The Man Behind Mottram
A Précis of a UK interview with Craig Mottram’s coach Nic Bideau.The ‘Can Do’ attitude
A distance runner stands at the start line of a major event. He looks across, sees Kenenisa Bekele and thinks 'I can’t win this'. Unless that runner is someone like Craig Mottram, the winner of the World Cup 3k. ‘Can’t win’ is not a phrase that goes down well with Nic and his athletes.
Driven by desire
Mottram exemplifies belief and ability you find in the athletes Bideau works with. Mottram’s desire and ambition were there from early on. Nic recalls the young Mottram at the 1999 World Cross in Belfast: “He just went out to get as high a place as he could. Afterwards someone said to him that he was the first non-African [in 17th] and Mottram said ‘So what?’ and walked off. Being the first non-African’ was not what Mottram was looking for and he didn’t view it as praise.
The Secrets to Success - Getting the Grounding
Nic points out that “when we were kids there was a lot more running, more playing football or cricket in the street for two or three hours. That’s not as commonplace now. However Mottram grew up like that.”
However basic fitness doesn’t need to be athletic specific, says Nic. “Benita Johnson was an international hockey player and that game gave her a high level of fitness to launch her into athletics. The best Australian athletes often come from smaller country towns where there’s an outdoor lifestyle and more sport – they walk and run around more. Bideau’s wife, World XC Champion Sonia O’Sullivan ran to and from school like the Africans. Mottram had basic fitness from triathlon. With any other kid who comes along you usually have to spend two or three years getting them fit to be able to train and absorb the big level training.
Nic is also quick to scotch ideas of secrets in distance running success. Nor does believe training brutally hard. He says the keys are easy to find: “It’s not like it is incredibly complex. Lydiard was talking about it in the 60s. I didn’t invent the stuff that I use. I was talking to Dick Quax (former NZ great) earlier this year and showed him what Mottram did that week and he said, ‘That’s the same sort of stuff as we did!’”
That said Nic is ready to use the resources that are now available to help an athlete train more effectively and recover properly. “Heart rate monitors are available. You can be more specific on the pace. Sessions are set with much more specific targets in mind and controlled so as in general they stay at that level rather allowing athletes to train too hard. There is more access to ice baths, physio, recovery drinks and so on to assist in the recovery process between training and in avoiding injuries.”
The Fundamentals of Successful Training.
Nic sees “lots of good volume aerobic work, running 90min to 2hr once or even twice a week and lots of one-hour runs” and “regular speed work” like fast relaxed 120’s with plenty of rest between repeats as the basis for success.
He then mentions the importance of more specific running: runs done at anaerobic threshold, running at the pace that would be race pace if you did it for an hour heart rate to control the intensity. (TB’s note: Basically our 20 minute, 30 minute or 50 minute threshold runs).
Most weeks the group also runs some “faster reps”. Most of the year it is 5k to 10k pace with a volume of 6k to 8k. (Note: Mottram is a 5k runner. 10k runners would do up to 12k). Closer to important races hills and some faster work at a specific race pace are included. For example if you are going to run a 4 minute mile you have got to be comfortable at just under 60sec per 400m in training.”
Nic does not believe in large numbers of tough workouts and believes an athlete who is fit can be brought into top shape in a relatively short period of time: “As long as you are running fast once a week you can do hardly any high quality sessions for six months and maintain the capability to be ready to race at a high level within a few weeks. The ability to run anaerobically comes very quickly to most athletes.”
Just as a miler would not train in the same way as a 10K runner Nic sees the art of coaching as recognising that while all athletes may need the same ingredients the portions may need to be very different and the actual workouts on a day may be the same on one day and different the next.
But the training is not the only key to improvement: What athletes do between the hard sessions is also important. Nic contrasts his athletes running 65 to 70 minutes very easily between harder sessions with the UK runners tendency to run 40 minutes at a faster pace – which he calls a grey area because it is neither specific or recovery and is more useful in getting athletes tired for the next session than actually building fitness” and cites Mottram “as being very disciplined and very focussed on good recovery”.
The World with the Africans
Nic does not believe the emergence of so many African athletes has changed the fundamentals of training but says it has had a big impact on what it takes to succeed because their dedication means an athlete has to be extremely dedicated and be very careful with planning and recovery. “You can’t afford to do it as a fun thing. You have got to be totally professional in all the aspects of your preparation now.”
Nic recalls that in the past great athletes could run many races, winning even when they were tired, because the overall standards were not as consistently high. However he says you cannot allow an athlete to go for everything these days because there is always something big all the time.
The Lost Skill of Racing
Nic also believes knowing how to turn fitness into a winning races is a lost art: “People don’t know how to race. These days you can actually get an athlete into a championships and it will be the first time for them in a race with no pacemakers. Even school kids are using pacemakers! That’s ridiculous.”
“You have got to have practice at what you are going to run. It’s just ridiculous – it’s almost like there are two sports – grand prix racing and championship racing – they are that different.”
Developing Self Belief
The way young athletes are nurtured and developed also a concern. While Mottram’s early years set him up for the success he now enjoys Nic fears many athletes have been consigned to the scrap heap before they have had the chance to develop to their full potential because too many are too focussed on a misplaced desire for success - going after times and winning their age group instead of building a sound aerobic and speed base. “You have got to prepare them to be good - to be fit enough to train properly when they are aged 22 or 23,” he says.
To fully develop an athlete’s potential Nic believes they must choose races wisely. In his opinion winning or placing 1 or 2 seconds outside an athlete’s PB will do more for their confidence than getting a PB but finishing well back and he would like to see 15 to 16-year-old kids enjoying themselves, getting fit, learning how to train and running some decent times for 800m, 1500m and 3k”.
“It is about good management - putting a strategy in place where you can get the best out of someone rather than them getting hammered.”
He uses Mottram as a good example: “When I brought Mottram to Europe in 2000 he was 19 or 20. He ran in races at places such as Bedford, Manchester and Battersea and small meetings in Ireland and won most of them. When we were finally sure he was ready to compete with some top level athletes, I put him in at Zagreb in the 1500mand he ran 3min 38sec which was a big personal best. He didn’t win it but he was competitive and was there or thereabouts in the last lap. I didn’t want him to get used to running out the back. He’d won four or five smaller races over here by then. He was winning races and feeling pretty good about it. I placed him in races that were a good progressive step. I didn’t slaughter him straight away by putting him in at Oslo or something of that level.”
Even when an athlete’s career is well developed being wise in choosing the right races is still vital. The World Championships in 2001 at Edmonton is an example: “People were saying ‘Why isn’t Mottram in the 5k after he’d run that event at the 2000 Olympics?’ But it was at altitude, even if only slight, against the Africans and he would have been killed. So we had him in the 1500m where he could at least keep up until 300m to go with the very best. In his semi he was still within reach of El Guerrouj with 300m to go – he didn’t make the final but he didn’t come away thinking it was possible next time”.