The continuities and differences in the training of the ‘holy trinity’ – Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram – are scrutinised through the coaching lens of Matt Long and Lewis Moses
Think of British middle-distance running and the images of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram are never far away. This ‘holy trinity’ of athletes dominated their disciplines, causing ripples throughout the sport every time they stepped on to the track, and are still the subject of much discussion long after their competitive careers ended.
Each had their own racing style but what about their respective approaches to training? What can we learn from the approaches of this incredibly talented trio?
Aerobic base development
Ovett would regularly reach 120 miles per week and 10-mile gentle ‘chatty’ runs over the South Downs were common for him. There were also periodic appearances in road races – he once ran the fastest long stage leg at the Southern Road Relays, for example.
While not obsessed with mileage, Coe’s strong aerobic base was boosted through tempo running whereas Cram’s approach of running between 60-70 miles per week would appear to be closer to Coe’s than the kind of volume effected by Ovett, with long runs typically being 8-10 miles.
Cram would continue to compete on the roads throughout his career.
1980 Moscow Olympic 800m champion Ovett regularly competed in the English National cross-country races. He periodically used the ‘Big Dipper’ at Merthyr Mawr and the sand at Southerndown to develop his strength endurance capabilities.
As well as hill training around the streets of his native Sheffield, double Olympic 1500m champion Coe’s attention to strength endurance came through weight training, including barbell curls and bench pressing. This was complemented by both circuit and stage training, as well as plyometric work which included box jumping.
As a junior athlete, 1983 world 1500m champion Cram reached international level at orienteering and throughout his career he relied on continuous park-based hill circuits rather than orthodox hill repetitions. In his mile record-breaking year of 1985 he was crowned Northern cross-country champion.
All three men effected short strides (10 seconds or so) as a way of maintaining leg turnover at various points of the periodisation cycle. Even during weeks of heavy aerobic volume, for instance, Ovett could run 60m indoors at Crystal Palace in 7.2 or 7.3 seconds off a standing start with generous walk back recoveries.
Coe would prime his alactic energy system through sessions like 10 × 100 m (steady acceleration to 60m, maximum speed to 80m, then float to 100m), with a walk back to recovery.
Cram’s use of the alactic system involved accelerating towards the end of reps which may explain tactically why he is often referred to as a “winder” rather than an out-and-out ‘kicker’, as Ovett and Coe respectively could be.
The coaching philosophies
As coach to Ovett, Harry Wilson was heavily influenced by the Australian Percy Cerutty and went on to visit his training camp in Portsea, Victoria.
Wilson would have been influenced firstly by Cerutty’s obsession with studying the movement patterns of horses, as the former would go on to stress the importance of correct biomechanics for Ovett to be able to ultimately relax at great speed. It is why so much importance was placed on ‘relaxed intervals’.
Secondly, the focus of Cerutty – the man who would guide Herb Elliott to Olympic success – on strength endurance effected in resistance work in both the sea and on sand (Cerutty called these sessions run to exhaustion as ‘Death by Dunes’) inspired Wilson to make regular trips to the dunes of Merthyr Mawr with the young Ovett.
If Harry Wilson admired Cerutty’s rebellious streak, then there is similarity in terms of the way in which Peter Coe allied himself with British Milers’ Club founder Frank Horwill as both men would often rail against the system.
Seb would say of his father: “He’s an engineer who is inclined to approach things from what he would call ‘first principles’”. The notion of ‘first principles’ is basically to approach any problem and to break it down into basic elements before putting the pieces back together again.
This thinking has a long tradition all the way back to the work of the Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle.
Coes senior and junior would put their faith into Horwill’s system of five-pace or multi-tier training to prevent Seb from being locked into one pace.
Evidence suggests that Horwill himself was heavily influenced by Franz Stampfl (1913-1995). As the only non-runner (he was a club level cyclist) of the three coaches, Peter Coe certainly lent towards what Aristotle would have framed as ‘episteme’ [theoretical knowledge] and ‘techne’ [technical knowledge] and away from the ‘phronesis’ [practical wisdom] of Ovett’s coach Wilson and Steve Cram’s coach Jimmy Hedley, both of whom competed as athletes, the former reaching international standard for Wales and the latter starting out as a sprinter.
