James McIlroy is a middle distance runner who ran for GB in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and has the third fastest 1km time in the UK. James hails from Larne and now works as an ambassador with Adidas. In association with Pure Running, he gave a very entertaining and insightful talk into running.
James played many sports at school (to an admittedly high standard, e.g. playing golf off 2 handicap), and fell into athletics last. He says he initially tried 1,500m but after nearly getting lapped decided to focus on long jump, triple jump and 3,000m where in characteristically humble fashion, he said there was less competition.
It was only at the age of 20, that he returned to athletics and focused on 800m. Within 18 months he was fourth in the European Championships, going into them with a PB of 1:45:32. This coincides with previous research showing many top athletes don’t focus on particular discipline until late teens/early twenties. James had a 13-year career and even in retirement still knocked out a 2:33 marathon at Berlin in September 2015… lad from Larne has talent.
When racing, James stated that his racing weight was 69kg for 1,500m and 73kg for 800m, highlighting the extra power needed for shorter distance. He mentioned that when he was at the Berlin start line with the elite marathon runners (working for Adidas has it’s benefits), he found they were small and light and couldn’t believe the speed they sustain (4:37 a mile). Weight was a major issue if injured. When injured, you have to train harder (smarter) but it’s not as intense so you don’t use up the same energy. So if injured he might go down to one meal a day to compensate.
Worlds v Olympics
Training for James was often about cycles and leaving himself in best shape for indoor and outdoor season, and upcoming championships. He stated that the Worlds were harder than the Olympics in that fashion. At the Worlds, it was only the world’s best that were invited, no nod to global inclusivity. The very best athletes at that moment were there and you had to be 100% from the start. To be fair, James did say that along with his debut for NI and being in a world record race, walking into the Olympic ceremony behind the flag were probably the highlights of his career.
His goal was to be among the top 10/20 athletes in the world. Being in the top 8 would normally guarantee you a place at the Diamond League events, maybe the top 15 would get you a B place. Once outside the top 8 and maybe 15, there were a lot of factors, including politics that decided if, when and where you raced. So you wanted to post fast enough times to avoid that.
Run by Feel
You know or should know when you are in good shape. James stated you should know your – middle distance – time within 0.5 seconds. You should run by feel and know when you’re in Personal Best (PB) territory. Interestingly he said that when athletes were going for a PB, especially if also a World Record (WR), they would often do a “telegraph session” three weeks before the event. At this they would aim to break the PB/WR. He thought that being able to do it at the highest level at the biggest events was some achievement.
In particular he imagined the Kenyan David Rudisha moments before the 2012 Olympic 800m Final and wondered what would have been going through his head. Knowing he would have to lead from the front from the off, going out hard for the WR.… Rudisha must have gone this fast in training; with the added pressure of knowing he was capable of WR but had only one shot at the final. In the end David Rudisha was the only man to break a track WR at the London Olympics, watch it below
To remain at the very top, James needed to train at the “red line” all the time and this increased his risk of injury. In retrospect he was fairly happy with the he had trained over his career but possibly on reflection wished he’d trained more with the Kenyans. At the very top, people make themselves almost bullet proof, and he found there was a big difference between the pinnacle and the Top 20.
But let’s return to the science bit…
James was here to promote the new Adidas Boost range. Many people associate Adidas more with fashion or even football boots. But 17 of the 20 fastest marathon times have been run on Adidas shoes. In fact they have a dedicated team seeking to develop a shoe that would help break the 2hr barrier. Typically they have a lot of men and women (in white coats?) working on this, and I think they’ve found that – among other things - from an optimal shoe perspective it would need to be 20g lighter. Online sports retailer Wiggle gives the existing boost range, 4.8/5
Like motor racing and space rockets, innovating at this high level opens up benefits further down the plodders food chain… with trainers, or guties (he is from Larne) that are more durable, consistent and more efficient. As an example of the nth degree (marginalised gains etc.), he mentioned that the Continental tyre grip would provide the top marathon runners with an equivalent 42m advantage over the marathon. In the race to beak 2hrs that’s worth a few seconds…
A major benefit is that Boost does not use EVA. I have no idea what EVA is, but from some reason automatically associate it with “EVA midsole” (I spend too long comparing running shoes online). Instead Adidas use something called TBA (don’t ask), which is made from the same material as car dashboard or more to the point, Mercedes and BMW car dashboards. German engineering. Essentially this makes it tougher, lighter and more durable (my analogy, think aluminium alloy v steel). EVA configuration changes after two weeks, which is why most club runners have two or more pairs of trainers that they alternate. This allows the trainers to recover and regain their cushioning when not used. TBA apparently avoids this issue by retaining its shape.
