Kenyan athletes are in danger of hitting the wall unless traditional training methods are replaced with more modern thinking, according to the coach of Olympic 800 metres champion David Rudisha.
Brother Colm O’Connell, an Irish missionary who has coached the 800m world record holder since he was a teen, believes pushing runners to do more mileage or pound the track with greater intensity no longer works.
“Sometimes I think maybe we fail our athletes,” the 64-year-old, said in Iten, a small village in Kenya’s Rift Valley where most of the country’s champion runners train.
“Perhaps it happened in London a bit – a lot of our athletes went and underperformed,” O’Connell said, referring to Kenya’s performance at the 2012 Olympics where Athletics Kenya targeted 12 golds but the east African country won only two.
“I felt there was a flatness to our running. We all felt so jaded in London.
“The runner is banging his head off the ceiling by doing more and more and more of the same thing.”
O’Connell’s idea to create Iten’s first training camp in 1989 is now viewed as the catalyst that transformed the village into a global athletics hub.
O’Connell, who has coached 25 world champions and five Olympic champions, believes modern running times are so fast that breaking records requires a more holistic approach.
“Look at how many Kenyans (who run 800m) come down to 1.43 and 1.44 and get stuck,” he said.
“If you want a guy to improve, you must raise the ceiling. You must give him capacity to improve.”
I wanted someone with a gymnastics background, someone whocan really develop poise, core strength, how you relate to theground, pushing off the ground
With these concerns in mind, O’Connell began to alter his coaching philosophy about seven years ago. He wanted to discover training methods that would make a substantive difference rather than bring incremental improvements.
“I asked myself that question a thousand times, day and night,” he said.
“That’s when I started to think: let me look at exercise work, core strength, pilates, the way you run, the way you carry yourself, the way you relate to the ground.”
About that time O’Connell had started to work with Rudisha, who would go on to embody the new approach.
“It has resulted in how Rudisha runs: very much controlled, very much smooth.”
Ian Kiprono, a 27-year-old former gymnast who is often seen doing pilates and stretching with Rudisha, became O’Connell’s assistant and implemented many of his new ideas.
“I wanted someone with a gymnastics background, someone who can really develop poise, core strength, how you relate to the ground, pushing off the ground,” O’Connell said.
“He was able to put into practice things I had worked out in my head.”
Taking it easy
Gymnasts and runners have more in common than people realise, O’Connell said.
“It’s not the opposition that makes you tired, it’s gravity. Gymnasts just deal with their body and how you handle things in space and (Kiprono) has a great sense of that.”
O’Connell, who has lived in Iten for 37 years, said relaxation techniques are part of Kiprono’s exercise sessions rather than just sweat.
Last year in London, Rudisha became the first and only man to run 800 in under one minute 41 seconds, smashing the world record with a time of 1:40.91 in what was acclaimed the greatest race ever over the distance.
Rudisha only ran five races in 2012 before the London Games and in the month before the Olympics, the tall Maasai runner barely trained on the track at all.
“I just said to him, let’s do just nice, confidence building, quality – not volume – training for the next few weeks,” O’Connell said inside his humble home within the grounds of St Patrick’s High School for boys in Iten.
“So I brought that concept in to his training and we would only go on the track and just do very short, crisp, high quality interval training.
“When he came off the track, I wanted him to feel good.”
“Rudisha would say ‘You want me to do more and push even harder?’ and I would say ‘No, I want you to keep it, lock it in, don’t let it out just like that. Keep it under wraps’.”