Lessons from Pajulahti Endurance Conference 2015

Lecturers at European Endurance Conference

I was extremely fortunate to have been given the opportunity, by England Athletics, to travel to Finland, this weekend, for the Bi-Annual European Endurance Conference. The conference was held at one of the Finnish Olympic Training Centres near to the town of Lahti, but set in a huge forest in Nastola. We were there to develop our thinking about the art and science of coaching but there was the opportunity for running too and this was particularly invigorating and inspiring as there are miles of undulating cross country skiing tracks that take you through pine and birch forests, over flat, lichen-covered rocks, around marshes and tarns with hardly another soul to spoil the peace and quiet. I had a couple of runs over the weekend and, not only was this a great time for appreciation of the Finnish forests but also time for the lessons of the seminars to sink in.

I was also fortunate to have been paired with one of England Athletics’ Coach Mentors for endurance, Geoff James, who has been coaching for more than a long time – I’m not sure I should say how long or it will give his age away – but enough to say he has a vast amount of experience in coaching runners at the very top of the sport. It was hugely beneficial for me to have further discussions with Geoff and explore the topics further.


If I were to sum up the overall message, I would say that it was “Respect the Sport”. This actual quote is taken from the second session of the conference presented by Veli- Pekka Valkonen and Veikko Sinisalo in their presentation entitled “Endurance athlete’s nutrition and recovery” but this message pervaded through all the other sessions.


Now, it may be pertinent to issue the following ‘health warning’: “The following blog contains content that is applicable to those who intend to be the best they can be and achieve excellence in this sport. Anyone who does not possess this intention may wish to turn off now”!


I use the word ‘intend’ rather than ‘want’. Many runners want to be the best they can be but their intention may not match. For me, wanting something and intending to get it are different. Having intention involves having a plan and anticipating something, whereas wanting something has more of a feeling of wishing that something would happen but not necessarily making it happen.


Before I started writing, I wondered whether I should write this for a ‘Performance’ audience, for athletes who are performing at the highest standard as this was certainly the level at which the conference was pitched. This would exclude those that we may refer to as ‘club runners’ and ‘recreational runners’ but, whilst out in the forest, I decided that many of the messages are applicable to all levels of runner so long as they intend to be the best they can be and ‘respect the sport’. They also may be aiming for relative excellence.


So – first to the key message: “Respect the Sport”. What does this mean? Every one of the presenters spoke about different aspects of running fitness and how the runner should plan to tackle each factor. The seminars prompted the coaches to consider the following:


  • The health of the runner. How can we develop excellent health?

  • Fuel. Is the runner eating well enough for the demands of the sport?

  • Strength. Is the runner strong enough for the demands of the sport?

  • Is the plan sensitive enough and does it look to the future?


I will look at some of these in more detail and use the messages from the presentations that came through.


Nutrition and recovery - The presenters for this session were Veli- Pekka Valkonen and Veikko Sinisalo. They spoke of a holistic approach to the development of runners. The coach is not just there to monitor the training sessions but should also consider monitoring nutrition and recovery and also being aware of other aspects of health. For them, it was not only about keeping the runner free from illness but making sure they are as healthy as they possibly can be and they were clear that a runner that is not ill may not necessarily be healthy.


The key messages around nutrition were ensuring runners take in the nutrients and micro-nutrients that keep them in tip-top health and that, where possible, they should cut out processed food. Examples: brown is better than white when it comes to pasta, rice and bread.


Respect the Sport – The energy demands are high and coaches should strive to ensure their runners are in tip-top health with adequate energy supply to meet those demands.


Functional strength

There were several practical workshops over the weekend and some of these allowed us the opportunity to have a go and experience old and new training ideas. All emphasised the need for functional strength and for the runner to be strong enough to carry out the training needed to reach their goals.


The first was an early morning session, on Saturday, with Kaisa Lehtonen. Kaisa took us through her daily routine of dynamic stretching, coordination activities and core strength work. For me, there were ‘new’ coordination exercises to consider that saw us performing running drills whilst also performing exercises with fingers and thumbs. Kaisa is a champion triathlete and explained that these are important for switching on her nervous system and she believes that this helps keep the occurrence of injuries lower.


Later on that day Johan Voogd led us through a series of running drills that are designed to practice excellent running technique, develop proprioception and develop an ability to change gear within a run or a race. Johan began by asking the runners why they were doing this and made the point that every runner should always know the purpose of a session or activity and should not just follow the coach or leader aimlessly. Before he began the session he put us through a series of movements that allowed us to find the optimum posture for running and then we were encouraged to keep this posture throughout. Johan provided us with an example of an athlete whose posture and running technique have improved with a focussed approach and this, in turn, is likely to have improved her running economy.


