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Nic Bideau Training

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"The first thing is belief in yourself. I don’t doubt my own plans. I always expect them to work out. From there coaching is a relationship situation and no matter how much you know there are going to be some people you will not connect with in a meaningful way. Once you’re able to connect with an athlete they are provided with certain expectations that are associated with our group - our brand if you like. And as people realize they can fulfill these expectations their confidence and belief in themselves grows."

from "Coaching Middle and Long Distance Runners: A Commentary"
Modern Athlete and Coach, Volume 44, Number 3, July 2006
"The key Lydiard principle of maintaining continuous pressure on your heart for long steady periods of aerobic activity builds a fantastic aerobic fitness base and it is aerobic fitness that is a key factor in the success of athletes in all events from 800m upwards. I’m often challenged on the importance of these long runs for 800m runners. Some athletes have even suggested to me that they are damaging, but I have no doubt they are relevant."

NIC BIDEAU - “The Can Do Man”
(taken from Sports –
September 2006

The ‘Can Do’ attitude
A distance runner stands at the start line of a major event. He looks across, sees Kenenisa Bekele and thinks 'I can’t win this'.

Unless that runner is Craig Mottram, in which case he lines up knowing that he can win. In the World Cup 3K Mottram did exactly that, doing what to many was unthinkable, and running away from Bekele on the last lap to retain the title he won four years earlier.

Nic Bideau, Mottram’s coach, is a ‘can do’ man. His partner Sonia O’Sullivan took the 1995 World 5K title ahead of world record holder Fernanda Ribeiro, Nic guided Benita Johnson to the World Cross title in 2004 ahead of the African hoards. The list of successful athletes he has helped keeps growing.

‘Can’t win’ is not a phrase that goes down well with Nic and his athletes. We caught up with the Australian at his UK base in Teddington.

At the moment Nic is also helping one of Britain’s rising stars, 800m runner Becky Lyne. He is instilling in her the belief that she can be a major success on the international stage. He said: “Becky has been around us and sees it can happen. It is amazing how you can change the way people think by putting them in the company of positive people. She’s sitting around with Mottram, Sonia and Benita and there’s no thought in their minds that our people can’t win the big races. You start to feel that you are going to betray us to say you can’t win.”

Driven by desire
Mottram is a case in point of the belief and ability you find in the athletes that Bideau works with. Mottram’s desire and ambition were there from early on. Nic recalls the young Mottram at the 1999 World Cross in Belfast: “He just went out to get as high a place as he could. Afterwards someone said to him that he was the first non-African [in 17th] and Mottram said ‘So what?’ and walked off.”

‘First non-African’ was not what Mottram was looking for. He didn’t view it as praise. Nic continued: “It’s like being the first Southern athlete when you are trying to win the National. First non-African? He’s not interested in that. He wants to win.

“He’s got that attitude and that helps. If you sit and talk to Steve Ovett you sense immediately for him it was always about winning races. I can’t think why you’d be doing the sport if you’re not trying to win the races. That’s what it is supposed to be about but we seem to have lost a generation who think like that.”

The secrets of Mottram’s success - getting the grounding
It is no fluke that Mottram has become one of the world’s greatest distance runners. Nic said: “There is no doubt he is a very talented athlete and has got good equipment to work with.

“When he first came to train aged 17 or 18 he was already very fit and had done lots of training on the bike and in the pool for triathlon. He was very aerobically strong and his time in triathlon with good basic strength and fitness enabling to cope with quite hard training immediately. With any other kid who comes along you usually have to spend two or three years getting them fit to be able to train and absorb the big level training. Mottram improved rapidly as a result.”

That basic fitness is a huge factor in athletic success, says Nic.

Nic said: “It doesn’t need to be athletics specific. Benita Johnson was an international hockey player and that game gave her a high level of fitness to launch her into athletics.

“You tend to get athletes coming from towns where sport is more prominent.

“The best Australian athletes often come from smaller country towns where there’s an outdoor lifestyle and more sport – they walk and run around more. It’s been similar in Ireland. Sonia says, ‘People say the Kenyans ran to school. I ran to school too but no-one focuses on that point.’

“When we were kids there was a lot more running, more playing football or cricket in the street for two or three hours. That’s not as commonplace now. But Mottram grew up like that.”

Why complicate the simple?
Nic is quick to scotch ideas of secrets in distance running success. He says the keys are easy to find: “Three books will tell you how to do the training. It’s not like it is incredibly complex. Lydiard was talking about it in the 60s. (Hunter Admin: Click here for more info on Lydiard)

“You can look at Lydiard or Harry Wilson. I didn’t invent the stuff that I tell Mottram to do that helps him run well, or Benita Johnson or Sonia. Alan Storey didn’t invent it. In the 1970s Brendan Foster was doing it. I was talking to Dick Quax earlier this year and showed him what Mottram did that week and he said, ‘That’s the same sort of stuff as we did!’”

