How they train – Richard Whitehead

After a gruelling 2013 on the track and the road, Richard Whitehead spoke to Alex Ferguson about his training routine

Richard Whitehead London Marathon 2013 (Mark Shearman)

Gymnast, swimmer, marathon man and sprinter – there’s not much that Richard Whitehead hasn’t experienced. With two world titles, a Paralympic gold and as holder of both the T42 200m and marathon world records, the proof is there for all to see.

These titles and records, however, don’t come without an arduous training schedule in which he spends 35 hours a week around the track and gym at Loughborough and on the roads near his home town of Nottingham.

The 37-year-old explains: “I do three track sessions a week at Loughborough University, three strength and conditioning sessions in Nottingham and five sessions on the road ranging in duration from anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour. I will also add in one swim session a week depending on whether that fits into my schedule.”

Despite being the reigning Paralympic, European and world champion as well as the world record holder over his favoured 200m, he is not counting his chickens with the IPC European Championships in Swansea approaching this year.

Whitehead, who has a double above-knee congenital amputation, says: “It’s quite an extensive programme, with the focus on winter training and looking at things that I need to improve on from last year and putting some work through the legs again for warm-weather training in South Africa this month.

“The warmth of Stellenbosch will allow me to do some really high-quality sessions, which will help me immensely with my season ahead.”

“…athletes should and need to give back time to the people that have supported them…”

The Southwell RC man’s first session of the week starts on the track, where his training group, masterminded by Keith Antoine, go for six repetitions of 250m with the first four back-to-back. The final two are broken up by seven minutes’ rest before he goes for his first of six weekly runs in his beloved Nottingham.

While you may not see Usain Bolt topping up his mileage in a regular training week, Whitehead uses his runs to get the “lactic” out of his legs.

Tuesday starts with his first of three strength and conditioning sessions under the guidance of Tim Stevenson with the predominant focus on his lower limbs. One of the questions people might now be wondering is, how does a double leg amputee do an exercise such as a squat?

Whitehead says: “I do my squats without my prosthetics, standing on my patellas with the barbell on the floor. If I’m stepping up to anything, it’s normally on steps and the same with single-leg squats. It’s the same exercise as with an able-bodied athlete, but adapted so I get the same benefit.”

“In the 200m I’ve definitely got room to improve”

Of the input from Stevenson he said: “It’s really important that I have an instructor with me when I’m doing my strength and conditioning sessions because there is a lot of fetching and carrying weights. If I’ve got up to 190kg when I’m doing one-rep maximums on my deadlifts, there’s a lot of weight you have to move. Tim is always at my sessions and, as well as being my coach, he helps facilitate my session so I’ve got the weights in the right position.”

His day finishes with a 45-60- minute run at around eight minutes per mile. Halfway through the regular working week, the GB stalwart enters into his second strength and conditioning session of the week with a series of exercises such as shoulder press, bench press and running arm mechanics.

Whitehead explains: “At this stage in my training, it’s about ticking over with reps of ten and three or four sets at 60% of my one-rep maximum. It”s all nice and light so I’m not doing any real damage to my muscle fibres. The day is completed with another venture out on to the roads for 60 minutes.”

On Thursdays, the double T42 200m world champion tests his body yet again with his second track session of the week – eight reps over 150m with four minutes’ rest in between. An afternoon gym circuit incorporating 12 to 15 exercises is implemented along with another 45 minutes of running in the evening.

On his frequency of running, the Paralympic gold medallist points out: “Having that consistent exercise works well for me and as I’m getting older I need to keep that flexibility and tone in my muscles. If I have too much time off my feet, I become very stiff and immobile, hence the reason why I do the longer distance stuff if needed.”

On Fridays he does what he calls his “strongman” session in which he focuses on hammer hits, rope climbs and moving tyres for around 90 minutes.

He adds: “It’s all about thinking on your feet and making sure I stay a dynamic athlete and not just focusing on the muscles I solely use when running. The strongman sessions focus on the whole-body approach, which keeps me in tip top condition.”

His final session of the week is spent on the track where he does up to eight reps of 120-200m before another 30-45-minute run in the evening. Sunday is Whitehead’s day of rest when he spends his time recouping for yet another busy training week as well as spending valuable time with his 10-month-old daughter Zarah.

It would be normal to presume that Whitehead would suffer from more injuries than one of his Olympic counterparts. However, with his sporting background and emphasis placed on conditioning, he remains in peak condition. He explains: “Warm-up time is longer not just because I’m a double amputee, but also I’m 37 years old and I make sure that I’m ready for my session.

