John Shepherd learns more about the journey and training of the UK’s No.1 long jumper

AW: Tell us a little bit about your background, what you do and where you are based?

Abigail Irozuru: I was born and bred in Manchester where I currently live and train at Sport City – AKA City of Manchester Stadium.

AW: How did you get started in athletics and when did you decide to focus on the long jump?

AI: I officially started athletics training at the age of 15. I had joined the Air Training Corps at 13 (North Manchester Squadron 1832) following in my brother’s footsteps, and through that got involved in a variety of different activities, including five-a-side, netball tournaments and athletics.

At one competition, I entered the 100m, 200m, 4x100m and the long jump and won them all. But I must have dominated the long jump because a coach on the sidelines noticed me, said I had talent and would be happy to coach me. Luckily enough, he was based at Manchester’s Sportcity Stadium.

AW: You’ve had a number of set-backs over the last few years. How have you managed to maintain your motivation to get back to training?

AI: In a nutshell, there’s been three surgeries (July 2013, July 2014 and May 2016), countless injuries and one major non-selection woe which knocked me back for a very long time.

My agent, Dave Scott of Stellar Athletics, responded to my Achilles tendon rupture in 2016 with the following statement: “Damn! I really feel for you. Your body hates your talent.” That truly felt like a perfect way to describe the majority of my time in the sport.

In 2015, one week after jumping my current indoor PB (6.73m) to become indoor British champion, and qualify for the European Indoor Champs – which would take place a few weeks later in Prague and the World Championships in the summer – I tore my hamstring in warm-up at the Birmingham Indoor Grand Prix.

In 2016, I opened up my outdoor season at the start of May with 6.62m, one of my best openers ever and only 8cm from the Olympic standard that year. Two rounds later, in that same competition, my Achilles ruptured.

But what keeps me going is the knowledge that God has a plan. In all the pain and frustration and setbacks, God has given me this gift, and it would be remiss of me to run away from fulfiling that potential within me just because of a few challenges. It’s kind of like, “How badly do you want this success?”

And also, within my story is inspiration for others to hopefully believe that the struggle is worth it; the blessings will come with perseverance, especially if it is something you truly love to do, have a talent in and want badly enough. And as I’ve said many times before, the knowledge that ‘the best is yet to come’ drives me forward. That was my phrase that drove me forward through the tears, heartbreak and disappointment of 2016. And as I’d truly officially retired, I believed the ‘best’ would come in other areas of my life – business, relationships, and so on.

Seven years on from my magical, ‘flukey’ previous lifetime best of 6.80m in 2012, I’ve achieved a personal best, in a season of consistency and good health – two important things I’d struggled to grasp since 2012.

AW: Who or what helped you get through those darker days?

AI: God, my faith and relationship with Jesus. My church, family, my friends from within and outside the sport. The knowledge that there’s more to life than athletics!

When I returned to the sport, my team was made up of the funniest, happiest guy ever, Nick Jones (my S&C coach) and the wise guru, Dan Pfaff. I came back because I really believed I’d regret it if I didn’t. I didn’t want to look back and think, “what if”.

AW: You went to the US to train. Why did you decide to do this?

AI: I trained at Altis (formerly the World Athletics Centre) from October 2014-May 2016. I went there because I was perpetually injured and inconsistent. (I’d had two surgeries in 12 months and was at breaking point.) I had been reminded that Greg Rutherford had suffered similar challenges in his career, but this was fixed with the support of Dan Pfaff. Dan was at Altis, so that’s where I needed to be!

AW: What have been your career highlights and what are your future ambitions?

AI: Career highlights include the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games where I won gold (with coach John Crotty), 2015 British Indoor champion (coach Pfaff), which happened after only two months of training in Altis and six-months post surgery, and of course these past few months in 2019 – just being able to compete in some incredible fields, jumping over 6.70m in four separate comps so far this year, winning the British Champs for the first time ever, and ticking all the boxes to represent my country at the IAAF World Championships in Doha!

AW: Being an established senior athlete – what advice have you for athletes making the transition from the junior ranks?

AI: Enjoy it! Believe in yourself. Don’t let anybody question your talent. Work hard. Work smart. Trust your coach, and your gut!

Find an athlete mentor and ask as many questions as you can as often as you can. I’ve trained alongside the likes of Yamile Aldama, Trecia Smith and Chris Tomlinson. There’s no way that mentality doesn’t rub off on you!

I think athlete mentor programmes with elite athletes would help this transition massively!

AW: So at the Diamond League and the Müller British Championships in Birmingham, did you see those performances coming? Do you think that there is anything that you have done differently that has led to those improvements?