That said Nic is ready to use the resources that are now available to help an athlete train more effectively and recover properly. It is not about training brutally hard: “We have got heart rate monitors so you can control the pace of training a bit more. You can be more specific on the pace and know when to hold back. I imagine Cram would have gone to the track and run 10 x 400ms as fast as he could but these days the sessions are set with much more specific targets in mind and controlled so as in general they stay at that level rather allowing athletes to train too hard.

“We have more access to ice baths, physio, recovery drinks and so on. Things like that are better taken care of in the recovery process between training and what you can do to restrict injuries.”

The fundamentals of successful training
Nic is open about what it takes to succeed at the top level. 

The base is good aerobic conditioning. Nic said: “There’s a lot of aerobic running. There is regular speed work – for me that means something like 3 x 120m fast and relaxed with plenty of rest in between.

“Lots of good volume aerobic work means running 90min to 2hr once or even twice a week. Then lots of one hour runs. “If you just did that you would get to a good level.”

On top of this comes the more specific running: “Then you add runs at anaerobic threshold, so you are running at the pace you could manage for just over an hour. It would be a race if you did it for an hour but you do it for 20min or 30min. Ron Clarke and his group in Australia in the 60’s used to run around a horse racecourse. They would run for an hour and wind it up for the last 20min or 30min. Now we can measure the heart rate and control that it is at threshold.

“Once a week we do some faster reps. Most of the year it is 5K to 10K pace with a volume of 6K to 8K. Work closer to important races involves some hills and some faster work at a specific pace. For example if you are going to run a 4min mile you have got to be comfortable at 60sec per quarter mile in training.”

Nic does not believe in large quantities of tough workouts and believes an athlete who is fit can be brought into top shape in a relatively short period of time: “As long as you are running fast once a week you can do hardly any high quality sessions for six months and maintain the capability to be ready to race at a high level within a few weeks. The ability to run anaerobically comes very quickly to most athletes.”

Tailoring to the nature of the beast
Just as a miler would not train in the same way as a 10K runner Nic says a coach must recognise athletes who compete over the same distances may be built differently.

“It is a mistake to see everyone as the same type of animal. Sonia and Mottram are a similar breed. They have a good wide range, very good anaerobic power and also good over long distances. Benita doesn’t have that anaerobic power. Then there are some people who have to keep anaerobic work going all the time or they lose their ability in that area totally, while others suffer by doing hardly any at all.

“It is the art of coaching to get the athlete and work out the right way for them to train. They may all need the same ingredients but in very different portions.”

Bringing the best out of Mo
One athlete who has benefited from spending time with Mottram and Nic is Mo Farah. In the summer of 2006 he went second on the British all time list at 5K and won European Silver. Typically for an athlete who had been around Bideau the look on his face at the finish of the European Championships showed he had been running for gold.

Nic said how Mo had progressed on a winter trip to Australia then a pre-season trip to the US: “Mo first came to altitude with us in Australia and after the first few months we realised he shouldn’t just be doing the exact same workouts as Mottram. So the next time, when he came to the US, we adjusted the training to be more specifically tailored to suit Mo’s engine and he improved dramatically.

“In our group, if ten people come to training they rarely do the same session. There are times there is no problem with them all doing the same training but when there is specific preparation you have got to be careful.”

But the training is not the only key to improvement: “Mottram is very disciplined and very focused on good recovery. Mo, prior to coming to train with us would come to train on a Tuesday then say ‘See you next time’. What was in between was not so measured. Our system is very measured. We’re making sure we’re not training too hard on the other days and that the athletes are achieving what they are supposed to in between the times we see them at the track.

“From my observation English guys these days are more likely to run 40min at a good pace – what I call grey area training, it is neither specific training nor recovery and is more useful in getting athletes tired for the next session than actually building fitness. My athletes would do 65-70min very easy recovery runs. Mo saw this and how they lived. It was more than just how they trained, it was how they were eating, the gym sessions, the focus.”

The benefits he reaped were clear to see. Other British athletes may soon be benefiting from Nic’s input too. As well as working with Becky Lyne, Nic is also speaking to Andy Baddeley. He said: “I want to see what effect I can have on him if he comes out to Australia for a period with our group. He has already had a couple of years in another system and so I am looking forward to the challenge of getting him thinking more like a winner.”

