Algarve training camp

I found out about this warm-weather training camp on Twitter back in February through Eilish McColgan and was immediately interested to find out more. The camp was to be led by coaches Liz McColgan (British 10,000m Olympic Silver plus World and double Commonwealth gold medalist) and John Nuttall (British 5,000m runner and Commonwealth bronze medalist) and the dates of the camp slotted in nicely to my already very busy Spring schedule. I immediately booked onto the camp and arranged my flights!

Wednesday 12th April (day 1):

It was an early start for me with a flight from Southend departing at 6.30am and so I was up at 3am for some porridge and a quick shower to help wake me up. I had packed my bag at the weekend and so was out the door by 4 and at Southend airport soon after 5am. As I had not flown from this airport before (in fact I didn’t even know it existed prior to booking this trip) I was unsure as to how busy it would be. It turns out, not very! I dropped my car off with an airport parking company (located on a small industrial estate) and was driven 5 minutes down the road to the airport in a minibus.

I was at the terminal, through security and at the gate within 10 minutes having already checked-in online and printed my boarding pass for both the outbound and return flights. As the camp was just 6 days I managed to pack everything I would need into a hand luggage bag and was also able to take an additional small bag. I took 3 pairs of running shoes (racing flats for the track work and a couple of different road pairs), 4 lots of running kit, my camera, tablet, washbag, reading material and “normal” clothes for the 6 days.

The flight arrived in Faro just before 9.30am and I was collected by Liz and John soon after 10am along with a young Welsh lad (Tomos). However, they were also expecting to collect three lads from Dublin (Ronan, Mark and Davey) and we all waited around til 11am, but they were nowhere to be seen. When we arrived at the accommodation (Brown’s in Vilamoura) the three of them were there checking in!

I settled into my room and headed to our private dining area for some lunch (breakfast, lunch and dinner were all included within the cost of the camp) and then wandered down the road for some supplies to see me through my stay (oats, chocolate milk, nuts, water and some yoghurt). I was joined later that afternoon by Garreth, who was from Northern Ireland and who had arrived the day before and was to be my roommate for the duration of our stay.

The view from my Villa

The group all met together soon before 5pm where we were given a warm welcome, introduction and an itinerary for the next 5 days. We all then set off by car to go for an easy run along a dusty trail near the coastline. Five of us set off on a 5 mile out and back run at 7:15 pace (although we averaged just under 7 minute miling) and despite the heat I felt relatively comfortable, perhaps helped by the fact that I had rested for the previous two days following my final, pre-Plymouth half marathon long run on the Sunday.

There was a total of 16 athletes on the camp (7 adults and 9 juniors) and it was nice to be amongst the front runners for the sessions. There was a complete range of abilities on camp which included marathon runners, mountain runners, track athletes and even a couple of guys who had only taken up running at the turn of the year and who were training for the Chicago marathon later this year!

Thursday 13th April (day 2):
Each morning (8am) began with an easy 3 mile run around the grass pitches at Brown’s – the surface was in immaculate condition and beautifully springy. A quick shower and then breakfast was available from 9am. There were cereals, fruit, bread, eggs, bacon, juices and hot drinks available and the camp was full board, with 3 meals a day included!

At 10am we were given a workshop on training plans – how to put them together, what to include etc. After which there was time to relax and prepare for the prospect of the afternoon’s track session (20 x 400m off 60 seconds’ recovery).

We all met up at quarter to 4 and were driven down to the local athletics track/stadium. The weather was warm (20 degrees) and sunny, with a slight head wind on the home straight that I noticed on our warm-up. With my best 400m reps (10-12 reps) at around 77/78, I was looking to average somewhere in the low 80’s. However, this turned out to be a tough ask as I was alone completing my 20 reps – there were 2 others but they were aiming to average 90s and so they ran together, whilst another group were completing 12 reps. Whilst I ran my first two reps in around 80s I began to struggle thereafter and ended up averaging 86s. On reflection, I’m pleased with the session as the most 400s I had previously completed in a was 12.

Friday 14th April (day 3):
The day started with the morning easy run on the fields and following breakfast we were into the meeting room for a workshop on nutrition. After this it was into the gym to complete a number of running specific weight, balance and resistance training exercises – I found these to be of great use and will continue to incorporate most of these into my weekly training schedule as strength and conditioning is something that is missing from my routine.

After the gym, there was a bit of time to relax ahead of our aqua jogging session which was held in the outdoor pool at 4pm. This type of session was a first for most of the group and was certainly a decent workout! Prior to entering the pool, we had to strap a flotation belt around our waist – the float itself sat on the lower back to help keep you upright whilst in the pool. We were given a minute to get used to the water temperature and then the whistle blew.

The session started off with 10 seconds of aqua jogging followed by 10 seconds’ rest and continued in this fashion whereby the rep was increased by 10 seconds each time up to 2 minutes. When everyone thought we were done and started to get our breath back we were given a couple of minutes rest before working our way back down from 2 minutes to 10 seconds. Unfortunately for me my left calf cramped up towards the end of this second set and I had to drag myself to the side of the pool and stuck my foot up on the edge of the pool to stretch it out – it was most uncomfortable. On the plus side, I missed out on the final 10 x 10 second sprints!

I found the aqua jogging very good as it is a full body workout and it really teaches you to use your arms and legs equally as you should when you run. Whilst the session was tiring I found that once I was into a rhythm (both in body and breathing) the time went by quickly. This is a session that I would love to incorporate in my training but will have to wait until I have access to a pool – it would certainly be an excellent cross training session and is something that you could perform during injury rehabilitation.

Saturday 15th April (day 4):
After the early morning run and breakfast we were into another workshop, this time focusing on the psychology of the sport including what differentiates “super champions” and “almost champions”.

