Commonwealth Games silver medallist Steve Binns front runs 25 laps of his career with Matt Long and Karen Buck giving chase
26th July 1986. Meadowbank Stadium. Edinburgh.
With 9km completed as three athletes enter the last kilometre of the mens’ Commonwealth Games 10,000m final, the BBC’s inimitable David Coleman enthuses that, “It’s a marvellous race” as a white vested number 263 leads. The legendary commentator gushes that, “If Steve Binns could win this from the front what a run it will have been”.
As an Olympic bronze medallist, co-commentator Brendan Foster knows a thing or two about this event and notes that third placed Jon Solly is looking good and has wisely “sheltered from the conditions” on this typically blustery day up in Scotland.
If that isn’t enough for Binns to contend with, Foster points also to the ominous presence of 2nd placed marathon great Steve Jones who is sporting the red vest of Wales on this occasion as the lap counter ticks down to display the number 2.
Binns makes the break
With less than half a mile remaining, Coleman exclaims, “And Steve Binns is breaking away!”. At this point, the aforementioned Jones begins to fade with an astute Solly covering the break almost instantaneously.
A once fine athlete in his own right, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of our sport, Coleman reminds the millions watching that “Its Bingley one and two”. This is Binns’ bid for glory and Coleman adds that with 600m to go, “Little Stevie Binns presses on, pushes on in front…catch me if you can!”.
Still Jon Solly is tracking him like a bird of prey and sure enough with 520m to go, the tall, rangy 23 year old takes lead, inadvertently clipping his team mate as he cuts inside back into lane one.
The crowd monetarily gasps, with the image of a stricken Mary Decker still etched in their memories just two years removed from the drama of that Los Angeles Coliseum and her untimely tangle with Zola Budd. This being said, Binns will not trip- he is the type of old school fighter who doesn’t hit the canvas easily.
At this point the reigning AAAs champion begins to extend his lead and the race is finished, end of story….Or is it? Coleman is on the verge on crowning Solly as the new champion but catches himself with 250m to go by noting that Solly has gone hard and that can visibly see, “Binns trying to dig in, trying to close the gap”.
A miraculous fight back?
If Binns was a dead man awaiting a burial by Solly as the bell sounded, with 200m to go the knowledgeable Edinburgh crowd are on their feet and shouting in disbelief at their witnessing an athletic version of a Lazarus style comeback from the dead.
If this were a pantomime, they would be screaming ‘He’s behind you!’ at the oblivious Solly who will be practising in his head the words to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ for his impending podium appearance.
At this point Foster’s microphone is silent whilst an incredulous Coleman is struggling to contain his fever pitched excitement- “And slowly Binns senses that Solly may be weakening”. With 150m to go Coleman screams, “And look at Binns, he’s suddenly found new life”.
The head to head duel continues tooth and nail all the way down the home straight with an ecstatic crowd brought to their feet in a collective ovation as Solly stops the clock in 27m57.42s to bag gold with Binns (27m58.01s) instinctively throwing his head back as he crosses the line an agonising half a second or so adrift and Jones taking a comfortable bronze in 28m02.48s.
A 61 second last lap has blown away world class opposition of the likes of Australian Steve Moneghetti who will go on to win a Commonwealth marathon tile 8 years later and Mike McLeod, who has taken Olympic silver over two laps in Los Angeles two years previously.
Fast forward to December 2020 and we begin by asking Steve his recollections of that wonderful day in the Scottish capital, 34 years ago.
With a smile he responds that, “Winning a medal in a major championship was great and I came so close to winning the race. I was in great shape and looking back I think I was capable of running so much faster. This being said Edinburgh on a windy day was never the place for that in terms of a front run ”.
Long term athlete development
Having revisited what many see as the pinnacle of his senior career, conversation turns to an illustrious junior career which cannot be overlooked and which one feels may provide clues as to his later success.
The smile of contentment from the Edinburgh medal turns to a sheepish grin as he recalls, “I had started running in 1976 but packed in as the training was so hard! However I realised I was missing something and knew I had to endure and toughen up!
As soon as I started to do 50/60 miles a week I had a big break through and the success I had was down to consistently working hard”.
So what advice would he give to an aspiring junior athlete wanting to make an impact on the international scene like he did?
After pausing for reflection he wisely adds that, “taking the transition from a good junior career to a good senior career was a big step for me, more mental as well as physical. Keep focussing on the work that made you good in the first place, stick to those principles, find a coach that understands what works for you, experience altitude training if you can and above all enjoy your sport and give races everything”.
We proceed to question him about his appearance in the ‘Greatest Show On Earth’ two years after his Commonwealth Games success.
There is obvious disappointment etched into both face and voice as he tells that, “My Olympic experience was not great. Looking back I made the mistake in preparing at altitude in Europe and travelling east to Seoul. With the benefit of hindsight I would have been better prepared going to Boulder Colorado and west to help me enable me to settle with the time change”.
A sense of perspective
This being said Steve is able to put such disappointments into the perspective of his wider life. He has recently retired which he readily admits is taking some adjusting to especially with the current pandemic.
He discloses that, “I spent 30 years working in logistics and had a fantastic career with some fantastic blue chip companies as General manager warehousing”.
