Manchester Frontrunners, my beloved running club, recently arranged for none other than World and European 800m medalist Jenny Meadows to lead our track session! I have to admit, I don’t get to track anywhere near as often as I should but the appeal of a masterclass in running techniques delivered by one of Britain’s top female athletes was far too great an opportunity to miss.
We gathered by the indoor track at Manchester Regional Arena, and I was feeling a little nervous. This was massively compounded when I noticed a signed Team GB vest framed on the wall including a picture of Jenny Meadows herself. My nerves dissipated instantly as the session began: Jenny was friendly, down-to-earth, and seemed genuinely excited to work with us. She made a point of how nice it was to see the obvious camaraderie in our club, which was a nice reminder of how lucky I am to be part of the Frontrunners family.
Jenny started with a mental warm-up, a memory game to ease us into what turned out to be an important theme for the evening. Just as we are used to warming up for our physical sessions, we also learned about the value in mentally preparing for our workouts, focussing on the purpose and intent behind each drill and technique in order to maximise the carryover into our day to day running. I think in the rush to improve, this non-physical aspect of my own training gets left behind. The only time I ever truly approach running with intention is on race day – when it’s all I can think about – and during long runs. I’ve spent a lot of time training myself to be inside my own head during long runs, without the comfort of company or music. As a slower runner, a 20 miler will take me around 3hrs 30 mins. That’s a lot of time alone. I believe the reason I enjoy endurance running so much is because I’ve learned to love that time. However, I haven’t honestly applied the same tactics to my shorter distances. Shorter training sessions tend to blend into one an other and I usually approach them with half a mind on what I have to do immediately afterwards, be that uni, work, or a social event. Jenny Meadows drove home to me the importance – and the ease – with which you can centre yourself prior to a workout in order to get the best out of it. One of the techniques she used was to simple to set your core and scapula by engaging the abdominals and letting the shoulders roll down and back, before starting a drill. In this position, looking ahead and with your mind firmly on the activity at hand, she taught us that we bring purpose to our movements. Any lapse in that physical or mental attitude – almost inevitable for me as soon as I started moving – demonstrated a lapse in focus and correlated with a degradation of running form.
The session was split into two halves, with the first portion concentrating on running specific drills to incorporate into our faster sessions, and the second portion dealing with running specific strengthening routines we could utilise during our training. Specificity was key. All of the drills focused on breaking down the fundamental mechanics of running with the aim to master the isolated elements and to iron out weaknesses. Running itself seems pretty easy. You put one foot in front of the other and propel yourself forward. Yet, when you slow it right down and isolate movement patterns, you’re able to notice the otherwise invisible compensations and inefficient strategies you employ. I think the biggest shock to most of us was realising how little actually coordination we had when attempting some of the drills. Surprising, considering we spend most of our active time doing a series of one legged-hops for fun! I’m looking forward to getting on top of my weaknesses by regularly incorporating drills into my training.
The second half of the workshop also dialled us into the specificity of strength and conditioning for runners. Jenny talked how her own training history had led to the development of her own unique core sessions after realising that often, what takes place in the gym, translates poorly to running. How I understand this is that the fitness boom has ensured that we all know how to plank. But planking is a static exercise. When we run we are moving and so we need to be able to stay strong during movement. In fact, we are moving all of the time…even when sitting ‘still’. Too often, popular core strength programs rely on static strength building. Jenny had us trying out all sorts of unusual movements that really tested our cores and incorporated whole body compound and dynamic movements. I can’t say that we were particularly graceful during this part of the session, but I think we all took away from it an idea of how to program a functional strength and conditioning program that would have real, specific, running purpose.
Practice Makes Perfect
Jenny Meadows finished up with a generous Q&A session in which she answered questions on everything from nutrition, sleep, her own current training goals, and books she’s been inspired by. The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters and Go Faster Food by Kate Percy are both now on my must read list. I can honestly say she delivered a fantastic, thought-provoking session and I believe that as a club we will start to see some really positive effects as a result of her advice. Jenny’s session was delivered a few days before I ran the 2017 Asics Greater Manchester Marathon. Obviously, I know that one solitary session would not have a huge physical impact on my running form, especially as it inevitably degraded over the hours I was out on the course. However, I believe that Jenny’s words on mental attention did have a palpable effect on my race. I started the marathon consciously trying to adopt the same physically and mentally set state she had taught us to strive for, and I focussed on trying to bring attention to my form as often as possible during the race. (I won’t lie, though. It was a marathon, after all and there was some crazy mental wildernesses my mind wandered to, despite my best intentions). The overall result was that I really felt lighter on my feet, and stronger throughout.
Maybe the sensation was all in my mind, but in a marathon, getting your mind right is a pretty important factor. Thanks to Jenny, I think I’m starting to get that right.
Photo credits: Tess Ptonka and Nina Barthel, 2017.