Advantages of Boost
In layman’s terms what I took away was that the boost has 4 main advantages:
1. Energy Return – TBA trainers are 12% more efficient than EVA. With all these things you believe it can be done in a lab (no VW jokes), but that’s not the real world. 12% more efficient is not 12% faster, but for marathons - and in the world of marginalised gains - every bit of efficiency helps, even 1%.
2. Durability – TBA keep their shape so can be used daily (however James still recommends having more than one pair to regularly train in, whatever shoe you have) and will last up to 1,600km compared to 600-1000km for normal EVA shoes.
3. Temperature Consistency – Boost has no temperature variability, it is the same shoe in hot or cold conditions. Not something I’d have considered but interesting.
4. Stability, the S-shaped heel is designed to match the curve of the Achilles and the hard sides help to lock down the heel. With Achilles injury being the worst injury any sports person (especially 30+) can attain, anything that can help is a bonus. If you look at the back of the shoe, they have been designed differently for men and women. Runners World reviewed the boost ultra and highlighted the heel and stability, of the existing 2015 shoe to give you an indication.
As regards putting shoes in the washing machine… that’s a no. Apart from potential damage it torques the shoe, so “don’t wash the shoe, if it’s for function”. If smelly, leave them outside…
In the Q&A that followed the introduction and science/promotion bit, James was very open and full of great anecdotes and advice.
Yoga v Pilates
In relation to Yoga or Pilates, he stated that as a condition of Lottery Funding (from mid-1990s, top GB athletes are supported by the UK National Lottery grants), Pilates was compulsory. No Pilates, no lottery funding. Stretching is important, with main hamstring, quad, calf tears often a consequence of a weakness elsewhere. Interestingly he wouldn’t advise Yoga for marathon runners, as he thinks having too much flexibility would not be beneficial. Whilst Pilates was useful it was important not to go overboard.
Neutral v Stability and Orthotics
Again, these are issues that everyone has a different opinion on but for me I like to try to understand why they have that opinion. James suggested that it’s horses for courses, and if you don’t need stability don’t use them. But the Adidas boost range had a very stable shoe. In particular, you may need different levels of ‘stability’ for your training and race shoes.
Regards orthotics, he said the human body is an amazing machine and that nobody is symmetrical. Suddenly putting a wedge under a person’s foot at age 28 will have an impact, especially if subject to the forces running will place on it. Generally, he’s not a fan of orthotics but realises that top ones can be very flexible, shaped etc. He mentioned that some people wear normal shoe but add orthotics when running. Are Kenyan - and the best runners in the world - wearing orthotics?
[NB I’ve tried different orthotics for the last few years, including top of the range. I am not 100% convinced, I know they’ve transformed some people, but for me I don’t know if they’ve cured one thing and caused another… but debate for another day]
Sharing with Mo Farah
James shared a room with Mo Farah during UK Athletics training trips, and gets a mention in his autobiography, although hasn’t spoken to him in a few years. He says that Mo’s a good guy and lively on a night out. Whilst training, he says they shared houses in London with other athletes including Kenyans and that they learned a lot from them. Generally, the Kenyans were hard trainers, many harder than Mo. However Mo was excellent at going through the gears, is good with pacers and has improved a lot over the last number of years.
The Best Athletics World Record
Not all Kenyan’s were enthusiastic trainers and James mentioned Daniel Komen (look this guy up). During the 90’s, a few of them shared a coach/manager in Kim McDonald who wanted them all to go for early morning run. So James called round at 7am to Daniel’s house. Daniel wearily proceeded down the stairs, in pyjamas looking as if he’d just woken up. When he got to the door, he’d exclaim he’d already been for a run and returned to bed. This happened for 3-4 days, even when James called round increasingly earlier. Eventually James reported this back to the coach, who told them they’d been hoodwinked. Daniel was one of the few Kenyans he’d ever seen with a gut (at one stage), and that it looked weird.
Daniel went out to train in Australia and languished at the back during the first session. However within 3 weeks Daniel was leading the sessions. Daniel was that good, the most talented Kenyan ever in his opinion. To put it in perspective, he’s still the only runner in the world to run 2 mile in under 8 minutes. Daniel was such a talent; he ran a 3,000m race in Monaco, easing up the last 50m to come in 0.05 seconds off the WR. Komen hadn’t known what the record was.
On 1st September 1996, he ran 3,000m in Reite in a WR time of 7.20.67. Breaking the previous record by 2:42 seconds. Furthermore, he looked relaxed the whole way round! To put this in perspective, Guerrouj never got within 3 seconds, Gebrselassie, Bekele, Morceli never got within 5 seconds, and Tergat was 8 seconds back. In a ressponse to a question from NI & North Belfast Harrier’s Conor Curran, James stated that this was the best athletics world record in his opinion.
NB Great article in competitor magazine.. what ever happened to Daniel Komen?
