The European 5000m silver medallist on her training and life in athletics
AW: Tell us a little bit about your background. What you do off track and where you are based?
Eilish McColgan: I’m from a small golf town called Carnoustie in Scotland, but currently live in Manchester with my boyfriend, Michael Rimmer – although I spend a lot of my year away on training camps at altitude. I studied maths and accountancy at Dundee University before taking my athletics career full time. I also run an online coaching business with Michael – helping runners of all ages and abilities, across the world: see runningmadeeasy.co.uk
AW: How did you get started in athletics?
EM: It was my PE teacher who first entered me into the county cross-country champs. I absolutely loved it and although I didn’t win a medal I realised it was something I would love to do, so I begged my parents to let me join the local club, Dundee Hawkhill Harriers. I did everything at the club and actually started off in the high jump and javelin; my first Scottish youth medal was in the javelin! It wasn’t until I was around 15 that I decided to really start focusing on the longer events which were only 800m and 1500m at the time. I didn’t do my first 5000m until I was about 20.
AW: Have you any advice for young athletes and particularly females taking up athletics in terms of training and progression?
EM: To focus on yourself. I used to always come home from races, frustrated that I was only coming seventh or eighth … when other young athletes were setting fast times and breaking records. I wanted to be fast and to win medals. But I wasn’t. I’ll always remember my mum saying “focus on you” because some of these kids will be training too hard for their age and not make it into the senior ranks. Looking back now she was spot on. Everyone develops at different rates, so just because you’re not a successful junior doesn’t mean you can’t do it as a senior. I was 21 when I made my first ever GB team.
AW: What has enabled you to get through periods of injury and are there any things that you would do differently now in hindsight?
EM: I found other ways to keep my mind busy. I started aqua jogging instead of running and replicated all of my training in the pool. I then progressed gradually to the spin bike and finally to the cross trainer. Having these progressions set out allowed me to see the improvements I was making and kept me motivated.
I started a daily journal too – jotting down all my thoughts, which mentally allowed me to keep my thoughts in place. Looking back now, I needed more balance to my training and that’s why I no longer double-run and implement more cross training instead.
AW: What do you do to avoid injury?
EM: I have reduced my training load a lot. I only run 45-50 miles a week with a focus on quality track sessions every third day. I have a rest day every week and as mentioned never double-run. Instead 3-4 days a week, I’ll cross train easy. Training smarter has allowed me to stay injury free; sometimes less is more.
AW: What are your specific experiences of altitude?
EM: I train at altitude a lot. I’ve found that higher altitude, like in Kenya, is a struggle for me and it is usually 50/50 as to whether I run well when I return to sea level. However, 1800m definitely seems to be a workable height for me. I have to be really careful around travel days and races – making sure I really taper down otherwise I can end up very fatigued; it’s a fine line!
AW: Do you follow any particular nutrition plan?
EM: No, I just make sure I’m eating everything and covering all bases; loads of fresh fruit and vegetables. For females, iron is definitely important – especially with menstruation. I always make sure I’m supplementing with iron and eating iron-rich foods. Keeping a healthy weight is important too. Periods should be occurring monthly as it shows your body is healthy and functioning well. Keeping that balance is so important.
AW: What advice have you for athletes making the transition from the junior ranks?
EM: Perhaps some form of mentoring would be useful. I was fortunate to have my parents who were world-class athletes, so their advice kept me going through the tough times. They always drilled into me that being a successful junior athlete means nothing and that if you’re willing to work hard you can achieve your goals.
AW: Tell us about your current coaching set-up and who has coached you in the past?
EM: I’ve only ever had the one coach – my mum, Liz. She now lives in Doha, so we keep in touch over Whatsapp. She sends me through my schedule and we discuss training almost daily. I’m very independent so I just crack on and get the work done. My boyfriend is also a huge help – he’s the one on the ground timing me or pacing me in sessions. He also tries to come to the majority of my training camps.
Eilish McColgan’s training
Typical training in season
Monday: Easy 40min run (HR 140). Easy 40min spin bike (HR 130)
Tuesday: Easy 50min run (HR 140)
Wednesday: 5km based track session. Easy 30min cross trainer
Thursday: Easy 40min run (HR 140). Easy 40min spin (HR 130)
Friday: Easy 50min run (HR 140)
Saturday: 5km based track session. Easy 30min
Sunday: Easy 70min run (HR 140)
• During the off season sessions target 10km and all easy runs go up by a few miles to average out at about 50-55 per week.
*Sessions provided for illustrative purposes and reflect Eilish McColgan’s experience and training maturity
AW: What’s a typical weekly mileage for you?
EM: My mileage is low but that’s what works for me – purely because it allows me to stay injury-free. In the past, I’ve frequently had to spend 6-18 months out of the sport which is very difficult to gain back, so a 45-mile average works well and allows me to keep my sessions on the track at a high quality. I now work off a longer weekly cycle and don’t stick to the typical Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday training days. We have spaced things out a lot more and it seems to be working.
AW: What are your strengths and weaknesses?
EM: I definitely need to get stronger – both in the gym and endurance-wise. I’ve only really started looking toward the 10km but if I want to be competitive in that event I really need to improve my endurance; longer runs and longer sessions.
AW: Can you tell us about the value of training specifically to designated heart rate zones? Do you monitor sleep and recovery too?
EM: I use my Polar Vantage V to monitor heart rate (HR) on all easy runs and the cross trainer too. I know that if I keep it between 130-135 beats per minute (bpm) for me, it allows my legs to be fresh for sessions. If I’m working too hard, I’ll slow the pace down. Heart rate is a great indicator of fatigue or illness too. If it’s 10 beats higher than normal then I’ll make sure I adapt my training and even take the day off to ensure I recover quicker.
I use the new Polar Ignite to track sleep and recovery as it gives really in-depth information into how you’ve slept that evening. My recent results from a DNA test through DNA Fit showed that I was a light sleeper and the watch data backed that up – so, I’m getting a lot stricter about creating better sleep hygiene when going to bed in the evenings.
AW: What specific, if any, other physiological tests do you have over a year and how are they spaced out?
EM: None. I’ll have a blood test to check ferritin every three months as I’ve struggled with low iron in the past.
AW: Paula Radcliffe put a lot of her later success down to specific S&C and developing greater leg stiffness through weights and plyometrics, for example. Many runners shy away from weights, but what are your thoughts?
EM: It’s something I really need to start focusing on and an area I continue to neglect. This winter we will really be knuckling down to create a programme to make me more robust. It’s definitely an important aspect of every athlete’s training, but should never overtake the fundamentals of running either. First and foremost, running is priority.
At present I only really do a small rehab circuit … glute activations like crab walks, clams, donkey kicks. Then I use the weights machines for hamstrings and quads, plus a small core stability routine on the Swiss ball.
» Eilish McColgan is a sporting ambassador for wearable sports and fitness technology brand Polar. For information about their full product range see polar.com/uk-en and you can follow her on social media @eilishmccolgan