The demands of indoor racing

Running indoors has specific demands so Dr Matt Long spoke with former World indoor specialist James Thie to find out more

Posted on January 21, 2013 by
Tagged with + + + + + +
James Thie (Mark Shearman)

The major indoor championships are looming and James Thie, who finished fourth in the 2004 World Indoor Championship 1500m final, gives an insight into the specific demands of mastering the boards in the context of a double-peak periodisation of training.


Thie, who was AAA indoor 3000m champion in 2006, starts by reminding readers that indoor running is far more common than it was 20 years ago because of the development of tracks associated with high performance centres across the country. He said: “I used the UWIC facility in my home city of Cardiff as a student because it was around a mile or so from where I lived. It was one of the first facilities to be used in the UK and it’s no coincidence that Wales has produced some excellent indoor athletes such as Joe Thomas and Jimmy Watkins, who have thrived indoors due to that very facility.”

Stepping stone

Thie says: “It’s a great stepping stone for athletes to get their foot on the international ladder. You have to remember that world indoor qualifying times are slower than those for outdoor championships. The tragedy is that some athletes deliberately opt out of the indoors to concentrate on the summer season and then end up not qualifying for the outdoor championships.”

The Welshman encourages up-and-coming athletes to reflect on the fact that indoor competition can be “a great stepping stone in terms of bridging the gap and heading towards selection for outdoor championships.”

Double-peak periodisation

In tracing the roots of the theory of periodisation, one has to acknowledge the contribution made by endocrinologist Hans Selye. His research on the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA axis) system in the 1950s led to the development of general adaptation syndrome as an understanding how human beings respond to stress.

A decade later, Russian professor Leonid Matveyev was credited with applying this work to an athletic context in terms of developing the notions of distinctive blocks of training over time. These foundations are nowadays commonly referred to as “macrocycles” (months), “mesocycles” (weeks) and “microcyles” (days) of training.

Matveyev was at the forefront of pioneering research into how training volume, intensity and specificity could be manipulated at different points in time to enhance athletic performance within a single-peak periodised macrocycle of training (see Figure 1 below).

In concluding that for some athletics disciplines, two periods of competition in one year allowed for the sustaining of both higher and more specific training intensities, Matveyev advocated double-peak periodisation of the kind needed for the athlete contemplating an indoor as well as outdoor season (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 1 and figure 2Debate still rages in the sports science community as to whether double-peak periodisation is suitable in all contexts. For some it is deemed inappropriate for endurance events because of the length of time needed to build an aerobic base prior to successful competition. For others, double- peak periodisation should be used selectively over the course of an athlete’s career, with a recommendation that this is not undertaken every year without careful thought.

Before talking about the physical demands of indoor racing, Thie, the director of athletics at Cardiff  Metropolitan University, tells me: “Mentally, 12 months is a long time just to train without competing. I can never understand athletes who seem to just train to do more training. An indoor season gives you that mental stimulation.”

When challenged as to whether a successful indoor season can be compatible with success outdoors, Thie is adamant: “Andrew Osagie couldn’t have made the Olympic final and run 1:43.77 without enjoying the success he had in taking world indoor bronze in Istanbul. You can bring your body to a peak twice in one year.”

Thie, who has a 1500m indoor best of 3:38.69 set in Birmingham in 2004, remains an admirer of the “five-pace” system developed by the late BMC founder Frank Horwill. He adds: “I used the system in two basic stages. I worked at half- marathon, 10km, 5km, 3km and 1500m paces in training before Christmas. After Christmas, I still used a multi-paced system but worked at 5km, 3km, 1500m, 800m and 400m paces in my training.”

In terms of peaking for indoor championships, Thie says: “You’ve got to come off  the volume and taper, but if the World Indoors are in March, it still gives you three months to recover and build towards outdoor success from June onwards.”

Thie, who has aspirations of reaching his third Commonwealth Games in 2014, says: “Athletes should remember that the indoors are an intense six-week season. It’s a much shorter block of competition compared to the outdoor season.”


Now a well-respected coach, Thie’s indoor prowess has rubbed off on his training group as shown by his guiding of under-23 athlete Charlotte Arter to BUCS indoor gold over the metric mile (4:22.5) in February 2012.

“There’s no sun and wind indoors, so you don’t have to deal with the unpredictable British weather. It’s a far more controlled environment indoors compared to outdoors” he laughs. “There are certain kinds of athletes who will always struggle indoors, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t still give it a go. Taller athletes who need space to operate tend to be at a disadvantage. The indoors suited my physiology, though, as I haven’t got a long, rangy stride and I like running the banks of the bends. I tried to perfect sling-shotting off  those bends.”

Thie loved the physicality of indoor racing and had no qualms about using his elbows when needed. “It comes with the territory” he says. He maintains that with practice, athletes can adapt their cadence for the demands of indoor racing and uses the analogy of needing to “change down through the gears as you go around the bend”.

In terms of modelling best practice, he has no hesitation in pointing to the three-time world indoor 3000m champion Bernard Lagat as the master. “Lagat is the best I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I remember running the mile against him at the Millrose Games in New York. It was this tiny 180-metre track and I was stride for stride with Alan Webb. We both looked across in sheer disbelief and could see Lagat half a lap ahead of us!”


Thie, who is competitions manager for Welsh Athletics, maintains that indoor racing requires a very different tactical approach from outdoors.

“With the middle-distance and endurance events it’s all about getting the first three or four laps out of the way and avoiding incident,” he stresses. “Competitions are overwhelmingly slower and more tactical aff airs, with the third quarter of the race becoming crucial in terms of positioning to launch an attack. The outright race for home tends to begin in earnest only in that third quarter.”

In reflecting back on his utilisation of multi-pace training he urges athletes to consider the fact that middle-distance and endurance races are rarely run at even pace indoors.

Talking about his race at the World Indoor final, he says: “We jogged through 800m in something like 2:15. The last 400m was something ridiculous like 52.9. Compare that to a year later in the European Indoors in Madrid (when he was sixth in 3:40.76) where I had to go through 800m in 1:56 because the race was won in around 3:35. The point I’m making is you have got to be able to tactically respond to both of the above scenarios.”

Thie adds that the timing of the sprint finish is paramount in indoor middle-distance and endurance racing. He says: “In domestic races my preferred option was to strike about 170 metres from home on the penultimate bend. “At this point it was always difficult for my rivals to come back and overhaul me. Your preference for striking for home indoors may be markedly different from outdoors where the straights are longer and the bends less severe. It needs both planning and practice to execute the art.”


Thie’s parting shot is a word of encouragement to all those athletes considering dipping their proverbial toe into the water of indoor racing. “Remember Bekele ran indoors and so does Mo Farah, and if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for you,” he implores.

As I time his 200m effort, the 34-year-old hits each one in a metronomic 30 seconds. If you see Thie pulling on the red vest of Wales in Glasgow in 2014, remember that much of his work will have been done on the boards of the UWIC facility which he has called home for almost half of his life.

» Dr Matt Long works for UKA in coach education

Leave a Reply