03 Mar “I have no doubt I will get back to where I was”: Steph Twell on her robust winter, Glasgow 2014 & taking the long-term approach

Robust is a word that crops up a few times in conversation with Steph Twell. So too is the idea of taking the long-term approach.

For Steph Twell and her hugely successful coach, Mick Woods, making sure she is as robust as possible is the most important thing to take away from this winter as she prepares for a huge summer on the track.

With the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and European Championships in Zurich to look forward to later this year, Steph’s winter has seen her build-up her endurance whilst ensuring speed has never been too far away.

The proof of this approach has been in the pudding of late as the twenty-four-year-old made the transition from the boards to cross country look seamless last weekend at the Saucony English National Cross Country Championships.

“Some people might think the transition from track to cross country is difficult…”

Twell ran impressively to finish third over two miles in 9:42.41 behind world best-breaker Genzebe Dibaba at the Sainsbury’s British Athletics Grand Prix in Birmingham two weeks ago and said “it’s pleasing to know I’m running in the 9-minute mark in February” after a 3000m split of 9:00.88.

From a personal best on the track to silver behind European XC silver medallist Gemma Steel at Wollaton Park just seven days later, Steph’s exciting range of strength and speed bodes well ahead of a long track season due to kick off in Stanford, USA at the start of May.

“Some people might think the transition from track to cross country is difficult, and I would tend to agree, but I knew before Birmingham I was in shape to run 9:00-05, even off the back of all the cross country and endurance training.

Mick believes it’s important to make an athlete as strong and robust as possible and that, if they are, then they should be able to cope with the multi-disciplinary events. The speed then comes more naturally because I am so fit physiologically.

I was really pleased with how my race came together at the National. & I loved the course. I said to a friend it should be the home of the National! I remember cross country from my childhood and it’s the reason I started running. I do find though that as I become more and more of a track runner, I dislike the mud more but that day at the National was what running in the outdoors is about!”

Steph has already been pre-selected by Scotland Athletics for the 5000m in Glasgow this July and despite erring on the side of 1500m when asked what her favourite racing distance was – “I love the mentality of the distance, every race is different, and it’s a challenge to run as efficiently and as fast as possible” – she says she has no plans to try and improve on her 1500m bronze from Delhi this time.

“I think I’m capable of running the Commonwealths 1500m qualifying standard (4:10.50) right now but the metal work I had in my ankle after the injury prevented me from getting up on my toes. Since then, I’ve been more cautious and, as the 5000m training is slightly more sub-maximal, I’ve been doing more tempo in preparation for it whilst my body adapts to the faster training again – so I’m throwing my eggs into the 5000m basket this year.”

From the triple-fracture in her right ankle whilst racing over cross country in Belgium in 2011 to the stress fracture in her foot during Olympic year, Steph’s injury problems over the last few years have been well-documented.

“I have no doubt that I will get back to where I was…”

But whilst 2010 was her annus mirabilis, setting her still-standing personal bests over 800m (2:02.59), 1500m (4:02.54), 3000m (8:42.75), 5000m (14:54.08 – number four on the UK all-time list) AND half marathon (71:56), Steph feels that, at the age of twenty four and having overcome her injury setbacks, now is the right time to go to championships again and expect to perform.

“I still feel I’ve got my best years ahead of me. Despite some people saying I should have specialised at an earlier age, Mick’s philosophy is long-term and I believe having the range has made me a stronger athlete and is much more beneficial at this stage of my career. I’m proud of having such a range.

Last year was my first real track season back and although I was getting close to where I was in 2010, I was almost forcing my body to do it. I feel you have to run track year after year so that your body learns and knows how to run well on it. I think last year I had lost that neuromuscular element. But I have no doubt that I will get back to where I was.

Some people are naturally gifted and some have to work for it – I’m definitely one of the latter and I would say my biggest talent is my work ethic.”

A successful winter has seen her play her part in team gold for GB at the European XC Championships in Belgrade, finish ninth at the Edinburgh XC and seventh at the European Clubs XC in Albufeira in the colours of her club, Aldershot, Farnham and District.

“A typical winter training week…”

A club member since the age of eleven, the Psychology postgraduate student at Kingston University admits the “beauty of the club” has kept her going at times and her love for the club now stretches beyond the road, cross country and track and into the social side through involvement with the organisation of the club’s Christmas parties and presentation evenings.