The world with the Africans
While the fundamentals of training have not changed the emergence of so many African athletes has had a big impact on what it takes to succeed.

Nic said: “Because of the level of the Africans you have got to be extremely dedicated and take care of every little thing. Twenty years ago you could run plenty of races on the European circuit and win many running 13min 30sec. Now every one of them is a hard race at world record pace. The likes of Ron Clarke and John Walker thought nothing of racing three or four times a week. Now you have got to be more measured and careful with your planning and recovery. You can’t afford to do it as a fun thing. You have got to be totally professional in all the aspects of your preparation now.”

Nic recalls that in the past athletes could run many races as if they were tired they could still win - the standards were not as consistently high.

He said: “You would end up burying yourself if you did that these days. There are more championships on offer with the World Championships every other year, the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games (which is very big for us as opportunities to win titles are few and far between), the Grand Prix Final, the World Cup and the World Cross Country, and then the races on the roads. There is always something big all the time. You can’t allow an athlete to go for everything.”

The lost skill of racing
One skill Nic sees the need to teach his athletes is how to race. With a jam packed calendar of races this may seem strange but Nic believes knowing how to take a race and turn fitness into a win is a lost art: “People don’t know how to race. These days you can actually get an athlete into a championships and it will be the first time for them in a race with no pacemakers. That’s ridiculous.

“Even school kids get pacemakers!

“It used to be 13min 36sec to get in the Olympics, now it is 13min 20sec so people need the pacemakers to just get the qualifying time let alone chasing records. The number of Africans running fast times and being supported on the European circuit by European managers has resulted in the qualifying standards for championships being beyond all but the very best European athletes. It is not good for the sport.

“I find that people enjoy watching races more where they don’t know what is going to happen before it starts– when someone is going to decide to attack. Commentators say it is boring when the race is slow but that is because so many athletes don’t know what to do anymore.

“Brendan Foster used to come up with ways to beat the kickers, Viren did it in Montreal. When you watched their races you didn’t know what was going to happen next.

“Last year Daniel Kipchirchir Komen ran 3min 29sec but couldn’t get out of the heats at the World Championship because he had only trained to run like that all the time and once there were no pacemakers to keep the speed high from the gun and the race was decided by a big acceleration, he was found wanting. It’s ridiculous, anyone that has the ability to run 3min 29sec should also have the skills to race at least into the final at a championship.”

British athletes are in need of rediscovering the skills of racing, says Nic. The races on the current calendar mean many are rusty on what he would have seen as fundamental: “You see people who don’t know the normal rules of racing. They don’t know things like you don’t try to pass on the bend at top speed or you should relax for the first third of the race or until someone makes the first meaningful move. At the European Championships Andy Baddeley was all over the place in the heats. We had a good talk between the heat and final and he was much better in the final – he ran an intelligent race. You wouldn’t think you would have to tell guys running for Great Britain how to run the 1500m. This is the country that produced Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott! But it seems they have forgotten how to do it.”

Being prepared for the paced races on the Grand Prix circuit, whether the European or BMC circuit, is different to being prepared for championship races. “You have got to prepare for what is coming up. There is no point in running races paced for Africans then in your heat at the championships you find the race is run totally different.

“You have got to have practice at what you are going to run. It’s just ridiculous – it’s almost like there are two sports – grand prix racing and championship racing – they are that different.”

Young guns going for it
Looking at the way young athletes are nurtured and developed Nic has some strong views. While Mottram’s early years set him up for the success he now enjoys, Nic fears many athletes have careers on consigned to the scrap heap before they have had the chance to develop to their full potential.

He explains: “There are young guys with ability. But they are too focused on going after times aged 17-18. If you want to be good you must prepare for the ages when you actually can be good.

“You have to resist the temptation to dominate the age group.

“You have got to prepare them to be good - to be fit enough to train properly when they are aged 22 or 23.”

Many young athlete’s misplaced desire for success leads to problems, says Nic: “They train too intensely too young. They should be enjoying building basic aerobic fitness.”

But as well as physical pitfalls there are also psychological ones: “The other thing is that people put them in a situation that they are not ready for. Confidence and learning to win is a big thing. Trust me, a 3min 50sec kid will feel better winning in 3min 51sec than coming 12th in 3min 49sec. It teaches them how to win and gives them confidence.”

Building belief
To fully develop an athlete’s potential Nic believes they must choose races wisely. He uses Mottram as a good example: “When I brought Mottram to Europe in 2000 he was 19 or 20. He ran in races at places such as Bedford, Manchester and Battersea and small meetings in Ireland and won most of them.