Following lunch there was some more time to relax before we met up to travel down to the cross-country course. The course itself was the stage for the 2000 World Cross Country Championships and this was the session that I was most looking forward to. We arrived at the course soon after 3pm and completed a warm-up lap around the course. The lap was 1.2 miles in distance over grass, sand and dirt and was gently undulating with a couple of short climbs and one or two short sections which were shaded by trees (this was most welcome).

The session itself was to complete 5 sets of 3 minutes, 2 minutes and 1 minute (total of 30 minutes of running) with a 60 second walk recovery between reps and sets. The aim was to run the longer rep at marathon pace, the middle rep at half marathon pace and the short rep at 10k pace – although we were advised that the following day’s track session was the main effort of the camp and so had to pace ourselves sensibly. I ran the entire session with Garreth and we worked well together, sharing the pace. It was such an enjoyable session for me as I’ve taken a real liking to cross country due to the varied terrain, undulations and weather – I love the fact that you’re always thinking on your feet! Over the course of the session we covered a total of 5.6 miles in 45 minutes (including the total of 15 minutes active, walking recovery).

Sunday 16th April (day 5, final day of the camp):
As we were to be heading to the track for 10am I made my usual porridge with blueberries when I woke at 6.30am and topped this up with a glass of juice and a slice of toast with jam at breakfast at 9am. With it being Easter Sunday, the track was far quieter than it had been for our session earlier in the camp and this was most welcome. I took my camera along for this session and asked fellow camp athlete, Simon (who was resting up, having run a 20 mile long run that morning) to take some pictures of the group whilst they were running on the track.

A few light stretches before our drills

After our warm-up and drills the groups were split with the sprinters completing 3 x 300m and most of the younger athletes completing 3 x 600m, whilst the adults ran 6 x 600m. The recovery between reps was a minimum of 3 minutes with the aim to run a fast 400m and trying to hold on & keep it going for the final 200m. My aim was to run somewhere between 1:45 and 1:50 for the 600m (around 75s for the 400m and 35 seconds for the final 200m), which I felt would be challenging but achievable given the recovery we had.

In full flow during final drill

I ran my first rep in around 1:40 and then managed to settle in to a good rhythm for the next 4 with 1:44, 1:44, 1:47 and 1:48, finishing with a tough final rep in 1:45 and straight on the floor (off to the infield of course). It was a huge relief to have complete the session and to have given it my all on each rep, especially considering how hard I had been training and exercising for the previous 4 days!

Coming down the home straight

Earlier in the week there had been a lot of banter between the guys from Dublin and the young teenagers and there was talk of competing in a 100m sprint – this did in fact materialise at the end of this session! I made the (sensible) decision to sit it out as I didn’t wish to jeopardise my hopes of a decent half marathon time the following Sunday. The ages of the athletes in this race was between 15 and 47 of which one of the teenagers is a sprinter who trains with Liz and John in Doha. At the other end of the age spectrum was Ronan, a 47 year old man from Dublin who is well built, has bleach blonde hair and has run sub 90 minutes for the half marathon.

Enjoying a banana, post-session

The race was very close, (although there were a few false starters) and with around 20m to go, was neck and neck between 3 athletes – Ronan, Garreth and the young sprinter from Doha. After this point, the race was between Garreth and the young sprinter (something which Ronan soon realised and which he expressed verbally to the surprise of those within ear shot). The race was clocked at just under 13s with Garreth just being pipped on the line.

Liz was on timekeeping duty

Upon our return to Brown’s it was time for a shower and some lunch before we went into our final afternoon session of gym, where we were tasked with completing the exercises that we had learnt in the previous gym session and then straight into an easy run. At the dinner in the evening every one of the athletes was presented with a participation certificate by Liz and John – it was both a satisfying and emotional end to what had been a wonderful 5 days of training hard together. After dinner, the majority of the group went to the Marina for a couple of drinks, a chat, a few games of pool and for one a solo trip to the casino!

Being presented with my certificate

Monday 17th April:
For most of the group it was time to check-out and go their separate ways, however, myself and Garreth had booked our respective stays to the Tuesday – mine due to the fact that it was far cheaper to fly back on the Tuesday as opposed to the bank holiday Monday, plus I got an extra day of sun! We began the morning with an easy run on the local roads (the first on-road run that we had done since being in the Algarve) and following breakfast we decided to hire bikes for the day. We bumped into another athlete who hadn’t been on the camp but was a friend of John’s daughter and who had been staying next door to us – she decided to join us on the bikes as her flight wasn’t until later that afternoon.

The marina

The bikes were a steal at just 8 euro each for the day and the company both delivered them to and collected them from our accommodation. It was nice to have a relaxing day and we took a leisurely ride down to the Marina for a light lunch, followed by a round of mini golf on the “easy” course (which I won) and then a quick cycle to the beach. I felt that this was the perfect way to end what had been an unforgettable life experience and I’m pleased that I hadn’t left on the Monday. Garreth and I decided to go for one final easy run in the evening on the grass and even incorporated a mile at half marathon pace for my benefit.

In summary, I would have to say that this has been one of the most enjoyable and unforgettable experiences of my life. It was great to receive coaching and advice from ex-International athletes and to be around a group of like-minded people from all walks of life. Although the training that I have outlined above in great detail sounds a lot to complete over the space of 5 days, we all managed to complete it without injury (just a few sore muscles). On a personal note, I felt that I was able to achieve this as I was able to fully relax between sessions. I didn’t have to drive anywhere, I didn’t have to cook or clean (with the exception of hand washing of my kit), I didn’t watch any television and kept social media use to a minimum too. It’s certainly a lifestyle that I could get used to and an experience that I could quite happily take up again given the chance…

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