With no plans to run at the Inter-Counties XC this weekend, Steph will next race in her club colours at the Southern 6 Stage Road Relays before heading out to the States for a month of altitude training in preparation for Stanford and the summer ahead.

A typical winter training week:

Sunday – XC session (mud/challenging terrain) – this is the biggest volume session of the week and tends to be the whole group: Jess, Lily, Emelia, Beth Potter, Georgie Bruinvels and Louise Small. Usually totals 12-13 miles including warm up and cool down.

Monday – am – treadmill threshold run in altitude tent at St Mary’s
pm – 30-40 minutes with conditioning (weights/gym)

Tuesday – am – 20-30 minutes – I have early lectures on Tuesday so have to get out really early
pm – road/track session, usually 6-8k in volume e.g. 2k/4x1k/5×200 or 1200/2×400/1k/2×500/800/2×400

Wednesday – 60-75 minutes or am – 50 minutes/pm – 30 minutes + drills and core – generally depends how I’m feeling from the day before if I double-up or single run

Thursday – am – tempo run followed by shorter hills – this workout is currently in a transition phase i.e. pre-Xmas tempo, post-Xmas hills and now tempo + shorter hills
pm – 100s & 200s – sprint work focussing on technique and posture

Friday – 30-45 minutes

Saturday – 75-90 minutes

As the Commonwealth Games fast approaches, Steph says it’s reassuring to have the backing and confidence of the Scottish selectors. The clarity has also allowed herself and Mick to focus and plan her training programme without the hassle of chasing qualifying times or jumping through hoops to get there.

“I strongly feel there need to be changes made to the selection process…”

Moving on to the subject of selector faux pas and Steph revealed that she was in much the same position as Kate Avery when it came to selection for the World Indoor Championships, which kick-off this Friday in Sopot, Poland.

New York-based Avery, who currently leads the 2014 UK rankings over 3000m with 8:56.20, told LetsRun recently how British Athletics had almost “badgered” her to be considered for selection for the World Indoor Athletics Championships only for it to then transpire that she couldn’t be picked because she hadn’t asked for permission to miss the trial race in Sheffield.

“I was in the exact same position as Kate – it was after the trials that I was asked if I wanted to be considered for selection only to then not get selected on a technicality. I don’t understand the bureaucracy.

Athletes need to speak up and I strongly feel there need to be changes made to the selection process. Where are the athletes’ representatives in the selection meeting? & why is there not more transparency as to why athletes aren’t being selected when they could be?”

Following a successful return from injury over cross country at the beginning of 2012, Steph was then dropped from UKA funding later in the year after injury problems dogged her summer and prevented her from making the 2012 Olympics, despite running an Olympic “A” standard.

“I know I’m not the finished article…”

Having been ignored for the 2013 World Championships in Moscow despite winning the trial race and later running within 0.6 of the “A” qualifying standard (the selectors ultimately decided not to send anyone in the women’s 5000m), Steph says it’s incredibly disheartening that British Athletics seem to be more interested in preventing athletes from going to major championships rather than giving them the opportunity to perform.

“I know I’m not the finished article but it was hugely discouraging to be dropped from funding given my personal bests, progression and times I hit in 2012 [4:07.49/15:15.24].

I feel UKA’s stance is very short-sighted, especially when endurance is about a long pathway. It made me feel that they don’t think I have the potential to be in the top-8, when my results in the past – 7th in my first senior Europeans and 3rd at the 2010 Commonwealths in my first year as a senior – suggest otherwise. I think they forget – or perhaps don’t realise – that success in endurance is not an overnight thing and I am still very young.

But nobody from UKA looks beyond anyone not on funding. Nobody asks how it’s going or how people are developing and then they expect so much.

What I’ve learnt from the whole situation is that before funding I was a good athlete. The beauty of the club and Mick’s and my vision keep me going and I still enjoy working hard and pushing myself to be the best I can be. That has never left me.”

Having shown how physically robust she is so far this winter, it’s no surprise that Steph has to dovetail that with a robust mentality. She’s had to roll with some punches so far in her athletics career despite still being just twenty-four years old.

From her amazing success as a junior and transition to the senior ranks to her annus horribilis in 2011 and subsequent funding and selection setbacks, Twell is still smiling, still positive and with a quiet confidence about her that suggests she might just be ready to make 2014 her new 2010.

Words: Chris Rainsford

Photo: @AFDACOfficial