“When we were finally sure he was ready to compete with some top level athletes, I put him in at Zagreb in the 1500m and he ran 3min 38sec which was a big personal best. He didn’t win it but he was competitive and was there or thereabouts in the last lap. I didn’t want him to get used to running out the back. He’d won four or five smaller races over here by then. He was winning races and feeling pretty good about it. I placed him in races that were a good progressive step. I didn’t slaughter him straight away by putting him in at Oslo or something of that level.”

Even when an athlete’s career is well developed being wise in choosing the right races is still vital. The World Championships in 2001 at Edmonton give an example: “People were saying ‘Why isn’t Mottram in the 5K after he’d run that event at the 2000 Olympics?’ But it was at altitude, even if only slight, against the Africans and he would have been killed. So we had him in the 1500m where he could at least keep up until 300m to go with the very best. In his semi he was still within reach of El Guerrouj with 300m to go – he didn’t make the final but he didn’t come away thinking it was impossible next time.

“It is about good management - putting a strategy in place where you can get the best out of someone rather than them getting hammered.”

Nic can quote examples of juniors being put in senior races where they get ‘hammered’ and says he wonders what the people advising them expected them to gain from the experience. He says: “People are put in situations they are not ready for. There’s a case for putting potential stars in the Commonwealth Games for experience where they won’t get killed. But don’t send them to Oslo or Zurich or Rome with 20 Africans out there- races where they can get annihilated.”

The British downturn
When Nic first came to the UK the running scene was buzzing. He now sees a very different picture and sees reasons why the British athletes are no longer as successful: “One of the biggest reasons is that people are not training in big groups. If you have got 50 guys running 14min some guys will run 13min 20sec.

“There used to be dozens of clubs with six or seven guys running 100 miles a week. Now there are 12 stage relay teams where the runners aren’t even all running every day. Back then every team had guys who all trained at least 60-70 miles a week.
“In the 80s the atmosphere and camaraderie and enjoyment was much bigger. People used to really like just being involved and doing the training. There are now not the guys like Foster, Stewart or Bedford, the guys on the British scene seem much more timid than the stars that were around when I first came here.”

The big personalities used to help make the British distance scene a vibrant one. “When I first came to England there was Tim Hutchings, Gary Staines, Dave Clarke, Micky McLeod… they were running the show at the races and lifting the mood! Before that there was Dave Bedford, Ian Stewart and Brendan Foster. The type of personality doing the sport is now not as gregarious.”

The groups that help to produce the big personalities have gone and so the scene has taken a turn for the worse, says Nic.

London 2012 - Opportunity missed
While he spends much of the year based just around the corner from UK Athletics’ endurance performance centre Nic does not have much involvement with UKA. 

He says a challenge for any governing body is the number of athletes it has to deal with. He sees some good work being done by UKA but is also concerned by what he does not see.

Nic said: “I met Dave Collins, but I didn’t write down his phone number. I didn’t get the impression that he could teach me a whole lot about athletics. The marks out of ten system made me laugh. Why do you need a mark out of ten? They give medals to determine how well you do.”

“If I sat down and spoke to him at length I may find he has a great plan for the sport. But from what I see there is no system in place ready to change what will happen in 2012. It’s a missed opportunity. I have done some work with Mo and there may be a few random people who can be helped by other individuals but there is not the structure or the set up to regularly produce results year in year out and generation after generation.

“You need to be working with 15 to 16-year-old kids. I’d like to see 20 to 30 young guys just getting fit and learning how to train - running some decent times for 1500m and 3K but basically getting fit and enjoying it so as more youngsters could be attracted to be involved. You should be looking to other sports, seeing who can run, and getting the 15-year-olds who have ability and personality a greater awareness of our sport. Get them interested – take them away, may be to something like the World Cup last weekend where they would have seen Mottram winning – someone who’s like them, and get them enthusiastic about the possibility of them doing the same one day. I don’t see that existing.”

Nic believes that the club structure in Britain, which was once the lifeblood of the sport, has also suffered: “The system of clubs was so good in years gone by but they have been let down. I’d like to be able to send my children to a club would there would be supervision and always be people there aged 10, 12, 15 training two or three times a week and getting fit and enjoying the sport. That system needs more support. If it doesn’t get it in five years time Britain will be in the same place or worse.”

While some may talk of the state of the sport without offering solutions or alternatives Nic is doing what he can to help Britain enjoy success. “I have got my own operation and I’d like to have some British athletes involved in it. Britain has a great tradition in this sport with so many of the greatest champions we’ve known. I spend a lot of time here and like the British so I want to help athletes like Andy Baddeley and Becky Lyne to fill the void that has been left. If I find another one with the right attitude I’d try to help them too.”