“I’d say I’m less susceptible to injuries because of the condition I’m in. As a youngster I did gymnastics and swimming, which worked at the key skills in sport of balance, coordination and agility. I think this has been of great benefit to injury prevention and any injuries that I have had have been through a blade breaking or when I played ice hockey. I have a soft tissue and physio session every week and so any niggles are usually managed.”

While his weekly training regime seems eye-watering, Whitehead went to the extreme of running 40 marathons in 40 days raising money for Scope and Sarcoma UK in 2013. His inspiration for the challenge came from philanthropist and single-leg amputee Terry Fox, who ran 3339 miles across Canada in 1980 before cancer prevented him completing the journey and he died at the age of 22.

In running 977 miles, Whitehead became the first double-leg amputee to run the length of Britain between John O’Groats and Land’s End and admitted it was “mentally tough”.

He said: “It wasn’t the running itself, but the concept of doing the whole challenge. When people ask me what it takes, it took six weeks of dedication to running, media, nutrition, getting people to run with me and recovery strategies. Which other athlete has given up six weeks of their life just to run?

“It was a massive commitment and it obviously took it out of my body, losing weight, blisters and mentally I was tired all of the time and at times motivation was low. The most challenging part of the trip was the last five days with all the hills and at that point I was tired. The hills were so tough. Scotland was challenging because I was having problems with my prosthetics.

“I enjoyed finishing and going back to Nottingham. It was the little things really. It demonstrated that sport was not all about winning medals, but the life skills I learnt and the people I met have given me the enthusiasm to continue for the next four years.”

Whitehead cuts a modest figure despite his huge achievements on and off the track and believes that giving back to the community is something which all athletes should do during their careers. He says: “Medals are great and that’s what I’m in the GB team for, but athletes should and need to give back time to the people that have supported them and bought tickets because these people appreciate what we can do and inspire them to be more positive about themselves and liberate them to take their own journey.

“The challenges have benefited the likes of Sarcoma and Scope with over £300,000 raised. These types of challenges take you into some really dark places and it’s not easy for anybody, whether you’ve got a disability or not.”

Although a modest person, Whitehead jests that he is “a hard-core athlete”. No one can really take that away from him as he explains: “You ask any other athlete if they could run 200m, win gold in their chosen discipline and run 40 marathons in 40 days. Nobody has done it.

“The reason why I took up the challenge is I felt Paralympic sport would benefit massively from me doing it and the charities have had some great feedback. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done and I’ve had no recurring injuries since finishing and I don’t think it has affected what I’m able to do on the track.

“Hopefully I can continue to be successful and pass on my experience from the summer I spent running.”

So what is left for the man known to his team-mates as “The Beast”? He said: “In the 200m I’ve definitely got room to improve. In the next few years I should be breaking 24 seconds and I feel I’ve got lots of incremental improvements there.

“I’ve not decided whether I’m going to run any marathons at full-pace any more. If I want to run under 24 seconds, I don’t know how a marathon would complement what I’m running on the track. I enjoy marathon running – it’s where I’ve come from – but whether I can go back to those sort of times with the weight I’ve put on since then, it would have to be something I’d have to think long and hard about.

“Swansea, Doha, Rio and we’ll see what happens after that. I’d love to do London 2017 and maybe call it a day after that.”

TYPICAL TRAINING WEEK

Monday: (am) 6x250m – first 4 reps back to back with 4min rest – 7min rest after the fourth repetition. (pm) Road run 30-45min at 50%.
Tuesday: (am) Strength and conditioning: Romanian deadlifts (100kg warm-up set), deadlifts 120kgx10x3 (60% 1RM), hop and holds and single leg squats (sets of 10). (pm) 45-60min run at 8min mile pace (60%).
Wednesday: (am) Strength and conditioning: shoulder press (25kgx6x6), bench press (80kgx6x6), running arm mechanics. (pm) Tempo road run 60min.
Thursday: (am) 150mx8 with 4min rest in-between. (pm) Gym circuit: mixture of abs, running arms, step-ups, plank (12-15 exercises 45secx3), road run 45mins (50%).
Friday: (am) Strength and conditioning strongman session: hammer hits (8×3), move tyres (2×3), climb ropes (2×3), road run 45min (60%).
Saturday: (am) Mid-long range track session: 120-200m – up to 8 reps. (pm) Road run 30-45min (60%).
Sunday: Rest day.

» The above sessions are specific to the individual athlete and may not be suitable for other athletes

» Richard Whitehead is a patron of Sarcoma UK and anybody who wants to donate can do so via richardwhiteheadrunsbritain.com

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