AW speaks with the three-time world masters champion about training and the masters athletics scene
Virginia Mitchell returned from the World Masters Championships in Malaga in September with three gold medals including one for her specialist 400m distance.
The W55 athlete has been running virtually all her life and could, with husband Tony, son Jonty and daughter Jasmine, form a formidable mixed 4x400m team.
Athletics Weekly: Tell us about the World Masters in Malaga and how you did?
Virginia Mitchell: I am proud to say I won three gold medals. I raced the 800m and my favourite event, the 400m, and won gold in both. I also ran the last leg of the 4x400m and overtook the American to take the team gold. So, it was a most successful and exciting championships and it was made even better by having my family out there with me as well.
Our brilliant training partner, Susie McLoughlin, also won gold in the W40 400m, plus silver in the 200m and bronze in the 100m. This rounded off a brilliant season for me having won double gold at 400m and 800m at the European Indoors in Madrid in March.
AW: How did you plan your training?
VM: Being new to the W55 age group this year, my whole season has been geared toward hitting a peak in March and then going for the next one in early September. It was a long season and a challenge to get it right.
I had a small injury to my hip just three weeks before Malaga which threatened to derail the plan. But with a lot of physio and careful management I was back on top form for the championships.
AW: How did you get started in athletics and what were your achievements?
VM: I started training with Guildford and Godalming AC when I was 14. My PE teacher at Guildford High School spotted my talent and passed me on to the club.
My first coach Brian Wilson took me into his sprint group and coached me to junior international selection at 18. I had won the Surrey Championships in 400m hurdles and 400m and ran my PB for 400m of 54.9. I have always run and competed throughout my working life as a marketing manager. I am now coaching and run Young Athletes Club for 350 children with husband Tony at Guildford.
AW: What have been your career highlights?
VM: Racing 400m at the Bird’s Nest stadium at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing when I was selected by the IAAF as one of the top W50 athletes in the world. The race was shown live on TV! I always have a strong finish and I overtook three athletes in the last 100m to come second in my fastest 400m time for five years of 60.81.
As a master I have won many major championships at European and world level over the last 19 years. I was triple W45 European champion in Hungary in 2010 when I was aged 47, winning 400m hurdles (66.8), 400m (60.1) and 800m (2:18.5). I also won the Worlds in Sacramento in California in 2011 aged 48 in 400m hurdles in 65.65 and got a bronze in 400m. Since 2015 I have gone back from 400m hurdles to focus on the 400m, which was always my best event.
AW: How do you maintain the motivation to train?
VM: This is easy! The motivation now comes from the excitement of competing for Great Britain at major championships when you know that you are on form, you want to prove yourself, and you have a huge will to win.
AW: What advice have you got for others thinking of doing masters athletics?
VM: I would always say that it is never too late to join masters athletics. Many people find a love for the sport late in life or re-kindle their love of running, jumping or throwing which they had at school. There is definitely a good vibe among masters athletes who compete together at an event.
Everyone has their own story, everyone has to manage jobs, family, commitments, yet they all give up a lot and train hard driven by their passion to prove that they can be the best they can be.
AW: How have you had to evolve your training as the age groups pass?
VM: You mean have I learned to train wiser with age? The answer to that is definitely yes. Injuries are inevitable, one has to learn to modify the training load, train smart, listen to your body and remember that recovery is as important as the training.
We have learned to reduce the reps, train in flats or cross country spikes for winter track sessions and include lots of pool training and stretching for recovery.
To avoid over-load, I enjoy race bike cycling and of course I do AquaTone – which is a water-based training system invented by my husband Tony. This involves running in a pool wearing a buoyancy jacket with a bungy cord attached to the side of the pool for resistance.
AW: Where are you based and tell us about your coach and training group/set-up?
VM: I am lucky to run with Susie and our fantastic masters training group of talented sprinters, hurdlers and jumpers based at Guildford Spectrum track. Our wonderful coach is 94-year-old Fred Allen who has been coaching and time- keeping all his life and still sets our programme and takes all our times and splits for the hurdlers. He says we “keep him alive” and we joke that he is trying to kill us, but we still never miss a session and nor does he, come rain or shine.
AW: You train with your husband and other family members (pictured below). What’s that like?
VM: Tony and I are both so proud to be able to train with our two grown-up children who also compete for GGAC. It must be quite unusual for four members of a family to compete for their club at a league match as we do.
Jasmine is 20 and at Loughborough doing sports management and competes for the BUCS team at 400m hurdles. Jonty has just started at Birmingham University doing geography and is so excited to be training with the uni athletics team at 400m.
AW: Can you tell us a little bit about your coaching?
VM: Athletics coaching is my job. I have been coaching for 20 years and with husband Tony we run Young Athletes Club based at Guildford, providing athletics for children age 5-11.
