GB international Alex Teuten gives guidance to athletes who have recently started at university or those applying to study away from home next year

Starting university in general is a big step and the process is made even more complex for athletes because of the ties they have with their existing club and coaching set-up. It can be stressful adapting to a new regime and many athletes fall into common pitfalls, as I did myself. So I wanted to give some advice, both to those just starting university and to those who are deciding where to study in the future.

Training changes

I joined Southampton Uni in 2012 and admittedly had no idea my running would take off as it did. Indeed, I never expected to represent my country! But key to that was an excellent coach and training group in the ‘Rod Squad’.

However, the process of streamlining my training was far from simple. Without properly discussing my previous mileage and training, I stepped up from 45 miles per week to 65 and the volume and intensity of sessions increased as well.

The combination of these, as well as a freshers’ lifestyle that was not providing adequate recovery, meant that I was soon injured with a minor Achilles tear.

I was fortunate. Within three weeks I resumed training, albeit with caution, but not everyone is so lucky. The take-home message from this is to fully communicate your existing training and ensure that the process of adapting to anything new is carried out gradually. I can now run 90-95 miles each week without breaking down, thanks largely to gradually upping mileage every year.

On this point, it can be a very sensitive subject discussing who is the “lead coach” of an athlete once they start university. A good coach will never claim ownership of an athlete and will guide them while they are around, whether it’s at home or university.

Sadly, this isn’t always the case and arguments can ensue around the best programme for an athlete, especially if they differ significantly between coaches. The athlete is in the centre of all this, which can cause a lot of stress.

The best solution to this is for the coaches to discuss between themselves, being prepared to compromise on certain aspects of training. Probably the most important consideration is to allow the athlete to train in the group they are with at the time.

The athlete can and should have an opinion too. They will have a rough idea of their limits and can provide important feedback to coaches as to how they are responding to training.

Consider your calendar and support

Starting university opens up opportunities to compete in more competitions. Indeed, athletes are spoilt for choice when it comes to races. It is important to not overdo it. Think carefully about which races you would like to do. There are often university league events on top of the regional leagues with existing clubs – and that’s even before BUCS events come in. I would suggest that the athlete forms a race calendar and discusses with their coach or coaches.

For high-level athletes it is worth exploring whether your university has a bursary scheme in place. They are often generous and can subsidise kit and travel costs for events which is very helpful at a costly time for students. Even if they are unable to provide financial benefit, they may be able to offer free services such as gym membership and strength and conditioning support, which is definitely worth taking up (again, apply caution if this is new to you!).

A key part of university life is the extensive list of clubs and societies and I would encourage you to get involved. A good social community will help with the stresses of the academic side of things and also (hopefully not!) an injury that prevents you from running will give you a range of options, such as good contacts with physios and the opportunity to cross train with others.

Choosing a uni

Picking your university is a huge decision and the athletics opportunities that arise from your choice is one of many factors you might consider. Some universities have huge pedigree with regard to this, such as Loughborough, Birmingham, Bath or St Mary’s, but it is also important to consider the lifestyle associated with it.

For example, such universities will almost certainly attract talented individuals and so applications for bursary funding will be competitive. In addition, there are often clashes when it comes to being the best athlete in a training group, which can be a blessing or a curse.

Competition within groups is good in moderation. It drives success, but it can mean athletes can burn out and are not utilising sessions as they are designed for, which hinders progress. Not every session needs to – or should be – carried out at 100% effort and this often ends up being the case where competitive groups exist.

Furthermore, there is often no escaping the intense environment of a training group. Athletes tend to study on similar courses, train and even live together and so the topic of conversation is never too far from athletics. I’m sure that’s fine for many, but not me personally, so I chose Southampton Uni partly because it didn’t have such an intense sport environment.

Finally, to those just starting, enjoy it! I doubt anyone will hold it against you for enjoying yourself during freshers’ activities.

I certainly didn’t become heavily involved in training the minute I started university. Instead, I opted to start slowly and build fitness, such that when the national events came around in the new year I was in peak shape. And remember, one of the best hangover cures is an easy morning run!

» Former BUCS cross-country champion Alex Teuten formed part of Britain’s bronze medal-winning men’s team at the Euro Cross last December and can be found blogging at alexteuten.wordpress.com