Birmingham University AC athletes recently went training at altitude and Matt Long was there to follow their progress

The commune of Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via in the south of France is reputed to be the oldest ski resort in the Pyrenees, but it is also the place where elite athletes come to train to avoid their performances sliding downhill. A smiling Mo Farah is pictured as a previous visitor on the walls of the Le Domaine de Castella hotel, where some 40 athletes from the Birmingham University AC squad were based for three weeks earlier this year under the supervision of director of athletics Luke Gunn and head of endurance Bud Baldaro.

Camp attendees included a multitude of track internationals, including 2011 world 1500m silver medallist Hannah England and 2014 European 800m semi-finalist Alison Leonard, Welsh international Julia Cooke and European IPC 1500m bronze medallist (T38) Dean Miller.

They were joined by GB cross country internationals Becky Straw, Maryse Haynes, Jonny Davies and Jonny Hay – all of who bagged team medals at last December’s European Cross Country Championships with Hay going on to captain Team GB at the recent World Cross in China. Ireland’s Sara Treacy was also part of the squad and she too won a team medal at those European championships.

The camp worked alongside the British Athletics camp organised by Craig Winrow and James Brewer, with Laura Muir and Charlene Thomas just two of several GB stars who were present. With 40-odd athletes from St Mary’s University also in attendance, this was the first time British Athletics and university clubs have formed such a partnership.

The article does not debate the benefits of altitude training, which have been well espoused by British Athletics head of endurance, Dr Barry Fudge. We try to unpick some of the principles at the heart of the camp philosophy engendered by coaches Gunn and Baldaro.

Stay healthy

On our first evening, four-time national steeplechase champion Gunn gave a 9pm briefing where athletes were told to be responsible for monitoring their health and well-being on a daily basis. He and his coaching staff, including me, looked out for both physiological and psychological signs that the athlete may be in danger of breaking down, through a checklist that includes: sleep deprivation, delayed onset of muscle soreness, loss of appetite and irritability. Gunn’s ethical compass means athletes were encouraged to liaise regularly with their club coaches back home via mediated technology while on camp.

Start off steadily

The athletes tapered their sessions before flying out to Barcelona on March 30 in anticipation of the demands of travel following the three-hour car journey up to the mountains. They undertook a three-mile run at just under eight-minute-mile pace on their day of arrival. A day after we arrived in camp the athletes paid particular attention to additional mobility work in order to restore range of movement in their muscles.

Much of the early aerobic work in the first week was conducted on the trails at Lac de Matemale – a 20-minute drive away and which is a shade over 5000 feet altitude. The first “hard” session, designed to make considerable demands on the lactate energy system took place on April 7, some six days after arrival.

Frequency of training

Many of the athletes present on the camp were already used to training twice daily. However, “double days” were worked towards incrementally and, after the first double on April 4, the athletes returned to just one easy run on the following day to allow recovery, before returning to a doubling on the next day with a light morning run and an easy run in the evening.

A reduction in the volume of aerobic training on certain days allowed for the development of the technical aspects of endurance running, such as drills. Gunn, who represented England in three Commonwealth Games, has separated this work into the finer detail of foot drills, strength and conditioning, plyometrics, yoga and work over hurdles.

Process not performance

Notably, some of the sessions in the second week of the camp were kept away from the track, so that athletes focused on the process of their running without getting obsessed about the performance aspect of the sessions. The work took place around the lake and repetitions tended to be based around time rather than set distances.

Replicating sessions

My room-mate, Baldaro, who has guided the careers of more than 60 GB internationals, has long been a fan of tempo-based sessions. The work that he and the squad do on the playing fields of the University under the supervision of Sally Straw and John and Bev Hartigan was replicated to a degree at altitude.

A key session, for example, in weeks two and three of the camp was 3-6 x 5 minutes.

Adaptation

Gunn and Baldaro are athlete-centred in their approach, so the long distance athletes opt for a track-based session of 6x800m in week three and the middle-distance athletes perform sets of 3x600m, 2x400m and 2x300m. What was significant about both sessions is that recoveries between repetitions were set at three minutes, which is considerably longer than would be allowed back at sea level. This is so that the quality can be maintained throughout the session in the thinner air.

Rest and recovery

As well as the conventional hard day-easy day approach to progressive overload, Gunn and Baldaro built in at least two days of complete passive recovery in weeks two and three. Baldaro, a veteran of numerous Olympic Games and major championships advised me: “Our job is really to hold the athletes back and protect them from their own overexuberance.” Sessions were split between 8.30am and 4pm so that rest and sometimes sleep were just some of the things which the athletes were actively encouraged to consider between the sessions.

Taper

The day before travelling home on April 23 involved a steady run. The day after arrival back home was also light – an easy run plus some strides to aid recovery from travelling.

Train to race

For many the BUCS Championships at the beginning of May was a key target for the season and so Gunn and Baldaro encouraged them to plan a month ahead and opt for a race in the days after they had recovered from travelling home in order for them to sharpen up.

Whether you plan to train at altitude or attend a training camp at sea level, the above principles serve as a sound philosophy to help you get the very best out of training away from home.

» Matt Long has been a member of the coaching and support team at Birmingham University AC since 2012