular training partners in my teen years, John Shine. Image: Leevale AC

From the age of 12 to 15, I largely used Gaelic football and soccer for fitness maintenance on all of my off-days and had two running workouts with Leevale each week. I did not really run mileage at all. The workouts were largely interval-based. Der had me running with some of Leevale’s top junior and senior middle distance runners from the age of 12 and I was running down towards 60-62-second 400 pace very early on.

Once I realised at age 15 I wanted to focus on running fully, I began to do some easy running on top of these interval workouts and also added in a classic element of Leevale AC training – sand dunes at Ownahincha, a strand down in Cork. Sand dunes involved a 3-mile warm-up then 3 sets of 10 80-metre sand dune hill repeats. It still stands as one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever done. During the sets, one never stops, simply runs over the top of dune and back around to the bottom, making the effort continuous.

Low on Quantity, High on Quality

From the age of 15-18, although I was running some easy runs, it was very rarely over 45mins at a time and my mileage never went over 40-45 miles a week. However, once I got to 5th year (junior year for Americans) in secondary school, we had begun to add longer intervals with shorter rest to my programme.

In the autumn, this would involve sessions like 5x1k off 30 secs rest from 3:05 down to 2:55. It was essentially 5k straight as recovery was minimal. In early track season this would switch to 8×800 on the track starting at 2:15 and ending in 2:06. So even though I was running very little mileage, I was doing some very solid strength-specific workouts for a 16-17 year old. We also developed the mile pace shorter intervals that I had begun at age 12 to the point that at age 17 I was able to do 10×400 in 60 with 60 secs rest. Many suggest this to be a four-minute mile type workout, and perhaps if I hadn’t missed my final summer of secondary school with a back injury, I may have run that.

If there were one aspect of my training that I would have changed looking back, it would perhaps have been to add specific threshold tempo through the winter period and indoor track. I was extremely developed on the interval side, given I could do workouts on the track that even now, as a 3:52 miler, I’d find tough. I think that I wouldn’t have responded so well to increases in mileage but getting strength from other areas such as specific threshold tempos for 15-20 minutes would have been a good addition.

More than anything, though, I have to thank Der O’Donovan. It is rare to find a coach that develops a true five-year plan and had I not gotten a freak disc herniation my last year in secondary school, I would have PB’d every single summer. I got to a World Youth final on 30-35 mpw and am still running age 26, which is testament to his work.

Advice to Juniors: focus on threshold, identify your weaknesses

As for my advice for current juniors and coaches, well, I think that low-end threshold work gets the best bang for your buck in terms of aerobic development. I think if you ask Rob Denmead or any other successful coach of juniors in Ireland, they would advocate a well-rounded programme.

I don’t believe strength through mileage alone really works at all. I think mileage is something that can be added when all specific workout benefit is exhausted, but this is unlikely to occur at junior level. Identifying an athlete’s threshold zones and having them do one threshold session a week for 20-25 mins or so, combined with an interval session to add specificity and one strength/form-specific session (hills/dunes) would negate much of the need for a focus on high mileage, should it be done correctly. Also, identifying your young athlete’s imbalances and weaknesses through physio assessment and creating a core/intrinsic exercise programme has far greater value long-term than slogging mileage. Just my two cents!

Finally, here are sample training weeks from winter and summer from me as a 17-year-old.


M: 40 mins plus drills and strides

T:  Intervals: 5x1k off 30 secs rest on grass. Start at 3:05 and cut down.

W: 25 mins easy plus core and physio-directed work

T:  Steady 45 min run with club. (These often got competitive and were almost races at the end)

F: 40 mins easy plus strides

S: Sand Dunes: 30-45 hill repeats until exhaustion (HARD)

S: off or 40-45 mins easy.



M: 30-40 mins plus fast strides

T: 10×400 start 62 finish 58 off 200m jog

W: 20mins plus drills and core

T: 35 mins run and 10×150 hard.

F: 20mins easy

S: 6×600 start 1:34 finish 1:28

S: 45 mins long run.





Reilly competing for Ireland in the steeple at the World Championships in Daegu in 2011. Image: PhotoRun
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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He has won two sports-writing awards, the Peter Ball Memorial Award in Ireland and the Wills Writing Award in the UK. Nationally, he previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, the Guardian and The Independent in Britain. He is a regular contributor to Running Times, Runner's World, RunBlogRun and the IAAF website.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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