On Sunday morning, the lead was taken by Jeronimo Bravo Rodriguez, who believes passionately that strength training should be specific to the event. He gave a presentation of the methods and philosophy that he applies to his sub 60-minute half marathon runners. Interestingly, he gave examples of runners whose technique is imperfect and he was clear that he does not believe that his half marathon runners need good running technique and that running economy is not the most important factor. On the subject of strength work, he said that it is better to do resistance work that simulates situations requiring muscle endurance specific to half marathon running such as uphill work and proprioception exercises (with and without ballast). He then took the session that included drills and fartlek using hills and flat and proprioception work with wobble boards, medicine balls and weights. Jeronimo’s approach to strength work contrasted the approach that had been presented by Iñigo Mujika the previous day. Iñigo referred to recent scientific research and is of the firm belief that resistance work should be combined with plyometric and explosive strength training to improve running economy.


Respect the sport – A runner has to train hard to be excellent and they need to be strong enough to carry out that training.


Planning for long term success

Several of the presenters were coaching talented junior athletes that exhibited commitment and determination plus a love of the sport. Johan Voodg is the coach of Jip Vastenburg who is the current European under-23 champion at 10000m.He began his presentation by talking about wine! Almost as a magician may pull a rabbit out of a hat, Johan pulled two bottles of wine from a “Fly Buy” bag! (He had flown in from the Netherlands and so ‘Duty Free’ came in handy!) One of the wines was a young (2015) white wine that he described as a good drink but one that would be forgotten by the next day. The other was a mature red that, I guess, must have been a more sought-after bottle as it was described as one that would be enjoyed over a longer time and remembered for a longer time afterwards. He compared this to good, junior athletes. Some are good for a short time but somehow disappear and are not remembered. He is working hard to produce athletes that will go on to be excellent in their senior years and be remembered for a long time afterwards. (He also gave the wine to members of the audience who declared a weakness for such refreshments and Geoff ‘won’ the white!)


We also heard from Guy Storbacka who coaches, amongst others, Camilla Richardsson who finished fourth at the European U23 steeplechase championships this year. Both coaches agreed on the importance of building a strong aerobic engine in the early years and also emphasised the need to focus on recovery. Johan presented a great analogy:

When you train, you empty the glass and so you need to fill it up again before you can start taking from it again. If you don’t fill it up to the top then you haven’t got a full glass to play with in the next session.


Respect the sport – It takes a long time for a runner to reach their full potential – plan the training carefully, sensitively and in a timely fashion.


Planning to Peak and taper

The subject of recovery came up again during Inigo’s second session that was all about tapering and peaking. Iñigo looked at a mathematical model that considered the effects of input of training (fitness/ adaptation plus fatigue) and the output of performance. He encouraged us to consider this when planning tapers, pointing out that an optimal performance requires a state of maximum fitness (adaptation to the training) with minimum fatigue. On the one hand, training produces fatigue and, on the other, rest can have a detraining effect, so how do you get the balance right? He presented some interesting thinking including various methods, the optimal length, the optimal reduction of workload and the concept of a two-phase and even a three-phase taper. For runners it would appear that a *progressive (or exponential)  taper for around 8 – 14 days with a reduction of 21 – 40% is optimal. A multi-phase taper would involve the athlete tapering a little further out than normal but then increasing the workload by around 30% (from the final taper) in the few days before the competition so that the athlete is well rested and then gets an extra boost of fitness or adaptation immediately before the race.


Respect the sport – Calculate the product of fitness and fatigue and adjust it as necessary for optimal performance.


Other speakers included Kaisa Lehtonen and Jussi Lotvonen, both triathletes, who presented their stories and training programmes. Kaisa has moved from Olympic distance to Iron Woman and Jussi is a paratriathlete who came from ice-hockey. Both demonstrated Respect for the sport as they detailed their journeys and the changes they needed to make to embrace their new disciplines.


I would like to say a big ‘Thank You’ to England Athletics for sending me to this conference, to Geoff James for thought-provoking discussions, to the organisers for the welcoming atmosphere and great hospitality and the presenters who all stayed for the full weekend making themselves available for further ‘brain picking’.


* An exponential taper: the training load is reduced in a progressive manner, with a greater reduction near the beginning of the taper.


Jackie Newton UKA Level 3 endurance coach and member of the National Coach Development Programme (NCDP)