We also organise competitions, cross country, sportshall and track meetings for our athletes as well as for other Surrey clubs. We are passionate about encouraging young children to enjoy the sport and we bring the same enthusiasm to coaching senior athletes at GGAC in sprints, hurdles and long jump. We also coach in schools.
AW: What do you think makes someone successful at the masters level?
VM: Success at masters requires pretty much the same criteria for success as for a GB international. You need to have talent, good health, determination and the desire to achieve plus a lifestyle and the right group that allows you to fit in your training and the family support to make it all happen. In masters we also need to be self-financing!
AW: What are your particular strengths. How do you cope with the inevitable slowing with age?
VM: My strength is my strength. I know I always have a strong finish. So, I work very hard to improve my speed during the summer with rep sessions of 40m to 80m.
Our training is designed to work for the group but target times are based on training partner Susie’s 400m targets, so I naturally make adjustments and reduce the reps based on what I know can achieve. I do no specific 800m training since I know that I have the endurance from all my years putting in speed endurance work. Working on reps that are faster than race pace is the key for me.
AW: What are your plans for the forthcoming season?
VM: We plan to compete indoors at the World Indoor Masters in Torun in March and then the European Championships in Italy in early September.
AW: Tell us a little bit about your nutrition, do you follow any specific programme?
VM: I am diagnosed as a coeliac (no wheatflour), so I eat a gluten-free diet. I naturally enjoy a healthy, balanced diet with lots of salads, vegetables, fish and chicken. I always cook a healthy meal in the evening so we always have a proper supper however late after coaching.
However, I often miss eating a proper lunch due to training and then coaching. So, my “go-to” fuel for any time of day, and the food I take with me when I am racing internationally, is home-made porridge with gluten-free oats, lots of dried fruit and extra seeds. Add milk and it is a meal in itself. We have all got into making Nutribullet smoothies and protein shakes so this is also perfect if I miss a meal.
AW: Who has motivated you throughout your career?
VM: One of my earliest memories was 400m hurdles in 1968 and Olympic champion David Hemery, a gentleman of the sport. My role model when I started running was Kathy Cook – I loved watching her run 400m and 200m. Seb Coe and Steve Ovett inspired a generation including me, with their world records during the early 1980s.
More recently I have admired Christine Ohuruogu for her 400m win at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Allyson Felix for her awesome grace and speed and Shaunae Miller-Uibo for her dominance at 400m and becoming 2016 Rio Olympic champion. Plus, a big hero for any 400m runner has got to be Wayde van Niekerk for winning 400m in a world record of 43.03 from lane eight at the Rio Olympics.
AW: How much technology is used in your training?
VM: We use little technology other than Fred’s stop watch although we use an iPad among our group to assess technique when we are doing starts.
AW: Do you think enough is being done to promote masters athletics in the UK?
VM: Beijing was a massive opportunity for me and those invited to race to show that masters can provide a spectacle on a world scene. It is a huge shame that despite campaigning for greater recognition for masters athletes, we did not have a masters invitation race at the World Championships in London 2017.
The GB team is always successful at every major masters championship. In Malaga the GB team topped the medal table. We are all self-funded and we contribute hugely to the success of athletics in this country by offering our services to coaching, officiating and running clubs.
I know that I voice the thoughts of many when I say that it is time that British Athletics showed more recognition for masters and offered race opportunities for masters as part of televised championship events.
We are not asking for funding. We are asking British Athletics for race opportunities, which we know would inspire those of all generations to support and take part in the sport of athletics. It would also do a lot to promote the health of the nation as well!
Mon: weights includes: abs circuit approx 200 reps of various types of sit-ups or some with medicine ball, squats to 65kg, deadlift to 45kg, power cleans 25kg, upper body work using pulley, reverse press, pull ups.
Tue: 3x2x300m in 53-54 (recovery 3/5min).
Wed: pool swim 30 or 40 lengths, AquaTone, drills in water.
Thu: 8x120m in 17.8-18.5 (3min recovery).
Fri: weights, lighter session than Monday with more upper body, step jumps and plyometrics.
Sun: 3x4x80m in 12.1-12.5 (2- 5min recovery).
Mon: weights, lighter weights, faster reps than winter sessions.
Tue: 2x (200m,100m) recovery 90sec between 200m/100m and 8min between sets. Target time 29.3 and 14.8.
Wed: pool as December.
Thu: 3x4x50m in 7.5-7.9 (2- 5min recovery).
Sun: 1x250m/100m in 37.3- 14.6 (90sec recovery). 3x3x70m in 9.9-10.4 (2-4min recovery).
» Training information for guideline purposes only
» See young-athletes.co.uk