AI: I am self-coached officially, but in reality I have an incredible team of coaches around me who advise and support my training. I bounce ideas off them regularly to ensure that I’m in the best mental and physical shape possible for competition. So, I think just having Dan and Nick on my side is essential. Also, Aston Moore is a great in-competition coach who helped me focus on ONE thing in the competition. I believe it’s a gift for coaches to be able to do that – to not succumb to the need to “coach” and therefore overload the athlete in a competition. Aston does that perfectly. He helped me feel calm and in control, so that I knew round by round, bigger distances were sure to come.

AW: Tell us about your current coaching set-up and who has coached you in the past.

AI: My list of coaches would probably make you squirm. I’m not sure how I’ve been through so many … I wonder what that says about me! It is: Ian Wiltshire (2005-2006), John Crotty (2006-March 2009), John Herbert (2009-August 2011), Larry Achike (2011-August 2012), Frank Attoh (2012-August 2014), Dan Pfaff (2014-May 2016), Tom Cullen (2018-March 2019).

I now do all my sessions on my own, except in the weights room which is led by Nick Jones with his other athletes from multiple sports, including golf, swimming and athletics. I record my jumps and runways (when there’s somebody around to hold the camera) to review and discuss with Dan.

AW: Do you think more could be done to promote jumps events in general?

AI: Yes, by showing them more on TV broadcasts! Not messing around with them to make it difficult for big jumps to happen, like. shortening time to 30 seconds between jumps, messing around with the final three rounds, and so on.

AW: You have made sacrifices to get where you are. Do you think things may become a little easier now? Hopefully you’ll get more support.

AI: That would be nice, but I know that I can succeed even with the craziness of business and life. It’d be amazing to have additional support or sponsorship though!

AW: Did you think that you would be jumping so well now at the start of the season and was your training aiming towards Doha?

AI: I competed with the expectation of jumping the Doha standard and making the team. I also knew the Olympic standard was 6.82m so had my eye on that.

AW: What do you do away from the track to relax?

AI: Read, travel and spend time with family and friends. My perfect day would be lounging in the sunshine in the garden or by the pool with a good book, a good friend and a glass of wine/frozen margarita.

Abigail Irozuru’s training

Day 1: Short sprints, 3x3x30m with 5min rec between sets

Day 2: Jumps and runways – short approach jumps between 7-11 strides, starting with shorter strides as I start back and building up to 11. Runways full approach with a pop up at the end. I don’t jump off a full approach in training – only in competition.

Day 3: Longer sprints 3-6x40m-150m, again depending on where I am in season. If I am mid-season, I’ll choose shorter distances. Out of season, I’ll happily run a 150m. I’ll also throw in 2xS&C sessions which may have a strength, speed or conditioning focus. These include the exercises mentioned previously. Shorter sprints are more intense and pretty much 100% whereas the longer runs may be anywhere from 70% upwards.

*Sessions provided for illustrative purposes and reflect Abigail Irozuru’s experience and training maturity

AW: What do you think are your strengths as a long jumper and what do you need to work on some more?

AI: I’m strong. I love the weights room and I think that transfers well on to the runway, for example. I jump well into headwinds and have good power off the board. I always need to work on timing things well off the board.

AW: Do you or have you modelled your technique on any other jumper?

AI: Not really. It depends on what I need to focus on in training that week/day and then I browse or ask for advice on which long jumpers do that specific movement well.

AW: Do you do specific exercises to reduce injury?

AI: The basics in the gym – Olympic lifts, cleans, jerks, snatch and leg stuff, for example. Bulgarian split squats, Russian dead lifts, hip thrusts. These can be anywhere from 5×5 to 3×1 in terms of reps and sets based on where we are in the season. I try to ensure I incorporate exercises into warm-up that I feel help strengthen weak areas for me, such as Achilles-toe walks 20m, forward, back, side, lunges. Or at the end of a session, I’ll do calf raises, Swiss ball curls for hamstring and so on. Maybe 3×8.

AW: Do you have you any tips for young athletes wanting to do the event?

AI: Just enjoy what you do. Work hard.

AW: What are your go-to conditioning exercises for the event? Let’s say you had to choose 4-5.

AI: Calf raises. Rudimentary low level hops, double and single leg on various surfaces and directions, (sand or track), forward, side. Back, lunges and sprints.

AW: Do you follow any particular nutrition plan and do you have any advice on jumper’s nutrition?

AI: I think it’s impossible to give a one-size fits all approach. It depends on so many factors. Every jumper is a different shape and size. Just look at the top five British female long jumpers – every single one of us is different.

» See abigailirozuru.com for more