The Olympic 800m finalist and Euro Cross gold medallist on how she’s planning to build on a breakthrough year

Alex Bell’s world was transformed last summer. A late call-up to the British team for Tokyo, she seized her chance with both hands and returned home as an Olympic 800m finalist. 

The experience, which included a PB of 1:57.66, has expanded her horizons. Finally being added to Lottery funding has also allowed the 29-year-old to leave her job selling shoes at the Nike Store in Leeds to concentrate on fulfilling her athletic ambitions. 

Part of the British Athletics Training Hub in the city and training under coach Andrew Henderson, the 29-year-old is now building on a breakthrough year. 

“After the Olympics I said to my coach – ‘how do we do now get into the 1:56 category? Where do we go from here?’” says Bell, who was captain of the Great Britain team at the European Cross Country Championships in December and the key performer in the quartet which won 4x1500m relay gold in Dublin. 

“I just came back full of excitement and more passion. I almost felt at peace coming back from the Olympics. A lot of things that have happened over the years – there have been doubts and opinions and comments… it was just like a weight lifted off my shoulders.

“It makes you think ‘what can we do next? What’s the next challenge?’ I came back in a really healthy state of mind and ready and raring to go.”

Athing Mu leads Alex Bell in the 800m semi (Getty)

Bell has worked with Henderson since the winter of 2017 but, despite the Olympic success and her full-time focus, there will be no major alterations to their training approach. 

“In the long term, I think we’re not necessarily going to change too much or do anything that’s going to be that drastic or that different to what we were doing last year.

“It’s just a matter of backing it up and mirroring what we did before but just focusing on things that we maybe didn’t have time for or rushed – the little one per cents that we’ve not had time to do.”

Bell is thrilled to be “putting Leeds on the map” and clearly loves a training set-up at Leeds Beckett University which offers not just versatility, but everything she needs. 

“It’s a big group and in the winter on Saturdays we have big grass sessions where 35 people turn up to the muddy fields,” she adds. “There is the element of the group if you want that environment but equally with the programme there are things in place where it can be more individualised. We’ve got the facilities which are world class now – it’s got all the all the testing, nutrition and physiotherapy side of things.”

As for coming to terms with being an Olympian, Bell still has some work to do.

“No matter how much I try and absorb it, it’s still a pinch me moment,” she grins. “We’ve taken so much from the outdoor season just past. The future feels so bright – hopefully this is only just the beginning 

“[The biggest lesson] from the whole experience in general was to never put a limitation on what you can achieve. It’s so easy to just think ‘if I do that, I’ll be happy or ‘if I do this I’ll be satisfied’. Don’t ever put up barriers – keep climbing and keep reaching – because I surprised myself so much.”

Alex Bell beats Hannah Nuttall and Holly Archer (Mark Shearman)

Typical training week (winter)

Monday – Easy running, gym work and hurdle drills to help improve hip mobility. “The hurdle drives were implemented last year,” says Bell. “My weakness used to be my hip area and my knee drive, so we work to strengthen those areas.”

Tuesday – Track session. A typical winter session is 12x400m (75 seconds recovery) or three sets of 500m (90 seconds recovery), 300m (60 seconds recovery), 200m with three minutes of recovery between sets. Sessions will be around 3km in volume. On session days, Bell will also have a 35-minute cycle later in the day to help flush out her legs. 

Wednesday – Usually a rest day but if rest is needed at a different point in the week then the schedule will be moved around.

Thursday – Tempo and hills session (see favourite/least favourite session).

Friday – Easy running and gym work.

Saturday – Current focus is on volume, so it will involve a big grass session.

Sunday – Long run. Anything up to 10 miles.

Favourite session: “The tempo sessions. Especially when you’re on your way to getting fit, I love the tempo loops that we do and reaching that threshold. I love that feeling and that part of my week.”

Least favourite:  “I hate the hill sessions. I know you’ve got to do them, I understand the benefits of them, but that is the weak link in my week. So what’s my coach gone and done? He’s turned my Thursdays into tempo/hills sessions, so I’ll do my tempo running first and then he finishes me off with a hill!”

Alex Bell wins The Match in Minsk

Since 2017, when making the change to work with Henderson, Bell says she has been “tapping into” psychology, too. It has proved transformative. “I had just been dropped off the first cycle of funding and I just needed a fresh start and someone there to help me get myself organised, to make sense of things and move forward,” she says.

“That was such a key part of my development. I don’t really rely on a person as much now but, with the lady who mentored me, over the years we’ve created so many different [mental] tools in what we call my toolbox. It was huge and I’ll continue to do it.”

» This article first appeared in the January issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here

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