Jones' biggest coaching call pays rich dividends for Britton

It sounds like they’re already well versed in the question, the when, if not how soon, before Fionnuala Britton starts exploring…

It sounds like they’re already well versed in the question, the when, if not how soon, before Fionnuala Britton starts exploring the marathon. In terms of potential it might well be that great ocean of oil lying just beneath the surface.

Even before defending her European Cross Country title on Sunday, Britton has made no secret of her desire to someday try a big city marathon – and it’s no secret either there’s the prospect of a big pay day to go with it. If there’s anyone out there to challenge Catherina McKiernan’s 14-year-old Irish record of 2:22:23 then it’s Britton.

For Chris Jones, the man who has helped transform her from championship contender to the first woman ever to win back-to-back European Cross Country titles, the marathon is already ear-marked as Britton’s ultimate distance. “I’ve no doubt she’d run a very, very fast half marathon right now,” he says, “and her long-term future is in the marathon, for sure.

“But by that I mean the Rio Olympics, in 2016, not next year, or the year after. She won’t rush into it. But if you consider her training load right now, the fact she seldom runs less than 95 miles a week, and on average 120 miles a week, with the long runs, we’re already preparing to run a marathon, just without the specific marathon work.”


Unfinished business

In the meantime Jones is still focused on extracting the absolute best from the 28-year-old from Wicklow.

It’s only two years since Jones took charge of her coaching, after the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona, and he is convinced there is still considerable improvements to come in her performances on the track, with plenty of unfinished business in cross country, too – and that’s what the next two years are all about.

“We’ve the World Cross Country in Poland coming up in March, which has gone every two years now, but is important, and will actually be the big race for Fionnuala this season.

“Whether it’s a top 10, the best European, whatever, she’s got to keep improving, has got to be competitive there as well.

Consistent growth

“Her confidence is coming on all the time too, and we will see more of that on the track. This summer was her first serious year running the 10,000 metres, and she understands the event much more already.

“I also think she can go sub-15 minutes for 5,000m. That will be the focus for the World Championships in Moscow, next summer.

“I want to see more consistent growth over 5,000m, and then for 2014, really target the European Championship 10,000m and 5,000m in Zurich. That’s the two-year goal.”

With that in mind, Jones has already lined up a series of races leading into the World Cross Country, set for Bydgoszcz on March 24th, starting with the Brussels international on Sunday week, and also the defence of her Great Edinburgh Cross Country, on January 5th.

Given his key role in taking Britton’s career to this level, it’s easily forgotten that his “day-job”, as Jones says himself, is director of high performance with Triathlon Ireland.

Yesterday he explained how their race tactics changed once he got to see the course for himself, and the frozen conditions that came with it: he actually describes it as one of the biggest calls in his 20 years as a coach.

“I’d come out here really impressed by her training, felt she could cover any break, but should then take it out in one significant attack.

“Then on Saturday afternoon, I walked around the course twice, and it was so clear to me this was a much more difficult course than we thought. I just thought to myself, ‘what are we doing here?

“She’s got fantastic endurance, she’s in the best shape of her life, why aren’t we going to unleash it early on?’

Big decision

“So I went back, told her it wasn’t going to be one attack. She had to put the pressure on earlier, make them hurt. It was a big, big decision. It could have back-fired. I spoke to Ann Keenan-Buckley as well, who played a big part in this, even if she resigned as manager, and she totally agreed.

“And straightaway Fionnuala said yes too. So she hit the front at 2km, and it wasn’t a ruthless break, but enough to make them hurt. And look, they were never comfortable after that. Fionnuala always felt on top of her game.

“But she still didn’t know what was going on behind her, but she was able to keep going, had that extra extension of endurance even on last year.”

How they got it, he says, is not rocket science, but longer interval repetitions with less recovery, and yet greater emphasis on the recovery and rest days. They worked again on the speed gained on the track this summer, with further tweaking on her stride pattern and alignment to improve her power output.

They also kept an even closer watch on her blood profiles to ensure everything was always in order. “Plus she’s such a great training animal,” he says, “with a massive appetite for the workload.”

All the ingredients then to someday run a championship winning marathon.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics