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How Do Elite Runners Train in Winter?

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Rob Murray

Rob is a self confessed running geek, obsessed with all things related to the sport, whether road, track or triathlon.
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Some choose to visit the warmer climes of Kenya and South Africa, others tread the well worn paths closer to home. So how do elite athletes manage their training in those cold, dark winter months?

Here’s how stars Jenny Meadows (2011 800m European champion), Hannah England (world 1500m silver medallist) and European 10,000m champion Jo Pavey all so it.

Hannah England – Iten, Kenya

“At the start it feels like you’re on a fun school trip, then you realise you’ve got to do the same thing again and again.” Hannah England.

Hannah EnglandSeventeen British athletes visited Kenya’s Rift Valley this winter, in order to maximise the benefits of high altitude training. Why? At 8,000ft above sea level there’s not as much oxygen in the air, so your body adapts by creating more oxygen-carrying red blood cells to be more efficient with what little oxygen there is. Spend time training like this and for a while after, back at sea level, you’re running easier and faster. It’s legal blood modification.It’s tough though, with blackouts, frugal living and an intense period of training including climbs up 1000ft hills.

Iten, however is a veritable factory of super human Kenyan runners, with one in four of the town’s inhabitants full time runners. It’s where Daniel Rudisha, Geoffery Mutai and Wilson Kikpsang grew up (three of the fastest men in the world EVER, over middle and long distance). It’s the focus of the book, ‘Running with the Kenyans’ by Adharanand Finn.

Even in one of the most beautiful places on earth, the drudgery and repetitive nature of intense training takes its toll…

“Quite a lot of the boys on our last trip took games consoles with them, but some get bored – you see cabin fever setting in,” says England, who shares a room with space for two beds and a desk and not much else.

“Emotionally, I do struggle a lot when I have to go without seeing my husband for a month. Usually there’s internet three times a month. I try to Skype my parents but, luckily, I have understanding friends and family,” said England.

The Iten Training Diet
Breakfast: Eggs, freshly-baked bread and pancakes. Lunch: Vegetable stew with rice, or lentils and soup. Freshly-baked bread for dunking.
Dinner: Goat or beef stew with rice or potatoes – or ugali (dough-like consistency made with maize flour). Treats: Pizza with mince meat, sweetcorn, peppers and cheese topping.


Jenny Meadows – Potchefstroom, South Africa

Jenny Meadows

Jenny Meadows with her dog Harvey


Jenny opts for a different part of the continent famed for it’s output of prolific distance runners, in South Africa. She also speaks of the boredom of overseas training camps,


“The fourth week, that’s when you start to countdown to home time and begin to think about the people you miss,” says the British 800m indoor champion.

“I particularly miss my dog, Harvey, and always feel a bit guilty about leaving him for so long, although he does get spoiled by my mum.”

Jenny Meadows

Meadows first went on a training camp to America aged 20, initially only going away in Easter

‘Killer’ hill sessions in altitude – quivering in apprehension and destroying the soul

“The very nasty killer hill sessions are brutal, but athletes from all over the world have endured the pain.” Jenny Meadows

“I’ve only thrown up once in the last camp,” says England, giggling with pride. “I’m a non-responder to altitude. I don’t make a lot of red blood cells like other people so I find it really hard when I’m in Kenya.

“Mentally, continually doing things that your mind says is not possible builds resilience. Being a middle-distance runner is about being tough. Going to an extreme environment can benefit me for the rest of the year.”

Not quite as high as Iten, at 4,900ft Meadows spends nine hours per day training, including track and grass repetition sessions, going to the gym and dreaded ‘killer’ sessions (running up and down a 1,000m hill!)

“Killer sessions make me quiver whenever I see it on my programme,” she says. “It’s about maximising the hours to not only train, but to do extras, such as stretching and exercises prescribed by the physiotherapist.”

Jenny Meadows’ Winter Training Plan
07:30am – Breakfast. “It’s so I can digest before training,” says Meadows. 09:15am – First session of the day which usually lasts two hours. Noon – Lunch at the apartment and, ideally, a power nap.
08.15am – Physiotherapy by coach and husband Trevor. 11.15am – Rehabilitation exercises and ice bath at the High Performance Centre. 4.30pm – A recovery run of about four to five miles and core exercises.

Mo Farah – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Mo Farah training tweet

Mo Farah training in Addis Ababa

Born in Somalia before heading to the UK as an eight year old, Mo has trained in east Africa in the winter months since 2010, alternating between Ethiopia and Kenya.

Hi most recent block of training was in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, training at the Yaya Athletics Village owned by Haile Gebreselaisse. From the 13th January, until the 17th of February, Mo spent each and every day running track repeats or taking to the nearby mountain trails for hill work.

To show the window of opportunity for altitude training gains, Mo finished on Tuesday, before flying back to England for the British Grand Prix in Birmingham this weekend. This is the even that he recently had a Twitter spat with team mate Andy Vernon about (the day after he’d finished training – withdrawal symptoms?!)

Mo Farah track session ethiopia

Mo Farah track session Ethiopia

Mo Farah hill repeats

Mo Farah hill repeats in Ethiopia

Jo Pavey – At Home in the UK

“2011 was a bad winter. I’d always wear two pairs of gloves, a headband and a hat, you just get on with it.” Jo Pavey

Jo Pavey prefers to stay at home, come rain or snow in order to be with her young family.

“I remember in 2011 there was deep snow everywhere except for one patch of road, amounting to about a two-minute run, which had been treated,” says Pavey.

“I had to keep running back and forth on that which meant passing the same bus stop. I’ve no idea what people thought when they saw me.”

Snow and bus stop

The 41 year old 5,000 and 10,000 meter specialist gave birth to her second child in December 2013, before stunningly going on to win gold at the European Championships eleven months later

“I wasn’t aiming for medals because I didn’t think it was realistic. I didn’t think I had a chance of making the British team. I was out of shape for most of the winter and just wanted to enjoy that newborn time.”

Jo Pavey’s Winter Training

“We might all go to the forest,” says Pavey. “Jake will be on his bike and I’ll be running. Sometimes we’ll all go to the track together, but if it’s too cold I’ll go on my own. I’m really fortunate that I’ve been able to have two lovely kids and a supportive husband and feel extremely lucky I’ve been able to combine athletics with family life. It gives us a lot of quality time together.”


Jo Pavey with son, Jacob

Jo Pavey will have breakfast with her children, Jacob and Emily, before training.

“Training camps helped me. All the things you learn on camp with others enriches your career.” 

Although Pavey did previously go away to train in Colorado, it was before British Athletics began funding overseas training.

“Before I had children, British Athletics weren’t sending athletes to Kenya,” she says. “I’d have loved to have gone there and experienced it.

Jo Pavey

Pavey sprints away from France’s Clemence Calvin to win the 10,000m at the European Championships

“I love training in the heat, but you become used to the British winter and get on with it. On the occasions we’d train in altitude in Colorado, it’d be colder than here, freezing and snowing, but you just wrap up.

“When I became a mum and decided I wasn’t going to go away anymore, I was worried: would I be able to train in the same way? But it’s taught me that winter training is all about being consistent and sensible.

“As long as you’re training hard, it doesn’t matter where you do it.”

This article first appeared on the BBC website

Author: Rob Murray

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