Toughest Training Session
NBH’s John Black asked initially about the beer mile, which James said he’d one day try, before asking what was the toughest training session he’d ever done. I can’t quite remember the exact session, but he knew he was in PB shape. He ran his PB in September but was actually in PB shape in March. In early 2000s he trained with Noah Ngeny (Olympic 1,500m Champion). One day Noah asked James to go flat out for 400m whilst he did 600m reps. He states that Noah had his finger to James’s back pushing him on during the 400 James was taking flat out. That was scary. He also retold how Noah was doing a 3, 4, 5, 6 training sequence with the 4 laps (~mile) done in 3:53… only 10 seconds off the mile WR of 3:43. You’re not Olympic Champion for nothing.
There was an urban myth that the legendary Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie did a 2hr training session of 50 x 400m reps at 62 seconds with 45 sec recovery. To put that in perspective, a 4-minute mile is approx. 60 sec rep and the 5,000m WR averages 60.58 sec per lap (kept for 12.5 laps). Many of the top athletes thought this impossible, and some tried it but couldn’t get close. He met Gebrselassie one day and asked him, who said it was true. I’m an optimistic skeptic, so I like to think he really did…. but that it hurt like hell J Then again Gebrselassie set 27 WRs over his career, so it certainly paid off if he did.
What about Altitude Training?
Again, like some other UK athletes I’ve heard talk, he thinks the risks outweigh the gains for him. However he notes this in the context of him being an 800m specialist, as opposed to a marathon runner for example. On returning from altitude you need to be aware of the 3-10 day spike whilst your body adjusts, so you must run within the first 3 days or leave it till after 10 days. James queries how long the benefits last? And whether it is better than time spent training at lower levels.
Altitude encompasses changes in culture, temperature, climate, food, and environment (plus risk of infection, as body not familiar with so many new environmental factors) that require adjustment. Also at altitude your body takes longer to recover. This would be more impactful on 800m runners who would be doing more intense/anaerobic sessions than for example marathon runners.
James’s a fan of running in the heat though (aren’t we all), saying that sun and dry air is great for speed and easier to lose weight. James reckons he’d be 3kg heavier if he trained in NI compared to warmer climate and that would be too heavy for the indoor season.
What about Treadmills?
Irish international & NBH runner Marty Rea asked about treadmills and that he’d heard Farah and others were now using it for up to half their mileage. Marty himself has recently started using treadmills more for tempo and hill sessions, never usually a fan, he’s got used to them and their practicality (in gym for other training). A lot of runners I know use them for tempo sessions as they are great for getting used to pacing – and cadence – at their desired speed. Especially, in early or preseason when it’s more difficult to adjust to your tempo speed.
James stated that they’re good for cardio-vascular work out but they don’t work the hip-flexors. Treadmills are also poor for developing energy transfer and ground contact (as treadmill automatically sweeps back your feet). They may be a watered down session for top athletes.
Drugs in Sport
Drugs have always been part of sport. It’s not just the ‘bad guys’; some of the nicest people do drugs too. There is no easy profile of drugs user. It’s hard to run against drug users and potentially get beaten when your lottery funding may depend on result.
Role for Other Sports in Developing Young Athletes
In Poland, he states that kids must be trained in all athletic disciplines and can’t choose a specific event until they are 18. He thinks it’s crucial for people to play different sports and learn a variety of skills that will benefit them, particularly against people who’ve only trained for a single event. As an example, he noted the observational, perceptive and spatial skills developed playing football or Gaelic help on the track. They make you better aware and better able to anticipate the movement of other runners. Apart from broader motor skills, he would wholeheartedly recommend other sports. Running is a sport you can come relatively late to (especially compared to swimming, hurling or gymnastics), as James himself testifies.
Do You Still Love Running?
James still loves running, which is always great to see people retain their original childlike enthusiasm for and enjoyment of running. He’s too busy now to be able to fit in regular blocks of training. Though he did manage 100mile plus weeks, as part of a proper schedule for recent Berlin marathon. His marathon tip (he’s now completed 4 and tries to do one a year) is to run as long as possible at marathon pace. He loves track sessions too, and still has that love/hate feeling that we all share with them. Though he just hated hills, no love there!
He loves parkrun and likes marathons for the social aspect. At the top end of athletics, James considers Marathon to now be the hardest distance. He’d mentioned earlier that in the waiting area and even on track, the competitive nature of runners at major events could be intense, elbows, cutting across, the works.
Massive thanks to James McIlroy (and Adidas) for his time and insight, it was a pleasure listening to him. Finally, congratulations to Pure Running for an excellent evening. Michael, Catriona and staff were fantastic hosts, hospitable to the end.
I was trying to listen and take notes, so may have got some things wrong. Happy to make any amendments or additions… always learning :0)