He is a family man with 4 children and has been married to his beloved Diane Married for 40 years – “She has a medal for that!” he quips. With more than a hint of self-deprecation he laughs that his family, “have to put up with their driven, never satisfied Dad!”
So is he still sporty, we ask? “I play golf now and am not involved in athletics but have stayed friends with lots of my old adversaries”, he answers. We are clearly in the company of a man content with his memories and Steve is keen to credit his coach, Steve Pratt as, “A great planner and helped me become so much more professional in my every day approach”.
Training with Steve Ovett
When Steve Ovett moved to Scotland and ran for Annan and District in the late 1980s, he enjoyed successes over the country in the years which followed his own 5000m win at those same Edinburgh Commonwealth Games and would credit Steve with helping him during the twilight of his career.
Steve Binns is clearly in awe of the Moscow Olympic 800m champion and multiple world record holder, recalling with affection that, “Training with Steve was brilliant and he worked very hard, I am sure he had more lungs than me! He was such a hard working natural talent”.
Steve and his aforementioned coach were aware of the fine balance needed to appropriately train all three energy systems.
His tremendous aerobic capacity was developed through weekly long runs of up to 18 miles during the winter and this would drop to 16 miles during the summer when the intensity of the work undertaken became more important than the volume.
Weekly aerobic volume in the summer would be around 20 miles less than during the winter, with 90mpw being the norm whereas during the winter months he would often reach approximately 110 miles per week.
Significantly aerobic volume effected during warm ups and cools downs was included in his recorded weekly mileage. Recovery runs were fun to ‘feel’ rather than pre-determined splits in the pre-Garmin era with comments such as ‘Easy’ and ‘Very easy’ appearing with regularity in his training diary.
Work was sometimes effected on grass rather than road which indicates Steve and his coach understood the importance of mixed mechanical loading to avoid excessive loading on the lower limbs.
Importance of tempo
He cites the keys to his development as being tempo running typically effected over 4 miles. In the summer the distance of the tempo run would be reduced to 5k and he would operate at around 4m30s pace which is outside 14 minutes for 5k and thus substantially slower than his 5k PB of 13m23.71 set in 1989.
In terms of intervals, during winter months these would be undertaken on the road with a typical session being 5×5 mins at 4m45s mile pace, with short recoveries. Steve was a fan of what would be termed ‘pyramid work’.
A winter session for example may have been 8 mins, 4 mins/2 mins/ 2 mins/ 4 mins/ 8 mins, all off short recoveries. Running according to time rather than distance was superseded in the summer months where ‘splits’ would become more important as the track season approached.
In the pre-competition phase of the periodisation cycle, for example, the man with a 10,000m PB of 27m55s achieved at the Bislett Games in 1983, cites an event specific session of 3 or 4 sets of 1000m/600m/300m/100m/100m/300m/600m/1000m metres with short recoveries. It’s worth considering that a 4 set session adds up to a cumulative volume of no less than 16,000 metres which equates to 40 laps of the track.
Speed and strength endurance
There is clear continuity between Steve’s ethos of pyramid running for aerobically dominant progression and his use of a multi-pace ethos for work which is far more demanding of the lactate energy system. A typical summer session for instance may have been track based 800m/400m,200m/200m/400m/800m.
Grouping work into sets would again be used as a way of effecting aerobic volume but critically at this point of the periodisation cycle ‘splits’ became more important in terms of 800m being com-pleted at 2.08-2.10 pace, 400s at 63 seconds and 200s at 28/29.
So one can see the differential paces evident in a single session which helps avoid one being locked into one pace and thus able to respond to the demands of tactical racing in championships. Ordinarily one would effect this type of speed endurance work with both longer and more passive recoveries than that performed during the winter months. In terms of strength endurance, whilst hills are a common mode of development note how Steve regularly built in work with light weights into his regime, suggesting this type of resistance training was done with an endurance component, rather than pure power or strength in mind.
As our conversation draws to a close, we enquire as to the one thing which he would do differently when looking back on his fine career?
Candidly he admits that, “I would have continued to train like I did in 1987 which was more heavily based on speed endurance 3 to 4 days a week, and keeping on the side of not beating myself up.
Looking back I over trained too often, and going easy on myself worked for me in that year when I placed 5th in the World Championships in Rome”.
Questions for Self-Reflection
1. How does my training effectively achieve the optimal balance between aerobic, lactate and alactic energy systems?
2. Why might running to ‘feel’ rather than pre-determined ‘splits’ be appropriate for much of the aerobic work which I undertake?
3. When might there be a place for me to use the kind of pyramid work effected by Steve at various points of the periodisation cycle to avoid being locked into one pace?
4. How might my training differ in terms of frequency, intensity and duration at various points of the periodisation cycle?
5. What are the signs I can spot about the tendency to over-reach in my training as Steve so honestly alludes to?
Matt Long and Karen Buck have served as England Athletics Tutors for the last decade. Matt works predominantly with Birmingham University AC and Birchfield Harriers and Karen, as a former England international athlete is based with the City of York AC and Queen Ethelburga’s Collegiate school.