In the first of a three-part series 2011 European Indoor 3000m Champion Helen Clitheroe takes Matt Long & Lewis Moses around 15 laps of what it takes to be a world class performance athlete

It’s hard to believe its nearly two decades ago that three British girls sped down a Manchester home straight to take a cherished one-two-three in the Women’s 1500m at their home Commonwealth Games.

The woman who took bronze on that rapturous final night of athletics on 31st July 2002 reminds me that, “Being from Preston, it was effectively like running on my doorstep”.

With a nod to champion Kelly Holmes and silver medallist Hayley Tullett the memory of that day so obviously still sends a tingle down the spine of Helen Clitheroe as she recalls, “It was simply amazing to have three British athletes standing together on the podium and something I’ll never forget. Everything was clicking and Id run a PB that summer (4:01.10) so I knew I was in the shape of my life”.

As she listened to the crowd singing Land of Hope and Glory in what has gone on to become known as Sports City, the two time Olympian could not possibly have envisaged that she would have to wait another 9 years before what many will always regard as her crowing glory when on the Paris floorboards she took 3000m gold in the European indoor championships thanks to a barnstorming finish.

Bumpy road to success

When we remind her that she was 37 years old, with a laugh she responds that, “People asked me when I was retiring when I turned 30 so it is ironic that I was still going some seven years later!”.

She readily acknowledges the chasm between those two defining glories in 2002 and 2011 and admits, “Between those triumphs it wasn’t the easiest of rides and took lots of hard work”.

So having celebrated the outcomes, lets unpick the processes of what it takes to succeed as a world class performance athlete at the very top of the long term athlete development model, before we regress down that very pyramid in articles two and three using a critical pathway mode of analysis.

Aerobic development

Helen credits all the coaches she has worked under including Terrence Mahon, John Nuttall and Trevor Painter but is keen to emphasise the pivotal role played by Jeremy Harries, who guided her through the junior ranks and into senior success.

She fondly recalls Harries as, “a quiet, scientific person” whose influence was monumental. It wasn’t until the relatively late age of 25 that Helen achieved her first senior Team GB vest and she distinctively recalls being in awe of the likes of Paula Radcliffe and Liz Yelling when on a training camp before a World Cross.

After taking a morning run with both she remembers feeling shocked when the pair put on their trainers yet again for an afternoon run- “I honestly didn’t know people did double days of training back then”, she says with a chuckle.

“Even though I went on to be quite endurance based as a senior, Jeremy rightly held me back and we only gradually built up the mileage and looking back I’m so grateful for that”.

A key session undertaken when training under both Harries and latterly John Nuttall between 2011 and 2013 was 5 x 1k (90 s recovery).

Key training session week ending Sunday 10th July 2011 when she finished 4th in the 1500m at the Birmingham Diamond League (4m06.49s) –  5 x 1k (90s rec) Splits 2m53s; 2m55s;2m56s;2m55s;2m57ss. 10 mins rest and then 4 x 200 (60s rec) Splits. 29.4s;30.1s; 29.5s; 29.7s.

When competing over 5000m in the latter part of her career (PB 15:06.75s set in 2011) she also ran longer aerobically dominant repetitions of 1 mile in duration

Thinking outside the event specific box

One of the things which coach Jeremy Harries did for Helen during her formative years was to get her to work with a sprints coach- Jim Warnock.

Along with the drills that Warnock and Harries devised, Helen is adamant that, “This gave me a really good grounding”. This focus on running mechanics was something which Trevor Painter reinforced later in her career when she worked with World 800m bronze medallist Jenny Meadows.

It’s sometimes overlooked that Helen transitioned to the steeplechase and represented Team GB at the Beijing Olympics over the barriers. She believes this was instrumental in helping her achieve her success on the ‘flat’ 3k in Paris, adding that, “the chase gave me such a lot in terms of what I went on to achieve in the twilight of my career”.

Strength endurance

With the consent of Jeremy Harries, Helen maintains that her focus on developing strength endurance was in part due to conditioning facilitated by what she terms, “Old school circuits and a bit of body pump!”.

This demonstrates that fitness gains can be made by non running related activities and is one of the reasons Helen managed to avoid prolonged period of injury as her chronological and training ages increased into her late 30s.

A note to her younger self

Now an established Team GB manager, mentor and coach in her own right, we ask Helen what she would tell her ‘younger self’ if she had the benefit of Michal J. Fox style Back to the Future time travel!

Candidly she discloses that, “Stretching is something which I only truly discovered in my later years. Of course I wish I had done more of it earlier.

Again I have to credit Trevor Painter and Jenny Meadows with this. I guess its taking care of the little things and in hindsight I should have given these things a little bit more space in my training dairy!”.

Questions for self-reflection

1. In what ways is my aerobic development as a runner being down progressively and incrementally as was the case with Helen?
2. How can I think outside of the box and comfort zone of my own event group or specialism to help my running development?
3. What non-running related activities am I pursuing which will have a transferable value to aspects of my fitness?
4. If I were to write a note to my younger self, what would it say and how can I use this reflection to help my athletic develop before I retire from the sport?

Helen’s interview formed part of a presentation at last December’s England Athletics International Youth Conference, organised by Scott Grace as National Technical Lead for Coaching Resources and Youth Development. Article two will explore how Helen transitioned from an Event Group middle distance athlete to an Event Specialist 1500m runner.

As a former winner of the British Milers’ Club Horwill Award for outstanding Coach Education Research, Matt Long has authored more than 270 coaching articles.

Lewis Moses is a former World Championship athlete and British indoor 1500m champion and founder of New Levels Coaching. He has tutored and mentored a host of Team GB junior athletes. Both welcome contact for coaching guidance at mattlongcoach@gmail.com and through newlevelscoaching.co.uk