The London 2012 Olympic finalist spoke to Running Monthly about her unconventional approach to training for next year’s Games
Think elite runner and you imagine someone knocking out intervals on an athletics track, checking their splits to the hundredth of a second and then meticulously logging their miles.
London 2012 Olympic finalist Julia Bleasdale, who is Britain’s third quickest woman ever at 10,000m, took the opposite approach this summer.
During six weeks in the Alps, the athlete from Hillingdon AC set the basis for her Olympic campaign next summer by ignoring her watch and simply running – as she puts it, “exploring the landscape”.
You don’t have to be an elite athlete to be guilty of being a slave to your GPS device. No matter what your normal pace, the glance at your wrist that tells you that what feels like your usual speed is actually 20 seconds slower will usually be followed by you picking up the tempo – not taking into account, for example, that you only got out of bed 20 minutes ago or had a tough run the day before.
Bleasdale will of course in time start obsessing over rep splits and weekly mileages as she endeavours to improve on her unexpected eighth places in both the 5000m and 10,000m from London 2012. However, she says that her period of just running for the sheer enjoyment in the Alps could be key to building up a foundation of strength and reinvigorating her motivation.
Her home surroundings of Surrey Hills are scenic enough, but she also undertakes stints of training in South Africa and Ethiopia. However, her time in the Alps rekindles memories of her childhood as it is where her parents would often take her from the age of one.
Explains Bleasdale, who started running at the age of six: “My love of running probably first took form in the Alps and in the mountains and exploring the landscape, running through forests and up and down hills, through alpine pastures, past cows with their cowbells and just enjoying that feeling of freedom, the motion and movement of the body over an undulating terrain, the different conditions under foot and different inclines.”
“My love of running probably first took form in the Alps and in the mountains and exploring the landscape…”
Earlier on in her career she would spend time running around the Alps with a backpack from one lodge to the next and, after a period of more conventional elite training for a few years, she has taken the chance this summer to enjoy that style of training once again.
“I also have great joy for running on the track and pushing your body in a very intense arena,” she points out. “I enjoy the speed and the competition on the track, when you’re in full flow.
“But it’s saying, how can you get the most out of your body? Everyone’s different. You see how other people are training and it’s very easy to follow a particular mould. But you need to step back and say what does my body need? How can I become the best I can be? And that’s the approach I guess I’ve always taken.
“It’s less conventional, I guess, but everyone’s different and it’s also about the mind and what makes you tick.”
It’s not just about refreshing the mind, though. She adds: “It’s been a time to invest in the strength. You could potentially run uphill for two hours here and your body’s leaning forward, you’re using your glutes and hamstrings, your hip flexors are at a new angle, your tendons are being stressed in different ways. It has to be a bit more of a fluid, organic approach to training, adjusting to how the body’s responding.”
Although she recognises that training devices have their place, she feels that doing without them can be beneficial.
“With the training aids nowadays giving you your pace and distance, when you run along with your watch, you’re always going to have an emotional response,” she says. “Sometimes in training I don’t take a watch and I feel I’ve become very in tune with my body. I can sense whether I’m running at the right intensity but only by starting the process of sometimes leaving your watch behind can develop that real deeper self-awareness and having that self-awareness can really help athletes to get closer to fulfilling their potential because you’re really in tune with your body, sensing niggles and how hard to push rather than trying to fulfil what a piece of paper or your training aid is telling you.”
“You see how other people are training and it’s very easy to follow a particular mould. But you need to step back and say what does my body need?”
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the Alps or Ethiopia as the setting for their training. But even if you live in a big-city there are often ways to stop being dictated by the watch and get back to enjoy running.
Bleasdale suggests those who live in urban areas could sometimes jump on to a train to get to a new location or seek out new “hidden” routes closer to home.
“Investing some time to explore new areas can be very rewarding and refreshing in terms of your training and give you that bounce so when you’re doing those road reps on the track you feel revitalised.”
Bleasdale is currently running her first training camp in Ethiopia, offering runners of all abilities the chance to experience running at between 2900m and 4500m at the Simien Mountains National Park. Another camp will take place next February at Limalimo Lodge (limalimolodge.com).
Her apparently more casual approach to training this summer should not disguise the fact she is fully committed to the next Olympics and believes she can improve on her breakthrough year in 2012.
“I’m looking forward to the year ahead,” says Bleasdale, whose time of 30:55.63 for 10,000m in the London Games puts her behind only Paula Radcliffe and Jo Pavey when it comes to British runners. “It’s going to be an exciting time and a busy time. But it was important for me this summer to work on that strength and get the foundation in place.”
Looking further ahead, she is keen to enjoy new challenges, including stepping up to the marathon and beyond. Her past attempts at 26 miles have been more for “fun” – as much as her 2:54 at the multi-terrain Greensands Marathon in 2014 and 3:40 at the very hilly Zermatt Marathon, Austria, were nevertheless top-quality performances by any standards.
The 34-year-old says: “Beyond Rio many challenges await and the marathon distance I feel suits me well and I enjoy new challenges so we’ll see where it takes me. But Rio is fully in the focus and I’m not thinking too much beyond that.”
» Earlier this year Julia Bleasdale shared her top five training locations with AW. You can read about them and watch videos of Julia in action here