Dundee Hawkhill runner has broken into the GB junior team this year with 16:18.50 for 5000m

“But I hardly even run!” laughs 18-year-old Natasha Phillips, responding to assumptions that she covers a ridiculously high mileage for her age. 

In the case of this young athlete, context is everything. 

The Dundee Hawkhill Harrier, Scottish senior champion over 10km, 10 miles and half marathon in 2023, only started to take running seriously during the Covid pandemic lockdown. Formerly a competitive swimmer and triathlete – with potential to return to the latter in the future – she took to the roads when the swimming pools closed.

“I remember running my first 5km and thinking: ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done’, but I just kept at it,” she says. 

While she recorded a series of impressive results as an under-17 in 2022, most notably third in the Lindsays Scottish National Cross Country Championships and sixth in the UK Inter-Counties, her performances in 2023 – including a 71:53 half marathon, the fastest ever by a UK under-20 – have been totally dominant and mind-blowingly quick. 

“This year’s success has been a bit unexpected,” she admits. “The improvement just came from running more. I went from doing hardly any running at all; I mean my mileage was really low, it still is, I only run two to three times per week.”

Not surprisingly, with victories came personal bests. In addition to her exceptional half, Phillips won the Tom Scott Memorial (10M) in 54:47 and the Babcock Shettleston 10km in 32:57, the fourth-fastest British under-20 performance of all time and the best ever by a British-born 18-year-old.

Natasha Phillips

Phillips, who represented Scotland at the WMRA International Youth Cup in Italy in 2022, is predominantly self-coached. She left school last year and has just finished a one-year Applied Science course at college. At the end of this summer, she will move to the University of Dundee to study Biological Chemistry and Drug Discovery.

“I’m interested in all the science behind endurance sport, so I enjoy reading about training methods and heart rate zones,” she says. “I do have a coach that oversees my training [Andrew Woodroffe], but I set my own sessions. I’ve known Andrew for a long time. He’s a long distance triathlete and a very good runner so he understands my training methods very well and recognises the importance of cross training. I appreciate having him there to monitor what I’m doing.”

In June, following her solo 16:18.50 5000m PB at the England Under-20 Championships in Chelmsford, it was announced that Phillips had been selected to represent Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the European Under-20 Championships in August. Given it was only her second track race over the distance, it was an incredible achievement. 

“It was so different to the road,” she says, recalling her debut track 5000m (at the BMC Grand Prix in Manchester in May). “When I did the Scottish 5km road champs it just went by so quickly. I could just stick to a bunch of guys and they’d carry me round, I didn’t even have to think, but at the track there were people everywhere and I just went off too fast.”

Phillips has experienced incredible success in her short running career, but with years of competitive swimming already behind her, she’s far from naive. “People probably think I’m new to this, that I might not be able to cope with it [the European U20 Championships], but I’ve done it for so long with swimming,” she says. “I’m so used to having bad races, to not feeling well in races, to having absolute shockers in races, so I think I’ve had all those experiences in a career before this. I’ll just take each race as it comes.” 

READ MORE: AW’s how they train series

Phillips no longer swims competitively – she says she found it stressful compared to running and doesn’t miss it at all – but using knowledge gained over more than a decade in the pool to inform her sessions, it makes up the majority of her training week alongside the bike. 

She doesn’t have a specific rest day but alternates training disciplines depending on how she feels. She believes the variation in her training aids her motivation and consistency.

She runs 30-50km weekly on average.

Monday: (am) 2hr swim; (pm) indoor bike (1-2hr).

Tuesday: endurance-based track session with the club. For example, 1km reps, 1 mile reps or 2km reps (depending on which races are coming up) with 60sec recovery on shorter reps and 90sec on longer ones.

Wednesday: swim (2hr) or indoor bike (1-2hr). “I’ll swim or bike depending on how I feel from Tuesday,” says Phillips. “If I go for an easy swim I’ll do some drills and some individual medley (all the strokes), then some 800s. The pool is quite cold so I can’t really stop. It’s a continuous swim but mixed up. If I’m feeling okay I’ll maybe do a session like 8 x threshold 200s at a moderate intensity, then mix it up with kicks and drills.”

Thursday: easy run (10-15km). In winter, this will be done as a progression run on the treadmill.

Friday: 2hr swim plus strength and conditioning.

Saturday: (am) 2hr swim; (pm) indoor bike 1-2hr. “This is usually an easy ride but I often incorporate short intervals. I enjoy the bike, but it’s very hard.”

Sunday: long run (19-21km).

Favourite session: “It would have to be my long run on a Sunday as it gives me a sense of freedom. It’s a chance to enjoy being outdoors and appreciate the countryside around where I live.”

Least favourite session: “Any sprinting session. I feel like it’s hard to find the explosive power necessary to run for short distances at speed. Anything under 400m I tend to dislike!”

» This feature first appeared in the July issue of AW magazine, which you can read here