Learning to train sensibly rather than hard


ATHLETICS:At age 25 Joe Sweeney is still only coming into his prime, and given the effective lay-off of the last two seasons, that prime may still be a few more years off yet, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

THERE IS a common and relatively minor blood disorder which can go largely unnoticed in the general population but for distance runners can be utterly debilitating. No, it’s nothing to do with the severe shivering associated with running around in sub-zero temperatures wearing only a vest and shorts, but rather a gradually diminished red blood cell count – better known as anaemia.

As most Leaving Cert students could explain, red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to our muscles and body tissues. The more red blood cells in the body the easier this becomes (which as most Olympic runners could explain, is why some people take EPO). But just like EPO can artificially boost our red blood cell count, old-fashioned hard training can sometimes diminish it – if not in quantity then certainly in quality. It’s one of the great paradoxes of our sport: train harder, and if we’re not careful, sometimes the results are weaker. But don’t take my word for it.

Three years ago, Joe Sweeney was among the most promising young distance runners in the country. He’d won several Irish schoolboy titles while at Coláiste Eoin in Stillorgan and several more national underage titles with his club Dundrum South Dublin. After moving on to UCD, he won the Irish Inter-Varsity Cross County title in 2007, by almost a minute. Then things began to unravel, somewhere deep in the haemoglobin of his red blood cells. In 2007 he’d also finished fifth in the senior Irish Inter-counties Cross County, representing Dublin, yet for the next two years couldn’t even make the start line.

For a while Sweeney didn’t know what was wrong – but suspected he simply wasn’t training hard enough, or else training all wrong. So he consulted some of the wise old heads of Irish athletics, including, naturally enough, Jerry Kernan. The great thing about Kernan, besides his famous running achievements, is that he tells things exactly as he sees them. Usually straight to your face.

“You look absolutely shite,” Kernan told Sweeney, when they met for an easy training run in Belfield. He did, too – although Kernan was proven right when five minutes into the run Sweeney started sweating buckets. Five minutes later Kernan had him dropped, and considering how painfully slow Kernan runs these days, something definitely was wrong. Sweeney told him his feet were burning, and straightaway Kernan had suspicions of his own. He arranged for him to see Dr Joe Conway, in nearby Blackrock, knowing here was a man who knew all about haemoglobin concentrations and mean corpuscular volume.

Shortly afterwards Sweeney was in hospital, the nurses looking at him in the bed wondering if he needed a blood transfusion. They’d just seen the results of his haemoglobin concentration, which was around 7.0 g/dl – when a normal young man of his age should be up around 15.0 g/dl. The last time they’d seen a haemoglobin concentration as low as his was with a women, who had just given birth to triplets. They settled on a course of iron injections, and regular monitoring of his reticulocyte production index (and that’s about as scientific as I’m going to get here, promise).

In distance running terms, Sweeney had run himself into the ground, instead of over it, if that makes sense. It’s easily done and I’ve never met a distance runner who hasn’t at some point either over-trained, or else under-compensated by not giving themselves enough rest or recovery. One of the first tell-tale signs is anaemia, although it’s not that Sweeney ignored those signs. He once quoted The Lancet as his main reading material and truth is he just tried a little too hard to satisfy his distance running ambitions along with his studies and everything else.

Anyway, all that was September of 2009. Kernan agreed to take over his coaching and gradually nursed him back to full and proper fitness. Then last Sunday, over the snow-covered fields of Gransha Park in Derry, Sweeney won the Irish Inter-counties Cross County by 33 seconds, pulling away from the competition with considerable ease. He got a warm reception, and understandably so, because although his father is from Dublin, and a former Gaelic footballer with the county, his mother is from nearby Dungiven. Kernan described Sweeney’s comeback as “almost transcendental” and it certainly was perfectly located. Afterwards Sweeney described his effort as “just a training run”. Indeed it more or less was, as his greater focus was always Sunday’s European Cross Country Championships in Albufeira, Portugal.

At age 25 he’s still only coming into his prime, and given the effective lay-off of the last two seasons, that prime may still be a few more years off yet. He’s finishing off a post-grad in UCD and Kernan, who had no doubt Sweeney would win last Sunday, reckons it could be a 2014 before we really see the best of Sweeney – and that may ultimately be in the marathon. God knows we could do with a good Irish marathon runner, especially on the men’s side. At 6ft 4ins Sweeney may not be perfectly built for 26.2-mile running, but he appears to have the perfect engine and, having endured what he has, the perfect mindset too. He has learned to train sensibly rather than hard, and although he still covers around 110 miles a week, never presses it 100 per cent. It’s all about LSD (long, slow distance), as coach Arthur Lydiard used to say. “And the only time to run really hard is in races,” Kernan tells him, and obviously he’s been listening.

Kernan also has a couple test runs planned for the next few months that might offer further evidence of his marathon potential, but for now he’d be more than happy if Sweeney finished inside the top-15 in Albufeira. He’s also careful to remind Sweeney of regular blood tests, because distance runners can never be sure when anaemia might strike. A bit like these freezing temperatures – although Sweeney is not the kind of person to make the same mistake twice; he planned to travel to Albufeira a week in advance, and arrived yesterday morning. So he gets to polish off his preparations under warm sunshine and the same conditions as next Sunday, while many of his opponents are still left sliding around on the frozen ice paths of northern Europe. Besides, fried beef liver is a popular dish in southern Portugal, and as every Irish grandmother could explain, eating liver is the best way of preventing anaemia.