At the start of an important year in athletics – including this summer’s World Championships in London – BBC Sport’s lead commentator Steve Cram is in South Africa mentoring a group of British athletes during a training camp at altitude in Potchefstroom, two hours’ drive from Johannesburg.
On paper a warm-weather training camp sounds like a bit of a jolly, but it’s anything but for the British athletes over here at the minute.
We’ve got the South African football team the Kaiser Chiefs staying in the same accommodation as us and our athletes are definitely doing a lot more than those guys, that’s for sure.
Most athletes are doing two sessions a day plus gym sessions, massage, nutritionist appointments – they are busy days. A meal out with a dessert every once in a while is their idea of a wild night out here in Potchefstroom.
Double sessions bring me on to the discussion of Laura Muir. Laura has had a great start to the season with a British 5,000m record and she is looking great out here in South Africa.
She’s at a really good place in her career but what she doesn’t have yet is a major championship medal.
The European Indoor Championships is a great chance for her and I know there has been some talk about her doubling up over 1,500m and 5,000m, both indoors and outdoors, this season. I am not sure whether Laura has actually said that is what she definitely wants to do, rather she has said the schedule allows it, which is a little bit different.
The very fact that she is talking about it though shows she is obviously not setting her targets low, which is great. You don’t win things by not thinking big. Laura has always struck me as quite quiet but she has never lacked confidence. I’ve seen her train quite a lot over the last few years – she doesn’t have very many easy days.
Training in the bank
To be fair there aren’t many easy days for anyone out here. Our group mainly consists of 800 or 1500m runners, with the likes of Laura Weightman and Kyle Langford also in the group.
This is a crucial time of year for them to get the endurance base that will carry them through the summer. It’s a bit of a departure for us from recent years in that we have come to South Africa rather than Iten in Kenya. Iten is about 8,000 ft, while Potch is more like 4,000ft. Being at a slightly lower altitude means you can do a bit more quality work while still getting the benefit of being at altitude. The food is better too.
The athletes then sleep in altitude tents at night to get that added benefit too. The benefits of altitude are not a new thing to me – I wrote my dissertation about its benefits back in 1981 and I used to use it by training in Colorado during my career – and in many ways the sport is very similar to when I did it.
There is a lot more science behind everything now and the level of support athletes get with a physiologist, physiotherapist, nutritionist etc is very different but in essence running is very straightforward. I trained hard and they train hard.
Athletics in transition
British athletics will have a hard act to follow in the coming years. With Jessica Ennis-Hill having retired and Mo Farah having talked about 2017 being his last track season, we are going to go through a bit of a transition. It’s a big two years or so.
At the World Championships in London we’ll still be talking about the same athletes as the last few years, like Mo and Greg Rutherford, in terms of medals. But in the next couple of years there is a huge opportunity for some of the younger ones to get into the medal mix.
Tom Bosworth is one of those athletes in the race walk. On a broader level I do feel that athletics is in a pretty good place. The work that has been done and is ongoing regarding the drugs issue has given people a bit of an uplift. The issue of performance-enhancing drugs will never go away completely of course but Tom is one of those athletes who has been incentivised by the ban on Russia, who have been a dominant force in the race walks.
After his performance in Rio, where he finished sixth, Tom is now on the highest level of funding and wants to learn how to win a medal in future years. That is not a situation you would have expected for a British race walker a few years ago.
Mo has nothing to worry about
Mo has made a habit of winning at a canter for a number of years now but I wasn’t overly concerned about his defeat at the Great Edinburgh Cross Country. He knew he wasn’t expecting to win but he showed there just why he is a champion – because he cares.
I thought he did a good job. He was 12th at one point and he could have run around at 90% from then on and come 11th. He chose not to and ended seventh. I thought it was really telling that he refused to stop giving it everything. He didn’t know where he was at ahead of Edinburgh – now he knows exactly where he is and what he’s got to do.
The London World Championships might seem a long way from South Africa in mid-January but the hard work starts now…