While Coe senior (Winning Running) and Wilson (Running My Way) penned a number of top selling books, Jimmy Hedley did not attempt to make this kind of written contribution.
According to former Hedley athlete and now well respected coach Vince Wilson: “Jimmy was a self taught coach”. Hedley the pragmatist would encourage his athletes to learn through what would nowadays be termed as ‘guided discovery’.
The long history of this inductive approach can be traced back to the work of educational reformer John Dewey in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Hedley’s reasoning would work from specific observations of athletes beginning to make sense of the patterns which he would be witnessing trackside.
Hedley would encourage a young Cram to take mentoring rather than coaching advice from the likes of Olympic medallists Brendan Foster and Mike McLeod, who could offer the kind of experiential insight into racing at the elite level which he himself as a coach could not.
SPEED ENDURANCE SESSIONS
The 1978 European 1500m champion often effected wind sprints around the Preston park cricket pitch in his native Brighton. A typical ‘split interval’ type session included 4 x 400m (first 200m 28/29sec, last 200m 23/24sec) with a five-minute recovery.
His use of ‘quality repetitions’ was characteristic of race pace specific work, with a complete recovery in between. For example, 2 x 600m. He would undertake ‘tired surges’, opting to conduct work in sets whereby he would run 400m in 49s with 100m ‘float’ and then continue to run 100m flat out.
‘Pace Injectors’ were effected over 600m (200m in 26sec, 200m in 24sec and the final 200m in 26sec) to cope with mid-race surges.
The man who blew away the opposition in the World Cup 1500m in 1977 also worked on ‘pace increases’ – again typically over 600m (200m in 28, 200m in 26 and the final 200m in 24sec).
Like Ovett, the 1986 European 800m champion would often group his speed endurance work into sets, with a generous passive recovery if not between repetitions, then at least between the sets.
For example 2 x (3 × 300m) at 39sec, with a two-minute recovery and nine minutes between sets. As he drew close to competition he would introduce progressive incremental work to challenge his lactate system. For example, 11 sprints, progressing in distance from 100m to 200m in 10m increments at 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 seconds, with jog-back recovery to the start position.
He would also utilise pyramid sessions, an example of which would be: 400m / 600m / 400m/300m/200min55 /82 / 53 / 36/ 25sec with two-minute rest. During the competition phase of the periodisation cycle, the former world 800m record-holder would undertake race pace specificity sessions such as 6 x 400m at 51 / 52sec with five-minute recovery or 6 x 300m at 38 to 39sec.
While like Coe, former world mile and 1500m record-holder Cram was a fan of pyramid sessions, he tended to work in ‘reverse’ order, moving from more aerobically-based repetitions down towards those with greater lactate and occasionally alactic demands.
A park session may, for instance, have included 1 x 1 mile, 2 x 1km, 2 x 400m, 2 x 200m, 4 x 150m, 6 x 60m, with passive recoveries. One of his favourite sessions was 10-12 x 400m in 60sec (60sec recovery) in his belief that the splits per lap were a reliable indicator of his mile capability.
As the major championships approached, race-pace specificity became a factor, and a typical session would be 600m (three-minute recovery) plus 6 x 200m (30sec recovery) run at 800m race pace. As he tapered for major championships, work involved shorter distances such as 8 x 200m in 25/26sec (60sec recovery) and sporadic use of more generous walk-back recoveries.
» Matt Long is a former winner of the British Milers’ Club Horwill Award for Coach Education Research and author of a great number of coaching articles. Lewis Moses is a former World Championships athlete and British indoor 1500m champion and founder of New Levels Coaching. He has tutored and mentored a host of British junior athletes. Both authors and interviewee Vince Wilson welcome contact for further advice on this piece at [email protected]; newlevelscoaching.co.uk and [email protected]